Volcán Iliniza Sur

December 19-20, 2022


Machachi, Ecuador

Volcán Iliniza has two peaks – Norte/North and Sur/South. The south peak is the taller of the two but both peaks are listed in the “Ecuador Big Ten” projects. The north peak is considerably easier and is regularly used as an acclimatization objective. The south peak requires technical snow/ice climbing even by the easiest route, and is served only for the experienced mountaineers. Prior to this trip I was only aware of Iliniza Norte as that one regularly popped on my Social Media feed, but Adam only mentioned Iliniza Sur when planning this trip. I understood as the higher south peak is the one that boasts the prominence of this massif. While Iliniza Norte is a mere scramble that can be done in a day from Quito, the higher Iliniza Sur requires two days with a night spent in the Refugio at 4700 m.

Abraham from our Cayambe climb a few days prior would still be our guide and agreed to pick us up at 10 am. We firstly drove to the company’s office in Machachi to pick up some technical gears including two ice tools for each of us. This was the only climb in this entire Ecuador trip that required ice tools so we didn’t want to bring our own in order to lighten the travel loads. I had concerns about the quality of their ice tools as I had seen the heavy and outdated models used by the Peruvian guides, but the tools offered here weren’t actually that bad. I picked two tools that looked somehow similar to the Black Diamond Cobras. They were definitely a bit on the heavy side by the nowadays North American standards but I was overall satisfied. We then drove to the park’s office by the small village of Chaupi to fill in some paper work. The standard road to the trail-head seemed to be washed out so we diverted through some private lands. Unlike on Cayambe the refugio here couldn’t be accessed by driving, and Abraham told us the approach would normally take 3 hours on foot. Our guiding company offered the horse service to carry our gears for 80 dollars round trip and we gratefully accepted. One thing that I really sucked at the altitude is to carry the heavy pack and I learnt that gradually through the previous few high-altitude trips. I would use horses, donkeys, sherpas and porters anywhere possible, as long as the price is reasonable, though my definition of “reasonable” might not be reasonable in your book. Two girls from Colorado showed up after having walked the entire access road from Chaupi. The taxi driver refused to drive them farther and they definitely did not have the luxury of guiding services, nor a private 4×4 driver. They were planning to climb Iliniza Norte and we ended up eventually sharing the experience of a bulk part of this trip together with them.

Iliniza Sur standard route. GPX DL

The approach was a rather boring one and gains about 800 m elevation in several kilometers. We met several groups of scramblers descending from Iliniza Norte and we did not meet anyone who had climbed, or planned to climb Iliniza Sur. There were again, numerous small trails next to the main trail (sometimes rather a road), and Abraham knew where exactly to take the short-cuts. There was some weather developing behind us near El Corazón and that quickly turned into a furious thunderstorm. In short time we also ascended into the clouds and it started to rain and hail, though lightly. We could hear thunders several times per minute behind us, and we hoped that would never come actually towards us. I think we got lucky as the precipitation remained very light for the rest of the approach to the refugio. We also sped up and made to the refugio in under 2 hours from the trail-head. The two girls were definitely fast especially considering their heavy packs as we never caught up to them. This refugio isn’t as luxurious as the one on Volcán Cayambe but was still roomy enough for 15+ people. We never had that many climbers coming up for the night. In addition to my team and the girls we had two or three more small groups showed up in the next few hours and that’s it. The weather cleared up magically around sunset and Adam and I decided to join the girls for a short stroll towards Norte/Sur saddle mostly just to stretch the legs. The 4 of us came back half an hour later right in time for dinner. As usual each hut in Ecuador seems to have a professional and dedicated chef. All we needed was to eat and then rest. I wished we have this kind of services in North America (huts, chefs, horses, porters etc.). Unfortunately nope..

A glimpse of view of Iliniza Norte through the clouds
Abraham leading the way
One of the few groups descending from Iliniza Norte
The weather was definitely moving in as we ascended higher
The horse driver and us crossed path not far from the hut
A few hours later the weather magically cleared
This is the Refugio, home for the night..
Socializing at the hut.
The Colorado girls (Riley and Zoe) starting the plod towards Norte/Sur col
A glimpse of view of Iliniza Sur, my objective for the next day
The girls on Iliniza Norte/Sur saddle
We went beyond the saddle
We went further to see this alpine lake. Worth it? Not too sure…
Zoe and Adam plodding back towards Norte/Sur saddle
This is probably a fox looking for food…
It’s dinner time in the hut, All groups had arrived.
It seems like the norm to have this fish-with-bones kind of dinner

Abraham informed us to wake up at 3 am to get going by 4 am. Adam decided to scramble Iliniza Norte instead at the last minute so it was only Abraham and I heading out. All other climbs in the hut were also planning to do the Norte. I followed Abraham’s lead across some rolling terrain due west to under some imposing cliffs. The trails were actually well defined. We traversed across some talus and snow and donned crampons and rope right in front of the first crux – a pitch of volcanic choss with crampons on. The pitch appeared daunting but turned out easier than I thought. Abraham simply soloed it and gave me a belay from a rock horn. The hardest moves were actually at the beginning (class 4) but the rest was at most class 3. The rocks were also not as loose as they appeared, likely because the loose shits had been cleaned by the traffics over the years. We then ascended diagonally up a low-angled snow field to the base of the second crux – a full pitch of glacial ice at 60+ degrees. This is the one spot on this route that I really appreciated having a guide with me as leading alpine ice isn’t my specialty. Abraham had done this climb hundreds of times so he danced up placing only one or two ice screws and informed me to leave those screws behind for the return. This was a bit of an interesting strategy that I did not understand until a few hours later on the descent. Nonetheless I did what exactly he wanted me to do. After the crux ice pitch we had 3 more pitches of 45+ degress “snice”. I felt comfortable to solo this kind of terrain but we were doing good on time, so Abraham still gave me belays using vertically-placed pickets.

