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Climbing Cotopaxi: an Honest Tale

Updated: Nov 12, 2023

Because the cool photos don't tell the whole story

mountaineering girl on edge of snow covered mountain and above clouds

Volcán Cotopaxi- the story behind the story

Three months ago when I was in Ecuador, I did something a little bit crazy. I went mountaineering for the first time! I strapped on some crampons, hooked into a harness, and clod hopped my way up the glacier of a giant active volcano- to the summit of Cotopaxi at 19,347 feet (5,897m)! The views on the way down were otherworldly, almost ghastly in their icy coolness and massive size; crevasses, icicles and ice sculptures, buttresses, and other mountains peeking out of the clouds we were above. Absolutely incredible. I would love to sit here and tell you that the climb was tough, but that my altitude acclimatized athleticism helped me to the top. Or that my sheer, indomitable mental strength propelled me through the tough moments. Or that I enjoyed the journey. But sadly, I cannot. This is not that story. This is the less than perfect story of the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and how despite my shortcomings in the mental and physical game, and determination to sabotage myself, GOD did it. He pulled me up way beyond my means, or desires, or abilities- to a success that He had in store for me.

Cotopaxi volcano in Ecuador
A glimpse of Cotopaxi in all her glory

The Journey to Cotopaxi begins

The journey to the top of Cotopaxi started with my 2 companions and I meeting our guides, getting our rented gear sorted out, and driving to Cotopaxi National Park. Our guides were from Andes Climbing, arranged through the Secret Garden Hostel, and were fantastic! Then we faced the first challenge: a 40 minute hike to the Jose F. Rivas Refuge. The refuge is a little unheated cabin at 15,744ft (4800m) that acts as a base for the Cotopaxi expedition. I thought, “only a 40 minute hike? No big deal!” That is, until I stepped onto a nearly vertical wall of volcanic ash with a heavy, body-sized mountaineering pack fastened to my back. Volcanic ash is a special type of evil- it is basically soft, unpacked sand, so each step forward also propels you backwards. Feel. the. burrrrrn. My legs already felt like toast when I arrived at the refuge, and I was glad for time to rest. We had a delicious dinner and hot cocoa, and set off to sleep around 7pm, trying not to expend all of our energy shivering in the cold cabin. We awoke at 11pm to eat a small “breakfast”, get dressed in our gear, and took off on the trek at midnight.

dinner at Jose Rivas refuge
Dinner and cocoa in the refuge to fuel us for the climb ahead

Off we go

The first section, lasting about an hour and a half, is hiking on more of that evil volcanic ash. Learning how to place our ice picks on the mountain-side, trudging slower than what felt necessary, we slowly ascended in a rhythmic pattern under the glowing moon. As we were not near the snow yet, I was soon sweating in my layers, and regretting the extra croissant I downed at the last minute, which now felt unsettled in my stomach. These things, combined with the burning fatigue in my legs from the vertical beach walk, set in motion a low level of misery. “Just get to the glacier” I told myself, “It will be cooler, and walking on snow will feel better.” Upon reaching the glacier, we pulled the crampons out of our packs, laced ‘em up, and got back to tromping up the volcano. And you know what? It didn’t feel better. It still felt hard. And still was not fun. I knew this would be a challenge, but I didn’t think I’d be struggling so early on in the climb.

Cotopaxi mountaineering snow footprints
Cotopaxi is kiiiinda steep. And long.

Motivationally bankrupt

I couldn’t stop the hamster wheel of repetitive negative thoughts. “This is hard”. “I want to turn around”. “I can’t keep going.” “I don’t like this.” I tried all of the mental tricks in the book. I found a positive mantra, and repeated it to myself. Didn’t work. I recognized my negativity, named it, and told myself that “You cannot think that way or it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.” I prayed. And I used my tried-and-true distance running trick: “delusionally positive statements only.” But NO. I couldn’t stop the complaining inside my head. I would have given anything at that moment to be “just” running a 50 mile ultramarathon instead- seriously. In mountaineering, due to the high altitudes, you move very slowly. If you slow down any more, you’ve basically stopped. I received advice to “just focus on one foot after another”. I’d written myself a motivational reminder note card to carry with me that said “expect to feel bad”. But you know what? It wasn’t just feeling bad. I felt mad, too.

