Travel

Climbing Cotopaxi, That Volcano In Ecuador

A view of Cotopaxi from the top of Ruminahui.

Two years ago I was in Quito when I heard about Cotopaxi (5,897 meters, or, 19,347 feet). I booked the trip and successfully climbed it. My camera froze at the top, however, and I didn’t have any photos of my victory. I like having photos of my victories. So, to spite the wickedness of the world, I decided I would climb it again.

For the straight-forward stuff about Cotopaxi, go the “Straight-forward Stuff About Cotopaxi” section at the end of this post. For the exciting story with fun photos, read along.

Story Time!

With two weeks in Quito to visit my mom, I had some time to kill. So, I joined a gym. After the second day at the gym, I concluded that I should climb Cotopaxi again. It would make going to the gym purposeful.

The gym is kinda retro, but cool.

I worked out 5 days in a row and called that “good enough.” I skipped the weekend. On Monday, I went to Condor Trekk, the agency I used two years prior and I booked the trip. They asked me if I wanted to join a hike of Ruminahui, a 4721 meter peak. (I knew it would be good for acclimatization, something I neglected for my first hike, which gave me an ear-splitter of a headache.) The trip would be on Tuesday, leaving Quito at 8am. I was in.

Next day, we drove to some random Hacienda to pick up some other people who were hiking with Condor Trekk. The hacienda happened to be around 300 years old.

The view as you drive up to the Hacienda.

Fast forward, this is Ruminahui:

On the way up Ruminahui.

This is me sitting on top of Ruminahui:

And this is me standing on top of Ruminahui:

It took 3.5 hours to climb up and 1.5 hours to climb down. Climbing mountains is obviously easier with proper trekking shoes and pants, but to hell with proper. There was a fun section of the mountain that was soft sand, which you could run down as fast as you wanted, leaping down 10+ feet at a time.

End result: lots of dirt in shoes and an equitable amount of fun.

For the evening, we stayed at cabanas in the Cotopaxi National Park. The bathroom facilities were second to none:

I think that white stuff is toilet paper. Used?

The food was good though, and our group went back to the cabana for sleepy time. The next morning, it was time to pack our bags for the Cotopaxi excursion which would begin at 12:00 a.m. on Thursday. Don’t forget the toilet paper:

Then we drove to Cotopaxi. It’s a dirt road. There’s a lot of dirt everywhere. If you are smart, you’ll have something to cover your nose and mouth with. When dust kicked up, I tried to hold my breath until it settled. Sometimes it takes dust a long time to settle. It’s easy to see the mountain:

Driving towards our destination.

Now, Cotopaxi

When you go to climb Cotopaxi, tour companies will drive you to the Jose Rivas Refuge camp at 4,810 meters (15,780.8 feet). In fact, they will drop you off at the parking lot, which is about 200 to 250 meters below the actual Refuge building. This is a good warmup for Cotopaxi, hauling all of your gear (ice axe, sleeping bag, Beach Barbie Doll and baseball hat) up a dirt hill for 200+ meters. It’s good that it’s a warmup, though, because there is no heater in the Jose Rivas Refuge Camp. There is also no running water. This is Sparta (minus the abs).

Outside of the refuge.

Once at the refuge in the early afternoon, the guides will load you up on food, which includes a guaranteed serving (x 5) of starch. Did your food digest? No? “Perfect, ‘cause we’re going to go hike 30 minutes to the glacier to practice using crampons and ice axe.” So, you’re hiking to go practice. Keep in mind, you already hiked up 200+ meters with all of your gear about an hour ago. In addition, in roughly 9 hours, you will be waking up at 12:00 a.m. to begin climbing Cotopaxi at 1:00 a.m.  It’s a tough itinerary – made more challenging because of the altitude.

Congratulations, you passed, and now you know how to perform a self-arrest with an ice axe, which isn’t totally irrelevant if you are walking around gaping crevasses like this one:

By the time we got back to the refuge, it was dinner time. I ate, not necessarily because I was hungry, but because I wanted to stockpile energy. I went to bed around 7:00 p.m., along with 20 other people. The refuge doesn’t have heat, and they have dorm-style cots in two large rooms upstairs. The place can sleep around 90 people. As you can imagine, it can be quite difficult to sleep in this type of environment with the wind also howling. I managed to get about 4 hours of sleep and woke up at 11:30 a.m.

