Cotapaxi Climb – The Complete Guide

Cotapaxi Climb – The Complete Guide

Thirty meters from the Cotapaxi’s summit, tears began to roll down my eyes. All the emotions began to flood out at once. It was an unexpected reaction, originating from utter exhaustion and grasping the idea that I was actually going to make it to the top. This is my journey of summiting Cotopaxi and a detailed Cotopaxi Climbing Guide so you can too.

Primary Factors of a Successful Cotapaxi Mountain Summit Attempt

In this section, learn about the factors that you can and can’t control on Cotapaxi, and the best ways you can prepare for both areas.


Clear skies on the Ascent
Weather is wholly out of your control, and something that you CAN’T agonize about. Don’t obsess about the Cotopaxi climbing weather forecast and check every single day (The way I did the week before) My forecast said it was going going to drop a few inches of snow while climbing along with 10km/h winds, and I thought “*#$%, this is going to make the climb much harder.” Guess what? No snow during the climb, and no wind. I was actually toasty most of the way up and I zipped down my jacket.

There was no snow from the parking lot up until the refuge when I first arrived to Cotapaxi. Hours later, it snowed a fair amount covering the entire mountain in white. My thoughts again turned to the negative, but my guide assured me. Let Pachamama (Mother Earth) throw everything she has tonight so it is clear tomorrow. And he was right. Perfect conditions.

If the weather is bad and it is the reason you couldn’t summit, DON’T beat yourself up about it.

Acclimation – Cotopaxi Climbing Guide

This is tricky, as acclimation has aspects that are both in your control, and outside. The part out of your control is genetics. Some people are better at handling the high altitude. There is no way of knowing until you try. As a beacon of hope, the first time I went to the Cotapaxi reserve was a year back. In the night after the visit, I was sleeping at the hostel became very nauseous and threw up over five times. During the summit, no problems.

With proper preparation and medicine, you can prevent the worst.

Acclimation Hikes

During the month leading up to the climb, I thrice summited Ruco Pichincha, a volcano in Quito with 15,728 feet. I took the Teleferiqo, a ski lift, and hiked to the top. The round trip will take between 3-5 hours depending on your physical fitness. The final summit I managed the climb in an hour and forty-five minutes and ran back down in an hour.

Medicine – Cotapaxi Climb

I took two medications on the mountain. I never got a headache or felt dizziness or nausea.  Before considering medicine, consult your doctor.  On the mountain, I never got a headache or dizziness.


I took Diamox (Glaucomed in Ecuador), splitting the 250 mg pill in half as instructed by a few climbing websites. This medicine decreases headache, tiredness, nausea, dizziness, and shortness of breath that occurs when you climb quickly to high altitudes (generally above 10,000 feet/3,048 meters).

Warning, it did have some odd side effects. Urinating frequently, (drink tons of water to replace), tingling fingers, tingling lips for a few minutes, and head felt a petty different for twenty minutes or so. After about three doses the side effects decreased. However, my fingers started tingling and going numb on Cotopaxi for a little while, but only for thirty minutes or so.


I took 600m of Ibuprofen right when I got to the reserve and then again the morning of the climb. Again, check with a doctor.

Physical Conditioning – Cotopaxi Climb

Glaciers and massive icicles of Cotopaxi
I believe this is crucial to your success. I trained for only a month and a half, but I trained like an animal. I got a gym membership and went five days a week. I started by doing a normal weight routine, hitting every part of the body.

I made sure once a week I did squats and leg press until my legs felt destroyed. After exercising, I would go to the treadmill. I filled up a backpack with ankle weights, and put the treadmill on the maximum gradient (15 percent) and walked for about an hour.

Some days I could only do thirty minutes, so I’d remove the backpack and finish without weights. Try your best not to cheat and hold the grips on the treadmill!

Vo2 Max

Try to improve your V02 max, the body’s ability to utilize and spread oxygen where it needs it. I did this by doing HIIT cardio once a week, 60 seconds at a fast pace that left me ragged and sixty seconds off for eight sets. It sucks, but not nearly as much as climbing a steep snowy hill the last hour of the climb.

Hiking With a Pack

Steep Slopes of Cotopaxi
Hike a few miles with a pack on your back, with twenty to thirty pounds inside.

Especially trails with elevation and uneven terrain. My final recommendation is to have a few solid stair climbing sessions.

I found a staircase with 36 7-8-inch stairs and climbed the set 100 times.

That’s approx. 2,400 feet in elevation gain, almost two and a half Eiffel towers to put in perspective.

