Cotopaxi


Technical Climb Info:

  • Mountain: Cotopaxi
  • Elevation: 5,894m
  • Route: Normal Route
  • Length: 900m
  • Grade: PD (peu difficile, slightly difficult),  moderate snow

My 3rd time in Ecuador.  My 6th week.  Around my 40th day in the country.  And I had still not ever stepped foot on the famous Cotopaxi.  I swore that this trip, I would change that, I wouldn’t leave before giving it a shot.  I say “a shot” because our luck with the weather and conditions has been fairly poor so far.  Nacho had a pretty good track record for guiding/hauling people up the peak this year, 14 successes of 16 attempts.  “This is the mountain that brings the bread to the table”.  

A few years ago, coming to Ecuador looking to climb more technically challenging routes, Cotopaxi seemed to not have any on the list.  The perfect conical shape left no nooks and crannies for “imperfections” like ridges or faces.  Even in the famously and massively outdated Yossi book, Cotopaxi’s only denoted technical routes are doing weird things in the crater.  Nacho mentioned that he had climbed the short rockface on the peak, but that it was more sand than anything, and that he wouldn’t do it again.  Well, the normal route it is!

Tambopaxi, the poshest “hut” ever

We’d be staying at the Tambopaxi lodge the day before the climb.  I was curious about the origin of the name, was “Tambopaxi” the hill behind the lodge?  I dunno.  (If you know, hit me up.)  Stepping into the lodge, it was pretty obvious that the Tambopaxi owners really had the whole “mountain lodge experience” thing figured out.  It was pretty posh all things considered, and Jessica considered our room “romantic” because the wood burning stove.  We hadn’t had a honeymoon yet, so I’ll take it. 

We mostly hung out on the couches and pretended the pandemic didn’t exist.  Nacho and I ordered a large cerveza each (I normally don’t drink during climbing trips…square, I know, but it’s Cotopaxi) and Jessica used the wifi to check the important updates that Instagram and TikTok had to offer.  Soccer played in the background, and we chatted about life until it was time to eat dinner.  

We finished up dinner by 6pm, went off to our rooms, packed up a bit, and set our alarms to 11:30pm.  Our goal was to be out of the hotel at 12:30am and at Cotopaxi’s parking lot at a bit past 1am.  

Turning off our headlamps, making sure we aren’t too close under the hanging rhyme formations.

A midnight START

I woke up at 11pm, before my alarm.  My body had become accustomed to my sleeping aids, which I neglected to bring on this climb.  I guessed I’d just have to deal with the 4 hours of sleep.  I poured a bit of extra coffee into my Nalgene alongside my PB&J for breakfast. I started bringing around little packets of peanut butter in this mountain huts, because I know their breakfasts always leave some to be desired.  

We hopped into Nacho’s trusty red Mitsubishi SUV and went down the ungodly bumpy road.  My pants drank nearly as much coffee as I did.  After about 45 minutes we reached the trailhead with the wind howling over the car, in the dark it looked more like a desert than a mountain.  Well this is less comfortable than I hoped for an “easy peak”, but  I guess no peak is ever easy.  

The climb started with a gentle hike over desert-like terrain, the path to the hut was well defined by the climbers and day-tourists had come over the years.  I could see how it would be practical for tourists to take trips up this trial to the lodge on pleasant days.   We got up to the hut, geared up, and kept on moving upwards.  With the high elevation, high winds, and a moment of distraction, my last remaining carbon fiber trekking pole got swept away in the wind.  I could see a glimmer of it down on a snow patch below, but I really didn’t feel like going down to get it.  I noted the elevation to pick it up on the way down- 5160m. 

A few teams below us on the final slopes to the summit. Almost a naturally black and white photo.

[INSERT VIAGRA JOKE HERE]

The higher we walked, the more I could feel my lack of acclimatization catching up to me. My lungs were inhaling faster than my body could absorb the oxygen, and I could feel my brain’s function slowing more and more. I knew it was time, time for my secret weapon. I busted out my little pill bottle and popped my little blue almond- Viagra. 

Some people claim that this is just a Himalayan hoax, but after talking to a few of my close friends and relatives in pharmaceutical research, they all agreed that it probably would work for low oxygen environments. Plus, I think anybody who calls it a hoax has never tried it. And no, I’m not talking about the erectile effects, I’m talking about the breathing. Within a few minutes it felt like my chest opened up and that my body was teleported down to sea level. Looking at my watch, I could see that my heartbeat had dropped down to the sub-80s. Not bad. 

Final booting up to the summit.

We plodded along through the unexpectedly wonderful ice formations. I had not expected Cotopaxi’s glacier to be so active and wild, I had underestimated the overall “volume” of the peak. As the sun began to rise and we hopped passed a few pirate guided teams, it looked like the summit was only within arm’s reach ahead. 

But no, the summit was not within arm’s reach. The final slopes were arduous, looking like it should only take 20 minutes but lasting an hour and 20 minutes. This elevation. 

THE BIG CHEERIO, THE SUMMIT

We finally stepped our way onto the summit- oh, the glorious Cotopaxi summit. The big ‘O’ shaped crater was more awe-striking any photo I had seen could show. Volcanic steam wafted from what I imagined was a pit of lava just below. As a kid, this is what I pictured the top of a volcano would look like. Yup, that was it. Check.

It was time to go home now and rest. 

The walk down was far easier than the walk up, only taking a couple hours at a casual pace. I never found my trekking pole I lost, that would be 1 KIA and 1 MIA for the trip. I took a #2 behind a rock on the way down that I think literally almost gave me an aneurysm. Our round trip from the parking lot was about 8 hours, which is apparently somewhat respectable. This climb was far more strenuous than I expected, yet another reminder than we are visitors no matter what the mountain or grade.

Jessica and I, knee deep in rime ice on the summit of Cotopaxi.

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