Ecuador Day 7 – Illiniza Norte (16,817 ft)

Ilinizas Map
The Map

The Misty Ridge of Iliniza Norte
The Approach

Climber Congo Line up Iliniza Norte
Congo Line at the Top

Clare and Tilden on Summit of Iliniza Norte
The Summit

Our 4th mountain of the week was Illiniza Norte. To climb this mountain, we went roughly 11.5 km with 1,128 m (3,700 ft) of gain. The whole thing took us 7 hours and 10 minutes; including a lengthy stop for tea and another one for lunch.

For the first time during the trip, I had a headache from the altitude. It was just after we crossed 16,000 ft and it disappeared once we began descending. Tilden, on the other hand, finally started feeling good at the altitude and he did awesome.

We were both really happy Rafael knew the route so well. When we got to the top, there were a couple of huge tour groups and we were able to bypass them without roping up. Also, since most of them were stationary on the summit, we didn’t have to worry about them knocking rocks down on top of us while we descended.

We left La Llovizna at 7am. The road to the Ilinizas Ecological Reserve got progressively worse as we drove. Right before we entered the reserve, there was a huge dip in the road with a couple feet of water. Rafael’s Land Rover handled it just fine. Right after this obstacle, there is a fee area with the sign below:

Ilinizas Ecology Reserve
The Iliniza Ecological Reserve Sign (Where Rafael paid the entrance fee).

Tilden at the Iliniza Trailhead
Tilden at the Trail Head

At 7:40am, our car was the 5th one in the lot, which didn’t bode well for us. Rafael seemed a bit tense. I think it was because we were likely going to be sharing the summit with others, rather than having the mountain to ourselves. He told me later there have been 60 or more people climbing on the summit all at once! There have also been fatalities involving slips in a sketchy gully, due to icy conditions and rock fall.

Iliniza Refugio Sign
Follow the Signs to the Refugio, at 15,250 ft

Iliniza Trail Signage
Another sign!

Even though Rafael was in a hurry, I stuck to my standard pace. I really wanted to make the summit, in order to acclimatize for Cotopaxi, so rushing was not a good strategy. While the two guys went ahead, I maintained a 1,000 ft per hour pace and kept the intake of fluid and food steady. For me, it’s important to eat and drink a little bit at a time, as I burn a lot of calories at high altitude.

Time for a Stretch and Snack Break
After an hour of hiking, we had a little stretch break. Rafael was really supportive of stretching breaks in the start and end.

Iliniza Chuquiragua
More Beautiful Chuquiragua!

Respect the Path to Iliniza Refugio!
Respect the path! Since this is an Ecological Preserve, it’s important!

Rafael Leading into the Clouds
1 hour and 20 minutes into the hike. We have about 30 minutes left to get to the Refugio.

Right around 10am, or after 2.5 hours of hiking, we reached the hut (15,250 ft). There were 3 guides hanging out in the hut. They gave us rice and tea, while we took a breather. It was nice to be out of the elements.

Iliniza Norte
Before I step into the hut, I take this picture of Illiniza Norte, with the sun shining!

Rafael couldn’t help but show off and quickly demonstrated how he (at 55) is the fittest. What an entertaining guide! He challenged the younger guides to a contest and they wouldn’t take his $10 bet! I couldn’t help but join in the fun and managed to crank out 3 pull-ups. After I did the first one, I nearly blacked out…but I managed to hang in and do 2 more. After that exertion, I was beat. It’s amazing how tough it is to do pullups above 15,000 ft!

We left the hut at 10:30am and headed for the ridge leading to the North.

Iliniza Sur
As we hiked that way, I admired the beauty and challenge of Illiniza Sur, in picture above. It actually looked like way more fun than Norte, and it was bound to have fewer people on it!

Iliniza Norte
Taken from the same spot as the picture of Illiniza Sur, just looking to my right (north) at our route ahead.

Iliniza Cauldera
Looking towards the Illiniza Cauldera.

Rafael Leading the way up Iliniza Norte
Rafael approaching the ridge. From this spot, it would have taken us 2 hours to reach the summit, had we not been bogged down by the congo line.

Frailejón - High Altitude Member of Sunflower Family
Frailejon – A high altitude member of the sunflower family. I liked the way these plants shimmered.

Fun Scrambling on Iliniza Norte
An hour after leaving the Refugio, we encountered this fun 3rd class bit. (I’m looking back down after I climbed up).

After the scramble, you reach the ridge. On the ridge, I got a headache around 16,000 ft. But, I just kept my rhythm. About 30 minutes after the onset of the headache, I had to traverse the paso de la muerte, would it be snow free?

