For a long time, we had our sights set on hiking a mountain over 5000m/16400ft and somewhere along the way we deemed that it would be Cotopaxi. We tried to reach 5000m/16400ft altitude in Mexico, however we were not acclimated properly so we only reached 4600m/1500ft. This time though ‘we thought we were prepared’. An opening statement like that when about to tell a story sets the tone for here is what we did that we would recommend not repeating, so here goes our experience.
Quito is at a high altitude for a city, so we figured after staying around town for a few days, along with just coming from the hills of Colombia we were off to a good start. At least we hadn’t been at sea level for a couple weeks, right? Wrong. We should have taken the advice to climb the mountain Pichincha, which you can take the gondola up to a high altitude then continue over 4000m but we just wanted to get out fo the city. Instead, after stuffing our faces at an all you can eat sushi, we headed towards Refugio de Vida Silvestre Pasocha park. It was dark when we left but we figured it was fine, camp at the entrance where it is safe then hike the following morning. Well as many times as google maps has helped us tremendously, it also from time to time leads us totally astray. That night we ended up driving around farmers fields on a hillside, trying many different roads to the park that did not exist. The last road we encountered the bridge was gone, so we gave up there, parked and slept for the night.
Turns out the previous night we had driven past the parks real entrance. The hike was 11.7km with a 1000m gain in elevation where we reached 3800m/12,467ft. It was a fairly easy hike through the woods then across grasslands. It gave us a confidence boost that we completed it was such ease that maybe we were becoming more acclimatized.
From here we headed straight to the National Park. Although Cotopaxi NP officially closed at 3pm we convinced the guard to let us in and camp for a couple nights at 3900m/12800ft before attempting our summit in 3 days. We camped in the parking lot of Tombopaxi lodge and froze our butts off for the first time in a long time. Cooking outside took an extremely long time due to the altitude and the car was situated in a grassland valley, which meant the wind only picked up more speed as it got to us. We wanted to hike around the following day to acclimatize even more, however, the car needed some work first (Frederik has supersonic ears and picks up ever noise that is not right). Our second night we found a beautiful free campsite, which is the only small clump of evergreen trees at 3800m hight in the park. Occasionally throughout the day, we would catch a glimpse of the volcano in all of its glory. It is a picture-perfect specimen of a volcano. It is symmetric, triangular, larger than life with sharp ridge lines and a beautiful snowy cone. Unfortunately for us, however, was that no one had summited in over a week due to more snowfall that typically happens at this time of the year, but we were still hopeful.
Monday afternoon we met our guide and drove off excited to the parking lot where we would start our ascent, which was at 4500m/14760ft. From there we strapped on our rented mountaineering boots, packed our bags and headed upwards to the refuge which was 200m in altitude away at 4800m/15750ft. Well the mountaineering boots we were given were from ages ago, they might have even been ski boots for all we know because that is for sure how they felt as we tried to walk up the hill in them. In Quito, we bought a couple new sweaters and pants for the trip but with zero experience in mountaineering, we had no idea what to wear. We arrived at the refugee, and were given a cup of tea. not any kind of tea, but coca leaf tea. Yes the very same leafs as used to make cocaine. It postponed Frederik’s high altitude sickness for a while.
We were told to nap before dinner but with the wind blowing through the hut we were shaking in our sleeping bags in our bunns, not getting the slightest bit of shut-eye. Frederik, living his whole life at sea level, has a tougher time with altitude than me. Frederik had at this point was not hungry. The coca leaf tea did not have the same effect anymore, and he was not feeling very well. High altitude sickness can in the serious forms kill you. However there is very obvious symptoms to look for before it becomes really dangerous (from what we read). Frederik started having headache and felt like vomiting. That is very similar to being seasick which he has a little experience with. He forced as much dinner into his stomache as possible, drank another cup of tea, took some Ibuprofene, and went back to bed.
Our wake up time was 11pm Monday night and we were given 3 hours to try and rest up. As we are used to sleeping in our car and stealing body heat from one another, we switched to the bigger bed, added three thick blankets to our sleeping bags and it actually worked. We were both way to hot to sleep this time.
At 11pm the whole lodge was thundering with hard plastic boots going up and down the stairs. Everyone was layered up head to toe, prepared for the elements looking very legit in their personal or rented gear. Us, on the other hand, looked like a couple of circus clowns. We didn’t mind because we were wearing the gear we owned and had brought on the trip. Well, that was big mistake. Number 1. My hood wouldn’t reach over my helmet leaving the sides and back of my neck more exposed than I would have liked. Frederik’s gloves, jacket and pants were water resistant but not proof, and with the weather providing a constant light mist/snow it penetrated through faster than expected.
Big mistake number 2 had to do with our acclimatzation. We should have been walking and hiking over 4000m a couple more times preparation for ascending Cotopaxi, which unfortunately meant that Frederik was feeling the altitude a lot. He could walk, but very, very slowly. The altitude of 5000m/16400ft is characterized as VERY HIGH, and has a really strong effect on the body, some feel it more than others. It all depends on your genetics essentially as well as where you have lived your whole life. 5500 metres is characterized as EXTREMELY HIGH, so that was of course on of our goals to reach. The weather at this point was snowy/rainy which meant we started to get a little wet and cold (because we were walking that slowly). The night before us, more than 60 people had attempted to summit, which (according to our guide) meant that the snow was unsafe due to the risc of avalanches. Although I felt that we kept a good slow and steady pace our guide (who had summited Cotopaxi more than 300 times) had a really good point. We didn’t have any major problems, but we had three smaller problems. Accumulated they gave us a problem. High altitude sicknes, the weather and the risc of avalanches. So he insisted that we had to turn around. As we had paid a lot of money to summit, it sucked, but with no experience of this kind in our backpacks, we didn’t argue.
Before starting our climb we had made a list of goals so that way we could at least achieve one of them.
Goal #1 Summit the Cotopaxi Volcano at 5897m/19350ft. Goal #2 hike past 5500m/18000ft. Goal #3 get over 5000m/16400ft for the first time. Goal #4 figure out how to use mountaineering equipment. Well, all in all, it was a great experience. We had some lessons learned and we still completed the last two of our goals. We had both always wanted to try mountaineering, because we thought we would like it as a sport to take up and we were not wrong. Hiking in the night, the only sound is snow crunching under your feet, you pushing step by step upwards like wrapped up like a marshmallow having a small heart attack underneath a brilliant blanket of stars, lost in your dark surroundings is just amazing. All in all it feels like you’re challenging Mother Nature in terms of the high altitude, weather and the extreme danger. No word can describe it but “awesome”.
We will be doing it again. However this next we will be more prepared.