Climbing the Cotopaxi volcano
When you arrive at Quito, you undoubtedly will see the great mountain that is overshadowing the city. Ever since my adventure in Ecuador started I made it my personal goal to reach the top of this volcano: the Cotopaxi. After climbing various lower volcanoes to acclimatize it was time to take on this ultimate challenge. Last weekend I finally made it to the Summit of the Active Cotopaxi volcano.
Get to know the Cotopaxi
Cotopaxi is located just outside of Quito, and on clear days it can be seen from almost anywhere in the city. With its 5.897 meters (19347 ft) it is the second highest mountain of the country, just behind the Chimborazo.
It however, is the highest active volcano of Ecuador, and one of the highest of the world. It very distinguishable from other mountains due to it’s round shape and snow-white glacier. Last year the national park closed the entrance because of the volcanic activity however, recently the danger has settled, and the park became accessible again.
As the Cotopaxi is not a very technical mountain, it is suitable for beginners that wish to discover mountaineering. However, since it’s still almost 6000m high, acclimatization is recommended andneeded for most people. Before I started this challenge, I did not have any experience with mountain climbing besides the casual hike. A pro is that you do not need to own all of the equipment required, as most tours include this.
Preparation is key!
In order to get used to the altitude and to get somewhat fit, I did a few preparation hikes and climbs so I would know what I would be getting in to. First up on my list of acclimatization climbs was Pasochoa, a lower mountain of 4200m that is a more slow-paced and overall easier hike. It might be wise to start with this one, as it’s relatively easy. Don’t let you be turned off, the first time is always hard as it takes time for your body to get used to the lower amount of oxygen!
After a few days of rest, we moved on to the Corazon, meaning ‘’heart’’, named like this due to some people seeing the shape of a heart in the mountain. We did not go to the highest point at 4791m but got up to another mountaintop at around 4500m before heading back down.
The next week I started by taking the Teleferico up to Rucu Pichincha, an Urban volcano that is known to be a good starting point for hikers and people that want to acclimatize. This hike can be done without a guide in a few hours and has a nice view over the city. The summit at 4.696m is a great start for you to discover whether hiking/climbing is something for you.
The week after we went to Illinizas-Norte. This mountain is the lower, less technical version of the two twin-volcanoes. It is significantly higher than the others at around 5.126m or 16818 ft. A guide is required for this volcano, and a helmet and harness are recommended. There is some snow at the summit, and the temperatures can be low, so it is important to be prepared!
I noticed improvements with every single hike, breathing became easier: whereas I was heavily breathing after a few steps at the first mountain, at the ones after it became much more naturally. My legs were very sore the first hikes, but the ones after they were fatiguing much less. You really do get used to the higher altitude and training truly pays off!
The time has come!
After weeks full of hiking and climbing to get acclimatized the time has finally come. I packed my backpack along with all the things I needed, and we made our way to the Cotopaxi National park. I was very lucky as the sky was very clear and we could see all the volcanoes in the surrounding area.
Once we arrived at the parking lot, we had to carry our backpack up to the refuge, a few hundred meters higher at around 4800m. The refuge had a surprisingly good atmosphere, and there were quite a few people that also aimed to climb. Here we had a delicious dinner, prepared our beds, and went to rest. I tried to catch some sleep but was too excited to actually do so. After a few hours the alarms went at 23:00 and we all got up.
We put on our warm clothes, drank some tea and coffee, packed our backpacks with enough liquid, snacks and with crampons and the ice pickaxe. We went out at around 12, the skies were clear, and it was all dark except for the light of the near full moon. Along with another group of climbers we started to slowly walk up the volcano. After around an hour we had reached the completely white glacier.
The beautiful glacier!
At the glacier we put on our crampons and attached ourselves with rope to each other, and put our helmets on, safety first! After this quick stop we continued walking on the glacier, which went surprisingly easy with the crampons. The guides explained us how we had to walk, on which side to wield the ice pickaxe and how to react in the case if someone fell in a crevasse. Crevasses are holes in the glacier, sometimes covered by snow. It’s not very likely that someone falls in to one of those, as you mainly walk on a path that is well travelled.
Every hour, hour and a half we made a short stop to regain energy and eat something. I really needed these short breaks as I was very hungry, and it helped to recover a bit. Unfortunately, the weather had changed, and it was foggy and windy resulting in my cereal bars and chocolate to become frozen. The outer layer including my jacker, helmet, headlamp, pants, gloves, and backpack were totally covered in ice. Luckily the breaks are short enough to not cool down and I was not cold at all. (except for my hands when I took off my gloves)
The moonlight on the beautiful white glacier and the streetlights in Quito give an amazing sight. I tried to take some pictures, but it is hard to take some sharp ones in the dark without a tripod. Besides you don’t want to take out your camera too much as the cold drains the batteries rather quickly.
The hardest climb ever!
It is safe to say that this might be the physically hardest thing you will ever do if you have never climbed a mountain like this before. At least, it was for me. We walked for hours and while you walk slowly, you ascend very steep. At this altitude breathing is heavier because of the thin air with less oxygen. The climb went like this: Put Ice axe in front of me, step left, step right, breath heavy, put ice axe in front of me.
I tried to listen to music to distract me from the breathing and wind, but my headphones quickly became frozen and I had to take them off. What I did was try to imitate the steps of my guide in front of me, and just focus on that. This was helping a lot, but I admit at times I was struggling to keep up the tempo.
Around 4 hours in I became dizzy and needed a break to eat and drink something to recover energy. We were at a place where we could not stop, and we were forced to continue for another what felt like an eternity. Finally, I could fall down and grab some snacks out of my backpack, the water I brought was a bit frozen. The Cotopaxi was not going to win, I was dedicated to make it to the summit. Step by step the summit came closer and closer as noticeable by the smell the sulfur gasses that increasingly became stronger.
We arrived too early near the summit and had to wait, the sun was not coming up yet. Unfortunately, the smoke and gasses from the active crater was coming in our direction, making it very hard to breath through the sulfur smell. After 15/20 minutes we stood up and started the last meters of the ascend!
The most beautiful sunrise ever!
The moment of reaching the summit was glorious! It was the most beautiful sunrise I have ever seen, the golden sun over the clouds with the views of the many volcanoes were breath-taking. It is a very emotional moment to reach the summit after such a hard journey. The enormous shadow of the Cotopaxi volcano showed how immense the mountain underneath us was.
Without a doubt it was all worth it, and we instantly forgot the hard work we put in to get here. We all high fived each other and were very happy we pushed through. The sun beams were warming and gave the required energy to get back down, but not before taking many pictures! My hands were cold, but I was there now, and this was my only chance to take pictures, I did not want to waste it!
Just like Disney’s frozen!
After around 20 minutes we started our descend, filled with an incredible memory. The descend would take around 3 hours, not exactly something to look forward to as once you have reached the summit you just want to get back and go to bed. However, it was now possible to see all the beautiful ice shapes of the great glacier.
When you suddenly see the distance and steep hills you ascended, it is impressive. Because of the dark and your focus on nothing but your footsteps, the sudden view is mind-blowing. It felt like we were in a Disney movie.
Just do it!
While I first hesitated as I had no experience whatsoever and it seemed very hard, I am incredibly grateful that I got the opportunity to try this and make it to the summit. With proper acclimatization training, equipment, and experienced guides it is doable. The Cotopaxi climb will leave you with unforgettable memories, experiences, and photos. I highly recommend contacting Gulliver Expeditions for climbs in Ecuador. They are very professional and helpful with both the acclimatization process as well as during the climb itself.