Volcan Cotopaxi

We got together our rental gear and modestly shouldered our packs, joining the throngs of mochileros in the Mariscal Region of Quito.  Bus routes were closed as the city prepared for it´s Ano Nuevo celebrations, promising lots of debauchery and the tradition of burning effigies of the old year, life size muñecas that sat languidly in front of shops and houses across the city.  For three dollars we got a taxi that took us to La Terminal, a rather terrifying mishmash of transportation services, stacked on three stories.   Stench of urine filled the air as we passed the cascade of busses and approached the entrance to the complex. Inside, single file lines weaved in zig zags through the vendor booths set up chaotically throughout and we tried to maneuver across these seemingly impenetrable lines of aggressive travelers.  Ice Axes and crampons protruded from our packs and commanded a bit of space to allow us through.  Our challenge was figuring out which bus we needed, information we neglected to acquire beforehand.   All we really knew was we were headed to Volcan Cotopaxi, sitting south of Quito some 50 odd kilometers, and we wanted to climb to the top.
Even when we found out which bus we needed, we were still stuck, because the assistant responsible for taking tickets and packing cargo underneath wanted nothing to do with us.   As if my pale face and gringo clothes were completely invisible, he refused to acknowledge my existence.  I asked a woman waiting nearby why he wouldn´t help us and she responded simply that he´ll only let you on if he can´t fill the bus.  I tried to get more from her, curious what was wrong with me, but before I could another bus attendant offered to let us on.  We threw our bulky backpacks underneath and got on the already moving bus, standing room only…………

         Dropped off on the Pan American Highway and the entrance of Parque Nacional Cotopaxi , noted by a fading sign and a rustic two story wooden building, conspicuously dark and empty.  In front, were the camioñetas and their owners ready to charge a healthy fee to take you up to the mountain.   We tallied our funds and realized we brought only enough to cover the park entrance fee and for transport to the mountain and back to the highway, but would have to hitchhike to the next city for an ATM. Reasonable enough.
       Winding through zones of reforested pines and up into a more depleted terrain characteristic of rainy Andean tundra with clusters of moss and pajanol grasses among dwarf like trees.  Volcano Cotopaxi sat impressive and imposing as we approached, a perfect cone shape, it´s top dipped white to the snow line.

Our driver dropped us off at a parking lot, a Refugio visible at the end of a short trail rising up towards the mountain, comfortable accommodations for 20 bucks a pop. I got out and lifted my pack out of the truck bed, finding myself surprisingly out of breath and nervous that the elevation was going to hit me. Up the trail, I found I couldn´t keep up with Goat. Simon and I hung back, taking multiple breaks along the 500 meter trail, sitting down to catch our breath. Goat seemed unphased by the elevation and waited for a good 10 minutes before we got to the top.

The Refugio was packed and we didn´t have enough money to stay in there, so we set up our campsite in a little depression nearby, with rocks built up on one side to create a flat patche to set up a tent. There were three of us and a two person tent that we intended to test it´s capacity. Cold wind blew down from the top of the mountain and we thought that at the very least we won´t get cold. We cooked dinner and watched foxes run around our campsite with animal curiosity. We commented on how weird humans are for climbing to the top of mountains.

“It´s a ridiculous thing to do,” Simon commented.

“Yeah, but it´s all about the view.” I tried to justify.

“It´s still a weird thing to do. My body feels hag. My body doesn´t want to be at this elevation.” Simon returned.

He´d spent time in India at high elevations and was much more familiar with the effects than I was. Hopefully, I rested in my Thermarest Chair eating dinner, wishing my body would adjust to the elevation before we began the climb at midnight. I felt slightly dizzy and out of it, but didn´t think that would affect my ability to climb.

Four hours into the night, we could easily verify the warmth of having three in a two person tent, but were still about four hours short of sleep we´d need. I got claustrophobic in the tent and my head began pounding; I was unsure if the pain was from not sleeping or if it was the elevation. Sheer exhaustion gifted me a shred of sleep, but when I heard the alarm go off I knew it was going to be an ugly night. We began putting on our clothes and I felt like I had suffered through an entire bottle of Aguardiente.

“Happy New Years.” I said in a half groan.

