Since I first came to Ecuador in 2008, certain images have remained in my mind; llamas in the sunset, vibrant red quinoa fields, the giant cotton-ball clouds of the highlands. The most memorable of these images, however, were the mountains. Snow-capped monsters jutting out of the earth, these jagged mounds of rock and ice marked a landscape unlike any other I had ever seen before. The most majestic of these was Cotopaxi.
At 5,897 meters (19,347 feet), Cotopaxi is the highest active volcano in Ecuador and the second highest peak (second only to Chimborazo). Its almost perfect cone shape is home to one of the few equatorial glaciers in the world, surrounded by miles of fields laden with volcanic rocks. Cotopaxi has been worshipped by indigenous people for millennia, heavily featured in local art, and sent to homes around the world on postcards. In 1921, the Australian poet W.J. Turner tried to capture the emotions he felt when he first encountered the mountains in his poem Romance (full poem here):
Thin fading dreams by day;
They had stolen my soul away!
When I first saw Cotopaxi, the thought of climbing the mountain didn’t even cross my mind. I didn’t consider it until I was looking through a book at Rodrigo’s house last September. Flipping through the pictures late one night, I stumbled upon an illustration drawn by the Spanish scientists Jorge Juan and Antonio de Ulloa in the mid-1700s. They were sent to South America as part of a French study to determine if the Earth was perfectly rounded at the poles or, as Newton had suggested, flattened (long story short, and by a close call, the poles are slightly flattened). On their way, they observed numerous unique geographic and atmospheric phenomena. This illustration shows the eruption of Cotopaxi with a fogbow shining in the background, published in their final work Voyage Historique De L’Amérique Méridionale. And, for some reason, when I saw this picture I knew that I wanted to stand at the top of this volcano and see the world from a new altitude.
The adventure commenced at the Cotopaxi Cara Sur Refugio, a climbing shelter at 4,000 meters on the south side of the volcano. Rodrigo had assembled a team to gather there before heading out. The plan was to meet in the afternoon, hike three hours to the camp at 4,800 meters, and then sleep until midnight when we would start the grueling seven-hour climb to the top of the mountain. The goal is usually to hit the summit around sunrise. Unfortunately, however, just as we arrived at the shelter, a storm rolled in with a heavy downpour. Unphased by this setback, we decided we would just head out earlier in the night and combine the two phases into one long trek.
Before going to bed at around 7pm, we stacked on the layers of clothing that we would rely on for warmth once we hit the snow (and for the unheated shelter). I wore four layers on bottom and four layers on top, as well as two pairs of socks. At 10pm we arose to finish assembling our gear and to venture into the darkness of the night.
Let me start off by stating that this was, without a doubt, the most difficult physical endeavor that I have ever attempted. We set off to climb 1,900 meters in altitude after three hours of sleep over a span of ten hours. Oh, and I had a full bag of camera equipment strapped to my back. And within an hour I knew it would be rough going.
We started on the fields surrounding the volcano, where the ground felt like sand under our heavy boots. True to the plan, it took us three hours to reach the camp, where we took a break and boiled some water to refill our bottles. As we gradually gained in altitude, any hole in the ground gradually filled with more ice. With each break, we could feel the ever-colder air blowing against our sweaty backs, giving us a gentle push to keep going.
Within one more hour we reached the snow. At this point, we had to stop and reassemble ourselves for the new terrain. Crampons (big metal spikes) were attached to our boots, we tied to each other in groups of three using harnesses, and ice picks were distributed. Breaking through the clean, fresh snow, the clouds started to clear to reveal, much to our pleasure, the supermoon of March 19 shining so bright that we didn’t need headlamps for the rest of the climb. It was serendipitous that on the night of the moon’s closest swing towards Earth, we were thousands of meters high just under the equator – one of the closest places to space on the planet.
After eight hours of climbing, the sun finally started to light the sky from the east. Cameras came out; we took a moment to view the world from the rarefied atmosphere above.
The air at that altitude was so thin that breaks had to be taken every few minutes. We moved forward with a 20 step system; every 20 steps, we would take a momentary break to catch our breath in our aching lungs. For me, each step felt like the last I could possibly take. And each following step did not feel like a force of strength, as I could no longer feel any strength in my legs, but a force of willpower, step by step by slow and measured step. I threw up twice along the way from exhaustion and altitude. But that didn’t stop us from proceeding.
Yet once the summit of the mountain came into view, determination grew again within us. Slowly but surely, 20 steps at a time, we made our way to the summit, where we entered another world.
This was a world of ice and rock; age old glacier on top of steaming volcanic rubble surrounded by a landscape covered not by ground, but by clouds. In the center of the peak was a large crater from the collapsed cone of the mountain, sitting silently for now, waiting for the day when it will once again decide to rumble into action with an explosion of molten earth and ash.
Reaching the top – exhausted, aching and dizzy – we looked out at the incredible and expansive view around and below us, and we each fell to the ground in relief, knowing that our ascent was complete: we were finally standing on top of the world.