Laurie had wanted to visit her friend Emily in Ecuador for a while, but she preferred not to go alone.
It didn’t take much convincing for Andy to join her. “We can climb a 20,000 ft volcano,” Laurie excitedly told him one night.
“I’m in,” Andy replied.
And just like that we were going to Ecuador. We booked flights and would be staying with Emily and her husband Paúl in Quito – the capital city. With Laurie changing jobs and Andy working retail during the holidays, that was the extent of our planning for this trip.
Thankfully our local tour guides Emily and Paúl helped a ton! They mapped out a few training hikes and put us in touch with a local guide.
Unfortunately the guide didn’t get back to us in a timely manner, so a week before our departure Andy found a tour operator that arranged for us to climb Cotopaxi.
Once in Ecuador we hiked everyday for the first 4 days, starting with a local park in Quito, then a crater similar to Crater Lake although smaller, followed by Fuya Fuya and Rucu Pichincha. With each hike we increased our elevation, topping out at just over 15,000 feet!
Hiking in Quito and the surrounding areas was wonderful. We loved being outside, even though the weather didn’t always play ball. We knew we should be able to see Cotopaxi from Quito, but with the rain and constant cloud cover, we were starting to think that the mountain didn’t exist.
Moreover, we weren’t entirely confident we’d have fair weather for our date with the volcano.
The day before our climb, under partly cloudy skies, Luis picked us up in a Toyota Land Cruiser Prado (if you don’t remember from our Switzerland blog posts, Andy LOVES foreign cars, particularly 4×4’s not offered in the U.S.) and shuttled us to their tour office in Quito, where we picked up ice axes, mountaineering boots and extra layers.
Just before we left Laurie realized we had not gotten our crampons. The owner of the company grabbed some crampons, put them in the car and we were on our way to Cotopaxi National Park.
Our guide Fausto had summited that very morning, so a friend of the tour operator drove us (now in a Model 80 Land Cruiser) out of town to a gas station where Fausto met us and drove the remaining 90 minutes to the national park entrance.
We ate lunch at a small restaurant at the park entrance, with both of us enjoying the quinoa soup and sampling their version of “aji” or hot sauce.
After lunch we traveled down a smoothly paved road, which eventually turned to dirt. The higher we went, the worse the road became. Eventually we turned a corner where most sedans and 2 wheel drive cars stop and their occupants walk the rest of the way.
But local tour buses shuttling cyclists to the parking lot to bike down the road had no problems. Biking down that road might look tempting on a tour company’s website but we both think it would be miserable given the amount of traffic, sharp turns, dust and overall condition of the road.
Around 2 pm we arrived at the parking lot and loaded up our backpacks. We felt like real mountaineers with helmets, crampons and harnesses draping off our packs.
We began our ascent to the hut. It was a short trek and we opted for the most direct option – up the sandy path. It wasn’t quite 2 steps up, 1 step down but at 15,000 feet it was slow going.
Two groups of hikers – about 10 Swiss and 8 from back east – had started out just before us. Halfway through the uphill, our guide looked at them, then looked at us and told us to continue hiking at our pace while he went ahead to reserve two beds. We weren’t sure if we should interpret this as we were going too slowly or if he trusted us to make it the half mile to the hut without supervision.
We arrived 30 minutes later at the Refugio Cotopaxi Jose Ribas with no Fausto in sight. Exploring the dorms we found two bunk beds with his hat and vest on them, unloaded our belongings and went down to the common area for tea.
Shortly after, Fausto joined us as we drank té de coca (coca leaves are known to help reduce altitude sickness). We asked questions about his climbing history and aspirations as well as sharing our experiences. Laurie had fun practicing her Spanish and both of us were impressed with the sentences she put together.
Before dinner Fausto met us in our dorm to look over our gear. Everything looked ok except for the crampons. It seemed the tour company had given us crampons too small to fit Andy’s boots.
Fausto was not pleased.
He fiddled with the crampons, then switched Laurie’s crampons with Andy’s and they just barely fit. Whew!
We were all relieved.
During dinner we discussed plans for the ascent that evening. Fausto recommended we wake up at midnight and start walking by 1 am – a true alpine start. Typically people leave the hut between 12-1 but Fausto sounded confident 1 am would be okay for us. He said we were fast getting to the hut. Laurie turned to Andy and said with a smile, “Ha! I knew it was a test!”
