Illiniza Norte Or How I Ended Up Rock Climbing After All

Cotopaxi from the hut at Illiniza Norte
Cotopaxi from the hut at Illiniza Norte

Some of you may remember that one reason we ended up in Ecuador instead of the Grand Teton was our conclusion that we preferred mountaineering to rock climbing. (See “Cotopaxi, Ecuador – 180 Degree Turns.”)  So it was somewhat inexplicable that I nonetheless found myself on July 1 hanging on for dear life to an ice encrusted basalt wall with my left hand, ski pole in my right and nothing but an almost vertical drop of rocks below. Oh, and this was at about 16,000 feet. And did I mention no ropes?

Illiniza Norte is one of the two Illiniza peaks (the other, obviously, is Sud), and is a common acclimatization hike in preparation for Cotopaxi. It reaches about 16,500 feet, and is the taller of the two forked peaks in the right in the photo. Its sister peak, on the left, is much more technical and is covered in snow.

The Illiniza Peaks
The Illiniza Peaks

It was about a three hour hike to the mountain hut where we were to stay for our ascent of Illiniza Norte so we left in early morning. After fighting through Quito traffic, we followed modern highways for a while until we abruptly turned off to cobble stone roads, still in the same condition as in the 1940s when Ossy thought they were originally built. Jaw breaking and winding is an understatement. More on that later.  We passed through several small villages, stopping at one to drop off things we wouldn’t need on the hike. Once we parked the car near the trailhead, we met up with the two men who took our supplies up to the hut on horses. Each day the horses plod up to the hut with full loads and bring trash back.  Despite the routine, they seem quite content with their rather proletariat role in life.
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The mountain hut is primitive – but there are flushing toilets, even if you do have to go outside to get to them. There’s a series of about four bunk beds, going up to a triple level, a small eating area and a tiny kitchen. No electricity. We were the only people there, and, in fact, the only climbers on the mountain the next day. That night we were treated to a spectacular sunset with a full moon. The entire Avenue of Volcanoes was visible, including the white capped isosceles triangle of Cotopaxi.

We got up at 5 for an early morning departure. The weather cleared as we hiked. There was more snow than normal, and many of the rocks were encrusted with icicles. I was glad of my climbing helmet since I hit my head several times on wide swathes of ice sticking out from the rocks I was trying to hold on to.

There are several sections of rock, the most difficult probably the one right below the summit. We climbed up through a chimney, along exposed ledges – and all without ropes. Ossy very carefully instructed where to place hands and feet and how to balance – and ultimately we did make it to the summit which is marked by a metal cross. But that wasn’t before a bowling ball sized rock hurtled down from the top in J’s general direction, followed by a smaller one in his more specific direction. Fortunately, no injuries. We now know the best way to react to rockfall (besides not experiencing it in the first place!) is to make yourself as small as possible. Sort of an airline crash position.

Summit of Illiniza Norte - that's the summit cross that appears to be sticking out of my head
Summit of Illiniza Norte – that’s the summit cross that appears to be sticking out of my head

Coming down was exhausting and Ossy roped me in after I slipped twice. I think I’d burned up a lot of nervous energy on the ascent – not to mention physical. And we not only had to descend and get back to the hut – there was still the three hour hike back to the parking lot ahead of us, and then a couple of hours to drive to our next stop, the Hacienda Chilcabamba, outside Cotopaxi National Park.

For someone who actually froze on the stairs of the Eiffel Tower and who still has recurring dreams about being stuck on the old swinging bridge on Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina, reaching this summit was huge. But it also reminded me that figuring out how to get down from summits is just as important as going up them.

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Training Up on the Roof

 

Up on the roof - with hibiscus below
Up on the roof – with hibiscus below

In passing, I’ve previously mentioned a fear of heights – in fact, it played a role in the decision not to climb the Grand Teton. I’ve downplayed it to avoid the inevitable queries about why someone with any such concern would decide mountain climbing was for them. But occasionally that fear rears its head again, like the proverbial dragon waking up in its cave. And I realize that each time I set off for a new summit, vertical drops provide their own very special form of challenge (or torture).  It goes back to kindergarten when on my way to the second floor of the building I somehow slipped between the steps of the fire escape style metal staircase, just catching myself before I fell. I was a skinny child. I didn’t say much to anyone about it, but I remember it to this day.

Year later, when I was about 13, my family made a trip to Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina, where my father walked my brother and me over the swinging bridge that crosses a gorge several hundred feet below. I still have never told anyone how completely paralyzed I felt on that bridge, but one of my repeated anxiety dreams (aside from the one where you have to take an exam in a class that you forgot to attend) is of being on a high, narrow bridge with no rails, unable to move forward or back.

So, yesterday when my husband (now known as J) and I decided the time had come to clean the skylights on our house, I clambered up the ladder after him. (The roof really is a bit steeper than the photo shows.)  As soon as I put my foot down on the sloping roof every fear I’d had was triggered – what in the world would prevent me from simply sliding right back down and onto the patio below. I started to think about the angles of Cotopaxi – and, if we do it, Chimborazo – and thought, well, if you’re having a hard time on your own roof top you aren’t going to do very well there. So I took a deep breath, trusted in the grip of my tennis shoes, and bribed myself with the promise of the great view I would have of the neighborhood and everyone else’s backyards.

And it worked. By the time we were done I was skipping around on the roof – if not like a mountain goat at least like one of those mules that go up and down the Grand Canyon.

But, you know what? Last night I still dreamed about walking on a narrow ledge at the very top of a multi-level mall. I had to hold on to some sort of rope and half way along the ledge drop one rope and pick up another. I did really well on one side of the mall, but when I had to cross the ledge on the other side, I found myself saying to the anonymous, but stern, guides, I’d just prefer to do this tomorrow.

Still some work to be done before Cotopaxi!