Cotopaxi Volcano, Ecuador

Cotopaxi Volcano (Ecuador)

As I am not a fan of Christmas or New Year I decided to get away and escape it all, choosing the Amazon rainforest for its diversity to do what I love best and spend some time searching for insects, tree frogs, snakes, mammals and other wildlife. On the way through to the Amazon forests, I stopped at the city Quito for a couple of days before embarking on the flight across, and it was in this brief window of time that I decided to look at the volcanos in the area, most notably Cotopaxi.

I worked very hard in order to get the money together for this trip, working as many hours as I could and as I was due to fly out on Christmas day found that there was little public transport available, so booked myself into the Sofitel Hotel at Heathrow for an over nighter on Christmas Eve.

It was Christmas Eve and I got into bed and watched the film Tin Tin on the hotel movie channel, feeling excited about going to the Amazon the next day.

Christmas Morning
Got up at 7:30am, quickly re-checked kit bag, attached labels, skipped breakfast and set off to walk through the tunnel then catch a train to Terminal 3 for the flight.
Following a long flight, then a change in Miami, going through customs, picking up and re-checking bags, the man who took my bags in Miami said to me “well ma’am, you will be lucky to see those bags again!”

This did not fill me with confidence! However, my bags did turn up in Ecuador and I was mighty pleased to see them, there was nothing of value in there of course, however they did contain things such as calamine lotion, plasters, pain killers, insect repellent, walking socks, tripod, a large bottle of Captain Morgans Spiced Rum and such like, all those things you need.

Ecuador in South America is bordered by Colombia, Peru and the Pacific Ocean and Spanish is the main spoken language, Quito is the capital city which is vast at 99,706 square miles.
Quito is North Central Ecuador set in the Guayllatamba river basin and is the highest Capital city in the World at 9,350 feet above sea level, as I got off the plane and ventured outside I felt the altitude almost immediately, a shortness of breath just from walking, I am used to cycling and running and try to keep myself as fit as possible, this felt weird from such little exertion.

I was also relieved to see my name on a hand written sign at the airport, I remember too well Guyana, I was picked up and headed off in the car to Hotel Dann Carlton, Quito, Ecuador.

Before I left for this trip, a friend of mine Andrew St. George said to check out Cotopaxi, one of the Worlds highest volcanos at 5,897 metres high and I was eager to see it.

Cotopaxi is high in the Andes mountains and has many formation layers of hardened lava, tephra, pumice and volcanic ash making it a ‘stratovolcano’ and has erupted over 50 times since 1738 which has created a striking steep mudflow area surrounding it.

It is part of the ‘Pacific Ring of Fire’ being in the circle of volcanos that formed around the Pacific plate and the first people to climb Cotopaxi were Wilhelm Reiss and Angel Escobor.

I had not really thought this through and so at home had not packed for the cold, rather I catered for the humidity of the forest, however on a bit of a whim I decided on arriving that I would in fact go for Cotopaxi. I dumped my bags and left the luxury of the room and rest to hire a mountain guide who spoke no English, I merely pointed at my map showing Cotopaxi saying “hike”.

We headed off for the 11/2 hour drive to the area, stopping at The Explorers Store on route so that I could buy a warm jacket, I got a lime green padded mountaineering jacket and was mighty grateful for it.

Though the climber/driver and I had a language barrier, he pointed at himself and said “Pofo” the drive seemed to take forever and on route he jumped out the car at his place to pick up his gear for the climb, then we eventually weaved our way carefully up a narrow, windy road with drops either side all taped off, covered in yellow tape and potholes.

The views were out of this world, surreal, moon like, magnificent.

On driving, the weather had changed from bright blue sunny skies to dark clouds and rain as we arrived, however it cleared again in minutes and we saw Cotopaxi in all its snow-capped, glacial glory, I was mesmerised by its beauty.

Cotopaxi up high

Cotopaxi up high

We stopped to get a permit then went on up to the park up ready for the climb, there were tents and vehicles scattered about untidily for the climbers who were attempting the whole thing, we watched and listened to an avalanche right up ahead of us as it happened, I found this exciting.

We got out, kitted up and began our ascent of this volcano, it was steep and covered in loose shale and scree, in order to get a secure foothold the higher you went, you had to kick in a foothold and then step into it.

I was excited at the prospect of getting to the glacial area, the goal I had set myself and perhaps a little beyond….

We had gone way, way up, Pofo went steaming ahead of me, I could see that he was totally used to the altitude and guessed that he rarely got the chance to come up here, he had been very excited about the climb on the way in.

I was doing well at about 4,000 meters when out of nowhere my head started to really hurt, I felt liquid run down my face and realised that my nose was bleeding, then I started to stumble and could not seem to think how to put one foot in front of the other, it was so sudden and so strange to feel this way.
I was cross as I wanted to get to the glacier, I could see it, it was not too far now, I was almost there, surely I could do that at least, but three times I went down and three times I attempted to come back up and each time I failed……I stumbled as though I was drunk, all sense of balance and reason seemed to have lost me. How fast it all happened, it is worth noting that my chest also felt odd as though there was a large air bubble trapped in it, I knew I had to get down.

