Chimborazo – January 2014

Chimborazo.

Chimborazo, seen from the summit of Cotopaxi.

6310m Chimborazo is a massive inactive volcano, and Ecuador’s highest mountain. Due to the earth’s equatorial bulge Chimborazo’s high-point is the spot located farthest from the Earth’s center, further than the much higher Himalayan peaks due to their more northerly latitude. Given the right time this also makes Chimborazo’s summit the point on earth closest to the sun.

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Chimborazo in the clouds, from the drive to the base of the mountain.

Along with the much lower Illiniza Sur, Chimborazo was one of my primary climbing goals while visiting Ecuador.  I came to Chimborazo thoroughly acclimatized, having spent almost two weeks climbing several of Ecuador’s other 5000+m volcanoes – my detailed climbing itinerary can be seen here.  I had enjoyed great snow conditions and reasonable weather at the beginning of my trip, successfully climbing the Illinizas, Cayambe, and Cotopaxi before travelling to Antisana, Ecuador’s fourth highest.

Antisana had chased me off with a lightning storm, fog, and abnormally warm air temperatures, leaving me well aware of Ecuador’s potential for rapidly changing weather.   I was nervous about Chimborazo – while the standard route’s technical grade is low, in recent years Chimborazo has gained notoriety for being out of condition.  I had read accounts of a dry route covered in ice, with high objective hazard presented by rockfall.  There was good news however; other climbers and Ecuadorian guides whom I had met at my hostel and on other mountains had informed me that Chimborazo had recently seen snowfall.  Fresh snow once consolidated would prevent rockfall, and also hopefully make for decent climbing conditions.

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My campsite near the parking area.

Day 1:  My climbing partner, Ecuadorian mountain guide Pato, and I were camping at the base of Antisana, Ecuador’s fourth highest mountain.  We had arrived at Antisana the day before, with the intent of climbing it overnight.  Unfortunately the weather had conspired against us, and I had made the decision to bail.  With no sign of the weather improving we figured that it wasn’t worth sticking around and waiting for one more day, and I decided that instead of taking a day for rest, we may as well head straight to Chimborazo.

From the Reserva Ecologica Antisana we drove for almost six hours to the Reserva de Produccion Faunista Chimborazo, the nature reserve which contains Chimborazo.  Along the way we stopped in Ambato, Pato’s hometown, where we enjoyed a small feast at a local steakhouse.  After a fast check-in at the Chimborazo park gate we arrived at the ~4800m parking area near the base of the mountain, where everything was shrouded in thick afternoon fog.  Most of Ecuador’s more popular mountains are climbed from cabins, or refuges, but both of Chimborazo’s were closed at the time of my visit, so I pitched camp behind a makeshift cabin being used by the construction workers.  The lower Carrel refuge stood close to my campsite, while the higher Whymper refuge was some ~200m up the mountain.

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The incomplete Carrel refuge near my campsite.

I was feeling uncertain of the weather due to the amount of fog, but knew that we had a spare day if we needed it.  I ate a light dinner, filled my water bottles with hot water from the workers’ cabin, and went to sleep early.

Day 2: Awake around 10 p.m., I ate some snacks and began preparing my gear.  The fog had cleared overnight, and the sky shone with thousands of stars.  My stomach was feeling uncomfortable.  I suspect that this was due to the water which I had taken from the workers’ cabin.  This water had been boiled, but was sitting in a very large communal pot.  Not knowing how long the water had been boiled for, or how recently, or whether the water in the pot had ever been changed out, or whether it was clean from numerous groups using it, or even how long it had been sitting, I shouldn’t have taken any.  I had even brought my own water, a 6L bottle bought in the city!  These stomach issues, and by extension a lack of good nutrition prior to beginning, would later contribute to the climb’s difficulty.

We began hiking up the gentle slopes of the lower mountain at 11:00 p.m.  We passed the Whymper refuge around 30 minutes later and soon reached snow.

Below el Castillo, the Veintimilla summit ahead.

Below el Castillo, the Veintimilla summit above.

The lower section of Chimborazo’s standard route is known for rockfall hazard.  This area is only moderately steep, but climbs directly below numerous cliffs of loose rock, among them el Castillo, ‘the castle’, a large cliff / rock formation along the ridge above which frequently sheds boulders down the mountain.  There is only one clear way up past the cliffs, leading some to refer to this section as ‘the corridor’.

Chimborazo106

The slopes below el Castillo.

It was a clear but cold and windy night.  The low air temperature was likely to our benefit however, and we experienced no rockfall below el Castillo.  When everything is frozen solid, otherwise loose rocks tend to be stable.  I was soon climbing in my down parka, utilizing my full layering system to maintain a comfortable body temperature, and between my ski goggles and neck buff had my face completely covered.

Looking down at el Castillo from the ridge above.

Looking down at el Castillo from the ridge above.

With no difficulties in route finding we quickly reached the ridgeline which connects el Castillo and Chimborazo’s Veintimilla summit.  We gained the ridge to the climber’s right of el Castillo, an obvious spot given the steeper terrain on either side of it.  Heading up the ridge we soon discovered that the snow on the ridge was soft and loose, impeding each step upwards with a half-step slide back down.  Several crevasses posed minor obstacles, but they were mostly off-route, easy to see and avoid.  Stretches of the ridge were moderately steep, around 45 degrees at steepest.  The loose snow made climbing physically strenuous, but as wind howled past us we continued upwards, one step at a time, focused.  In darkness and biting wind the soft snow of the ridge seemed to stretch on for an eternity, with Pato and I moving at what felt like a snail’s pace within the tiny spheres of light provided by our headlamps.

Moving up the ridge, the refuge far below.

Higher up the ridge, the refuges far below.

Looking down the ridge.

Looking down the ridge.

Around 5:30 a.m. we finally reached the Veintimilla summit, the first morning light just beginning to glow on the horizon.  Chimborazo has several summits, of which Veintimilla is the second highest.  Chimborazo’s true high-point, the Whymper summit, lies several hundred meters to the east of Veintimilla across a large, flat plateau.  Many climbers reach Veintimilla and stop, without enough time or energy to cross the plateau and attain the true summit just tens of meters higher.  I was well aware of this, and before even coming to Ecuador had been firm in my intent to make a full ascent of Chimborazo and stand upon the Whymper.

As we reached the end of the ridge and level terrain lay in front of us, I was amazed to see an enormous field of penitentes stretching across the summit plateau.  Penitentes are a high altitude snow formation found throughout the Andes, and while I knew that they were a common occurrence on Chimborazo it was a shock to see them in person.  Each around a meter high, they resembled the waves of a stormy ocean and looked daunting to cross.

Looking back across the penitentes towards the Whymper summit.

Penitentes above 6000m.

Standing in pre-dawn glow on the Veintimilla at some ~6270m, physically tired, this new obstacle sprawling before us looked imposing.  My thoughts were racing.  I had prepared hard for this trip.  Months spent training, days upon days climbing stairs, cycling, all of my research, carefully saving money, all for the dream of attaining this summit.  My goal was now visible just a few hundred meters away from me.

Pato, looking across the plateau, said “It’s complicated, it will be tiring.”  We looked at each other, and I started to say “We should give it a shot, let’s wait for the sun to rise.”  Maybe he saw it in my face, or perhaps he knew from climbing with me for the past two weeks; I was certain that I still had the endurance and the willpower to reach Whymper and descend safely.  Before I had finished speaking he said “O.K., let’s go!”

A sea of clouds below fields of penitentes.

A sea of clouds below fields of penitentes.

We started off over the plateau, first slightly downhill and then straight across.  The penitentes were covered in several inches of fresh snow, making them messy to navigate.  The troughs between penitentes made for anything but level terrain, and the crossing was an exhausting follow-up to the loose snow ridge we had ascended earlier.

Looking back at the Veintimilla summit from the Whymper summit.

Looking back at the Veintimilla summit from the Whymper summit.

In spite of the terrain I was feeling fine with the altitude.  Clear headed if physically tired, my thorough acclimatization was paying off.  After some 45 long minutes we had finally crossed the plateau.  At 6:20 a.m. we found ourselves at the Whymper summit, marked with a small wooden sign and a Swedish flag left by other climbers.

The penitente-covered plateau between the Veintimilla and Whymper summits.

The penitente-covered plateau between the Veintimilla and Whymper summits.

The Whymper summit.

The Whymper summit.

Far below us the sun rose behind Carihuairazo.  At 5018m Carihuairazo looked tiny in the distance.

Pato in the Penitentes on the summit.

Pato in the Penitentes on the summit.

Sunrise over Cairhuairazo from the summit.

Sunrise over Carihuairazo from the summit.

We stayed on the summit for about twenty minutes, just enough time to hydrate and take some photographs.  It was early, but still important for us to descend quickly before the sun warmed the mountain and softened the snow.

Tired and happy on the summit.

Tired and happy on the Whymper summit.

I had drunk about a liter of my water on the summit, and as we walked back across the plateau my stomach began to churn.  Alone throughout the entire climb thus far, as we regained the Veintimilla we met two other climbing teams still ascending the mountain.  Both would stop at Veintimilla, it being too late in the day to continue across and still safely descend on firm snow.

Looking back at the Whymper summit from Veintimilla.

Looking back at the Whymper summit from Veintimilla.

Another team approaching the Veintimilla summit.

Another team approaching the Veintimilla summit.

Below Veintimilla we reached the top of the ridge and began to climb down carefully, cautious of the loose snow underfoot.  By now my stomach was boiling, and I stopped to vomit.  This stomach discomfort persisting all the way back to basecamp and throughout the rest of the day.  I cannot be certain what caused my stomach issues, but I strongly suspect that the water I had taken was the culprit.  I considered whether I was suffering altitude sickness, but found it unlikely given my otherwise good condition.  I have experienced nearly debilitating altitude sickness in the past, but have never encountered nausea as a standalone symptom.  In my experience an onset of mountain sickness for me is always characterized first by ataxia, and then by headache – neither of which were present.

Clouds and penitentes.

Clouds and penitentes.

After being sick I immediately felt much better, but dehydrated.  Drinking more water, my stomach almost immediately began to complain again – it seemed that the descent would be an uncomfortable one.

Looking back up the ridge towards the Veintimilla summit on descent.  Zoomed in, the other team can be seen descending near the middle of the ridge.

On descent, looking back up the ridge towards the Veintimilla summit. Zoomed in, another team can be seen descending near the middle of the ridge.

The sun warmed us up and the air temperature rose quickly.  Partway down the ridge I removed all of my warmth layers and continued in only a base layer and a fleece.  Far below us the two refuges and the workers’ cabin could be seen at the base of the mountain, my tent a tiny speck.

The workers' hut and my campsite are top right, near the cars.  The two refuges are center and left.

The workers’ hut and my campsite are top right, near the cars. The two refuges are center and left.

As we reached the bottom of the ridge we decided to descend via a longer variation, following the ridge below the base of el Castillo all the way down.  This would make the descent around 45 minutes longer, but much safer due to the softening snow and potential for rockfall on the slopes below el Castillo.  The ridge past el Castillo is very gently sloped, which also made this variation easier on the knees, and generally more comfortable after our tiring ascent.

Following the ridge down, passing underneath el Castillo.

Following the ridge down, passing underneath el Castillo.

We returned to camp at 10:30 a.m., where I drank a litre of my bottled water, ate some bread, and took a 20 minute nap before packing up for the drive back to Machachi.  Chimborazo was a physically challenging climb, more than I had expected it to be. In particular the loose, soft snow on the ridgeline and the fields of penitentes on the summit plateau presented tests of endurance on less than ideal conditions.  With both refuges closed the climb was long, covering more than 1500m of gain.  At the end the challenge added to the reward; my preparation, training, and planning had been sufficient.  I was delighted to have realized my goal of reaching the Whymper summit, and very pleased to finish my climbing trip with a successful ascent of Ecuador’s highest.

Driving towards Chimborazo.

Driving towards Chimborazo.

Accessibility

Chimborazo, aside from its variable conditions and high altitude, is one of Ecuador’s more accessible mountains.  Good nearby road infrastructure makes accessing the park and mountain relatively straightforward. The refuges, if open, would make overnighting at the base of the mountain relatively comfortable. Climbing Chimborazo involves glacier travel at high altitude, and good acclimatization is essential to a safe and successful climb.  The conditions on the normal route are known to be variable, and the potential for rockfall is definitely there.  Recent snowfall made the mountain safer during my ascent, but also contributed to the difficulty of the ridge and penitente fields.

