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moonlight on Cotopaxi

Skiing a pipe dream: 

The three highest summits in Ecuador in one (fast) trip. 

You never know until you try. 

It’s the case with most things in life, and certainly with outdoor objectives. Sometimes you stack a plan deep with hoped-for summits, knowing it’s a pipe dream. But what if it worked out? Why not try?

Last year, my friend Russ, who is admittedly obsessed with skiing volcanoes, threw out a wild idea: skiing the three highest summits in the Ecuadorean Andes, all in one trip. Without even needing to research the plan, I knew I wanted to go. Because cool ski ideas are to be agreed to. Then, you work back through the logistics.

December and January often offer the most stable avalanche conditions in the Andes. The way the timeline shook out, we’d have just one week between the winter holidays with our families and needing to be back to work.

summit of Cotopaxi

We recruited two additional individuals willing to dream big and ski big—Eli, a fellow Geartrade team member, and Annie, another friend and mountain comrade.

“Even if we only ski one of these three summits this week, we’ll count the trip a success,” we said. These volcanoes, Cayambe, Cotopaxi, and Chimborazo, were not only incredibly high, each with its own terrain challenges and logistical twists and turns, but they were also hours apart from one another. There were a hundred ways we could get stymied trying to pack these in on a quick timeline—we could get shut down by weather (which acts up most afternoons), the wild roads, the risk of altitude sickness and other illness, or uncompromising national park officials (who did, in fact, reject our paperwork multiple times over the most fastidious details).

We’d control the factors we could, then detach emotionally from the outcome. Whatever we climbed or skied, as long as we stayed safe, all was good.

But by detaching from the outcome, I was left to be utterly gob-smacked by how happy and proud I was when we did, in fact, ski all three summits in one week. We did it with sheer luck when it came to roads and weather, plus savvy guides, a stable snowpack, and a boatload of gumption.

Eli's new friend

The planning phase

Planning for a big mountain trip abroad—especially in a country that, you could say, has a shortage of ski shops—is a big part of the fun, and also feels high-pressure. You don’t want to forget any piece of gear or clothing that would help ensure your success, but every ounce you add to your bags is another agonizing piece of weight (and bulk) to haul around, keep track of, and juggle.

The Ecuador government requires hiring a professional mountain guide to accompany climbers on many of its technical peaks, after years of accidents among the unguided. We were happy to have well-versed locals on board who knew the latest conditions, crevasse-dodging route placement, and snowpack history. And our guide could also advise in advance about logistics, including what kind of gear and clothes we’d likely want on hand.

Eli on Cayambe

Our group spent months deliberating about gear choices and monitoring listings on Geartrade so we could snap up any specifics members of our team needed. We filled any gaps in our gear lists, such as ultra-warm sleeping bags for camping at 17,000 feet, sturdy mountaineering boots, insulating yet breathable layers, medium-large backpacks with ski carry and ice axe loops, ski bags for the flight, portable water filters, and giant mittens for the darkest, coldest moments.

We then faced the fun challenge of getting all this gear into a minimal number of bags and packs so each person could actually carry all their items—and so our stuff might all fit into a vehicle once we arrived. I relished this multi-month game of gear-tetris. I got a number of lightweight stuff sacks I could organize gear into to help make sense of the madness.

Once we found ways to fit our gear into our bags, the tiny amounts of remaining space dictated how many fresh pieces of clothing we could bring. I went minimal on wardrobe changes, planning on washing clothes in hotel sinks when possible. And I declared softshell pants to be acceptable around-town apparel.

clear view of Cayambe

Summit one: Testing our mettle on Cayambe, 18,996 feet 

Upon arrival in Quito, we hit the ground running. One night’s sleep in a city hotel and we were off, catching a ride in a seriously sturdy SUV up a wildly rocky, rutted road. Packed in like sardines with our packs cushioning us from the aggressive jostling, we gaped ahead at the mountainside, trying to catch a view of the summit shrouded in the clouds.

Sunrise on Cayambe

We stayed at 15,000 feet at the Cayambe refugio, a simple lodge nestled on a rocky ridge overlooking the dramatic Hermoso glacier and the summit beyond. With just one day of acclimatization under our belts (during which we felt distressingly light-headed and short of breath—not the most encouraging start), we went to sleep early in preparation for our big summit day, which would start at 1am to stay a step ahead of afternoon avalanche risk and rockfall.

Eli nearing Cayambe summit

The summit day was dreamlike. As we gained altitude and lost oxygen, we moved as slowly as if we were walking through water. But we kept progress moving forward. A dramatic 6am sunrise over the Amazon lifted our spirits. The summit was just 1,500 feet above us at that moment—which felt encouraging, since that’s not a big distance by our typical standards. Of course, this wasn’t our typical elevation, so it took us a few hours more to gain the summit. Roped up and stepping deliberately, we kept our eyes on the prize, and were rewarded with a magically sunny peak and smooth corn skiing for most of the descent.

corn turns Cayambe

We collapsed back at the hut, slap-happy about our achievement and loopy from the exertion following our sleepless night. It was time to load up in the car for a drive down to Quito for a much-needed rest day at a more humane elevation.

