Mountaineering in The Cordillera Real: Part 2

Article by planetFear
Monday 10th May 2010

Co-written by David Wolf and Norie Kizaki, Boulder, Colorado, USA



Attaining 6,440 meters, Illimani is the highest and southernmost peak in the Cordillera Real, and the second highest peak in Bolivia. It is also one of the most dramatic mountains in the world. Rising nearly 4,000 meters from its surrounding valleys, Illimani towers over La Paz, and can be seen from nearly every city street corner. The La Paz / Illimani city-scape is one of the greatest in the Americas, easily rivaling that of Quito / Cotopaxi, Puebla / Ixta-Popo, Seattle / Mount Rainier, Portland / Mount Hood, and Denver / Mount Evans.

Illimani’s west face, as seen from the outskirts of La Paz (on the road to Pinaya). The north summit is the pointy wedge-shaped peak on the far left; the main (south) summit is the highest point to the right; the central summit is the high mound between them (separated from the south summit by a gentle “hammock” ridge)


Illimani is not a single mountain, but a gigantic and complex massif sporting several distinct summits. The three main summits, named north, central, and south, are the ones most commonly climbed, and the ones most easily discernable from La Paz. The highest summit, the south summit, also happens to be the easiest and most popular ascent of all.

Approach - Pinaya

Find 4x4 transportation from La Paz to the small agricultural village of Pinaya, which lies on the western flanks of the mountain. While Illimani appears to be close, this journey will actually take three hours. The ride is spectacular. It follows a good, sealed road for the first hour or so after leaving La Paz’s southern suburbs. It then passes through several small towns and skirts scores of luscious plantations before plummeting into a very large and deep river gorge. The road turns to dirt well before this gorge, and the ride becomes rough, narrow, and wild. There is a very impressive canyon guarded by huge rock spires on the way. The bridge at the valley floor represents the lowest elevation of the journey, and may be the lowest elevation you reach on your entire trip to Bolivia. At only 2,800 meters, the air is positively thick down here!

From the bridge, the road meanders as it climbs up Illimani’s lower flanks to Pinaya, elevation about 3,650 meters. The view becomes more breathtaking with every kilometer. Indeed, Illimani now looks less like a singular mountain, and more like its own mountain range, with snow-capped peaks stretching across the entire eastern skyline.

Approach - Puente Roto (Camp I)

Pre-arrange donkeys and porters in La Paz; any of the major outfitters can do this for you ahead of time (if you don’t pre-arrange, you may have to wait in Pinaya for several hours while the locals organize their donkeys). Once your gear is loaded, find a good trail network leading up and east towards the mountain. Pass through the dispersed village, crossing over creeks and through groves of eucalyptus trees. Eventually, climb above the plantations to reach the páramo. Traverse left up grass-covered slopes to arrive at a very large field criss-crossed with gently flowing streams. This is Puente Roto, or “Broken Bridge,” the most popular base camp for accessing routes on the west face of Illimani. At an elevation of 4,380 meters, this camp is about a 90-minute hike from Pinaya.


The trail to Puente Roto, just above Pinaya.
Illimani’s north summit is on the left, the south summit on the right

There are dozens of camp sites at Puente Roto, but unfortunately the residents of Pinaya do not keep the area clean. The whole plateau is littered with appalling volumes of trash in the form of plastic bags, coke bottles, broken glass, and rusted metal cans. Even worse, the locals do not bother to control their livestock. As such, Puente Roto is perilously overrun with horses, donkeys, and pigs. The pigs do the most damage, using their snouts and teeth to dig into the delicate grasses, causing ugly ruts and destroying the alpine tundra. Moreover, there are so many animals up here that they have contaminated the entire area with excrement. The streams are almost opaque with animal filth; it is recommended to both filter and boil the water here. It made us just nauseous to see such an amazingly beautiful place so callously abused.

Approach - Nido de Condores (Camp II)

Because the trails above Puente Roto are rocky, narrow, and steep, donkeys cannot venture further and human porters are needed if you want help ferrying gear. After spending a night (or more) at Puente Roto, find a good trail leading up and to the south. This trail is well-marked by cairns and painted blue arrows. Cross a series of gushing waterfalls that drains a highly fractured glacier several hundred meters above the trail. If you hit this area early in the morning, you can actually amuse yourself by climbing some waterfall ice; routes of all angles and difficulties exist, given the right conditions.

Follow the trail up into a wide gully of fine, yellow-colored scree. This “yellow gully” is visible from just above Pinaya. Climb it maybe 120 meters up to a large, rocky col, site of another trashed out campsite. This is the half-way point of the ascent to Nido de Condores (“Condors’ Nest”), the typical high camp on the west face of Illimani. There’s a great view of Sajama, Bolivia’s highest peak, form here—you can’t miss it, it’s the solitary snow-capped volcano way off in the distance to the southwest.

