This week’s exotic volcano is Ecuador’s Cotopaxi. Rising to a total height of 19,393 feet, this enormous glacier-clad stratovolcano is one of the true jewels of the Andes, and is easily the most famous (although second tallest) of all of the thirty major volcanoes in Ecuador.
Cotopaxi is the third highest volcano in the world, after 21,490 foot tall Tupungato on the Argentina / Chile border, and 22,615 foot tall Ojos del Salado in Chile, which remains the world’s tallest. Cotopaxi lies in the heart of ~84,000 acre Cotopaxi National Park, and is only 35 miles south of the capital of Ecuador – Quito. I visited Quito and Cotopaxi in the summer of 2006, and easily imagined myself climbing to the top and skiing down nearly 8,000 feet in winter to the base of the volcano.
Geologic Background and Eruptive History
The Andes stretch over 7,000 miles, forming the backbone of South American continent. Subduction of the Nazca Plate beneath the South America plate causes the crust under the Andes to thicken to an average ranging from 30 to 70 km (~20-50 miles), which is many times thicker than normal continental crust.This subduction and crustal thickening gives rise to the high overall average elevation of the Andes and the numerous elevated plateaus that lie interspersed along the range. One such plateau, the Altiplano, lies in western-central South America in the nations of Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru. With an elevation of 3,750m (12,300 feet), the Altiplano is about 1,000 m lower on average than the Tibetan Plateau, which has an average elevation of 4,500 m (14,000 feet).
Cotopaxi is not alone in the rarefied air of the Andes, having more than 50 companion volcanoes in the Andes mountain chain that rise above 19,000 ft. There are several volcanoes in Ecuador that are actively erupting at this moment in time, including Reventador, Sangay, and Tungurahua. At the summit of Cotopaxi lies an enormous crater almost 700 m (2,300 feet) across and 1,200 feet deep.
Cotopaxi as we see it today is the result of 5,000 years of interwoven andesite lava flows that have been borne out on top of a collapsed ancient cone. The volcano experienced three violent explosive eruptions in recorded history – 1742-1744, 1768, and 1877. The 1742-1744 eruptive period was vigorous, and the nearby town of Latacunga was devastated by lahars from Cotopaxi when the eruption melted glacial ice on the volcano’s summit. Hundreds if not thousands of people perished.
In the most recent of those eruptions in 1877, enormous pyroclastic flows descended down all sides of Cotopaxi, and lahars flowed down the Western drainages more than 60 miles to the Pacific Ocean. Complete darkness was reported in Quito for several hours, and over 600 people were killed in Mulal.
Skiing and Climbing
The first successful European climber to reach the summit of Cotopaxi was the German Dr. Wilhelm Reiss, and Colombian A. M. Escobar in 1872, preceded by the failed attempt of Alexander von Humbolt in 1802 who declared that the mountain was “unclimbable.” The massive 1877 eruption a few years later obliterated the “easy” north route across the glacial ice.
Today, upwards of a hundred people can be found battling it out for the summit of Cotopaxi on busy days during the summer climbing season. Climbing the volcano via the major tourists route isn’t regarded as a truly technical climb, but the route takes you over glacial terrain and thus requires the use of ice axes, crampons, and savvy crevasse safety and avoidance techniques. Climbs typically begin in the dead dark of night in order to get climbers to the summit and back before the fierce equatorial sun beats down on the snow and looses it.
The February 2011 issue of Backcountry magazine contained a fantastic story of skiing on Cotopaxi and surrounding volcanoes, written by Drew Pogge. Pogge travelled to Cotopaxi along with Clark Corey of the Sawtooth Mountain Guides in the northern hemisphere fall of 2010, and you can read more about their trip as well as check out some great photos of skiing in Ecuador on that company’s blog:
Also, be sure to check out this great short documentary film by Bjarne Sahlen skiing on Chimborazo in Ecuador.
Your trip to the top of Cotopaxi will begin in Quito. Flights there from Reno will run you around $1,500. You will want to spend at least a few days exploring this beautiful city, which is nestled in a high-altitude valley in the Andes. Quito is rich in history, and is overrun with delicious restaurants, vibrant markets, friendly natives, and also boasts incredible colonial architecture.
Numerous adventure-tour companies will vye for the chance to have you hire them to get you to the top of Cotopaxi. Tour packages vary from a few days spent only climbing Cotopaxi for a few hundred dollars, to 9 days and $2,600 to spend 9 days climbing Cotopaxi and Chimborazo. Mountaineering gear will typically be included unless you bring your own. Here are a few:
Equator Passion Voyages (this company offers a skiing-specific tour of Cotopaxi for only $220 per person).
If you are feeling adventurous and want to venture forth on your own, you can take a cheap bus from Quito to the National Park. At the airport, hop on the trolleybus to the town’s main bus station, Quitumbe. From there you want to hop on a bus to Latacunga or Machachi, which will run you a few dollars. Machachi affords you access to the north entrance to the park, and Latacunga the south. From both of those locations, you’ll need to hire a pickup for around $35 to get you to the end of the road at around 4,600m (15,000 ft) where you will begin your climb to the refugio.
The Jose F. Rivas refuge is located at around 4,800 m (15,700 ft). Once at the Refugio, be prepared to fork over ~$45 per night, which will also get you fed breakfast and lunch by the staff there. The terminus of the northern lobe of the glacier that sits on the summit of Cotopaxi is around 1.5 hours hike above the refuge, and the summit another 6 hours beyond that if you are in good shape. In 1996, an avalanche of glacial ice thought to have been loosed by an earthquake rained down on the refuge on Easter Sunday, killing a dozen climbers.
As is always the case on high volcanoes of the world, you will want to strongly consider spending at least one night at the high elevation of the refuge to allow your body to properly acclimatize and ward off acute mountain sickness.
Where to Check in with the Local Scientists
Volcanoes in Ecuador are monitored by the Instituto Geophysico. I had the great pleasure of working with several scientists from the IG in my former career, and I was even lucky enough to spend an incredibly drunken night with a few of them at the Tungurahua volcano observatory in Banos. You would be hard pressed to find more hospitable people than Ecuadorian volcanologists.
Make sure to check their Cotopaxi page, as that will be the first place any unusual activity will be reported. Since Cotopaxi is a major tourist draw, and also the major attraction in the National Park, you won’t be allowed anywhere nae the volcano if it reawakens with any sort of precursory warning that the IG knows about. That being said, if you are up on the volcano, make sure that at the very least you have told someone your plans in case conditions on the dormant volcano change. Good luck, make sure to eat empanadas with as much aji as you can stand, and have fun!
Check out this rad timelapse of clouds and stars at Cotopaxi: