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Published: June 24th 2012
Exploding lava bombs may have prevented us from getting to the summit of Sangay, but there are plenty of friendlier volcanos in Ecuador which can be climbed - or at least attempted. We've been quite keen on getting to the top of one of these ever since we drove past Cotopaxi on the Avenida de los Volcanes
. Weather, highly unpredictable in the highlands, and acclimation to altitude, essential if we are to stand a hope of getting to one of the higher snowbound summits, are the major obstacles to a successful climb.
After a couple of weeks in the highlands, and especially after spending five days in Parque Nacional Sangay at altitudes pushing 4,000 metres, acclimation shouldn't be too much of a problem now. Our climb to the central summit of Rumiñahui, a relatively modest 4,600 metre extinct volcano located right next to Cotopaxi, a few days before our Sangay expedition reassured us that we can deal with uphill walking at climbing at altitude without keeling over. There certainly isn't anything we can do about the weather, so it looks like we've done all we can to prepare.
The area around Latacunga and Riobamba offer plenty of nice hefty
summits to have a go at. Some, like El Altar and Illiniza Sur, are considered very challenging indeed and are way beyond our barely-tested abilities. Others, including Ecuador's highest and second-highest peaks - Chimborazo and Cotopaxi respectively - are supposedly physically taxing but technically "straightforward" ascents. Not that this means they are safe, however. While we were riding to Sangay a Spanish climber was killed after falling into a crevasse on Chimborazo - even the "easier" peaks can turn nasty in an instant, it seems. Due to ease of access and relative
safety - this latest news very much in our minds, though - we opt to have a go at climbing Cotopaxi along its south face, a little-used approach which, at present, we are informed presents fewer hazards than the usual route up the opposite side. Following our good experience in Sangay National Park, Fabián from the agency in Riobamba will be guiding us up.
Cotopaxi stands at 5,897 metres, a stunningly symmetrical glaciated cone - less than a degree away from the equator - towering over the Panamerican Highway just to the north and east of Latacunga. It is considered one of the highest active volcanos in
the world, although this activity is currently limited to a few fumaroles puffing away near the crater at the top. Cotopaxi has blown its top multiple times in recent centuries, however, annihilating the city of Latacunga repeatedly in the 18th century. The last major eruption took place just over a century ago. The volcano is still definitely a threat - not only to Latacunga but to Quito as well, located barely 30km to the north. The principal danger presented by glaciated volcanos such as Cotopaxi is that should a major eruption occur, the glaciers atop the volcano could melt - sending huge flows of water, mud and volcanic rock into the valley below, with devastating effect. Such flows, called lahars
, can be deadly indeed. In 1985 the Nevado del Ruiz volcano - located mere kilometres from the city of Manizales in Colombia, which we visited only a few weeks ago - erupted suddenly after a long period of dormancy, generating a lahar which completely smothered the town of Armero and killed some 25,000 people. Needless to say, Cotopaxi is under close supervision by the Ecuadorian authorities.
Our climb starts with a two hour drive to a nice refugio
there is only time for a quick cup of tea and to change into our heavy mountain boots. The refugio is as close as vehicles can get to the south face of the volcano, and from here it's a three hour walk - all relentlessly uphill - to the rustic base camp from where we will set off on the ascent at midnight. Yes, midnight! Of all early starts, this one surely gets first prize. Glaciated peaks like Cotopaxi must be climbed during the night while the snow and ice are coldest, and thus most stable. As the day progresses, the surface of the snow becomes more hazardous to walk on. It is past six o'clock in the evening by the time we arrive at the base camp, which is essentially two large fixed tents, and there is only time for Fabián to cook us a quick dinner before it's time for bed. By the time we are ready to retire, the sky has cleared and the stars are shining overhead. Good news: this bodes well for our ascent and the views we'll get after sunrise. Bad news: it quickly gets very, very, very
cold. We only have three hours
to get some rest before we have to be up and ready and start ascending. Our only hope is to zip ourselves into our sleeping bags fully clothed, with balaclavas, coats, waterproofs, gloves, snow mittens and all. Even then it's painfully cold. The base camp is at 4,800 metres and, despite our acclimation, at this altitude sleeping is no easy business. For me, one of the most unpleasant aspects of being at altitude is its effect on sleep: I find myself nodding off only to wake with a huge gasp and a feeling of suffocation. Apparently very common but really not very pleasant.
A very unwelcome alarm rings at 11pm - time to wake up (well, "get up", since waking up implies sleep). Since we're already fully clothed we only have to strap on our boots, don our helmets and head torches, and have "breakfast" (at 11pm!). Outside the tents a freezing wind is blowing but the stars are still twinkling brightly from horizon to horizon. The huge, white hulk of Cotopaxi looms overhead. With our crampons and ice axes ready in our rucksacks, off we go.
The first part is a scramble over bare, loose rock -
Getting ready to "sleep"
Three hours' rest in subzero temperature is not what I'd call "sleep".
only after the first hour do we reach the first snow and strap on the crampons over our boots. At this point Fabián also connects our harnesses together with rope, linking us in a human chain - a safety measure should one of us slip on the snow and ice.
The next six hours are quite probably the most physically demanding of my life so far. Despite the fact that we are climbing in a zig-zag motion, the slopes are still a lot steeper than we expected and it is hard going. Very hard going. I would be lying if I said we didn't consider - more than once - turning back to the base camp, feeling that this was perhaps a bit too ambitious. At 4am, Fabián encouragingly told us we were "only" three hours from the summit and making good progress. Three hours? By that stage we already felt we'd pushed ourselves much too far. Despite the acclimation we were at over 5,500 metres altitude and the uphill slog was a real struggle. But, somehow, we carried on.
An hour or so away from the summit, a large crevasse barred any further progress, forcing us to
Miles-long shadow of Cotopaxi at sunrise
In the distance, the peaks of Illiniza Norte and Illiniza Sur
clamber up a slope of something like sixty degrees, hauling ourselves up with crampons and axe. By that stage it felt like Fabián was dragging us up. We found ourselves pausing to rest every fifteen steps, then every ten, then every five.
Somehow, somehow, we made it, getting to the south face summit about seven hours after leaving the base camp (apparently a reasonably respectable time despite our struggles). There was just about enough fuel in the tank for us to take in the awe-inspiring view - across a huge arc of horizon, Ecuador's major peaks were all clearly visible. Sangay - which only three days before we were camping by - El Altar, Tungurahua, Chimborazo, Illiniza Sur, Illiniza Norte. We couldn't stay at the summit for much longer than twenty minutes, so bitter was the cold and stinging the wind. Feeling woozy, sick and completely drained, we half-walked, half-slid our way down. The ascent took seven hours, the descent less than two.
We arrived back at the tents feeling much perkier, having lost over 1,000 metres in altitude, and elated at having made it. By no means everybody who attempts Cotopaxi makes it to the top -
we may have suffered doing it, but we did it. It'll be a long time before we try anything like that again, I think.
Tot: 2.892s; Tpl: 0.061s; cc: 13; qc: 31; dbt: 0.0209s; 2; m:saturn w:www (184.108.40.206); sld: 1;
; mem: 1.3mb