Volcano Vaudeville

The Cotopaxi volcano, in the middle of Ecuador, looks like a sinful dessert. The crater is a smooth, dark cone with thick, creamy glaciers dripping down from the top. It’s as perfect as Mount Fuji and twice as broad. And it’s active.

Cotopaxi is the most-climbed mountain in Ecuador. For a few hundred dollars, a guide will take you up there. You start at one in the morning and reach the summit around dawn—it’s 5,897 meters high. You must get back to the base camp before the sun gets high enough to melt the surface snow.

I didn’t want to climb the mountain, but I wanted to spend time with it. So I camped for few nights in Cotopaxi National Park, hiking slowly across from one end to the other on the 4,000-meter-high páramo. The páramo looks bleak from a distance, a plain of grays and dull greens. Up close, though, you see a carpet of the same gentians and lupins found in the Arctic, and tiny orchids, and bright candlestick mosses. A silvery lichen, unattached to the ground, is scattered everywhere and looks like sleet.

For first time in Ecuador I saw no other people in days (and no mean dogs—yay!). The only trace of humans beyond the car park was two spent shotgun cartridges and one very rusty tin can. I found Andean fox droppings, full of feathers and mouse claws, and was glad not to run into the wild bulls I’d been warned about. I watched cara-cara eagles and cooked up my haul of ink-cap mushrooms over a sputtering campfire in a creek bed.

Occasional birdsong sounded like part of the silence, which the Inca believed was the sound of the gods talking. It wasn’t hard to see why they also believed that the spirits of these mountains were gods to be appeased. I camped early—enjoying the luxury of not having to hide my gear and myself until dark—in a broad plain where my little blue tent was ringed by volcanoes. There was Cotopaxi itself directly in front, Rumiñahui behind, Sincholahua and Pasochoa northeast, and the twins of Iliniza to the southwest.

The high plains seem to be always cloudy in this season, and mostly the volcanoes are hidden. But with nothing to do but drink tea and stare—I had run out of books—I caught glimpses of the flirting mountains as the clouds moved from left to right across the sky. The veil would part to show the rim of a crater, or the west glacier, or a swathe of red lava halfway down. I was a slack-jawed john at a stripshow, and it was a thrill at sunset when the biggest, fluffiest pink clouds obligingly passed behind the Cotopaxi crater, not in front. At sights like that, you can only cry or take a photograph, and either is inadequate.

The real show was at dawn, though. Camping on the equator means darkness from 6.30 at night to 6.30 in the morning, so getting up at half past five to see the first streaks is not so much a hardship as it is a relief from twelve hours tangled in a mummy sleeping bag. (I always wake several times, panicked, to find the hood on my face, and that night altitude sickness had kept me sleepless, too.)

The sun hadn’t yet evaporated the moisture from the páramo and so the sky was almost clear. All four peaks of Rumiñahui were fully visible, like a feeding dinosaur. Cotopaxi gleamed in the dawn light, and the others, farther off, were revealed in tribute to big mama. It was completely quiet.

And I wanted every one of you to be transported there, just for a few minutes. Dragged from your beds in New York or Phoenix or Vancouver, from your desk in Johannesburg or Ipswich, from your classroom in Tokyo, from school in Limerick, from your study in Tehran, and plonked on a cold plain in the Andes to sit in silence with me, watching the sun rise over the volcanoes of Ecuador.

I hope you get to see it some day.