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Cotopaxi National Park & Volcano (Quito, Ecuador)

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City: Quito / Country: Ecuador / World Region: South America

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      30.03.2010 16:58
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      How many equatorial glaciers have you climbed? Eh?

      I grew up in a seaside town, in a home a few streets from the beach. In other words, I spent my formative years at sea level. 18 or so years later I'd had enough of being so low down, so shunned London (elevation: 24m) for the dizzy heights of Manchester (elevation: 38m). I tell you all of this, to put what comes next into perspective.

      I spent a year in Mexico City (elevation: 2240 m) before coming back down to Earth, literally, by returning to Manchester. Some months later, my itchy feet set off again. I went to Quito which is a tiny little version of DF but out-does it with its height, an impressive 2800m. That's just the central square, too: head up to El Panecillo and you'll be looking down on the little folk below from a mighty 3016m. Jump on board the Telefériqo and you'll stagger off into the rather thin air that hits you when you're 4000 m up. Yes, 4 actual kilometers above sea level. That's kinda high, but clearly not high enough which is why, 2 days before I left Quito, I thought it might be a good idea to push myself a little more. In for a penny, in for a pound and all that. It was time to climb a mountain.

      Cotopaxi is a volcano located in the Andes, just less than 30 km south of Quito. It's a popular day trip destination, and organised tours run fairly frequently. Cotopaxi is the second highest peak in the country, and its summit reaches a staggering 5897m but even the most intrepid (aka stupid) explorers among us don't tend to go quite that high.

      I'd booked onto a tour as I didn't have my own transport, my mother was working that day, and I quite fancied being with other people. I went with a specific tour agency (Gulliver) but having compared tales with my mother, who had climbed it some weeks earlier, I get the impression that experiences are pretty much identical, plus or minus a slice of chocolate cake at the end.

      We left at 7am from a local coffee shop in Mariscal, and drove for just over an hour to a lodge where we were collecting some other trekkers. From here it was another hour or so to enter the park. This was all laid out on the pre-departure information sheet, but having examined it closely I still thought there was a fair chunk of time unaccounted for. What I had failed to take into account was just how big the national park was. It covers an area of some 33400 hectares - that's kinda big - and as such just because you've entered the park doesn't mean you're anywhere near your destination.

      Just inside the park we stopped to buy snacks and drinks (a couple of liters of water per person are recommended) and our guides bought provisions for lunch. The shop, and there is just one, is more of a shack than anything else, and yet manages to stock some extremely fancy things, like types of Oreos I'd not even come across in the USA. It's also relatively inexpensive considering it's the only one for miles, and has a clear monopoly on visiting hikers, but is fit for purpose with a clear emphasis on drinks, crisps and chocolatey snacks to keep you going in the hours ahead.

      We drove on, coming to the official entrance (about 15 minutes along a bumpy track from the first entrance). Here there is a 'native handicrafts market' where you can buy scarves and mittens and hats, but on the day we went (mid week, February) the market was little more than 2 occupied stands (plus 3 times as many unoccupied ones), both selling identical goods. Entrance to the park is $10 per person, and payable at this point. Most trips exclude this entrance fee, but you are told in advance that you'll have to cough up. There are loos here - the last ones for several kilometers - but I'd sensibly refrained from drinking too much. After all, these were the kind quite likely to be housing 'interesting' local wildlife, of the kind liable to make itself known at rather inopportune moments.

      We drove on, arriving a short while later at the park's museum. In a Friends episode, the girls go to one of the art galleries in New York and ponder where to start, coming up with first the gift shop and then lunch. Me, I normally prefer to see a bit of an exhibit first and get my cultural fix before indulging in the latter two, but I would make the exception here, as it has to be THE most insanely boring museum in the world, ever. It's clearly set up for groups, and it didn't help that our guide didn't really know what she was talking about, but I really can't think of a single good thing to say about it. It is a small number of poor quality, very boring displays. There aren't even any buttons to press, except for the light switch, though given the darkness we were in for most of the tour, even that seemed to be out of order. The place has just one thing going for it: its gift shop. That's perhaps an overly generous description of a woman in a hut selling numbered post cards, but they also had stickers. And sew-on badges...