While in Ecuador I stayed in the city of Machachi between climbs, which provided me convenient access to Corazon, Cotopaxi, and the Illinizas. The hostel I used in Machachi, the Puerta al Corazon, was comfortable, well managed, very clean, and had great food.  They can be contacted by email at info@puertaalcorazon.com

Ecuador’s high mountains can be climbed year round, but weather is often inclement with high winds and heavy precipitation. December, January, and February are considered the most stable months for climbing due to lower winds and relatively lower chances of rain and snow. I experienced cold, strong winds on Chimborazo.  The Ecuadorian climbers I met told me that June, July, and August are also popular climbing months, drier but even windier. During my trip fog and rain were common in the afternoons, while morning and night weather was typically clear but windy.

Since late 2012 the Ecuadorian government has mandated that all climbers use the services of a local mountain guide.  This policy was put into place in response to a fatal accident on Illiniza Sur.  While in Ecuador I met one unguided group who had managed to get past the park gate and onto the mountain, but this is strongly discouraged, and the national parks strictly enforce the policy by refusing entry to unguided climbers whom they catch.  I hired a 1:1 mountain guide and climbed with him throughout my trip.  We accessed all of the national parks via a 4×4 truck, which my guide drove and owned.  While organizing the logistics and guide for my trip I used the services of Diego Cumbajin Parra, the owner of www.andesclimbing.com, and I would strongly recommend him for his excellent communication, attention to detail, personal presence, and reasonable pricing.  My guide Pato was strong, very familiar with all of Ecuador’s mountains, and completely focused on climbing.

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Ecuador Climbing Itinerary – January 2014

1/15  : Arrive in Quito (12:30 a.m.), rest, buy gas, to Machachi at ~3200m
1/16  : Buy food, Hike 4791m Corazon out of Machachi
1/17  : To Illiniza Hut at ~4700m
1/18  : Hike 5126m Illiniza Norte, rest in Illiniza Hut
1/19  : Climb 5263m Illiniza Sur, return to Machachi
1/20  : Rest Day in Machachi at ~3200m
1/21  : To Cayambe hut at ~4600m
1/22  : Climb 5790m Cayambe, return to Machachi
1/23  : To Cotopaxi parking lot at ~4600m
1/24  : Climb 5897m Cotopaxi, return to Machachi
1/25  : Rest day in Machachi at ~3200m
1/26  : To Antisana, retreat due to weather conditions
1/27  : To Chimborazo parking lot at ~4800m
1/28  : Climb 6310m Chimborazo, return to Machachi

Cotopaxi – January 2014

Cotopaxi from the road to basecamp.

Cotopaxi.

5897m Cotopaxi is an active stratovolcano and Ecuador’s second highest mountain.  Well known for its perfectly conical shape, Cotopaxi’s aesthetic appeal and ease of access contribute to making it Ecuador’s most popular climb.

Cotopaxi from near Machachi.

Cotopaxi, seen from near Machachi.

I climbed Cotopaxi on my tenth day in Ecuador, and having spent a good amount of time at altitude was thoroughly acclimatized before heading up the mountain.  Before Cotopaxi I hiked 4791m Corazon, climbed both of the 5000+m Illinizas, and climbed 5790m Cayambe.  My acclimatization and climbing itinerary can be seen here.

Driving towards the parking lot basecamp.

Driving towards Cotopaxi.

Day 1: In the early afternoon I met my climbing partner and mountain guide Pato at my hostel in the nearby city of Machachi.  Machachi is a popular area for climbers to base out of due to its proximity to both the Illiniza and Cotopaxi national parks, as well as numerous 4000+m hiking peaks.  From Machachi we drove to the Cotopaxi national park, where we followed a long dirt road to the parking area near the base of Cotopaxi at 4600m.  Cotopaxi is normally climbed from a mountain cabin ~200m higher, but during my visit the cabin was undergoing renovation and closed to visitors.

Camping at the base of Cotopaxi.

Camping at the base of Cotopaxi.

Arriving at the parking lot around 2:30, I set up a basic camp and got my gear organized for a midnight start up the mountain.  The weather was clear and cool, but windy.

The parking lot, which served as our basecamp.

The parking area, which served as our campsite.

With Pato sleeping in his 4×4 truck I had my tent to myself, and prepared to turn in and get some sleep during the afternoon.

Day 2: Awake at 11:00, we started hiking up towards the glacier in darkness at 11:40 p.m.  The trail was clear and easy to follow, and we reached the mountain refuge at 12:25.  From the refuge a further twenty minutes on dirt brought us to the first snowfields below the glacier.  After a brief stop to put on crampons we began following a boot-track upwards across the snow.

The Cotopaxi refuge under renovation.

The Cotopaxi refuge under renovation.

Cotopaxi is a very popular climb, and was somewhat crowded during my visit.  On the lower glacier Pato and I passed some seven or eight other climbing teams who had left earlier than us.  We soon found ourselves climbing alone, with only the starry night sky in front of us.  The air temperature wasn’t particularly cold, but despite clear skies a strong wind buffeted us on the exposed slope.  I was soon climbing in full layers and wearing my ski goggles to protect face and eyes from the blasting wind.  The route continuously curved around the mountain to the climber’s right, which became somewhat tedious for my left shoulder and leading leg.  The snow conditions however, were perfect, and under a night sky filled with thousands of glowing stars the climbing was enjoyable.  We stopped for a few short breaks behind large snow formations, which provided us some shelter from the relentless wind.

Snow formations like this one provided our only relief from the high winds.

Snow formations like this one provided our only relief from the high winds.

The route was easy to see and follow due to a well-trodden boot track produced by the hundreds of climbers who had ascended this way before us in the days or weeks since the last snowfall.  Unlike Cayambe two days prior there were no difficulties presented by route finding or crevasse navigation.  While numerous, enormous crevasses lurked off-route, none were open in our path.

Looking down the route, other climbers ascending.

Looking down the route during our descent, other climbers still ascending.

While the route was long, circuitous, and cold in the high wind, the climbing was not particularly strenuous or steep.  At its steepest the route got to be around 40 degrees, but for the most part was very moderate.  At 5:45 a.m. we reached the summit, roughly 6 hours after leaving the parking area.  The summit was very windy and freezing cold, so we took shelter behind a ridge in the snow to drink some hot tea and wait for sunrise.  As the sun began to climb in the distance the sky ignited with color.

Sunrise from Cotopaxi's summit.

Sunrise from Cotopaxi’s summit.

