“Aim for the moon. If you miss, you may hit a star.” W Clement Stone
You don´t have any alpinism experience nor did You ever walk on a glacier before. Still, many agencies in Quito and Latacunga offer to take you to climb Cotopaxi, the second highest peak of Ecuador (5897m/19347feet). Tempting…? Go ahead! Even if you don´t make it to the top, you will experience during a night what it is to be an alpinist, and embrace stunning views of the volcanoes.
In the skin of an alpinist for a night
You don´t start the ascent of second highest active volcano in the world unprepared. Cotopaxi is a snow capped summit and first, you will have to try on your equipment: crampons, harness, rope, ice pick for the climb. Several layers of clothings to keep you warm. A helmet for protection. A headlamp to guide your progression -yes, you have to climb at night to avoid avalanches-.
After dinner, you crawl in your sleeping bag for a 3h night in a tent at 3800m. It´s actually quite warm for this altitude (8C) as you are located on the equator. You get up at 10pm and eat again, breakfast this time. It’s your fifth meal in 24h, with this hobbit diet you should have stock up enough energy for the night!
At 11.30pm after a short drive, you reach the parking at 4500m, probably the highest you have ever been. Equipped like a pro, you start your ascension of Cotopaxi via the North route. This is what it takes if you want to play alpinist.
A path of sand, ice and altitude sickness
The first part of the path, made of a mix of sand, rocs and ashes, is quite steep but accessible. You can keep a decent pace and it takes approximately one hour to reach the refuge, at 4800m. At this moment, you need to take the time to realize you made it as high as Mont Blanc, in the Alps! (Usually climbers spend their short night there but at the time of our visit, it was unfortunately closed for renovation, forcing us to start the night ascent 300m lower). Some climbers start to give up, you continue.
At 5000m of altitude you reach the glacier, “Time for the real shit!” you mumble to yourself. From this point, you put on crampons and will progress in a roped party: the guide, yourself and another climber. You use your ice pick to progress on the glacier. It´s not easy the first time, but after a while, it becomes more natural.
The difficulty is that around this altitude most people begin to feel the effects of the elevation. Headache, difficulty to breathe (“Why does it feel like someone is strangling me?“), nausea: altitude sickness is no joke.
Million dollars views
You look around, the landscape is just stunning. You see the silhouette of the guide on the steep edge of the volcano and its shadow on the snow, created by a full moon in a cloudless sky. You see all nearby summits of the northern part of the “avenue of volcanoes”, especially the snow capped ones, with the moonlight reflecting on them. Also, in the distance, the lights of Quito. The guide points at 2 submits: the Illinizas, (5126m and 5248m). They seem so small from here! You are totally under the charm, the landscape is so amazing. You decide to continue pushing.
Right, left. Right, left. You are now not thinking about anything, just keeping going and repeating to yourself “a little bit more, a little bit more“. You have no idea how long you have been climbing, you have lost all reference. At some point, you announce it “I will not go further“. You are at 5284m. The guide shakes your hand “Good job!” You smile, you are proud. You rest there for a while. The stars are so close, the surface so unsual and the panorama so amazing that it feels like walking on the moon. You try to fix these images in your mind forever.
You have been wise to keep some strengths for the descent, as it´s much more technical. It might seem never-ending and you wonder “Did we really climb all of this?“. But once again, you are rewarded by mother nature: as the moon slowly goes down on the west the first lights of the sunrise appear on the opposite direction, giving you opportunity for National Geographic type pictures
Is climbing Cotopaxi a stupid idea?
We didn´t plan on climbing Cotopaxi when we started travelling Ecuador. But climbing the second highest active volcano in the world just seemed like an opportunity not to miss. At the end, we didn´t make it to the top, the challenge was a bit too big… but what a night! This is an experience I will remember all my life. And same goes with the sensational views we were able to witness.
Everyone is different and you are the only one who can evaluate your condition and how you feel. When climbing, don´t put yourself in danger and be reasonable (you will need strengths to go down too!). Hiking on the glacier of an active volcano by moonlight above 5000m is an extraordinary adventure. Would you reach the top? Well, then, that would be a great bonus!
Make it happen – how to climb Cotopaxi
- Most of agencies in Latacunga or Quito offer a similar service. Book from Latacunga and save money (in average $70 cheaper and the bus only costs $4). Expect to pay around $170 for the climb, including lunch, dinner, breakfast, night at the base of Cotopaxi, equipment and transportation. Check the equipment before booking.
- You need to bring: water, energy drink and lots of snacks. In addition to the jacket and trousers you will borrow, pack your own tights, long sleeve, fleece and silk gloves.
- If you aim to climb to the top make sure you are acclimatized enough: a few days around 3800m and the previous day at least at 4500m.
- You are supposed to be able climb all year around. July/August is a popular time even if strong winds are blowing. If you are flexible on your timing, keep in mind that a night with full moon will offer you great visibility and a surrealist scenery.
What I didn’t, is that this failed attempt was an adventure that just got start… read what happened next.