Abraham starting the lead of that crux ice pitch
Above the ice pitch now, Abraham continuing the lead
Looking back at Iliniza Norte. We could see a streak of headlamps there
As you can see here, the route is very steep and complicated
Abraham leading the 3rd or the 4th pitch of snice above the crux

The end of this stretch of climbing was on a lip of a crevasse and we sat there to take the first break. The sky’s also becoming brighter that head-lamps were no longer required. I offered to lead above this crevasse as the terrain should be mostly easy but Abraham caught up and passed me soon. Abraham was simply too fast to be dragged behind. The route steepened considerably on the uppermost 100 m elevation (40+ degrees) but by this point it was mostly just snow climbing. We popped out onto the crater and spent 10 minutes to don sun protection before proceeding the final slope onto the true summit. The views were magnificent as we really got lucky with the weather. We could see Volcán Cotopaxi erupting to the east with a sea of low clouds underneath. Those on Iliniza Norte seemed to be still ascending but they likely started at least 1 hour later. Abraham said the standard time to climb Iliniza Sur is 4 hours from the hut but we did it in 2 hours 40 minutes or something like that.

We eventually made to the lip of this crevasse and called for a break
A sideways view from where we took the break.
I took over the lead for a short while afterwards
Abraham plodding across a wide and gentle bench of snow
Abraham nearing the crater rim now
An impressive view of the low clouds and Cotopaxi from the crater rim
This is the northern sub-summit if Iliniza Sur. Our route bypassed it.
Looking back at Iliniza Norte which now looked smaller
Abraham and the final push onto the true summit
Summit Panorama from Iliniza Sur. Click to view large size.
The shadow of the Ilinizas to the west
Volcán Antisana is that tallest volcano in the far distance
Looking over that sub-summit towards El Corazón, Volcán Pichincha etc.
A closer look at the erupting Volcán Cotopaxi, second highest in Ecuador
Looking down onto the low clouds. This picture has some Peruvian feels
Me on the summit of Iliniza Sur
Another photo of me on the summit of Iliniza Sur

We lingered on the summit for almost an hour as we were ahead of schedule, but eventually had to descend. As usual on the descents I would lead in front and Abraham would hold me back from behind. The 40+ degrees slopes were a bit too steep for me to plunge down so I did some of the upper route by down-climbing facing into the slopes. Abraham of course, did not have to do that. For that 200-m icy wall I told Abraham that I felt comfortable to down-climb without a belay until that crux ice pitch, so we did that. I could see that Abraham descended most parts of this wall while facing outwards, and that was a tad impressive. Nearing the crux ice pitch I started to drive some pickets into the slope for running belay. I thought we would eventually rappel that ice pitch but Abraham informed me to keep down-climbing. I now finally understood why we chose to leave those ice screws behind as even the original plan was to down-climb and my job was to clip into those screws to Abraham could have a bit of protection when he came down. I had never down-climbed alpine ice at this steepness but it was actually not that difficult. For that initial rock pitch we again, opted to down-climb instead of rappelling so we did the entire descent in a timely manner. We got back to the refugio earlier than any of those Iliniza Norte climbers. The two girls showed up 20 minutes later and informed us that Adam had descended another route to meet up back at the trail-head. Everyone else was farther back on the Norte and would need a while to get back to the hut.

A cool tarn showed up under Cotopaxi, from back to crater rim
One last look at Iliniza Norte before committing to the technical descent
Abraham down-climbing the 200-m wall of snow and snice
Abraham down-climbing the crux 60-degree ice pitch
Abraham with our route behind
Abraham halfway down that rock pitch
Down-climbing the 4th class moves
Iliniza Norte from below the technical climbing sections
Picking up the well-defined trail
Almost back to the hut now. Volcán Antisana in the far distance
Some kinds of interesting plants in front of the hut

    While waiting for the chef to make a massively luxurious breakfast I did my multi-tasking thing to pack up the sleeping gears. I originally promised to the girls that we would descend all together so that they could squeeze into our vehicle for at least the ride down to Chaupi or even possibly back to Quito, but Adam and I never told Abraham this plan. Abraham now refused my suggestion and asked me to get ready as quickly as possible, so that’s a bit unfortunate. The two of us then rushed out, loaded the shits onto the horse and dashed down the trail. The descent was so boring that I opted to listen to music for the whole time. By the time we got back to the trail-head Adam was only waiting for about 10 minutes and the horse also didn’t get here until about 15 minutes ago. The rest of the drive back to Quito was rather uneventful. The following day was another supposed rest day but Adam and I somehow decided to dumpster-dive in the city of Quito. The high point of Park Guangüiltagua boasts over 100 m prominence but we were told it locates in an area with high risks of robbery and vandalism. Adam opted to put his phone into his shoes while I simply left every piece of valuables (including my phone) in the room before heading out, so there’s no picture from this short walk. The area indeed felt unsafe. We even met a policeman ferrying people on his motorcycle for safety…

    A review shot of the Refugio at 4700 m elevation
    Looking back at our objective, Iliniza Sur
    Abraham leading the hike-out at a rather furious pace
    Volcán Cotopaxi has now turned almost completely black..
    Abraham told me this is an Andean flower
    A wider view of El Corazón (The Heart)
    One last look at Iliniza Sur. It sure looks technical from all sides…
    Our horse drive arrived only 10-15 minutes earlier than us…
    One last look at Volcán Cotopaxi
    Double dinners in Nora
    We also found cool desserts in a chocolate shop