The Cotopaxi Volcano climb was one of the toughest physical challenges I’ve ever attempted. It’s a gruelling continuous uphill slog in freezing conditions and on sometimes treacherous ground. While all I could think of was the pain I was in during the experience itself, the memories that lasted are of the incredible views once we’d broken through the clouds and the sense of achievement that I felt from having got as far as I did.
COTOPAXI VOLCANO CLIMB: MY STORY
THURSDAY 10:00 AM
My new friend – a Swiss guy called Michel – and I sauntered apprehensively round the corner from our hostel to the tour office. We’d chosen to go with Tierra Zero, one of the cheapest in Latacunga, who offer a 2-day trek to the summit, all inclusive, for $160 per person.
We got kitted out in all the gear we’d need for the climb, which consisted of many layers of warm clothing (2 pairs of gloves, a balaclava, an extra fleece, an extra pair of super-sexy fleecy trousers), a backpack, some proper skier’s sunglasses, and ice climbing gear (crampons, heavy boots, an ice pick, a harness and some gaiters).
THURSDAY 11:00 AM
Our guide, Julian, met us in the office and we piled into a 4-wheel drive to begin the adventure. It took us 2 hours to reach the lower slopes of Cotopaxi. We stopped at a shop to buy drinks and snacks for the climb. It’s a good idea to use the bathroom whenever you have a chance, as you should be drinking plenty of water to combat the effects of the altitude. And, if you’ve taken anti-altitude sickness pills, you should be aware that one inconvenient side-effect is increased urinary volume.
THURSDAY 13:00 PM
We stopped briefly beside Lake Limpiopungo to admire the views. Cotopaxi was hidden behind a hail shower and there was nothing but mist in the direction of the volcano.
THURSDAY 13:20 PM
You begin the Cotopaxi Volcano climb the evening before the main event because the refugio is part way up the volcano. Our first experience of hiking with our gear was not a pleasant one. After parking the jeep, we put on the heavy boots, gripped our ice picks and began the long slog up to the refuge at 4800 metres.
The path is loose soil and with every step, we slipped half a step back. The effect of the altitude was already apparent and we slowed our pace so as not to exhaust ourselves before the real hike had even begun.
THURSDAY 14:00 PM
After a brief lunch of soup, bread, ham and cheese, we hauled our aching legs upstairs to a gym-hall-sized attic of tiny bunk beds. After struggling into three pairs of trousers, a marino wool sweater, two fleeces, a hat and two pairs of gloves, I clambered clumsily into my sleeping bag and tried to get some sleep. This wasn’t easy at altitude, in the middle of the afternoon, in freezing temperatures.
THURSDAY 18:00 PM
Julian dragged us out of bed and we tucked into a sizeable portion of chicken and pasta with big chunks of pepper. It was good. Michel and I had about 5 cups of herbal tea each, to warm us up, and then we were sent back to bed to try to get more rest. This time, I didn’t sleep at all. I lay there for 4 hours, shivering and thinking about what I was about to do.
FRIDAY 12:00 AM
Our Cotopaxi Volcano climb was about to begin. Julian showed us how to put our crampons on so we would know for later. We put on just about every other item of clothing, strapped our bags to our backs and set out through the door of the refuge into the dead of night.
Our initial focus was on how unbelievably cold it was. I could see my breath and the ground was blanketed in crisp, white snow that had fallen while we ‘slept’.
The path was lit only by the faint light of our head torches and the moon. If we dared to take our eyes off the footpath and look skyward, the stars were clear and bright in the night sky. It was beautiful.
For the first hour or so, it was similar terrain to the day before, except now that it was colder and our noses ran like cascades. Every single step was a huge effort, but I fell into the rhythm of digging my ice pick into the ground and taking two steps. I didn’t have a thought in my head except ‘ice pick, step, step…repeat’. It was going to be a fun 7 hours.
FRIDAY 1:30 AM
Finally, we reached the glacier. This was a mixed blessing. We would no longer slide back down the slope in the scree, but crampons were a new challenge. At this point, Julian tied us all together with the rope, I assume in case anyone slipped into a crevasse!