The view was absolutely perfect, with incredible visibility and almost no cloud cover.  All of Ecuador’s major peaks could be seen, from Illiniza Norte and Illiniza Sur nearby to Chimborazo in the far distance.  Cayambe and Antisana were free of clouds, and shone in the sunlight.

Cayambe in the distance.

Cayambe under a color-changing sky.

Cayambe under a color-changing sky.

Cayambe under a color-changing sky.

The shadow of Cotopaxi and the two Illinizas.

The shadow of Cotopaxi falling past the two Illinizas.

Illiniza Sur, left, and Illiniza Norte, right, from the summit of Cotopaxi at sunrise.

Illiniza Sur, left, and Illiniza Norte, right.

It felt incredible seeing these peaks so clearly and in such radiant light, knowing that I had stood upon them just days before, or would be attempting to climb them within the next week.

Antisana.

Antisana.

A landscape of volcanoes, Cayambe center, Antisana right.

A landscape of volcanoes, Cayambe center, Antisana right.

Far across the landscape 6310m Chimborazo lay upon a blanket of clouds, Ecuador’s highest mountain.

Chimborazo.

Chimborazo.

Cotopaxi’s summit is a high-point along the mountain’s volcanic crater rim, and has excellent views into the crater itself.

Cotopaxi's crater.

Cotopaxi’s crater.

During sunrise a team of four friendly Belgians arrived to join us on the summit.  We had chatted briefly on the way up, and learned that one of them was celebrating his birthday with their climb.  We helped each other take photos, enjoying the beautiful summit and sunrise.

The Belgian team taking shelter from the wind.

The Belgian team taking shelter from the wind.

On the summit of Cotopaxi.

On the summit of Cotopaxi.

On the summit with Pato.

On the summit with Pato.

After spending some thirty minutes taking in the scenery and persevering through the bitter wind, we were too cold to continue standing around and decided to begin descending.

Descending from the summit, a sea of clouds below us.

Descending from the summit with clouds far below us.

On the way down we passed numerous other teams still ascending.  In daylight the crevasse riddled off-route glacier could be seen.

As we descended we met other teams still climbing up.

As we descended we met other teams still climbing up.

The glacier was heavily crevassed off route.

The glacier, heavily crevassed off-route.

Ice walls and hidden crevasses.

Ice walls stood along the upper mountain.

We passed Yanasacha, a prominent rock band near Cotopaxi’s summit, and stopped to absorb the scale of the mountain.  Yanasacha is easily seen from a distance, and looks small atop Cotopaxi’s bulk, but up close it stood tall and massive.

Yanasacha at sunrise.

Yanasacha in the morning sun.

Looking back up the route I could see other teams ascending and the Belgian team coming down, like lines of ants in the snow.

The top and crux of the route.  This image provides a good sense of scale to the sheer size of Cotopaxi.  Yanasacha is at center left.  Zoom into this photo to see the Belgian team of four descending, and four other teams still ascending.

The top of the route. This image provides a good sense of scale as to the size of Cotopaxi. Yanasacha is at center left. When this photo is enlarged one can see the Belgian team of four descending, and another four separate teams still ascending.

Cotopaxi - Yanasacha is the prominent rock band near the summit.

Cotopaxi – Yanasacha is the  black rock band near the summit.

We made good time descending, and were off of the glacier before the morning sun began to melt and soften the snow.  Near the refuge we followed the dirt trail downwards, towards the parking area still far below us.

View from near the refuge.  The Illinizas to the left, Corazon to the right.

View from above the refuge. The Illinizas to the left, Corazon to the right.

View from above the refuge.  The parking lot center, the refuge bottom right.

View from above the refuge. The parking area center, the refuge bottom right.

We made it back to our campsite by 9:00 a.m., where we quickly ate some snacks before packing up our equipment and driving back to Machachi for a day of rest.  Cotopaxi was a straightforward climb and an enjoyable experience.  Clear skies and perfect snow made frigid winds more tolerable, and the extraordinary views from the summit were both breathtaking and rewarding.  Well acclimatized, I felt great throughout the climb, and didn’t encounter any altitude related difficulties.

Accessibility

Cotopaxi is perhaps Ecuador’s most accessible mountain, due to its proximity to Quito, good nearby road infrastructure, and enormous tourist popularity. Climbing Cotopaxi involves glacier travel – the route was simple during my visit, but I was told that it varies somewhat in difficulty as conditions on the glacier change year-by-year.

While in Ecuador I stayed in the city of Machachi between climbs, which provided me convenient access to Corazon, Cotopaxi, and the Illinizas.  The hostel I used in Machachi, the Puerta al Corazon, was comfortable, well managed, very clean, and had great food.  They can be contacted by email at info@puertaalcorazon.com

Ecuador’s high mountains can be climbed year round, but weather is often inclement with high winds and heavy precipitation. December, January, and February are considered the most stable months for climbing due to lower winds and relatively lower chances of rain and snow. That said, I experienced relentlessly high winds on Cotopaxi, which made for a cold hike.  The Ecuadorian climbers I met told me that June, July, and August are also popular climbing months, drier but even windier. During my trip fog and rain were common in the afternoons, while morning and night weather was typically clear but windy.

Since late 2012 the Ecuadorian government has mandated that all climbers use the services of a local mountain guide.  This policy was put into place in response to a fatal accident on Illiniza Sur.  While in Ecuador I met one unguided group – the four Belgians on Cotopaxi – who had managed to get past the park gate and onto the mountain, but this is strongly discouraged, and the national parks strictly enforce the policy by refusing entry to unguided climbers whom they catch.  I hired a 1:1 mountain guide and climbed with him throughout my trip.  We accessed all of the national parks via a 4×4 truck, which my guide drove and owned.  While organizing the logistics and guide for my trip I used the services of Diego Cumbajin Parra, the owner of www.andesclimbing.com, and I would strongly recommend him for his excellent communication, attention to detail, personal presence, and reasonable pricing.  My guide Pato was strong, very familiar with all of Ecuador’s mountains, and completely focused on climbing.

Cayambe – January 2014

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Cayambe, seen from the summit of Cotopaxi at sunrise.

5790m Cayambe is Ecuador’s 3rd highest mountain.  A massive extinct volcano, Cayambe is known for its active glacier and inclement, windy weather.  Interestingly, part of Cayambe is located on the earth’s equator, making it the highest point through which the equator directly passes.  The eruptions of Reventador, a nearby volcano with high activity, and the subsequent ashfall onto Cayambe’s glacier, have given Cayambe a reputation for being icy and out of condition.