But Also Mad

I started off mad that I was being choked by my balaclava and that I was so bundled up that I was sweating. Then I was mad at the thick volcanic sand we were walking in, because it contributed to rapid muscle fatigue. And then, once we were on the glacier, I got mad at other things. I got mad that my boots were men’s boots, and therefore a bit wide on my feet; I got mad at my crampon strings because I occasionally tripped on them; and I got mad that it in the darkness of night, it never felt like progress was being made. And I definitely got mad because the Gatorade flavor I chose turned out to be disgusting. But thinking back now, I was probably mad at myself too. Mad that I wasn’t in better shape, despite a month of running at altitude. Mad that it was waaaay harder than I’d expected, and mad that I couldn’t shake my bad attitude. I pride myself on being the eternal optimist, and the one who can see a positive in any negative situation. I consider myself mentally tough and strong willed, a persevering type who can handle most things with minimal complaining. But this time, all of my efforts just weren’t working.

cotopaxi crevasse
Cool crevasses

Tough decisions

So, I decided to give up and let Cotopaxi win this round. I had our guides rope my two companions together to one guides, and put me alone with the other guide. That way, when I decided to turn back I wouldn’t be responsible for their failure. But I wasn’t going to give up quite this early in the game- I had to achieve something first. I had to make it to a milestone that would justify the trip and make a respectable turn around point. So, I trudged onwards a bit further. I didn’t want to be the first person on the mountain to turn back, so I just had to wait for someone else to head down. But no one ever did. Then, I thought, “I will turn around at 18,000 feet. That’s a respectable height, and still way higher than most people will ever go”. But when I reached that mark, it was still the blackness of night. I thought to myself, “You can’t turn back when there is too much time until dawn; you wanted to do this to see the magnificent scenery, so you have to wait until there will be some light on the way down.” And I trudged on. And on. I tried to not look at my watch often, instead focusing on foot and ice axe placement, over and over again.

Hope Restored

Bordering on despair, I survived until nearly 5600m. It was then that I heard some excitement and cheering above me- it was my two friends who’d sped on ahead of me earlier! Their encouragement, and knowing that there were only 300m ahead of me, changed my attitude a bit. It no longer was a mission to find a good turn around spot. In that moment I realized I was close enough that the summit was going to happen. It definitely didn’t get easy then, but there was hope within me.

Relentless forward progress

And upwards we continued. Slow, and steady. I made sure to take breaks when I needed to, because now I believed that I could succeed, and was determined to make it happen. This last push of the trek was steeper, but a bit more interesting to climb. It always felt like the summit was just over the next hill (high altitude reasoning fail). But finally, it was real. Just as the sun began to rise, I reached the SUMMIT. I just couldn’t believe it- I was standing at 19,347ft, above the clouds, breathing in gusts of sulphuric gases floating out of Cotopaxi’s active crater, in absolute disbelief. I’d made it! An intense wave of relief, elation, and emotion washed over me. And overflowing, repetitive, thankfulness and praise to God.

mountaineering Cotopaxi summit Ecuador
Standing victorious near the edge of the active volcanic crater at the summit!

mountaineering group standing on volcano summit
Our whole group reunited at the top; my friends and our two guides

The Descent

The descent was both a victory lap and a continuation of the pain party. By now, the sun had risen, and the views were glorious. I was stunned at what I had just ascended- this mountain was significantly longer and steeper than I’d imagined on the way up! Descent technique with the crampons, coupled with the angle at which we came down, basically resulted in a walking squat position that didn’t feel particularly excellent with an extraordinary level of fatigue. At this point, a headache began to kick in, and a slight bit of nausea. I’d only consumed a single Gatorade and a chocolate bar during the preceding 6 hours of strenuous trekking; so fatigue, sleep deprivation, dehydration, low calories, and extreme altitude caused me to get a bit clumsy. I frequently tripped on my crampons, more than once putting to use the rope, harness, and skills of the guide I was connected to. So, I took breaks, mostly for photo taking- I just couldn’t get over the magnificence of what I was witnessing. The slopes of Cotopaxi were glorious. God’s creation never fails to impress.