      We drove on, eventually coming to the parking area where we piled on the layers and climbed out. You've just not done cold, windy, wet and horrible until you've done it at 4500m elevation. Our group was then guided / cajoled along the path to the Refugio José Ribas, the first part of our climb. In theory, this should not have been too difficult, as the path is a little over 1km long, but due to the altitude and the incline, it takes over an hour. Our group included a mix of nationalities and ages from a 70+ Canadian grandmother to her 2 year old Canadian grandson, with a lot of French and Scandinavian tourists in between. I was the only Brit, but by no means the only 20 something - most people seemed to be my age or just a little older, though we did have a 12 and a 14 year old as well. As we began the trek, in the aforementioned wind and rain, one question popped into my mind and would not go away: why had I actually paid someone for the privilege of doing this? It was absolutely horrific - the air is thin so you can't go too fast for fear of passing out, but at the same time when the weather is poor you don't want to dawdle. The path is rocky and has sheer drops at various points, and there's absolutely nowhere to shelter on route (for rests, or even just those moments when you want to get your camera out without risking losing the entire contents of your backpack into the ravine below).
      You get to the point of counting steps in your head, just to keep going. I started counting in 8s, and then stopped to wonder why. Then I realised it was the cheerleading way. This distracted me for a while: was I the first cheerleader to attempt to climb this monstrosity? Was I about to find the perfect setting for Bring It On 6: Soar To The Summit? 10 minutes of musing later, and I had got a further 50m up the hill without realising. Bonus. Next, I decided singing in my head was the way to go (iPod headphones would have been whipped out by the wind the second you set off). There are lots of good songs about mountains, but it would have to be Miley Cyrus (aka last year's X Factor song) that came to mind:

      "There's a voice inside my head saying,
      You'll never reach it...

      There's always going to be another mountain
      I'm always going to want to make it move
      Always going to be an uphill battle,
      Sometimes you going to have to lose,
      Ain't about how fast I get there,
      Ain't about what's waiting on the other side
      It's the climb"

      Inspirational lyrics, non?

      All the way you can see the refuge ahead of you, but it never seems to get any closer. After a while, I began to suspect it was nothing more than a horrible mirage in this dessert-like landscape. I did not enjoy this bit, though it was probably my fault for signing up in the first place. I imagine any other high, rocky, volcano would have been the same. And at least I didn't have a 2 year old strapped to my back.

      Eventually we arrived at the refuge, and collapsed inside. Considering this is an 'emerging market' (we don't say '2nd world' any more) and considering it's 4800m up in the air, it really wasn't that bad, but a plush place to rest this ain't. Think rustic design, bare minimum facilities and its own unique smell (Eau de sweat meets the scent of despair), and you'll be almost there. The toilets are virtual out-houses, and the eating area seemed rather Dickensian, with long communal tables and uncomfy, hard benches. Even that would have done, but unfortunately there was no time to linger, at least not if you wanted to climb up a bit more. At this point, you really have to adopt an, "Oh, sod it" kind of approach. I'd climbed that far. I was friggin' well gonna go all the way to the top and touch the glacier. When my mother went on a tour, only one member of the party wanted to do the final climb but in my group almost everyone did, so I really felt obliged. And plus, I was about to get to touch snow on the Equator - and that's something that doesn't happen every day.

      The path up to the glaciers, or at least the one we took, looked like it could have been a set for a Star Wars film. The fact that despite the low cost of living (and therefore filming) they still chose Tunisia instead tells you a little something about how inaccessible this part of the world is. At this point, I was rather wishing I was on an African beach too. But no, I was trekking through mud and gravel, to see some snow and a bit of ice. It would have been even more fun if I'd not been 10 days out of Philadelphia and the massive winter storm of 2010, but hey. The glacier (elevation: 5000m) takes another 30 minutes or so to reach, and getting there is rather anticlimactic. You round a bend and there it is (unlike the refuge, which taunts you every step of the way of the first part of the trek). You clamber over to it, take the ubiquitous photos, gasp (thanks to the views...and the lack of air) and...come straight back down.

      Lunch is usually what comes after this final climb, and is prepared in the minimalistic kitchen of the refuge (timings may vary depending on what other groups are up there at the time). Ours was basic to say the least. There was chicken soup, or corn soup for me as the sole vegetarian...though it was dubious and I had to wonder whether it had somehow been cooked up in the same pot given both its taste and the rather noticeable lack of pots and pans in the kitchen. We also had chunks of bread, crackers, crisps and a guacamole dip. There's something rather surreal about being atop a mountain in the Andes, feasting on Ritz crackers and Nice biscuits.

