Climb Cotopaxi – making the journey count

by on 22nd August, 2014

Climb Cotopaxi – making the journey count

Recently two Andean Trails customers returned from Ecuador, having successfully climbed Cotopaxi Volcano, which at 5897m stands tall in the Avenue of the Volcanoes, its beautiful conical shape easily recognisable from afar.

Andean Trails’ Kat Dougal reminisces about her Cotopaxi climb.


Kat writes:

“It took me back to my honeymoon four years ago, when my husband and I set out to do the same. Living in Scotland we were experienced hill walkers, but this was a next step for both of us. We had spent several days in and around Quito already and had climbed both Pasachoa (4,200m) and Pichincha  (4,784m) Volcanoes from our base there, which helped us immensely to get used to hiking at this altitude.

Very breathless at first, we slowly found our rhythm as our bodies adjusted.

Reasonably well acclimatised we then left Quito and travelled south, with our first stop at the base of the Ilinizas, where we were going to spend a night at the refuge below the two peaks to further aid our acclimatisation. The refuge lies at 4,700 metres and getting sleep was hard, but it helped us prepare for our night at Cotopaxi refuge a couple of days later, when we felt much better acclimatised than some of the other climbers in our dorm.

We managed to get within metres of the summit on Ilinizas but what is usually a non-technical trekking peak had turned into a very difficult venture due to an enormous snowfall the night before. So with the peak in view, metres ahead of us, we had to turn around or face being stuck in snow.

A disappointment maybe, but we didn’t feel that way. Instead we enjoyed amazing views of the surrounding peaks and marvelled at Cotopaxi in the distance.


Happy climbers on Cotopaxi volcano, Ecuador


The climb

And then, after a week of acclimatisation walks and learning basic skills in a day of glacier school, the day had come for us. And so had the snow. Again.

We set off at midnight from the Jose Ribas Refuge at the base of Cotopaxi (4800m), with the aim to reach Cotopaxi in the early hours of the morning and return in time before the sun would start melting its icy, snowy hat, making a descent difficult and dangerous. There were several roped teams starting their ascent with us, and we could see their head torches dancing up the hill. It was a full moon night and while we used our torches, we also found the slopes lit up by cool moonlight. We were excited.

The going was hard but the adrenaline pushed us on.  At altitude, you go slow and every step requires a bit of extra effort, but bit by bit we were gaining height. Our guide was first, followed by me and then my husband – all neatly roped together.

There had been an enormous amount of snowfall the day before and we were battling our way up the slopes. David, being much taller than us, was definitely suffering the most as he was constantly breaking through the snow, making his ascent very strenuous.

We climbed through the silence of the night for a few hours, listening to our breath and making just the occasional stop. We all felt good but unfortunately that alone does not make for a successful summit attempt.


Summit of Cotopaxi Ecuador

Summit of Cotopaxi, Ecuador


The rules

The first rule in mountaineering must surely be that in the end nature dictates.

When we reached about 5400m, not far off the rock face of Yanasacha, our guide finally stopped. At this point there was just us and one or two other rope teams left on the slopes and it seemed that the other guides were starting to hesitate, too. The snow was so deep and soft and were we would normally be walking on harder ground, all we found was snow so soft that it was becoming harder and harder to avoid falling through the snow. And falling through snow you do not want. Not when you can’t be sure of a crevasse below.

Our guide decided that the risk of going on was too high, with the sun about to emerge in an hour or so and bringing with it a risk of avalanche.

And rule number two must surely be you don’t argue with your guide. So we turned around, as did all the other climbers. That day nobody defeated the mighty Cotopaxi.


The journey

Some of you may think that must have been incredibly disappointing. And it was. But I tell you that disappointment didn’t last very long. Maybe I am not ambitious enough and maybe I don’t have what it takes to become a successful mountaineer who can tick peaks of her list. But looking down the slope as we descended, with the full moon to our left and the sun slowly rising to our right, was just mind blowing.

And it was enough for me to forget about the disappointment of not reaching the top. We stopped to sit and watch the sunrise. Tired, breathless and just so very happy.

It was one of the most beautiful, serene moments in my life. Peaks of surrounding volcanoes were sticking their heads  through a layer of clouds, the world seemed to lie beneath us and the sun was starting to chase the moon away and dip everything into warm pink light. Maybe it would have been even better far up at the top of the mighty Cotopaxi.


But I really didn’t care. And I realised that morning at around 6am that sometimes it is the journey that counts.

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