Illimani, at 21,200 feet (from Aimara, meaning "Golden Eagle") is the highest peak in the Cordillera Real which is part of the Cordillera Oriental, a subrange of the Andes of western Bolivia.  It lies just south of La Paz at the eastern edge of the Altiplano.  It is the second highest peak in Bolivia.  Illimani is distinctly visible from the city of La Paz and is its major landmark. 


An Illimani climbing story

May 31st to June 3rd 2008

Climbers:  Terry Mataya and Mark Davis (both from Seattle, Washington USA)


Early in the day after we arrived in La Paz which was May 30th 2008, Mark and I set out to find the outfitter that the desk clerk at our hotel suggested. We wanted transportation, porters and donkeys at the trailhead. We left our hotel and started hoofing it down the street.  We found the place right away and were greeted by a Dr. Strangedude.  He said he was a practicing physician and that he also ran the outfitter business that we were interested in. 


Mark and I described what we wanted and we made sure that he understood that we did not want a guide. There was a pregnant pause, and then the good doctor stated that; first, Illimani is known as the "MEAN GODDESS", second, there are no flags marking the very difficult route, and third that it is an incredibly dangerous ice climb.  We stuck to our guns because I think both of us felt that he just wanted to make more money if he supplied a guide.  He did agree to just the transportation, porters and horses, not donkeys.


That night, I didn't sleep very well.  Frankly, I was worried about being able to guide this thing with what Dr. Strangedude had told us.  I went back and forth with myself most of the night and finally by morning I had informed Mark that I thought we should hire a guide for safety.  We could still do the technical climbing by ourselves, but that a guide could show us the way and keep us safe.  Mark agreed, so we went back down to see Dr. S.  He was more than happy to supply a guide, even if it was a last minute thing.  However, there was a catch in that there would be a French climber joining us with his own guide.  We both said that this was a good idea because the more people, the more safety.  The outfitter was to pick us up at our hotel the next morning.


We were picked up right on time.  The driver of the four wheel drive Toyota then stopped at a hostel and picked up the French climber who was named Antonin.  I guess the guides couldn't pronounce his name properly so everyone called him Antonio.  During our 6 hour drive to the trailhead, we learned that Antonio could speak both English and Spanish.  Since the lead guide whose name was Feliciano, spoke no English, this was a blessing. After having a nice lunch at the trailhead, which was a soccer field at over 12,000 feet, we started on our hike to base camp.


During that two hour journey, it was learned that both guides were going to have us attempt the summit in three days.  Antonio had already acclimatized by climbing Pequeno Alpamayo at 17,482 feet and also Huayna Potosi at 19,996 feet, the two weeks prior to Illimani. We on the other hand had no high altitude acclimatization of over 12,000 feet. So, one night at base camp, one night at high camp and then the summit the following day seemed pretty aggressive.  Mark and I originally planned two more days at base camp to acclimatize. We questioned the guide through our interpreter, and yes, he agreed that it was pushing it for us, but that was the plan.  We agreed that since we were feeling good at altitude so far, we would wait and see how we felt after getting to high camp.


After a night spent at base camp, we started early the next morning on frozen tundra to the giant knife edged ridge that terminates at the Nest of the Condors.  After four and a half hours we came to the high camp area that only had room for about five or six tents.  The ridge sloped down to the North almost immediately to a 2,000 foot drop to the glacier below.  The South side was similar, a little more gradual, but ending in a drop of at least 500 feet to the cleaved glacier. There was no one else on the mountain except our group.  That was kind of spooky to say the least.  However, late that evening a German climber with his guide and porters showed up and planned to climb the day after we were to summit.


We set up our tent and started to prepare for the 1:00 a.m. push to the summit which was two hours sooner than Mark and I originally had planned to start.  That also told us something.  There was plenty of time to take video and mentally prepare for what the next day was to bring.  We both put our brand new "40Below" super gaiters onto our plastics to keep our feet warm (by the way, they were excellent).  We laid out our ice tools and screws and were pretty much ready to go.  We hit our sleeping bags early and for the most part slept well.


