Climbing in Ecuador: Iliniza Norte , Iliniza Sur and Cotopaxi , 2003
In spite of being married for a bit more than a year, my wife Annica and I decided to get married again in Colombia , my native country. Looking for a place to have a honeymoon, we choose Ecuador , a country with tons of things to do, fantastic landscape and good mountaineering objectives. We had a little bit of all during our trip to this Andean country. Please join us in this trip report.
Dec 29th -> Dec 31st, Quito:
After spending a couple of weeks hiking and acclimatizing in Colombia, (at 2600 m) we felt that we still wanted to have some more time before aiming to the mountains. We spent 3 days in Quito (2800 m), visited old churches and enjoyed some of the food and places in what is called “Gringolandia” or the Mariscal Sucre area. We also took the chance to collect information about latest conditions of several of the mountains we wanted to climb.
One helpful place was Cotopaxi.com ( www.cotopaxi.com ) where its manager, Ivette Ilarco, provided tons of information about logistics and weather for several of the mountains. Weeks before Annica and I had decided that we would aim for Iliniza Norte , then Iliniza Sur , and finally go for Cayambe , Antisana or Cotopaxi . Ivette informed that Iliniza Norte and Iliniza Sur where OK, but that Cayambe ’s glacier was not in very good shape, since it was fully covered with ash from Tuguragua , a near by volcano that has been trying to erupt for a while. An expedition to Antisana , she explained, was indeed a very nice one, but the time requirement would be greater than what we wanted to spend in one mountain. Finally, she said, Cotopaxi was a good project, well marked path, easy climb and fairly easy access.
We visited one other store and guiding service, The Explorer ( www.explorer.com ), where its owner José Nuñez , provided to us with similar information. He also arranged transportation for us to go to the town of El Chaupi , the closest town to the Iliniza Norte and Iliniza Sur . Although Annica and I are veterans of public transportation, we were concerned about the fact that we planned to go to El Chaupi on January 1st, that is New Years Eve and a public holiday in Ecuador , and that we may not find any type of transportation. This proved to be a mistake since transportation is plentiful to this little village. In any case, with José we went to El Chaupi, and we paid 90 US dollars!
January 1st ->2nd, climb high, sleep low:
We arrived to El Chaupi in the early morning. The town is a rather small and poor place. There are few stores and no restaurant that I know. There are a couple of places to stay, one being the Hacienda San Jose del Chaupi, and the other the Hostal Llovizna, both easily reachable from the main square in town. Since we planned to travel around the Andes after climbing Iliniza Norte and Iliniza Sur , we had a bag with us that we dropped at the Hostal Llovizna , owned and managed by Bladimir Gallo, aka Don Bladi, and his wife, Patricia, aka Doña Pati.
No man needs to pay expensive fees to get to El Chaupi. El Chaupi Bus & Co. will take you there for cents.
The day before we asked Don Bladi to have a horse ready to carry our bags up to the hut, so one of Don Bladi’s helpers, Rolando, and the beasts were waiting for us in La Virgen, the end of the road to the hut, where a shrine is installed and a small parking lot is found. It is good to have good relations with Don Bladi: he also manages the refuge, and he has a vast knowledge of the area. We were dropped at La Virgen, and then we hiked, together with the horse and Rolando, to the hut Nuevos Horizontes.
Yes, we climb alpine style, but with horse. However, we did not carry extra stuff, just the basics.
On the way up we met some climbers that had been in Iliniza Sur and Iliniza Norte , with guides. We took the chance to talk to them and they reported excellent conditions in both peaks, normal routes. The weather was fantastic and we had great views not only of the mountains but also of the surroundings.
We arrived around noon and set to explore the nearby peaks. The hut is in saddle between Iliniza Sur and Iliniza Norte . These two mountains used to be the same crater, and eventually split in two, creating very special conditions. Iliniza Norte (5126 m) is a sand and scree climb topped by rocky summits and needles. Its dry flanks can get snow and ice, but this is the exception rather than the rule. The mountain can be climbed from the south face and the north face, plus some routes on the ridges. It looks like a good acclimatization climb.
In contrast, Iliniza Sur counts with a good glacier and snow fields. The mountain is this wet because it retains the humidity that flies into its flanks, and catches some of it, protecting its brother Iliniza Norte from getting “cold”. Iliniza Sur also features the most accessible harder climbs in Ecuador , since its south-east ridge is quite exposed and hard. The two most popular routes, Normal and La Rampa, (graded AD+ and D respectively) are easily scouted from the bottom, and they look straight forward.
