Ecuador: Climbing an Active Volcano
Climbing Cotopaxi: The thrill of climbing one of the world's highest active volcanoes
By Dennis Martin
The recent eruption of the Cotopaxi volcano in Ecuador served as a reminder of how fortunate I was to have climbed the national landmark last December.
Standing at 19,347 ft, Cotopaxi is one of the highest active volcanoes in the world and attracts an abundance of visitors, although the number of people who attempt an ascent and successfully reach its summit is considerably smaller.
With my previous mountaineering experience limited to 14,000 ft peaks in Central America and Colorado, I underestimated the amount of suffering associated with a high altitude climb that traversed thousands of feet of never-ending glaciers. If I learned one lesson in Ecuador, however, it was that everyone needs to climb a big mountain at least once in their life.
Coming from Miami, the change in elevation upon landing in the Ecuadorian capital of Quito was enough to send me straight to bed after taking a few ibuprofens. At 9,350 ft, it’s the second highest capital city in the world after La Paz and is known for causing headaches and nausea for newcomers.
A few days of rest appeared to help, and by the time my Andeanface guide, Henry, picked me up from my hotel, I was feeling good. Together with two Brazilians who joined our group, we headed out of Quito and into the countryside to begin our adventure.
Acclimatization is Key
A big misconception about mountaineering is that a team assembles at the bottom of a mountain they’ve chosen to climb and begins a direct ascent until they reach the summit. The reality is that proper acclimatization is equally as important as good physical fitness for a successful trip.
Cotopaxi was the objective, but as Henry explained to us, we needed to progressively train our bodies to operate in higher altitudes with less oxygen.
This meant that in the coming days, we would ascend Pasochoa at 13,776 ft and descend to sleep at a 10,000 ft camp before ascending Ruminahui at 15,088 ft and descending to sleep at a 12,000 ft camp. Then it was on to the lower sections of Cotopaxi.
The next phase in Andeanface’s program was to teach us the basics at Glacier School. With a thick glacier covering the last 3,000 ft from Cotopaxi’s highest point, climbers must be comfortable using crampons and ice axes. Following a car ride and a hike past the Cotopaxi refuge at 15,744 ft, we assembled for a workshop at the starting point of Cotopaxi’s glacier and learned all the core principles to keep us safe.
The Core Principals
Did you fall down? Use the ice ax arrest to avoid sliding down the mountain out of control.
Are you climbing a vertical slope? This is how you effectively use your crampons and ice ax to stay balanced.
Stay alert for crevasses, and avoid getting too close to them.
At long last, summit day began at 11 PM with our team fully geared up at the exact spot where we had attended Glacier School just the prior day. It was freezing cold and snowing, but not enough to completely block the full moon and stars above us.
This would be an all-night affair. Henry tied a rope between us before kicking things off, which was probably a good idea because, within a few hours, I was mindlessly walking like a zombie behind him. With crampons, we were moving at a snail’s pace.
The last thing I remember that night was passing by someone in the darkness who had become too exhausted to continue and was waiting for a partner to help escort them back down.
According to my watch, it was 3 AM. I remember blinking my eyes, looking down at my watch again, and seeing that it was now 6 AM.
The Sun Rising
The sun was rising and I couldn’t account for the lost time. Maybe it was the sleepless night, the altitude, the heavy physical exertion, or the bitter cold that had created a thin layer of ice covering my entire body, but at that moment I realized three things: I was exhausted, I couldn’t think straight, and this was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be (and I’m in good shape!).
Henry didn’t give up on me, and just as important, I didn’t give up on myself. He fed me hot tea and food until I felt good enough to stand up and continue. Together with another group member, we marched on.
At around 8 AM, we reached the summit. It had taken us nine hours to get there and the view was completely covered by clouds, but it didn’t matter.
Climbing mountains is about living in the present moment, breaking through inner barriers, and realizing that we’re each capable of far more than we may believe.
Hopefully, Cotopaxi’s eruptions will subside in the coming weeks, allowing for new groups of aspiring mountaineers to briefly stand atop it. Ecuador is filled with opportunities for adventure seekers, and I have no doubt that I’ll return one day. After all, there’s always another mountain to climb.
Dennis Lawrence is a consultant and freelance journalist. He lives in Denver, Colorado.
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