A Beginner’s Tale of Climbing Cotopaxi
To climb or not to climb Cotopaxi, that has been our question. Arriving to the city of Latacunga, gateway to Ecuador’s greatest climbing and high mountain hiking opportunities, we decided to bite the big-bad-cost-bullet for our first attempt at real mountaineering.
While Jeremy and I consider ourselves to be avid hikers, using ice picks, ropes and crampons to maneuver over glacial crevasses and steep, slippery snow fields is new to us. Maybe we could become Mountaineers together? We fantasized, as we were fitted for gear and packed into a van headed for Cotopaxi National Park.
Summiting Cotopaxi, an active volcano that last erupted in 1940, means coping with the effects of extremely high altitude. The 19,347-foot (5900m) peak of Cotopaxi requires some simple, but crucial acclimatization procedures. The night before our planned summit, we had to acclimate at the volcano’s base-camp. After driving to 4500m, we hiked the last hour up to the little, yellow lodge (called The Refuge) to spend the night adjusting to the oxygen and air pressure at 4800m. After an early dinner and bedtime, our plans was to rise at 12am, hitting the trail by 1 o’clock in the morning.
It was dark and the sky was crystal clear as we began our initial ascent up the scree slope from base-camp. A crescent moon glowed brilliantly, laying on its back like a cradle, as the stars, a blend of Northern and Southern Hemisphere constellations I’d never seen before, fell silently. The only other lights were those of Quito in the far off valley, lightning on the horizon belonging to a distant jungle storm, and those of the climbers; twenty small concentrated headlamp beams dotting the trail.
It was a long, cold 5-hour climb to the top. Reaching the tip of the glacier at about 2am, we stopped to put on our crampons and assemble our ropes. Jeremy and I had a private guide, Francisco, who strung the three of us together by our harnesses before taking our first step on to the glacier. Did I mention it was dark? For the next 3 hours, we hiked up and over the glacier, across snow fields, along cliff edges, but we saw nothing beyond what our headlamps would allow. It was difficult to talk to each other due to our headwear and the wind, so for most of the hike we remained in a meditative silence. We were completely consumed in darkness, silence, and snow.
Nearing 5600m (18,300ft), the cold and wind began to intensify. The snow blew up into our faces as we tried to watch our footing. Despite our slow and steady pace, I was feeling the altitude, and exhaustion was kicking in hard. My ice pick suddenly felt as if it weighed 100lbs and my ankles and knees were close to buckling from strain. I started to cope by counting to myself in Spanish. Uno, dos, tres….setenta. I would count, before stopping and allowing myself five to ten deep breaths. I hurt everywhere and could barely breathe. Why I am doing this?? I thought. There is no way I want to be a Mountaineer. I hate the cold. What was I thinking? “Julie, don’t push yourself too hard. It’s ok. We can go back anytime.” Jeremy said to me, as if he had been eavesdropping on my thoughts. I was crawling at that point, finding it easier on my aching legs and limp arms to dig my toes into the ice while shuffling up on my hands and knees. I knew we were less than an hour from the top. No. There was no way I was turning back; no way that I had come all that way for nothing.
Finally, after what felt like an eternity, but was really only about half an hour, we made it to the top. Even though our pace had been slowed by my exhaustion, we crested the summit just as the sun was about to break the horizon. In a matter of seconds, the darkness was dissolved and we were thrusted into a pure illumination of sun, ice and snow. Looking back at the snow packed trail, we could see for the first time where we had come from.
The peak of Cotopaxi rises above the main crater. Peering over the edge, we found ourselves looking straight into eye of the volcano. We had done it. Climbed our first glacial volcano and set a new personal record, breaking the last by 3,000 feet! “Ok, so can we go down now??” We asked, after snapping a few photos with numb fingers and taking a few jaw-breaking bites of our frozen chocolate bars. With my energy and enthusiasm suddenly restored by sunshine and the prospect of warmer weather, we started our descent in pursuit of a properly sheltered resting spot.
We were re-positioned to have Jeremy lead and our guide in the rear on the way down. “I should tell you I have a severe fear of heights,” said Jeremy, pleading not to go first. Our guide laughed as he urged Jeremy forward, down the steep slope we’d just climbed (or crawled in my case) and into the wind and clouds.
The descent took us about 3 hours in total. With the ability to see again came the chilling reality of the ledges, cliffs and steep, icy slopes we had climbed up in the security blanket of night. Suddenly, the dangers of this ice capped volcano were glaring us in the face, calling our eyes to look over the edge instead of at our feet. I have to say, however, that during the Cotopaxi descent Jeremy brought his usually crippling fear down to a more mere short-lived panic. He jumped over crevasses, slid around cliff edge corners, and across narrow, slope passes; all with only the slightest of profanity freak outs. He even stopped occasionally to take photos. By nine o’clock in the morning, we were limping back into basecamp. Sore, exhausted and disheveled, but happy, healthy and proud.
Summiting Cotopaxi was an incredible introduction to climbing and an unforgettable first-time experience. What I love most about mountain climbing is the satisfaction and pride you receive by conquering something seemingly impossible. Although our first climbing expedition may have extinguished our daydream of becoming Mountaineers, we came out with something better: the exhilaration of overcoming a challenge.
In the midst of my exhaustion, I remember catching myself thinking of a woman who had told me how she hated hiking. She couldn’t see the point. She didn’t understand why people do it. And in that moment, when I was freezing and about to collapse, I almost agreed with her. Why was I doing this? But as soon as I did it, as soon as I had overcome my exhaustion and was standing at the top of a mountain that I never thought I could ever climb, I remembered. I hike because there is always a reward at the end. I always come home a winner. Whether I pushed through the physical pain, overcame a fear, or crossed another item off my bucket list, I always gain something from the experience.