Taita Cotopaxi, or father Cotopaxi, is the highest active volcano and most sacred site of the Quichua peoples of Ecuador. A beautiful, almost perfect cone, Cotopaxi is easily identified and visible from most high spots in the northern Ecuadorian paramo. It has erupted many times in the last 200 years, and looks like it could blow at any moment. [5897 m, 19,460 feet]
Luis, our driver from Quito, picked us up early and made a swerving, jerky, gripping drive toward the Cotopaxi National Park. Near the park, he introduced us to a beautiful Hacienda (Hacienda El Porvenir ?) where we were greeted with a delicious local tea with aguardiente (fire water – the local alcohol of choice). We ended up staying for lunch, and scheduled someone from the Hacienda to pick us up the next day, midday, at the Cotopaxi trailhead. Luis then continued the bumpy, white knuckle drive up to the Cotopaxi trailhead. We unloaded the gear and began the slow hike up to the refugio. From there the normal route to the summit begins.
The refugio was much nicer than expected; clean, big, had electricity, lots of bunks, big kitchen. Over the course of the afternoon several other groups of climbers arrived there. We bunked near a friendly group (guy from New Zealand, an English woman, and an American) and shared stories of travels while everyone played with Rod’s blood oxygen meter. After a short hike scouting the trail, we prepared and ate dinner (the refugio even had beer for sale!). Then, at 6:00, we lay down and attempted to get some sleep. The wake up time – alpine style – will be midnight. Sleeping is not so easy at 15,000 feet, and then add in a raucous group of French climbers who apparently had no interest in sleeping when beer was available (of course all the French climbers made it to the summit).
At midnight, everyone in the refugio was up, eating breakfast, and preparing for the climb. All the groups started around the same time, and were close together for the beginning of the climb. Then as time passed the groups spread out more and more. We were the slowest group, carefully bringing up the rear. Our strategy is to go slow and steady, especially at the beginning, so that fatigue and exertion don’t play a role in potential altitude sickness. After gaining the glacier, it was just a long steep slog up and up. The glacier had minimal crevasses, and the snow cover was stable. It was technically easy… just at an altitude higher than we had ever been. On the way up, we passed two groups of climbers that were coming down because of altitude sickness. Both groups had started out at a really fast pace. At dawn, we were at about 5000 m, and were very optimistic about reaching the summit. Our pace had been good, we were feeling energetic still, and now, we could see! The wind at this altitude was very cold, but the rising sun was warming things up slightly. A kind of high altitude-fatigue-ecstasy filled me as the sun started to climb with us; it was an amazing joy filled clarity that is indescribable, yet defiantly unforgettable.
We continued up to the climbs’ difficulty crux, a thick snow bridge over a crevasse and up the short steep snow covered crevasse wall on the other side. It was easy though, because a boot pack was already in place. At the top of this, we were in a small gully that acted like a wind tunnel. The wind was fierce and COLD. Rod started to slow down in the gully, and as we were heading up the pitch that would bring us out of the gully and onto the last push to the summit, Rod felt his energy level plummet; drop in half. One of the first signs of altitude sickness. With the pace cut in half, I was getting too cold in the wind, and ability to reach the summit early enough in the day was in question. At 5300m we gave thanks to the spirit of Cotopaxi for the beautiful climb, and turned around.
Of course, the walk down was horrendous and long. But rewardingly, as we approached the refugio, we saw two Andean wolfs in the rocks (they are very shy and have big bushy tails), and flying over head, a Condor! The Condor is very sacred to the Quichua, the native people who are descendents of the Inca. The Condor is the messenger between the people and gods Pachamama and Pachakamak. Pachamama is the feminine spirit of fertility who regulates the seasons and the entire natural world (earth mother). Pachakamak is the masculine spirit of creation who protects and cares for the universe (sun father).
After we grabbed our stuff at the refugio and made it to the trail head, a driver was ready to take us to the Hacienda. The rooms there are very comfortable and pleasant, and the food was great. Our waiter was a local native man, dressed in poncho and all, who really enjoyed telling us about the animals and plants in the area. Where condor nests were, how the pumas had taken some sheep recently, all his favorite potatoes, and the plants used to make the good teas served with each meal. While we were there, we watched the men fix the grass roofing over one of the barns. They just took handfuls of new grass, lifted up the old grass already on the roof, and pushed the new grass in. They worked across the roof slope and from bottom to top. How they didn’t slide off the roof, I’ll never know. The next day, Luis picked us up and took us back to Quito.