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Cayambe, from near the refuge.

I climbed Cayambe on my eighth day in Ecuador.  Prior to climbing Cayambe I had hiked 4791m Corazon, climbed both of the 5000+m Illiniza volcanoes, and spent several nights sleeping at 4700m.  A week spent hiking at altitude before visiting Cayambe made for great acclimatization, no altitude-related issues, and a far more enjoyable climb.  My acclimatization and climbing itinerary can be seen here.

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Ash on the lower glacier.

Day 1: The climb began at my hostel in Machachi, where my Ecuadorian climbing partner and mountain guide Pato picked me up in his 4×4 truck.  While Machachi is not particularly close to Cayambe, I was very pleased with the hostel there and had opted to stay rather than move for one night.  Machachi’s proximity to the Illiniza and Cotopaxi national parks makes it a popular base area for visiting climbers, and its location is close enough to all of Ecuador’s major peaks for one to stay there prior to other climbs.  From Machachi we drove for roughly two hours to the town of Cayambe, stopping for food and drinks along the way.  From the town of Cayambe we drove east, towards the Cayambe Coca Ecological Reserve which contains the mountain.  From town the road followed rolling hills alongside deep valleys, brimming with trees and plant life.  The area near the reserve is very rural, and we passed many farms and pastures built along the valley walls.

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Driving to the base of Cayambe, through the rural area east of the town of Cayambe.

At the end of a rough road we arrived at the base of Cayambe and parked by the mountain cabin, or refuge, where we would spend the night.  At an elevation of 4600m the refuge is a convenient resting place to base a climb out of.  The main refuge building was under construction, but a smaller building to the right of it was open. It cost around $20 for the two of us to stay for the night.

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The Cayambe refuge.  The larger building to the left was being renovated, but we were able to stay inside the smaller building beside it.

The refuge was small but comfortable, with a kitchen, running water, a little gas stove and padded bunks.  Luxurious compared to camping!  A pair of Austrian climbers and their guides had descended earlier in the day, but had opted to spend another night sleeping here for acclimatization.  They shared good news, and told us that the glacier was in great condition.

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Inside the Cayambe refuge.

After cooking some food and organizing gear for the next day, we went to sleep early.

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The refuge’s kitchen.

Day 2: Awake around midnight, we began hiking in the dark at one o’clock a.m.  The sky was clear of clouds, and stars glowed brightly above us.  The standard route on Cayambe begins by following a ridge of dry rock located to the left of the refuge when facing the mountain.  This ridge leads up, around, and onto the glacier, bypassing the complicated icefall of the lower mountain.

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Descending back along the rock ridge used to reach the glacier.

From the top of the ridge the glacier was level with the rock and easily accessed.  Once we reached the lower glacier we began to navigate upwards, crossing several crevasses and avoiding others, towards a rocky outcrop called Picos Jarrin.  The lowest portion of the glacier was covered in debris, and was riddled with shallow half-meter deep cracks.

Our route past the rocky ridge, climbing to the left of Picos Jarrin to avoid crevasses.

Our route above the ridge, climbing to the left of Picos Jarrin to avoid crevasses.

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The glacier near the ridge was covered in rock debris and shallow crevasses.

Above Picos Jarrin a series of snow ramps wound past vertical ice cliffs towards the summit, keeping to the climber’s right of a large, prominent rock cliff.

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Looking up Cayambe during our descent in daylight.  The prominent rock cliff in the top left corner serves as a useful  landmark, as the route ascends just to the climber’s right of it.

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The rock cliff off route.

The climbing was physical and sustained, but enjoyable under a clear sky and on perfect snow.  Aside from two short traverses the ramps on the upper glacier were roughly 40 degrees at minimum. At its steepest the route sharpened to around 60 degrees for a few stretches of 10-15 meters, requiring front pointing and careful ax placement.  Because of the snow conditions we did not place any pickets for fall protection, although the final ramps to the summit were not without objective hazard due to the enormous ice walls hanging above them.

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Huge ice walls loomed above the upper route.

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One of two level traverses below the ice cliffs.

As we approached the top the sun began to rise.  Our timing had been perfect, and we gained the summit at exactly six o’clock a.m., five hours after leaving the refuge.  Cayambe’s summit is a large flat dome and was exposed, windy, and bitterly cold.  In the distant east an enormous thunderstorm flashed with lightning, the sun rising behind it painting the sky to create a surreal, awe-inspiring view.

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Sunrise on the summit of Cayambe.

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Thunderclouds to the east.

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Standing on the summit of Cayambe.

Antisana, Ecuador’s fourth highest, rose above the clouds and glowed purple in the rising sun.

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Antisana, from the summit of Cayambe at sunrise.

As the sun rose above the thunderclouds the colors shifted from shades of purple, to orange, to a familiar yellow glow.

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Sunrise on the summit of Cayambe.

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Sunrise on the summit of Cayambe.

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Sunrise on the summit of Cayambe.

As the sun finally broke above the clouds, soft pastel colors glowed throughout the cloud ocean stretching below us.

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Sunrise on the summit of Cayambe.

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Sunrise on the summit of Cayambe.

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Sunrise on the summit of Cayambe.

After almost forty minutes on the summit, we began to descend.  We were lucky to enjoy perfect, firm snow, allowing us to move quickly and without difficulty.  On the way down we encountered a team of two other climbers who were still heading up.

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Looking down Cayambe.  As we descended another team was climbing upwards.

The below image depicts the crux of the route, the top section below the summit, as seen during our descent in daylight. When the photograph is enlarged the other climbing team can be seen ascending, giving a sense of scale to the terrain.

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Looking back up the route. Several massive ice walls stand above the steep ramps which lead to the summit. The other climbing team is still ascending, giving scale to the terrain when the image is enlarged.

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Looking down the glacier.

The temperature rapidly warmed up as we descended, and we stopped several times to shed layers.

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Looking across the lower glacier.

Finally we reached the base of the glacier, where we regained the rock ridge which we had hiked in the dark.  In daylight the lower glacier was particularly impressive, with layers of volcanic ash visible where the glacier had cleaved.

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The snout of the glacier, layers of ash visible in the ice.

A level area near a small lake on the top of the ridge would have made an excellent location for camping.

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A small lake on top of the ridge.

