Cotopaxi Volcano located in Ecuador is one of the world’s highest active volcanos, so active that it erupted less than a few months ago. Climbing Cotopaxi was on my personal bucket list for many years. I wanted to stand on the top and to be part of the 50% of climbers who successfully made it to the summit of this volcano, so I did. Standing at 5,897m (19,347ft), this snow covered and perfectly cone shaped stratovolcano stands on the Eastern Corderilla of the Andes and has erupted over 50 times since 1738.
Attempting to climb Cotopaxi has become a somewhat popular tourist attraction for a number of years. The climb is technical. It requires crampons, ice picks, ropes, harnesses and is nothing short of daunting. Climbers start their summit from the Jose F. Ribas Refugio (base camp) which is situated at 4,800m (15,748ft) at 12:30am so they can reach the summit by 7:30 am. They do this so that the climbers can make a safe return to basecamp before the glacier and snow are soft enough to avalanche.
Attempting this summit was always in my plan, I had dreamed about it, researched it, mentally prepared for it, and finally this year, I was able to try. Here’s my story…
I had spent the last month relaxing on the beach in Salinas with my family, were talking…living at sea level basking in the sun and eating empanadas. This may have been a slight mistake. I left my family in Guayaquil, grabbing a quick flight to Quito 2,850m (9,350ft) where I planned to spend a few days acclimatizing and collecting gear. Fast-forward 2 days later and I had booked my climb, rented my technical gear, done my groceries and was waiting for my ride to Cotopaxi National Park the next morning…so much for the acclimatization.
Day 1 of the climb, myself and 2 other young climbers wait nervously to meet our climbing guides and to take our transportation to the park. We stopped for a lovely lunch…but I was too nervous to eat, so I picked away at my lomo until it was time to continue on to the park. I recall telling a lot of nervous jokes along the way. Oh yeah…I forgot to mention my Raynaud’s disease…nerves? What nerves? Why would anyone be nervous to spend 10 hours on a glacier when they are basically allergic to the cold and have no acclimatization… the jokes continue.
We arrived at our drop off point and took a moment to change into our climbing gear and to organize our packs. From here we had an hours climb upwards to basecamp at 4,800m (15,748ft). If you are wondering, this is where the normal Cotopaxi Park tour takes you and so we passed local Ecuadorians and gringos alike…the only difference was the 20 kilos of equipment attached to our backs. When we reached camp we dropped our bags, grabbed our ice picks and crampons and headed to the glacier to spend a little time prepping for the nights climb. Shortly after, it was back to camp for an early dinner (soup, chicken, rice, bananas) and a cup of tea before heading to bed to try and get some rest before our 12:30 am departure. As if I could get any sleep with all the excitement and nervous energy in the air. Oh and it was REALLY cold. There was no way my sleeping bag was going to keep me comfortable, even with thermal layers, gloves, and hats. Thanks to my Raynauds I had little to no feeling in my hands and feet for what seemed like the entire evening and so I spent the next 5 hours waiting….and shivering.
The 12:00 am alarm rings, it is Easter Sunday (last time people died here was an avalanche on Easter Sunday) and I am ready to get going. I crawl out of my sleeping bag and start to layer, here we go frosties…thermal tights, Lululemon tights, thermal fleece pants, climbing pants, thermal undershirt, sweater, fleece sweater, climbing jacket, socks, socks, socks, plastic boots, buff, headband, hat, merino glove liners, fleece gloves, gortex gloves. You get the picture. I made my way downstairs for a quick breakfast of oatmeal and yoghurt and a cup of tea. It was almost time, we threw on the final touches; harnesses, helmets, gaiters, headlamps and we headed out and up.
The sky was clear, the wind low and the first 200m of the climb was simple, not overly steep and mostly on scree. We marched away in a line following our headlights until we reached the glacier. I was already out of breath. We stopped here to put on our crampons, grab our ice picks and harness into our partners before we started our long and grueling ascent up the volcano. The climb always takes place in the night because the ice is coldest and it is easier to walk on. There was recently an avalanche and so the volcano was slightly steeper with the fresh snow. Now it was just my partner and I as we walked step by step, slowly and steadily, carefully watching our footing. We continued up in a switch back manner. This was going to be a difficult task.
Two hundred more meters and my head started to ache. I felt nauseous. All of a sudden, I regretted my lack of time spent to acclimatize to the altitude. We had to pull over so I could throw up, kneeling in the snow, this was not cute. My guide knew I was determined and he could not have been any better. He patiently waited for me to finish and encouraged me as we continued up. In the dead of the night all I could see were other little headlights ahead in the distance and from behind. We stopped a few more times to throw up but I persevered. This was how it went until about 5,500m (18,044ft).
We were lucky enough to have the opportunity to cross an ice bridge over a deep crevasse in the glacier. My guide checked our ropes and then one at a time we carefully traversed this snow covered balance beam (thank you gymnastics for preparing me for this). We took a small snack break here, not that I was hungry but forced down a chocolate and some water. We had to keep moving.
At 5,600m we shared an ice cave with 3 other climbers. I took this time to catch my breath, shiver, and complain. The other climbers in our ice cave decided at that moment to turn back and part of me really wanted to go with them, back to our (warm?) basecamp. My partner would not let me, he knew it was the altitude speaking and so we continued up. 5,800m came quickly and I was pretty much over it. At one point, I threw myself and my ice pick into the ice and told my guide to continue to the top and I would nap there until he came back…apparently that was not in his plan for me. He rolled up my rope around his pick and started dragging me up the volcano…’Ok Ok’ I said as I stood up.
Ahhh there it was. I could see the peak. We were almost there. Other climbers were encouraging me and my climbers high was peaking (pun intended). We stopped for a moment, as a perfect view of the peak of Chimborazo was within sight. I started to appreciate what I was doing as I could see peaks of mountains and volcanos above the clouds. When we finally finished our last few feet. There it was, the summit, 5,897m (19,347ft). The other climbers cheered for us and hugged us making for such a positive moment. The comradely attitude or of accomplished climbers is something special. It is so cold up there that cameras do not work that well so we were able to take just a few pics depicting our accomplishment. The crater and the perfect view above the clouds provided the ultimate remembrance before we sat down for a snack. It is such an amazing feeling; to push yourself physically and mentally, to only be able to have that short moment to stand on top of nature and look out amongst the world, this is a moment I live for over and over again, as I did on Lascar Volcano and Acatengango. A cold moment later reality hits…we had to go back down.
Since the way up had been so much work, I had not even had time to appreciate how steep the climb really was…until I turned around to get down, that is. We shortened our ropes and very carefully began to make our descent. Descents are never easy for me, I often find myself becoming dizzy and occasionally even losing vision so my rope was extra short for this one. We had to sit and relax a couple of times on the way down, but we were running out of time. The sun was out and the snow was becoming soft. It was not until about 5,400m (17,716ft) that I started feeling better. We had a fun time for the rest of the descent, occasionally crashing through soft snow, laughing and falling. It was getting warmer as well. When we finally reached the end of the glacier, I was happy to lose some of my technical gear and walk arm in arm with my guide back to basecamp. I was tired, sore, and numb in some places but my sense of accomplishment took that all away. My guide could not have been any better. He knew that I had it in me. He was cool, calm and collected the entire way and encouraged me when I needed it most. I have so much to thank him for as he helped me accomplish this big dream of mine.
We arrived at basecamp, repacked our bags and finished our last hour of descent to the car. We piled in as me, our guides, and my 2 other climbing friends crashed like the car was actually a cloud bed in disguise. Now I need to pick a new mountain goal…Aconcagua anyone?