Hola a todos!
The adventure I have anxiously been awaiting finally came and went: climbing Cotopaxi on my 21st birthday! These past 24 hours have been filled with a wide array of emotions—from excitement to nervousness to pure awe. Here is how the trip went down.
Saturday, December 16th: mid-day
On Saturday (my actual birthday), our group of 10 headed out for Cotopaxi National Park. Since we exchange students are running low on money, we decided to take a series of buses that eventually got us to the park. Once we arrived, our group along with our guides drove to our hostal, which was located in Cotopaxi National Park. There we unpacked and then practiced how to put on our crampons—basically an attachment with metal spikes that hooks onto the bottom of your boots so that you can hike on the glacier. At 5pm, we ate dinner, and then it was lights out from 6-10pm. I slept for maybe an hour or two at most.
Saturday, December 16: night
At 10pm, we woke up, packed our bags, and ate a light “breakfast”—tea and some bread. We left at 11pm to drive to the parking lot where the start of the hike is located. Side note: In case you are wondering, yes, this hike did occur at night. This occurs because part of Cotopaxi is a glacier, and if you hike too late in the day, the sun melts the snow which could cause avalanches. We started our hike roughly around 11:30pm with our warm clothes, backpacks, harnesses, helmets, and headlamps. First of all, we had the most perfect night. There was not a cloud in the sky. Instead, the sky was lit up by millions of stars, which we were able to see perfectly since Cotopaxi National Park has little to no light pollution. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many stars before. It was breathtaking. You know what else was (literally) breathtaking? The beginning of this hike. It was a brutal 45 minute hike up a sandhill to the refuge (4800 m). What made it worse was the fact that I was carrying a backpack with the following: 2L water, a coke, 3 bananas, a PB&J, granola bars, 2 chocolate bars, metal crampons, leggings, a thin jacket, snow goggles, and extra hat, gloves, etc. It was HEAVY. Right off the bat, people were passing me up—including my partner and my guide. I just kept thinking, Well this isn’t good. I’m not even 20 minutes in and I’m already struggling. How am I going to hike for 6+ hours to the summit?
Well, we made it to the refuge at some time, and then continued onward. Side note: this hike was a complete time warp. My fitbit was covered up by all my layers of clothes, so I never knew what time it was during the entire hike. It was probably for the best. That way, I couldn’t fixate on how much longer I had on this mountain. After the refuge was more sand/gravel for probably and hour. YAY! The struggle continued. Eventually the sand ended and the glacier began. However, at this point, I hit a very concerning roadblock: my partner got altitude sickness, as in she vomited and couldn’t walk straight. Normally the rule is, if your partner gets sick, you and your guide have to go down. We were barely 2? hours into the hike, and I was not ready to quit yet. However, all of the guides knew it was my birthday. As the cumpleañera, they made an exception and let me join another group. I was bummed for my partner who trained to do Cotopaxi with me, but at the same time, I was so happy for the opportunity to keep hiking.
Sunday December 17th: middle of the night
I joined two other exchange students from USFQ along with their guide. We hooked on our crampons, got tied up to a rope, and headed up the glacier. For probably 4-5 hours we hiked in the dark in silence. This hike was steep too. All of it. For a while we kept wanting to take mini water breaks, but our guide quickly told us that we had to keep moving and only stop at designated break areas. Otherwise, we wouldn’t summit in time. So, we continued, slowly, but continuously—ice pick, step, step, and repeat—for hours, stopping only at the appropriate break areas. This time for me oddly flew by, maybe it was because I lost track of time? The inclines were insane, but somehow I managed to keep on trekking. I never thought about turning back either. Perhaps it was my sheer determination? All of the sugar that gave me energy? The cocoa tea? Who knows.
Sunday December 17th: a bit after sunrise
Eventually, we neared the summit. However, this part was the steepest section yet. Every time we hiked up a steep hill, I thought we had reached the summit…but that only lead to another steep hill, which still didn’t lead to the top. I experienced 2-3 false summit moments that were really disheartening. I knew we were so close, but every step was very difficult due to the incline. I just wanted to summit so badly.
Then we made it. The views were STUNNING. It was a clear day, so we could see other surrounding mountains.
We also got to see Volcán Cotopaxi’s steaming crater—yes, this is an active volcano. Reaching the summit was such an amazing feeling. I couldn’t believe that my body and mind was able to get me to the top of a 19,347ft/ 5,897m mountain. It was unreal! Plus, since I was the cumpleañera, I got a plethora of hugs at the summit, which just added to my already elated state.
Sunday December 17th: morning
The summit of Cotopaxi was quite cold, so after snapping a few pictures, we headed back down the mountain. We were pretty tired by this point, so the descent was slow going. The worst part was trekking down the sand/gravel between the glacier and the refuge. I think I fell at least 10 times on those stupid pebbles. Much like my experience with Iliniza Norte, a couple of times after falling, I just sat there for a while pouting. I considered just sliding down this portion, but I didn’t want to ruin my rental snow pants. Eventually, we made it back to the parking lot, and we returned to our hostal to pack up, eat real breakfast, and go back to Quito.
What can I say? I have fallen in love with the mountains of Ecuador. During my semester, I have hiked Rucu Pichincha three times, Guagua Pichincha, Volcán Corazon, Iliniza Norte, and now Cotopaxi. Every time I hike, I am amazed by the variety of nature that exists on this planet, and I’m astounded by what my body can do. I would have never thought I that I could hike a mountain that is over 19,000ft, but Sunday I did just that. I honestly couldn’t have imagined a better 21st birthday. To me, it really shows how this semester I’ve grown to be more independent, courageous, and open to challenges. If anything, this hike has given me a glimpse of what I am capable of, mentally and physically. So reflecting on my 21st birthday, I’m thankful for the opportunity to be in the beautiful country of Ecuador with wonderful friends doing crazy adventures like hiking Cotopaxi in the middle of the night. Writing this now, leaving Ecuador is slightly bittersweet. I want to go home, but now after four months in Ecuador, I finally feel like my Spanish is improving, I’m meeting more people, and I’m finding the aspects that I really love about Ecuador (one of them obviously being hiking). Now that I feel more established in this country, it’s sad to have to leave, but I guess that means I will have to come back some day.