      The stumble back down was easier than the crawl up, and took a lot less time (about 20 minutes) but was still no walk in the park, and we were glad to be back in the van for the time being. Our trip included an option to go mountain biking, which some of the group took advantage of, with the more experienced bikers heading down the first stretch, and others then swapping with them for a spin around one of the massive lakes in the national park. The rest of us stayed inside where it was dry and (vaguely) warm, and had a multi-lingual natter. We had bonded in the way I imagine many groups do after sharing near death experiences. Ours wasn't quite as extreme, but there was a definite feeling that we'd survived something that day.

      Once everyone was biked out, we headed back to the lodge and got the promised slice of chocolate cake. We then said goodbye to some of the group who were staying on there for a few days, and made our way back to Quito, arriving back about 7.30pm.

      Cotopaxi is a long day out - at least 10 - 12 hours (plus or minus that chocolate cake) - and is an experience I'm struggling to recommend. It is by no means an easy trip: I consider myself fairly fit, but found it horrid at times, and other were having major problems in parts. Most of the landscape is also not that inspiring, and yet the peak of the mountain, easily visible from behind the refuge, is stunning, and a proper picture postcard view. While you can, on a clear day, see the summit from the safety (and relatively low altitude) of Quito, there's nothing quite like seeing it up close and personal.

      Cotopaxi is not just any other mountain. It has one of the few Equatorial glaciers in the world, has a distinct design and, I will begrudgingly admit, not that bad a volcano to climb if you have to climb one, but I won't be rushing back any time soon. It's a once in a lifetime experience, so I'm glad to tick it off, but mostly because I'll never have to contemplate doing anything quite so silly again.



      Some facts:


      The first European who tried to climb the mountain was Alexander von Humboldt in 1802. He, however, only reached a height of about 4500 m. Slacker. Even I got higher than that. It wasn't until 1872 that Wilhelm Reiss became the first person to reach the summit.

      The best time to climb if you're going all the way to the top, is in the early hours of the morning. You can stay in one of the refuge's bunks ($10/night...you'll only want the one night) and set off about midnight, arriving, if you're lucky, in time for sunrise. Once the sun comes out, the snow starts to melt making it that little bit more dangerous (though let's not kid ourselves: it's never a low-risk activity). Of those who attempt it, about 1 in 10 people make it. If we had odds like that where I work, we'd be shut down*

      Cotopaxi is one of the highest active volcanoes in the world. Again, if you're going to climb a volcano, why not go all out and make it a super high, still active one. Live a little. The most recent spot of bother was in 1975, but they've not had a properly violent eruption since 1877.

      It's sensible to spend some time acclimatising to Quito before going any higher - I spent 5 days in town then 'celebrated' by spending the 3 days before my climb in Banos, at a significantly lower altitude. This was perhaps not too clever, but as in Quito, I had a solution to altitude sickness: I was not going to let myself have it. Full stop. Mind over matter, but it seemed to work. (If you do go funny on the climb, they have a 'special tea' to sort you out. I don't think that was a euphemism for anything, but maybe something got lost in translation. It's made from coca leaves which you can also chew on directly)

      You don't have to climb with a guide, as anyone can rock up and pay the entrance fee, but I doubt you'd want to drive yourself back into Quito again straight after the trek. Coming alone, you'd also have to remember to bring provisions as the refuge's snack and drink selection is somewhat limited. Our guides also had to carry up the gas canisters to prepare our lunch, certainly something I would not have wanted to do myself.

      You don't need any special equipment for the trek, though obviously sensible shoes and warm clothes are advised. I didn't have a walking pole or stick, but wouldn't have minded one, if only to beat myself with for having thought this was a good idea in the first place.

      Trips cost between $30 - $35 per person, including transport, a guide and lunch, but excluding the park entrance fee. Don't book online before you arrive: I looked into tours, and each cost at least double the local price, for the same experience. You can book up to the day before, but most tours only run with minimum numbers, which is a pain if you only have a small window within your trip to fit it in.



      * NB: I work in a hospital - for 1 in 10 to 'make it' would be understandably alarming

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