After an easy descent we reached the refuge at around nine o’clock, where we had a quick snack before packing up our equipment and driving back to Machachi.  Our plan for the next day involved driving to Cotopaxi National Park where we would begin an attempt on Cotopaxi at around midnight, so we were both eager to get some rest!

Cayambe, seen from the summit of Cotopaxi.   Sunrise brought a sky of changing colors.

Cayambe, seen from the summit of Cotopaxi.  Sunrise created a sky of changing colors.

Cayambe was an interesting and rewarding climb.  The terrain higher up the glacier felt steeper, physically more rigorous, and much more sustained than that of Cotopaxi a few days later.  The sunrise on the summit was a rare, unforgettably beautiful event.  Cayambe’s glacier is known for its activity and the numerous crevasses on route.  Navigating the lower glacier in the dark with my climbing partner and mountain guide Pato was good practice and a great experience.  If I were to return to Ecuador, I would absolutely make a point of revisiting Cayambe.

Accessibility

Cayambe is fairly accessible, although slightly less so than Ecuador’s more popular mountains. The town of Cayambe is only an hour’s drive from Quito, but the mountain refuge must be accessed via a rough road requiring the use of a 4×4 truck. Climbing Cayambe involves moderate glacier travel, and thus some prior experience with cramponing and ice ax self-arrest.

While in Ecuador I stayed in the city of Machachi between climbs, which provided me convenient access to Corazon, Cotopaxi, and the Illinizas.  Machachi is not really an ideal spot for access to Cayambe, as it is further south and adds an hour to the drive over Quito, but since we planned to climb Cotopaxi after Cayambe, storing extra luggage and food in Machachi made logistical sense. The hostel I used in Machachi, the Puerta al Corazon, was comfortable, well managed, very clean, and had great food – well worth the extra hour’s drive.  They can be contacted by email at info@puertaalcorazon.com

Ecuador’s high mountains can be climbed year round, but weather is often inclement with high winds and heavy precipitation. December, January, and February are considered the most stable months for climbing due to lower winds and relatively lower chances of rain and snow. The Ecuadorian climbers I met told me that June, July, and August are also popular climbing months, drier but very windy. During my trip fog and rain were common in the afternoons, while morning and night weather was typically clear but windy.

Since late 2012 the Ecuadorian government has mandated that all climbers use the services of a local mountain guide.  This policy was put into place in response to a fatal accident on Illiniza Sur.  While in Ecuador I met one unguided group who had snuck onto the mountain, but this is discouraged, and the national parks enforce the policy by refusing entry to unguided climbers.  I hired a 1:1 mountain guide and climbed with him throughout my trip.  We accessed all of the national parks via a 4×4 truck, which my guide drove and owned.  While organizing the logistics and guide for my trip I used the services of Diego Cumbajin Parra, the owner of www.andesclimbing.com, and I would strongly recommend him for his excellent communication, attention to detail, personal presence, and reasonable pricing.  My guide Pato was strong, very familiar with all of Ecuador’s mountains, and completely focused on climbing.

Illiniza Sur – January 2014

Illiniza Sur, left, and Illiniza Norte, right, as seen from near the summit of Corazon.

Illiniza Sur, left, and Illiniza Norte, right, as seen from near the summit of Corazon.

5263m Illiniza Sur is Ecuador’s 6th highest peak, and considered one of its more technically challenging.  Illiniza Sur is so named as the southern of the two Illinizas, a pair of volcanic mountains located in the Reserva ecologica Los Ilinizas national park south-west of Quito near the city of Machachi. Unlike its northern counterpart Illiniza Norte which can be climbed via a ridge scramble, Illiniza Sur is glaciated and a technical, if relatively straightforward, climb.  For its steep and direct route Illiniza Sur was one of my two main climbing goals in Ecuador, the other being 6310m Chimborazo.

Illiniza Sur, left, and Illiniza Norte, right, from the summit of Cotopaxi at sunrise.

Illiniza Sur, left, and Illiniza Norte, right, from the summit of Cotopaxi at sunrise.

I climbed Illiniza Sur on my 5th day in Ecuador after spending several days acclimatizing.  I had hiked 4791m Corazon two days prior, climbed 5126m Illiniza Norte the day before, and had spent two nights sleeping in the Illiniza mountain refuge at ~4700m before my climb.   I was fairly well acclimatized by the start of the climb, but having arrived in Ecuador from near sea level was still feeling the weight of altitude. My acclimatization and climbing itinerary can be seen here.

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The Illiniza refuge.

My climb began from the Illiniza refuge, a mountain hut located at 4700m near the saddle between Illiniza Norte and Illiniza Sur.  The refuge is reached via a straightforward and moderately sloped hike, and its presence makes accessing the Illinizas incredibly convenient.  The hut is managed by a permanent guardian who watches climber’s gear, provides hot water, and prepares hot food for a moderate fee.  Staying in the hut for three days and two nights cost my guide and I around $70 USD, including food.  The hut’s altitude and accessibility contribute to the popularity of the Illinizas as preparatory acclimatization climbs for Ecuador’s higher mountains.

My Ecuadorian climbing partner and mountain guide Pato and I left the hut and began hiking across the saddle at 4:00 a.m, each carrying two snow pickets and a pair of ice axes in addition to our light summit packs.  We were the only two climbers on the Illinizas this day.  The weather was wet and cold, lightly raining and windy.  Roughly 40 minutes after leaving the cabin, we reached the base of the steep rock gulley used to access the glacier and the normal climbing route.  The hike to the gully was cairned, and relatively worn from use, but high humidity made visibility low.  The gully itself was steep, iced over in areas, and slippery wet from the humidity.  The hike to the bottom of the gully and the gully itself represent the only real route finding on Illiniza Sur’s normal route, as the remaining climbing directly follows the line of the glacier.  As we reached the top of the gully the rain stopped, and the clouds slowly began to thin.

Past the gully we gained the glacier and the route upwards.  The normal route follows a direct series of snow ramps, the lowest of which we immediately began climbing.  The snow was in superb condition; not in the slightest bit icy, but firm, crisp, and supportive.  The lower quarter of the glacier was moderately sloped, but quickly became steep as we ascended.  As we climbed the cloud cover began to clear in patches, giving us a better look at the route ahead and the terrain around us.

