The Day I Climbed a 14,000 foot Volcano in Ecuador and Didn’t Die

Our day started out simply enough, enjoying a cup of coffee while watching llamas graze on the grounds of our 16th century hacienda in the Ecuadorian highlands. Originally we had planned to hike around the base of Cotopaxi, the snow-capped active volcano south of Quito as popular with day trippers as it is with hardcore mountaineers, but the park was closed as a precaution due to Ecuador’s recent earthquakes. Our  innkeeper pointed across the valley “You should hike at Pasochoa, I’ll let Flavio know”.

The Day I Climbed a 14,000 foot Volcano in Ecuador and Didn't Die-www.casualtravelist.com

Our guide Flavio had spent his entire life in the pastoral farmlands that dot the valleys of Ecuador’s highlands, he was equally at home exploring the peaks of the volcanoes that surround his hometown as he was on the back of a horse tending cattle as a chagra, one of Ecuador’s famed highland cowboys. He had a shy demeanor and a warm smile; between my limited Spanish, his patchy English and a lot of gesturing Flavio proudly told us about the volcanic valleys he calls home. An hour’s drive along a dirt road, past crops of potatoes and small herds of cows, brought us to a small wooden gate that served as entrance to this dormant volcano.

The Day I Climbed a 14,000 foot Volcano in Ecuador and Didn't Die-www.casualtravelist.com

The Day I Climbed a 14,000 foot Volcano in Ecuador and Didn't Die-www.casualtravelist.com

The base of Pasochoa is covered by mossy woodlands, not unlike the Shenandoah Valley in my home state of Virginia. The climb started easily enough with the forests transitioning to shrubs to Ecuador’s signature elevated grasslands known as paramo. We came to a mountain stream and Flavio vaulted across and motioned for me to follow his lead, but with a 10 foot drop I opted to hike a bit upstream and cross over a downed tree bridging the gap. Each turn of the trail brought a new sight; a hidden waterfall, a seemingly bottomless gorge, a lone condor circling above. The Andes were slowly revealing her secrets with each step we took.

The Day I Climbed a 14,000 foot Volcano in Ecuador and Didn't Die-www.casualtravelist.com

The Day I Climbed a 14,000 foot Volcano in Ecuador and Didn't Die-www.casualtravelist.comThe Day I Climbed a 14,000 foot Volcano in Ecuador and Didn't Die-www.casualtravelist.com

As we reached the first peak, at an elevation of 12,000 feet, Steve and I enjoyed the sweeping vistas shaped by the seven volcanoes surrounding the valley where were just hours before. It was then Flavio pointed to the summit above. That’s where we were going? I gulped, looking at Steve knowing he had the same reaction.

“I guess we’re doing this.”

The Day I Climbed a 14,000 foot Volcano in Ecuador and Didn't Die-www.casualtravelist.comThe Day I Climbed a 14,000 foot Volcano in Ecuador and Didn't Die-www.casualtravelist.com

Now I consider myself decently fit. I’m that crazy person at the gym at 5 am, I occasionally bike to work and I’ve run several half marathons. Just one thing though, all of this happens at sea level. My house in Virginia Beach is at a whole whopping 12 feet above sea level and just days before walking around the colonial streets of Quito(elevation 10,000 feet) had me a bit short of breath. We followed Flavio on our continued journey up, passing altitudes of 12,500 and then 13,000 feet my heart pounded a million miles per minute while my lungs huffed deeply in search of more oxygen.While this hike was not technical by any means the altitude was affecting my sea level adapted body and I suddenly had a whole new respect for mountaineers.

The Day I Climbed a 14,000 foot Volcano in Ecuador and Didn't Die-www.casualtravelist.comThe Day I Climbed a 14,000 foot Volcano in Ecuador and Didn't Die-www.casualtravelist.comThe Day I Climbed a 14,000 foot Volcano in Ecuador and Didn't Die-www.casualtravelist.com

 

The terrain took a steep pitch upward. With an angle of 60 degrees at times, the trail narrowed so were were funneled into a singular line. To avoid vertigo from the steep drop to my right I kept my gaze strictly on where my next step would be with a death grip on the paramo grasses that lined the narrow trail. The feeling of the rugged grasses in my hand was not dissimilar to the  mane of the hardy Andean horse I had ridden the day before. With each step my heart was pulsing more than it ever has in my life forcing me to stop every five minutes or so to catch my breath, Flavio looked as if he had exerted no more effort than most of us would on a leisurely afternoon stroll. Then, just like that, we reached the summit. Elated, if a bit short of breath, we surveyed what the world looks like at 14,000 feet. In addition to panoramic views of the seven volcanoes, the patchwork green valleys below and the city of Quito spreading out into the distance we had one other reward waiting for us.

