Mountain climbing in Ecuador: The highs and lows of climbing Cotopaxi

Written by: Tamara Braun

“Is it just me or do you feel high as well?”, “No, I feel the same.”, said my husband when we landed in Quito, Ecuador. Before you ask, we weren’t high on drugs or alcohol, but we’d simply felt the effects of being 2800m above sea level. We both noticed instantly that breathing was a lot harder and that our legs felt oddly wobbly. As these symptoms are normal when acclimatizing to a higher altitude, we didn’t really pay much attention and enjoyed the sights of Quito for a couple of days, before we would start our adventure of climbing Cotopaxi, which is about 28km south of Quito.At 5897m Cotopaxi is one of the highest active volcano in the world. It last erupted in 1942, but scientists regularly measure seismic activities. What could possibly go wrong?

Due to time constraints we actually didn’t climb to the very top, as it involves a night sleepover and a very early morning climb with ice axes and crumpets. The first European who attempted to climb the summit was my fellow countryman Alexander von Humboldt, my personal hero by the way, who managed to get as far as 4500m in 1814. We actually made it further than he did, but not without Cotopaxi claiming its victims…
Our guide picked us up from our hotel early in the morning, from where we would drive to the Cotopaxi National Park, which is at about 4600m altitude. Our trek would begin from there and our aim was a refuge at 4800m. Only 200m I hear you say? Believe me, at that kind of altitude this climb sucks the life out of you as it is really difficult to breathe due to the lack of oxygen up there. We decided to take it slowly as we had to stop to catch our breath regularly. So step by step we climbed up this beautiful volcano with its perfectly shaped cone. After about an hour we reached the refuge and felt a great sense of achievement. Apart from being a bit out of breath we actually still had plenty of energy left in us, so we decided to climb a bit higher to reach the glaciers.
This part of the trek was a bit more challenging as it was quite rocky terrain. It was also getting increasingly more difficult to breathe, but we soldiered on. When we finally reached the glaciers we were almost exactly at 5000m altitude; the highest I have ever been. The views were just stunning. Over the moon that we managed to get that high we posed for some celebratory photos. And then out of nowhere it suddenly hit me. I started feeling very dizzy and nauseous. I also started getting a really bad headache. I just couldn’t understand what was wrong with me. Was it some of the food I had earlier or had I just over exerted myself? Our guide took one look at me and told me that I showed the first signs of altitude sickness. The only way for me to feel better was to descend to lower altitude, and so that’s what we did.
I can tell you, it was the worst few hours of my life, as descending a mountain on difficult terrain with wobbly legs, a splitting headache and vomiting every now and then was not a very pleasant thing to do. I couldn’t have been more happy when we finally reached the car again, where I took a couple of strong Ibuprofen and immediately fell asleep. When I woke up again we had reached our charming little hotel in the middle of the beautiful Andean countryside. We had our own little lodge with a wood burner, which was just so cozy. But the best thing about it was that it was at 4500m altitude so I felt instantly better. All of my symptoms were suddenly gone, and although our little adventure had a bit of a dramatic ending, we couldn’t help but feel like adventurers, just like Alexander Von Humboldt must have felt almost 200 years ago when he first explored Cotopaxi.
About the author:
Tammy is one half of Tammy & Chris on the Move. They are a couple hailing from Germany and England, meaning between them they are efficient and polite, but unable to talk about football or 20th century history. They both have civil service backgrounds, but have left their bowler-hats back in London and are currently working on justice and human right issues in Cambodia. Whenever they get some time off, they travel around the world or plan in which country they will live and work in next. Follow their journey on their blog, Tammy & Chris on the Move , on Twitter, or on Facebook!

3 thoughts on “Mountain climbing in Ecuador: The highs and lows of climbing Cotopaxi

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