Just above this campsite, the trail becomes much rockier. Skirt a large promontory and follow the trail up onto the ridge leading to Nido de Condores. Ascend the ridge, more or less directly along its crest, over several false summits. The highly fractured rock is almost exclusively shale. After about four hours from Puente Roto, arrive at the small and fairly exposed Nido de Condores campsite, a rocky mound at an elevation of 5,450 meters offering maybe eight tent platforms. (Incidentally, even if you’re not a climber and have no aspirations to ascend Illimani, the hike up to Nido de Condores is well worth the effort!)


A portion of the broken, serrated, and fluted west face of Illimani, as seen from the hike up to Nido de Condores. This glacier falls from a satellite point flanking the north summit. It constantly calves, and is therefore source of the incessant booming and crackling noises so easily heard from Nido camp. The north summit is the gentle-looking mound far to the left of the photo.

Carefully study the upper glacier from the safety of camp to get a feel for the route, keeping in mind that the terrain looks gentler than it actually is. This is because most of the route’s steep sections are hidden from view, and the glacier is deceptively hard and icy. Try not to let the incessant shrieking of collapsing seracs disturb your sleep. . . The glaciers below Illimani’s north and central summits constantly calve—and loudly!—but the route to the south summit is largely free of such hazards.

Illimani, South Summit

This route may be best described as “cold and convoluted.” It’s mostly low-angled terrain, interspersed with no fewer than six steep sections, most of which are composed of hard ice (especially later in the climbing season). The route is long, confusing, and rather circuitous as it snakes its way up Illimani’s topographically complex southwest shoulder. It’s not wanded, and the path of least resistance is not at all obvious, especially on a moonless night. As a result, finding the “proper” route without an experienced guide would likely require a good deal of luck.

Unless everyone in your party has recently climbed a 6,000 meter peak and is legitimately well-acclimatized to that elevation, it’s probably best to get an early start, say between 2:00 and 3:00 am. Bid a fond farewell to the solid rocks of Nido camp, for your entire day will be spent playing among ice and snow.

Within ten minutes after leaving camp, arrive at a tapering 60-meter ridge of 45-degree ice. Take care here—and all day long—to press your crampons into the ice with conviction, utilizing as many points as possible; Illimani is notoriously cruel on those who wield their crampons carelessly. Also, take the time to set up a running belay on this and every subsequent steep section. Any slip on this ice would risk pulling your entire party off the mountain.

After the first 45-degree ridge, there is a brief respite of low-angled terrain before a second, steeper ridge. Such is the character of this entire route—climb one steep crux, reach a more gradual section; then come to another headwall, and so forth. Some of the steep sections are icier than others.

The third steep section, a short headwall, is about as sheer as the second. Ascend it to a small false summit, elevation about 5,600 meters. Depending on your level of acclimatization and the speed with which you place running belays, it could take 50 to 80 minutes to reach this point from camp.

Even if you have moonlight, it will be essentially impossible to see where the route goes from here. Illimani is complex and gigantic; even its highest flanks comprise a jumbled landmass of icy hills, walls, valleys, etc. Thus, from the false summit, there will be an enormous heap of white looming in front of you to the northeast, but you can neither see the true south summit, nor how to access it.

Continue northeast-ward, gradually ascending for another 30 minutes. Arrive at the fourth crux, a 55-degree headwall of sheer ice. It’s only about 15 meters high, but it’s dramatic. Front-point up it to reach a nice flat spot, elevation about 5,850 meters. This is a good place to rest and hydrate. It could easily take over two hours to get here from Nido.

The next section is long and fairly low-angled. This may be the first spot on the entire route where you find néve instead of hard glacial or blue-ice. After hiking for about 20 minutes over gentle snow, come to the fifth crux, another 55-degree icy headwall. It’s about 30 meters high, but much wider than the last headwall. Ascend it to the base of a narrow, sloping ramp. Use this ramp to avoid a really nasty headwall guarded by a massive crevasse at its base. Keep in mind that the ramp’s narrowness could cause a bottleneck if you choose a popular summit day. (Of the entire route, this ramp and the final summit ridge are the only places where you might experience cuing delays.)

The ramp slopes up and east (to the right) for about 40 meters. Reach the top, from where you can see the summit ridge (still very far away). Although the ramp itself isn’t difficult, it may be a good idea to place some protection at the top, since the crux of the entire route is not far above.