The Day I Climbed a 14,000 foot Volcano in Ecuador and Didn't Die-www.casualtravelist.comThe Day I Climbed a 14,000 foot Volcano in Ecuador and Didn't Die-www.casualtravelist.comThe Day I Climbed a 14,000 foot Volcano in Ecuador and Didn't Die-www.casualtravelist.com

Lunch.

Flavio handed each of us a bag whose contents immediately brought me back to elementary school with a ham and cheese sandwich, crackers, an apple and a juice box. We sat in the grass voraciously eating our lunches while drinking in the views along with our juice boxes. Thrilled and exhausted, I turned to Steve with a wink and a smile.

“Only half way to Everest”.

The Day I Climbed a 14,000 foot Volcano in Ecuador and Didn't Die-www.casualtravelist.com

 

 

30 Comments on “The Day I Climbed a 14,000 foot Volcano in Ecuador and Didn’t Die

  1. Gorgeous photos.

    A couple of days ago, I fell from a plane at about 13,500 to 14,000 feet. My first skydive. I know I could not breathe during free fall so that is what I thought about when I saw your title. How thin the air is.

    Cool experience.

    Travel Happy from Charles McCool of McCoolTravel.com

  2. Wow, what a challenge, you usually don’t expect this but in tropical environments and climbing up to those heights can really make you oxygen depleted without acclimating slowly to the environment….those vistas look really spectacular

  3. I laughed at the part “I guess we’re doing this.” So many hikes we’ve been on I’ve said those exact words. I’m sure the elevation change made this hike challenging at times but from what the photos look like, definitely worth it! I love how rejuvenated I feel after a good hike. 🙂

  4. Brianna, hiking to that summit must be quite a feat. I remember feeling exactly as you described while walking to the top of Incan ruins in the Peruvian Andes. It doesn’t seem to matter how much you’ve trained at sea level, doing any activity (even as simple as walking) at high altitude can become a challenge. I particularly enjoyed how you wrote this post, too. I felt like I was right there with you, struggling to breathe at high altitude but determined to reach the volcano’s summit. Wonderful post!
    Erin Klema | The Epicurean Traveler recently posted…Three Michigan Cider Mills Worth Visiting This FallMy Profile

  5. What an adventure, and worth it for the photos alone. I’m glad you opted to cross the stream in a safer spot, if it had been me I would have fallen in. Well done on the hike!

  6. Congrats on a successful hike! As someone always laughably underprepared for what’s about to happen on a hike, good on you for reaching the summit and your reward of a juice box – sounds about perfect, and those post-hike smiles don’t hide the glee and relief of a successful day!

  7. Yes, it is quite different at such a high elevation. I went hiking in Vail recently and felt out of breath much earlier than what is normal for me. But this looks like such a fabulous experience!

  8. I never got to this volcano, looks absolutely incredible (love your pics!) A reason to go back for sure, although that altitude does seem intimidating!

    • The altitude was no joke towards the top but definitely worth the effort!

  9. I’m so jealous! We too went to Ecuador earlier this year, and stayed in a hacienda near Cotopaxi but unfortunately I was dizzy on our last day there (probably due to the difference in elevation – we returned from Galapagos to Quito and headed straightaway to the hacienda. Next day I woke up with a cold, a headache and stayed in bed, had warm tea for most of the day – although I did enjoy lovely views of the Cotopaxi from our suite). This hike sounds fun too – the feeling of achievement once one is up there, is indescribable! It’s also amazing how our fitness levels are put to shame by these mountain folks! 🙂 Nicely written this one!

    • I’m glad you enjoyed my story, isn’t the Cotopaxi area stunning?

  10. What a great story! Changes in elevation are so tricky you just don’t know how your body is going to react. Congrats on making it to the top.

  11. Congrats on making it to the top! Wow, that view is beyond amazing. I love when you can see the shadows of clouds over the landscape like that and that the landscape is a mixture of rugged, rural and pastoral. Ecuador has never really been on my radar. I might have to reconsider that now.

    • Ecuador is a fantastic destination, there is so much diversity in a small area

  12. Reading the post I couldn’t stop thinking how I should really get into shape. I would have probably never be able to do this. But the stunning views are so worth it. Congrats on challenging yourself and doing it. Looks like a great experience!

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