Steve & Judy Pardoe's Cotopaxi Page

Revised 25. September 2001 (links)

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Volcán Cotopaxi 5,897m (19,347 ft)

Judy at the summit crater of Cotopaxi
which we climbed on 9. January 1998

Disclaimer This is a description of the Normal Route, as followed by us in January 1998, with tips for aspiring ascensionists. You should, however, check local conditions for yourself and take your own responsibility in all matters of safety.

A guide book for the area including this ascent is "Trekking and Climbing in Ecuador", by Rob Rachowiecki and Betsy Wagenhauser (Bradt Publications, 1994). The route description may get a little out of date, and in any case varies rapidly as the mountain's exceptionally active glacier opens and closes its many crevasses.

Volcán Cotopaxi (5,897m) is often considered the highest active volcano in the world, and lies 75km south of the equator in Ecuador, South America. It is relatively accessible, and sees hundreds of ascents every year. We were travelling in a guided party of twelve British clients, with High Places, a well-established adventure travel firm based in Sheffield, England, and chose the December/January period for our three-week visit to Ecuador. Although precipitation is higher, there is much less wind than in the "summer" months. We flew from Manchester via Amsterdam to Quito with KLM.

You can now read a plain vanilla text report of our entire trip to Ecuador, originally written in 1998, here.

An Ecuadorian company, Natura Trekking in Quito looked after the local arrangements, including the provision of mountain guides for the treks and for Cotopaxi. Natura is run by Oswaldo Leiva, a mountaineer and guide, and his wife Maria Ines, a naturalist. As it happened, our personal guide on this route, Yossi Brain, was also the High Places direct representative in Ecuador. An ex-pat Briton, he lived in Bolivia and was writing climbing guides for these countries. On the basis of this experience, we would unhesitatingly recommend both High Places and Natura Trekking for their professional and caring attitude to their clients.

Indigenous people of the Páramo
Chimborazo, Ecuador
Our summit attempt was preceded by about two weeks of energetic trekking and camping at between 3,000 and 5,000m, our highest campsite being spectacularly located at 4,800m (the height of Mont Blanc), on the slopes of Chimborazo, Ecuador's highest mountain. As a curiosity, its 6,310m summit is the point furthest from the centre of the earth, owing to the equatorial bulge. This continual high-level exercise, interspersed with a few days of relaxation at lower altitudes, gave us excellent acclimatization, without which the ascent would have been dangerous or even impossible

Update 12. Dec 1998: Tom Palloway writes from Sydney, Australia: "I just returned from Ecuador 4 days ago. The Whymper route [on Chimborazo*] is in bad shape - we went for the Castille and endured a shooting gallery of rock fall even at midnight until we gained the Glacier. Snow conditions were very bad meaning what should have been a moderate snow climb became exposed with severe runout potential - we ended up fixing pickets for an extra margin of safety. No groups summited on our day due to slow movement and popping into crevasses fairly regularly".

* NB Rachowiecki and Wagenhauser no longer regard the Whymper Route as practical or safe.

Steve at the 4,800m campsite below the North-West face of Chimborazo (6,310m)

Hut Climb

It's easy to get to the José Ribas ("Rivas" on some maps) Refugio at 4,800m: you can drive in a Jeep to a car park at 4,600m, and walk up from there. Those last 200m can take a surprising 40 to 60 minutes with full Alpine gear. Note that the dirt track from the Panamerican Highway (the "Pana") is in a very poor state, and heavy rain could easily make it impassable. The refuge is scruffy and ill-equipped by European standards, and although we had booked sleeping accommodation, it was packed out with American parties who had been unable to climb for the last couple of days because of bad weather and were not about to vacate the bunks. We ended up sleeping on the mess-room floor, not ideal preparation for the ascent. You need to bring your own sleeping bag (as there seem to be few if any blankets), and your own food and some utensils as well. As compensation, there is running water (which must be treated) and a reasonable toilet

For details of how mountain refuges work in Europe, see our Alpine refuges page

Steve near the José Ribas Refugio
(Yes, that's my sleeping bag, a 40-litre sac is not enough...)
The Ascent

It had been snowing as we climbed to the refuge, and so it came as a great relief(!) when Judy took a bio break at 23:00 and found a bright, clear moonlit night outside. We got dressed and breakfasted promptly, and were under way at 00:15, as a rope of three with Yossi Brain leading.