Cotopaxi shadow and icicles
Smiling because I can admire the view now! A shadow of Cotopaxi is projected on the clouds

Cotopaxi volcano snow icicles

descent to Jose Rivas refugio
The speck of orange near the bottom is the Jose Rivas refuge

Nearing the end

Two and a half hours of descent later, back at the refuge, there was no elation. I took off my pack, walked straight to my bunk, and told the guides sternly, “I’m going to sleep for 15 minutes”. There was no strength left in me. I couldn’t stomach any food, smile, nor bear the idea of loading up my full pack again for the volcanic sand trek back down from the refuge. I don’t even know how I survived that last jaunt- thankfully the sand is more forgiving and a bit fun on the way down. Piling into the backseat of the truck and driving away from the volcano was such a feeling of relief. It was over. No more walking. At that moment, I was just glad to be headed towards sleep and a shower- the significance of the accomplishment would settle in later.

What I learned from climbing Cotopaxi

God sometimes helps us achieve our goals, even when we try to sabotage ourselves. He fights for us, the Holy Spirit prays on our behalf, and in that, the Lord pulls us to new heights. Our physical strength is never guaranteed, and neither can our mental strength be counted on. It is not our superior mantra, preparation, or special abilities that always pull us through. This experience showed me that what I counted as my strength- my ability to achieve, both mentally and physically- was a flawed confidence.

Let Go

Sometimes, we get the best of what God has for us when we give up. We try so hard to control everything ourselves. But not only do we get in our own ways, we don’t leave room for God to work. That day on Cotopaxi, my body and mind were betraying me. I truly felt that I had nothing else to contribute of my own means to make it to the top- and I expected to fail. But God. This is the place where He works best- when we give up our own efforts, He can step in with His power. In our weakness, He is strong. This strength may not look how we’d expect- I didn’t pray and then receive a rush of energy and encouragement that propelled me upward. It was more subtle than that. In fact, I couldn’t even tell that the Lord was working at the time- but He was. He was climbing up that mountain with me. Acts of God are not always the visible breakthroughs we’ve come to associate with answered prayers. More often than not, the miracle is persevering through our uphill battles, which prepare us for the mountaintop God has in store for us.

God’s Promises

The Bible gives us this great reminder, “The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.” (Exodus 14:14). We certainly can’t do it all, fix it all, or succeed at it all- we are mere mortals. We often face simultaneous challenges from all sides of life. But our tough experiences mold us into better people and bring us closer to God. Romans 5:3-5 says, “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance, character, and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” What an awesome promise. There is purpose in the hard times. We grow and change in positive ways. Best of all, we don’t face them alone. Sometimes what we need is to do is just get out of the way, hang on tight, and let God fight the battles. It still can be a dark and challenging time, but you just might emerge on the top of an incredible mountain- 19,347 feet closer to heaven.

Your turn

Do you have your own Cotopaxi faith experience? Ever experienced God pulling you through what seemed like impossible circumstances, or rescue you from self-sabotage in a difficult situation? Let me know in the comments below!

Want more?

I’ll be doing another post with some more specifics about climbing Cotopaxi for those who may want to do it themselves, and want to know extreme details (what to bring, the refuge situation, which guides we used, where we stayed, etc.) If there is something specific you’d like to know, send me a message or comment below, and I’ll make sure to address it! Until then… Interested in reading about more Ecuadorian hiking adventures? Check out my post on hiking Rucu Pichincha, in Quito. Or if you’re into mind games and positivity, check out this post. And subscribe to the email list so that you never miss a post!

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