I met Felipe Borja on the podium at the Pichincha Cup Championship race. He won the series overall and was 2nd place in the race, behind Juanito. He was the first cyclist I’ve met here that is interested in really long, multiday, sufferfest bike rides so we started making plans for some long mountain bike routes across Ecuador. Later in the week, I bumped in Felipe again while training at Metro, and he mentioned that some of his friends were going to climb Cotopaxi. His friends were climbing with guides-not something I’m interested in..but he said we could climb on our own, so I immediately took him up on the offer. It was great finally be getting on a glacier. The mandatory guide law here is a real bummer. It has made it hard for me to climb and meet climbers since everyone thinks you need a guide to climb safely.
The plan was to climb the 12th highest peak in Ecuador on Saturday, the seldomly climbed Sincholagua (4900m) with Felipe’s girlfriend Carmen, then Felipe and I would get up at midnight on Sunday morning and climb Cotopaxi. We left Quito at around 7am and drove through the beautiful Parque Nacional Cotopaxi to the base of Sincholahua on some gnarly 4 x 4 roads. We parked near a river with great views of Cotopaxi, but a long way off from the base of the peak. In fact, we were starting from about 3300m so we would need to climb 1600m to get to the summit.
The day started out beautiful and sunny and we chatted as we approached the peak on a wide double track through some classic high Andean paramo scenery. As we approached the main ridgeline leading up to the summit ridge after about 3 hours of hiking, it started to cloud up around the surrounding peaks but didn’t seem too threatening. Still, we made the conservative call not to proceed any further.
We calmly ate a snack and watched an Andean Condor fly overheadas the clouds continued to build, and started to think that maybe we should hurry back rather than take a leisurely pace. It was crazy how fast the storm came upon us at this point. It went from sunny to cloudy to marble sized hail, thunder, and lightning strikes all around us within minutes. We wisely decided to scramble down onto the side of the ridge rather than remain on the ridgeline proper. Not long after doing this we saw lightning striking directly on the ridge. At this point we were running along the super steep side hill and being pounded with hail. A few direct hits to my head and fingers were quite painful. Felipe, who just competed in the World Adventure Racing Championships was in good running shape, so he was ahead of me with Carmen trailing a ways behind. After a while the storm calmed a bit and the lightning had moved past us, so we made our way back to the top of the ridge and waited for Carmen. We were still quite exposed so we continued to run down the mountain. The track was now a slippery muddy mess and I slid in the mud a couple of times. We were all soaking wet from head to toe as the storm finally moved on, and we could continue back to the car in relative peace, though we were freezing cold!
When we go to the truck, I noticed that my extra layers in my backpack had gotten soaked. This was bad news since I’d need those layers for Cotopaxi. Wet, cold, and hungry but in the relative comfort of the vehicle, we made our way to the Tambopaxi Refugio. Tambopaxi is a strange place-it has a very expensive (overpriced!) restaurant with a loft where climbers can sleep for $25 a night in the attic. They also have camping and have recently built some rather posh VIP lodges for wealthier guests. Felipe, Carmen, and his friends from Quito had opted for the posh VIP lodge, but at $51 per person to share a 6 bed room (so over $300 per night total!), I opted to sleep under the Megamid. Since our group was paying so much for the hotel room, the managers let me camp for free!
After eating a lackluster lunch for $16, I asked about filling up my waterbottles and they told me the water wasnt potable, but they were selling water for $2.50 per half liter! Luckily, the manager must have sensed my frustration and offered to fill up my bottles with boiled water for the climb, so I only had to buy a $5 liter of water to get me through the night. I layed down and read and listened to audiobooks at 5pm and actually managed to sleep until 10pm, when most of the guided groups started to head up to the mountain and woke me up.
We were climbing during the Fiestas de Quito, normally a 3 day weekend, but this year it fell on a weekend so no days off. Still, that didn’t seem to deter the crowds as there was probably over 100 climbers intending to go for the summit that morning. We figured we were fast enough to leave Tambopaxi later than the guided groups so we waited until 11pm to eat “breakfast” and headed out at about 12:15 am. It had been clear earlier in the evening, but as we headed out, visibility was quite limited. I wondered what conditions would be like nearly 10,000ft higher!