Looking up at the glacial part of Cotopaxi

Looking up at the glacial part of Cotopaxi

I tried standing still, then sitting on a rock to stop the nausea, however it made no difference so I started to descend slowly and carefully as I was stumbling about like a mad thing. I noticed a guy dressed in the ‘proper’ climbing gear with a large backpack was also stumbling about and somehow it made me feel better, this guy looked fit, as though he did this all the time, yet he followed down minutes after me and sat with his head in his hands on a rock looking grey and ill.

Pofo was way ahead of me and of course now I was making my way carefully back down, after a while he realised that I was no longer following and he came back down to find me very sick by a rock, much like the other climber who was by now directly opposite me, coughing and squatting by a rock.

I reassured Pofo that I was ok and told him to continue his climb, I could see how much it meant to him, he needed to keep going so I wanted to encourage him to finish his climb.

I was not ok, I felt sick and threw up a couple of times before finding a rock to sit upon to rest, after some time though it eased a little and I took some photographs and filmed some views whilst blaming Andrew St. George for my predicament.

After a couple of hours I started to feel poorly again, the weather was changing also and my nausea returned, I looked for Pofos vehicle but could not see it anywhere and this worried me. It was 3:30pm now and I wanted to go, I approached a van of people, they called out to me and I asked them to beep their horn a few times to try to signal to Pofo to come down, the weather looked treacherous as Cotopaxi became shrouded in fog.

The weather started to change very quickly

The weather started to change very quickly

Clouds coming in fast

Clouds coming in fast

They were a friendly Venezuelan family and the father gave me a cap of red wine and some chocolate, he said it would give me energy. He said that my mistake was to try to go up too quickly, you have to do it slowly in stages, just getting off the aeroplane in Quito you are already 2000 meters higher than sea level and to then go straight for Cotopaxi is a little insane, I had to agree he was absolutely right.

I began looking for Pofos vehicle but could see it anywhere, this seemed odd, had he come down and gone off to get some food or petrol, there was no way of knowing, had he left altogether, I figured that he had to be there still and must be high up on Cotopaxi still, perhaps the vehicle had been moved…

Clouds moving up fast by the parked vehicles

Clouds moving up fast by the parked vehicles

Most vehicles were leaving now, I checked my watch again 4:30pm came and went as did the weather, clouds suddenly drew in from nowhere it seemed, the Venezuelan family were getting ready to leave and I stood there in this desolate area looking for Pofo. I started to feel bit panicky as I had no phone on me and the few vehicles left were all leaving.

It started to snow and then hail, heavy, fast hail stones that went on forever, the clouds were now so far in that I could not see a foot in front of me and I felt so cold, shivery, dizzy and sick, I yelled Pofos name over and over for ages, my video camera left running, so I must have this footage somewhere.

The dark figures of climbers appeared as they quickly descended off the volcano, the hailstones still rained down relentlessly and still I called as I watched more vehicles leave.

The light had almost gone when the figure of Pofo appeared through the fog, I was so pleased to see him that I ran up and hugged him, no spoken language needed here, he knew how relieved I was to see him, in fact he gestured that he had been back down a while and had fallen asleep in his vehicle which he had driven further down the track, that explains why I could not find it.

I was very cold and my toes felt numb so it was great to get back to the car, it may sound dramatic but I assure you it was no joke being up there with the light failing, feeling so poorly and thinking Pofo was still up there somewhere.

The hailstones continued to rain down hitting the windscreen, I felt weak, headachy and my chest hurt when I breathed in, but I was so pleased to be in that car weaving its way down the steep track, as we went the hail turned to sleet and then rain further on and later as we approached Quito the sun shone once more and a blue, cloudless sky stretched overhead.

View of Quito city

View of Quito city

Pofo dropped me back at the hotel I had booked and I had a bath and a rest, not sleeping very well as my chest felt so strange in the night.

The next day I woke up feeling much better, if a little fatigued, but the rest had done some good, Jonas had arrived at the hotel and there was a day left before the flight to the Amazon basin and a trip to see Antisana Volcano ecological reserve had been arranged.

I had doubts about going due to the problems with Cotopaxi, however this was not hiking it was a drive only where you could stop and photograph Condor birds and admire the views, I agreed to go.

The altitude range at Antisana I learned on route was 1,200 – 5,758 metres high, that is almost as high as Cotopaxi and I soon learnt that it was the wrong decision to go.

The Antisana Volcano is looked upon as one of the most important volcanos in the Andes for its Condor birds and ecological surrounding areas, it is located in the Oriental slope of the Andes mountain range and is covered in mosses, ferns and hardy flora.

There was a small group of us and it was just a case of being in the vehicle then getting out and walking for a bit to enjoy the scenery at different levels, however at about 3,000+ meters I felt rotten again.

The driver could not take me back down as they had to keep going, so I was stuck for the day going up and it was hell, I just got worse and lay on the back seats wishing for the day to pass and me to get back down again.

Near the top the guide gave me some oxygen in a cylinder, I stayed at the back of the vehicle not wanting to impact on the group in any way and spoil their time up there, it was several hours before we headed back down, but the relief for me was great.

Once back down, I vowed never to go that high ever again and I will be sticking to it, this has been a lesson well learnt and I suppose unless you try these things you will never know.

The following day was the flight to the Amazon basin, an account of my time there is on the Amazon write up, there are photo galleries and film extracts on both Quito and The Amazon on: