By Mark Samcoe, V!VA Travel Guides
Heed the teachings of The Wolf, and you too can summit one of the world’s highest active volcanoes.
Cotopaxi (altitude 5,897 m, 19,350 ft), often described as “a near-perfect cone,” rising up out of the vast, flat Parque Nacional Cotopaxi south of Quito, is a popular non-technical hike for visitors to Ecuador.
Our guide, Efrain, nicknamed El Lobo (The Wolf), was a former elementary school teacher from Ambato who had climbed Cotopaxi over 500 times in his 15+ years of guiding. We began our trek around midday, hiking from the volcano’s parking area (4,200 m / 13,779 ft) up to the refuge (4,500 m / 14,764 ft). After an hour of lugging my refrigerator-sized backpack, sinking into the scree slope, and gasping for air, I reached the two-story stone building, completely exhausted.
Instead of practicing wearing crampons or making short climbs to acclimatize, El Lobo told us to rest. In the crowded refuge dining area we sipped tea, ate bread and cheese, and popcorn with fried garlic. We spent the afternoon messing up the table with crumbs, instant hot chocolate and powdered milk.
At dusk, Lobo served us soup and fried fish with rice. While we ate he showed us how to breathe and walk: breathe in deeply through your nose; step with the right foot; plant your ice axe; and breathe out through your mouth, loud enough to hear it.
We bundled into our sleeping bags to rest up for the ascent. The sound of boots clomping on the wood floor, a couple in another bunk whispering and giggling, and people tossing and turning in the lower bunks kept me awake for hours. Eventually I fell asleep, and awoke at midnight, along with the other hikers, all preparing to tackle the summit.
Dressed in layers, we geared up after breakfast; the three of us were the last group to leave the refuge. Above us, the slope was spotted with headlamps moving imperceptibly. I carried water and snacks in a tiny day pack that Lobo joking referred to as a child’s book bag.
We trudged up to the glacier in 45 minutes. I walked, head down, following footsteps, concentrating on breathing and stepping. At the snow line, my boots grew fangs as Lobo strapped on our crampons and roped us in with a bright green cord. Up we marched (the wind gusting and blowing snow), side- stepping and switch-backing, occasionally through knee-high snow. We took short breaks when Lobo said we could. When he asked us how we were doing, we said, “good,” as though it were our mantra.
Surprisingly, my leg muscles didn’t burn from the steep climbing, and I didn’t get light-headed from the altitude. The most trying part of the hike was when I would plant my ice axe in the snow and it would sink deep. It was like leaning on a banister while climbing a steep staircase and having someone yank it out from under you.
The near-vertical ice wall was the biggest challenge. We were told it is 30 meters, but it looked more like 15. Last up, I climbed by slamming my axe into the wall, then kicking my left foot into the ice, followed by my right. I often only got the toe crampons of one boot stuck in, making it a slightly fear-stricken scramble to the top, where I dramatically collapsed once clear.
As we ascended the final stretch, my lungs gurgled each time I took heavy breaths. Sunlight began to peer around the side of the glacier, and we suddenly smelled sulfur. After four and a half hours we reached the summit at sunrise. We felt as though we were on top of the world (or of Ecuador, at least). Smoke billowed from Cotopaxi’s active crater and, below us, low-lying clouds buffeted the peaks of Chimborazo and Corazon.
We spent a few minutes on the summit taking photos and reveling in our accomplishment. The descent took an hour and a half and was more of a struggle than the ascent. Fatigued, squinting to follow the trail lost in cloud cover, we looped down to the refuge. This time, we led and Lobo followed.
El Lobo is a guide with VIVA-reccommended Gulliver Travel.