I left Quito and traveled just a few kilometers south to a natural reserve in the Andes, on my way to Cuenca, still in Ecuador. I met an Ecuadorian guy who’s an Andean mountain guide and convinced him to take me on a short adventure to Illiniza Norte, a mountain with an elevation of 5126 meters (16,818 ft)
I am traveling on a budget, so the $200 he usually charges didn’t sound so good to me. We became friends though, and after a few beers he agreed to take me for free the following day, as long as I paid for transportation, food for both of us, and the rental of my tent. It was a done deal!
We left Quito Friday morning towards Machachi, the town at the foothill of what used to be a volcano, before it erupted, breaking it into two mountains, Illiniza Norte and Illiniza Sur.
We hired someone to take us to the camping area inside the park for $20 one way, we got $10 worth of food and paid a two-dollar entrance fee per person.
We got there in the afternoon. The freshness of the mountain was enjoyably overwhelming and the almost-forgotten sounds of nature flooded the air. I slept, to the sound of a flowing creek and the wind, until 4:00 am, when we started hiking up to the summit.
Alexis (my Ecuadorian friend) had showed some mistrust on my ability to adjust to the altitude. After all, I had only been in Quito for two days and he’s seen even the strongest succumb to altitude sickness. I wasn’t too concerned, but around 4:10 am Saturday, about 100 meters away from our tents, I was swallowing my words, or – better said – throwing them up.
My head didn’t feel right, my legs felt like Jell-O, every breath I took seemed useless; minutes later I was hanging over a rock, gagging in the darkness.
I felt terrible. Had I gone all that way to turn around without even beginning? No way. I wasn’t about to give up so easily. I reached into my daypack for a baggie of coca leaves a German girl had gifted me at the hostel in Quito. These have been used for over a thousand years in the Andes to heal altitude sickness, and besides being one of the many ingredients in the associated narcotic; it has not much else in common with it. They are also completely legal in raw form in some South American countries, for its traditional use.
I had decided to fight through my sickness, but I have to admit, I had no idea how far I could make it, so I took it –- literary -- step-by-step, as I chewed on a leaf.
Alexis asked me several times if I wanted to turn back but I insisted on continuing. I had to stop a few times, totally nauseated, in ten step intervals until he told me that the next time he would be the one to decide whether or not I could continue. So I told myself it couldn’t happen again.
Slowly I started feeling better. I was focused on nothing else but my breath and each step. Our headlamps were the brightest thing on the mountain and we kept walking through a forest.
As we advanced the vegetation started to change and sunlight began to peek through the clouds. It was also getting colder and windier as we approached the southeast ridge. I was definitely not in my normal shape, but I was able to keep going.
The scenery kept changing. It went from forest to tundra, to sand and rock covered in ice. It was absolutely beautiful. The sky was clearing, the sun rising, and I, still walking. I couldn’t believe it. The beauty surrounding me was making ever step worth it.
Three and a half hours later and at 5000 meters (16,404 ft), with a stunning view in front of us, I had to stop and rest once again. I was completely exhausted and, shortly after we stopped moving, absolutely freezing. But I was ecstatic to be there, contemplating first hand the beauty of the world, the powerful view of the Andes.
We were only 126 meters away from the summit, but we had to climb the last part of the route, and it would take another hour.
Exhausted, on an empty stomach, freezing and with no gloves, I couldn’t think of giving another step upwards, let alone trusting my life to my now-numbed hands as they grabbed on to frozen rock. I had reached my limit. I decided to turn back.
The hike down was easier and I was able to enjoy the scenery more, now that I wasn’t struggling for every breath. I drank water from a natural spring and made my way back to camp with a giant smile on my face.
Once back down, warm and comfortable, I kicked myself for not finishing. I wanted to be able to say I had made it to the summit on my first try, but I couldn’t.
It seemed so much easier in my memory, but realistically, being up there, amidst the elements, is a different game.
Once I realized that, it felt good to have had my butt kicked by the mountain. It was a reminder of my own nature, of my limitations. It reminded me not to under-estimate the power of nature. It was humbling.
Living in a city, everything we want is at the tip of our fingers. Everything we want is relatively easy to obtain. Getting anywhere is only a drive away. This was something that wasn’t going to come to me so easily, and I learned to accept it.
I was still happy for how far I had made it. I felt lucky for being able to experience the beauty of the mountain and I promised Illiniza Norte I would be back to earn the summit.