Illiniza Sur is part 2 of 4, in Ecuador the Hard Way
Technical Climb Info:
- Mountain: Illiniza Sur
- Elevation: 5,248m
- Route: Normal Route
- Length: 600m
- Grade: AD+ (assez difficile, fairly difficult), AI3-4
The main Illiniza attraction
Nacho and I had just successfully climbed Illiniza Norte the previous day. We were happy to do it in good style and good time, especially for the rapid acclimatization schedule that I was on.
Illiniza Sur, Illiniza Norte’s far less popular yet much more difficult sibling, was our main objective. Up until 2009, there were two routes up Illiniza Sur, with the most popular route being La Rampa. As of 2017, La Rampa is pretty much just a melted out rock shooting gallery, so we would be using the other route. Funnily enough, nobody really seems to remember what the current route used to be called back when there were two routes.
Freddy knew that we were planning to climb early the following morning, so he cooked up a storm. It actually made me feel like he was kind of holding out on us for the past couple days. To our surprise, another team called into the hut to book a couple beds and were also planning on climbing the same route we would be. That was a surprise. By the nature of the route, it wouldn’t be ideal for one party to be below another party. We planned to simulclimb the majority of the route in order to be off the mountain before the sun-baked rock walls turned into a bowling alley that plays for keeps. The last thing we wanted was to be simulclimbing under another party getting showered on by their ice and rock debris.
Mom, I can’t sleep
We hit our sleeping bags at 7pm with our alarms set for 3am. I opted to take a quarter pill of Diamox, rather than a full pill, so I wouldn’t have to pee as often. That turned out to be a bad choice. Without the Diamox, I ended up waking up at 12am, unable to fall back asleep. In hindsight, waking up a few times to pee is a lot better than not sleeping.
I was still awake when 3am rolled around, but Nacho’s alarm didn’t go off. The other group had no signs of being waking up either, so I figured I would give Nacho a few more minutes of sleep. By 3:20am, I figured Nacho’s alarm was probably never going to ring, and I’d wake him up in the most polite fashion I could think of – I turned on my headlamp. He woke up in seconds and started changing. I think Freddy was already awake because he immediately popped into action and began boiling water.
As Nacho and I were changing, the other group woke up – a young Canadian woman and her guide, Eddie. They arrived pretty late the day before se we had not yet met them. They joined us for breakfast, and turned out to be pretty cool. Eddie was clearly happy to have an attractive woman as a client. They had still had not geared up, so we managed to get out before them. We win!
A slow start
Now, we aren’t complete asses relegating them to get showed on by our debris all day. There is actually a variation to the route that runs parallel to the main route. It is a little more direct as well, making it a tiny bit faster. The reason of what makes it is faster is the problem though, it spends the majority of the climb under a large serac that sits almost directly below the line to the summit. We, on the other hand, would be climbing to the left of the serac and then traversing over it to join up with the line to the summit. It makes for a longer climb, but offers more safety. In reality, the serac has sat there without falling for a long time, but we preferred the added difficulty to the added risk.
Nacho and I began the morning feeling not so hot. I was feeling the lack of sleep (and oxygen), and Nacho had an upset stomach from who knows what. After about 20 minutes, we began moving with fewer grunts and groans, and our psych started to build for the climb.
“This thing is bigger than I thought”
We hit our first bit of real climbing early on while gaining the face. A little wall composed of a frozen medley of scree, rock, ash, and ice. Nacho is a superb climber, and while the fall factor was not very significant, the quality of the medley made me a little scared for him. He got up top after some careful climbing and gave me a belay. Sparks flew with every swing of my axe and kick of my crampons. It was off-putting, to say the least. I could confirm that it was indeed scary. We made a mental note that on our way down, downclimbing this section would be unacceptable.
After an additional mixed pitch which was actually enjoyable, we gained the bottom of the face. “Woah, this thing is bigger than I thought.” Standing there at the below this nasty face with overhanging seracs and huge rocks looming overhead reminded me of looking up towards Mount Baker’s Coleman Headwall. I honestly thought that this was supposed to be a casually fun warmup climb, not a Grade IV ice wall. I guess I didn’t do my research.
I think the confusion for me laid in the fact that of the few organizers that climb Illiniza Sur, they seem to usually offer it as an acclimatization climb for Antisana. No offense to Antisana, it’s a great climb, but it is not even close to being as demanding as what I was staring up at. Not in the same league whatsoever.
