icons/avalancheicons/bootscompassfacebookicons/gloveshandsicons/hearticons/helmeticons/ice axeinstagramminusmountainicons/pathsMap Pinplusicons/questionicons/guideicons/ropeicons/gogglesicons/stafftenttwitteryoutube
Climber 1

Cotopaxi dream climb and success!

By Mal­lo­rie Estenson

Cotopaxi is sim­ply a dream to climb. If it isn’t already on your to-do list, it should be added imme­di­ate­ly. And if you’ve already climbed it, I’m sure you agree. This par­tic­u­lar vol­cano erupts seem­ing­ly out of nowhere amid lush, rolling grassy hills home to wild hors­es and lla­mas. It’s a strik­ing­ly beau­ti­ful vol­cano, both con­ic and icon­ic at the same time.

We start­ed off at Tam­bopaxi (12,300’) a climber’s hotel with sweep­ing views of the moun­tain and sur­round­ing grass­lands. We enjoyed hearty din­ners with Ecuado­ri­an locro (pota­to soup), some form of pro­tein (fish, pork, chick­en,) rice, and a veg­etable side dish. Each night din­ner was fol­lowed by dessert — nobody goes hun­gry at Tam­bopaxi! The next day we piled aboard the bus that would take us part way up the moun­tain on the first leg of our jour­ney. We climbed a short sandy stretch from the park­ing lot to the climber’s refu­gio. At an impres­sive 15,748’, we were on our way to the 19,347’ summit.

Climber 6
Climber 2
Climber 5

The Jose F. Ribas Refu­gio is a live­ly place. Dur­ing the day, tourists clam­ber up to take in the views. I was sur­prised to see a tod­dler motored up the final steps to the hut by a deter­mined dad count­ing out each step: uno, dos, tres… all the way to veinte (20). Inside, there’s a steady stream of tea and hot water con­tin­u­ous­ly avail­able to climbers. For $1.50, you can get a cup of coca tea, which tastes sim­i­lar to green tea and alleged­ly caf­feinates sim­i­lar to a cup of cof­fee. We took an ear­ly din­ner, very much like the one we had at Tam­bopaxi, and got our­selves to bed around 6pm to pre­pare for our mid­night wake­up call.

We woke to wind whistling through the build­ing. This wasn’t the earth-shak­ing wind that we’d wok­en up to on Cayambe, but it was cer­tain­ly rem­i­nis­cent of the expe­ri­ence and a reminder that we were still up against some wild Ecuado­ri­an weath­er. Some of us reluc­tant­ly aban­doned our sleep­ing bags and donned our hard­shells. Oth­ers near­ly leapt out of bed at the first sound of an alarm ful­ly ready to climb. Grad­u­al­ly, the whole team assem­bled in the din­ing area of the hut. We arrived to a heap­ing pile of crois­sant-like buns, jam, but­ter, and hot tea. The walls are cov­ered with flags from all over the world, signed by teams tri­umphant­ly announc­ing their suc­cess­es on the mountain. 

On this par­tic­u­lar night, a cloud decid­ed to linger at our exact ele­va­tion. Hop­ing that the wind might blow it away, we decid­ed to try to wait it out to avoid sat­u­rat­ing our­selves right from the get-go. For­tu­nate­ly, one of the climbers on our team had an iPhone and plen­ty of music to keep the climb­ing psych high. There was some John Mel­len­camp, Bön Jovi and oth­er artists to announce our Amer­i­can her­itage and eager­ness to climb. We filed out into the dark­ness and were met with pleas­ant tem­per­a­tures, mod­er­ate wind and a rea­son­able lev­el of humidity.

Step by step, we made our way through the scree and sands to even­tu­al­ly reach the edge of the glac­i­er. The guide team made a deci­sion to pur­sue an alter­nate route, avoid­ing the traf­fic and the expo­sure of the Nor­mal Route” described in guide­books. Our route was steep­er and more ardu­ous but pro­tect­ed from the wind. Ulti­mate­ly, it turned out to be the right call as the major­i­ty of the team was able to sum­mit that day while many oth­er teams turned around. This was clear­ly an instance of shin­ing local exper­tise. I felt lucky to be work­ing along­side such a knowl­edge­able and tal­ent­ed crew. Gas­par, David, Lenin, Pan­char, Ramiroand Julianaare some of the best guides out there. 

Climber 3
Climber 4

The major­i­ty of the route is steep, like the Roman Wall on Mount Bak­er. As you walk through the night, hour after hour, you almost for­get to per­ceive the angle of the snow you’re climb­ing. Your life has three parts: left foot steps for­ward, right foot steps for­ward, breathe. The slope angle became very clear to me on the descent; what took us six hours to climb took two hours to descend. 

Push­ing on through the night, I find that the most chal­leng­ing hour is just before sun­rise. Your world is reduced to the six feet of snow illu­mi­nat­ed just ahead. We set­tle into a rhythm and just as my body begins to long for sleep, the sun peeks above the hori­zon and splash­es the land­scape in beau­ti­ful shades of blue and pur­ple. My tiny head­lamp world rapid­ly expands and I feel like I’m climb­ing through a paint­ing; I real­ize how lucky I am to be climb­ing in Ecuador and I feel a renewed sense of pur­pose striv­ing onward toward the summit. 

Hours pass and we know we’re get­ting close. After a steep snowy hill climb, we made our way across an exhil­a­rat­ing cat­walk tra­verse and have just a few more obsta­cles between our rope team and the sum­mit. We rejoin the nor­mal climbers’ route as we near the sum­mit. In doing so, we are wel­comed by gusts of wind that are strong enough to make me stum­ble. When I look back at my team, I see two peo­ple deter­mined to car­ry on. Nico and Bjorn’s resolve gives me strength, and togeth­er we make our way to the top. The sum­mit is strik­ing. At 19,347’ the light seems brighter, the snow seems whiter. The wind con­tin­ues to blow hard enough to knock me around. This is a stand­out moment for all of us. On top of this gor­geous moun­tain, we get to expe­ri­ence the awe­some pow­er of the nat­ur­al world. A cloud obscures part of the crater rim, but we can see down into this mas­sive and impres­sive moun­tain. Cotopaxi is a Quichua word (Quichua being an indige­nous Ecuado­ri­an lan­guage) that rough­ly trans­lates to neck­lace of the moon,” which is easy to believe from the top. At the sum­mit, I feel hum­bled. This isn’t just a sum­mit to be added to the list and just as read­i­ly for­got­ten; breath­ing the thin air made even more harsh by high winds, I rev­eled in the mag­ni­tude of the moment and the accom­plish­ment. It was grand.