Nevado Illimani - Pico Sur (21,201 feet) Bolivian Flag

Illimani - La Paz to Base Camp

At 8 AM sharp we departed La Paz for Illimani in a four wheel drive vehicle with Rene driving. Gear was lashed to the top and very well secured. The roads were very bad. In addition to the usual narrow roads, we also "drove" down a canyon that would have washed us out had there been a flash flood. Up and down we went, all the while our objective looming ever larger in our views. At one point I estimated the altitude as 10,000 feet. From that vantage Nevado Illimani was fully 11,200 feet above us and only perhaps five miles horizontally. Quite spectacular.

Village of Unna with small boys.

We arrived at the small village of Unna (although all maps indicate it as "Estancia Una") around noontime. Many little boys and girls watched as we transferred our backpacks, and much food as well, to the arriero (muleteer) who had been hired in advance. We signed our names on a register of mountain climbers, hid our vehicle under a tarp, and departed on foot in the direction of base camp.

Village of Unna.

The afternoon walk was quite pleasant as we were in no rush whatsoever. From our starting elevation of 11,800 feet at Unna we began on a nearly level dirt road that descended perhaps 100 feet before we left it to assume our upward trek past many native farms where entire families were cultivating crops. The houses were primitive affairs, as typically found on much of the altiplano, constructed of sun-baked mud and thatched roofs.

Roberto exclaimed (when transliterated) "la maala v la maata". I was incredulous as that was pure Hebrew for "up and down" - and we were on a series of rolling hills. Evidently he must have previously guided some Israeli clients. After confirming this with him, I sang aloud the Israeli national anthem for all to hear: the anachronism of passing Aymara Indians in their fields while proclaiming unity for the Jewish people was too much for me to resist.

Base camp showing just our tent

After one-half the day's vertical gain we stopped for lunch. It was a gorgeous day. Some 3-4 hours after departing Unna we reached the base camp area near a stream with much running water. Despite the 14,400 foot elevation Bob and myself felt very, very good. Tents were assembled and, when the sun started to get low we cooked supper. That night Bob enjoyed packaged fetuccini alfredo while I had noodles with a spinach and parmesan sauce.

Base camp showing
just our tent.

Bob went to sleep, or at least lay down in the tent, while I accepted Rene and Roberto's offer to share in their meal. I enjoyed their soup but found their main dish of noodles with steak very dry and unappetizing. The noodles had no sauce and the steak was WAY overdone.

Later the moon rose over Illimani to the east and, together with the lights of La Paz, I had a feast for the eyes.

Illimani - Base Camp to El Nido de Condores

Early morning was cloudy and not encouraging. However patience lead to sunshine, and so by 9 AM two porters had arrived while by 10 AM Bob, Roberto and myself resumed our upward journey. We were actually on the mountain within one half hour, passing a waterfall from glacial runoff. The going was naturally slow, wending our way in a serpentine fashion up sandstone topped by much broken rock.

I tracked our vertical progress more by noting our level relative to nearby subpeaks than by relying on my altimeter watch. The latter was acting erratically and could only be relied upon to give a general sense of the altitude rather than an accurate reading.

Porters carrying heavy loads.

The two porters were heroic in their abilities to both shoulder the heaviest loads and never intimate that they were overburdened. Were I to also live at 13,500 feet perhaps I too would be capable of such ant-like feats of stamina and strength.

Porters laboring
at 16,000 feet.

At somewhere between 16,000 and 16,500 feet we broke for lunch with the porters and Rene, all three of them having caught up with us. Again I accepted a mini tuna sandwich on french roll from Roberto. I was offered a full-size sandwich but declined since too much food while climbing uphill creates a competition between blood flow to the gut and the musculature. It is the same concept behind why children are warned not to go swimming after a meal. Each lunch Roberto and Rene found my fork handy to pry loose pieces of tuna from its tin. I preferred my meal replacement health food bars since I had prepared milk for one of my liter bottles, and since my jar of salt, which would otherwise season the tuna, lay hidden within my main backpack.

We reached the snowline at perhaps the upper 16's or 17,000 feet. Leather boots were exchanged for double plastic climbing boots (which provide better insulation); crampons were strapped on; glacier glasses replaced my normal lenses; and we roped up with seat harnesses and carabiners. The route was not particularly exposed, although at that altitude a 30 degree slope made for heavy breathing.

High camp with Illimani's Pico Norte.

Five or six hours after leaving base camp we arrived at the only level spot on the ridge we had been negotiating. Known as Nido de Los Condores ("Condor's Nest"), this shelf of snow was located at 18,000 feet and was large enough to house perhaps a dozen tents. Memorial crosses to six Chilean climbers who perished in the 1980s were plainly visible.

High camp with
Illimani's Pico Norte.

I had purchased five days worth of food in the USA and had religiously abstained from using it prior to the climb of Illimani. The point was to not have to rely on Bolivian sources for calories and palatability when both these aspects were somewhat guaranteed in bringing "known" food from the United States. And so, according to plan, that night Bob and myself enjoyed chili with corn tortillas. His can was of the mild variety while mine was labeled hot. I added chopped asiago cheese into my portion - as always, I find that aged, sharp cheese will enliven and provide variety to an otherwise monotonous dish.