“I feel worked. I am not going to make it, but I´ll encourage you guys to go.” Simon said quickly.

“I don´t know. I feel a bit tired, that´s all.” Goat said as he began setting up the stove.

“I feel like crap, but I´m hoping I´ll make it. Can´t believe how bad my head hurts. I´m not sure if I feel like this because I didn´t sleep or because of elevation. You guys think I´m totally screwing myself trying to climb if I´m suffering elevation sickness? Seems like it´s not going to get better.” I said.

It felt like the sockets of my eyes were resting in a vice, pressing harder and harder. I took a few tablets of Advil. It will pass I assured myself. I rested my hope in a cup of coffee; that will get me going, I thought. Unfortunately, when the blissful steamy cup was in my hand I couldn´t even take a sip, fearing that I would vomit. The smell of warm oatmeal and raisins made it even worse.

“Dude, I´m going to vom. I don´t think I can make it tonight.” I told Goat.

“I feel pretty good.” He said, ” I´m probably going to head up.”

“Cool. I think I´m just going to have to wait until tomorrow night. My body is failing me right now.”

I watched him shoulder his pack and head up towards the trail. I hated the thought of not being able to climb the mountain, and decided to give it a shot and picked up my pack and Ice Axe and followed after him. Within ten feet I started dry heaving, and quickly turned around. I watched his headlight trail after the others.

Slowly, I made my way to the Refugio’s bathroom and spent a very sick thirty minutes. When I got back to the tent Simon was groaning.

“Dude.. I feel like hell. I´m thinking about hiking down to the parking lot, sleeping in that abandoned building.” I said.

“I´m down. I can´t believe how hard the elevation is hitting me.” He said.

Then the thought of moving overwhelmed us both and I said, “I´m going to try and relax first, if it gets any worse I don´t have any choice.”


Two men in the two man tent made a lot more sense and I was able to get some sleep, waking up 3 hours later feeling acclimated for the first time. No dizziness and no headache. I closed my eyes and forced myself back to sleep.

Simon and I got up, still feeling a little ill, and opted to wait a bit before cooking breakfast. People started returning from the late night climb, all projecting complete and total debilitation, on the verge of collapse.

No sign of Goat. More and more people started returning, looking progressively more and more hag.

Finally, Goat returns, but from the refugio.

“WHoah.. You´re back. How´d it go?” I asked.

“Great. Except I made it to the top hours before the sunrise. I had to wait for hours in the cold. I built a snow cave to keep warm. Worked well. Eventually another team got up there. They thought they were the first ones, screaming, YEAH…first ones 2009. And I crawled out of my cave and congratulated them.” Goat said.

Simon and I were sitting in awe, amazed by what we hearing. I was thinking how difficult it was to walk to the bathroom, let alone the top of a near 20,000 foot volcano.

Goat continued, “And it only took me an hour or so to get back. Would have been less time but I got to one of the sketchier sections as a team was climbing up. As a courteous mountaineer I waited for them to set up their ropes and pass. Then I was able to butt slide down some of the mountain and self arrest. It was cool.”

We interrogated him further on as many details of the trail as possible. Eventually Simon and I got the idea that we´d climb the mountain during the day, something apparently very dangerous.

Like the trail up to the Refugio, we stopped every ten steps, took ten breathes, then took another ten steps and sat down. Took it very mellow. Progress was minimal.

“I don´t think I´m going to stick around for this climb. I think I´m heading straight to the beach.” Simon said as we relaxed next to a crevasse.

“Yeah. That´s cool. I am still into it. Hoping my body will work for me a little better tonight.” I responded.

While we were chatting about his plans to head to the beach, clouds descended onto the mountain with high winds. We slid down towards our campsite, practicing our self arrest with the ice-axes.

Simon packed up his gear and said goodbye leaving the tent. High winds blew against the tent all night, pushing against me, making it feel like we had three in there. I was still able to get some sleep, and woke up to a tremendous gust of wind just 5 seconds before my alarm sounded. A sign of portent, I thought.

