Cotopaxi Volcano is fifty miles from Quito, and one of the highest active volcanoes in the world. On Friday, I joined a group who ventured up to the glacier that caps the behometh. The 45 minute climb to our refuge was one of the most difficult hikes I've ever undertaken. Starting at over 15,000 feet, we stepped out of our bus and were immediately broadsided by a freezing gale-force wind. I could barely see 20 feet ahead of me as a thick fog enveloped the surroundings. Every step upward was made with great effort, and the thin air had my heart racing in desperation for oxygen. Needless to say, just reaching the refuge was an incredible relief and felt like a real accomplishment!
With my blood warmed by hot chocolate, I stepped out of the cabin with a few of the more brave souls to attempt a further climb upwards to the glacier. Thankfully the fog had cleared and the wind had died down, but with every breath my lungs burned nonetheless. Finally reaching the glacier, we were at the highest altitude of our journey: 16,400 feet. That's over 3 miles high!
The hike back down to base afforded us stunning views of the valley below, as well as the snow-covered peak above. But there was another thrilling leg of the journey: a mountain-bike ride all the way down the side of the volcano! My bike was far too small for me, but it was still quite a rush to be flying down a rock-strewn dirt road in the middle of this almost-alien terrain.
This was quite an exhausting day, and only a few of our group actually made it all the way up to the glacier and the whole way down by bicycle. A long and bumpy bus ride back to Quito awaited us. And perhaps most importantly, a warm shower and good night's rest!