- December 17, 2017: “Illiniza Sur, the Main Illiniza Attraction”
- February 3, 2021: “Illiniza Sur, Vive en 2021!”
Technical Climb Info:
- Mountain: Illiniza Sur
- Elevation: 5,248m
- Route: Normal Route
- Length: 600m
- Grade (ice): AD+ (assez difficile, fairly difficult), AI3-4
Grade (snow): PD (peu difficile, slightly difficult), moderate snow
DECEMBER 17, 2021 | BY CHRIS COMAIR
Illiniza Sur, the Main Illiniza Attraction
Illiniza Sur, the Main Illiniza Attraction is part 2 of 4, in Ecuador the Hard Way
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.
“… I knew that the trek in would be interesting when we stopped by a hardware store in Quito to buy rubber boots. We also made a quick stop at the grocery store to pick up 30 liters of water as the Campo Italiano has only a trickle of running water. It seems hard to believe at face value, but because the camp sits on a ridge, very little of the glacier melt is directed its way. Yet another reason wonder why this climb is unpopular, I guess.” [read full, El Altar, The Modern Italian Route]
February 3, 2021 | BY CHRIS COMAIR
Illiniza Sur, Vive en 2021!
Change OF PLANS! Back BAby!
Coming in from 5 days on El Altar, 2 of them being harrowing, I was exhausted. A single rest day wasn’t enough, but that’s all we could really take if I wanted to join Jessica and David on their next climb. They had not succeeded to climb Illiniza Sur a few days prior due to poor avy conditions, turning around at around 5100m. Jess had messaged me on the inReach asking if I thought it would be possible to change up our plans a bit so they could re-attempt it. The permitting this season in the parks was pretty strict, but Nacho thought that with a persuasive enough call directly to the park warden, he might be able to bend the timeline. Nacho was persuasive enough, and we managed to get some last-minute permits.
Nacho and David met us at our hotel at a casual meetup time, 11am. We loaded gear up and drove through some particularly terrible midday Quito traffic. We stopped to have lunch and pick up some locally dried fruit on the way. (The dried golden berries are insane.)
“GUYS, DO WE HONESTLY THING THIS IS GOING TO HAPPEN?”
I had been to this parking lot before a few years ago, but this time the weather was not welcoming whatsoever. Rain was pouring hard enough that the trail above had turned into a mini-stream, and the cracks of thunder were so frequent that they just blended together into one single rumble. We sat in the car and kind of laughed. The weather had been bad, but this felt like the culmination. We could see a few other groups in their cars as well, hopelessly looking at the sky. Our horses stood by, soaking wet with equally hopeless looks in their eyes.
I checked Mountain Forecast and it actually looked pretty good for the following day. But looking up at the sky, it seemed like a trick. I didn’t want to almost die in more avalanches again. “Guys, do we honestly thing this is going to happen?”
Nacho, playing the optimist, “I think I saw a bit of break in the clouds! We are here anyways.” Plus, our plan for bad snow would be to climb the (very brittle) ridge of the peak, we packed rock gear just in case.
The walk was relatively uneventful and less than wet than expected. We caught glimpses of the Illiniza Norte through the clouds, and it was nice to chat with Jessica in the mountains without the assistance of inReaches.
Iliniza Hut 2.0
We didn’t quite push it to get to the hut fast, but I did want to be the first group the get there. While massively renovated since the last time we where here, the Illiniza Hut is still pretty small and rudimentary compared to other huts in the region. And while it apparently no longer drips with condensation on the top bunks, there are clear better and worse beds to be in. I wanted to claim the better ones. There was also still an active pandemic in the world, and I wanted a bed with the most ventilation possible.
We arrived ahead of the other groups and grabbed a few beds by the doors and windows. The hut was indeed a lot nicer than before, they did a lot of finishing work and the kitchen had its own room with a really proper range hood. No more fumes venting into the sleeping area!
We unpacked and repacked and headed off to the dining are to eat some of Freddy’s (the hut warden’s) famous fried trout. I really do like his trout, and I was glad that he hadn’t changed the menu since 2017. It turned out that one of the teams was Russian/Seattle-based, and we all happened to live a few minutes away from each other. Another friendly Mexican fellow shared our company. It was a classic hut experience- a lot of joking and laughing through the afternoon and night.
Familiar location, different climb
3:10am, Jessica woke me up. I guess I didn’t set my alarm. Damn, it was cold for being indoors. A good sign for the snow though.
We geared up and got out fairly quickly, venturing off onto the familiar path from a few years ago. There was a ton more snow than I recalled, even traces of avalanches were apparent. Surprising considering this was totally dry a few years ago.
Getting to what I recalled being a sparks-flying mixed section of rock and frozen screen, solid snow filled the path upwards. Hmmm this is a lot more mellow than I expected. There was a shoddy fixed line dangling, a braided plastic rope that reminded me of the scraps my mom would tell me not to play with at the grocery stores in Vancouver’s Chinatown. I would not jug that line.
We kept booting up, this time the face totally covered in perfect neve. My mind was totally blown, because I distinctly remembered front pointing over ice for a few hundred vertical meters here. We kept on booting, and the perfect neve continued on and on. Well, it’s not as hard, but maybe that’s a good thing today.
A nice day, finally
We stepped onto a plateau, somewhere around where Jessica and David had turned back a few days ago. The stars were still out, and we could see the city in the distance. I distinctly remembered watching the sun rise from here a few years ago. Last time I had been tired after a couple hours of front pointing, this time I enjoyed the view.
After our brief break and allowing the sun to rise a little bit, we decided to tackle the upper slopes- still snow ahead. We plodded upwards, with the sun peaking out and the wind only slightly picking up. The weather really was perfect today.
I remembered some rocky icy ridge scrambling should have been here, hell I had just watched my own video with it. But this time it was all covered in snow. It felt like a totally different climb. If it wasn’t for the view of the mountain, I would have actually assumed we were on a different mountain. It was a reminder of how fluid these peaks are, and that we should never know really what to expect.
We popped onto the summit in as perfect weather as possible. The clouds loosely hung below us, with the other truly massive volcanoes looking like sentinels in the distance. In a way it reminded me of the summits a home, but at the same time so exotically different. We hung out for a while, picking out obscure rarely repeated climbing routes on the massive volcanoes. We took photos, ate, chatted and laughed. Coming back 4 years late, I was deeply happy to share this experience with Jessica.