If you have the chance to see a picture of Iliniza Sur 10 or 20 years ago, you will realize how much the glacier has retreated. The otherwise huge ice fall on top of the hut is now nothing but the terminal wall of the terminal morraine. Indeed, the normal route to Iliniza Sur used to be the nowadays La Rampa, now harder than several years ago, this due to glacier retreat.
The routes looked OK and we were confident of our abilities for them. But we started to feel sick at this point. Altitude was doing its damage to our heads so we went back to the hut hoping to get some rest and get better for the next day. In the Refuge I realized we had altitude sickness. Taking a look of our elevation gain that day we went from 2800 m in Quito, up to 4800 at the hut, gaining 2000 mts in few hours. We had terrible headaches and lost appetite. My heart rate was about 110 bpm, when it is normally 60 when resting at this height. If we wanted to climb the standard route on Iliniza Sur we needed to be in perfect condition, so our condition called for extra acclimatization.
Hut / Refugio Nuevos Horizontes
We spent the night at the hut but we could not sleep. The hut had some 5 climbers at this time and all of them were aiming to climb Iliniza Norte the next day. Also, the hut was surrounded by big fighting bulls, which scared us when we went to the bathroom. These bulls hang around the hut and the area, and they are so black that I can bet that they are made out of black velvet. Annica wanted to pat one, but they where as big as a Rommel Armored Car! Scary…..!
The next day we woke up, and although I was totally fine, Annica was still feeling sick. We left our climbing gear at the hut, with Rafael, the caretaker, and we hiked back to El Chaupi, looking for rich air and a relaxing atmosphere. The plan was to go down to 3300 mts in El Chaupi, stay one night, and the next day, go by car to La Virgen and hike back to the Refuge. After getting our helmets and rope, we would climb Iliniza Norte from the south flank, and the next day climb the normal route in Iliniza Sur .
January 3rd, climbing both sides of Iliniza Norte :
We slept very well at the Hostal Llovizna, and after a nice breakfast we took a car to go to La Virgen as planned, and then hiked to the Refuge. After an hour of hiking, Annica and I discussed the option of changing the plan a bit. We now were going to climb Iliniza Norte on its north flank and then go down to the hut via the south flank. Indeed many climbers do this the other way around, climbing the mountain from the south and dropping on the north, carrying all the gear so they can go straight to La Virgen without returning to the hut. This was like a big change of plans, since we did not have a rope, helmets or pro. We figured out it did not matter since we believed the climb was well within our abilities. The only missing thing would be the helmets, but we took the risk.
Iliniza Norte North face, from below the final hut morraine, above La Virgen. (This place is circa 4400 mts)
Right before the final moraine to the Refuge, we dropped down to a creek and then headed up to gain the north face of Iliniza Norte . The route crosses across the north flank on more or less steep terrain (45 degrees) and it is a tiring experience since you go up 3 steps and slide one down. In this section the route is marked with 3 or 4 cairns on top of the only huge rocks you will see on the slope. Down we saw the bullfighting bulls but, as those who know about them, if you do not mess around with them they do not mess around with you, and we were high enough to avoid them. After two hours or so, we gained the north ridge on the right of the summit tower. The weather was now quite foggy, and visibility was restricted to some 30 to 40 feet. This condition prevailed during our ascent so we could not see anything!
We followed the ridge until we reached the summit scrambles, after more or less 45 minutes. The guidebooks say these are gullies, but in reality it seems to me that these must be down-graded to the category of rocky scrambles. The climb is a very class 4 terrain with some three or four USA 5.3 (UIAA II) rock moves, and it is about 40 meters long. The summit is small so it barely fits 3 people, and it has a cross on it. In the moment we reached it, we also realized that we did not only forgo the rope, the helmets, the pro, but also our camera, so the summit of Iliniza Norte lives in our heads only now. It did not matter; the fog would not have let us have a good shoot anyway.
We started our descent. After we down climbed from the summit, we traversed the “Paso o Desfiladero de la Muerte” (or Death’s Abysm) a supposedly airy traverse on the left side of a tower, still on the north face, that lies on the ridge. This pass, guidebooks say, can be full of snow and ice some times, and therefore is necessary to use crampons and a mountaineering axe. In our case, the route had little to none snow, so we did not have much trouble on this part. The rest of the descent was done by the South Face or Normal Route , and it seems to us it can be graded as the North Face Route (PD).
