Trek to the Top of the World
On clear days, Cotopaxi's snowy peak is a centerpiece of the horizon all around Ecuador. Towering at 5,897 meters high, it is one of the top three tallest active volcanoes in the world and the second tallest peak in Ecuador. It is possible for beginners to reach the summit but it is not for the feint at heart, body or mind. Mountaineering up the glacier requires a guide, crampons, ice axes, and headlamps. Altitude is a major issue that forces many to turn around, or not even start. As an avid day hiker, I am drawn to climb any peak I see, so after staring down Cotopaxi from Secret Garden hostel for a day, it was only a matter of time before I accepted its challenge. And what a challenge it was. Having never hiked through snow, the grueling 6-7 hour, midnight to dawn ascent to the top, was physically and mentally the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. Conditions are never guaranteed and I was literally in the clouds once I fell to the ground at the top. Luckier trekkers can be rewarded with a view into the spherical smoking crater but I still feel lucky to have even made it at all. I will never forget the clear night sky of the stars, the glittering snow under the moonlight, the lightning storm over the twinkling lights of Quito, the view of other snowy peaks above the cloud line and the otherworldly ice formations that are ominous by night but magnificent during the daytime descent.
By Susan Mason, AFAR Local Expert
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