North face of Cotopaxi, Ecuador

posted in: My skiruns | 2

During a visit to Bolivia, I had met some climbers who recommended me to climb Cotopaxi. When I found out that skiing from the summit of this volcano is possible, my trip to Ecuador was a fact. In december 2013 I skied from 5897 meters down to 4800 meters. Find out more about my ski expedition to a big mountain somewhere on the equator…

Since December 2012 you can only climb Cotopaxi with a certified guide. Skiing down amongst crevasses and with overhanging seracs, this seemed more than fair to me. Finding a guide in Ecuador is easy but finding one that is willing to ski with you is another story. According to one agency skiing was not allowed anymore since 2011. Another agency replied to my email mentioning they had the only certified skiguide of the country but I had to book a private tour since skiing Cotopaxi was a complicated affair. Then I contacted Andestrek Expeditions and they offered a group tour to Cotopaxi where skiers and climbers could be mixed. I booked the 5-day Cotopaxi Express tour…

In order to attempt a mountain this high, I had to be acclimatized as well as possible. I spent three days in Quito, Ecuador’s capital, which is located at around 2800 meters. Next, I completed three treks as part of the tour. Rucu Pichincha and Guagua Pichincha are located close to Quito. With elevations of 4698 and 4784 respectively, they were good summits to start with. As a last preparation, I climbed Illiniza Norte (5126 m). Once I completed these treks / climbs, the real expedition was about to start…

Cotopaxi (5897 m), photo credits: Alpine Ascents Ecuador
Cotopaxi (5897 m), photo credits: Alpine Ascents Ecuador

Cotopaxi is part of the chain of volcanoes around the Pacific plate known as the Pacific Ring of Fire. It has one of the few equatorial glaciers in the world, which starts at the height of 5000 meters. At its summit, Cotopaxi has a 800 x 550 m wide crater which is 250 m deep. Climbing this big mountain is relatively easy. Crampons and an ice axe are needed because of the glacier but the ascend is not technical at all. The altitude and length of the climb are a serious challenge though and can not be underestimated. The skirun on the North face is graded as 4.2 / E2, indicating the run has extended sections of 40° with the possibility of short passages to 50° and some exposed sections where a fall would most likely lead to injury. Add the fact that your first turns will be made just under 6000 meters and you have a serious big mountain skirun!Not all of us were acclimatized well enough (according to the guide) and therefore we decided to set up a camp at 3800 meters instead of staying at the popular Jose Rivas hut at 4800 meters. This meant I would be less prepared for the climb, because a couple of hours spent at higher altitude would help the process of acclimatization in my opinion. It also meant I had to climb another hour from the parking lot to the hut and get up two hour earlier to start the ascend. It all made the climb more strenuous. During the day at the campsite it became clear we were going to be guided by two non-English-speaking guides together with Pablo, the main guide. They also messed up our drinking water. In the evening I decided to say something about it since we were all disappointed. Because I confronted Pablo with his mistakes he wanted to talk to me in private…

On an expedition like this, when high altitude can cause all kinds of problems, you’d like to be as comfortable as possible. So, you’d like to communicate with your guide, especially in case of emergencies. We were all sold a package with English speaking guides. His reply was that he would always be around (later it turned out he wouldn’t…). At day one Pablo mentioned there would be drinking water for everyone for the whole trip. Because I asked him what had happened to the water and why we were being partially guided by non-English-speaking guides Pablo concluded I was not a good ski mountaineer and therefore my mission to ski Cotopaxi was canceled. I was flabbergasted. We can’t all be beautiful minds, but this was simply unheard of. In reality I think he was just a big child who couldn’t admit his own mistakes because based on my questions one can never conclude I’m a bad ski mountaineer (whether I am a good ski mountaineer or not). I’m not sure if I have ever been more angry in my life than at this moment. The only reason to visit Ecuador was to ski Cotopaxi, so you might be able to understand my frustration here. After using some strong words (this is a true understatement!) I went to bed at around 7 pm…

We were having breakfast at 10….10 pm that is! Yes, that is the second breakfast of the day. I had no intention of going out anymore since I was there to ski Cotopaxi. Filled with adrenaline I couldn’t sleep. At 10 pm however, Pablo had changed his mind a little bit. He suddenly wanted to try to ski with me again. Maybe he took my suggestions a bit too literally, if you know what I mean…

standing on top of Cotopaxi (5897 m) in a complete whiteout
standing on top of Cotopaxi (5897 m) in a complete whiteout

We started our climb at 11:30 pm from the parking lot. My skis were carried by two of the guides. Even though they didn’t speak a word of English this was of course a good thing. I felt like Tiger Woods on a big volcano for a moment! We slowly progressed and soon we arrived at the glacier. Crampons and ice axes were needed from this point. Shortly after the start of the glacial ascent, it started snowing heavily and my headache turned up again (this happened on Illiniza Norte two days before as well). The bad weather however, was also a good thing. It meant the snow and ice wouldn’t warm up as quickly as with a clear sky, giving us more time to reach the summit. Extra time that was more than welcome!

