A sleepless night under the stars of Illampu

4 October 2018


In 2016, we crossed the Illampu massif from Cocooyo to Lacatiya, via the Pic Nord and part of the ridges leading to the Pic Sud. It was a fine expedition, with a challenging ascent to the North Peak, then a beautiful rounded ridge to the summit and a slightly exposed descent. We abandoned the ridges leading to the Pic Sud, which were too dangerous and too exposed.

This year, we’re back on these ridges. We returned to the viewpoint at the foot of the pass where we had left off. A magnificent viewpoint above the Sorata valley. Uninterrupted view of the ridges from the North Peak to the South Peak. A pretty plateau perched above the void, the only moment of respite in this vertical world. So beautiful and restful that this camp has been called the Mirador de las Estrellas, the viewpoint of the stars.

It wasn’t easy to hoist ourselves back up to the mirador….we suspected as much. Everything happens vertically, the wall gets steeper and steeper, from 60º to 75º, the rock wall is unstable……a boulder hit me hard… Hugo had been scouting the rock wall and was almost swept away by a boulder that came loose. His big 30kg rucksack hadn’t helped him, but at least it had cushioned his fall. Once he’d recovered, he realised that I was right in the path below with Ignacio. I saw the boulder coming straight at me, just like in the movies….you see everything in slow motion, but no matter how fast you react, the boulder hit me on the left side of my head. More frightened than hurt. I had a headache but my head seemed to have held up. A vertical slope nestled under a huge serac brought us to this life-saving plateau. What happiness! A flat space to pitch the tent, warmth under the tent, a view of the valley below and the peaks above….. I was able to recharge the batteries. We were at 5800m.

During the night, we set off to climb the ridges. I was rested and therefore motivated.

The slopes were steep, getting steeper and steeper. We had to reach the ridges on slopes of 75º to 80º. It was hard work and I saw the ridges as a goal, a release. I still had one more step to take before I reached the ridges, and my heart skipped a beat. My foot was slipping and I realised I’d run out of crampons. A huge fright. My crampon was hooked under my other foot by the strap. I didn’t have to move until the guys came to get it. One last step and I was on the ridges! I thought I’d take a breather, recover from my emotions. I was convinced that Ignacio was waiting for us from a comfortable plateau.

It was quite the opposite. We arrived on a very aerial, very tapered ridge… we were on a wire with the void on both sides. It was splendid, aerial and impressive. What followed was a succession of ridges, some rocky, some made of ice… you had to be careful with everything. I touched some snow ledges and they immediately disappeared under my feet with a sheer drop of over 1000m. We were now in the real world of vertical climbing, with no place to rest, sit down or recuperate. Some of the rock passages were very exposed, and some of the ice crossings very impressive. I was shaking, catching my breath and making progress, that was the main thing.

At around 4pm, we reached a snow-covered peak, which was the goal we’d set ourselves for today. I was very happy, but I could feel that the guys were worried. They told me they were going to explore a little further. They abseiled down the rock face to an ice ridge and then up a rock face opposite. They told me that there didn’t seem to be anywhere to sleep comfortably in a tent. I prayed that they would miraculously find a place to pitch the tent. They explored the route a little. I didn’t hold out much hope. Here everything is vertical, no place to lie down, walls of ice or rock faces. Below us, the slope was just as vertical, ending in a huge serac and a terrifying abyss.

I was beginning to realise what was going to happen. They came back and confirmed that we were going to sleep there. I hadn’t moved a muscle and I wasn’t going to move for 14 hours. I didn’t want to eat or drink because I didn’t even know if I was going to be able to go to the toilet. It was too vertical to remove the harness. All I had to do was put on my sleeping bag and I was ready.

It was the longest and most terrifying night of my life, but also the most extraordinary. We had the whole sky at our fingertips, billions of stars, an unforgettable experience, perched at 6100m above the void. I felt chunks of ice falling down my neck, my whole body ached because we were in such an uncomfortable position. At times, I was shaking from head to toe, unable to keep warm. It was a constant battle to keep out the cold. Hugo was also struggling beside me and Ignacio was a little lower down. The only thing I was waiting for was for the sky to change colour, heralding the dawn. Eventually it did, but we had to wait another two hours before the sun caught up with us.

It was an incredible night, and I don’t know if I’d ever want to go through it again, although it was an extraordinary experience. I struggled to emerge and recover. I struggled to get out of my sleeping bag. The cold had invaded my whole body and I’d lost all my strength fighting it all night. I was ready to continue yesterday, but this morning I didn’t feel strong enough. If we carried on, we’d have to spend another 2 or 3 nights in the same conditions. Higher up, there seemed to be impassable walls, random ledges… and we weren’t sure whether it would pass between the false summit we could see and the South Peak. I’d heard that there was no possible passage. Stalling up there after 3 nights in a bivouac was certain death. We wouldn’t have the strength to turn back. There was no way out below us. We had to come back the same way.

It was difficult to give up where we were. But, for me, it wasn’t possible, too hard, too much commitment. I think I’d reached my limit. The guys will have to go on without me to finish the connection to the Pic Sud one day.

So we headed back down to the mirador des étoiles, our pleasant camp on the plateau. I couldn’t get warm, I was shivering and I was also having panic attacks. I couldn’t breathe on some very exposed sections – too much stress. We abseiled back down to the pass.

Resting at the mirador was a pleasure, but the descent to the high camp at 5100 was very long and tiring, but we already knew that. In the meantime, our cook had left because he’d been attacked by condors and was having a panic attack… we’re thinking more of hallucinations. So many emotions on the Illampu massif.

What’s certain is that this camp at the mirador des étoiles is quite simply splendid and exceptional. A magical place not to be missed. The view opens out over the Sorata valley below, the ridges of Illampu and the Schulz, a world of ice and rock. A privileged spot in the middle of this vertical world. For experienced and passionate mountaineers, sleeping at the mirador des étoiles is just incredible. From here, you can climb to the Pic Nord (easier to access from this side) and explore the vertiginous ridges. We have renamed the peak where we bivouacked: La pesadilla de Anita, Anita’s nightmare.