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Coca Leaves and Climbing Cotopaxi

We generally avoid tours, but some things we want to do require guides. And, so it was with Cotopaxi Volcano. Climbing is not allowed without a licensed guide. We arranged our hike through our hostel Tiana, in Latacunga.

Our guide was Diego and he met us in the lobby of the hostel. Joining us were two Germans and two Dutch backpackers. These young guys had just finished university and before starting their careers they decided to tour South America for a few months.

We all loaded into the Land Rover for the 45 minute drive to Cotopaxi National Park. Cotopaxi is a volcano located about 30 miles south of Quito and is part of the chain of volcanoes know as the Pacific Ring of Fire. At 19,347 feet it has one of the few equatorial glaciers in the world. The glacier begins at about 16,400 feet. The volcano last erupted in August 2015 through January 2016. It has had 87 known eruptions.

We stopped at the Cotopaxi visitor center for a tour where we learned that if the volcano erupted we only have a few minutes to take some selfies, there would be no escaping the avalanche of snow, water, ice and debris.

Diego then directed us to the snack bar at the visitors center.

“They sell coca leaves in the sack bar. Drink some coca tea and then chew the leaves. It will help with altitude sickness.”

“Isn’t that where cocaine comes from? We watch ‘Narcos’ on Netflix.” Said one of the Germans.

“It is illegal to sell in most places in Ecuador. But, it is allowed in high altitude places like Cotopaxi.” Diego responded. “I recommend it because of the altitude. It really works.”

With that we all went to the gift shop and purchased warm coca tea. We drank it and saved the leaves to chew during the climb. We all then returned to the vehicle for the final drive to the trailhead for the climb up Cotopaxi.

Two years ago we climbed Mount Whitney in California. Mount Whitney is the highest peak in the continental United States at 14,500 feet. Our plan for the day was to climb to the Cotopaxi glacier at 16,400 feet. This would be nearly 2,000 feet higher than any point in the lower forty-eight states.

Inexperienced climbers can climb to the peak of Cotopaxi. It is not considered a technical climb but it does require two days and one night to acclimate to the altitude along with crampons, ice picks and ropes. The hike to the top begins around midnight and most climbers reach the summit by 7 am. The decent begins early before the sun begins to melt the glacier making it unstable.

We opted for the simple one day trek to the glacier. It required no special equipment and no overnight stay.

We parked the vehicle and began the hike up the volcano. The air was cool and crisp and the wind was blowing. There is no vegetation growing at the high altitude and there was nothing to block the wind. I put some coca leaves in my mouth and began to chew.

“The weather changes quickly at this altitude. We can go though all four seasons in a few minutes.” Diego told us.

We walked up the slope very slowly. The air at this altitude is very thin and each breath is labored. The key to a successful climb is slow and steady. The coca leaves seemed to be working. No one complained about altitude sickness. Maybe it is that you just don’t care about altitude sickness when chewing coca leaves. Who knows?

As we walked the weather began to change. Clouds rolled in and visibility quickly became limited. We could only see a few feet in front of us. It didn’t look good.

As we continued up the trail a large red building suddenly came into view. The building is known as “The Refuge” and is located at 16,000 feet. It is a safe place for hikers in bad weather and also serves food and warm drinks. The upstairs of the building serves as sleeping quarters for the climbers who are acclimating for the trek to the summit.

Diego directed us into the building.

“The weather is changing. There is a thunder storm on top of the volcano.” Diego said. “We will wait out the storm inside.”

We entered the large dining room in The Refuge and were greeted by other hikers who were already inside. Almost immediately after we arrived we heard the wind begin to pick up and hail began to pelt the building. We had made it inside just in the nick of time.

“The storm may pass quickly and we can the hike to the glacier.” Diego told us.

We sat around a table telling stories and getting to know each other as we waited for the storm to pass. After about forty-five minutes Diego returned to our table.

“The weather is not going to pass. We will not make it to the glacier this afternoon. We have to hike down instead” he told us.

We were all a little disappointed that we would not make it the final 400 feet up to the glacier. However, we had made it to the refuge. We were more than satisfied to make it 16,000 feet up an active volcano. In that regard the hike was a success. It was certainly my personal best record climb.

The climb down was much easier than the hike up. We made it to the trailhead and began the drive out of Cotopaxi National Park. Diego had arranged a lunch for us at a small restaurant located in the park. The place had stunning views of the volcano and it was the perfect place to relax after the hike.

We then made the short drive back to Latacunga, exhausted but well fed. We also had another hiking story and some new friends. Even though we did not reach the glacier we have to say that the Cotopaxi Volcano climb was a resounding success.

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