• Cotacachi
  • 4944 m
  • Primary factor 1832 m
  • Location: North 00:21.643 West 078:20.925 (GPS on the summit)
  • Location: West of Imbabura.
  • No. 11 in Ecuador.
  • Saddle: 3107 m
  • Difficulty: Grade AD, YDS class 5.4
  • Climbed December 11, 2008.


How to get there: Locate the village also called Cotacachi. From here, drive uphill on the south side of the mountain to the well known lake Lago Cuicocha. Just before this lake, there is a park entrance - a big portal spanning across the highway. Just before this entrance, a dirt road forks left. This road serves a nice motel overlooking the lake. We stayed there the night before the climb, quite convenient. Its location is N00:17.505, W078:21.444, elevation about 3110 meter.
There is a 4WD road that forks right, also just at the park entrance. This is the proper road to the trailhead. The road serves some antennas located high on the slopes of Cotacachi. When we were there, this road was in a very poor condition. Half the road was washed away by flood water and it was barely possible to get up with a well equipped (and well driven!) Toyota Landcruiser. The road is 11 kilometer from the park entance to the trailhead parking. Just after a big curve to the left followed by the road going through a cut in the hill, there is parking on your right hand side. The road continues horizontally to a few antennas at the tip of the ridge. Do not drive this last part, park on the right hand side. This is the trailhead, location N00:20.177, W078:20.411, elevation about 4030 meter.
Route description:
Note that elevations given are approximate map elevations, that is, approximately 14 meter has been subtracted from actual GPS readings.
From the trailhead, follow a pretty obvious trail along the ridge that gradually gains elevation. There is tall grass, but no difficulties staying at the trail. Higher up, the trail bends left and starts a traverse below the steeper side of Cotacachi. The trail eventually climbs again, this time on good rock, before reaching a pretty flat area that also is a broad col as one contours around the mountain. This is sometimes used as a base camp for climbing Cotacachi. This location is N00:21.139 W078:20.836, elevation about 4360 meter.
Descend a bit and continue the traverse as you now reach a pretty large hillside full of loose material. The trail does an ascending traverse across this area eventually gaining a somewhat diffuse ridgeline that heads uphill. The terrain is better here. When reaching a more level section of this uphill section, the trail again turns more left and descends slightly in order to enter a small valley that climbs more right, this time with considerable mountain slopes on either side. Make sure to wear a climber's helmet from this point, there is a significant frequency of rockfall from either side. A waypoint along this route is located at N00:21.394, W078:21.062, elevation about 4560 meter.
Proceed up this valley. There is a steep section on the left side, while one can proceed uphill more on the right hand side when facing uphill. The rock has some loose material on top, but one can generally find pretty safe footing while getting higher up. This is the sort of terrain where one cannot use hands, just uphill walking on fairly steep and fairly smooth rock. As the terrain levels off a bit, one might get onto snow (we did). Along this entire section one must be very alert with respect to rocks that fall from the high and rugged side (climber's right when moving uphill.) A waypoint in this area is located at N00:21.672, W078:20.986, elevation 4815 meter.
Proceed more horizontally, then downclimb about 10 meter as you enter a new basin (may be filled by a large patch of snow.) Continue uphill as you follow this main basin (snow) until you locate a pretty distinct col up and ahead. You are still on an ascending contouring of the main, steep peaks - do not climb straight uphill at this point of the route. Continue your (gentle) uphill climbing until you reach this col. Traverse through this col and descend only slightly on the opposite side. Again, this entire area was covered by snow when we were there. Contour around as you move somewhat right. A fairly distinct gully leads uphill from here. With snow, this is completely obvious, just follow the snow up the gully. This gully is not very steep, with snow it is a very comfortable ascent.
At the top end of this gully, you access the top of a small shoulder. This location is N00:21.650 W078:20.952, elevation approximately 4870 meter. This location is key to a pretty good route to the summit of Cotacachi. Traverse horizontally left under steep rock. As you look left, the terrain should now look like this. Referring to this picture, a gully is coming down from the right. Cross this gully and gain the small, flat area that is visible on the picture. From here, one should start climbing with a rope and appropriate belays. Climb straight uphill, move a bit right and find a pretty good line that angles uphill almost parallel with the gully below. You will pass an old anchor. Turn more left and climb a step in order to gain a pretty obvious notch higher up. There is another anchor at this point. This pitch is about 25 meter.
Note that the rocks are very unreliable. All hand and foot-holds must be tested carefully before being trusted. On good, dependable rock this climb would be pretty easy. The poor quality adds a new dimension.
From this notch (location: N00:21.656, W078:20.943, elevation 4910 meter), the rest of the route is (YDS) class 3 scrambling. Follow a natural line fairly horizontally to climber's left (facing uphill). Continue uphill among large (rotten) boulders until near the main summit ridge. From here, a very short and easy line gets you to the summit of Cotacachi.
Return the same way. A 30 meter rappel (abseil) will get you down from the notch and all the way across the gully to a position where you are protected from rockfall, both natural as well as possible rockfall released by the rope. (The position from where the above picture was taken.)

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Trip Report (continued):
The beginning of this trip report is here.
Day 4: The ascent of Cotacachi. The day started with some really bad news. We all noticed Rob's frequent visits to the bathroom during the night and it soon became clear that he had serious stomach problems. In the morning, he was quite weak and it was evident that he had to remain in bed while we attempted Cotacachi.