The route starts by passing the toilet block, and then turning sharply left up the slope of an old moraine (in descent, we came straight to the hut door). Although there was snow right down to the refuge, crampons were not needed until we reached the glacier.

For the first couple of hours, we were the leading rope, with the mountain to ourselves. The climbing was delightful in the clear, crisp air, and the three-quarter moon meant we could easily see our way without head torches. Although there was a lot of fresh snow, we felt very positive, and were moving well. After a couple of hours, clouds began to obscure the moon, and we needed the lamps until dawn. My batteries failed part way up, and I was glad to have some spares with me. We stopped a couple of times to adjust clothing (it started cold; then we got warm through exertion; then it got much colder between about 03:00 and 06:00)

To see what clothes we wore for this ascent, click here

Steve after fitting crampons above José Ribas Refugio

In good conditions, the route is quite easy to find, and there were wands in a few places. However, Cotopaxi is a large mountain, and in poor visibility it would be easy to lose the line. There were a number of crevasse fields, more or less visible in the dark, but we were able to cross snow bridges using just the normal personal belays. The steepness and direction of the route varies as it winds around the larger fissures, some of which were very spectacular when later seen in daylight. As we were still the lead rope, the fresh snow meant that there were no tracks to follow, and finding a good line and kicking steps in the steeper sections became very tiring.

Whenever we looked back, we could see that we were being followed by a glowing caterpillar of head-torches. There was lots of "buddy" conversation going on between the American parties (they must have a special third lung for this). After a few hours of breaking trail, we decided to let a couple of faster ropes pass us, but they soon slowed down under the additional workload, and we rather regretted our gesture. A very prominent rock band, Yanasacha, loomed out of the darkness and we traversed to the right below it, before turning left to climb above.

Yanasacha and a crevasse
(photographed during the descent)
As it started to get light, we found ourselves in a traffic jam approaching a sharp crest. There was a lot of discussion in progress among the leading guides, while their clients stood in a line on what looked like precarious stances on a very steep snow slope. With so many people on it, Yossi Brain was concerned that the slope might fail in a slab avalanche, and he decided to take a more direct line to gain the crest and move up past the queue.

This became steeper and steeper until it was almost vertical, and we were climbing standing upright with our arms in the snow for purchase, burying the axe to the hilt for each move. I found this exciting, but quite worrying, as a fall would have been difficult to hold.

Yossi Brain leading Judy up very steep snow

When Yossi reached the crest, it turned out to be the rim of a vast, open crevasse, and we could see that this was what had caused the traffic jam. There was a flimsy - looking alloy bridge across the narrowest part of the crevasse, but to get to it we now had to walk along the very exposed outer edge, on a real knife edge of snow, with the gaping crevasse on our right and the entire ascent slope of the mountain to our left, clearly visible now all the way to the car park.

The photo shows Steve just about to gain the crest, Judy in the middle, and Yossi leading.

Photo © Ken Wade;
Our thanks to him, and to David S. Panofsky for sending it to us from Wisconsin, USA.

David climbed Aconcagua in January 2001, as part of a diabetes support programme. You can read more about his awareness and fundraising campaign to support people with insulin dependent diabetes on his IDEA website

We made it, moving one at a time, and very carefully so as not to crack the rim of the crevasse until we reached the other climbers waiting near the bridge.

Crossing a crevasse Yossi crossing the unexpected crevasse

When it was our turn, Judy belayed Yossi with an Italian hitch around her axe as he crossed first, and when in a safe stance he put in a snow stake and tied on. It was then relatively easy for her and then me to cross, moving on all fours because of the gradient, and in my case trying not to look down!

