Cotopaxi

Su convinced me to try and climb a volcano down here called Cotopaxi. At 19,500 ft in elevation, this is the tallest active volcano in the world and is much higher than the other peaks we have climbed so far. The peak we climbed last week was around 16,000 feet tall. Cotopaxi is much taller. I did not really want to attempt the climb, but Su suckered me into it with the argument that our bodies are more adjusted to high elevation now than they ever will be and there are only a few mountains in the States that are this tall. This was an opportunity that I should take advantage of. Unfortunately, I agreed.

We hired a guide in Riobamba and headed towards the base of the volcano on Monday. This is just a 2 day trek to the top. On Monday we climbed for about an hour to the elevation of 16,000 ft. where there was a refugio we stayed at for the night. Next came the difficult part.

To climb Cotopaxi successfully, you have to start at 1am. This is because it takes about seven hours to reach the top from the refugio. The top portion of the volcano is covered in a glacier. You want to reach the top before the sun is too high and starts to melt the glacier, which would cause an avalanche. We started out at 1am in below freezing temperatures. After walking for an hour, we reached the beginning of the glacier where we had to put on our crampons and rope ourselves together. This is done as a precaution.  If one climber falls into a crevasse in the glacier, the other two can pull him or her out.

Next began a grueling 6 hour steep walk up the side of the volcano, on the glacier. I don’t think I have walked as slow on a hike in my life. At that elevation, the oxygen levels are very low, so it is very difficult to breathe. The best way to hike in these conditions is very slowly. I would take a step, take a few breathes, wiggle my toes, wait a few seconds, and then take the next step. It was pretty tough. What also made it difficult was the fact that it was pitch black, we were using headlamps, a blizzard rolled in cold winds, and it was really steep.

Around 6:30 the blizzard past us, the sunrose, and we were able to see without the headlamps. We reached a plateau near the top which had many beautiful ice formations. At this point we were almost at 19,000 feet up and breathing was very difficult. We slowly continued on and were very close to giving up from exhaustion, when the next blizzard came whipping in. It was very difficult to see much at all. Our guide made the call that we had to turn around because of the bad weather. Most likely, we would have turned around in just a few minutes because we were so exhausted.

At the turn around point we were 150 meters in elevation from the top. We ended around 5750 meters, which is just shy of 19,000 feet in elevation. Not bad for two rookies. One thing I can promise you is I will never attempt anything like that again. It was an interesting challenge and worth trying once in my lifetime, but I don’t think mountain climbing at those elevations is for me. You live and learn.

Now we are in Quito for the last few days of our trip. There are a few interesting markets and museums which we´ll visit before we depart on Tuesday.  

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