American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Illimani's Northeast Ridge: Reverance and Rape

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1978

Illimani’s Northeast Ridge: Reverence and Rape

Jack Miller

Coming down from Nevado Illimani we encountered a “brujo”— witchdoctor—who had lived his 80 years in the mountain’s shadow. He had spent the previous two nights, at the request of some peasant miners, out somewhere below the glaciers, asking permission of Illimani to extract her mineral gold. On this ascent up from the village below—his second for this purpose—the mountain rumbled with avalanches; for the brujo these were favorable signs.

The lake, Wila Kkota, at 17,000 feet high on Illimani’s shoulder, is a special one to the villagers who live far below. In times of drought they climb up and take a bucketful or two of the lake’s sacred water and carry it down to their fields. If this results in rain, as it nearly always does, they are careful to return to the lake the amount of water they had taken.

COMPARED to these acts of reverence, our climb was an act of rape. We arrived, climbed the mountain, and a week and a half later we left. Clean and efficient. And because of our remarkable efficiency I came away with the strong feeling of having missed out on something, a knowledge of the mountain, an “intimacy”, to use Shipton’s word, that these people of deeper awareness possess.

July, 1977. After thoroughly acclimatizing to altitude in other ranges in Bolivia, Del Young and I felt ready for an alpine-style attempt on the northeast ridge of Illimani. This ridge was virgin ground, as are most of the fine routes in Bolivia, and apparently the most difficult undertaking on the mountain to date. The groundwork had been laid in 1973 (see A.A.J., 1974, p. 128) when Andy Daly and I climbed about half of the route before weather and climbing difficulties beat us back. The only comparable route, the north ridge climbed by Spaniards in 1969,* had required several weeks and more than a dozen men. In our obsession with efficiency we wanted to avoid that.

Getting to the mountain was as simple as flagging a cab in La Paz. Our heroic driver got us, in his battered Chevvy, up the abandoned mine road to the foot of the mountain, crossing scree slides that might have stopped a jeep. For the first leg we relayed our loads towards the mountain, but even this seemed too “expedition” for our temperaments, so we piled it all on our backs. At our second camp, at 16,000 feet, we rested for a day. A long haul then got us over the moraines and around a shoulder of the mountain, past the sacred Wila Kkota, and up the interminable scree to a camp at the base of the actual climbing.

The lower shoulder of Illimani’s northeast ridge is made of a hard, broken volcanic rock that is fluted into a maze of very steep gullies and sub-ridges. Route-finding was exceedingly complicated, demanding a mental scrutiny that we found taxing at that altitude. Whenever we could, we shunned the rope, for purposes of speed, although with heavy packs on that vertical rock we would have preferred continual belays. Because of my earlier attempt on the route I was able to sort out most of the blind passages from the real ones, and we covered in one day what had cost Andy and me three. When climbing past our rappel anchors from 1973, the webbing, now bleached white, came apart in our hands; we prudently dug out the rusty anch?r pins to use higher up.

The weather, as it was to be for our ten days on the mountain, was clear and we often had the luxury of dry rock. In ’73 we never saw the route; now we enjoyed not only the crystal-clear views far out over the Amazon basin but also glimpses of the steep icy ridge above us. Passing the ice gully where Andy and I had cut a small platform and spent the night I had to chuckle at how precarious it was; now I could see that the ice ended a few feet lower and the icicles that hung off the end of it pointed to scree, hundereds of feet below.

A row of rock towers stood on the ridge itself. One or two we climbed over, but generally it was easier to go around. Leaving the ridge, we climbed onto its shaded east face and swam upward through crotch-deep snow sitting on steep rock; for three tense pitches climbing was most unpleasant.

Back on the ridge, it looked as if we had another quarter-mile of these tiresome towers. The next one in line, where Andy and I had quit, turned out to be particularly nasty, and we climbed only a rope-length before calling it a day. While Del chipped space for our tent, I scouted the system of ice gullies below; we cooked dinner that night, heartened by the discovery of a by-pass.

The shortcut was only a small bonus, as it turned out. Once around that tower, the next morning, we were climbing others, on steep rock and ice. We began extending ourselves more and more. Looking back, I realize that somewhere about this point we had grown so involved with the climb that we stopped putting a value on risks. We knew we were taking risks whenever they came up, of course, but I can’t say what it would have taken to make us decide the climb was too dangerous and back off.

We placed our highest camp on a hanging glacier and with the full afternoon ahead climbed several hundred feet of ice chutes and ice-covered rock, the steepness and sheer exposure forcing us to belay often. In other times I would have belayed every foot, but there was not time. As the light faded, we felt so rushed that we even considered a moonlight push to the summit. With a good 2000 feet still to go, our decision to return for a night in the tent proved wise.

An early morning start got us up the pitches we had scouted the day before and onto an open, snowy shoulder of the ridge just as the sun hit us. We had always expected the final ridge to be only moderately steep, but as we got right under it we discovered this was not so. With a deft bit of ice-axe gymnastics, Del crossed the gap in the bergschrund, then pulled me across. Standing on steep ice, hooked to a screw, we then argued whether to belay each other up the vast steep slopes soaring above us. I had to agree we didn’t have the time; what’s more, any use of the rope at all would be dangerous. On slopes this steep a falling climber would only yank his partner off. Climbing unbelayed wasn’t new to Del, who had soloed Mount Kenya’s Diamond Couloir earlier in the year, and I decided it was time for me to learn, so we stuffed the rope in a pack and headed up.

There’s not much new to say about steep ice climbing. It was a continual battle of nerves. The ridge offered no comfort when we got to it, only double the exposure, and we felt better out on the face. The foot-deep “nieves penitentes”, perpendicular to the slope, were little help. When frozen they jabbed into our shins and threatened, should we fall, to shred us like a cheesegrater; when softened by the afternoon sun, they were slushy nuisances that gave no purchase, and got between our crampons and the ice.

The summit, for me at least, marked only the upward phase of our accomplishment; we still had the ordeal of getting down. Between my crampons, a huge dark pit—the great cirque that forms the east face of the mountain—pulled at my brain; it seemed only to be waiting for a misstep. On our one belay, when crossing the sun-softened lip of the ridge, I fell. Having held me, Del took advantage of the trough I cleaned to use his front points.

There is no describing the tedium and terror of backing down that face, nor our exasperation as the climbing, because of the mush on top of black ice, grew increasingly worse. Just at dark, Del found the screw that marked the only crossing over the gaping schrund. Too wet and cold to consider a bivouac, we climbed down and rappelled with utmost caution, the moon floodlighting our last hours back to camp.

The valley folk shared none of our sense of achievement. Only the brujo showed mild interest, and asked: “What did you leave on top?” It seemed that in his own psychic way he wanted to verify the event. When I replied, “Nothing, except possibly some tracks …” he looked me straight in the eye. “Bah!,” he said, and went on about his business.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Cordillera Real, Bolivia

New Route: Illimani, 21,201 feet, via the Northeast Ridge, July, 1977 (Jack Miller, Del Young).

* See A.A.J., 1970, pages 172-3. Italians and South Africans repeated the route in 1977. See Climbs and Expeditions section below.

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