The guys were waiting for me on the far side of the crux and they encouraged me to speed up. So, I took a little snack, drank some water, and then I was ready to go!

El Paso de la Muerte
Yes, it is free of snow! This is the Paso de la Muerte!

Nearing the Summit of Iliniza Norte
This picture is taken looking forward, from the same spot as the previous picture.

We were then 100 ft below the summit and BAM! just like that, there was a huge clusterphuk, of the likes I had not seen before. In a very 4th class section of sketchy, loose rock, there were 15 people all roped up with their 5 guides plastered all over the cliff. I felt like I was going to hurl, I could just feel an accident on the horizon. Some of these people had no business on this mountain and the guides were doing their best to get things sorted out. Some of them were struggling with their harnesses, helmets, and gear. It was chaos.

Lucky for us, we had Rafael. He marched right up there and shouted up to the head guide. He asked if we could just go by, unroped. So, we did. Rafael went first and he pointed out to Tilden where the good holds were and then Tilden relayed that information to me.

I don’t think Rafael knew that I had caught up to them and he assumed I would be following the masses…But there’s no way I was going to let that happen since they were going so slow. Did I mention that weather conditions were deteriorating?

The Congo Line up Iliniza Norte
So, finally, we passed about 10 people and there were only 6 in front of us.

Tilden Climbing Iliniza Norte
At this point, it was not possible to pass any more people, so we just got in line. Here’s Tilden waiting for his turn to make another move upwards.

It felt like it took a forever to climb those last 20 feet, because everybody in front of us were not climbers. It was really obvious. At that point, I realized that everybody was actually working together. So, even though some of them were uncoordinated and/or inexperienced, the group as a whole was doing okay.

Finally, we made it to the top and Tilden and I scrambled onto the summit. We got our picture and then we turned around immediately and wanted to go down.

Since the large guiding company still had clients coming up, we had to wait until all of them made the summit. While doing so, I grabbed some more food and enjoyed a break. As soon as the last client had come up, I requested that we go down, because I still had a headache. Rafael said goodbye to all his guiding buddies and we quickly descended.

Descending Iliniza Norte in a Hail Storm
What took 30 minutes to go up, took 5 minutes to descend. The one good byproduct to having all those yahoos and their guides was that their guides had fixed ropes. SO, we got to rappel down those ropes, making our descent even that much faster. I was psyched because it was snowing/hailing on us as we descended and the rock was getting slick.

A Look Back at Iliniza Norte
Looking back up at the boot ski!

At around 5,000 meters, we dropped down the North Face of the mountain and spent the next hour completing a 700 meter boot ski down scree! It was the longest boot ski I’ve ever done and it was amazing.

Lunch Break by a Stream
At 4,200 meters, we stopped at a mountain spring for lunch which consisted of canned tuna fish and bread. I’ve never been that hungry at that high of altitude, but on this day I was glad to have a proper lunch.

Fox Footprints in Sand
Fox prints in the sand…earlier I had seen the fox up at the refuge, so it was neat to see it’s tracks!

Cliffs Below Iliniza Norte
I don’t know if they allow climbing in the Reserve, but if they do, these crags might be fun…

After lunch, we had another 1.5 hours hiking to get back to the car. Unfortunately, about 15 minutes from the car, the skies opened up and we got completely drenched by a downpour!

We picked up our stuff at the La Llovizna lodge and then we drove to the Hotel at the base of Cotopaxi, Cuello de Luna (which means the neck of the moon).

Hotel Cuello de Luna
This hotel is a beautiful swiss-inspired lodge. The owner is from Switzerland, so it’s very clean and beautiful.

Relaxing in the Garden at Hotel Cuello de Luna
It has lovely grounds, including a garden and several luxurious porch swings for reading books or napping.

High Altitude Papaya Juice - Fresh Squeezed
The food is also very good and there is even a bar where you can get tropical cocktails, due to the abundance of mango, papaya (like the picture above!), banana, and kiwis!

Cotopaxi from Hotel Cuello de Luna
About an hour after we arrived at the hotel, the sun came out and we got a great view of Cotopaxi. It was overwhelming just how big it is…it reminded me of a bigger, more massive version of Rainier!

Dinner was a veggie frittata, mashed potatoes with cheese, and veggie soup. Rafael supplied the bread. After dinner, Tilden visited with some of the guests and I got some stuff ready for the next day.

Hotel Cuello de Luna Room 12
Our stuff was pretty wet from the Illiniza downpour, so we were happy our room came with a space heater and lots of hooks for hanging things.

Later that night, I checked in with Dennis via Tilden’s phone, and then went to sleep.

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