Cotopaxi (5896m) is a perfect shaped volcano, extremely active and the most famous in Ecuador. My attempt to do it solo, unsupported and very cheaply from the bottom of the mountain, unfortunately ended in a stormy weather at the refuge.
I've heard that Cotopaxi is a very busy mountain, both seasoned mountaineers and a lot of tourists who have never seen crampons or ice axe in their life, aim for this popular volcano. I've also read that reservation is recommended in the high season when available accommodation in the park is limited. Thus I just decided to bring my own tent, to avoid all the hassles. I also planned to do Cotopaxi solo and unsupported from a lower point at the foot of the mountain, unlike the majority who just arrive by vehicle at the end of the road very high on the mountain.
The good thing about a crowded mountain and a glacier route like Cotopaxi, is that it's fairly safe to travel solo and unroped on the glacier. The snow trail will be solid as ice and the risk of falling into a crevasse or getting lost in a whiteout is substantially reduced, assuming there is no snowstorm approaching which will bury the track after short time.
I decided that Tambopaxi (3750m) at the foot of the mountain would be a good place to start. So I got Antonio to drive me from Quito to Tambopaxi for 70 USD. He also brought his brother, who's normally living in New York but now was on holiday in Ecuador to visit his old and dying mother. There was one issue however, Antonio is not a licensed tour operator, he's just an independent guy who has been driving around on mountaineers for the last 20 years in Ecuador. Because he's not part of Ecuador's "tourism mafia", he is not allowed to drive foreigners into Cotopaxi National Park. This was not a big deal though, because Tambopaxi is just a couple of kilometers inside the national park, so if the rangers didn't admit Antonio and his vehicle into the park, I could easily walk from the checkpoint to Tambopaxi in less than half an hour.
As we were getting closer to the checkpoint, Antonio suggested that I could drive his Toyota pickup while he would hide under a blanket in the back of the pickup. There would be no problem for a foreign guy like me to drive into the park with a rented vehicle. His brother Alex speaks perfect American, so he would act as a tourist as well. This way the rangers would not assume that Alex is another local Ecuadorian guy who drives me.
We arrived at the checkpoint and I was behind the wheel. Alex went out of the car and started to take photos of the surroundings (e.g. acting like a tourist). One of the rangers started to talk with Alex in Spanish, but Alex acted like he didn't understand and continued to take photos. The rangers asked me for the registration card of the vehicle and I handed it over to them in addition to the entrance fee for two people (4 USD). The rangers then walked inside their office (to check it!) and after a few minutes they returned with the two entrance tickets and the registration card of the vehicle. Everything seemed perfectly right, and Alex jumped into the car again and we were finally off to Tambopaxi. As soon as we were out of view, we stopped the car to let Antonio out of the "cage". We were happy to be inside the park, and especially Alex was smiling because this was his first time in the park. He left Ecuador when he was 21 years old, and has been staying in America ever since then.
We arrived Tambopaxi just a few minutes later. Antonio and Alex helped me checking in at Hosteria Tambopaxi, before they left on their own journey inside the park. I was really surprised to be the only customer at Tambopaxi. Because of this I decided to stay in the dormitory (20 USD). No need to pitch a tent, when I can have the entire dormitory for myself for a few bucks extra. Tambopaxi is a really nice place with a great view of Cotopaxi. The buildings are quite new and you get a feeling of being in a much more exclusive place than the fairly cheap charge would indicate. The dining hall looks like a luxury resort in the mountains. I was even offered to use their modern kitchen free of charge, if I needed to make any food for myself. Thus I decided to make my own lunch there in order to save some money. But in the evening I ordered the excellent dinner set for 15 USD. This was a delicious meal starting with a soup, then a main dish (chicken) and finally a dessert.
I spent some time walking around at Tambopaxi, then I spent rest of the day inside the dining hall to watch the ever changing lights of Cotopaxi from the window. They even had free Wifi in this remote place, so I could catch up on my e-mail, facebook and news on my iPhone.
I woke up early next morning and ate some bread I brought with me from Quito. I started to walk from Tambopaxi 7:40am. It was mostly flat and easy walking on the road, but higher up I started to feel the lack of oxygen as the uphills got steeper. That I carried more than 20 kg on my back didn't ease the breathing. I was tempted to hitch hike with some of the cars that passed me, but I decided to stick with the schedule and my plan to do Cotopaxi by fair means.
It took me 3:45 hours to reach the parking and then another 45 minutes in a very slow pace to reach Refugio José Ribas at 4800m. Except from some day trippers, I was the only one at the refuge. It was very surprising to find out that there were no other mountaineers hanging around. So again I started to wonder why I should sleep in the tent when I can have the refuge for myself. Besides it was starting to rain outside, so I decided to pay the 20 USD and got a first selection of bed. I even got a locker in the dormitory.
I used the common kitchen (which has gas stoves free of charge) to cook myself a lunch. After a while some small groups with local guides started to arrive the refuge. Most of them had no experience at all with a few exceptions. One of the groups even walked up to the glacier in the afternoon to get some lessons on ice. I however got myself a short rest on the bed before dinner time. As I were standing in the kitchen starting to prepare my dinner, one of the local guides offered me their surplus of pasta (their clients didn't eat very much). I accepted their kind offer which saved me the hassle of making dinner. Instead I started to boil plenty of water for the upcoming climb. I was in bed around 7pm, so were most of the other guys (10-15).
Around midnight most of the guys were up for breakfast. I went out to pee and soon figured out that the weather was awful. It was a snowstorm outside and not wearing my goretex, my thermal underwear were covered in wet snow after a few steps over to the toilet. This was not the ideal conditions to solo Cotopaxi. I could of course sneak behind one of the guided parties in order to keep to the route, but that was not at all my wish. I wanted to do it solo, not be a freebie behind a guided group. I reckoned it would not be safe to go alone on the heavily crevassed glacier in whiteout conditions like this, so I went back to bed and hoped it would clear up after a couple of hours. But it didn't. A few guys started to return to the refuge in the middle of the night, heavily iced up and wet to the bones. I just continued my sleep which was not a good one. I kept on waking up every 20 minutes or so and had a minor headache as well. I bet that increasing the sleeping elevation from 2800m to 4800m in just a couple of days was probably the reason.
I was up at daylight shortly after 6am, and the conditions were still the same. I didn't want to hang out at this refuge for another night just to find out that the weather still was bad. So instead of wasting more time here I decided to pack up my stuff and descend to Tambopaxi.
Walking down was a bit depressing, but I were quite confident it was the right decision to do. Back at Tambopaxi I got them to order a car back to Quito. I was surprised he only wanted 40 USD for this long ride. Back in Quito the weather did not improve the couple of next days (good I did not stay in the refuge). Now I only had one goal on my mind, Chimborazo, that one I was not going to fail.
Cotopaxi at EveryTrail