It was suddenly 1:00 a.m. and we were getting our equipment on to climb the Goddess in what amounted to a whiteout right from the tent.  I knew that if we weren't guided, I would have made the decision not to go for the following reasons, first, not knowing the route, second, it was night and third, we were in a whiteout.  However, we started out right on time.  About 10 minutes into the climb, Antonio started complaining of stomach pains and asked to go back to high camp.  We waited around as Feliciano took him back to his tent.  Soon Feliciano had re-joined us and we were on our way.  There is no way that a person who has not climbed this mountain, could have found the route with the above mentioned conditions unless that person had the luck of the Gods.  Most of it was hard snow or ice where there were no boot tracks or wands to be seen. The doc was right on about that.  We had made the right decision. 


I noticed that after the first two 45 degree ridges were surmounted, I was breathing more heavily than usual.  I thought I just had to get my second wind. However, it kept becoming more and more difficult to get enough oxygen.  I probably should have paid more attention to that, but in the heat of the moment . . .


When we finally got to the 60 degree 140 meter headwall, we pulled out our ice tools and started right up the face.  The snow was perfect, not yet ice, but very hard.  I did the front point crampon thing all the way up, but it was with minimum effort, thank goodness.  After I topped out, I was completely gassed and out of breath.  Again, I thought, this is just not like me.


We continued up and up and up, which seemed like forever.  Finally, another 50 degree ice wall was in front of us.  It was still dark out and I couldn't tell how high it was with my headlight.  So I just started climbing.  Finally we made the summit ridge.  Still another 500 feet to the summit but it was only about a 30 degree slope.  Eventually, at about 6:30 a.m., we stood on the summit.  It was just light, but the whiteout made it so that I could only see about 100 feet in front of me.  I pulled out my video camera and took a picture of Feliciano and then I reached over to hand him the camera so he could take a picture of me. I slipped and fell on my butt.  How inglorious. Oh well.  


After about 15 or 20 minutes, the four of us started heading down and I thought for sure my tiredness and shortness of breath would ease up.  That was not to be.  After about four grueling hours we finally spotted the tents far below because the whiteout had finally dispersed.  After another hour we were down.  I collapsed by my tent and one of the porters came over with a steaming cup of matte tea.  I couldn't even drink it.  Mark and I finally got inside our tent exhausted.


Mark mentioned that his breathing was very raspy.  I said that mine was as well.  We talked about going down to base camp, but we were so tired that we decided to stay and rest.  If we had decided to break camp in our condition for preparation to go down, it would have almost been dark anyway.  I did not want to risk going down the steep ridge navigating with headlights in our pitiful condition.  We also had to consider the risks of descending to base camp with blurred vision, which both of us suffered. We decided to stay one more night at high camp.  When we finally talked to Mark's wife Kathy, she hit it right on the head when she said we had all the classic signs of HAPE, or high altitude pulmonary edema. We should have known that right away, ya think?  Mark and I asked Feliciano if he would leave us two porters to carry our gear down the next morning.  He agreed, so the two porters stayed the night with us.


The next morning, we got all of our gear together and started down to base camp and ultimately, to the pickup point. 


In retrospect:


* We believe the guides should have waited at least one more day for acclimatization.

* We suspect that the good doctor wanted to combine two climbs into one and coordinated the Frenchman and us, and reduced our acclimatization days by one to ring the register.  I don't know that for a fact, but hmmmmm.

* We should have been carrying Dexamethasone to ease our HAPE.

* We did not eat or drink enough during the eight hours preceding the summit attempt.

* We probably should have eaten our own food rather than the food prepared by our guides/porters at high camp.

* Spending two more days at 12,000 feet in La Paz following the climb was unavoidable, but probably delayed our recovery from HAPE.


All in all, it was a great adventure.  I hope you enjoyed the retelling.


I would like to thank Rod and Matt, two friends from New Mexico who invited Mark and I down to Ouray Colorado for some ice climbing this winter.  I don't think we would have felt confident enough to tackle Illimini without their ice climbing guidance.  


Quote of the day after climbing Illimani "We came, we saw, we conquered and then she kicked our ass all the way down the mountain."


Mark's slide show:




Terry Mataya