Our first attempt to climb Illimani (6438m) a couple of weeks ago, came to a sudden halt when two of our ice axes disappeared in High Camp. But with two brand new ice axes bought in La Paz, Nicolas and I were now back to get our revenge!
We ordered a taxi with the same agency as last time (Inca Land Tours), and paid the same price, ie 800 Boliviano (115 USD) to/from Pinaya. The last journey from La Paz to Pinaya was a reasonably tough strain, even with a driver who drove fairly slowly. Now, however, we had a driver who was a completely mad man and he drove like crazy on the bad road between La Paz and Pinaya. He showed no mercy either with his vehicle, or with the two of us in the backseat. Rarely have I been so afraid. We sat silenced and pale, especially where the road clung high up in the steep valley sides. A slightly wrong maneuver and the vehicle would be sent out on an air journey to the bottom of the valley.
Fortunately we arrived safe and sound in Pinaya, not surprisingly, in under 2 hours, roughly one hour faster than last time. In Pinaya we got in touch with Pedro again, our gentle porter from last time. He arranged a mule the first day, and was happy to be our porter for the second and third day. We paid the same as last time for this package, ie 300 Boliviano (43 USD).
We still had a big issue, which was about to become a real headache for us. We did not get any kerosene in La Paz, because our regular store had run out. But Inca Land Tours had promised us that the driver would fix us some kerosene easily, no worries. But the driver did not know anything about this, and to postpone the problem, he claimed that kerosene could easily be obtained in Pinaya. So the first things we asked Pedro about was whether he had kerosene. No, he didn't have it right now, but he was sure he could get hold on some kerosene and carry it up to Base Camp the next day. No problem, according to him! Anyway, we expected only dry food for the rest of the day and evening, unless we met another group on the mountain that had a splash with kerosene or petrol to spare.
From Pinaya (3800m) we followed the mule, led by the same young Cholita as last time. Cholita is not exactly an honorary title. It describes a local girl/woman (Indian) wearing a loose and wide dress. This dress is very useful for toilet emergency, because one can squat anywhere. Here in the countryside, where toilets are virtually non-existent, jeans are not a very practical garment for the local girls. Therefore, we see almost only Cholitas here.
Walking up to Base Camp (4450m) took us about 1.5 hour, and the dense clouds prevented it from getting too hot in the gentle uphills. We met a small group that was on the way back down, they had failed reaching the top. However, they had a few deciliters of kerosene to spare. They charged a bloody high price for this, but we had no choice. In Base Camp there were a German couple who had a large squad of local servers (guide, cook and a couple of porters). They had reached the top, and sat around a table in the kitchen tent and ate food and drank beer. In addition, a Spanish couple were also present in Base Camp. They had a similar plan like us, they had no guide but they used two local porters, while we contented ourselves with only one porter.
We awoke to a glorious morning. The two local porters of the Spaniards and our porter Pedro arrived as agreed at 9am. But Pedro had some bad news for us, he did not yet manage to get kerosene. Thus we learned a lesson, never leave the responsibility to someone else here in Bolivia. We still had 3 deciliters left from yesterday, enough for a couple of meals but not by far enough for melting snow in High Camp. Thus we decided to carry with us 6 liters of water from the stream in Base Camp and all the way up to High Camp, so we did not need to melt any snow. The lack of kerosene/gasoline, would thus not have any immediate impact on our summit push, fortunately.
The hike up to High Camp (5470m) took us about 2 hours and 40 minutes, considerably faster than last time, and much faster than the normal time of 4-6 hours. We pitched our tent, and the rest of the day was spent relaxing and preparing lunch and dinner. We could even melt one liter of water before the kerosene finally came to an end. Despite all the clouds, we had a beautiful sunset, and we enjoyed it in silence with the two Spaniards. But all the clouds and the increasing wind speed caused some concerns for the upcoming summit push.
Just as feared, we woke to a strong wind and clouds at 2am in the night. We could not make out the top of the Illimani because of the low clouds. Not very keen to move up in these conditions, we decided to postpone the summit shot a couple of hours. We woke up again at 4am, and now we could fortunately make out some stars, and most importantly, the summit of Illimani was visible in the dark night. Moreover, the wind speed had dropped a lot. It took us about an hour getting ready, and at 5am, we set off. A little surprisingly, there was no activity whatsoever in the Spanish tent. Later we learned that they gave up the summit shot because they thought that the wind was too strong. We however, were at least going to make a wholehearted attempt, even though the conditions were not entirely perfect.
From High Camp, we climbed on an exposed ridge (cornice), before it leveled out and we arrived at a flatter part with lots of penitentes. Nicolas complained that the chocolate biscuits had made him sick and nauseous, but a necessary errands with his pants down to relieve pressure (diarrhea), seemed to do wonders for him. We continued up a gentle slope covered with terrible penitentes, but it didn't take long before we came over on nice and firm snow again. We could follow a relatively good track on the glacier, and we avoided several crevasses on the way up. As it started to get really steep, the tracks seemed to disappear. We climbed up the steepest part (45-55 degrees) a little too far right and therefore we hit on some blue ice. I had to put in a couple of ice screws as belay, so that we could safely get across this ice. Shortly after, we found some tracks leading up to a windy saddle with amazing views. From there we walked on a gentle and relatively broad snow ridge before we finally reached the highest point of Illimani after roughly 4.5 hours. This was a big revenge that really deserved some wild cheers and happy scenes. We took a number of spectacular photos in various angles, directions and poses, before we started on the way back down. This time we wisely avoided the ice field. It was maybe even steeper, but the snow was of good quality and with two ice axes each we down climbed this steep slope. A slide here would quickly turn bad, and there have been many accidents on this unforgiving spot throughout the years. Crucifixes and memorials in High Camp are a frightening reminder of those accidents.
Well back in High Camp after about 7 hours (return), our porter Pedro was already waiting for us. The Spaniards had went down again, they were probably quite disappointed. We packed our gear in High Camp and continued on the descend. Along the way we met a large international group, we believe it was IMG (International Mountain Guides). With 6-8 clients, a Western guide, a couple of Bolivian guides, a few cooks and a bunch of porters (20+), they would probably fill High Camp to the brink. Fortunately we were not on the same schedule as them, because if we were, there would be no space for us on Illimani!!!!
It took us no more than 3 hours to hike back to Pinaya. We arrived almost one hour late for our taxi, which we had agreed should be there at 4pm. But in Pinaya there was no taxi in sight. While we waited, Pedro got his wife to cook a meal for us. He also went over to the local store and bought a big bottle of beer for each of us, and a 2-liter bottle of Coca Cola to quench our immediate thirst. While we sat outside on the grass and enjoyed this picnic, the taxi eventually arrived. Fortunately it turned out that the driver was the same as we had on our first trip to Pinaya, and we could look forward to a relaxed and safe drive back to La Paz.
Illimani at EveryTrail