I looked up at the mountain and saw the lights of the climbers winding up towards the stars like a mythical serpent. There were about 8-10 teams of climbers hoping to summit. Simon had left with our lighter so I snuck into the Refugio and cooked up my coffee and oats, blending in with the other gringos preparing for their climb. Only one team was still preparing to leave, but their chaos still managed to fill the building, letting me eat in peace without being hassled for not paying the 20 dollar fee.

After they left, I had to take my coffee back to the tent and tried to hide from the wind. I didn´t want to be stuck waiting for the sunrise, either. I left at about 1:20 and quickly found myself catching up to the various teams. Shortly into the climb I even encountered four separate teams trying to pass each other, all stringed up in groups of 4-8 it looked desperate and I was glad to not being roped up with any of them.

Within an hour I had already passed all the other teams, which is probably exactly what Goat experienced the night before. Fortunately the trail was easy to find, as so many groups had been through. The wind was tremendous and forced me to take a knee or stagger step, offering a tinge of danger to the night. Stars were as bright as could be, without a cloud in the sky.

45-50 degree angles made sections tricky to climb, particularly on some narrow traverses with the wind, but nothing I felt warranted ropes. All the biking certainly carries over into climbing, and I was able to move at a really good rhythm up the mountain.

Unfortunately, I arrived at the top of the mountain at about 4:20 with hours before the sun would rise, just like Goat. I enjoyed the stars for about 10 minutes until I was freezing cold. I went to work on the snow cave with the ice axe making it deeper and deeper, digging until I felt warm enough to relax, and then when I got cold again I´d dig a bit more. The wind swept across the summit ferociously and I wished Simon had made it up with me.  I knew he´d be stoked if he stayed.

The first group arrived about an hour later by the time my cave was plenty deep enough for one. They complained of being cold and I showed them the snow cave, which was unfortunate because they took it over, cramming the three of them in there.

Twilight started filling in the sky, erasing the stars one by one. And as I was beginning to imagine what the view would be like. Out of nowhere, clouds took over the summit, and by the time the sun rose, I couldn´t even see the crater. I hoped to wait it out, but the conditions were getting worse and I knew it was time to descend when it started snowing and visibility was dropping below 10 feet.

I hustled down the mountain, getting stuck waiting for a group to climb up the same technical traverse that held up Goat.

A little over an hour later I got back to the campsite which was being devastated by the winds.

I peaked into the tent and saw Goat, “Let´s get going,” I said, “The weather is crappy, no reason to stick around.”

We packed everything up haphazardly in our packs and found some guides leaving that could give us a ride. We squished into an SUV and the others were all sleeping with their heads on each other´s shoulders. The windshield wipers were broken and the driver kept trying to clear off the windshield while driving. The rain got worse and required more effective action. We stopped at some national park office and got a little squeegee which worked for a little while. But the road was pretty torn up and he needed even better visibility, so they stopped and got a stick and tied it to the squeegee and had the passenger keep the window clear.

After getting up at midnight and climbing all night, I was pretty worn out, but the road was much too bumpy to sleep.

They dropped us off at a toll booth on the PanAmericana and the police stationed there stopped a bus going to RioBamba for us.

In RioBamba we got some almuerzo, restocked our food supply and found a bus heading to Chimborazo…..





2 thoughts on “Volcan Cotopaxi

  1. Simon says:

    Yeah buddy
    You almost make me wish I had pulled it together.
    If Montanita hadn´t had such epic swell you would have gotten me.
    Guess Ill wait for Ancancagua…

  2. Simon says:

    Yeah buddy
    You almost make me wish I had pulled it together.
    If Montanita hadn´t had such epic swell you would have gotten me.
    Guess Ill wait for Ancancagua…

  3. Simon says:

    Yeah buddy
    You almost make me wish I had pulled it together.
    If Montanita hadn´t had such epic swell you would have gotten me.
    Guess Ill wait for Ancancagua…

  4. Barbie says:

    Sounds like an amazing adventure. The pictures are incredible.

    P.S. There’s an Aubrey video on the blog for you.

  5. Barbie says:

    Sounds like an amazing adventure. The pictures are incredible.

    P.S. There’s an Aubrey video on the blog for you.

  6. Barbie says:

    Sounds like an amazing adventure. The pictures are incredible.

    P.S. There’s an Aubrey video on the blog for you.

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