Hiking matters #458: The ascent of Illiniza Norte (5126m) in the Ecuadorian Andes

AVENIDA DE LOS VOLCANES – Having acclimatised for five days, with 4698m my highest point thus far in this trip, I accepted the challenge of climbing Illiniza Norte, at 5126m one of the high peaks of the Ecuadorian Andes. There are two Illinizas – Norte and Sur – with the latter more challenging to hike because of the glaciers at the top. Illiniza Norte, however, can still be a tough challenge, with the snow and loose boulders at the top.

From our basecamp, I was accompanied by my guide Jaime Valdez, an accomplished mountaineer who has summitted Aconcagua thrice! It was already 0930H when we reached the trailhead and started the hike. Just like Rucu Pichincha, it was initially grassland with beautiful flowers, including the yellow chuquiraguas. The trail was clearly marked and in terms of cleanliness and maintenance, at par with those of Switzerland.

After 1.5 hours of the grassland, however, we were confronted by a scree slope of several hundred meters. As in many scree slopes, for every one step forward, you also make half a step backwards as the rocks slide through. It reminded me a lot of Stok Kangri in the Indian Himalayas. I knew that there was no way but to persevere – even as the cheap, foldable trekking pole I bought in Amazon.com broke halfway!

Eventually, we reached a saddle, where, after donning helmets and harnesses, we proceeded to do the few hundred feet before the summit. The rocks were somewhat loose and cold: some were laced with snow and ice. But it was manageable. Finally, at 1344H (0444H + 1 day PH time) we reached the summit of Illiniza Norte!

As is often the case with high peaks, one could only stay for a short time. After a bit of a clearing and some photos, we descended carefully through the loose rocks and rested for a while at the saddle. It was, come to think of it, our first real rest (i.e. > 3 minutes) throughout the whole hike. (The guide, of course, is perpetually acclimatised, while for my part I’m always worried about the weather so I just participated in the non-stop march up.)

What came next was fun: the scree slope that probably took us a couple of hours going up took no more than 30 minutes going down, as we let gravity the work. All that was needed was for us to move dynamically, essentially sliding with the rocks that were once the bane of our efforts.

After the rocks, the grassland was practically a cool down. Surprisingly, the skies were even a bit clearer compared to earlier, and I felt blessed that I haven’t had a raindrop so far in all my hikes (to think that May was supposed to be “rainy”!). By 1620H we had reached the trailhead. In its entirety the hike took 6 hours 50 minutes — which I felt was not bad considering that I usually move slow on altitude.

I was back in my basecamp an hour later, very thankful for the outcome of the hike. Breaching 5000 meters once more gives me confidence for the challenge that lies ahead. Meanwhile, the adventure continues in the easier Volcan Pasochoa (4199m) the next day! Continued in Hiking matters #458.

Hiking matters #456: Volcán Rucu Pichincha
Hiking matters #457: Volcán Quilotoa
Hiking matters #458: Volcán Illinizas Norte
Hiking matters #459: Volcán Pasochoa

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