Situated in the Cordillera Oriental of the Andes mountain range in Ecuador, Cotopaxi is one of the most popular climbs in the country due to its relatively easy access. Cotopaxi is in fact the second highest mountain in Ecuador; second only to Chimborazo the behemoth of a volcano just 100km further south. The volcano is classed as active but if you’re looking for a sea of flowing lava, then you’re out of luck. The last major eruption was back in 1904. The volcano is believed to have been most active during the 16th century. Today it quietly waits, gathering its strength, for one almighty bang that could happen any day.
To get an idea of just how big this thing is we drew you a picture to compare with some mountains that may be familiar to you…
After receiving our gear we thankfully didn’t have to deal with the tour company again. We were glad to learn that all of the guides are independent and are contacted by the tour agencies externally. We met our guide Sergio the morning of the trip. He was a local who had grown up in the surrounding mountains with years of experience and was someone we found to be great fun yet deadly serious when he had to be, in our eyes, the perfect guide. He spoke enough English to explain everything to us, and was always cracking a joke even at 5000m. “playa!” “¿dónde está la playa?” - “beach”, “where is the beach?”.
Climbing Cotopaxi is a relatively short expedition considering its height. The tour lasts for a day and a half as you prepare for your ascent and acclimatize for the dizzying heights above the clouds. It is recommended to spend at least a week at altitudes above 3500m before attempting to climb Cotopaxi. After a week and a half in Ecuador already, and our epic walk along the Quilotoa Loop, we were feeling ready to face the summit. Sergio, climber extraordinaire, had attempted the climb five times the week before but only succeeded reaching the summit with two groups. Many people struggle with the altitude, which can prove fatal at such heights, when your body begins to break down from a lack of oxygen. When we learned this it put into perspective the challenge we were undertaking. Our biggest fear not being able to get to the top, having to turn around because your body cannot take it anymore when altitude sickness sets in. The worst part being if it hit one of us we would both have to turn around as the guide has to stay with both climbers at all times.
When Cotopaxi knocked it’s top off many many moons ago it littered the surrounding landscape with enormous volcanic rocks, some the size of houses, like Piedra Silintoza, the largest one in the area. We pulled off a really bumpy dirt road in Sergio’s 4x4 and arrived at this gigantic rock, we were stunned to think that this massive piece of earth had been spat out of a mountain that was still miles away! Rock Climbing on Silintoza was a hilarious and exhilarating experience, especially watching Iain scramble up the side on his elbows and knees, “use your feet, your feet!”. Climbing clearly isn’t his forte; we better leave that one to the professionals.
After a couple of hours of climbing and abseiling down Silintoza we jumped back in the 4x4 and headed for Cotopaxi, butterflies forming in our stomachs as we became more and more excited the closer we came to our next conquest. We stopped along the way, as all tour companies do, albeit very briefly and reached the Refuge car park at 4500m. From here the only way up is by foot.
Most climbers leave the refuge for the summit between 11:30pm and midnight. As there is usually large numbers of hikers we left slightly later than most so as not to get stuck in a climbers traffic jam on the way up. After a quick breakfast we put our gear on and were off. To start, the climb is on a slippery gravel trail zigzagging its way up the flank of the volcano to where the ice starts at 5000m. We were so lucky with the weather, the sky was completely clear with a brilliant array of stars as far as the eye could see, and Quito glowing luminously in the distance like lava.
It is pretty normal for climbers not to make it to the summit due to the weather, we however were not going to let this get in our way, determined to make it to the top rain, hail or blizzard! We were moving much slower than Sergio probably wanted, and as he kept pushing us on, he reminded us that we needed to get to the top before 7:30am, before the ice started melting and conditions became dangerous. As the sun began to rise, the weather became worse, thick clouds engulfed us, and the snow came down heavily. As much as we were suffering, our energy levels almost completely gone, we kept going. To speed us up Sergio took us on a short cut straight up an icy cliff. We climbed the 80 degree wall agonising over every step, screaming in pain, our bodies wanting to crumple on the ground and give up. With a little bit of slack on the rope Iain was flailing at the back resting any chance he could, only to be pulled painstakingly every time Treeny was folding and Sergio would yank on the rope to pull her up. This was the toughest part of the trek, Sergio pretty much dragged us up that wall, and it was a good short cut, as painful as it was we were almost there. We began seeing other tours coming down from the summit meaning the end was near, we had it within reach. Just one more uphill to go! Everyone coming down the mountain looked exhausted. The blistering conditions stealing from us any of the excitement remaining within our shaken bodies.
Straight up, Cotopaxi was one of the hardest things we have ever had to do in our lives. Words just cannot explain how we were feeling climbing to the summit. At times the sheer pain of it was like torture, we were thinking to ourselves, “why am I doing this”, “I hate this”, “I am never doing this again”. The tears were welling up in our eyes as it became harder and harder to bring one foot infront of the other. It is amazing how quickly your body begins to give up when lacking in oxygen while exerting so much energy. For us this was a physical and mental challenge. Never before have we had to force our bodies in such a stressful and intense way, and our minds have never been so strenuously tested. When you are at such crazy altitudes your mind begins playing tricks on you, trying to psych you out of moving on any further. If it hadn’t been for wilful Sergio, or our competitively determined egos, we may not have made it to the top. Would we do it again? Perhaps, lets just let our bodies mend for now.
Next stop we continue the slow recovery in the beautiful capital city of Ecuador, Quito…
Check out more of this challenging expedition in our photo gallery here.