High on Cotopaxi in poor weather

Cotopaxi (5,897m/19,342')

January 19, 1999

one of the mountain pages from Ecuador on muellerworld


Parque Nacional Cotopaxi

Turning off the Pan-American highway onto bumpy dirt roads woke me from my half-sleeping condition in the back of the van. It is only 55km or so south of Quito to the turn-off to the entrance of the Parque Nacional Cotopaxi, but I was tired and couldn't stay awake for most of the trip.

The park is pretty large and is similar in many respects to national parks in North America. There are roads and parking areas, short and long hiking trails and family picnic areas. The striking difference is the ring of tall mountains in and near the park: Ruminahui (4,712m), Morurco (4,840m), Sincholagua (4,893m) and Quilindana (4,878m). There is a 6 or 7 day circuit to hike all the way around Cotopaxi climbing all those peaks, but Cotopaxi is the largest draw of all the impressive mountains in the area.

The route to the park entrance is marked by signs at every intersection. Sometimes taxis wait at the turn-off to take hitch-hikers or people who rode the bus to the turn-off into the park. Not only is Cotopaxi popular with mountaineers, but also with local tourists who just want a relaxing day in the national park.

Cotopaxi is an active volcano, and is often called the tallest active one in the world, but others would argue that Tupungato on the Chile/Atgintine border may be as well. Who knows? Either way, Cotopaxi is beautiful to look at, but also has a long and sorted past as a force of death and descruction.

Records of eruption date back to 1534, then a gain 1742, destroying the town of Latacunga, killing hundreds of people and livestock. Eruptions again in 1743, 1744 & 1766, with a major one in 1768 again destroyed the city. In 1853 it started up again and kept at it for several years. In 1877 it erupted 4 more times, with an event on June 26th that created huge lahars, one of which reached the pacific coast town of Esmeraldas!

I read in a guide book that one of the many times that Latacunga got wiped out was when a particularly nasty lahar rushed down the mountain in 30 minutes. That may not sound impressive, but the village is 35 kilometers away, so the flow of mud and debris was travelling at something like 90 kph (82 feet per second).

Frequent eruptions continued for 8 more years until 1885. Since then, there have only been two minor ones in 1903 and 1904, and a possible one in 1942. Fumarolic activity continues to this day.

Climbing Cotopaxi

In 1872, A German geologist named Wilheim Reiss along with a Colombian called Angel Escobar claimed Cotopaxi's first ascent. Four months later, another German (Stubel) accompanied 4 local men to make the first Ecuadorian ascent. In 1880 Whymper and the Carrel cousins spent the night on the summit.

Cotopaxi is not a climb for novice, but it is not a remarkably difficult climb, either.

Despite reports to the contrary, full climbing gear is absolutely essential. Crampons, harnesses, rope, and pretty much everything you'd need to climb a mountain like Mt. Rainier is required here. We did not take snow stakes, but I wish we would have had one or two for a protected rappel we made just below the summit. An ice-axe, carabiner and a munter hitch filled in nicely, but a snow stake would have made me a little more comfortable. Although we had brought wands, the route had already been marked by previous climbers who had left their wands behind.

A guide book remarks that "Cotopaxi is blessed with the highest number of clear days per year in the Ecuadorian Andes, thus climbs may be attempted year round". December, January, June and July are the driest months, but June and July can be windy for extended periods of time. It was January, and we had picked the one cloudy day in the last week for our summit attempt...

The Refugio

The abandoned Armada Nacional refuge is at 4,400 meters and is rarely used any more. From the parking lot, the new refuge is about a half-hour hike up a steep hill. The sandy slope was covered with a fresh blanket of snow, and the beauty didn't take away from the pain of the hike (admittedly, it wasn't too bad, but I slid back a half-step for every step I took forward).

Hikers laboring up the slope to the Jose Ribas Refuge (barely visible just right of center) Jose Ribas Refuge (zoomed in photo) The front bunkroom

The "new" refugio is called the Jose Ribas Refuge, originally built in 1971 and extended six years later. There is room for 70 hikers in 30-something bunkbeds and more space available on the floor. I thought it was dump compared to the refugio on Cayambe. I think it cost us $10 USD per person per night (we only spent one night).

