Iliniza Norte: 5126 meters/ 16,818 feet
8th highest peak in Ecuador
This is the mountain that Tom and Kimberly and I picked to hike this weekend. Friday began our five day holiday break from classes and, while everyone and their mom (literally, a lot of families are here to visit) decided to head to the city of Cuenca for the super long weekend, we decided to go climb mountains for Saturday and Sunday. While bus tickets and hotel rooms were completely booked for Cuenca, we boarded empty buses destined for small towns on the way to our mountain of choice, Iliniza.
We began early Saturday morning by meeting at a bread store to get breakfast and hit the road. We made our way through the trolley and bus terminals of Quito to head to Machachi and then to El Chaupi. In El Chaupi we hopped in the back of a pick-up truck and headed toward the start of the trail that would lead to Iliniza.
On the bus ride there we looked out the windows anxiously to see if we could spy our mountain. We caught site of it and immediately knew it was the one. Iliniza used to be one huge volcano. However, the crater split a long time ago and now there are two distinct mountain cousins that are side by side. Iliniza Sur (South) is a mountain defined by snow and glaciers. It is the sixth highest peak in Ecuador and is an extremely technical climb involving guides, ice picks, ropes, etc. Iliniza Norte (North) is a rocky, orange and red mountain that can be climbed without a guide but involves rock scrambling.
So, we arrived at the beginning of the trail that would lead to the refuge that sits on the ridge between the two mountains. We began to hike through what looked like a desert. We were walking through sand mostly which can be hard on the legs. We took a break for lunch and ate our tuna fish and crackers as we surveyed the beautiful view. At that point we could see Cotopaxi, the third highest peak in Ecuador and the one we are hoping to climb in a few weeks. In fact, we stared at it envying its grandeur knowing that this hike was a preparation for that goal. We continued to hike on having to climb a steep and sandy ridge. But we laughed and joked the whole way as we enjoyed talking about experiences in Ecuador and Demetri Martin comedy. We reached the refuge after three hours of climbing. We put our gear down and chose our bunks. This was a tiny, one room refuge with bunks stacked on top of one another and a tiny, tiny kitchen. This refuge could hold twenty five climbers which was amazing. After placing our gear on our bags we decided to hike to the lagoon between the two mountains. This involved climbing on the edge of what felt like moon dust. We were on our hands and knees at times as we climbed along the ridge and looked down into the steep valley. We reached the lagoon which was an eerie bluish green. But it was captivating. Kimberly and I sat and watched the clouds come in the background and the sun begin to set as Tom ran over to touch the snow at the base of Iliniza Sur. The landscape was so beautiful!
We went back the refuge to cook pasta for dinner and to set up our beds. As we ate we talked to the other climbers from all over the world. But soon after eating we all went to bed but not before leaning in to listen to a Demetri Martin comedy soundtrack on Tom's ipod. Sleep was not coming for any of us. At first it was hard to steady my breathing. It is weird to fall asleep when your breathing is altered because of the altitude. Between that and other hikers waking up at two to go hike Iliniza Sur, we did not get much sleep. I got up at about 5:30 to go watch the sunrise. I stepped outside and looked over a world of beautiful deep blue sky that was changing as the sun came up. I looked out and could see three volcanoes in a row. First, Cotopaxi. Second, Antisana. Third, Cayambe. Then, as I looked around Iliniza Sur, I could see Chimborazo, the highest peak in Ecuador which lies about 6-7 hours away! The view was spectacular and I do not know if I could ever fully describe it. Never have I seen the line of volcanoes so distinctly and they looked impressive in the distance. The looked like looming, perhaps sleeping giants and I was in awe of what God has created!
Excited to start hiking we hurriedly ate breakfast and packed. We decided to only take one pack with water and snacks and to rotate it as we climbed. We started to ascend thinking the rock climbing that we were doing was only for the first little part. Little did we know that that was the easy stuff and that it only got worse as we went on. We were climbing on rocks with nothing to our backs besides a cliff that went straight down. The tiny trail of footprints was sometimes very hard to see. At times, there was nothing to grab on to. You had to be careful because many of the rocks were loose and again there was a rocky sand mixture. We also had to watch our heads because sometimes small rocks would slide or fall from above. None of us expected a climb of this kind. We enjoyed the first part and took tons of pictures. But as the climbs got more technical, we did not dare to remove our cameras from our pockets. We needed our hands!
I was climbing in tennis shoes as my hiking boots are at home in the States. This made things all the more dicey for me. At times I was panicking. Never in my life had I done any climbing near what this was like. About 300 feet from the summit I stopped due to the lack of grip on my shoes. That was good enough for me. I was going to sit there and figure out how to get off this mountain while Kimberly and Tom went to the very top. In my mind, I had gotten close enough. But congratulations to then for making it all the way!
We did finally make it down. We stopped for lunch on a ridge and enjoyed the view before heading back to the lodge. After grabbing our gear we headed back down the trail where the pick-up truck was waiting to take us to town. We enjoyed talking and laughing and making other mountain climbing plans on the way home. I arrived at the apartment with dust in every crevice of my body and my gear, with tired legs, and with a sunburned face (even though we had put on 70 that morning). Took a shower and helped my host mom set up the Christmas tree. What day is it? Oh, Happy Halloween!