Friday, January 1, 2016

A Trek up Illimani (E-E-Mani)

By Chris Eno

Check out photos on our GMA Photo Gallery Site.
Day 1: I'm too full to lie down and it's not digesting fast. there are two Llama skeletons just outside the tent. It's been a long day. Started out sitting on the side of the street for half an hour waiting for pickup. Then traveling all over LaPaz picking up equipment from the storage, fuel from Ceja, food from the office downtown, more equipment from the our outfitter, Hugo's, house in Zona Sur. Finally started climbing out the east end of town around 11am, returned to dirt road, climbed over the first ridge then down into and back out of a valley, into the clouds, to a pass between Illimani and the next mountain to the north. It was very windy there, probably 30-40mph. The mist was blowing up from the east through the shallow pass. We packed the food and tent into our bags and ate lunch, then started climbing out southeast into the mist. For over an hour we treed through visibility of about 200 yards. At one point a herd of llamas emerged from the mist on a ridge. It was a very surreal experience seeing the shadows coming running down the hill. Finally, the weather shifted and clouds lifted a couple hundred feet above us. More climbing. More llamas, and some sheep. Several places the trail was washed out by landslide so we had to carefully cross the loose soil. After 3 hours, we reached an old road and mining camp built on a hill overlooking a beautiful lake bowl. We set up camp on the soft moss 50 yards from the lake. Thankfully, the rain held off until we were almost finished with supper. Then it was into the tent to keep warm and dry and prepare for bed.
Altitude is affecting my stomach. Having trouble digesting food. Not a comfortable night.

Day 2:  The morning started slow, with geese singing on the lake and a light breeze shaking the ice off the tent. I didn't sleep last night. Just kept turning over and over. Altitude was making my breathing awkward and giving me lots of gas. I ate and drank too much for supper, so that didn't help. Had to get up 3 times to empty my bladder. It rained and sleeted off and on most of the night. When I got up around 2 there was snow on the sides of the bowl around the lake. 

When we got up, made hot chocolate, started breakfast of bread and jelly and instant oatmeal. I took a hike up the rocks on the other side of the lake for a great view of the route we came from and the Cordillera Real stretching northwest. Coming back to camp I saw two geese with about 12 goslings swimming across the lake.

We got packed up and on the trail again around 8am. Climbed along and over a ridge at 5000m then traversed back toward Illimani for several hours across scree fields, through washouts, and over rocky, mossy ridges covered with Llama poo and the animals that make it. 
Llamas are curious animals. They usually come close and stare as we pass by. 
We stopped for lunch beside a stream where someone had piled up rocks to make several tables. I took my socks and shoes off because I was sweating and starting to feel a few rubs. Thankfully my socks dried and I made it the rest of the way without problems.

As we got close to Illimani base camp, there were several clearings with sheep grazing. I was getting pretty tired. We stopped for short rests several times, but finally rounded a corner to see the base camp spread out below is. It's a large flat area with many glacier fed streams running through it. Today, there were only sheep, llamas and horses there. The climbing season is over. So we kept going to another smaller camp closer to the trail up the mountain. We have the place to ourselves. Our guide picked a bunch of grass to spread under the tent, making a pretty nice bed. After we set up the tent and cocina, I went over to the creek to wash my face and arms and soak my feet a bit. Then it started hailing. So to the tent we went for a few minutes until it quit. After I drank 3 cups of chocolate, we made pasta with tvp and tomato sauce. The sun came out for a few minutes so I got some good pictures of the mountains then just as suddenly a breeze blew clouds up the valley and over us. Now it's foggy and cold. We're lying in bed at 6 pm. It'll be an early morning. We start climbing Illimani at 5am. We should make it to condors nest by 11. That's as far as we can safely go this time of year.

Day 3:  started early. Up at 5:30 to get a light breakfast and dress for the climb to the high camp. It snowed in the mountain during the night, so we could see white patches all over the part we were going to climb. Our guide's wife had agreed to come up and watch our tent so we could leave everything there except what we needed for the climb. The guide carried a small backpack with water and cold weather gear. Manny carried the top of a backpack with snacks and some other stuff in it. I had just my hiking poles. We left about 6:30 and started climbing immediately up a rocky hill. Next was a soft sandy slope that led us to the base of the scree scrambling down from the monolith looming above us. 

After about an hour, we reached the top of the scree pile and made our way along the base of the cliff until reaching the old campsite used years ago. Manny and I picked up some flat rocks to add to the rectangular table that has been built there over years by many climbers. After this, we hiked up the peak of the rocky ridge for quite a while. Snowy patches turned to complete white covering the rocks as we made our way up to the final segment. I had to stop often to catch my breath in the thin air until I started breathing as if I was running fast. It's almost impossible to hyperventilate in such thin air, so breathing fast is the best way to get enough oxygen. 

The last few hundred feet are up a 45 degree shale face. Ditching one of my poles, I started climbing, often using both hands to hold onto the ledges. The snow had not stuck to the steep face of this area, but there were still a few slushy puddles on the flats that made footing tricky. And to make it more interesting, the clouds coming up the mountain started dropping more snow and making the whole face wet. One foothold after another, we slowly made our way up and over the last little dome and onto a flat area called "Ecampamento Nido del Condor," the high camp for climbers summiting the mountain. We had the place all to ourselves, since the snow and ice are at high risk for avalanche this time of year, and the wet snow will clog crampons and make walking on the glaciers difficult. By this time, the snow was blowing steadily up the mountain slope. It's a strange thing to see snow coming UP through the air. We took a bunch of pictures and threw some snowballs around, then decided the weather was not going to get better and it was time to start making our way down before too much snow stuck to the mountain face.

Im not sure which was more thrilling, going down or coming up. Making our way down the steep rock face, making sure each foot is planted securely before releasing a handhold, was pretty scary at times. Best not to look down to the side. A slide from here will be a quick trip back to the bottom. Thankfully, our guide is experienced and confident, and he projected that to us. It's easier to keep moving when fear isn't gripping me. It doesn't take as long to get down as it did to climb up, so soon we were off the most difficult section and hiking back down the rocks and sand.

We were pretty tired and hungry by the time we got back to camp around 1:30, but still pretty thrilled from the experience. Our guide prepared lunch of arroz, papas fritas, heuvos, y plantain while Manny and I lounged and drank water to re-hydrate. It is easy to get dehydrated in the cold dry air without noticing it. The rest of the day was spent doing very little. After a simple supper of soup and a little hail storm, we were ready to hit the hay.

Day 4: We were up early again to pack up camp and head south down the road. From the Illimani base camp, a road runs around to a pass on the south end of Illimani. After the pass, a green valley opened up below us and we saw horses grazing calmly on the hills. Several hours of descending through the valley and we were within sight of Cohoni, our place to catch a bus to LaPaz. We stopped for a meal, then finished the trek into the town square where we sat on a bench until a Nissan SUV pulled up and offered a ride to LaPaz for 20Bs each. Cheaper than the bus, faster and a better ride as well. The only negative was the song that was on repeat for the last hour of the drive. It took me a day to get that song out of my head.

Finally back in LaPaz, it's a different world. I have tried to share the shear power I felt on the mountain, but it's something one has to experience. It can't be told with words. Like the Holy Spirit working in my life. Words cannot make the hearer experience it. It must be felt, it must be lived. The thrill is indescribable.

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