Climb 6k Bolivian Andes summit: Illimani

One of the many reasons why we have decided to visit Bolivia, was to spend some good amount of time in Andes, trek them, but also (if the level of acclimatisation allows) potentially reach one of the higher available summit. We are both mountaineering enthusiasts and while Paweł had climbed many of the 4k+ alpine peaks and has extensive climbing experience, I am more of a beginner from technical point of view. Nevertheless, it did not stop me from trying easy Alps mountains and a 6k volcano 2 years ago, while travelling in Peru. Given our skills, we had to choose a peak that would be technically challenging enough for Paweł, but not disqualifying for me from the very beginning.

One of the many reasons why we have decided to visit Bolivia, was to spend some good amount of time in Andes, trek them, but also (if the level of acclimatisation allows) potentially reach one of the higher available summits. We are both mountaineering enthusiasts, and while Paweł had climbed many of the 4k+ alpine peaks and has extensive climbing experience, I am more of a beginner from technical point of view. Nevertheless, it did not stop me from trying easy Alps mountains and a 6k volcano 2 years ago, while travelling in Peru. Given our skills, we had to choose a peak that would be technically challenging enough for Paweł, but not disqualifying for me from the very beginning.

We started our research from listing down possible choices. This list was compiled by studying pages of various Bolivian travel agencies offering their services. We didn’t want to come up with a random mountain unknown to anyone, but rather with something standard :

  • Sajama 6542 – the highest peak of Bolivia, volcano, relatively easy. [Paweł: As pretty much every volcano, not super exciting. We could expect very simple topography and high winds.]
  • Huayna Potosi 6088 – very popular mountain, relatively easy and close to La Paz. A default choice for everyone trying to climb a higher mountain in Bolivia
  • Ilampu 6360 – difficult (although rated as AD – Fairly Difficult) with snow slopes up to 65 degrees (summitpost) and some ice climbing. [Paweł: hmm, sounds cool, but maybe should be realistic about our chances given Ania’s experience with technical climbing and my experience with the altitude.]
  • Parinacota 6342 – volcano, really good for the beginners. But, again, a volcano.
  • Ancohuma 6427 – snow slopes up to 55 degrees, hence easier than Illampu but the same beautiful, although the ascent starts already at 2500
  • Illimani 6439 – rated as PD+/AD- (slightly difficult/fairly difficult) with slopes up to 50 degrees (summitpost). Easily seen from La Paz.
  • Chachacomani – rated as AD, snow slopes up to 50° (summitpost)

Since our trip was planned for November, which is supposed to be the rainy season, we have reached out for a first-hand information directly to the agencies in Bolivia in order to confirm which of above mentioned mountains can be still safely climbed. Surprisingly, turned out that ALL (do not believe in the rainy season!).

So the winner was… dominating the sky of La Paz, Illimani!

Illimani seen from La Paz
Illimani seen from La Paz

 

Now – careful planning. In order to reach Illimani’s summit, you require at least few days of acclimatisation + allow 4 days for the ascent itself. In our plan, we have decided to start our Bolivian adventure with a DIY 4 days Condoriri trek, starting it almost right after landing in La Paz (which turned to be a bit too fast – separate post). Trekking beautiful Condoriri range allows to get used to the altitude, while sleeping at 4600-4700 meters every night.

While you can do the trekking yourself, we strongly recommend hiring a guide for Illimani and any other 6k peak, especially if you do not have mountaineering experience, or if you basically feel that the altitude might be even a slight challenge for you.

German, our guide, whom Paweł found on French Trip Advisor was incredible, and ultimately professional. The week before our trip to Illimani he climbed Huayna Potosi twice! He estimates he reached the summit of HP and Illimani around 100 times. He knew the mountain like the back of his hand, which turned out to be invaluable, cause on the summit day we climbed for more than 5 hours in complete darkness. Last but not least, the altitude didn’t impact his performance nor consciousness at all (as opposed to us). He led us successfully to the summit and, more importantly, brought back to civilization.

 

Day 1 – Pinaya 3800 to Campo Base 4500

German picked us up and we all started collecting food for our ascent. He bought so much, that we could not believe we will be able to consume all, but German assured us that beefy high-energetic supplies were mandatory (he was right, btw.). After leaving La Paz and crossing twisted roads of Polca Canyon (about 3 hours drive), we have reached a village at 3800, called Pinaya, where we repacked our gear, giving the food and other heavy items to a porter with a mule. We continued our ascent to Campo Base at 4500m where we spent the 1st night.

Campo base is a beautiful place on its own. It lies at the foot of Illimani and is an idyllic, grassy, flat oasis right below the rocky slopes of the mountain. You won’t meet anyone there apart from two or three shepherds and their horses. Sunset seen from there is just stunning and incredibly rewarding after the long trip from La Paz.

German prepared a delicious dinner made of a thick soup and some pasta.