Early morning the others went back down and I was left alone with Pablo. Regardless of our fight the previous evening, we continued to the summit. He wasn’t exactly supporting me as he wanted to go as fast as possible. Since we were roped up, I had to go faster than my headache would allow me to. I guess he was still angry too… Completely exhausted I arrived at 5897 meters, only to realize there was no visibility at all. The beautiful crater and the high altitude panorama could not be seen. Well, every single time I ascend a volcano with a crater in order to ski it, I couldn’t see a thing on the summit. Let’s say it was no surprise…

Because of the snowfall, the conditions to ski were not too bad. In fact, they were pretty good. A beautiful descent was waiting for me after all. Making turns at an elevation close to 6000 meters is tough though and care had to be taken. Every now and then we passed some climbers walking down but in general it felt we had the whole mountain to ourselves. Pretty good feeling if you’d ask me!

The descent started with some steep sections before we arrived at a huge ice waterfall covered by a thin layer of snow. We had to traverse this section with great care since heavily crevassed terrain was below us. A fall would most likely be deadly here, so we traversed with the ice axe in our upper hand. Slowly we moved through the crevasses and overhanging seracs trying not to slip. Let’s say it was one of the more interesting traverses of my life… Once the waterfall had been crossed, we were quite relieved. Now we could enjoy some lower angle turns. The snow was surprisingly good all the way down and making some big GS turns above 5000 meters in Ecuador of all places, was very special. The descent ended at the hut at 4800 meters where I enjoyed a nice drink before walking back to the parking lot. The others were all waiting of course and we quickly made our way back to civilization. A great ski adventure, regardless of all the issues, had come to an end…

the ascend of Cotopaxi, photo credits: Mike Ski Page
the ascend of Cotopaxi, photo credits: Mike Ski Page

A question that might pop up is “Why would you want to do this?”. Well, there are several reasons. Of course, the awkward times to wake up, the acclimatization process, climbing for hours with a headache, paying a lot of money for a possibly crappy skirun, it all doesn’t make sense. First of all it is a great adventure. One can go to the same destination every time or you can go exploring and you’ll eventually find yourself skiing in countries people usually don’t relate with wintersports. Another reason to ski a mountain like Cotopaxi is because it’s a challenge. As a person you’d like to find your limits. Some people challenge themselves in their work, others in a hobby or a sport (and some maybe in all aspects of life). I’d like to challenge myself in the sport of skiing. This means I’d like to ski steeper runs or runs from higher mountains or runs with more exposure. In this case the combination of a high altitude climb and skiing down an exposed run, was a true challenge. More than anything it’s a mental game. Your body will tell you to turn around all the time so the only way to get up there is with your mind. So, if you make it to the summit, it feels like a personal victory.

In case you ever consider to ski Cotopaxi, finding a good guide is key. Climbing the whole night without any sleep requires a strongly bonded group and good communication between guide and climbers. It is simply important to feel good because your body will tell you to turn around and go to bed constantly. Andestrek changed the itinerary of the trip and didn’t check the gear. This is unacceptable to me. Imagine you arrive at the glacier of Cotopaxi and your crampons don’t fit. Of course all climbers are adults but it’s the guide’s job to do everything he can to get you up there. That’s why you book a guide, right? Then there are the earlier mentioned issues regarding non-English-speaking guides and the water. The water was just a mistake that can happen to anyone but the language barrier was a serious issue, both to me as well as to the other climbers. Most important of all, a guide can never cancel your expedition out of the blue as he did with me. Yes, he changed his mind a couple of hours later but in the meantime I was more than awake in my tent because of all the adrenaline. Not an ideal preparation for a full night of climbing if you’d ask me!

Of course not all was bad with Andestrek. With many agencies, all of you will have to turn around when only one climber can’t continue. Because Pablo had two more guides with him, we had more flexibility. This worked out really well for me since all the others turned around and I was able to continue with Pablo to the summit. Other companies only offered private skiing trips if they offered skiing in the first place. This was of course more expensive than the option offered by Pablo. And last but not least, Pablo is a strong skier who has skied Cotopaxi on multiple occasions in all sorts of conditions. We ended up in a whiteout but it was no issue at all. He navigated through complicated terrain with serious hazards on a real big mountain without any problems.

I would ask around before flying to Quito because once you’re in Ecuador’s capital, the skiguides might be out climbing, leaving you alone with your skis in a dodgy city…

2 Responses

  1. Bert

    Ha Paul, mooi hoor!
    Ik heb Cotopaxi ook ooit beklommen, een paar maanden voordat ik jou tegenkwam in Argentinie. Helaas had ik toen geen ski’s mee en moest ik het hele eind weer naar beneden lopen… 🙁 Ik bedacht me toen nog dat ik dat de volgende keer met ski’s moet doen. Heel leuk om te lezen dat jij dat nu gedaan hebt!
    Groetjes en veel plezier op reis!

    • Paul

      Mooi dat je de Cotopaxi ook hebt beklommen. Hopelijk had jij een beter uitzicht op de top, ik zag namelijk helemaal niets! Volgende keer met skietjes, is echt een aanrader.

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