We came under a lot of verbal abuse from a following party, who objected to our methodical protection, but I think we were right to be cautious. Seeing the sloppy ropework of some climbers made us glad we had a professional guide.

Judy using an Italian Hitch to belay Yossi

Judy crossing the crevasse on a scary aluminium bridge
Note (26/2/1998) According to an e-mail from Yossi Brain in Quito, the bridge has been "repositioned" to the bottom of the crevasse...

"In the end, the bridge got planted at a 50 degree angle at the bottom of the crevasse so you now have to climb down into the crevasse and then head up the bridge as it twists and turns under your weight (and missing out various broken sections of chicken wire) to reach the snow and then a 60 degree snow section. Fun, fun, fun!"

Update 12. Dec 1998: Tom Palloway writes from Sydney, Australia: "The snow line is low - almost to the Ribas hut meaning you can avoid a normally steep scree ascent before putting on crampons etc. The summit bergschrund which frequently involved a short 'Khumbu style' ladder crossing is now snow filled - watch the exposure".

After the bridge there was a further steep section and then, step by step, the gradient eased and we found ourselves walking up into the sunshine, to reach the highest point of the summit rim.

On the Summit

The view was fantastic, for probably as much as 200km in every direction. Cotopaxi stands up by itself, and, unlike in the Alps or the more southerly Andes, is not part of a ridge, so the immediate foreground is way below. We were lucky enough to spot an eruption in progress on Sangay, clearly visible 150 km to the south; and the tops of Antisana, Cayambe, Chimborazo and several other (extinct) volcanoes were all clearly recognizable.

Steve & Judy at the summit of Cotopaxi (5,897m) on 9. January 1998

Time passed quickly as we loitered on the summit, photographing and generally congratulating one another, and trying to prolong the moment as one always does after a major ascent. Our Guide generously allowed us quite a bit of time, and belayed us so that we could creep down the alarmingly convex snow slope towards the crater, and peer into it. We could see steam or smoke from a few fumaroles in the rim, and there was a noticeably sulphurous smell in the air. However, the sun was getting hot and the snow softening, so it was time to go.

The descent was extremely rapid, though we did take time to negotiate the bridge properly. This time simple axe belays were taken, and we each walked across upright, which was a lot quicker and just as easy as crawling, though it was tricky to avoid catching crampon points in the wire mesh of the deck. We kept moving, to keep the ropes tight. Seeing how some climbers approached the crossing without any real protection was quite scary in itself. I don't know whether this was the negligence of guides, or the stupidity of unaccompanied climbers, but we were glad to get past and down the mountain while we could.

Even with the inevitable stops for photography, we got to the base of the glacier in about 90 minutes, and took off the rope and crampons for the quick dash to the refuge. Here we were generously greeted by some others of our party, who hadn't made it all the way, and of course joined in the celebrations of those who did.

It had been a great morning

Judy & Steve back at the Refugio
Were you there?

We'd really appreciate hearing from anyone who was on the mountain on 8th & 9th January 1998, do get in touch. You can now read a plain vanilla text report of our entire trip to Ecuador, originally written in 1998, here.

Here are some links to other people's web pages about Cotopaxi :
1. Tim Driskell
2. Mike Daniel, Kenneth Lavigne, Dennis Maher and Chris Williams

David S. Panofsky's campaign to support people with insulin dependent diabetes is at IDEA

Photos and text Copyright © Steve & Judy Pardoe 1998, except as indicated
Sad news:

Yossi Brain, our charming and professional guide in Ecuador and on Cotopaxi, died on 25. September 1999 in an avalanche while climbing in Bolivia. Our sympathy goes to his family in England. There are some additional photos of Yossi in Ecuador, and from his Memorial Celebration in Walsall on Saturday 13. November 1999 here.

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Steve & Judy Pardoe
Cheshire,   England
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