What do you think about climbing a 6000m mountain? Insane? Crazy? Impossible? No, you don’t have to be supernatural or a pro athlete to get to the top of Mt. Cotopaxi, Ecuador without additional oxygen gear.
How I did it and you can too
First, get yourself to Ecuador, my favorite country in South America due to its rich variety in action sport opportunities. Volcano hiking, rafting, canyoning, mountain-biking, surfing, paragliding and more – your opportunities are endless even though Ecuador is tiny compared to its neighboring countries.
Reach the top of Mt. Cotopaxi, Ecuador at 5897m (19,347 ft, one of the world’s highest volcanoes)
How to get there
From Quito head 2h south to Latacunga where you check into Hostal Cafe Tiana. La Tiana is a cute hostel with lot of backpackers, some of them attempting the climb of Mt. Cotopaxi, others just visiting the glacier edge at 5000m for a day.
Climbing Mt. Cotopaxi is not cheap but it includes the entire gear from head to toe including Fleece, Jacket, multiple pairs of gloves, hats, sun glasses, headlamp, multiple pants, gaiters, mountaineering boots, ice axe, climbing harness, helmet and sleeping gear.
Expect to pay around $200 (incl. the fee for the National Park but excl. tip for the guide) for this 1.5 day hiking trip including food and a guide per 2 hikers. The more people in the group the cheaper the tour for that day (per individual rate).
Depending on where you come from, the Alps or the beach, you will need more or less time to adjust. There are athletes who can’t reach the top, yet there are normally trained people that reach the top without problems. You won’t know how your body will react until you are there but you can take the proper precuations and prepare yourself for this strenous climb.
1 week before the attempt
I came from Colombia and North Ecuador and had stayed above 2500m for a few weeks prior.
- When in Quito, take the TeleferiQo up to the house mountain Rucu Pichincha at 4100m where the trail to the top starts. The 600m elevation gain can be quite tough and it’s often very cold, windy and foggy at the top
- Go to Latacunga and catch a bus to Isinlivi from where you will start a 2-day hike via Chugchilan to Quilotoa Lake at 3900m. The first day is an easy 14km hike with a final ascend to get to Chugchilan. Stay at the nice Cloudforest Hostel there for only $12 including dinner and breakfast. Get an early start the next day for the 14km hike, first 300m downhill before climbing for 900m to reach the beautiful crater lake. Be careful, the path can be very confusing and I got lost several times. I then stayed another night in Zumbahua at 3800m elevation to get used to sleeping at high altitudes.
- Stay another night in Latacunga at Hostal Cafe Tiana to rest and get some sleep since you won’t be sleeping much if anything on the hiking trip. Also get 4L of water, Gatorade and some snacks like nuts, chocolate bars or waffles.
Conquering Mt. Cotopaxi
At 11am you will get your gear and backpack and meet the other hikers if you haven’t before. Then you will get picked up by a van/jeep and have lunch one hour after departure. Before entering the Cotopaxi National Park, you will stop one last time to buy last supplies such as snacks, water and batteries for your head lamp. Shortly after, the park fees will be collected from you and then you head straight up the dirt road to the parking lot at 4600m. The landscape is beautiful and you can also camp there. Some tourists book a mountainbike tour from the parking lot but I wouldn’t recommend this as I have seen a couple falls during our ascent.
Get ready! At 4600m, now it’s your turn. For about 1h you will walk with your gear to the refugio at 4860m which you will reach in the late afternoon. With your mountaineering boots, the soft sandy ground is quite strenous to walk but take it easy and slow and DON’T waste your energy!
After reaching the refugio, your group gets a sleeping place assigned and you can rest a bit until tea time and dinner will be served around 8pm. Get yourself familiar with your gear and prepare a small backpack with your snacks, drinks, camera and extra clothing. I had a filling pasta for dinner and then tried to get some rest at the cold, unheated sleeping area. Even though I was freezing, I was able to get about 2h of sleep before I was woken up by our guide around 11pm. Breakfast time! What?? Yes, we had yoghurt, cereals and tea just before midnight. Feeling a little nervous and pretty cold, I was in the first group to head out into the dark around midnight. Even though our group had 7 people that day, we split up in groups of 2 and 3.
With our head lamps we followed our guides and the first climb of 140m was on dirt until we reached the glacier edge around 5000m. There we got a short introduction of how to safely walk with gaiters and how to use the ice axe. Mt. Cotopaxi is not a technical hike so you don’t need to have any mountaineering knowledge! There are a few crevasses which you will have to pass or jump over but nothing too difficult.
With the climbing harness we were connected with our guide now and we slowly, step by step, started our climb on the glacier. It was extremely dark but you could see the beautiful stars all above you. The breathing gets heavier and heavier and you lose your sense of time. Your steps become automated until your next break. Try to drink even if your water starts to freeze and eat if you feel lack of energy. However, I noticed it’s really hard to eat at that elevation and you aren’t really hungry, just tired. But, keep going and pushing! “At what elevation are we?”, a question I often asked our guide. Hours of climbing make you think “Why am I doing this? Don’t I feel miserable?” but keep telling yourself “It will be worth it!”. We kept going and going and noticed that a couple other groups turned around. The hardest part was shortly before the summit, where we had to crawl and really use our ice axe to get forward.
Finally, there was no higher point anymore, we made it! Six hours and some minutes later we reached the summit at 5897m! I almost collapsed and sank to the ground. And here it was, the first sunshine of the day on Mt. Cotopaxi. Being above the clouds, on top of the volcano was an incredible feeling – a feeling of proudness and accomplishment! Only a few of the people that started made it to the top and we all hugged each other. We took a few pictures but the temperature was around -10°C and we left soon for the descent.
Now we were able to see the path we have taken and we could see the ice caves which were really impressive. The view changed every minute due to the cloud formations and we could see all the way to Quito. The descend felt forever but we took our time to enjoy, take some rests and pictures. About 3h later, at 9:30am we reached the refugio again, completely exhausted. After picking up our gear which we left behind, we had to walk another 30min down to the parking lot to drive back to Latacunga for 2h.
I then slept for 15h straight and felt like I was newly born again.
Why leave at midnight?
The reason why you have to leave at midnight is the danger of the melting ice which starts as soon as the sun rises around 6am. If the snow and ice melts, the risk of avalanches increases and it’s not safe to descend any more.
How to increase the chance of summiting?
- Get enough sleep to have the endurance to walk around 10h or more
- Take Diamox the day before and the day off the climb to reduce the risk or altitude sickness
- Take headache pills with you in case you encounter any pain
- Eat enough carbs the day before your big day to gain enough energy
Having said all this, there is no guarantee you will reach the top. While you should be decently fit to attempt the climb to Mt. Cotopaxi, you don’t have to be a pro athlete to do so.
Don’t underestimate this hike and turn around if you feel light headed, dizzy, can’t breathe, get a strong headache or feel sick! Don’t risk your health!