After some twenty minutes of cramponing the snow became steep enough to place our first picket.  I climbed the next three pitches on Pato’s belay, a series of ramps taking us across a pair of well covered and easily avoided crevasses.  The snow quality made climbing feel secure on the steep ramps, which were never less than 45 degrees and around 65 degrees at their sharpest.  An unprotected fall higher up on Illiniza Sur would be a frightening prospect, with no terrain features to prevent a slide all the way to the glacier’s base.  Despite trying to pace carefully, the altitude and steep grade combined made the climbing feel very tiring.

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Looking down the steep ramps.

With the angle tapering off slightly near the top, Pato and I simultaneously climbed the final two pitches to the summit. Curving left around a rock outcropping, we continued to rely on snow pickets for fall protection.  We reached the summit at 6:30 a.m., two and a half hours after leaving the refuge.

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Looking back up the final, less sharply angled pitches near the summit.

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The summit of Illiniza Sur.

Happy to be at the top, we took a break to rest and rehydrate.  As the sun rose behind us, a beautiful ‘Buddha’s Halo’ rainbow circled our shadows in the clouds.

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Buddha’s Halo in the clouds.

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Pato on the summit of Illiniza Sur.

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On the summit of Illiniza Sur.

After a good fifteen minute break, and no sign of the clouds clearing to give us any real views, we began to descend.  With such fantastic snow conditions we didn’t need to face into the mountain and downclimb, allowing us to make good time.

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Crossing the second crevasse.  The two crevasses on route were well filled in with snow.

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Looking across the glacier.

My climbing partner and mountain guide Pato.

My climbing partner and mountain guide Pato.

As clouds blew past us, Illiniza Norte occasionally appeared across the saddle.

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Illiniza Norte across the saddle.

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Occasional views through the clouds.

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The first, and largest, of the crevasses on the glacier.

When we reached the rock gully I rappelled down off of an old piece of thick webbing tied around a boulder, avoiding the slippery rock.  Aside from this the descent was fast and clean on such firm snow, with no need to rappel even the steepest of the pitches on the glacier.  The hike across the saddle went quickly, and we made it back to the refuge at 8:00 a.m. We quickly ate a hot breakfast in the cabin before packing up our equipment and hiking down the trail to the parking lot.

While a short climb, Illiniza Sur felt challenging and rewarding, with steep snow at altitude posing a good physical test.  The climb was very easy to access due to the mountain cabin, and my three days spent on the Illinizas served as superb acclimatization preparation for climbing more of Ecuador’s higher altitude volcanos.

Accessibility

Illiniza Sur is very accessible, but does involve steep glacier travel requiring prior experience with technical equipment and technique.  A more thorough explanation of the route, with diagrams, can be found on Summitpost: http://www.summitpost.org/illiniza-sur-iliniza-sur/151054.

The Reserva ecologica Los Ilinizas park is within reasonable driving range from Quito, and the mountain cabin makes overnighting comfortable and simple.  Like many climbers choose to do, I stayed in Machachi between climbs, providing me convenient access to Corazon and Cotopaxi in addition to the Illinizas.  The hostel I used in Machachi, the Puerta al Corazon, was comfortable, well managed, very clean, and had great food.  They can be contacted by email at info@puertaalcorazon.com

Ecuador’s high mountains can be climbed year round, but weather is often inclement with high winds and heavy precipitation. December, January, and February are considered the most stable months for climbing due to lower winds and relatively lower chances of rain and snow. The Ecuadorian climbers I met told me that June, July, and August are also popular climbing months, drier but very windy. During my trip fog and rain were common in the afternoons, while morning and night weather was typically clear but windy.

Since late 2012 the Ecuadorian government has mandated that all climbers use the services of a local mountain guide.  This policy was put into place in response to a fatal accident on Illiniza Sur.  While in Ecuador I met one unguided group who had snuck onto the mountain, but this is discouraged, and the national parks enforce the policy by refusing entry to unguided climbers.  I hired a 1:1 mountain guide and climbed with him throughout my trip.  We accessed all of the national parks via a 4×4 truck, which my guide drove and owned.  While organizing the logistics and guide for my trip I used the services of Diego Cumbajin Parra, the owner of www.andesclimbing.com, and I would strongly recommend him for his excellent communication, attention to detail, personal presence, and reasonable pricing.  My guide Pato was strong, very familiar with all of Ecuador’s mountains, and completely focused on climbing.

Illiniza Norte – January 2014

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Illiniza Norte, from the refuge cabin.

5126m Illiniza Norte, the northern of the two Illiniza peaks, is Ecuador’s 8th highest mountain and a popular acclimatization hike.  An extinct volcano, the two Illinizas were once connected, but have long since become separate peaks with distinct characteristics.

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Illiniza Sur, left, and Illiniza Norte, right, as seen from near the summit of Corazon.

I visited the Illinizas on my third day in Ecuador, one day after hiking the nearby 4791m Corazon volcano.  My acclimatization and climbing itinerary can be seen here. 5263m Illiniza Sur, the slightly higher southern mountain, was one of my main climbing objectives in Ecuador, and Illiniza Norte presented a convenient acclimatization opportunity.  Illiniza Norte turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable hike in its own right, and well worth the day of travel time which I budgeted for climbing it.

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Illiniza Sur, left, and Illiniza Norte, right, from the summit of Cotopaxi at sunrise.

Day 1:  My climb of the Illinizas started at my hostel near the city of Machachi, south of Quito – a popular area for climbers to base out of due to its proximity to numerous 4000+m hiking peaks, as well as both the Cotopaxi and Illiniza national parks.  A short drive from the hostel brought us to the Reserva Ecologica Los Ilinizas national park, where my mountain guide and I registered our names.  We continued from the gate over a rough road to the climber’s parking lot.

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The Reserva ecologica Los Ilinizas park entrance.

Ecuador’s volcanoes are fantastic in their accessibility, and many can be climbed from mountain cabins.  During my visit to Ecuador the cabins at the base of Cotopaxi and Chimborazo were closed for construction, but the cabin, or refuge, situated near the saddle between Illiniza Norte and Illiniza Sur was open for business.

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The climber’s parking lot and access point for the Illinizas.

The Illiniza refuge can be reached via a clearly signposted and moderately sloped hiking trail from the parking lot at 3950m.  Loaded up with climbing equipment for Illiniza Sur, sleeping gear, food and snacks for three days in the refuge, and carrying my heavy double boots inside of my pack, we began hiking up the trail around noon.  Having recently come from near sea level I found maintaining steady output at 4000m to be quite taxing, so I focused on breathing slowly and steadily while forcing myself to move at a very conservative pace.  The effects of altitude were pronounced, and I could feel quite clearly that I was not yet properly acclimatized.