Cotopaxi Sunrise

Summit two: On to Cotopaxi, 19,347 feet 

After one day of delicious oxygen in Quito, we re-packed our bags for Cotopaxi. We had the option of staying in the more comfortable Tambopaxi climber’s lodge at 12,300 feet (and have a chance at decent sleep) or hike partway up Cotopaxi to the mid-mountain refuge at 16,000 feet before sleeping. We chose better sleep and a longer summit day, enjoying a big pasta dinner at Tambopaxi before nestling into a cozy bunk room in our sleeping bags.

It meant that summit day started extra early the next morning, with a midnight wake-up. (Is that even morning? Not really.) In a dream haze, we hiked to—and past—the mid-mountain refugio, ascending a large steep snowfield before sunrise found us amid a dazzling labyrinth of crevasses, snow ramps, and blue-hued caverns fringed with shimmering icicles.

Sunrise 18,000 ft

The altitude was even more challenging than it had been on Cayambe, as we were now not only poking higher but had started lower. We neared 19,000 feet amid thinning air, howling wind gusts that jostled our towering packs, and clouds gathering around the summit, obscuring our visibility into the sweeping steeps below.

“A guy on Summit Post said to ‘Put your head down and persevere’ here so that’s what I’m doing,” joked Eli, as we all dug deep to do exactly that. We shared encouragement with our rope mates as much as our frozen faces would let us talk, till we topped out on a mystical ice-castle summit where volcano ash flecked the blue and white ice formations.

Eager to get off the summit and get into ski mode, we transitioned quickly and tentatively slid out onto the mountain’s open face. Each of us felt immediate relief to be carving turns, even though we were above open crevasses and ice. We relished each swoosh (and sidestep) till we were reunited with dry land thousands of feet below.

High camp Chimborazo at 17,000 ft

Summit three: To the top of the regal Chimborazo, 20,549 ft

We ate everything in sight and slept deeply for a full rest day before heading back up to elevation, sleeping at the idyllic Chimborazo lodge before trekking up to the mountain’s high camp at 17,000 feet for a chilly, restless night in the snow.

By this point in the trip, we were sapped. The sunset at high camp was a light show of sweet pastels in the billowing clouds, but the wind swiftly scuttling those clouds across the sky reminded us just how high and exposed we were. Sweet heavenly pastels and all, we were in a wild place.

After Chimborazo

The 20,000-foot air vaporized our energy levels. When our alarms went off at 1am, my fitness band rated my overnight athletic recovery at 6 on a scale of 100, and my blood oxygen hovered around 70%. (Typically a person would be advised to seek medical attention below 90%, but I knew I wasn’t dying—I was just in the stratosphere.)

Starting the last summit in that condition, we had to find a strength that wasn’t physical. It was too dark to draw inspiration from the mountain above. But the starry night suggested that the weather was on our side, our luck from the first two summits just might hold for a third. The wonder of all that luck was enough to give us a burst of energy to pull our boots and crampons on.

And slowly we climbed. 

I’ve never felt such delight in the sunrise infusing a bit of warmth back into my extremities. By mid-morning we topped out on the mountain’s big double-summit, which was shaped playfully with dollops of snow. It was a welcoming hangout even though it hung above thousands of feet of cliff bands, avalanche paths, and yawning crevasses.

In fact, the summit was the first flat place to take a real break since we left camp. We breathed happy sighs and carefully began our ski down—finally with gravity on our side. When we hit the bottom of the snow line, a long slog through the rock fields to the trailhead capped off the day. That is, until we got in the car and drove straight to the airport to catch our flight home.

Making new friends

Yeah, about that timing. 

We loved every minute of our adventure, and weeks later, we’re still marveling that we stood on those otherworldly summits.

We’d recommend this trip or any part of it in a heartbeat, but with more time built in for acclimatization and rest. Doing three peaks of that height in just six days was such a wild idea that I’m not certain any of us actually thought we’d do it. It was a “shoot for the moon” mission. And we landed among the stars.

We survived because of a lot of training at altitude here in the Wasatch, but here our local peaks tops out at 10,000-11,000 feet … a pittance compared to the Andes. At 10,000 feet, the air is 14.3% oxygen, while at 20,000 feet, it’s just 9.7%. Those percentage points added up to a lot of time spent in a deep pain cave with headaches, shortness of breath, dizziness, and muddled thinking. Several more days of acclimatization would have made a big difference in our physical performance and comfort, on top of giving us time to simply take in the scenery more fully.

But the beautiful thing about the mountains is learning lessons with every outing. About planning, and about yourself. And if we did all this even though we were tight on time, battling altitude sickness as well as other illnesses along the way (those could have their own blog post) … and we still had the time of our lives? It will only get easier on future trips—which means it’ll be better than the best thing ever.

Count. Us. In.

Base of Cayambe

Beth Lopez is a seasoned writer and creative director who loves to tell tales of adventure and discovery—and finds writing a powerful way to give a voice to people, causes, and places. Beth runs amok in the Wasatch mountains when untethered from her computer. She believes there’s no such thing as a bad ski day and considers animals her favorite people. Don’t tell her mother about her Instagram mountaineering photos.


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