Ecuador // The central sierra //

Reserva Ecológica Los Ilinizas

Looming over the west side of the Panamericana is the sharp, jagged outline of the twin-peaked Ilinizas, two massive pyramids of rock about a kilometre apart joined by a wide saddle, which are the namesakes of an ecological reserve (entrance $5) set up in 1996 to protect just under 1500 square kilometres of rugged hilly terrain, páramo, lakes and cloudforest of the western cordillera. The horseshoe-shaped reserve curves from the Ilinizas and El Corazón around the northern half of the Quilotoa loop to Zumbahua and beyond. In its eastern region, the reserve is most easily accessed from El Chaupi on the road beyond Hostal Llovizna, from where expeditions to climb the two Ilinizas most commonly depart. The larger Iliniza Sur (5248m) dominates the view from the Panamericana; it’s an exciting technical climb only experienced mountaineers should attempt. Strong, confident hill walkers can manage Iliniza Norte (5126m), though there is a demanding scramble near the summit and the altitude can be really debilitating if you’re not sufficiently acclimatized. The basics of climbing the Ilinizas are outlined below; the route on both peaks is difficult to follow in bad weather, so use of a guide is strongly advised (for recommended climbing guides in Quito). Both Norte and Sur are approached from the Neuvos Horizontes refuge($10) at 4765m, just below the saddle between the two peaks. It has bunks for 25 people (bring a sleeping bag), cooking facilities, gas lighting and running water.

Climbing the Ilinizas

The easiest way of getting to the refuge is to take a 4WD camioneta (about $15 from El Chaupi; arrange through your hostal) to the car park lot known as La Virgen, marked by a shrine to the Virgin Mary, near the base of the Ilinizas, 9km from El Chaupi. From La Virgen, you continue on foot along a clearly marked trail to the refuge (2–3hr). To get to the refuge entirely on foot takes around five to seven hours from El Chaupi, or about four to six hours from Hacienda San José. Coming back, allow about three to four hours to get from the refuge down to El Chaupi. From the refuge count on needing two to three hours to reach the summit of Iliniza Norte. The route is easy to follow, though very steep in parts. The bulk of it involves crossing a rocky ridge – via the unnervingly named Paso de Muerte (“Death Pass”), which requires great care in high winds and snow. The final climb to the summit, marked by an iron cross, involves some scrambling and a head for heights. Coming down is quite fast if you follow the scree slopes below the ridge (1hr 30min). Climbing Iliniza Sur involves a steep ice climb and crossing crevasses, something that is becoming increasingly complicated with the rapidly changing state of the glaciers. You’ll need plenty of experience and full mountaineering equipment. You should also wear a helmet to provide protection from falling rocks. It takes three to five hours to reach the summit depending on conditions, after an early start from the refuge.

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