Cotopaxi is an active stratovolcano in the Andes Mountains. Reaching 5,897m above sea level, it's the second highest mountain in Ecuador.
Located only a few hours from Quito, Cotopaxi is considered the most popular climb in the country.
Cotopaxi volcano has erupted over 50 times since 1738 and was closed to climbers in 2015 following eruptive activity. Thankfully, in 2017 it was re-opened and climbing Cotopaxi is once again attempted by mountain enthusiasts from all over the globe.
Check out this awesome guide with all the best information on how to summit Cotopaxi volcano!
Reaching the Cotopaxi summit takes two days to complete. On day one, all climbers will make their way along one route to the Jose Rivas Refuge (4,864m) which you will be able to see in the distance from the parking lot (4,500m). This takes about 1 hour and you’ll be resting here until the early hours of the morning for your summit climb.
The Jose Rivas Refuge is a hostel type accommodation which sleeps 86 people in bunk beds. It is well equipped with 2 kitchens, lockers, a bar, running water and electricity.
Initially there were two routes from the refuge to Cotopaxi summit and typically your guide would choose the best route on the day according to safety. Sadly, due to icefall dangers, the Yanasacha Route (the normal route) was closed in 2013 and only the Rompe Carzones Route (aka ‘Heartbreaker’ route) is now open to climbers.
Currently the only route to the summit. (December 2013)
This route was re-opened in July 2013 after being closed due to ice fall dangers and following a fatal accident. You begin from the right side of the refuge and make you way diagonally for 2 to 3 hours on steep terrain. Taking a break at this stage is almost impossible, hence the name ‘heartbreaker’. The route then joins the ‘normal route’ after crossing over a deep crevasse at 5,500m.
This route begins on a scree slope above the refuge and follows a series of switchbacks until reaching the glacier line. It takes you over deep crevasses, some as high as 5,500m across a long ladder. It continues to a lower flat section below Yanasacha (black rock).
You’ll join the heartbreaker route after passing huge seracs, so take caution at this point. Here you will have to climb a steep slope on the right side of Yanasacha to the bottom of a steep gully. You’ll climb up to another gully before heading straight up to to summit.
Guides shoveled a canal to the lower part of the summit to avoid climbing exposed above Yanasacha. It’s a long traverse through the canal but reaching the top is an exciting moment!
Thanks to the great climate conditions in the Cotopaxi area, climbing to the summit can be done at any time of the year. The best months to climb and avoid the wind is during December and January. Otherwise, August to September are also good months to climb but expect to have a lot of wind.
A typical Cotopaxi climb takes two days to complete. You begin by heading to the refuge the afternoon before your climb. Once you have settled in you’ll have lessons at a nearby glacier on how to put on your crampons and different ice-axe techniques.
After training, you can grab something to eat and catch a few hours of sleep before your 1am start to the summit. This may depend on your experience level and how long it will take you to summit. The idea is to reach the summit at sunrise and begin your descent before the snow becomes unstable during the daytime. It should take around 5 to 8 hours to reach the summit depending on your pace.
It is strenuous and can get very daunting at times when negotiating deep crevice’s and climbing on thick snow and ice. Some points require you to climb front pointing, meaning you will be climbing using the front spikes on your crampons.
Reaching the summit is exhilarating. Staring down into the deep crater of Cotopaxi volcano and panoramic views of Ecuador’s major peaks is a fantastic reward for a difficult climb. Your descent should take about 3 to 4 hours.
Climbing Cotopaxi is possible even with little or no technical mountaineering experience. However, the climb takes 6 hours, is done at high altitude, and you will need to cross huge, deep crevice’s and climb semi-vertical glaciers using special alpine gear. You need strength, stamina and be properly acclimatised.
Reaching the summit of Cotopaxi only has a 72% success rate due to the treacherous sections of the climb and most climbers battle with the high altitude. If you truly want to climb Cotopaxi and reach the summit, then you need to take it seriously and prepare properly.
You will not be able to climb Cotopaxi without hiring a good, reliable and experienced guide. I highly recommend that you hire a guide who is certified by ASEGUIM (Asociación Ecuatoriana de Guías de Montaña).
Deglaciation is a real concern on the routes and an experienced guide is essential to navigating these sections safely. One guide is only allowed to take two climbers.
Climb Only Packages
Accommodation (Jose Rivas Refuge)
Transport to park
Many tour companies offer a variety of packages which include multi-day hikes, hotels pre and post, and even combine climbing Cotopaxi with a Chimborazo climb. These are of course more expensive but have a lot more on offer.
For a inside look into the Cotopaxi climb, have a look at this awesome video shot by Freddy.G.Aguero.
Climbing Cotopaxi requires crampons and an ice-axe. These are your most important pieces of equipment for this climb. Tour operators may provide specialized equipment like crampons, but you are welcome to bring your own or rent equipment.
Cotopaxi is an active volcano. In 2017, Cotopaxi was reopened following an eruption in 2015. There is a warning system installed throughout the park to alert visitors of any eruptive activity. If you hear the alarm sound continuously, leave the park immediately. Despite it being an active volcano, Cotopaxi is relatively safe to climb and is considered the worlds most monitored volcano!
The altitude can be the downfall of many climbers on Cotopaxi. Only 72% of climbers have a successful summit and many climbers get altitude sickness. Should you feel any effects like headaches or nausea, please do not push yourself, and descend immediately. Altitude sickness should always be taken seriously.
Cotopaxi is 5,897m above sea level and one of the highest active volcanoes in the world. If you are planning a Cotopaxi climb, then you can consider proper acclimatization as highly important.
To have a chance at reaching the summit we recommend spending some time in Quito before attempting Cotopaxi. This will give your body time to adjust to the high altitude.
Training beforehand and hiking a few small peaks prior to Cotopaxi is also recommended to reduce the risk of developing altitude sickness. Good peaks to train on are Volcano Ruminñahui and Sincholahua also in Cotopaxi National Park.
Cotopaxi volcano is located in the Cotopaxi National Park, which is situated in Cotopaxi province. If you have booked with a tour company then your transport to Cotopaxi National Park may be included in your package, so check this when you book.
Otherwise, you can hop on a bus from Quitumbe Bus Station, but they will drop you about 1 hour from the park entrance. I suggest taking a car and driving the 50km to the national park. There is a detour as you reach kilometer 42 to enter the park so keep this in mind when planning your route.
Travel insurance is very important for all climbs at high altitude and you should definitely get insurance if you are planning on climbing Cotopaxi. Make sure your insurance covers high altitude treks or mountaineering specifically above 5,800m and all medical emergencies.
Kayla lives in sunny Cape Town, South Africa. She loves wildlife and being in the mountains! Anything to get away from the city and relax in the peace and quiet of nature.