Peak(s):  Iliniza Norte - 16818
Date Posted:  12/30/2018
Date Climbed:   12/18/2018
Author:  Greenhouseguy
 Gore Tex and Sleep Deprivation on Iliniza Norte   

Iliniza Norte

16,818 Feet (8th Highest in Ecuador)

Paso de la Muerte Route

Trailhead Elevation at La Virgen parking lot: 12,792 Feet

Class 3

December 18th, 2018

Guide: David Trujillo

Gore Tex and Sleep Deprivation on Iliniza Norte

We got off to a leisurely start on Day 1 of the Iliniza Norte hike. We slept in a little, and had scrambled eggs and cheese toast for breakfast. Leaving from the Quito suburb of Tababela, we made it to Machachi by lunch time. Machachi is not the garden spot of Ecuador; the poverty was a little easier to spot than it was in Quito. We found a nice place for lunch, and we sat next to a window so David could keep an eye on his vehicle. Hiking gear is an attractive target for thieves.


Gear for Iliniza Norte: helmet, sleeping bag, food, water, extra layers, climbing harness (optional)

From Machachi, we drove through Chaupi to get to the headquarters for the Reserva Ecológica Los Ilinizas. Admission to the reserve is free, but we had to register to stay in the Refugio Nuevos Horizontes for the night. The cook for the refuge (Fredy “El Gato” Flores) was at the headquarters, and needed a ride to the trailhead with his heavy load of fuel for the generator and food for the guests. Fredy hikes from the trailhead to the hut with a similar load every day.

Interpretive sign at the reserve headquarters

I had read that the hike from the La Virgen parking lot up to the refuge was an easy one, but that was not at all true. It is a wide, well-defined trail and there is ample scatological evidence that it is used by horses or mules. Hiking from the lot at 12,792 feet up to the refuge at 15,510 feet with a heavy pack required a great deal of effort. The effort increased a bit when we hiked into the mist and a light rain began to fall. I put on my waterproof Gore Tex shell and wrapped my sleeping bag in my backpack rain cover. Spending the night at 15,000+ feet was going to be rough enough even with a dry sleeping bag; I didn’t need to make matters worse.

David (L) and Fredy (R) hiking up to the refuge in the rain

We finally arrived at our destination, drenched and a little worse from wear and tear. The refuge is just below the saddle between the north and south summits of Iliniza. The unheated facility has bunks, a kitchen, and flush toilets. It certainly beats sleeping in a tent, though that option is also available for hardier souls.

The Nuevos Horizontes Refugio in the mist
A closer look at the refuge

Once we were inside the refuge, I staked out my bunk and started to spread gear out to dry. I had little confidence that my shell would be dry by morning, but that was of little consequence because only the outside was wet. My fleece was also damp, but I planned to dry it out by sleeping with it inside my sleeping bag. It was perfectly dry by first light.

David at the kitchen counter inside the refuge
Native plants (Senecio niveoaureus) outside of the refuge
Iliniza Norte’s summit hiding in the clouds

A few other hikers showed up to keep us company; there was a solo German hiker, a Norwegian whom I had met the day before on Rucu Pichincha, and a multinational team of four that consisted of a German, a Frenchman, and two Spaniards. All of them spoke English well, so we gathered around the table for hot tea, popcorn, and tall tales. With no heat in the refuge, most of us wore an extra layer under our down jackets. We had a truly good vegetable and pasta soup for dinner, followed by a main course of fried trout that was not unanimously popular. Feeding wildlife is against the ecological reserve’s policies, but some of the scraps wound up being tossed outside where they were devoured by the refuge’s resident fox.

The Andean Fox (Lycalopex culpaeus) is larger than a red fox, but smaller than a coyote

The weather gave us some reason for concern. The rain had the potential to turn into snow, and verglas would almost certainly form on the wet rocks. While it is a non-technical climb with some areas of Class 3 scrambling, there is also some exposure near the top of the route. David decided to delay the start by an hour in the morning to allow conditions to improve. I appreciated the extra hour of rack time, but I didn’t entertain the notion that I’d actually be able to sleep at that altitude. I took a couple of Benadryl to help put me to sleep, but I doubt that I dozed for more than a few minutes during the entire night. At least I rested well and stayed warm in my minus-20 degree sleeping bag.

I set my alarm for 5:00, but nobody else seemed willing to get up before 6:00. We fueled up with scrambled eggs, toast, and granola with yogurt. Conditions improved somewhat overnight, but it was extremely windy and the clouds had the potential to move in on us.

Behind David on the way up to the saddle
Signage on the trail directs hikers to the north summit

Ironically, the route on Iliniza Norte has the same name as the route that we had taken on Rucu Pichincha: “El Paso de la Muerte.” The true summit was still in the clouds as we began our ascent from the saddle. The route finding was easy at first, but gradually became more difficult. Having a guide is not required on Iliniza Norte, but it makes it easier to stay on route. Most of the injuries and deaths on this mountain probably result from people wandering off of the standard route into Class 5 territory.

