Illiniza Norte is the smaller of two "twin peaks" collectively known as the Illinizas. Originally part of the same old volcano, Illiniza Norte and Illiniza Sur are two of Ecuador's most famous peaks.
Illiniza Norte is best known as an acclimitization peak for those looking to reach even higher summits and is essentially a walk-up during snow-free conditions for those used to scrambling in the higher elevations, but a good challenge to those without much experience. At 16,818 feet it'll get you breathing a bit harder but not sucking air like Cotopaxi and Chimborazo.
There are two main easier routes on the peak: the Normal Route and the descent route. The majority of climbers go up the Normal Route and, if they plan to spend the night at the refugio or leave gear there they need to collect, go back down the same way. Climbers who plan to make a circuit of the peak usually go up the Normal Route and down the descent route, although some do it in reverse. Or some, like my wife and I, because of circumstances I'll discuss in the Normal Route description, ascend AND descend the descent route.
Whichever way you plan to do it, know that going up the descent route is a tough slog most of the way - step up one foot, slide back down two - due to the nature of volcanic sand and gravel covering the majority of the slope. This will be to your advantage on the way back down, though, and make the descent fun and easy for the most part. Just remember to bring gaiters!
Climbers with limited time and unlimited money can either rent a car or pickup in Quito or hire a vehicle to take them straight to the trailhead or to one of the hostals near the base. For us dirtbags, though, take the bus to Machachi for about $1.00, then one of the blue and white buses to El Chaupi for about $.80.
El Chaupi is a tiny little town with a couple hostals along the main street and a few others scattered about on dirt roads, some closer than others to the trailhead. The El Chaupi bus will drop you off in the center of "town", and from there you can either walk to where you plan to stay (if you know where you're going) or hire a pickup (there's almost always one nearby waiting for climbers getting off the bus) to take you either to your hostal or to the trailhead.
From your hostal, the owner of the establishment will either take you personally or arrange for a ride to the trailhead. This isn't cheap ($20 to $30 one way) so if you're really on a budget you can stay at one of the closer hostals and walk to the trailhead, which adds considerable time. We stayed at the Hacienda San Jose which was probably a 20 to 30 minute walk from the center of El Chaupi and fairly close to the trailhead (La Virgen). We got a ride to La Virgen first thing in the morning from the owner of the Hacienda San Jose, and when we were finished with our climb, walked back to the Hacienda. That way we didn't have to arrange a pick-up time and saved a bunch of money, too...and the walk was all downhill, so not too tiring even though it did add some time to our trip.
From the refugio, head to the saddle between the two peaks. From here you can see the trail through the scree to the left of the ridge. As you get closer to where the ridge meets the saddle below and right of the summit spires, the trail becomes discontinuous and you can take several different ways, all requiring short sections of scrambling over often loose volcanic rock before you reach a small level area, with a steep downhill gully on the right and the short steep face on the left. From here...[more]Browse More Classics in International