Me Versus the Volcano: 16,000 Feet in the Air

Here’s the thing about altitude sickness: it sneaks up on you. It doesn’t affect everyone, and it doesn’t happen all the time, so you are lulled into a lovely sense of security, than WHAMMO- face in the trashcan.

The first couple of days in Quito I was fine. More than fine, I was energetically exploring Quito’s dramatic hills and hectic Old Town. Sure, I got winded easily but that was understandable: Quito is the second highest capital city in the world- 9,350 feet above sea level.

 It wasn’t until my third evening that things turned sour. I was playing trivia at the hostel when it hit me: a sharp splitting headache, like my brain was trying to climb out my left eye socket. Then, a creeping sense of nausea. I excused myself from the game (we came in third) and crawled back to my room which has just started to slowly, sickeningly, spin. The night ended with me puking in a trash can while Mike held back my hair.

The next day I felt a bit better: my brain and stomach had both stopped their terrible throbbing. I just felt exhausted, absolutely wiped, so I spent most of the day reading and feeling sorry for myself. It was going great until Mike burst into the room around 6pm, grinning like a maniac “We’re climbing Cotopaxi tomorrow.”

Cotopaxi is one of the highest active (yes, active) volcanos in the world. At 19,347 feet it is the second highest peak in the country. For comparison Macchu Picchu is 8000 feet, Cuzco is 10,800 feet. It’s um, big. And tall. Maybe not the best choice for someone struggling to breathe correctly at ground level?

It was okay, Mike explained. We would simply do a day trip out of Quito with CarpeDM travel, climbing as high as the glaciers on the mountain (yes, glaciers on the equator). So only 16,000 feet, not the full 19000+. Oh okay then.

The following day we rose at 6 am. Cotopaxi is an hour or so out of Quito, you can see it from the city on a clear day. If the volcano were to have a full on explosion it would destroy Ecuador’s capital. Fortunately it hasn’t erupted since…. 1904.

The first part of the trip was done by car, a bumpy 4WD adventure over muddy, rocky roads. As we rose I could feel my breath getting harder. I concentrated on taking deep breaths and had my first cup of the classic folk remedy for altitude sickness: coca tea.

The driver let us out at 14,000 feet. That’s almost 13 stacked up Empire State Buildings. The air was chilly up here- much to the surprise of the two shorts sporting Canadian guys who’d come along with us. Our guide handed out tiny packets of Nutella, “for energy.”

Then the climbing. Honestly at sea level it would have been more like a brisk stroll up a hill, but here, the highest altitude I’d ever been in my life, it felt like a death march. Each step took about three times it’s normal effort, within minutes I was huffing and puffing like an out of shape marathon runner.

It got worse from there: my feet felt like cement and I couldn’t catch my breath. Mike was suffering too and we stopped frequently to rest (the shorts-wearing Canadians seemed unaffected, they tromped merrily ahead of us). The hike was maybe 45 minutes, but it stretched into eternity. My brain started to feel cloudy from lack of oxygen but I held onto one single thought: keep walking. I don’t have asthma, and nobody has ever tried to smother me, but that is what it must feel like- this inability to take in enough oxygen. I’m feeling out of breath just typing this.

We stopped briefly at 15,750 feet at The Refuge, a small cafe. Only 300 more feet up to go to reach the glaciers, but it felt like miles. I came this far though and damned if I was going to give up now.

I’ve never passed out in my life, but this last little stretch of hike I came damn close. It was hard and I wanted to give up. But I didn’t and once we hit the snow it was all worth it. This was one of the hardest things I’ve ever pushed my body to do but in the end it felt so worth it to walk on a glacier on top of the world.


Our Cotopaxi climb was sponsored by CarpeDM travel in Quito.

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