Walking in crampons became more difficult as the path narrowed further. At some points it was only a foot in width and steeper than a hell slide, with a sheer drop to one side. Occasionally we’d have to stride over a fissure.
FRIDAY 2:30 AM
By this point I was close to giving in. Every muscle ached and I was low on energy. We stopped for a rest and I asked Julian if he could please pass me the Gatorade from my backpack. He misheard me three times. I shouted ‘Mi bebida’ and indicated to the side pocket, and he berated me for not saying ‘Please’! Tensions were beginning to fray.
My drink had reached the consistency of a slush puppy and I had to poke a plug of ice inside the bottle to allow some of the liquid to flow out.
FRIDAY 4:00 AM
I was really feeling the pain by this point. I’d considered turning back a few times, but I knew this would prevent Michel from reaching the summit, and he was still battling on like a soldier. I’d come to realise I was definitely the weakest of the bunch.
The landscape was starting to change too. In place of winding paths through great expanses of smooth ice shelves, there were hanging glaciers, tunnels and stalactites. I bashed my head on them a few times, sending crystal spears tumbling down the slopes.
FRIDAY 4:30 AM
Sometimes, we had to sit down and lower ourselves into dark holes, or use our ice picks to support our weight as we clambered back out of a fissure. When the path felt more dangerous, the natural instinct of Michel and I was to slow down and take care with every step. Unfortunately, Julian didn’t want us hanging around the unstable sections any longer than we needed to, so he would yell at us ‘Keep moving! We can’t stop here! You’ll be fine! Trust your feet. Faster! Faster!’
He had seemed like such an easygoing chap when we met him in the office. Now I felt like I was at boot camp for the marines.
FRIDAY 6:00 AM
Finally, the sun began to rise. The morning cast red and purple light on the peaks of nearby mountains that pierced a bed of clouds, which were now some distance below us. We paused to admire the view and I pulled off my two pairs of gloves for just enough time to take a few photos before the frostbite threatened to take my fingers.
The ice formations around us looked incredible as they reflected the sun’s rays. I felt a new surge of strength. I thought I might even make it to the summit.
FRIDAY 7:00 AM
I was exhausted to the point of tears. Julian assured us it was less than an hour to the top, but also admitted this was the most difficult section of all. I glanced at the almost vertical path and felt the last drops of energy drain from my body.
We’d reached 5730 metres. I could see the summit just 150 metres higher. but I couldn’t go on. My muscles had given up. Out Cotopaxi Volcano climb was over.
I needed enough strength to get me back down to the refuge. Adding to the weight in my backpack was the heavy burden of guilt I had to carry, knowing that Michel wouldn’t get to see the crater because we all had to stick together. My spirits were dashed and I wanted to curl up in a ball and cry.
FRIDAY 8:00 AM
Coming back down, I was so tired, I tripped over my own foot and almost plunged head-first off the side of the volcano. Julian barked from behind ‘Don’t look at the scenery. Watch where you’re going!’ As if I hadn’t been taking the greatest care to avoid an icy death. At least this proved one thing. I had made the right decision turning back.
FRIDAY 9:00 AM
Finally, we made it back to the refuge, where I collapsed in the middle of the floor. I slept 22 of the next 24 hours.
IS THE COTOPAXI VOLCANO CLIMB WORTH THE EFFORT?
The Cotopaxi Volcano climb is notoriously difficult. The day before I tried it, 4 out of 24 people reached the summit. You should only attempt the climb if you are healthy, in good shape, used to sports that require strong leg muscles, and well adjusted to the altitude. I had prepared with some local hiking, including a Quilotoa day trip, but in hindsight the Loop trek would have been a better idea.
Consider whether your hiking buddies are up to it, as you will have to turn back if they can’t make it. Even if you think you’re in the best shape ever, there’s no predicting the effect altitude will have, so don’t beat yourself up if you don’t make the summit. Appreciate the stunning views and feel privileged to have set foot on Cotopaxi Volcano at all.
If you can time your Cotopaxi volcano climb to coincide with the Mama Negra Festival in Latacunga, you’re onto a win win. It’s probably best you get the hike out of the way first though, as a huge street party is not the best way to condition yourself.