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Backpacker Magazine – November 2013

Best for Peakbaggers: Volcan Cotopaxi, Ecuador

by: Kim Phillips

Volcan Cotopaxi, one of Ecuador's most active volcanoes, last erupted in 1940.
Volcan Cotopaxi, one of Ecuador's most active volcanoes, last erupted in 1940.

“You can do this, señorita.” I’ve heard these words before. In fact, this mantra from our guide, Segundo Parra, has been working like magic on my tired legs up until now. But as we inch our way above 19,000 feet, each step requires more energy than the last, and the summit never looks any closer (or maybe that’s the oxygen deprivation). Staring at the seemingly vertical slopes ahead of me, I breathe deeply, gather my energy, and continue the upward grind to the 19,347-foot summit of Volcán Cotopaxi, Ecuador’s second-highest peak.

Matt and I arrived in Ecuador intending to cover the typical trekker’s highlights—the Galápagos Islands and the Amazon—and then skip out. But we scratched our fast-track plans when we discovered the 15,000- to 20,000-foot volcanic Andean peaks studding Ecuador’s interior. It wasn’t just the height that captivated us; it was the fact that so many of these peaks are accessible to hikers like us, not just seasoned climbers. 

We set our sights on the formidable volcano Cotopaxi, the tallest summit attainable for entry-level mountaineers. Still, it’s no walk-up. The summit rises 4,800 feet higher than California’s Mt. Whitney, and the standard, 4.6-mile round-trip route can go from straightforward haul to a delicate crevasse-dodging operation several times a year, depending on the movement of its glacier. 

Yesterday, Matt and I hiked up to the José Ribas Refugio, a hut on Cotopaxi’s northern flanks, for an early dinner and a few hours’ sleep. The half-moon hangs high in the sky when we leave at 1 a.m. under the glow of our headlamps, butterflies tickling my stomach. We switchback up rock-and-sand slopes for more than an hour to the edge of the glacier, then grab our ice axes and strap on crampons before crunching onto the ice. 

We reach 18,000 feet as the first hint of dawn reveals a fantastical landscape. Tree-shaped mounds of snow line the 6-foot-deep snow trench we step into. We pass beneath a 60-foot-tall, anvil-shaped sculpture of snow and ice; an hour later, we climb through the center of a frozen wave formed out of icicles. On the expansive slopes to our right, the sun casts a life-size, perfectly conical shadow of Cotopaxi.

After six hours of climbing and 3,600 feet of elevation gain, the last 300-foot stretch to the summit plays out like a slow-motion dream: My movements are sluggish, my mind feels hazy. I replay Segundo’s words in my head to drown out my doubts: You can do this … You can do this ... We crest the highest point of the summit crater just as clouds engulf the mountain. Standing there at 19,000 feet, we finally get what we didn’t even know we were after: the heady mix of adrenaline, exhaustion, and exhilaration that is the exclusive domain of the high, high mountains.

Do it Fly into Quito, Ecuador. Guiding agencies typically arrange transportation from Quito to the mountain. Or catch a southbound bus (leaving daily) from the Quitumbe bus terminal and ask the driver to stop at the entrance of Cotopaxi National Park.

Permits/fees
None required

Guide/gear
Ecomontes Tour ($210; ecomontestour.com).

Season
Year-round




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