A Day Trip To Cotopaxi

It’s funny how the smallest details stay with you.

Several months after I received confirmation of my trip to Ecuador, Cotopaxi blew its top. The volcano erupted on August 14th, 2015, sending a plume of hot ash and gas 12 kilometres into the atmosphere above its head. Mum showed me an article released by the BBC: containing dire warnings of future evacuations spiced with facts about past super-eruptions. It’s a peculiar situation to be in, a volcanologist living near to an active volcano: half of you is dying for a full-on Plinian eruption, the other half … well, you know that you’d be dying because of said eruption. It’s a double-edged sword. encapsulated by my reading, almost coevally, of the BBC’s article and an email from my future boss, Patricia, that roughly read … ‘it will have a VEI 3 or 4 before you come? Its energy levels are rising each day and especially each week’. This alone was enough to send me into frenzies of excitement.

That BBC article has stayed in my Bookmarks folder, in my laptop and in my head, all the way here; as has the email. Details of another conversation, too: I heard my cousin, Matthew, talk about the stunning beauty of Cotopaxi when he was here; his description must have stuck in my head, because Cotopaxi was the one thing I knew that I had to see before I left Ecuador. Now that I’ve been, I can see that his photographs really capture its beauty (click here for his wonderful site).

So, as they say, the devil is in the details; and in the details and fragments I carried in my head here, I saw the devil light fires inside Cotopaxi’s crater. Thursday 12th November marked exactly a month since I arrived in Ecuador. Fitting, then, that it was also my first voyage into the (currently closed) Cotopaxi National Park. What a thrill that was. Driving up the wide path that would normally be filled with coaches and tour parties, fitting three abreast; now, it was a lonely road, bereft of company. We had just passed an angry yellow sign that proclaimed Peligro!: a warning that the park was not safe to enter. Thanks to the Instituto Geofisico‘s label fixed to our 4WD, though, the rangers at the entrance waved us through.

Our initial measurements were surprisingly (to me) very straightforward. Checking the status of a seismic station in the north, then taking an EDM (electronic distance meter) point. By setting up the EDM camera, we could calculate the horizontal distance from the camera to prisms on the flanks of the volcano, and by extension, could place those calculations against past measurements to tell us of the horizontal deformation of the volcano.

Inside the equipment station of monitoring box VC1.
View from EDM point to Cotopaxi; not very impressive!

From our scheduled maintenance at VC1, we drove back towards the entrance and then turned off up a steep, rutted track through the forest. This led up to NASA, a monitoring station on the western flank of Cotopaxi. Our mission: to collect ash, and to install a solar panel in the dark. This was a strange pit-stop. Due to the low-lying clouds, we were in the darkest spot; but we could see bright sunlight that was lighting up the valley below. Liz told me that that was what it had been like when the ash fell in August: darkness at midday for weeks on end. At least today our jaunty umbrella was a little bright spot.

Solar panels and a dashing umbrella.

I skipped over it, but our ride towards NASA had by no means been uneventful. Horses roam over Cotopaxi National Park. Most of them are black or tan, and the wind rushes through their dark manes as they race away from you, over the slopes of the paramo, through the boulders of historic lahar fields.

We saw some caballeros, too. The horses they rode were tame, black and larger than the wild ones. We passed a group of three man as the summit of the volcano made its entrance through a burst in the clouds, and the youngest caballero flashed a grin at me. In his hand he held a rope, its other end tethered to the harness of a great black bull. There it lay, behind him on the path, its head thrashing against the harness and its eyes rolling desperately. It would be subdued eventually, I knew; the smile of the caballero had assured me of that.

Did I mention the volcano? A few passing glances were all we had, and all we needed. Cotopaxi stands in the Eastern Cordillera of the Northern Andean Volcanic Zone. The clouds that have gathered from the west, over the Amazon basin, complete their daunting ascent up the eastern flanks of this great mountain. They pause for a while, swirl and storm; some of the more ambitious ones stand at the summit, and cover from our eyes the view of the rising plume. Down they plunge over the other side, and into the divide south of where Quito grows. Where we came in, to the north, the clouds had missed a spot – and that’s where we saw it. A perfect cone, a crown of ice. Cotopaxi – the mouth of the moon – perfectly named, perfectly formed.

In Quechwa, it’s called ‘the mouth of the moon’.

We had received reports of a new emission at half-past three in the afternoon. Silvana and Patty, from the observatory back in Quito, reported a column of black that now rose 2 km above the peak of the volcano. We quit the monitoring station, NASA, high on the western flank, and rode down to try to collect some freshly falling ash. Curiously, there was none; we had dared to hope, but now we left the park empty-handed and clean-clothed. Nevertheless, we were lucky. As we left the park I gained three views. Behind me: that wide rutted track, and a mountain that was snatched from the clouds roaming over it: Ruminahui behind us, proud like a general should be. Ahead: the valley, far away, sitting in golden sunlight. And to the south: a glimpse of Papi Cotopaxi in his prime. A plume of ash, spreading far up high; pinkish in the fading light.

As I said, it’s the little details that remain.

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