Moutain Biking Down Cotopaxi: A Fearful, Fantastic Ride

Ecuador Journal Series
I wrote about my Ecuador study abroad, but have yet to post it. Since I am not traveling and have some time, I will post some of my best memories from that 2010 trip. This will make the blog chronologically erroneous and confuse the reader. Oh well.

This was my first brush with death since I arrived in Quito.

Hindsight it wasn't that bad, but at the time, riding a shitty bike down a steep volcano, gripping the handlebars with frozen fingers, dodging cars coming up the other way, and avoiding the crater-like ditches on either side of the winding dirt road, was terrifying.

It was my first time mountain biking and not a trip for beginners. After my 3rd fall, I realized it was just part of the game, picked up the bike, and started again. I was even able to enjoy it... after that first leg.


Earlier that Saturday morning, my classmates and I woke up early and met at the school for our first weekend trip of our new study abroad experience. The program directors decided to let us acclimate to the 9,200ft altitude of Quito by driving 14,500ft up Cotopaxi, one of the highest active volcanoes in the world, and then biking down.

Our guides were the Flying Dutchmen, one of the best bike rental companies in Quito. Mo was our bike leader or guide. He and our other guides loaded the bikes on top of 2 jeeps and we drove outside the city, into the national park, and up the volcano.

We got to the top (not the summit) which is kind of like a base camp where everybody unloads their stuff and preps for the ride down. Up this high, it was freezing. Snow was laying on the ground, and clouds were gliding past us. Getting pictures of the beautiful landscape below was impossible. I was the only one wearing shorts, and everyone thought I was crazy. A few hours later, when we were biking up and down hills in the mid-day heat, I didn't feel that crazy.

Mo went over some quick instructions on how to stay safe and use the breaks, and we started down the 1st leg into the clouds and on the steep road we just came up. The only thing to do was hold on tight and break enough so not to lose control. The jeeps followed the trail, one in front and one behind us.

I started off more cautious than the others, and as a reward, was able to laugh at them as they got up from a fresh fall. But I still went down about 5 times myself. One bad turn of the front wheel and I was done. Going around a curve too fast and I was in the dirt.

Eventually I got the hang of it and stopped falling.

Once we got out of the clouds, the vast natural beauty of the valleys, hills, plains, and rivers below became visible. We stopped and took many pictures along the way, including some O-H-I-O pics with this fantastic terrain as the backdrop. 

When I stopped alone to take pictures or get up from a fall, the silence was intense, like nothing I'd ever felt. Not hearing anything but the wind whistling around the mountain was peaceful in a way that I wished could last longer. But I didn't dwell on it much.

I was cautious and the last one to get down, but still close behind the rest. Thomas and a Canadian girl who joined us had some experience and flew down, almost racing. We all took a short break and went on to the next trail.

It was more pleasant but still risky. There were more plains but more potholes. Chris fell when a big hole snuck up on him and he couldn't avoid going over the handlebars. It was the worst fall of the day, but not terrible, just scratches and bruises.

After another break we were on the 3rd and best leg. We flew down small grassy hills, going so fast that when we hit small bumps in the hills, the bikes would float a few feet in the air. The thrill was incredible. Probably the closest I'll ever come to the X Games. Riding past wild horses was also surreal. They were calm enough to let us take pictures of them, but stared suspiciously if we got too close. 

This trail wasn't all fun. Going uphill for a long distance required more determination than any workout I've ever done. The rising mid-day heat and cloudless sky didn't help. I was much more out of shape than my 160 pound frame let on. By the time we got to lunch, I wanted to not eat but throw up.

We took a long enough break to recover and eat. I felt like I should smash on this food because because I had used so much energy, but I couldn't get much down. It was a weird feeling: to know that I had to eat but couldn't even though my stomach was empty and my body needed energy.

The last leg for me was the most trying. The trail was littered with rocks, so fucking many rocks, and had a lot of downhills and odd turns. By this time, my arms and hands were dying. To keep the wheels straight and avoid falls, required force. The rocky, uneven road made it worse. The constant vibration of the wheels pounding over the rocks went up into my hands like a drill. My grip was so hard that at the end I had to shake and pry my fingers from the handles. A few times through this crazy stretch I should have fallen but just held on tight and rode through. Trusting the bike got me through without incident.

The last 2km were purely mind over body. My legs were jello, and my hands were shot. But I pushed it and reached the end. The whole trip probably lasted around 6 hours. I don't remember how many total kilometers.


I learned a little bit more about myself by going through this ridiculously long and enduring ride. Looking back and writing about it, I realize the pain wasn't important. What I will remember are the pictures I took, the people I rode with, and the feeling of finishing. They will leave the most lasting memories. The ones worth keeping. 

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