Standard Route winding up the North Face slopes, then up the steep slopes to the right of “Yanasacha”
I’m not sure how to begin the story of a fantastic trip to Ecuador that resulted in summitting Cotopaxi and an attempt on Chimborazo. The mountains may have been the highlight but the every day on the trip produced all sorts of memories that will last a lifetime. But, I suppose, to keep this web page to a reasonable length, I’ll just describe our awesome trip to Cotopaxi.
We left on January 11th for ten days in Ecuador. We arrived in Quito after midnight due to some mechanical failures in Miami. I was surprised at how quiet Quito was. Our cab driver informed me that even though the city was 2 million inhabitants, it slept quietly at night. Of all the cities I’d been to in South America, I like Quito the most. It has a nice mix of a modern corporate buildings and parks all surrounded by mountains. There’s all sorts of places to eat and the people were very friendly. You do need to be careful of where you walk at night though, as robberies are common.
After a couple of nights in Quito, we took a taxi down to the entrance to Cotopaxi National Park which was no more than a dirt road turnoff. We were going to take a bus but there were rumors that a bus strike was imminent and we didn’t want to get stranded. At the entrance to the park, we hooked up with a fun 4×4 owner named Luis who carried us up an hour and a half to the parking lot beneath the Jose Ribas refugio.
Cotopaxi had been obscured by clouds the entire day but as we began circling around the north side of the mountain the clouds opened up and Cotopaxi reared up with every ounce of it’s immensity. When we arrived at the parking lot, thick low clouds like fog had already started to move in.
Our next job was to carry our gear up past the hut, which is visible from the parking lot, where we’d be camping. We ended up carrying too much gear; it took us a good hour to haul the stuff up. Dan and Ken went one way and I, carrying a cumbersome duffel bag and moving more slowly, went another way.
Along the way to the refugio, I stopped to talk to various people. Here’s a picture of a group of Ecuadorian and French folks who had hiked up to the refugio.
After hanging out at the hut for a while, I joined Ken and Dan who had already set up the tent on the other side of a ridge from the right of the refugio. We started organizing all our gear and making preparations for dinner. A couple of hours later a team of Colombians joined us and set up their tent nearby. They were going to attempt the peak that morning whereas we decided to take a full rest day.
We both got to enjoy an once-in-a-lifetime sunset while we were eating dinner.
We all went to bed around 8 pm. Around 2 am we woke up with pounding headaches. We took an Aleve tablet and went back to sleep, sleeping soundly for the first time all night. Around 4:30 or 5 am though we heard a couple of the Colombians returning to the tent. Two of them had become too tired and complained of stomach aches.
The following day we just relaxed, visiting the refugio off and on, speaking with other climbers and tourists, and taking pictures. We went to bed around 7:30. Dan and I slept great but Ken apparently didn’t sleep at all. By 1 am, we started out.
The 3/4ths moon was very bright and we didn’t need to use our headlamps. It didn’t take us long to arrive on the glacier. The trail was well- beaten into the mountain so the going was very easy. The first part of the mountain undulates above and around crevasses and large seracs and snowplumes. There were a couple of parties both in front of us and behind us and the climbing was very quiet save for the constant strong wind from the east.
We crossed several crevasses along the way. In the moonlight, they looked like nothing more than ditches (good thing for that dim light). At the first hints of sunrise, we had arrived at “Yanasacha” which means “great black rock” in Quechua and is the prominent landmark near the top of the mountain. Here, we decided to rope up. About 25 feet of rope at either end separated the three of us.
The climb after Yanasacha is a steep snow climb to the top. The photo on the below was taken during the descent but shows the steep nature of the climbing. The angle probably averaged about 50 degrees, but rarely got much more steep than 50-55 degrees. That would have really scared me a year ago but I’d prepared on lots of steep snow in Colorado during the previous spring. The snow was also in excellent condition though so climbing it wasn’t a problem at all although if you are brave enough to not do any serious snow-climbing before attempting Cotopaxi, this section could unnerve you.
The length of the climb from here is very deceptive. The slopes hook back to the left and aim for an apparent ridge. However, when you arrive at the ridge, the trail turns hard right and continues up very steeply. As the trail hooks back to the left yet again, it becomes less steep which is a signal that you’re within a couple of minutes of the summit.
I was still feeling really strong during this section of the climb; The altitude wasn’t affecting me hardly at all. It was probably a result of the incredible scenery – maybe it gave me a big adrenalin rush and I only focused on the grandeur of my surroundings and not my physical condition.
From these high and steep slopes, I got the feeling that I was in an airplane looking out the window at the ground thousands of feet below. The views from a volcano like Cotopaxi really feel different from a mountain in range. These volcanoes are scattered miles apart and thus there is nothing at all around you to obstruct your view; you can see for miles in every direction. You’re definitely the King of the Hill when you stand on top of a volcano.
We paused from time to time to rest and take in the magnificent scenery. Of course, when we would stop, we’d each plant our ice axes deeply in the snow to secure our position. The snow was so perfect that you bury your ice axe up to the hilt and the it would hold very firmly. While waiting on these steep slopes I took these various pictures. One of the most impressive shows Cotopaxi’s gigantic shadow cast over the clouds and lower grassland. In the far left you can see the Illiniza duo, Illiniza Sur and Illiniza Norte. These mountains are both 17,000 feet but look diminuative from here.
Cotopaxi is very centrally located and you can see all of the major volcanoes from it. To the northeast we could also see Cayambe and Antisana. Chimborazo, however, is not visible at all until you’re on the summit. It’s almost due south from Cotopaxi and the standard route moves up the north face.
Near the top of the mountain I started to feel the altitude. I don’t recall breathing that hard but my legs felt very tired. Because we were in the shadow for so long, I didn’t have my sunglasses out when we made the summit. As a result, my first moments on top were spent shielding my eyes from the super-bright glare off the snow. After all, it was only 7 in the morning and the sun was almost level with the horizon.
We stayed on top for about an hour. We took lots of pictures and rested. A few other teams made it up as well and we congradulated each other. There were other Americans, some Germans, English, and Ecuadorians.
A lot of the groups were staying on top for only 10 minutes. This seemed like just way to short after to get here. It wasn’t too hard to convince ourselves to hang around a good bit longer and take in the views. It wasn’t even eight o’clock yet. However, it is a good idea to get down sooner rather than later because the snow softens in the sunlight and traveling becomes more difficult and sometimes more dangerous. There were no real dangers this day though since there had not been a snowfall in a week or so and the snow was well-consolidated.
I was a bit worried about the initial steep descent though, but it was actually very easy. It didn’t feel steep at all on the way down. Our crampons worked perfectly on this quality snow and we had no slipping problems at all. We remained roped up, of course, for safety until we were most of the way down.
On the way back, we actually got to peek down into the crevasses. I was surprised and a bit shocked at how deep some of them were – at least a couple of hundred feet deep as far as I could see until the light gave way to complete darkness.
By the time we arrived near the bottom, my legs were really tired and were shaking a bit. It was nice to get back to the tent and realize that we’d made it safely up and down this beautiful mountain.