Iliniza Norte South Face and Normal Route
We left the ridge to follow one of the paths going down to the saddle between the Iliniza Sur and Iliniza Norte . As with the other side of Iliniza Norte , the terrain was pure sand and scree bashing. Boots wear off like chuck on this terrain I guess….
We finally arrived to the Refuge in the early afternoon. We made some hot chocolate to drink with Rafael, the caretaker. Annica and I now were excited about climbing Iliniza Sur the next day. However, knowing it is a harder climb, and still concerned about the altitude we decided to camp 400 meters below the Refuge. We took our tent, sleeping bags, some food and went down. Rafael kept our climbing gear ready to go until the next day.
January 4th, bailing out of Iliniza Sur :
Approaching Iliniza Sur
We camped at 4400 meters, right below the final moraine that takes climbers to the refuge. The site was fantastic, right in front of Cotopaxi and on a cushy meadow. It would have been even better if Cotopaxi was not covered by fog. Annica’s real concern were the bulls, that sooner than later appeared and ate grass some 100 meters from us. We exchange sights with the animals, and they looked at us for like 15 minutes every time. Again, they looked so black, that I can bet they are made of onyx. We left them alone, cooked dinner and tucked into our sleeping bags and slept until 3:00 AM. We ate a cold breakfast and quickly dismantled the tent. We then climbed to the hut, checking for the bulls again, you never know. We hurried across the moraine since we wanted to be at the beginning of the route at 5:30 AM.
We arrived at the hut about 5:30 AM and then switched gear, drank hot choco, and left to the glacier below the normal route. We arrived there kind of late, about 6:30, and started to climb. Roped, we negotiated the first slope or entrance to the upper glacier. A nasty mix of ice, neve and rock, as this is the end of a gully that receives all the garbage of the upper cliffs. After climbing this slope (5 mts) we arrived to a flat spot. On my left I had the continuation of the aforementioned garbage shut, a slope full of rock that could be exited on the right above to clean snow, and on my right a flat spot with some steps. I decided to quickly negotiate the garbage shut and climb to exit on the right, but later I realized that we could had follow the steps and gain the cleaner and safer snow by going to the right, around a moat/rimaye, and then up to the left.
We kept climbing straight up a snow ramp or steep gully that runs between a rock cliff on the left and an ice cliff on the right, on a 50 degree slope for some 100 meters, then gained a flat spot, turned a little to the left and kept climbing, this time with a huge crevasse on the left and an ice fall over visible rock on the right. The terrain was now about 60 degrees, and we were still moving together. After about 150 meters we gained the top of the ice fall/rocky section on the right.
The snow conditions were OK, perfect for solid self belays, but the fog was a pain in the neck since we could barely see 30 foot away. We knew more or less the route since we had researched and scouted the terrain days before and still some steps were visible, so we felt confident that we could finish the route without complications. Besides, sometimes the fog would open and allowed us to check the route and the passages on this ice fall. However, the fog presented some problems: how to decide the approach to the cliffs? Should we climb by pitches now or move together?
We then crossed the top of the ice fall towards the right for about 50 meters, with one huge rimaye on our left, and the ice cliffs on the right. We crossed one crevasse and then, right where the rimaye closed, we headed up again, crossing the rimaye where it is just a crevasse. This is basically to walk on top of the ice cliffs that are held together by small snow bridges…..Then we kept going up and straight to the summit, finally reaching a small rimaye, below the last rock band. Here is where you must decide if you want to traverse left, on top of the huge rimaye mentioned above, and then climb a steep snow section on the left of the last rock band. Then join the summit ridge and go right towards it (see Yossi Brain guidebook). Other option is to go up and straight an obvious gap on the last rock band, or traverse left and gain the summit slope on the right side of the last rock band, where both options meet. We decided to go straight up thru the gap since it looked solid and steps where already there. We avoided the summit ridge since we did not have good visibility. We could have traveled to the right side and gain the slope but it did not look any easier so this seemed to be unnecessary. The height was approximated 5050 meters.
The final length also looked pretty steep, we knew this from research and many interviews I had with other climbers. We decided to pitch this part, so up I went. The slope started about 50 degrees, but after 30 meters I was climbing 70/75 degrees terrain. The snow was good, so I could get my mountaineering axe solid, plus I was using my north wall hammer for extra support. I placed a picket on the way up. I run the whole rope length and belayed Annica. The fog was getting very dense; I could not see more than 10 feet away. When Annica arrived we decided that she would continue up, for another pitch, given that the slope slackened above, it seemed. She led the pitch towards the left side, exiting the steep slope and gaining entrance into more generous terrain. At the end of her rope, she built an anchor and took me up. On my way up I could not see Annica, indeed, the fog was as dense as it could be. Finally we reunited and explored the surroundings.
