Strangely enough, in spite of not having reached the summit of Illimani and even having been within touching distance of it when we turned back, I felt content with the decision. As I said, I had done my best, and that was all I could ask of myself. Going back down the mountain to high camp proved easier and even turned into a confidence builder as, as we crossed the knife edge ridge we had crossed in the darkness, with stupidly lethal falls to either side, I was actually able to do so without getting close to panicking or hyperventilating – I was beginning to trust myself and my crampons a bit more and well enough to keep calm. We also crossed some narrow crevasses in the ice which, when we looked down them, did not allow us to see the bottom. It was nice that the cracks (about a foot wide) were visible as some serious damage could have been down had we placed a foot directly in one of them.

Back to the tents, and packing up – after a little rest before the porters got there. It was time to leave our final mountain and go back to La Paz for the final time before returning to São Paulo. Going down the scree and rock face wasn’t easy for me. It was nice that Caleb belayed me down some of the steeper sections, and short-roped me on trickier sections where we had to go over only ice (with the nasty falls to oblivion) with no crampons or ice axe to support us. There were footprints carved into the ice which helped make things easier, though it was still pretty slippery. After three or four ten-metre sections lie these, we had passed the worse, and then it was just the scree and occasionally flat-panel rock faces.

We arrived at base camp at around 5pm. Natalia must have spotted us coming from some distance away as she had come away from the tents to meet us at the trailhead. She explained that she and José had been pretty worried about us as we had been out of radio contact – Caleb had tried calling from the mountains but the radio didn’t seem to want to function. José was preparing to leave the camp to try to find us on the descent. She then told me about how José had lost two friends who were guides on Illimani on separate occasions – basically because in each case they were in rope teams with one tourist, and the tourists lost concentration and fell with nobody being able to arrest the falls. The slopes of Illimani are steep enough that arresting a fall is tough enough for one person by themselves but for the guides to save both themselves and their partner… well it wasn’t possible for José’s friends and that was the end of their stories.

I was just happy to be back for a final night under those clear stars. The disappointment of not having reached the summit hit a bit more on the two-hour walk back in the morning to our vehicles, when we were continually looking back to those spectacular mountain peaks behind us, and during the drive to La Paz. But ah well. At least there can, and will, be a next time.

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