We had already conquered Huayna Potosi (6088m) five days previously but we were still craving something a little more challenging and Mount Illimani (6490m) was going to be the one: its six peaks loom over La Paz dominating the landscape. Organising the climb was a major undertaking, as we didn’t book through an agency. We hired a guide privately and organized all our food, equipment and transport ourselves, but this made the trip even more exciting as it was a proper expedition.
We set off from La Paz early in the morning then it was a bumpy three and half hour drive to a small village called Estancia Una. After unloading all the equipment is was a 3hr hike to the base camp where we set up the tents for the night. The setting was idyllic: we were surrounded by rolling hills, streams and hundreds of llamas and sheep. After a good nights sleep we felt rested for the day ahead which was going to be a steep 4hr trek up to High Camp.
Fortunately we had organised two porters in the village to carry some of our equipment and food. I felt slightly ashamed at this point, as there was us kitted out in our expensive high tech equipment and rucksacks while the porters had rubbers sandals and a cotton sheet to carry our supplies. They even proceeded to embarrass us more by reaching high camp 1hr before we did.
Feeling pretty tired from days trekking we slowly set up the tents at the high camp which was at an altitude of 5500m , then we ate a light soup that “Chef Marco” prepared for us.
The entire camp was covered in a thick cloud for most of the afternoon, with only fleeting glimpses of the mighty Illimani. Just as we we’re off to bed the clouds parted and we got our first proper view of the entire mountain and the route we would be taking to the summit! At this point my nerves kicked in and the daunting task ahead slowly dawned on me. We weren’t able to enjoy the view for long as we needed to go bed even though it was only 7pm. Our guide Hugo was going to be waking us at midnight to start our ascent under the light of the moon and headlamps.
The reason for starting the climb in the night is due to the snow an ice conditions being at their best. If you leave any later when the sun rises it begins to melt the snow and ice making the conditions very dangerous on the descent.
After 5hrs of restless and uncomfortable sleep, due to the effects of altitude and extreme cold temperatures, the time had come! We clambered out of the tent to find perfect conditions, completely clear sky’s we even had views right to the summit and almost a full moon. There was just a blanket of clouds below us.
The first part of the climb was very hard going as our bodies were slowly adjusting to the thin air, and the steep walls of ice and snow we were slowly zig-zaging up seemed endless. None of us were talking the only words we spoke were, “ STOP” or “Are you OK”. All of us were deep in concentration ensuring that each step we took was secure and that our crampons gripped the snow and ice tightly. Hugo our guide had told us the most important thing you need to do is ensure that every step you take you have a good grip in the snow. If any of us slipped or fell, we were all could be sliding down the mountain side, as we were all attached to one rope. We all needed to be ready at any time to roll on our front dig our ice axe and hold on for dear life, literally!!!!
The last hour of the climb was exhilarating and exhausting at the same time. It was freezing and getting colder with every step; the temperature was probably -15 degrees C with the wind chill factor. My body felt drained of energy but I felt uplifted by the spectacular views with every step they were getting even more dramatic. The sun was beginning to rise turning the sky orange and the lights of La Paz glowed in the distance. I kept on telling myself, “Keep going you’ve come this far there is no turning back now!
The last 50m to the summit were the hardest for me, I felt exhausted. We were taking such small steps that it took us half an hour to finally get there. Unlike Huayna Potosi there isn’t peak as such, just a wide flat crest,which makes it hard to identify where the the summit was, Hugo reassured when we had reached it, with a big hug and congratulations! We were fatigued and over whelmed and we couldn’t quite believe we had me it. Afterwards we all just sat there taking in the spectacular views, the sky was bright blue and it really did feel like we were on top of the world.
Then came photo time and we were all determined to have the evidence that we had made it to the summit. The night before we made little notes on the back chocolate bar wrappers stating the date, mountain, altitude and our names. We were all ready to hold them up proudly in front of the camera. As we got them out of our pockets Marco unexpectedly handed me a note; I turned it over and it read, “Piccola I love you! Will you marry me? Before I could say anything, he got down on one knee and asked again will you marry me? At that point I was almost crying and I don’t think I could speak, a combination of the altitude and emotion, of course I said yes though! So we’re now engaged and will be getting married the summer of 2011 in Italy!
The descent was just as amazing as reaching the summit itself, as we were able to take in all details of the mountain we had missed on the way up: from huge crevasses’ to the spectacular views, we could see almost the entire chain of the Bolivian Cordillera Real De Los Andes and Lake Titicaca. But the best thing was to walk down with the sun on our faces knowing that we made it to the summit of such a magnificent mountain.