Climbing the Ecuadorian Andes: What’s up there?
They say that love comes unexpectedly. That when it’s meant to be, it just hits you. It’s true. It happened to me in January of this year. I fell in love with the Ecuadorian Andes.
For many years, I had the goal of climbing the top 4 highest mountains in Ecuador, which also happen to be snowcapped volcanoes: Cayambe, Antisana, Cotopaxi and Chimborazo. So, I finally decided that 2018 would be the start of my climbing adventure and my training. I had heard from mountaineering friends that you need to prepare at least one month before attempting any of the summits.
My love affair started with Corazón Volcano (4,788 masl) that also was my first summit in more than 15 years. I had never been to this mountain, though it is only 1.5 hours from Quito. Then, I went to Cubilche (3,800 masl), to the north, at a lower elevation. Taita Imbabura Volcano (4,621 masl) was next – the mighty volcano that oversees Otavalo town, and that flirts with Mama Cotacachi Volcano. The Taita really challenged me with its steep slopes! The following week, Cerro Puntas (4,452 masl) was gentler to me and amazed me with the first rock climbing and rappelling experience of my life.
Then, I did the famous loop of the Pichinchas, an 18 km hike that starts at Guagua Pichincha Volcano (4,784 masl) and ends at Rucu Pichincha Volcano (4,698 masl). The purpose here was to build resistance. After this, it was time for the glacier training on Cayambe Volcano. It would be my first time using high mountain boots and crampons. It was a fun and intense day learning all the know-how about the equipment and walking techniques.
Finally, after 2 months, the day came when we were going to climb Cotopaxi Volcano (5,897 masl). I got anxious for several days and even had a short panic attack the night before, worrying particularly about the cold. We arrived at the mountain shelter on a Saturday around 3 pm and had a meeting to discuss the details of the ascent, including our climbing partners. We would go in pairs and a guide. The climb would take about 6 hours during which we needed to keep hydrated and warm. I realized that I might have to pee during the climb and suddenly this became my greatest fear.
We departed at midnight and after about 30 minutes or less of walking on the dirt, we put on the crampons. The real climb would start now. We kept a slow but steady pace, trying to keep warm without sweating and breathing properly to avoid headaches. The route is very steep. There hardly is a spot where you can rest without feeling the pull of gravity. The incline was so pronounced that I was afraid to slip and slide all the way down. Finally, after 7 hours of ascent, we made it to the top on a Sunday morning. The joy was infinite! I smiled so much that my face started to hurt. We saw a carpet of clouds and unfortunately could not see the crater, but we were up there! We stayed for about 20 minutes before descending, which went much faster and after only 2 hours we were back at the shelter.
It is crazy how these experiences can get you hooked. At some point during the climb to Cotopaxi, I said to myself: this is the first and last summit for me. As soon as I got on the bus taking us back to Quito, I was planning for Cayambe. To that effect, the next weekend we climbed Illiniza Norte (5,190 masl) as a warm up. This certainly is one of my favorite mountains in Ecuador – beautiful landscapes!
There are divided opinions about which volcano is more challenging. Some friends claimed Cotopaxi was easier and others said that Cayambe should be the first climb. Soon enough, I’d find out for myself. Cayambe (5,790 masl) was my second summit and it was very hard. The route is less steep than Cotopaxi, but it is long! Also, you get chills as you walk over the many crevasses wondering if you’ll fall into one. Actually, some people did fall! It took me 7.5 hours to reach the summit and it was wonderful. Once more, I said to myself that this would be it, and again I started to plan for the next climb.
Whenever I told my mom about my friends’ climbing expeditions and how much I would like to do that, she would ask: what’s up there? Indeed, what can possibly be up there that makes people endure cold winds, rain, snow, mud, headaches, and muscle pain? I had watched and read interviews where people said that the purpose is to push your limits so you get a sense of accomplishment. In other words, you appreciate yourself and recognize your power to do anything you put your mind to. It all sounds very cliché, but it is true.
Next season, I’ll be doing Antisana and Chimborazo and I might repeat Cotopaxi, because I didn’t get a photo of the crater the first time. Yes, it has become an addiction.
Mountain climbing is another way to explore the magnificent Ecuadorian Andes. Whether you want to do short hikes, multiple day hikes or summit a volcano, we’ll set it up for you! We literally have tried (or will try) them all for you!
Send us a message.
Check out our Instagram account for more videos and photos.