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.
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.
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.