Cotopaxi

Cotopaxi (5,897 m/ 19,347 ft) is the one of the highest active volcanoes in the world. It is is the second highest peak in Ecuador, after Chimborazo (6,310 m/ 20,702 ft), and is one of the simplest and most popular high-altitude climbs in this stretch of the Andes.

Name: Cotopaxi
Height: 5,897 m (19,347 ft)
Location: In the northern Andes, Ecuador, South America.
First Climbed: 27 November 1872 by Wilhelm Reiss and Ángel Escobar
Climb Time: 7-9 hours (from refuge)
Best Time to Climb: October-April

INTRODUCTION TO COTOPAXI.

Straightforward in climbing terms it may be but this mountain is far from a sleeping giant, as signs suggest it is stirring ready for activity. Sulfuric smells and active fumaroles have long been evidence of its ongoing activity, but a couple of thousand recorded earthquakes in and around the peak in recent years suggest something will occur soon.

Jump to Climbing or Trekking Guide

So, this is one mountain that may soon have a transformational period and require new guides to be written about it! But for now, let us tell you about Cotopaxi.

Currently, access to the mountain has come under closer control by the Ecuadorian government as the volcanic activity has increased since mid-2015. At times, access has been denied, while at others some limited access has been permitted. For up-to-date information, see the resources listed here.

HISTORY OF COTOPAXI.

A suggestion of the etymology of this mountain’s name is the Quechua words ccota pasca, meaning ‘shining pile’. 

Other translations, when drawing information from other native languages include: ‘neck of the moon’, ‘the rain sender’ and, simply, ‘the sacred mountain’. Each of these is perhaps a little more celebratory than ‘shining pile’, and more aptly reflects the spiritual significance Cotopaxi and the other Andean peaks hold for their local and indigenous peoples.

Cotopaxi features in many works of art as artists are clearly drawn to such a regularly eruptive and isolated peak. Examples include the painting Cotopaxi (1862) by Frederic Edwin Church (he made others when it was not erupting too) and others by Rudolf Reschreiter; the poem Romance by Walter J Turner; and works of literature by H G Wells and Robert Silverberg respectively.

Cotopaxi Volcano

While Cotopaxi doesn’t have a high rate of climbing fatalities, there have been a high number caused by eruptions (see below) and a smaller number from avalanches.  

The worst single incident was on Easter Sunday in 1996 when 13 people died in or around the José F Rivas Refuge (4,810 m/ 15,781 ft) after an avalanche partially buried the building. The refuge’s location in a valley below a glacier makes it vulnerable to avalanches and rock falls, and particular caution is now taken to leave the hut when earthquakes are experienced in its vicinity. 

 

GEOGRAPHY OF COTOPAXI.

As a nearly symmetrical cone that rises 3,800 m (12,467 ft) above the surrounding highland plains, Cotopaxi is the kind of mountain that you might have drawn as a child. At its top is a 250 m (820 ft) deep, oval-shaped crater. The mountain’s high point is at the north end of the outer of the two crater rims.

It is from this outer rim that one can look down onto the ice-crusted inner ring and see what appears to be a mountain growing up from within itself. This outer rim is made of walls of yanasacha, a black band of rock named in the local kewcha language (see Climbing Guide below).

Cotopaxi is situated in the Cotopaxi National Park and is part of the stretch known as the Avenida de los Volcanes, ‘the Avenue of Volcanoes’. The national park also includes the peaks Ruminahui (4,721 m/  15,489 ft) and Ami Grande (3,773 m/ 12,378 ft) and two rivers, Rio Cutuchi and Rio Pita.

After Chimborazo, no other peak is higher in Ecuador than Cotopaxi. Where it ranks among the world’s active volcanoes is harder to define, as the definition of ‘active/inactive’ is blurry at best. 

Ojos del Salado (6,893 m/ 22,615 ft) and Tupungato (6,565 m/ 21,539 ft) on the Argentinian/Chilean border; Guallatiri (6,063 m/ 19,892 ft) and Nevado Sabancaya (5,908 m/ 19,383 ft) in Peru are all variously considered active and higher than Cotopaxi. 

Nonetheless, we can say that it is one of the highest volcanoes in the world. With a strong possibility of future eruptions, it is also only likely to get higher (unless it explodes rather than erupts of course)

Unlike nearby Chimborazo, Cotopaxi is very much still an active volcano. Its last eruption period lasted from August 2015-January 2016, and has erupted more than 87 since records began in 1534. 