We were in bed by 7pm but sleep was hard to come by. People kept opening and closing the door to the dorm and rummaging in their packs. The guides were having a grand ol’ time downstairs and their laughter drifted up the stairs and into our dorm like a cold wind through an open window. We both wore ear plugs hoping to drown out some of the noise.
But the noise wasn’t the only thing keeping us awake. Andy tossed and turned all night due to something not sitting right in his belly. He wasn’t sure if it was lunch or dinner but he felt bloated and was super gassy. He desperately wanted to sleep but wasn’t able to.
Laurie drifted off to sleep soonafter getting in her bunk but woke up around 10 with a very distended belly. Despite multiple attempts to fart out the discomfort, the pressure remained.
Eventually she coaxed herself out of bed, reaching for her headlamp and trying to make little noise as she stepped over our boots, ice axes and backpacks placed between our bunks. Immediately upon standing a warm sensation overcame her body.
She stumbled through the door and out to the staircase, grasping for the handrail to descend the 10 steps to the bathroom. When Laurie came to she was sitting on one of the steps, back resting against the step above.
She was soaked in sweat but more alert than a few moments prior. She made it to the bathroom, released some pressure and returned to bed for another 30 minute nap before the lights were turned on and people started getting ready. As it turned out everyone else was leaving either at midnight or half past twelve.
The frustrating thing about being the last to leave the hut was that we didn’t really get more sleep. We spent more time in bed but sleep was impossible with people walking in and out with heavy mountaineering boots on a wooden floor.
We met Fausto downstairs and had a cup of tea before leaving the warmth of the hut a little before 1am. Neither one of us felt ready – with no sleep, upset stomachs and fainting earlier. Nevertheless, we shouldered our packs and went for it.
We wore many layers and quickly warmed as our route was a continuous uphill schlep.
The path consisted of loose volcanic rock and dirt. After about 30 minutes we reached snow line and stopped to put on crampons and rope in. From here it was slow and steady. One step at a time we made our way up and up.
We farted as we walked, both of us feeling better releasing pressure and moving.
At times we went straight up the mountain, climbing sideways with one foot stepping over the other. At other times we switchbacked up the mountain, stopping momentarily to switch our ice axes into our uphill hand.
Occasionally we stopped to catch our breath and could see the trail of headlights above us. Slowly but surely, we were getting closer to those that departed earlier.
Around 3am we were about halfway into our climb. We felt tired but were both doing well with the altitude. Laurie started taking Diamox 2 days before our summit attempt after getting a bad headache when at 15,000 feet. Andy elected not to, wanting to see how his body would handle the altitude. He had done just fine in Nepal at 17,500 feet and wanted to know if he could withstand 19,000 feet.
If he couldn’t do it, he would be ok with turning around. But Laurie would have a hard time with this because she is competitive and turning around, even if it is the right decision, feels like a failure. Laurie’s potential disappointment wasn’t enough to keep Andy from trying to summit without Diamox.
The altitude and possible disappointment weren’t Andy’s real fears. The steepness of the mountain and constant exposure was making him think about the descent. Andy doesn’t feel as comfortable on snow as Laurie. He was feeling scared about the way down. He felt that he shouldn’t keep going because he would only get himself into more trouble on the return.
Almost the entire way up the mountain there are 4,000+ foot drop offs to the left or the right, and behind as well. One wrong step and you’re going down. But since we were roped in, he feared he’d take Laurie and Fausto with him.
During one of our short breaks Andy attempted to calm himself down by reassuring himself that he did in fact belong on the mountain and that he could do this. He took deep breaths (not easy with the cold and thin oxygen) and eventually steadied himself enough to continue.
We climbed on, moving slowly, with the sound of the snow crunching underfoot. On one particular switchback, as we slowly gained elevation, the moon came into view. It was beautiful, as were the stars. As usual Andy was the one to spot the moon. Even here he constantly looked up and afar, gazing at the stars and the city lights many miles in the distance.
Around 4am a woman passed us hiking downhill very quickly with her guide in tow. We’re not sure who she was or why she had turned around, but she was clearly headed back to the hut.
Every 30 minutes or so, when the mountain leveled out after a steep climb, we took a short 1 minute break to catch our breath and add layers. Andy was so tired that during a few of those breaks he almost fell sleep standing up.