Iliniza Sur Final Pich
The place was like swimming in milk, so white and foggy! But we kind of saw some cliff on the left side. We realized this should be El Hongo or the Ambato summits, a couple of lower summits north of the main summit. We were a bit disoriented and knowing that the summit had a huge cornice and not being able to see the rest of the route, we ask our selves: for how long do we have to go? 20 meters? 100 meters? We checked the time: 10:55 AM, and we were approximately at 5150 meters high. Too late during the day, and although snow conditiosn held well while going up, the snow was getting soft and the day was hot, since all that fog retained the heat. We decided to go down. Had we started one hour earlier we could had waited for better visibility
The way down was complex. I lowered Annica on the steeper sections and after I would down climb. We could have abseiled, the ice underneath the snow was good, but it seemed to me not to reliable for ice treads. The snow was enough to guarantee a safe down climb, but not plenty for bollards. So, since I have my 2 mountaineering axes I decided to use them in the way down. We went down without much problem, but where surprised of how the relatively hot weather had melted our steps. We finalized the climb about 2:00 PM. In the last part we did not go thru the garbage shut, but we took the slope that was now on our left side, and reached the bottom of the upper glacier safely. We down climbed the last part of the garbage shut, and then heard a voice screaming at us.
It was Rafael, the refuge keeper, who was worried and came to check for us. I was very glad I saw him and we were very thankful with him for coming to look for us. We hiked together back to the refuge, made some hot choco and discussed the climb with other people who were at the refuge. A guide and his client were going to attempt the climb the next day so they asked plenty of questions about the route. We collected our equipment and all the gear and then headed down to La Virgen to be taken to El Chaupi, where we spent the night at Don Bladi’s hostal
January 5th -> 10th, travels in Ecuador’s interior:
We needed to decide what to do next. The next options for climbing were Cayambe , Antisana and Cotopaxi . Cayambe was still in bad condition, the snow was still black because of the ash from Tuguragua, and it seemed that the pervasive fog we had seen in all the days before was not going to open up, making the navigation on its glacier not recommended and very likely that we would bail out if we decided to go. On the other hand, Antisana was reported with good conditions for the first two thirds of the route, but that the seracs and other difficulties on the upper part of the mountain made some teams recently bail out. Since Antisana needed at least 3 days to be climbed, and although the landscape is suppose to be awesome in that area, we decided that the time spent on the approach could be well spent on other activities, as Annica and I are always eager to visit areas and towns as well as climbing. So we figured out the next mountaineering objective would be Cotopaxi , straight forward access and a mountain that could be climbed in one morning.
That day we took a bus went to Baños , a town at 1900 meters high, known for its thermal baths and for its proximity to the Tunguragua Volcano. The town rests on a very narrow river bed, and although very touristy, it is rather pleasant. We spent the night at the Café Cultura ; we got a room in front of a water fall and had a cozy dinner at a balcony with a fantastic view. Annica and I highly recommend this place.
The next day, January 6th, we went to the town of Pillaro to participate as spectators of a Diablada. Wanting to know more about the event, we went to the Town Hall and were introduced to the City Culture Department Manager, Italo Espin , who explained to us with all detail the who, why, how and when of the diabladas take place. These events are famous carnivals performed in many Andean cities, from Colombia to Bolivia . For the particular case of Pillaro, male groups from different communities will get dressed with home made masks and costumes of devils and walk around the main square of the town, dancing at the beat of a municipal band and scaring spectators with screams, jumps and sounds. For this purpose, some of them rely on dead/live animals, or even carry an open hot pepper in their hands which they will very likely stick in the mouth of any known person or relative. Other groups, called parejas de linea, this time couples, will dance at the beat of the banda, showing their costumes made up by human-like masks, hats, and colorful clothing. At the event we had a lot of fun, and Annica danced with many of the devils on the carnival.
After Pillaro, we visited the town of Pujili and rented a room for the night at a restaurant, because this town, although well know for its carnivals and architecture, does not have a hotel. The next day we visited the towns of Tigua, Zumbagua, where another carnival was taking place, and Lake Quilotoa , a fantastic dead volcano whose crater is full of water. Later we catched a bus and went to Chigchulan, where we stayed at the Black Sheep Inn, an eco-hostal run by a couple of Americans and this is another place we highly recommend. We stayed with them for two nights, enjoying their vegetarian food, nice showers, compost bathrooms, rooms with private fire places, and we went hiking the mountains and canyons around and rested.