We got up at 0400. The motel served us breakfast and we were on our way in Diego's Landcruiser by 0450. The road up to the trailhead turned out to be of very variable quality. There were sections that were pretty good, but then other parts that were really terrible. We admired Diego's guts and driving skills as he pushed the vehicle across large boulders and deep holes as well as close to places where water had taken the road away altogether. We reached the trailhead by 0600. More than one hour to drive 11 kilometer says it all.
It was a beautiful morning, crisp air and a mix of clouds and blue patches all over the morning sky. At 0700, after one hour we had our first rest at the col where parties sometimes establish a base camp. Adam expressed a bit of "weak motivation", he seemed more tired than on earlier hikes. We proceeded uphill and as we ascended a ridge that led uphill, we observed a small herd of lamas on our left side. Diego told us that they were not really wild, somebody would claim ownership. Higher up, it was time for a second break before entering the small valley further ahead and further left. The clouds parted and we had a very nice view back down to the lake Lago Cuicocha. Time to wear helmets as this area could have instances of rock falling from above.
We entered the valley and ascended up the slab rocks along the right hand side. "Swooosh", a small rock zoomed by my helmet about 1.5 meter away. Thus, the reputation of this area was fully confirmed. We came up on the level section above the rock ramp and ran into snow for the first time. Putting on crampons, we quickly observed that Adam had a very bad match between his light, leather hiking shoes and his crampons. The combination did not look very safe and Diego did not approve what he saw. Fortunately, this location was well protected by a steepish rock overhead, so no rockfall danger right here. We agreed that Adam should wait in this location while Diego and I would proceed and make a serious attempt to climb this somewhat elusive peak.
We continued across the first small snowfield, then downclimbed a crack/ledge of rock keeping the crampons attached. This got us onto a pretty large snowfield that we could continue to ascend leading us to a very distinct snow col. I approached this col with utmost care, not knowing if it could be corniced at the opposite side. Taking a careful peek above the edge revealed a completely safe and gentle downhill slope on the other side. Proceeding a few meter downhill, we were now on a pretty large snowfield that extended downhill as far as visibility permitted. We turned a gentle corner moving right and then followed a nice snow gully that ascended somewhat steeper uphill. Topping out from this gully, we were at the level with a small shoulder on our right hand side. We moved horizontally left and entered a very narrow gully that extended further uphill. Diego explored the first part, sort of frozen clay, it seemed like one might consider climbing with crampons despite the lack of snow or ice. Diego discovered an attached carabiner in this gully, so obviously, somebody had climbed here before.
However, the terrain was not very attractive and Diego suggested that we retreat and rather cross the gully and then attempt to climb the rock from that side. We left the crampons and ice axe behind. Diego climbed upwards, rather carefully as the rock was totally unreliable, but still quite efficiently. Eventually, he disappeared out of sight leaving intermediate belay points along the way. Finally, he shouted that I could start uphill. What had looked "simple" when he climbed, was suddenly not "quite" so simple. The climb was exposed and the rock was indeed very questionable. A "handhold" immediately got a new meaning: It is a "hold" that you reach for, take in your hand, then look at as you "hold it in your hand". What looked like plenty of holds turned out to be mainly loose and dangerous, fortunately, a few here and there seemed to last at least until you had moved on to new territory. Happily, I pulled myself up to the belay stance that Diego had established in a small notch.
From here, the route was much easier, (YDS) class 3 terrain. We proceeded carefully, but with good progress and before I knew it Diego sat down on the small and well defined summit. We shook hands and sat down, just enough real estate for two climbers. The weather was rather cloudy, thus the visibility was very limited. I could see part of the ridge that continued past the point where we had reached it. There were some blue patches of sky right overhead and in a good and memorable moment the sun hit us directly from above. We had arrived at 1010, a few photos and some drinks of water, we started down around 1020.
At the top of the climbing section, there was an old rappel anchor with an equally old backup. I pulled out a new sling and told Diego that we rather use a new piece. He ok'ed and I abseiled down on a single rope all the way to the steep protective rock wall across the gully. Half way down, another "swoosh", rock came hurling by me, possibly released by the rope higher up. Scary, scary. Diego needed to abseil twice, since we carried a rather short climbing rope. On top of this, the rope was rather unwilling when he tried to pull it down after his second rappel. Fortunately, the rope decided to cooperate and Diego joined me below the steep rock wall. Here, he pulled my sling from his pocket and handed it back to me. Diego !!, this was not good, I expressed my concern. He claimed the old anchor was good and that it would be a shame to leave my sling.
We cramponed down the snow gully on noteably softer snow and crossed the col. Before too long (at 1210) we were back where Adam was (patiently) waiting. We thanked him for his patience and continued with two easy rappels down the slope that we had ascended unroped. We continued easily back down to the col with the possible camp site and rested there before continuing down to the trailhead reaching it by 1305. Clouds were still obscuring the fine summit that we had just visited.
The drive back down the terrible road went fine and when checking with Rob, he was feeling somewhat better. In fact, well enough to move. We therefore decided to drive back to Quito and stay there overnight. Casa Helbling was fully booked, but we got a pretty nice hotel, Cayman, only a couple of blocks away. Rob continued to rest, while Adam and I went to our favorite restaurant, Mama Clorinda, and celebrated with another nice meal.
Tomorrow, we shall travel to the base of Cotopaxi. A rest day is planned before we attempt the really big mountains of Ecuador. Our planned stay is in the National Park named Cotopaxi. (This trip report continues there.)