Eventually the sky started to get brighter. The darkness was giving way to light. And as time crept closer to sunrise and we got higher in altitude the air got colder. Around 5am it was so cold our checks were frozen making it hard to talk. We tried minimizing breaks during these cold times because Andy’s hands would freeze immediately if he took his gloves off to layer up or grab a snack.
Around 6 am we caught up with some of the other hikers. They didn’t look great but they didn’t look like they were giving up. In fact, they were having a tea break.
Throughout our climb Fausto had not given us any clues as to where we were on the mountain. With sunrise around the corner we didn’t know how close we were to the top. Inevitably Laurie got impatient and again asked him about our status, to which he responded, “Twenty more minutes and we’ll be at the top.”
We thought he was kidding, but he wasn’t.
At 6:30am, just as the sun crested the horizon, we arrived at “el cumbre” or the summit.
We had done it!
We had climbed Volcan Cotopaxi.
The views of the surrounding peaks were spectacular as we, and they, were above a blanket of clouds. For the first time on our trip we could see all of the beautiful volcanoes in this region of Ecuador – including the daddy – Chimborazo.
The smell of sulfur was overwhelming as the smoke from the crater wafted our way, unfortunately obscuring the view of the full crater . Periodically we got a glimpse as the wind shifted.
Even with the lack of views of the crater, we were excited to be at 19,347 feet together! Laurie had previously climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro which was 7 feet lower in elevation.
Andy got emotional at the top and shed a few tears. This was a hard climb for him emotionally and he felt very proud to be up there.
Laurie scampered around the 20 square foot peak, taking pictures of the shadow cast by the volcano and basking in the endorphine rush that accompanies a successful summit.
Unlike Kilimanjaro, there were no rules about limiting time at the summit. Perhaps the Ecuadorians are not concerned about oxygen starved foreigners.
We took a few celebratory pictures and were ready to head down after about 30 minutes. At least Andy was. Having taken off his gloves for a few moments, his hands were freezing again so he waved his arms every which way to pump blood into them.
Around 7am we roped in again and began our descent. Andy, being less sure footed than Laurie, was in the middle. We took it slow, stabilizing with our ice axes and letting our crampons bite into the snow with each step.
Neither of us wanted to look down at the drop offs but it was hard not to. We did our best to focus on our feet as we made our way down the narrow strip of flattened snow, packed down by consecutive days of climbers.
We stopped periodically to rest our tired legs as going down felt much more taxing on our muscles than the uphill.
On our descent we were able to appreciate the uniqueness and texture of Cotopaxi. Fausto wanted to get off the mountain as quickly as possible – who could blame him as he had summited this mountain two days in a row(!!), but Laurie wanted to capture the experience through photos. Andy turned to Fausto and thanked him for his patience. Fausto gave him a displeased look but he eventually accepted that we were in no hurry to get down.
We had both left the hut with 2 liters of water and Andy encouraged us to drink as much as possible on the way down. It wasn’t easy as the water was icy and neither of us enjoy drinking cold water.
As we slowly made our way down, we wondered how it would be to glissade here. We both knew better but the thought of going down thousands of feet in only a few minutes was very tempting!
As we reached the tip of the glacier Fausto removed the rope and told us to go on without him. His stomach was acting up too and he needed a break.
We still had over 1,500 feet to descent before getting to the hut and Andy could feel blisters on his big toes. His mountaineering boots were very comfy (and roomy in the toebox) on the ascent but probably one size too big for the descent. His feet were sliding inside the boots and the friction was creating blisters.
No matter though. Andy has dealt with blisters and kept going slowly. Eventually, after what felt like hours, we made it to the hut at 9:30am.
Other guides congratulated us as did some of the folks from back east. Everyone was tired but in good spirits. We enjoyed hot chocolates and a tamale breakfast while waiting for Emily and Paúl to join us. Emily was going to bring a California flag for us to sign and leave on the wall of the hut.
Around 10am there was still no sign of our friends. We decided to hike down to the parking lot as Fausto had to get back to Quito, drop off our rental equipment and take a well deserved day off.
Eventually we found Emily and Paúl on the road and parted with Fausto.
Climbing Cotopaxi was a special experience and we are grateful we got to share it together. We enjoy cheering for each other and celebrating moments like these.
We’re not sure what’s next but Andy now wants to find a 20,000 foot mountain to climb!
Stay tuned 🙂