Looking down the trail towards the parking lot, roughly halfway to the refuge.

Looking down the trail towards the parking lot, roughly halfway to the refuge.

As we moved upwards the weather turned, and blue skies were replaced by clouds and a light rain.  Higher still, cold fog engulfed everything and obscured our views.  This would become a consistent and predictable pattern throughout my stay in Ecuador – clear mornings with weather quickly deteriorating in the early afternoon.  After roughly three hours of hiking we reached the refuge at 4700m.

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The mountain cabin, just below the saddle between the two Illinizas.

The refuge was basic but comfortable enough, and definitely preferable to camping in the cold humidity waiting outdoors.  Sturdy wooden bunks accommodate climbers and their gear, and thick mattresses provide a soft bed.  The guardian of the refuge, a young man named Freddy who resides there permanently during the climbing season, kept hot water boiling, cooked hot food at mealtimes, and watched everyone’s gear for a nominal fee.  The cost for my mountain guide and I to stay in the refuge for three days ended up being around $70 USD, including food.  Constant access to boiling water compounded the convenience of the cabin, and its location at 4700m makes it an excellent spot for acclimatizing.

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Inside the Iliniza refuge.

My mountain guide Pato and Fredy the refuge guardian in the cabin's kitchen.

My mountain guide Pato with Freddy the refuge guardian in the cabin’s kitchen.

As evening approached the cloud cover descended and opened up views of Illiniza Norte.  A large group of Polish climbers arrived later in the evening, and would depart again very early the next morning.  Still feeling the effects of altitude, I went to sleep early after some extra hydration, hoping that I would feel better in the morning.

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Sunset from the Illiniza refuge.

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Illiniza Norte at sunset.

Day 2: We were up early and on the trail at 7:45.  The beginning of the route was straightforward hiking, first from the refuge, crossing the saddle to the base of the mountain’s southeast ridge, and then following the ridge itself directly upwards.  The large Polish group had left many hours earlier than us, and we wouldn’t encounter them again on the mountain; we had the route all to ourselves.

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The beginning of the southeast ridge.

Higher up the ridge became steeper, and the route began to involve some exposed scrambling over rough volcanic rock.  Hand and footholds were secure and abundant, making the climbing very enjoyable.

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Looking across the clouds from Illiniza Norte’s southeast ridge.

I was feeling fantastic in the fresh morning air, and despite a light breeze and some light cloud cover moving past us with the wind, the weather was clear and promising.  The altitude-induced lethargy of the previous day appeared to have lifted, and I was filled with energy.  Climbing unroped we quickly progressed upwards, and scrambling over the rocks with all four hands and feet felt crisp and free.

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Snow on the ridge.

In two locations the route moved off of the ridge and cut to the climber’s right, down and around a pair of false summits.  These two sections were fairly easy to spot even without my mountain guide Pato’s indication – although the route ahead appeared to continue over the false summits, the turns off of the ridge were worn from usage.  The false summits appeared very climbable, but would have involved a lot more exposure than the normal route which bypasses them.  I have tried to indicate these two sections below.  Stopping only for a short break we made great speed, and soon found ourselves below the final leg of the route, an icy gully leading straight to the summit.

A rough diagram of the route near the top of Illiniza Norte - down and around the two false summits, descending via scree on the mountain's northern slopes.

A rough diagram of the route near the top of Illiniza Norte – ascent down and around two false summits, descent via scree on the mountain’s northern slopes.  Zoomed in, the gullies which one ascends/descends are visible amidst the rock by the dotted lines.

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Taking a break above the clouds.

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Looking up the final gully to the main summit.

Past the final gully we reached the top at 8:55 a.m., one hour and ten minutes after leaving the refuge.  The summit, marked by a frozen cross, was windy and cold.

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The summit cross of Illiniza Norte.

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On the summit of Illiniza Norte.

Fog blew past us, and periodic windows of clear sky opened to the sea of clouds below us.

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View from near the summit of Illiniza Norte.

From the summit we descended straight down the north face of the mountain, a steep slope of loose scree.  Descending on the scree was fast and comfortable, and with little route finding involved we found ourselves back at the Illiniza refuge by 9:30 a.m.  The rest of the day was spent resting, eating, and hydrating in preparation for our planned attempt of Illiniza Sur the next morning.

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Illiniza Norte, from Illiniza Sur at sunrise.

Illiniza Norte was a short but very enjoyable hike.  The scrambling on route was solid and a lot of fun.  Fall exposure in some areas was considerable, but with an abundance of great holds the terrain felt easy enough to climb fast and unroped.  The hike was straightforward to access due to the mountain cabin, which also makes the Illinizas a superb area for acclimatization.

Accessibility

Illiniza Norte is very accessible.  The Reserva Ecologica Los Ilinizas park is within reasonable driving range from Quito, and the mountain cabin makes overnighting comfortable and simple.  Like many climbers choose to do, I stayed in Machachi the night before heading to the refuge, which made the drive much shorter and would later provide convenient access to Corazon and Cotopaxi.  The hostel I used in Machachi, the Puerta al Corazon, was comfortable, well managed, very clean, and had great food.  They can be contacted by email at info@puertaalcorazon.com

Ecuador’s high mountains can be climbed year round, but weather is often inclement with high winds and heavy precipitation. December, January, and February are considered the most stable months for climbing due to lower winds and relatively lower chances of rain and snow. The Ecuadorian climbers I met told me that June, July, and August are also popular climbing months, drier but very windy. During my trip fog and rain were common in the afternoons, while morning and night weather was typically clear but windy.

Since late 2012 the Ecuadorian government has mandated that all climbers use the services of a local mountain guide.  This policy was put into place in response to a fatal accident on Illiniza Sur.  While in Ecuador I met one unguided group who had snuck onto the mountain, but this is discouraged, and the national parks enforce the policy by refusing entry to unguided climbers.  I hired a 1:1 mountain guide and climbed with him throughout my trip.  We accessed all of the national parks via a 4×4 truck, which my guide drove and owned.  While organizing the logistics and guide for my trip I used the services of Diego Cumbajin Parra, the owner of www.andesclimbing.com, and I would strongly recommend him for his excellent communication, attention to detail, personal presence, and reasonable pricing.  My guide Pato was strong, very familiar with all of Ecuador’s mountains, and completely focused on climbing.