Back in 1996, there was a big earthquake and a few days later a massive avalanche partially buried the refugio (and a bunch of people - 10 died). It happened on Easter Sunday, so the area was full of tourists.

The Normal Route

Mauricio & John at midnight: Just about ready to start climbing Cotopaxi At about 11pm, climbers start getting ready for their summit attempts. The normal route takes between 5 and 9 hours to get up, so typical departure times are between midnight and 2am (early start times avoid the mushy snow of early afternoon).

We had a quick breakfast of toast, yogurt, cheese and fruit and talked a little with a French group that was readying themselves at about the same time. We had been joined by a scandinavian climber named Erling, but he was still feeling a bit ill from the pnemonia that had put him in an Ecuadorian hospital a few weeks earlier. He decided to accompany us on the dirt for the first hour of the ascent, then we would put on our crampons and get up on the glacier and he would return to the refugio.

The first hour is up the right hand side of the scree slope above the hut. When we were there, it was covered with light snow, but this is not always the case.

At 5,100 meters, we strapped on our crampons and got cold waiting for Bruce to remember how his rental crampons were supposed to attach to his rental boots. After what seemed like an eternity, we climbed up onto the glacier. Erling took a few photos of the group and waved to us as we climbed higher into the dark. From there, we headed up an obvious trail which was pretty much in a southerly direction. There were a few small crevasses, but most of the crevasses that we saw were large and very easily avoided. Unlike Cayambe, Cotopaxi had been heavily traveled in the days before us, so despite the limited visibility, there was never any question about where the trail was, and the pre-installed wands were a nice saftey feature.

One thousand feet higher, the major crevasses began to dissappear and the trail was pretty much heading for the huge face of Yanasacha ("large black rock"). We angled right around the end of the ice feature, then back to the left towards the summit.

This is the area where we came to "the shelf" that looked like the gap of a massive burgshund. We were the second group to reach the area, and the first group was unsure of how to continue. Matt & John on the summit of Cotopaxi They had explored to the right but found a solid wall of ice that was 7 or 8 meters tall and provided no easy access. To the left, the shelf blended into the steep face of the mountain with a steep drop that looked like it continued all the way to the valley below. Mauricio walked up to it, we set a quick boot-axe belay and protected him as he front-pointed up the steep wall until he could walk safely above. He protected John and I as we front-pointed up to him, then we all continued to the summit, reaching it before all others.

Cotopaxi is know for its spectacular views of the surrounding altiplano, and especially for the amazing look into the crater of the volacno. Two French in a barely-in-control belay... The weather was poor, and it looked like we were on the inside of a ping-pong ball. We were two for two in low-visibility summits. We explored the area a little as more and more climbers gathered on top. After 20 or 30 minutes, we were getting cold and decided to descend.

It only took a few minutes to get back to the steep part and we set up a quick ice-axe belay and started down. JUST as I started to descend, Bruce and Oso appeared, set up a lightning-fast belay, and Bruce walked right in front of me and started to descend. We were all dumbfounded, and then immeadiately entertained as he got stuck, fell over and eventually made it down to the bergshund. Oso followed quickly and then I descended, waited for John, and we protected Mauricio as he came down as well. As we adjusted our gear and got ready to head towards the Yanasacha, the French team showed up en masse on a single belay line! The first group had four French dangleing off the wall of the burgshund - one of them had fallen and was upside-down! They barely made it, and then a team of two more nearly fell off the same wall in the same place. We got out of there before anything else happened.

The rest of the descent was just a long walk down the slope of the volcano. It took about 3 hours and offered beautiful views in all directions except up.

Climbers descending near the Yanasacha Face The view while descending John The Yanasacha Face

We unroped at the same spot we had roped up that morning. I was able to glissade a little bit on the light snow, but occasionally I ran into unseen rocks that temporarily ruined my fun. Exhausted, we all piled into the refugio, ate, talked and got ready for our trip south to Chimborazo.


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Please contact me with corrections, questions or comments: Matt Mueller revised: August, 2001