Friday, November 11, 2011

High Highs and Low Lows (Illizina Norte Part II)

Being that we summited a peak (16,817 feet) that would be the ninth highest in all of continental North America, which includes Alaska, Canada,  USA, Mexico and Central America, we thought it deserves two posts. To put it in perspective, Illizina Norte is 2,300 feet higher than any peak in the USA. It's big, real big. To be quite honest, we didn't quite know exactly what we were getting ourselves into.

Illizina Norte

When we left our hostel Wednesday morning the sky was clear and the volcanoes were taking over the blue skies. We had a chance to stop along the cobblestone road to Illizina and take some photos of Volcan Cotopaxi ruling the sky to our east. Luckily we took the offer because it would be the last time we saw Cotopaxi that day. The weather was ever changing, but we spent most of our climb in the clouds. When we got our first good look at Illizina Norte from its base, our excitement grew rapidly. In minutes, our packs were on and we were headed to our first stop, La Playa (the beach). La Playa obviously wasn't a beach, but it was a sandy oasis with mangled trees and green succulents and flowers abound. We all caught our breath for a few minutes and headed onward and upward.

Volcan Cotopaxi

Upwards from La Playa

The environment seemed to change every thousand feet or so. The sandy, semi-arid desert around La Playa quickly gave way to a rocky terrain with some grasses still surviving, very similar to the Cascade Range in Washington State. Again, we stopped to catch our breath and refuel. Onward and upward.

Refueling Station

Now, the terrain became quite sparse consisting mostly of large boulders and rocks/sand that were once part of the boulders themselves. We began to feel the altitude more and more with each step. It is quite amazing what thin air does to the body and mind. Even the strongest of humans are no match for what exists over 14,000 feet without acclimating first. We soon found ourselves at a place where we were no longer hiking, but climbing. We put on our helmets, harnesses and roped up to each other for safety. Words cannot describe the exhilarating joy of climbing up masses of boulder at 15,000/16,000+ feet looking down a seemingly vertical slope to the green patterned highlands below. At this point, hearts began beating in our heads rather than our chests and each deep breath taken was an achievement.

The Climbing Begins

After another hour or so of semi-technical climbing we reached the summit as a team and reveled in what we had just accomplished. We all celebrated with lunch on the peak and pictures taken with the cross that marked the summit. It was the most deserved lunch in my life. We enjoyed our food and stories of the climb for a bit and then it was time to head down the beast in which we had just scaled.

The Final Ascent

We Did It!

Another technical climb down the same boulders we has just ascended led us to an area of soft sand/dirt in which we were able to "ski" down. It is wild how much faster our bodies can go down a mountain compared to up. We descended in less than half of the time it took us to climb Illizina Norte. To say that arriving at the green land cruiser was a relief is an understatement. Again, we dropped our packs and gave big hugs all around before taking the final photos our the mountain we had just conquered.

Ski Section

Down at Last

We endured another very bumpy truck ride back to the hostel led us to a couch, chocolate cake, and hot tea. We had planned on resting in our room for a bit before showering and enjoying a nice dinner with wine at our hostel. Unfortunately, mother nature had another plan for me. The exhaustion that haunted Mags and Ladina (our Swiss friend) on the way up the mountain began creeping into my body. I rested in bed hoping to solve the problem, but it just grew worse and worse. Within three hours of completing the climb, I was suffering from full on altitude sickness. It was one of the worst experiences my body had been through. The gusto I felt while scaling up Illizina Norte with a huge smile plastered on my face was quickly turned into Mags rubbing my back while I puked my guts out as my head pounded like a bass drum. What a night! Luckily, Mags was a saint and tracked down some altitude medicine and herbal tea along with providing mental support like nobody else could. I feel like I wouldn't have made it through the night without her. When I woke up yesterday morning at 6AM, I felt like myself again. Yeeeesssssssss! The sickness was over.

Smiles All Around!


  1. Mags and Trav!!! Congrats, this is amazing!!! I can barely contain myself, sitting here in this chair. I want to jump into the pictures and scale with y'all. Trav, I'm so sorry about the altitude sickness. That would have been me, for sure. Mags, sounds like you took good care of him. You're such a great team. All in all, it sounds like a life-changing experience. I am so amazed/impressed/inspired/did I say amazing? Love you guys, xo

  2. trav - so glad you are feeling better friend! sending hugs yalls way today and always! xo

  3. Wow--amazing story!!Congrats on reaching the top!! So sorry you became ill--thanks Maggie for taking care of my boy. Love you both!!

  4. WOW! what an experience. incredible. I am so proud of both of you. you are both inspiring. Trav- I am glad you are feeling better, what a crazy story. thanks for such descriptive and detailed posts, love you guys!


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