I unzipped my sleeping bag and started getting ready for the climb. Our group of 4 met downstairs for breakfast. I skipped anything big and just had two pieces of bread. I didn’t want to feel stuffed for the next hour or so.

We left at 1:00 a.m. First, you must hike up through dirt until you get to the glacier. Once there, you attach your crampons and get roped up to your guide via your harness. It makes you feel safer. Then the guides take the lead, walking up the snow/ice in the dark.

At times, they say “cuidado” or “careful,” and they look back at a crevasse they just stepped over – where you’ll be walking next. The sizes of the crevasses you pass over range from 6 inches to 2.5 feet. Pretend you are a cat. Do not meow.

Climb. Climb. Climb. Up above, hundreds of meters, you can see the glow of headlamps of individuals who left an hour before you. They look like stars.

Raul, my guide, and I passed many people around the fourth hour of the climb and we were going to be first to summit. For some reason, he then said to me and pointed, “nosotros vamos por aca, en el hielo.” Translation: We are going to go there, in the ice. He took me into an ice field, which was a wind-blown section of hundreds of cone-shaped, pointy mounds throughout it. He was using his ice axe to climb up. It was time to put the training to use. I smashed my axe into the ice, it didn’t stick. I smashed it again, harder; it made a happier sound: success. I pulled down on it, testing the hold. It felt good.

And I crawled out into the field of ice, surrounded in darkness everywhere my headlamp did not illuminate. I jammed the sharp edges of my crampons into the ice. This is probably how Spiderman feels, I thought. The guide then moved up to new positions and I would follow him, using my ice axe and crampons to shimmy up the hardened face. Already exhausted, this was a test of my endurance, in addition to my balls. Good thing I packed them.

We get out of the ice face and continued hiking up. By now, people had passed us by going a separate route. I didn’t care that much about being first this time around – going through that icy face was exhilarating. This is what it looks like during the day:

No problem for Spiderman, that dick.

And then, there was first sign of light, peaking over the clouds:

With 20 minutes left to the summit, we were moving quickly. It was clear out and I didn’t want to miss the window.

When we reached the top, I was elated.

I had been there once before, but the top was covered in thick clouds. On this day, I could see many of the nearby mountains. I was surrounded in natural beauty. And I took plenty of photos.

Raul and I at the top.

The volcano crater.

Victory.

After spending 10-15 minutes at the top, we started to head down. This is arguably the hardest part of the climb because you are exhausted. Walking downhill on snow and ice while exhausted is dangerous.

We stopped for more photos.

Near the ice field.

Cool icicles.

Inside a “crevasse.”

Raul looks comfortable.

I spy something pretty.

Chillin’ above the clouds.

And as far as interesting things go, that’s about it. That’s Cotopaxi.

Straight-forward Stuff About Cotopaxi

  • $200-220 to climb with a partner and guide. $300-350 to climb solo with a guide. If your partner has to go down, you have to go with them.
  • Acclimatization is important if you want to experience less pain. Headaches happen. Some people get sick and vomit from the altitude. It depends on the person.
  • I booked my trip (both times) with Condor Trekk, located on Reina Victoria and Cordero — in the Mariscal District of Quito
  • Jose Rivas Refuge: 4,810 meters. Cotopaxi Summit: 5,897 meters.
  • Bring sunscreen for the way down; the sun can be brutal and it can take 3 hours to get down.
  • Physical condition is not to be taken lightly. I was running 3.4 kilometers in about 15 minutes before I went on the trip. That translates to about 2 miles in 15 minutes. I was training in Quito, at an altitude of 2,850 meters. That’s not exactly fast, but it was enough training for this trip.
  • Ask me about anything else.
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5 thoughts on “Climbing Cotopaxi, That Volcano In Ecuador

  1. Eric Tandy says:

    What kind of camera did you use?
    Would you want to climb and ski Mt Shasta in California?
    How many times have you been to Tuckerman ravine

  2. anup says:

    hi
    looks like an amazing adventure.
    i am planning a trip to ecuador 21-31 december 2014. i wanted to plan a 3-4 day hike to cotopaxi. i have tried contacting several tour operators but with no success. i was just curious if i can book the tour after reaching quito?
    your inputs will be greatly appreciate!

    regards
    Anup

    • Hi Anup,

      I have climbed Cotopaxi twice and both times I booked after arriving in Quito. There are a couple tour companies that you can walk in to and talk to a salesperson to hear about packages, etc.

      Best,
      Alex

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