From the top of the ramp, immediately engage a section of steep, sugary snow. Kick good steps for about 30 vertical meters up to the crux of the entire route: a slightly overhanging shelf of ice prominently protruding from the sugar. This shelf is really the “lip” of a steep and very large ice slab. Getting onto the lip is the scariest move of the entire ascent; you’ll likely need your axe for leverage (indeed, two ice tools would be ideal here). Above the lip is the steepest, longest, most exposed, and last of the six cruxes: 40 meters or so of 55 to 60-degree hard, blue-ice. Climb it with good running belays (screws make bomber protection here) and, ideally, two ice tools.

Above the blue-ice slope, both the steepness and the hardness of the snow relent. There are no more cruxes, just a couple of long easy slogs (of course, “easy” is a relative term at this elevation!). You’re now high on the southwest shoulder of Illimani’s enormous upper massif. The true south summit is only about 300 vertical meters above you to the northeast, and appears as a pointy white triangle. Beware of powerful and bitterly cold winds from here on up!

Make an ascending traverse leftward for about 150 meters over a slope of good, easy néve, tracing a circumference around the “cone” of the south summit as you go. At the top of this traverse, come to an obvious snow rib. Cross the rib, then descend a few meters into a wide col. This col is really part of the giant basin separating the south summit from the central summit. Beware of crevasses in this area, which may be hidden under unstable, wind-blown snow. From the col, look directly east to survey the final obstacle—an easy but tiring snow-slope leading right up to the summit ridge.

Ascend the final 35 to 40-degree slope of néve about 170-meters up to the summit ridge. Then turn left and stroll about 40 horizontal meters north across the narrow but easy ridge to the summit. Given that it’s the pinnacle of an absolute behemoth of a mountain, the south summit is surprisingly tiny!

It will likely be very cold and windy up here. But be sure to check out the spectacular views (weather permitting) of Illimani’s central and north summits, of Sajama, of La Paz, of Lake Titicaca, and of the entire Cordillera Real, which seems to pierce the northern horizon like a serrated ivory knife.

 Co-author Norie Kizaki descending the narrow but easy summit ridge of Illimani’s south summit. This view shows that the Cordillera Real peters off south of Illimani, giving way to lower, rockier mountain chains.









Descending the cone of Illimani’s south summit, with the col between the south and central summits presenting its gentle expanse off to the right. The central summit is the mound at the top of the photo on the right; the north summit is the pointier wedge near the photo’s top-left corner

Allow five to seven hours to make the south summit from camp. The central summit, should you chose to climb it as well, would be an easy stroll, but you’d have to descend probably 250 meters or so into the wide basin northwest of the south summit, then regain most of that elevation back again.















Co-author Norie Kizaki and Bolivian guide Hilarion taking a rest on descent.
This photo was taken near the “nice flat spot, elevation about 5,850 meters” mentioned in the route description. The route up from here snakes
its way gradually past the obvious crevasses to reach another steep headwall (not visible).

Descent is straightforward until you come to the blue-ice slab. Build a good v-thread or bollard and down-climb it on belay, or just rap it. Either way, aim for the top of the narrow ramp, which is actually hard to see from above, since the overhanging ice lip blocks the view (be sure to wand the lip on ascent). From the ramp, it’s relatively smooth sailing, just descend the way you came up, obviously taking extra care on the steep sections. Descend these sections on rappel or belay, always taking the time to protect them for the last climber (unprotected falls while on descent have apparently claimed the lives of many exhausted Illimani climbers). Allow three to five hours for the entire descent from south summit to Nido.

Three notes on climbing Illimani

1) This is a very cold peak. The south summit route, because it ascends the west side of the mountain, gets no early-morning sun. So wear lots of layers and pack a good synthetic or down coat in case there is a bottleneck at the narrow ramp, or in case you have to wait for slower climbers in your own party. This is not a technically demanding route, so there is little reason to compromise comfort for performance. In other words, you’ll probably be happier with warmer, lower-performance gear than the lighter high-performance gear you might use for more technically challenging ascents in the Alps or Rockies.

2) A mountaineering axe will suffice for most of the south summit route, but you’ll climb the cruxes more efficiently and more comfortably with two ice tools. So either use two tools for the entire climb, or attach them to your pack so that they are easily accessible for the steep sections. You’ll be especially thankful you have them on the descent.

3) Regarding protection, you won’t need all that much, since the cruxes are so short. Three pickets and four ice screws per rope team should be adequate (especially if you’re good at making v-threads). One reason to bring more gear might be if your team isn’t very practiced with placing running belays. In this case, you may want to carry substantially more protection, which would allow you to leave anchors at the cruxes for use on descent. Each climber should definitely carry at least one wand, as well. Route-finding on Illimani is tricky enough in good visibility; in poor visibility it could become a nightmare.

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