Ecuador’s High Altitude Climbs – Cotopaxi, Chimborazo & Illiniza Norte

As we looked across the grassy land at the tall imposing volcano we were now even more excited to climb to its peak. Ecuador’s volcanoes are not only stunning they also offer some of the best and most accessible high elevation climbs in South America.

Click to go directly to Cotopaxi or Chimborazo

Illiniza Norte – 5126 m (16818 ft)

The rugged fish-tail twin peaks of Illiniza Norte look impressive from below. Getting to its summit is an easy scramble and a great introduction to hiking at altitude. The trail begins as an gentle hike, crossing flat alpine grasslands with views of Illiniza Norte’s interesting summit. The hike takes you beside many unusual flowers, shrubs and gnarled quenua trees. Our day began sunny but the high winds made it quite chilly.

Once out of the grassy landscape, the trail becomes steeper and more difficult as it climbs a loose scree slope. After a couple of hours of we reached the refugio at 4,750 meters and were in the clouds. From there, the trail is rugged as it climbs up and down small scrambles along narrow ridges.

The most challenging part is Paso de la Muerte (Pass of Death). Don’t worry, its name makes it sound worse than it is. The name comes from the frequent rock fall that occurs in this steep narrow gully. To be safe we waited to the side as another group descended the gully. They were knocking down several loose rocks, some were quite large. After they were out of the way, we put on harnesses and were roped in to our guide before scrambling up. Then it’s a short traverse to reach the small rocky summit on top of Illiniza Norte. Unfortunately we had no views from the summit. As is often the case here, the clouds had come in to spoil our views

Note: Climbing to the summit of Illiniza Norte is mostly a non-technical scramble with only one small section that requires being short-roped. However, it is a long day with over 1200 m elevation gain. This is a high elevation hike, so make sure you are acclimatized. Depending on the conditions the summit ridge can be covered in snow and ice, making summiting much more difficult. You are required to hire a certified mountain guide for this hike.

Cotopaxi (5,897 m/19,347 ft.)

Considered the perfect volcano for its symmetrical cone shape Cotopaxi is a one of the most beautiful in Ecuador. It’s snowy, white summit provides contrast to the surrounding grassy hills for a picturesque site.

Cotopaxi is the second highest mountain in Ecuador. The route to the summit is not technical, but does offer a challenge making it a very popular hike.The day begins with a short hike on moraine but once you reach the toe of the glacier the rest of the trail is on snow and ice. Since most of the route is on a glacier, it’s safer to start early in the morning.

We spent some time at the edge of the glacier the day before and were able to see the start of the route The pictures below shows the trail as it goes up the glacier.

The path to the top is tedious, especially in the dark. To add to this, not long into the trek, it began to snow. It was a very wet, heavy snow and we were getting soaked. Because we were wet our bodies cooled down quickly when we stopped to rest. We usually took our breaks in ice caves, out of the wind and snow. At each break I had to put on my thick down jacket, and eventually had to keep it, on even for the climb. Nearing the top, we were completely enveloped in cloud and it coated our jackets and pants in white rime.

After 5 hours of trudging up the slope, we arrived at the summit. It was a bit anticlimactic as we couldn’t see anything. There is a large, deep crater on the top that is supposed to be an impressive sight. We walked to the edge of the crater, but everything was the same shade of white. It was difficult to distinguish the snow in the crater from the snow at our feet. It would have been nice to be on the summit on a sunny day, but that doesn’t happen very often.

Walking down, we were eventually out of the clouds and could see our surroundings. The landscape is gorgeous with rolling hills leading to tall mountain peaks. When we got to the base of the climb we saw unusual designs in the moraine. Layers of lava were sticking out from the moraine rubble reminding us that this volcano is still active. As we drove away that afternoon, we were treated to amazing views of the perfect volcano and its snowy peak.

Note: Climbing Cotopaxi is considered to be a technical climb because it involves glacier traveling. As well, the climb includes a gain of over 1000 m of elevation at a high altitude therefore you must be acclimatized before attempting this climb. When we did it there were no exposed crevasses, but in some years there are making the climb even more difficult. Cotopaxi is an active volcano and if erupting it may be closed to climbers. It’s most recent eruption was in January 2016. You are required to hire a certified mountain guide for this hike.

Chimborazo – (6,310 m /20,70 ft)

Even though its elevation is just over 6,000 m, Chimborazo is actually the world’s tallest mountain. The equatorial bulge means that Chimoborazo’s summit is actually the furthest point from the centre of the earth. It measures a remarkable 2,072 m (6800 ft) taller than Everest. Remember that Everest’s elevation of 8,848m (29,029 ft) is its height measured above sea level.

Unlike Everest, Chimborazo is a volcano surrounded by grassy plains. Its snowy peak stands tall and can be admired from afar.

Note: Depending on the source the elevation may be different, our source is a sign at the trailhead.

We arrived in the afternoon and went for a walk on the rugged moraine at the base of the mountain. Here we found an area with memorial stones for fallen climbers. It’s always an emotional place for us to visit.

The easiest and most common route to the summit is the Normal Route which leaves from Whymper Hut. We stayed in a tent below the hut as it was under renovation at the time. Leaving our tent around midnight, we slowly made our way up the uneven moraine using our headlamps for light.

After a short walk on the glacier we stopped under a rock overhang to put on our harnesses, helmets and crampons. Even under the protective shelf we were getting pelted by rock fall. This is one of the main hazards of the climbing Chimborazo. In fact the Whymper Route used to be the most common route, but due to extensive rock fall it is no longer used.

We roped in with our guide and continued our climb, going up and up the icy face. We could see headlights above us and others below as each group was slowly making their way up the mountain. Our guide didn’t think we’d make it as far as we had because in the past few weeks there had been more rock fall than usual due to warmer weather. Unfortunately, as we climbed higher conditions worsened and 200 m from the summit we had to turn back. But having summited 2 other mountains at elevation in the last 3 days, we were’t complaining.

Note: Climbing Chimborazo is more technical than the other hikes listed above. You should have mountaineering experience before attempting this climb. The high altitude climb gains over 1200 meters so you must be acclimatized before attempting. You are required to hire a certified mountain guide for this hike.

Note: As of November 2012 hikers must use an accredited mountain guide on all glaciated mountains in Ecuador.

Coming Next: Colonial Cities in Ecuador

For extra pictures from Ecuador click here. For pictures from other blogs go to Gallery at

To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.

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