At 18,000 feet any movement was more difficult than at lower heights. Simply taking off boots resulted in heavy breathing. Fortunately I had no headache. In my sleeping bag I found myself breathing more deeply than normal, and this made for a slightly uncomfortable night. Bob had more difficulty than myself in this regard. Neither of us particularly enjoyed that evening. The lights of La Paz, now most obviously below us in the distance, were enjoyable to watch. So too was Sajama, visible on the horizon to the southwest and clearly higher still than us despite our lofty perch.

I had intended to enjoy an entire almond torte after dinner as a form of carbohydrate loading. However with the discomfort of preparing the milk to go with it, let alone hot cocoa, I only managed to enjoy about one quarter of it. Apprehension about the following day contributed to my abstention since, unlike people who overeat when they are stressed out, I intentionally overeat as a form of celebration. Clearly if successful the following day there would be plenty of time for rejoicing.

Illimani - Summit Day

A semiconscious state, half asleep, precluded a good rest. As the hours passed, I wondered if somehow the alarm, set for 2:30 AM, had missed the mark and we would awaken to daylight. That would be great because my hidden agenda could swing into action: by starting our summit bid at dawn, rather than at 4 AM, there would be insufficient time to descend all the way to base camp in the late afternoon. I did not want to increase the day's efforts by breaking camp after 11 hours of climbing. It was simply an unreasonable amount of physical effort for one day. Furthermore we had arranged for five days of climbing and so an extra day, originally to be used for bad weather, was already built into the schedule.

The alarm sounded. Bob had considerable reservations about even starting out seeing as he had troubled breathing all night and felt that his chances of actually climbing three thousand feet higher still was a lost cause. The sweet oatmeal was hurriedly cooked, first for Bob and then for myself, followed by almond torte with hot cocoa. I flavored the cocoa with considerable instant coffee, and, much to my chagrin, still felt as if all I wanted to do was sleep. It was a strange sensation - wired on caffeine and yet internally exhausted.

That was enough for me. Given Bob's unwillingness to start and my pitiful level of alertness, I suggested to Roberto that we sleep until dawn and climb by first light. Yes, I understood, as did Bob, that an additional uncomfortable night would be spent here. We agreed to a 6:30 AM departure. My hidden agenda had been fulfilled.

I felt well enough to climb at dawn. Roped together Roberto and myself headed up the ridge, leaving Bob and Rene behind since Bob was yet unconvinced of his abilities. The ridge led somewhat steeply to a level area around 19,000 feet, I knew, and that the crux of the route was a 50 degree pitch immediately above our high camp. Remarkably, owing to the perfect snow conditions I required no belay whatsoever for this entire section in which we ascended some one thousand vertical feet.

Fixing a snow anchor high on Illimani.

I was happy when we reached the level section, for I knew from my readings that the remaining 2,200 vertical feet were over relatively gentle slopes. That was not to be. Owing to objective crevasse hazards on the glaciers we were traveling over, it was necessary to bypass gentle sections in favor of steeper ones. There were several pitches, of one rope length each, in which Roberto belayed me from above, using his ice axe and the occasional rock embedded in the snow, as anchor.

Fixing a snow anchor
high on Illimani.

Ascending 45 degree slopes at twenty thousand feet meant one or at most two steps at a time before rest. The physical effort was testing my stamina, and inner emotional strength, to a considerable, yet tolerable degree. Yes, I could hold this up ... but only for the summit of Nevado Illimani.

The realization of passing various milestones in altitude kept me going. When I estimated that we were passing the altitude of Kilimanjaro, my previous highest summit at 19,340 feet, I took mental note. Similarly for 6,000 meters (19,700 feet). Sometime around the next milestone, at 20,000 feet, we caught sight of Rene and Bob struggling up the route. Bravo!!

Roberto and myself looking small in a snowy wonderland.

The necessarily slow upward progress allowed me to both enjoy the beautiful scenery and contemplate the awesomeness of our surround in which we had placed ourselves. As the photograph so poignantly indicates, we were mere specks in a sea of snow and ice. (Click the picture to view the original, larger image in which Roberto and myself are visible at left.)

Roberto with myself
below lost in white.

I could hear Bob's labors up one steep section as a loud, painful utterance at each step. An exclamation of sheer agony of how much his body resisted the punishment. How he managed to surmount the odds stacked against him was quite remarkable: a man, 65 years of age, without sleep, climbing a 45 degree slope with a 15 or 20 pound daypack, and with only 45% of sea level oxygen to do it all.

Next time you are shoveling snow off the driveway, try placing a plastic bag over your face and resume the exercise. That might hint of what is involved in climbing at twenty thousand feet. And, oh yes - keep it up for 7 1/2 hours!

Milestone 20,320 feet, the height of Denali, North America's highest.