You dirty climb..
As I mentioned earlier, our plan was to simulclimb the face, then move into glacier travel mode above the looming serac of epicness, and then finally simulclimb whatever steep sections came about that to the summit. Nacho and I had a really good experience simulclimbing Artesonraju a few months before, and our speed managed to save up from enduring the significant majority of a pretty bad storm.
We began moving, but with our first swings at the wall, we realized that this ice was not the ice we were looking for. It was dirty plated ice, filled with scree, mixed with ash from Cotopaxi, covered with a half inch of brittle ice crust. Not a show stopper though, and it looked like it would get better above us soon. We began climbing. We moved slowly and deliberately through this section of dirty ice. However, as we got higher and higher, we realized that this was not just a section – this was the whole face. Both of us were still using our single classic picked hybrid axes, and things began feeling sketchy. Really really sketchy. I came to a patch where I just kept battering my pick into the ice with no avail. My calves started to tense up, my heart started to race, and my confidence of not falling plummeted from 100% to… far less than 100%. “Dude, I’m putting in a screw!”, I yelled up. His head space quickly matched mine and I could see him brace. I have never been so happy to have splurged on the most expensive ice screws on the market, because they zipped right into the ice and we were on belay.
My brain’s swing between the fear of peeling off the face to being safe put me into massive hyperventilation. It felt good. I looked up, and Nacho had a couple screws in for himself. “Nacho, buddy, I think we need some running belays here or we gotta pitch this thing out”, I yelled up. “I was thinking the same thing”, Nacho yelled back.
Note: The photos and videos here do not accurately depict the poor quality or angle of the ice. We climbed most of the bad stuff in the dark. If you are planning to attempt this climb, two ice tools would be a far superior option.
Are we there yet? Yes!
After a minute of collecting ourselves and pulling out our technical tools, Nacho lead the first pitch of the morning. Ironically, the glacier began to ease off pretty dramatically, and very soon we found ourselves walking. We had simulclimbed the majority of the face in the dark much faster than expected and did not realize it until now. Well, we had a couple pitches for good measure, I guess.
Although the terrain eased up, there was still a good amount of overhead hazard, so we kept moving as fast as my unacclimatized lungs would allow. Within about 30 minutes, we found ourselves on a little saddle, clear of all hazards, looking at the summit just a few meters away from us. We took a long break, a super long break. We both relived ourselves of bodily byproducts, we drank some tea, and I popped a Gu in anticipation for the descent. We pranced up to the summit, hugged, and took photos. This was Nacho and my 3rd summit together. We had good weather all the way through, which is a blessing in Ecuador.
The plan was to rappel down the entirety of the face and then have an easy walk back to the hut. We had summited faster than anticipated, so we were feeling confident that we could beat the sun induced rockfall towards the base of the route.
We brought 2 ropes to speed things up, and planned to make v-threads all the way down. Pretty standard. As we made our way down, we saw our new Canadian friend and her guide, Eddie, pop out above us and begin their descent as well. Eddie yelled down that they were going to use our rappel line as a hand line. He lowered his client down while she used our rope for guidance. I think Eddie was trying to impress his attractive client by showing off his alpine skills a little bit, because he then opted to downclimb the section himself without touching our rope at all. Haha, go for it buddy.
We pulled the rope to set up the next rappel. It didn’t budge. We pulled on it together. Still stuck. “Okay, pull on three. 1, 2, 3!” Nothing, nada. “Dammit.” Nacho pulled out his ice tool and I handed him mine. He soloed up to check out what was going on above, only to realize that we put the knot joining our ropes in between our two v-threads. Noob mistake on our parts. On the bright side, I learned a lot of new Spanish swear words.
After that little snafu, we set up another rappel and off we went. We got down. Anchored in. Pulled the rope. Again, it didn’t budge. Are you kidding me?! At least this time it was not our fault. From below we could see something orange sitting out of the glacier with our rope wrapped around it. Again, Nacho grabbed his ice tool. I handed him mine. And he soloed up to free our rope. Apparently somebody stuck a soda bottle into the glacier, probably years ago, and with the glacier melting, the neck and cap of the soda bottle started protruding out of the ice. After he got back down, we figured we wouldn’t give the mountain another shot at keeping us, and that the terrain was easy enough for us to downclimb the rest.