[Paweł: I don’t if this was the altitude or the taste (or both), but I truly enjoyed that meal. We ate it all together while sitting on rocks and enjoying the panorama. I appreciated the acclimatization trekking we did a couple of days ago, cause this time I had no troubles at all. No headache, no faster heartbeat, no vomiting. Nada. Niente. Zero. This was very reassuring, cause on the next day we had to move our camp 1000m higher, to 5500m asl – altitude I never experienced before. Waking up was planned at 5 am.]

Our luggage in German's car... and our first camp
Our luggage in German’s car… and our first camp
German cooking
German cooking

Day 2. Campo Base 4500 to Campo Alto 5500

1000 meters up – this is what we had to do in just one day. We avoided even slight thoughts about this challenge. Condoriri trek made us realize that altitude sickness makes even 100 meters ascent almost impossible. Surprisingly, we made this ascent at quite high pace. In 4 hours we were at Nido de Condores – a flat part of the ridge that could fit half a dozen of tents.

[Paweł: German said we had been very efficient, which was really cool, as a couple of days earlier we incredibly struggled to reach 5000m. Our stomachs were doing fine, our heads as well. Shortly after arriving to campo alto we put our tents and had the first meal. Our cooks – German and the guide from the village – had to melt snow, as there were no other sources of water. Afterwards we had a couple of hours of rest before the dinner. Everyone went to his tent and had a well-deserved nap. I must say that the altitude could be felt now, but its impact was limited to minimum – faster heart beat, that’s it! ]

1000 meters up not as tough as we expected
1000 meters up not as tough as we expected

Our long evening was full of indulgence in glacier views colored by sunset and enjoying a 2 dish meal (what a treat, again!). We had lots of fun when trying to inflate our sleeping pads with the extremely thin air.

6PM – time to sleep, since there is an early wake up and a long, demanding day ahead of us and the breakfast was planned at midnight.

Chilling at 5500m before the big night and day
Chilling at 5500m before the big night and day
Nido de Condores Camp panorama (5500m)
Nido de Condores Camp panorama (5500m)

 

Day 3. ‘Vamos a la playa!’ Campo Alto 5500 to Illimani summit 6438

“Vamos a la playa” said German when waking us up at midnight. Despite being well acclimatized, we barely slept. Our camp was immersed in darkness and the only thing we could see, apart from thousands of stars, were lights of La Paz. We layered up and put our gear on, had a small sweet breakfast and started pairing up with our guides. Luckily enough, we roped with German and our French colleague stayed with a guide that joined us an evening before.

Illimani’s two technical aspects are 50 degree snow and glaciated terrain that can sound like it is relatively straight-forward to navigate, but we are glad we hired a guide and avoided surprises when belaying on unexpected crevasses.

The first part (100 vertical meters) was a rocky ridge with some easy scrambling here and there. It wasn’t solid at all and the rocks were moving everywhere. The next part (400 vertical meters) was quite steep snow (~30-35 degrees) with some steeper sections. We encountered a few steeper walls, where doing three or four climbing moves was necessary. Afterwards the slope steepened and we used ice axes to build belay stations. Very close to the summit ridge we found two very wide crevasses – we walked the first one around to the left, while to cross the second one we had to go in and out. From there we reached the summit ridge which seemed to be not so far from the summit. The upper layer of snow was compressed by wind and it was collapsing under our weight at every step. I saw the same altitude sickness signs on Paweł’s face, as the ones visible on the fisr night of the acclimatisation trek, hence I got really worried he won’t make it to the top.

[Paweł: Ania and German being lighter were not suffering that much, but for me it was a blocker. Step by step I was foundering until mid-calf, knee or even hip and had to step onto surface to founder again. This happened at the altitude of around 6300m. Anis gave me some energy snacks and water and it seemed to get me back. After another 30min we managed to reach the summit. ]

Illimani – 6438m – we both set a new altitude record for a long time. Apparently no one managed to successfully climb Illimani since September, hence we got called ‘Polish machines’ by German, who was also extremely happy about our joint accomplishment. 

We made it! - Ania and Paweł at the summit
We made it! – Ania and Paweł at the summit
Happy German
Happy German

We spent at least a quarter at the top, took plenty of pictures, had some snacks and slowly started our way down. Getting back to campo alto took us around 4 hours and for me personally it was more challenging than the way up itself. Now the crevasses were more visible and we understood why German was so carefully belaying us on the way up.

[Paweł: When we reached the camp, I crashed into my bag. A mix of food poisoning (a must in Latin America) and altitude sickness knocked me out. Ania felt much better and forced herself to pack our stuff. Around 2pm we slowly started to walk towards the village and I felt better. We were back in La Paz at 10pm. We had a shower, chatted with our host Soki (his welcoming and hospitality are a topic for another post) and landed in bed. Nn the next day we woke up at 10am and thought of a salteña for breakfast. Our guide German – as it turned out later – was already on his way to Huayna Potosi. A machine, you can tell.]

We promised ourselves that Illimani was our highest summit ever, but already the next morning a conversation drifted towards 7k… one day…

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