David approaching the ridge from the saddle
Scrambling on the left side of the ridge
Iliniza Sur, the south summit, catches most of the moisture and has a permanent snow pack

The route sticks fairly close to the ridge, and involves a little scrambling. I didn’t feel the need to rope up, but David did. That’s just part of the deal when you hire a guide. I got a few bonus off-route scrambles out of the deal because he knew the route well.

Preparing for a blast of wind on the ridge
Following the ridgeline
Looping around to the back side of the summit

When we reached the summit cone, we encountered an off-route Ecuadorean hiker. Going straight to the summit from the ridge would have been a technical climb, and he couldn’t figure it out. He was trying to find a route to the left, but the route actually circled around to the right and came up the back side. The route wasn’t immediately obvious. The German and Norwegian solo hikers had paired up, and also seemed to be having route-finding difficulties. I’m not sure how paid guides feel about having people tag along behind them, but we all wrapped around the mountain and summited together from the opposite side.

Nothing but blue sky above
The cross on the summit is a memorial to fallen hikers
The GPS says 16,867 feet
On the summit
View from the summit

David came up with a good plan for a quick descent. We didn’t want to have to return to the refuge, but I also didn’t want to have to summit with my heavy sleeping bag. There’s a quick route off of the summit that bypasses most of the difficult climbing on the ridge and takes a sandy slope straight back to the trail. David had arranged for the cook “El Gato” to carry several of our sleeping bags down to the trail junction while he was on his daily trip down to the reserve headquarters. The relatively small tip involved worked well for all parties.

Hustling down the sandy slope
David descending ahead of me

We had been above the clouds on the summit, but we gradually entered the clouds again on the descent. Visibility was poor, but we were following an easy trail. I mentioned to David that I saw cows through the mist on one side of the trail. Then I saw cows on the other side of the trail. David yelled “That’s not a cow! That’s a bull! Run!” The bull took a few steps in our direction, but it would take more than that to get me to run at over 15,000 feet. I asked David “Don’t Ecuadoreans know how to fight bulls?” as he sprinted perpendicular to the trail. My health insurance is no good in Ecuador, so I did my best to keep up. He had us back on another trail in a matter of minutes.

Cows in the mist

When we got back to the trail junction, I layered down, took off my helmet and harness, and had a snack. Our sleeping bags hadn’t arrived, so we just had to have faith that they would show up at the trailhead. The weather had taken a turn for the better, and we had nothing but good trail all the way back to the truck.

Heading back down the trail to the parking lot

We were in no particular hurry to get back to the truck, so I took some time to get some interesting plant images.

Lupinus pubescens was one of the more common wildflowers along the trail
Gentianella cerastioides has several relatives in the Colorado mountains
Polylepis incana, a member of the highest-growing flowering tree genus

We were among the first to get back to the trailhead, and our sleeping bags had not yet arrived. Shortly thereafter, the international group of hikers returned to the trailhead to find that their guide had locked his keys in the truck. I took a few minutes to eat lunch while the others labored furiously to break into the vehicle. “El Gato” showed up with the sleeping bags, and we gave him a ride back down to the reserve headquarters. From there, we headed to Cotopaxi National Park for the next big adventure.

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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Comments or Questions
12/31/2018 13:28
I saw your pics of the hut and laughed out loud. There's been a remodel! I was in that hut in '92 and it was...rustic, to say the least. Nothing at all close to what you describe, we spent the night with a family of mice (coulda been rats, not sure, never saw them...) that would pilfer our gear. No cook, no flush toliets. Nice. Looks like you had a nice hike!


Nuevos Horizontes
12/31/2018 15:15
Tom, it was neither the best nor the worst accommodations. There were a couple of holes in the wall that I assumed were there to prevent carbon monoxide buildup. It was clean enough, and I didn't see any sign of rodents. I honestly think it's too cold for lice and bedbugs. The generator operated the one light bulb, which was the only electrical device that I could see. There wasn't much to keep the toilets from freezing, but at least they worked while I was there. The Europeans compared the refuge to the hut system they use in the Alps. I take it that most, but not all of the huts in the Alps would compare well. The people, the food, and the hikes in Ecuador all exceeded my expectations.

Another nice one, Brian.
12/31/2018 16:40
What a time you are having!

Dry as a bone!
01/02/2019 13:30
So dry, this time of the should be some snow there.

Nice TR!
01/05/2019 14:57
It looks like you're having pretty good weather down there. I spent a *lot* of time staring at clouds higher up, and getting rained on lower down, when I went to Ecuador.

01/10/2019 15:23
Yeah, I was a little disappointed by the clouds on Cotopaxi. I tried to time it for a drier season, but clouds can come in any day of the year. It was still a lot of fun, and I'd gladly go back for some of those other volcanoes.

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