In 2011, I set out on a grand adventure with my dear friend, Jacquie, who was studying monkeys in the Ecuadorian Amazon. On a ski day together in New York, we plotted to join forces in Ecuador and climb Mount Cotopaxi. We heard you had to “ice climb” up Cotopaxi and decided to hire a guide for this epic adventure! Yet, my Jansport jacket and gumption were not enough to make it to the summit. Read more for the deets!
What was Jacquie doing studying monkeys in the Amazon, you ask? Great question. In college, she studied abroad in Ecuador to see the effect tourism has on the diets of monkeys by studying their feces.
Studying abroad isn’t always glamorous, but for a bada$$ like Jacquie, any kind of science and travel was epic.
This post isn’t about monkey poop though, don’t worry. I’ll have you reach out to Jacquie for more of that information!
Jacquie and I had a few adventures prior to heading to Ecuador together, most of which involved skiing in New York or going to team parties with our cross country/track team at Stony Brook University. We’d shared many late nights dancing, but we were ready to travel further and higher together.
When we were skiing in New York one winter, Jacquie shared there was a mountain she wanted to climb in Ecuador. She learned you’d have to ice climb and use all kinds of equipment to summit, but you could hire a guide to do it. We looked at each other and enthusiastically claimed WE MUST CLIMB IT. Plus, we could combo the climb with a trip to the Amazon. Sounded so cool. Ice climbing with ice picks?! Wandering in the jungle? SIGN ME UP.
The mountain that made it immediately onto our bucket list is Ecuador’s Mount Cotopaxi, a stratovolcano in the Andes Mountains standing 19,393 feet (5,911 meters) tall. Cotopaxi (pronounced koh-toh-PAHK-see) is amongst the world’s tallest stratovolcanoes. Cotopaxi has erupted 50 times since 1738, with its last eruption in January 2016 (as of 2022).
You may have heard of Cotopaxi before, especially if you’re a frequent shopper at REI! It’s an ethical company creating wonderfully colorful outdoor gear. Founded by Davis Smith, Cotopaxi “loomed large in Davis’s life—even his school was named for it—and its glacial streams, wild llamas, and countless trails instilled the spirit of adventure and gratitude that would inspire his entrepreneurship.” At Cotopaxi, 1% of annual revenue goes towards vetted nonprofit organizations. These grants make an impact through local health, education and livelihood initiatives.
Jacquie and I hired a guide, borrowed gear from friends, and set on our adventure to climb Cotopaxi in April 2011. We started our trip in the Amazon at Yakuma Ecolodge, which neighbors a Kichwa tribal community. To get there, we traveled from Quito through the eastern Andes, until we reached the upper Amazon. From Quito, we took a bus through cities of Baeza, Tena, and the small village of Santa Rosa until we arrived on the Rio Napo, where we took a canoe to the Lodge! This meant we spent the first half of our trip at sea-level along in the Amazon along the Rio Napo.
Amazon Bucket List
We did A LOT in the Amazon, so if you’re headed to Latin America, here are some tips:
- Pan for gold
- Ride a canoe on the river
- Plant a local crop (yucca!)
- Attend a local tribal ceremony (with the Kichwa tribe and shaman)
- Go tubing with piranhas in the water…?! (we are not entirely sure if there were actually piranhas in the Rio Napo, though Google says it’s possible!)
- Eat a cacao bean! This is what makes chocolate and has a nutty flavor inside the meaty flesh of the bean.
- Walk through the Amazon jungle and try interesting plants/bugs! We ate lemon ants, cacao, and more.
Return to Quito
We entered the second phase of our trip in Quito where we increased elevation to 9,350 feet (2,850 meters). One of our primary goals of Quito was to acclimate to higher elevations in preparation for our climb of Cotopaxi. After spending quite a few days at sea level, we had a lot of work to do in a short period of time. We only had about two days in Quito and went for ONE acclimatization hike along the pathway of the Tereferico. We then spent our days enjoying more excitement in Quito.
Bucket List in Ecuador
- Balance an egg on a nail at the equator
- Stand in the NORTHERN and SOUTHERN hemisphere simultaneously
- Eat ceviche, a delicious seafood soup served cold, with a side of popcorn to put in the soup
- Visit the French Equator in Ecuador, which is inaccurate
- Take a photo with The Virgen de El Panecillo, which is an angel statue that stands on a hill in the center of Quito
- Eat coi if you can handle the fact that you’re eating a guinea pig, which is a delicacy in Ecuador
Climbing Mount Cotopaxi
After spending time “acclimating” in Quito, Jacquie and I were “ready” to meet up with our guide for our Cotopaxi climb.
I’m sure you’re curious about all these quotation marks.
When climbing to high altitudes, especially something over 19,000 feet high, there are many recommendations for ways to stay safe and prevent altitude sickness. I outline those recommendations here. Amongst this list of considerations, you will NOT find recommendations to spend multiple days at sea level. There’s also talk about ascending slowly.
Jacquie and I did not exactly ascend slowly, nor did we spend multiple days acclimating. We believed our two days in Quito to be enough. Once we united with our guide, we were still in the spirit of adventure and grit. We were confident we had what it takes to climb Cotopaxi! We went to a shed to pick out our mountaineering boots and crampons, in addition to ice axes. Neither of us have used ANY of this gear before, so immediately felt 100% more badass holding it all. I was even stoked to crack my phone screen with the ice axe — what a cool story that will be!!