Still not comparable to Cotapaxi climb though (3,630 ft) By the end my legs were jelly, but I think this really helped. The first three hours on Cotopaxi was a piece of cake with leg soreness, however, my lungs were another story.

Some of these exercises may sound somewhat intense but remember only 50 percent make it to the top, and the attitude you bring to the gym will surely impact your performance on the mountain.

Mental strength + TiPS – Cotopaxi Climb

One of my buddies that attempted and failed once told me that he kept thinking to himself “why am I doing this?” I recommend having a good answer to that question when you are suffering on the mountain those last two hours, otherwise, you might cave in. Mine was simple, to prove to myself that I can.

Don’t ruminate on the pain you are in. You can practice this in the gym and put yourself in the pain zone as long as possible.
Be stubborn. You have to be stubborn to climb this mountain and repeatedly tell yourself when you are in pain that you could go another two or three hours if you really had to. You’ll have to tell yourself this a few times, trust me. Also practicable in the gym. Just add another 20 minutes on the treadmill and tell yourself can’t get off until you finish otherwise you won’t summit.

Tips – Cotopaxi Climb

  • Play mind games. Even if it lasts a few minutes, they help.
  • Count each step until 100 and start over.
  • Do multiplication in your head. 2×2 2×4 2×8 2×16 as far as you can go and then do it again.
  • Think about your families, friends, and significant others and some of your favorite memories.
  • Tell a couple of people, but don’t announce to the world your attempt. That way you have some people to hold you accountable, and you can surprise everyone when you successfully do it. I remember thinking in my head I can’t return and tell my friends that I couldn’t do it, it wasn’t an option.
  • Buy the 25 dollar bottle of oxygen at Condor Trekk’s shop. It’s great for those two-minute breaks to catch your breath.
  • Bring your own tennis shoes. Those rubber crocs at the refuge are freezing and don’t warm up.
  • My guide told me numerous times, just look at my footsteps. Stop wishing the next peak is the summit, it probably isn’t.
  • There is no best month to climb Cotopaxi, it has its own microclimate.

Cotapaxi Mountain Facts

The refuge sits at 15,744 feet (4,800m). The walk from the parking lot should take 45 minutes. Take the zigzag path to the left, and take it easy. Nice and slow. The climb no longer takes you through the heartbreak zone or Rompe Corazon in Spanish. Still, there were a few portions that did break my heart.

Cotapaxi Slope / Gradient

The summit sits at 19,374 feet. That is 3,630 elevation gain. The trail is about 2.4 miles. The average gradient/slope calculates out to 28.65% or 15.98 degrees. You’ll zigzag most the way up, and have respites from the steep uphill climb. Remember, you are going incredibly slow and it isn’t so bad until the last two hours.

My Outfitter – Condor Trekk

I booked through the company, Greengo Travel, which uses Condor Trekk. They were incredible and helped me through the process of picking my gear and answering any questions. My guide Ivan was fantastic, patient, safe, and very helpful. I couldn’t have done it without him pushing me up the last hour and constantly encouraging me. This company has some of the highest success rates of completion and only uses certified guides that have copious amounts of mountain experience. Bottom line, I highly recommend them.

The Cotapaxi Climbing Experience

The Ultimate Reward
The climbing experience was incredible, stunning, difficult, and ultimately truly rewarding. The night was a little chilly, so if there is an empty bunk in the refuge stuff the blanket inside your sleeping bag. It takes about 20 minutes to get warm inside. Make sure you drink a bunch of hot tea!

The climb took six hours, and my guide thankfully took us at a snail’s pace the entire way. Every step overlapped by about an inch or two, especially the steep sections. I didn’t put one of my crampons on correctly, and one actually fell off after about ten meters. I didn’t notice and climbed the mountain with just one!

I was overconfident on the climb, and really lost track of time. In the fourth hour, I felt extremely exhausted. I thought I saw the summit, and when I asked my guide, Ivan, he said we still had two hours to go. My heart sank. Those last two hours were a brutal grind to the top, a fight of mental and physical strength.

Summit and Descent of Cotapaxi

When I was 30 meters from the top, a flood of emotion overcame me, tears rolling down my eyes. The mix of total exhaustion and excitement was too much to bear. I hugged my guide at the top, took some pictures, and went down as fast as I could taking pictures of all the beautiful landscapes and adrenaline producing crevasses we crossed in the darkness. Those were no joke!


About Angel Nunez

Ecuador & Galapagos Travel Consultant, Blogger, Fitness & Health Aficionado, Amateur Photographer & Designer. Here to guide you through stories and visuals, what Ecuador, The Galapagos Islands & Peru have in store for you!

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