Its most violent recent period was during the mid-18th Century. Numerous eruptions in this period caused the ice cap to melt and during some eruptions lahars carried debris up to 100 km from the mountain. In 1742, 1768 and 1877, the town of Latacunga was completely destroyed, killing many people and displacing others. 

In its current active state, the Ecuadorian government estimates that up to 300,000 people currently live in at risk areas, including, predictably enough, all those inadvisably living in Latacunga. 

You might ask, why would you want to live near a mountain such as Cotopaxi. It’s a good question and one to ask the locals when you visit! But perhaps there is a clue found in the reasons why we choose to go near any natural danger? Because the fascination and curiosity is greater than the risk; because being in the presence of such things offer us something greater than logic; or because we have a cultural or spiritual reason to stay close.

When talking of what this mountain offers geographically, one obvious reason to be attracted to Cotopaxi would be its ultra-prominence. From the base, it looks every bit the quintessential mountain, while, from the summit, expansive views can be enjoyed of the surrounding countryside. 

Another reason may be that one of the few equatorial glaciers in the world flows down its slopes (poised above the refuge named earlier). Beginning around 5,150 m (16,896 ft), it stretches up as an expansive ice cap, covering much of the summit save the yanasacha. Yet it is not the size that it has been historically. Studies have shown that the glacier is 30 % smaller today than it was as recently as 1976.

WILDLIFE OF COTOPAXI.

Flora.

Vegetation around this mountain is varied, supported by the rich volcanic soil. And while the slopes do not show great variety in flora, with a brown and grey-coloured, lifeless scree stretching up to the even less inhabited glacier, in the surrounding highlands there is plenty of plant life to enjoy. 

Trees endemic to the area include the polilepis and capuli, both of which describe a range of low-lying trees and shrubs. Species of capuli are often recognised by their cherry-like fruit. These are found among the various species of pine that populate the area, all of which are well fed by glacial rivers.

Native plants found around Cotopaxi include: chuquiragua, mortino, romerillo, pumamaqui and that now well-known crop, quinoa. The romerillo seems like it would be more at home in the Swiss Alps with its white flowers with orange centres sitting atop long green stalks.

Fauna.

The last remaining species of short-faced bears, the Andean speckled bear, is the rarest sight on this mountain. It has a distinctive black body and white chin, nose and forehead. These bears are native to South America, and live exclusively in the Andes Mountains. While they were long regarded as very adaptable, with territories ranging from the lower plains to the edge of the glacier, loss of habitat and poaching have threatened their numbers in modern times. 

Huge herds of guanaco can be seen roaming the national park highlands. From the same family as alpacas, vicuñas and llamas (also found nearby), they are long-necked and long-legged creatures with a precious, warm wool much desired by people, especially come winter!

Other mammals seen on the mountain include the redbrocket deer, the Andean fox, the elusive Andean puma, paramo wolf and the white-tailed deer.

Above, the orange-faced falcon and Andean gull are both present up around 4,000 m (13,100 ft) so they may be visible from the refuge. A rarer sight would be the wide-winged Andean condor; a precious picture you’d be exceedingly lucky to capture.

 The Armchair Mountaineer looking at two Cotopaxis.

The Armchair Mountaineer looking at two Cotopaxis.

FIRST ASCENT OF COTOPAXI.

In the same year that he failed to reach the summit of Chimborazo (1802), Baron Alexander von Humboldt was also unsuccessful in reaching the summit of Cotopaxi. Given how much earlier he was attempting these climbs than other westerners is, however, a pretty impressive achievement, as he reached a height of around 4,500 m (14,764 ft).

Seventy years later, a German geologist and his Colombian partner succeeded where von Humboldt failed, on 27 November 1872. 

Wilhelm Reiss, who also first ascended Tungurahua (5,023 m/ 16,480 ft) in Ecuador the following year, was an explorer who was supposed to be working in Hawaii but became fascinated with the Andes and so remained around them for eight years! 

He achieved the summit of Cotopaxi with Ángel Escobar by taking what is known today as the South-west Route (see below).

Edward Whymper, best known for his first ascent of the Matterhorn (4,478 m/ 14,692 ft) in 1865, also submitted Cotopaxi in 1880. 

A century later, these early explorers were replaced on the slopes with scores of tourists heading for the summit. But climbing in the context of the late 19th Century, what they achieved (as with all early explorers operating on such peaks) was nothing short of remarkable. 