With all our gear, we headed toward base camp for Cotopaxi. We drove to about 15,000 feet and hiked up to ~16,000 feet to our base camp (15,748 feet above sea level). There, we met a few other climbers. This is when we started noticing we may have been ill-prepared for our climb. One climber had summited other volcanoes in Ecuador, and another group had been climbing throughout South America prior to climbing Cotopaxi. When they asked us what our experience with mountaineering was, we shrugged our shoulders and excitedly shared it was our first time! I wish I could go back in time and read their expressions once more… haha. (Photos Source: Summitpost.)
At camp, we found our sleeping bunks and did some basic training in the snow. Our guide showed us skills for self-arrest with the ice axes and we practiced walking with crampons on. It was about this time I started to feel a little nauseous. When we sat to eat dinner made by the guides, I was able to take a few nibbles, but my head was then hurting. With the rest of the group, I laid down to try getting some rest around 6pm, as our plan was to wake at midnight to begin our climb.
My sleep was nearly non-existent. I tossed and turned in a sleeping bag, with a banging headache and terrible stomachache. I was nauseous and kept going to the bathroom ALL night, unsure of which end was going to erupt.
Oh gosh, sorry for the graphics. I promised no poop talk. I digress.
ANYWAYS. Between bathroom trips, I called home to New York to tell my parents I was having a miserable time in Ecuador and they were rightfully concerned. At midnight, everyone awoke for our pre-climb meal. I was already awake, so I joined the rest of the crew by headlamp at our table to attempt to eat some Froot Loops. I got a few bites in but again could barely hold food down.
I told my guide about my symptoms and we decided to attempt climbing. Starting out with crampons donned and headlights illuminating our path, I was following my guide’s footprints. As we started climbing, I felt like I was on a rocking ship. It wasn’t calming like a bassinet being rocked, but instead disorienting and further nauseating. I kept trying to focus on my guide’s feet, but they were swinging from right to left. Every few steps, I felt like I could easily topple over. I fell to the side a few times, often landing on my uphill arm.
My headache was getting worse and I could barely focus. Our guide was concerned for safety, so he decided it was time for us to rope up even though it was too early (apparently there were glaciers and crevasses later, which would truly warrant a rope team). Even with the rope around my waist, I wasn’t able to maintain my balance. I kept dry heaving, sweating, and could barely express myself.
It was at this time, our guide stated we had to turn around and go back to base camp. Even though this felt like a huge bummer and I would have loved to keep climbing, 100% of me was ready to get off the mountain and back to safety. It was apparent at this point that I was experiencing what I’d later understand as Acute Mountain Sickness. Had we continued climbing, I would have been more at risk for High Altitude Cerebral Edema or High Altitude Pulmonary Embolism — both of which are outdoor emergencies.
During the climb, Jacquie was feeling just fine so I also felt bad to interrupt her climb that could have led to the summit of Cotopaxi! However, once we got back to base camp and I began feeling better from our descent, Jacquie began to feel ill as well. She also experienced altitude sickness, which later led to dehydration.
What I Would Have Changed
If (and when?) I decide to retry my attempt at climbing Mount Cotopaxi, there are obviously quite a few things I would do differently. While there is nothing inherently wrong with bringing a Jansport backpack for a mountaineering expedition, this does speak to my inexperience with mountaineering at this time in my life. Since April 2011, I have been on a few glaciated climbs and now understand crevasse rescue, mountaineering gear, and how to identify backcountry illness/injury with a higher level of education and experience.
First of all, I would recommend spending more time acclimating to higher elevations. There are a few other mountains in Ecuador to climb, including Cayembe — a stratovolcano with elevation of 18,996′ feet (5790 meters). The group who had climbed throughout South America successfully summited Cotopaxi, so another option is to climb in other regions! Any acclimatization would have made the risk of altitude sickness lower.
Secondly, having at least a basic understanding of mountaineering could be wildly beneficial. In 2011, I had only been on day hikes and skiing at resorts. I didn’t have enough knowledge to know whether the gear I was using was fitting or functioning properly, though this was on the guide to determine.
Finally, having at least a basic understanding of first aid in the outdoors can be highly impactful! I have since taken the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) certification course to be a Wilderness First Responder, in addition to recertification courses. Another option is to take a Wilderness First Aid course, which is usually shorter and more basic. These courses are often hosted by REI, in addition to organizations outside of NOLS. I could have known more about altitude sickness, which would have clued me into decision-making with climbing. At the end of the day, we had the correct response to my symptoms by descending. When experiencing Acute Mountain Sickness, the best thing you can go is DESCEND in elevation. We probably would have benefitted from descending beyond base camp, as this is where I first felt sick, but we were not able to because of the other groups.
Even though I would have done things differently, I am so grateful for this adventure. I will always look fondly back on my time attempting to hike Cotopaxi and shake my head at our adorable gumption for this adventure! I love embracing the spirit of adventure and am grateful Jaquie and I were able to experience this together!
Have you had any mountain misadventures? Have you been to the Amazon, or is it on your bucket list? Share below!
Feature Image Credit: Canva