Getting high in Ecuador – 5897m Volcan Cotopaxi Summit

The journey to Secret Garden Cotopaxi Hostel from Machachi was so uncomfortable that it was funny. Finn got grumpy about it so I left him to it! The Secret Garden is in the middle of nowhere, across a valley from Cotopaxi, surrounded by other volcanoes.

We arrived as it was getting dark so the place was lit up warmly and invitingly on the hillside. The hostel is huge and has an amazing sense of community considering that most people only stay for two days. There was a lovely fire and lots of people hanging out when we arrived. It was the leaving party of one of the volunteers when we arrived so there were a lot of festivities that night.

Meal times at the Secret Garden are a family affair and the living room is a great place to hang out, meet people and make plans. The food is all included and is delicious.

The hostel is expensive, with a dorm bed costing between $38-44 per night, but this price includes all meals and the facilities are fantastic. There is a nice jacuzzi to warm up in after the rainy afternoon hikes.

The $88 three day/two night deal includes a guided hike to Pasachoa, a nearby volcano with the collapsed crater at 4,200 metres which is an ideal Cotopaxi acclimatisation hike. You can also go on a few other hikes to waterfalls or other volcanoes.

The hostel has 5 lovely dogs, my favourite is called Yoda and she accompanied us on our hike to Pasachoa. Luna is a young beagle and she is adorable but can’t go out on hikes without her leash or she follows her nose all the way back to Quito!

In the evenings after dinner most people hang out and play games and sometimes we got big group games going, which were a lot of fun.

Cotopaxi Volcano Summit Attempt

When we arrived, Finn and I arranged to summit Cotopaxi using the guide recommended by the hostel. It is more expensive to arrange the summit attempt through the hostel but I would definitely recommend it.

We each paid $285 and our guide, Ivan, met us at the hostel at 11:30 to go through what equipment we had and what we needed to rent and then he drove down to Machachi to collect all the things we needed to hire.

To summit you need mountaineering boots, crampons and ice axe as well as a harness and ropes (the glacier does have some crevasses). The kit list for the summit is:

  • Mountaineering boots
  • Crampons
  • Ice axe
  • Harness and ropes
  • Base layer (top and bottoms)
  • Thin/medium weight fleece
  • Light waterproof jacket
  • Inner gloves
  • Outer gloves/mittens
  • Hat
  • Balaclava
  • Thick ski socks
  • Waterproof/warm trousers
  • Down/warm jacket for the summit
  • Head torch
  • Water bottle
  • Camera
  • Day pack

We had lunch at Secret Garden then prepped our kit before driving to the carpark of the Cotopaxi Refugio and arriving in a pretty snow storm. We hiked up the last bit to the refugio which is situated at 4,800m and briefly relaxed by the gas fire before dinner with two older American men who were the only others to attempt the summit with us.

I had some kit to dry off before the hike but it all dried very quickly and was nice and warm too.

The kit list for the Refugio:

  • Larger backpack
  • Flip-flops/sandals
  • Eye mask
  • Ear plugs (mountaineers genetically predisposed to snore…!)
  • Altitude medication
  • Some money in case you want to buy a sew-on patch or snacks

Dinner was at 6pm and was very tasty and filling. Bed was at 7pm. Most people don’t sleep well at this altitude, not least because you’re trying to sleep at 7pm… I slept like a baby! Finn had to shake me awake at midnight to get ready for our pre-hike breakfast (herbal tea and toast).

At 1am we set off. For the first hour or so the hike is on loose soil to reach the glacier, although we were hiking on fresh snow, which was quite pleasant. The moon was waning but was still very bright in the sky so I barely used my head torch for the first couple of hours. Unfortunately we could already tell that it was very cloudy at the summit as we had some high altitude clouds above us as well as the clouds that we hiked through to reach the summit.

We stopped to fit our crampons and rope our harnesses together and then carried on up the glacier.

It is remarkable how steep a surface you can walk up in crampons! I much preferred the sections where I could walk up with my feet facing forwards but soon enough we reached parts that were so steep that we had to face sideways and step one foot crossing over the front of the other using the ice axe for stability. I found this tougher and I felt like I was using muscles I hadn’t used before!

The hike was really enjoyable and it felt exciting to be climbing up the glacier.

I kept wondering to myself whether this was the hardest thing I had ever done, because the only blogs I had read up until this point made it sound like a harrowing experience. For most of the hike up I decided that no, it was not the toughest thing I had endured.

At 5,500m, less than 300m below the crater, the altitude was becoming quite a challenge, and hearing that it was still a two kilometre hike around to the other side and then up to the summit was tough, but there wasn’t a single doubt in my mind about reaching the summit.

A few times we were caught in a cloud of sulphur gas and that made it very hard to breathe in, but each time it passed without any serious issues.

I started getting some symptoms from the altitude, I had a severe loss of balance and my vision was dark around the edges but I didn’t feel unwell and we carried on.

We reached the summit in a respectable 6 hours and saw the sunrise peeping out from between two layers of clouds. It was really cold at the summit so I was very glad to be able to don my down jacket as we rested to await a gap in the clouds for a look into the crater. We had a fairly good view of the steam rising from the crater and then we began our descent.

For about 2 hours we retraced our steps down the volcano, now in full daylight so we could see the stunning ice formations we had passed on the way up.

At times we were able to take really steep shortcuts and slide our way down the glacier on our crampons. For most of the way we were tied together in case we shot down a crevasse, but once we cleared the crevasses we were free to slip and slide at our own pace until a few hundred metres above the refugio. From there we skated down the loose mud and rocks and walked into the refugio at around 08:30 with feelings of victory and hunger. Neither of the Americans made it to the summit. One turned back and arrived at the refugio before we had even left and the other made it about half way. So we had the summit to ourselves!

We enjoyed a breakfast of champions, packed our bags and jogged down the hill to the carpark, arriving back at the Secret Garden before 11:30.

I had a nap, lunch and then spent most of the afternoon in the hot tub and enjoyed some wine. When I was relaxing in the living room, Stijn walked in, and it was lovely to have a reunion.

In the morning I woke up feeling totally refreshed so I went on a horse riding trip in Cotopaxi National Park ($35 for 3 hours plus transport). The weather was great and I had a really good group so it was a perfect day to follow Cotopaxi.

We had a three hour ride around the park on some fun horses who loved to canter and gallop and mine loved to run and jump over the streams too. I had such a good time, I have barely ridden in years since I had a nasty fall and broke my ankle, and what a place to get back on the horse!

After this it was time to leave! I had thought I might go to Quito but then I decided to go to Latacunga directly as I could start the next hiking trip, the Quilotoa Loop, from there with a nice group of people from the hostel.

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