Ecuador Trip:  Cotopaxi

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Next we planned to climb Cotopaxi. At 19,388 feet (5,911 meters) it is the second-highest mountain in Ecuador, and the world's highest active volcano. Like Cayambe, Cotopaxi is not an overly technical ascent, so the basic glacier skills we learned on Cayambe were enough to get us through. Unfortunately David was still not feeling up to a big climb. And Cari dropped out after the bad experience on Cayambe. So I was paired up with a young German guy named Dirk. He was in the middle of a year abroad program in Ecuador as part of getting his MBA in Germany. Since he was a triathlete and had been living at high altitude in Quito, I felt confident he would be physically ready to make it to the summit. No turning back this time!

Cotopaxi is a classically shapely volcano with a perfect cone that is visible from all over in Ecuador. The region around Cotopaxi is totally dead. Almost no life. Definitely no trees. As we drove up the base of the cone, there was nothing to see but fields of slightly reddish rock.

Cotopaxi is still active, though not very active. And the summit is just a hair under 19,000 feet. Although it is not highly "technical", it is still very imposing, especially having seen poster images of the glacier and the massive crevasses lying under the standard route to the top.

We parked a short way up the base, and then hiked a little under an hour to the refuge. I love this picture -- sometimes I use it as my PC desktop background. The refuge is much less cool on the inside. Cotopaxi is a very popular climb, unlike Cayambe, so the conditions in the refuge are crowded and loud and less well-kept. A few years ago an avalanche took out this refuge and killed several people. Our guides had been called in to help dig it out:
Ghostly Refuge On Cotopaxi

As with Cayambe we went to sleep early in the evening and awoke in time for a midnight departure. After the fiasco on Cayambe I pushed hard to make sure we got out on time. Dirk was right there with me, and we were the first group onto the trail. Before hitting the glacier we paused to let the other pair of folks in our group catch up, and we squeezed in a photo op:
Hiking In The Dark

After about an hour of climbing straight uphill we reached the edge of the glacier, where we put on our crampons and roped together:
Gearin' Up On Cotopaxi

We pushed hard and made good time. (Our guides were whinging a little bit about this, but I really wanted to take advantage of the fact that Dirk and I were feeling strong.) I thought for sure we'd make it to the summit. Wrong! On the ascent there's one unusually large snow field that must be crossed at exactly the wrong spot for avalanche safety. It's a make-or-break spot for the climb, and the guides know to stop here to check the snow conditions. And... we struck out. There had been some recent snows that had not packed in. The looser snow was about nine feet deep, making this crossing too dangerous for us to continue. Here's a picture of the snow pit the guides dug to assess the avalanche risk. I think of it as the pit of despair:
The Pit Of Despar -- Time To Turn Back On Cotopaxi

One reason we had chosen our tour company was our confidence in their training and level of responsibility when it came to safety. So of course our nose was rubbed in this caution when a couple of groups decided to continue. We were saved any feelings of regret when these groups also turned up at the refuge without having continued much farther than we.

We had reached over 18,000 feet. The view was amazing, with the lights of Quito brightly visible. Lightning flashed on the horizon, and a beautiful crescent moon lit the way down. As on Cayambe I got to lead our descent. (The guides like this because they can actually manage problems more easily if they're the topmost in the roped-together group.) Then I had one very exciting moment on a particularly steep spot. I lost my footing and started to shoot down along the ice. Our glacier training on Cayambe worked perfectly as I used the self-arrest procedure. I twisted my body around, driving my ice axe into the snow with both hands. Between this and the help of my rope mates, I stopped after about 50 feet.

Here's a look back at Dirk on the descent:
Dirk Descending

Soon we were back in the refuge for a nap. And then we headed off. Along the way we stopped at a cool estate-turned-hotel for some coffee, and we made it back to Quito in the late morning.

Wrapping Up It had been a good trip. In the rest of the time there David and I took a day-trip to Baños, a balneario town with nice hot springs. The town itself was less interesting than the massive, smoking volcano towering over it. The landscape in Ecuador is unbelievable, and that spot is among the most impressive.

We spent a few more days in Quito. I visited the Ecuadorian Central Bank's museum of pre-Columbian artifacts and some contemporary art. We also visited the Museo Guayasamín, which is dedicated to the display of works by Oswaldo Guayasamín, a native Quiteño. His works are very striking. Many of them are heavily influenced by the period of government terrorism that afflicted Ecuador. They have many works for sale, most of which were too severe for me to imagine having them in my home. But I did buy one of his early prints -- a very simply but striking picture of a woman's face drawn in black on a field of blue.

So I leave you with my favorite photo from the trip. Most mornings David and I ate breakfast in the "solarium"-style breakfast patio at the hostel. To keep the sun from shining too brightly through the glass panels they would pull out a rainbow-colored awning, which made this beautiful reflection in every day's cup of coffee:
A Great Way To Start The Day

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