Climbing Cotopaxi and Ecuador’s other High Mountain Peaks

Mountain Climbing in the Andes is one of the most gratifying activities Ecuador offers. The most popular climb is of Ecuador’s second highest mountain, and one of the highest active volcanoes in the world, Cotopaxi. Ecuador’s highest mountain, once considered to be the highest mountain in the world, and still is if measured from the center of the Earth, is Chimborazo.


It is advisable to spend some time in Quito or other high-altitude locations to acclimate before embarking on strenuous climbs in the Andes. While in Quito, it is easy to get in touch with outdoor outfitters and climbing guides. If you’ll be attempting one of the more intense climbs, like Cotopaxi, we recommend organizing your trip in advance to ensure that you have all the necessary equipment; adequate climbing gear is absolutely necessary in the glacial temperatures atop the highest mountains and volcanoes in Ecuador.

See below for information about the Cotopaxi Normal Route, courtesy of Climbing and Hiking in Ecuador, by Mark Thurber. The most complete climbing guidebook for Ecuador. (Viva Travel Guides, 2009).

Cotopaxi – Normal Route

The Normal Route (other routes are rarely climbed) takes five to nine hours for the ascent and two to four hours for the descent. Most of the year there is a snow trough (trail) to the summit due to the large number of climbers. The snow becomes unpleasantly wet and soft by early afternoon, so you should begin the climb from the refuge between midnight and 2:00 a.m. The first hour of the climb traverses to the right side of a triangular-shaped scree slope, which is sometimes snow covered. You need to climb onto the glacier (at about 5,000m), significantly to the right of the refuge. The old route in the early 2000s more or less headed straight up the scree to the glacier but is now blocked by crevasses and seracs. Once on the glacier, traverse right and up, then head up steep slope meandering around crevasses. Although the mountain is well crevassed, for the most part the crevasses are spectacularly large and open, and thus easy to avoid. The route is usually well marked around the crevasses with wands and footprints—remember this is the most popular high climb in Ecuador. Above about 5,400m the crevasses are less pervasive and you begin a slow plod toward the right side of a huge rock face called Yanasacha (literally “black forest” in Quechua). For the last 250 meters head up the steep snow, then back to the left to the summit. Yanasacha will be to your left at first and then you will traverse above it just before summiting.

The classic round crater is over half a kilometer wide, and a circuit is possible. Steam can be seen escaping from vents in the center and from the walls. Expeditions into the crater have been undertaken; the first was in 1972 when a Polish-Czech expedition spent six hours in the crater, and since then several Ecuadorians have repeated the venture.

Cotopaxi Volcano, Ecuador

Photo by Robert Gibson, winner of the VIVA Travel Guides Ecuador Cover Photo Competition

Climb Facts

Type: Glacier

Difficulty: Grade II/PD-

Climb: 4,600–5,897m

Time: 7 to 13 hours roundtrip

Best Weather: Year-Round; June to July (Windy); and December to February (Calm)

Maps: IGM 1:50,000 Sincholagua and Cotopaxi

Special Interest: Glacial and Volcanic Geology, Páramo, Glacier Climbing

Other Ecuador climbs described in Climbing and Hiking in Ecuador (Viva Travel Guides, 2009):

Rock climbing around Quito
• Concentración Deportiva de Pichincha
• Mammut Climbing Center
• Las Canteras
• Sigsipamba
• Sierra Virgen
• Cuyuja
• Valle de Los Chillos (Santa Clara)
• Guagua Pichincha

Longer hikes and climbs
• Cerro Imbabura
• Imbabura Circuit
• Luma Cubiliche
• Laguna Mojanda
• Laguna Mojanda to Esperanza
• Cerro Pasochoa
• Cerro Pasochoa-Río Pita Canal Route
• Cerro Pasochoa-Machachi Route
• Cerro Pasochoa-Bosque Protector Route
• Salasaca-Teligote

Climbing in the Chimborazo-Carihuairazo Area 
• Chimborazo-San Juan Sport Climbing
• Cajas
• Cuenca Area

Climbing Antisana
• Central Peak-Normal Route
• Central Peak-Direct Route
• Southern Peak-Normal Route
• Southern Peak-Nuevo Amanecer
• Southern Peak-Truenos y Centellas
• Southern Peak-Espolon Suroccidental
• Eastern Peak
• Northeastern Peak
• Antisana to Papallacta
• Trek de Condor


Recommended Climbing Outfitters:

Cumbre Tours is lead by Karl Egloff. Karl is best known though for having the world record for speed climbing up and down Cotopaxi, Kilimanjaro (the highest mountain in Africa), and Aconcagua (world’s highest mountain outside of Asia). If you’re lucky and request Karl as a guide, you just may get to climb Cotopaxi with this legend.

See the climbing, hiking, and trekking tour operators page for a complete list of mountain guides to take you up Cotopaxi.

Updated January 20, 2021