The first descent into the crater occurred in 1972, by a Polish-Czech expedition. Several Ecuadorian or Colombian expeditions have followed since then to learn more about the volcano.

CLIMBING GUIDE FOR COTOPAXI.

With a 4WD track leading up to the Jose F Rivas Refuge, two routes and the majority of hikes begin from 4,810 m (15,781 ft) on the north side of the mountain. This is a well-equipped and very affordable place to begin your summit adventure. It is also a place to stay for a few days of advised acclimatisation ahead of a summit attempt.

For those more inclined to camp, there is a plateau to the right of the refuge or quieter spots on the other side of the adjacent ridge line. Regardless of which you choose, it’ll leave a little over a kilometre of height left to the summit.

Despite its symmetrical cone, this is widely regarded as a technical climb. The glacier that surrounds its peak makes crampons, ice axes and prior experience on ice crucial prequisites to a successful ascent. 

There are two main routes: the Normal Route and the Rompe Corazones. The South-west Route, used for the first ascent in 1872, has been rarely used since the refuge was opened on the northern slopes in 1971. As such, it is not listed here in any more detail.

All the existing routes are grade II, with the difficulty relating to the steepness of the terrain and the amount of ice hiking that’s required. 

Given the number of wide crevasses and snow bridges that must be crossed, ascending in the cool of the night (1am departure) and during winter months is most preferable. 

All routes are well trodden, with over 100 climbers per weekend at certain times, so finding the route and avoiding crevasses shouldn’t be difficult. 

The Normal Route

Taking the path directly to the left of refuge, head up the switchbacks over sand and scree for the first hour or two. Reaching the glacier at 5,150 m (16,896 ft), it is advised you rope up to your partners, make use of the fixed ropes, or both. 

There is a steep slope at first, easing as you continue to ascend the glacier. Further up (approximately four hours in) crevasses and hanging seracs must be negotiated, followed by steep and exposed sections around the yanasacha, the black rock band.

The last challenge is the navigation of the rimaye, a large gap between the ice and the rock, around an hour from the summit. The advice is to climb down and then up the rock face, though at times there are ladders placed allowing you to bypass this challenge. The summit is gained easily from this point. 

Descent is normally by the same route. 

The Rompe Corazones

In late 2015, this was the only route open to the summit. However, from 2009-2013 it was closed, and the Normal Route was open, so check recent updates for the current situation. It was first opened in 2000, and is often closed when a huge crevasse at 5,500 m (18,045 ft) becomes impassable or dangerous.

This route is considered the harder of the routes up Cotopaxi, given that its steep initial ascent (2-3 hours) offers few opportunities for breaks. Starting diagonally away to the west (right side) of the refuge, the route is steep with a terrain varying between scree and ice. After reaching the glacier, the hardest section is around 5,400 m (17,717 ft) before navigating the huge crevasse mentioned above. 

From here, the route joins the Normal Route to the summit. Descent can be via this route or the Normal Route.

Important information:

Finally, something important to know for anyone who wishes to climb an Ecuadorian peak: you must go with a licensed guide. This is not because these peaks are any more treacherous than others, but because has been a requirement in the country since 2012.

INFORMATION ON TREKKING AROUND COTOPAXI.

For those not wanting to gain the summit, it is possible to head up to the refuge and then ascend the 340 m (1,115 ft) of elevation to reach the glacier. Given the size and scale of this natural phenomenon, standing in its presence is an attractive option open to those lacking the experience, time or desire to go for the summit.

Some even choose to mountain bike back down from the base of the glacier or the car park at 4,500 m (14,764 ft)!

The Cotopaxi Circuit, which stretches for 80 km (50 miles) and runs between 3,000-4,200 m (9,843-13,780 ft) is a moderate 4-6 day hike. It typically begins from the western entrance to the national park (near Pansaleo). 

Although the first and last day are approaches to the circuit, with views of other peaks all around, it is unlikely to feel to arduous or dull. In fact, as you circuit over gravel, dirt roads and trails, you will be enjoying one of the most beautiful panoramas of the surrounding highland landscape. 

It is best walked between June-September or in mid-winter. This means it is also an option if you arrive at the mountain after the glacier has become too treacherous in the warmer months. It is normally walked clockwise and finishes in Mulaló to the south-west of the mountain.

There are also a number of day hikes to consider, many of which are listed here

When Cotopaxi is closed (as many climbing guides state it is at the time of writing (late 2016)), many people will shift their attention to Mount Cayambe (5,790 m/ 18,966 ft), Ecuador’s third highest mountain.