Cotopaxi: Hiking one of the highest active volcanoes in the world

Rising from the highland plains 31 miles south of Ecuador’s capital, Quito, is the imposing and much-feared volcano named Cotopaxi.

At 19,347ft (5,897m) it is said to be the world’s second-highest active volcano with more than 50 known eruptions.

Up until October 2017, Cotopaxi, which sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire, was closed to visitors after it awoke in 2015 causing earthquakes, ash plumes, and pyroclastic flows.

Cotopaxi when the cloud cleared

Now, it is once again one of Ecuador’s most popular tourist attractions after the fabled Galapagos Islands. Its cone-shaped body is barren, mostly grey and freezing cold but to see its peak emerge from behind the clouds is magnificent.

Europeans have been trying to climb it since 1802, with a German geologist Wilhelm Reiss and his Colombian partner, Angel Escobar, reportedly making the first successful summit on November 28, 1872.

Nowadays, tour operators offer the chance to reach its snow-capped peak with crampons on a two-day climb. But only those with mountaineer’s lungs and true determination succeed.

However, a hike to its quickly disappearing glacier at 16,500ft (5029m) is possible on a day trip.

Hiking on Cotopaxi

After a few days of relative acclimatisation in 9,350ft (2,850m)-high Quito, we began walking up Cotopaxi and into the fog. It was difficult to see ahead, my legs felt heavy and every breath felt harder than the one I’d taken before but we eventually reached the glacier.

Our local guide explained how the empty crater we were looking down on was once also part of the glacier but it had melted.

Scientists say Cotopaxi lost around 40% of its glacial cap between 1976 and 2006 and there are similar occurrences, thought to be triggered by contemporary climate change, taking place across the Andes mountain range.

The melting of the glaciers not only affects local water supplies but may also trigger an acceleration in volcanic activity.  This is significant for those communities living in Cotopaxi’s shadow, who are reported to live in fear of ‘the Big One’ after 2015’s rumbling.

Ash and lava could rain down on villages and ‘lahar’ – made up of mud, glacier water, and volcanic rock – could form a mudslide travelling in excess of 60 miles an hour, devastating the lives of 200,000 people in its path.

Of course, tourists aren’t informed of Cotopaxi’s deadly potential when they book on for an adventure day trip but it’s hard to visit and not leave with respect.

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