02 February, 2011

Iliniza Norte

Yesterday was my condensed Iliza Norte climb. Initially we had intended to do this as a two day climb, approaching the hut in the afternoon, spending the night, and leaving in the morning for the summit. Bryce, my guide down here, is battling some kind of cold. Even the relatively "low" climb of Rucu had him feeling lackluster in the energy department, so it was decided he´d rest up for an extra day. No one wants a sick guide.

Tuesday´s one day blitz of Iliniza required we leave Quito at 4:45 in the morning. Luckily no one else was in my hostel room for my 9:30 bedtime and digging around in gear at 4:15 in the morning. Our driver got us to the base of the Ilinizas in about an hour and a half, making excellent use of some Honda truck they don´t make in the states. Lots of switching into 4WD low, and crawling up sandy washed out slopes and crossing rain swelled streams.

We started the gradual approach to the hut at around 6:15 in the morning. Sun was already well up behind us and the twin peaks of Ilinza Norte and Sur (North and South) were lit up against a splitter blue sky. Luckily I snapped a few photos from the lower ridge, it was the last time we´d see clear weather. On the upper ridge that approaches the hut, the trail steepens and turns to loose sand. We made conversation in very short, breathless sentences and switchbacked up a 5 foot wide path for a solid 30 minute push and reaached the hut at about 8:15.

The hut was manned and sold us a gatorade that we split as we talked to a swiss couple in Ecuador traveling and trekking, wishing they had brought ropes and crampons. Eager to get moving, we bid them farewell and they planned to follow us until thing got difficult.

The first part of the climb proper was a mix of steep trail, and some fouth class climbing as we maneuvered around some short walls and made our way higher on the ridge. The ridge line of Iliniza norte curves slightly to the left as you make your way up, and a few detours around pillars had me losing my sense of direction...looking off to the right as Bryce called me back to task behind me to the left. We down climbed a steep section of low 5th class to a snow field and then harnessed and roped up for a mix of snow and rock traverse to a saddle. I hadn´t walked on steep snow for a while, and the exposure to the left of us, along with Bryce´s reminder of "good footwork through here" had me accutely aware of my surroundings a few thousand feet above the base.

Solid snow travel set in, and we once again took a break to crampon up for the Paseo de los Muertes, which means path of the dead, I think. Rucu had a similarly named route, but this was the original. This section was a combination of steep snow, and some mixed ground as we rounded some small rock buttresses. Crossing these fingers or rock was the hardest part as the snow was less deep, and much softer near the warmer rock, and crampon placements felt a little shallow, and the rock didn´t offer much purchase for an axe. Passing them was a balancing act of trusting feet and hugging the narrow rock wall that was pushing you vertical.

One final steep snow section that followed a buttress straigt up led us to a saddle. When we were on the approach, Bryce commented on a wisp of moisture blowing over the summit, like you often see in mountain photos. I didn´t realize the significance of it in otherwise bluebird skies. I learned what it meant when we reached the summit. We had been engulfed in thick, actually soaking fog for the last 45 minutes, but reaching the saddle exposed the source of it all, a solid 40-50 mph wind blowing from the backside of the mountain. Bryce led up a steep rock section, and I followed, enjoying the suprisingly secure feel of crampon points on vertical rock. About 20 feet shy of Bryce, he yelled down through the already strong wind, "Don´t get blown off up here." Simple enough advice to follow.

I popped up to the summit to join Bryce, kind of unaware we were there already. The thick fog, and steepness of the pillars we had been climbing didn´t allow me to see the profile ahead. Suddenly I was up, 16,818 feet above sea level, and saw a cross with various ornaments hanging from it, all covered in about two inches of wind blown rime ice. I through a leg over the summit, Bryce snapped a few photos and yelled to me 3 feet away, ¨Let´s get the hell out of here"

The descent has us downclimb the last few steep pitches, and then continue straight down from one of the dicey buttress crossings. At first, descending involved front pointing and daggering in the axe, moving in loosely belayed pitches with the rope run over a horn. The slope relented its steepness, and eventually we were just stepping sideways foot over foot, axe up hill, and moving unbelayed but roped together. As we descended further and further the snow got softer, and felt deeper as we sunk in, slid a little and performed a controlled stumble for what seemed like forever. It was still pretty steep, and the snow feild dropped off into the fog. Both of our glasses were fogged up from all the moisture, but the sun was still too bright, even through the fog, to remove them. We continued in this half blind kind of walk for at least 45 minutes before the rock and dirt started to appear.

Stripped of gear, now wearing it all on our backs again, we made the hike back to the main trail that we had ascended to the hut, and continued our descent to the trailhead.

Our ascent had gone quickly, summitting just before 10 am, and now down just before noon. We had told the driver 3pm originally, and he thankfully said he´d be early just incase, arriving at 2. I took my boots off, layed down in the sun, bundled up from the wind and ate the lunch Bryce had made. Last time we ate on the summit, but this summit was just not going to allow us to do it, nor did the steep descent. Starving, Bryce´s homemade french toast and cheddar sandwhich was about the best thing I could imagine. We both sprawled out for a nap. I had the ipod out, listening to some Iron and Wine and lookng at the surrounding peaks that had become visible since our morning drop off.

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