The drive from Tambopaxi to the trailhead takes about 45 minutes. From there, its an hour hike to the Refugio which sits at the edge of the glacier where the climb really begins. As we made our way up to the trailhead, we finally broke free of the mist and were above the clouds. It was a beautiful night, with a full moon illuminating the clouds below.
We started the hike to the Refugio, which is closed for renovations, at around 1am. We began hiking with Felipe’s friends and their guides, but the going was a bit slow for us and we decided to go our own pace. We made it to the edge of the glacier at about 2am and put on our crampons and roped up. We started climbing at 2:20am.
I didn’t feel like we were pushing it too hard, but we were passing groups left and right. It was kind of a pain to go around them. Also, several guided groups were already turning back, causing a bit of a traffic jam. The glacier here is quite steep and the crevasses are small, so many guides kept telling us that we should short-rope. I disagreed with them, as I think shortroping is dangerous and should be reserved for necessary situations. In this terrain, we probably would have been better off unroped-but since we are both experienced and sure footed, we continued on roped up.
I was surprised that when we entered terrain with massive gaping crevasses that the guides continued to shortrope their clients. I think they must have a different school of thought about the method than what I’ve learned and been taught over the years. To each his own I suppose, but I was glad not to be in a guided group! We crossed snowbridges and made our way through the heavily crevassed area and started making our way up some steep sections. At this point, it began to snow and started filling in tracks and making the going more difficult.
We steadily kept on and continued to pass group after group until there was no one ahead of us. At about 4:30 am we hit the crux of the route, a 50+ degree section of ice and snow that required a bit of frontpointing but was nothing serious. After the crux, we were on a bit of a flat section with two large domes looming above. There was a group waiting for sunrise at the base of one of the domes. This was the final group we passed as we made our way to the summit. Felipe estimated that we were about 30 minutes from the summit, but less than 9 minutes later, we topped out. Unfortunately it was only 5:09am, a short 2 hours 49 min after getting on the glacier. It was supposed to take 5-6 hours!
I cursed myself for not bringing my big, warm puffy jacket-I had unwisely thought we’d be moving the whole time and that I would be fine with just my Nanopuff jacket, shell, and fleece. Still, we decided we had to wait until sunrise to see the surroundings. I got super cold as we anxiously awaited the sunrise, optimistically hoping that the sun would burn off the clouds and warm us up. For the next 45 min we suffered through strong gusts of winds and periods of blinding snow, as a few other groups started to make their way onto the summit. It finally started to get a bit lighter, but we never felt the warmth of the sun. Fortunately, the clouds broke a couple of times, allowing us to see down into the spectacular crater. We never got any good views of the surrounding mountains though. After a few more pics, we made a our way down the mountain.
The descent was made more difficult by the hordes of climbers still making their way up the mountain, but it felt so good to be moving again and warming up that it hardly bothered us. At the crux, there were several groups coming up so we had to climb down a steeper section that required front pointing and we actually had to swing the pick of our ice axe like an ice tool.Good fun!
Not long after, we were approaching the edge of the glacier and got some views of the valley below. At the edge of the glacier, we stopped and had a snack, unroped, and removed crampons. Surprisingly, I saw one of the guides we had been forced to use on Chimborazo in 2012 (our guides didn’t know the route we they took us on and were employing some dangerous shortroping techniques on sketchy loose rock terrain, so we had decided to turn around-but that’s another story!)
From there, it was a quick hike back to the truck. As we approached the trailhead I looked back up the mountain hoping for a nice pic of the peak, but the clouds yet again precluded any nice views. Overall, the mountain was surprisingly easy and nontechnical. The crevasses were obvious and easy to surpass. I think the law that requires guides here has made everyone overestimate the difficulty of these volcanoes. Compared to most glaciated climbs at these altitudes, Cotopaxi is a breeze. Still, it had been really fun to climb as if we were racing, pushing ourselves hard (but not too hard) the entire time and barely stopping to eat or drink. I hope to get a chance to climb with more ultra-fit people like Felipe! Thanks for a great weekend buddy! Let’s climb again soon!