Approximately 500 vertical feet below the summit, we entered clouds with much wind. As the wind increased the slope gradually leveled off. Now all four together, we were approaching the summit plateau but I was unable to confirm our location relative to the summit since the visibility was perhaps only 100 feet. I exchanged gloves in favor of mittens and wished that I had brought my heavyweight "gorilla gloves", designed for extremely cold conditions, from high camp.

We now were heading roughly south along the summit ridge and in the distance immediately to right of our track spotted a cornice of snow that I recognized from photographs of the summit. Knowing that the end was imminent I tried but failed to hold back tears.

The slope decreased to near zero and the wind died down. I knew from my readings that the final ten vertical feet are covered over 400 meters. We stopped somewhere along that distance owing to perceived danger of snow cornices further on. It was 2 PM Bolivia time, Monday May 7, 2001.

Calling home from 21 thousand feet.

We embraced one another and rested. Roberto called Carlos Escobar on his cell phone - "Somos en la cima" ("We're at the summit"). Somehow he managed to get an international operator, and with that I called my mother in California. What technology! After stating my location I was disappointed when her only question was when would I call her again. Nothing about the climb - just when would I talk to her. Bob photographed me on the phone. Upon its development I can show people and proclaim: "Look how loyal a son I am that should call my mother from the ends of the Earth".

Phone call home
from Illimani summit.

After a capuccinno and chocolate flavored meal replacement bar and some beef jerky shared with Roberto, it was time to leave after twenty minutes. I was reluctant to go for I understood that I may never be quite that high again, on terra firma, for the rest of my life.

Illimani's upper reaches from high camp.

Descent followed the route of ascent and consumed some 3 1/2 hours. In our tent that evening we enjoyed beef stroganoff flavored noodles for supper. Bob gave me perhaps two-thirds of the pot and I was grateful. Again, my asiago cheese added measurably to the flavor, as did a diced garlic clove. I slept better than the previous night, albeit imperfectly owing, again, to both altitude and the cramped quarters.

Looking back
from high camp.

Illimani - El Nido de Condores to La Paz

Although we had reached the summit of Pico Sur, as the highest point of Nevado Illimani, a climb cannot be considered completely successful until one executes a safe return. So although there was clearly reason to be relieved seeing as the most arduous and dangerous portion of the climb was finished, we still had to negotiate 1,500 vertical feet of snow along a narrow ridge.

A brief pause for Bob's camera at a level spot.

I was in the lead with Bob second and Roberto last. By that means Roberto could belay us from above should it be considered wise owing to a steep section. I actually felt that some of his caution was uncalled for - he belayed us at least two or three times when I was completely comfortable descending without any additional protection beyond the rope. In fact there were even opportunities to take photographs without worrying about a fall.

A level spot for
safe photography.

After a brief rest at the snowline we unroped and continued, now on rocky terrain, towards base camp. We arrived perhaps 2 1/2 hours after leaving high camp. Roberto had expressed an interest in my plastic double boots. Evidently in Bolivia it is difficult to get the proper shoe size for climbing boots because they are only manufactured in Europe and in the United States. Roberto had been wearing plastic boots that were fully one or two sizes too large and he desired a pair that would fit him well for technical climbing. I removed my boots so he could try them out. After noting that they fit well, we agreed upon a price of seventy dollars.

When the porters and Rene arrived a few minutes later we all proceeded to the porter's home situated as the very first shack in the valley on the way back to Unna. In a nearby grass clearing a liesurely lunch was enjoyed, which for me included eggplant in olive oil with french roll and more of my asiago cheese. We exchanged leather in place of plastic boots and saw to it that the gear was transferred to mules for the remaining journey to Unna. Bob and myself agreed upon giving each porter a 100B note as tip - a small fortune for them, that is for certain. They had earned every bit of it, and then some.

Unna was achieved by 4 PM. I was gratified to hear our vehicle come to life. All material was onloaded, be it on the rooftop or inside, and we were bound for La Paz at 4:55 PM. We did not return via Palca Canyon as we had come owing to the danger of driving there by dark. Rather, we took a more circuitous route that eventually saw us returning to La Paz from the northeast.

Carlos Escobar greeted us at the hotel entrance. He knew of our arrival time from a cell phone call as we entered the city twenty minutes previously. After the (apparently) customary embraces Bob gave Rene a whopping fifty dollar tip. I followed suit by refusing to take my plastic boots as Roberto handed them to me, exclaiming "son gratis" ("they're free") all the while. His face broke into a big smile.

In our room (now number 805) and after receiving our luggage that had been kept for us in a secure area, Bob did a silly thing. He emptied a fuel bottle by pouring its contents down the bathroom drain. The odor was noxious, spreading throughout the room to the point that I was forced to fully open our window to the night air. Here I had looked forward to breathing comfortably for the first time in several days, and suddenly a competition is set up between oxygen and poisonous vapors. I was extremely upset, and considered moving to another room. However I imagined that our current room would be of no use to ANY guest, and so we would be charged for two rooms. I fell asleep without even my planned chocolate truffle.

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