On January 9th we went to the town of Saquisilí, where an very famous Thursday market takes place, and is possible to see all kind of trade: cows, pigs, chickens, llamas, guinea pigs, cats, grains, clothes, and other goodies. Annica and I bought a couple of ponchos, and although we considered ourselves “veterans” of negotiating with Latin Americans, we believed we paid US 10 too much for each of them!
That night we went back to El Chaupi, where we had left our climbing equipment while traveling in the Andes . The plan now was to go to Cotopaxi ’s refuge the next day with just the equipment we needed for the climb, and leave the gear at the Hostal. Then the day after we would have a car bringing the rest of our luggage and picking us up after the climb, thereafter dropping us on the highway so we could take a bus back to Quito. This was the best price value we could get. Doña Patricia made for us some rice with chicken and lent us a container to carry it to the hut, so we would not need to bring food and cook at the hut.
January 10th, ice and wind in Cotopaxi :
The beautiful Cotopaxi (Picture by Jorge Alzaimer)
We arrived at the hut via the town of Machachi, and because the security check point at the entrance of the Cotopaxi Park is abandoned, we were not charged with the US $10 per person regular fee. The road is a very long and lonely approach, crossing a desert full of rocks and horses, and finishing in a drop-off place, a parking lot few hundred meters below the refuge. Although the shelter looks within arms reach, it takes like one hour to get to it! The hut is, as described in many guide books, dirty, crowded and noisy. It has, however, several stoves, plenty of cooking elements and lots of space to cook.
Moreover, the place was packed with groups of climbers from Germany, who had taken so much space to test and adjust all their equipment, fit newly bought crampons and boots, sharpen with expert hand the piolets, oil the pulleys and arrange their full-body harnesses. It was a very cumbersome activity to hang around the hut, and to start a conversation with one of these guys was a hardship itself since little German we know and little English or Spanish they knew. Looking for relief, we went to one of the kitchens in the hut, where the guides were chatting and cooking. Chickens, tomatoes, rice, potatoes, juice, desert and other delicacies had they taken up to the hut to feed their clients. Impressed by the scope and activity from both clients and guides, we dare to ask if we where dealing with some kind of Bonnatis. But that these folks did not have any experience climbing, in contrast to what we have previously thought after seeing them fine-tuning their tools and toys.
The climb was easy and straight forward. We woke up at 11:00 PM and got ready, have a quick breakfast and were the first team out. We were worried about the weather, windy and with haze and hale that hit like bullets on our jackets, but when we arrived to the glacier at about 1:30 AM, (5100 mts) the weather was better. The approach to the glacier is not very clear so one must keep and eye on the altimeter and also on the path, so one is sure to enter the glacier at about 5100 mts and in the right spot. Here the glacier is pure ice and snow, but there are small patches of snow before so one can get confused. Then we got crampons and axes and went up. The path was marked, a highway I would say, with some sections of about 40 degrees good snow, but no mystery, just the challenging altitude.
The few obstacles to negotiate were huge crevasses and scary snow bridges. The wind was anyway strong, but the route crossed also inside some of these crevasses so protection and relief could be found. Finally we arrived to Yanasasha at about 5:30 AM. Here there is a big rimaye and one can get inside and rest. It is also a good point to leave gear that one does not need in order to gain the summit, and also a bivouac place for doing an inner and outer traverse of the summit rims. We drank and ate, and then we went to the summit. At the exit of Yanasasha the wind was very strong so we took care on our steps, and then we gained a very steep section, about 55 degrees, to the summit. At the end of it, it was necessary to cross a much deteriorated rimaye / berschground, but at the time we climbed (Jan 2003) it did not represent any trouble. The rimaye has, however, rests of several ladders that were installed in the past. Now these are like 30 mts high in the ice!
Annica did not expect ice and wind in the summit of Cotopaxi. She could not see the crater!!
The arrival to the summit was no problem, but we were fully covered with snow and ice. Also, we were very sad because the fog did not let us see the crater of the Cotopaxi …so we went down, I lowered Annica and then down climbed the big rimaye, and then we went down to the hut, picked up our gear and then went to the parking lot where the car was waiting for us with the rest of our gear. Then we were dropped in the highway and took a bus to Quito .