Ripping Rugged Trails Down 3 of Ecuador's Tallest Volcanoes


, by Greg Heil

Ripping down Holy Ridge on the flanks of Cotopaxi. Rider: Greg Heil. Photo: Andrés Chacho López

Picture this: you unload your mountain bike from the back of a battered pickup truck in a gravel parking lot. You check to make sure you have water and snacks, tighten your helmet down, spin the pedals, test the brakes, and get ready to drop.

Sounds like a normal day, right?

Now imagine that as you glance up from the parking lot, above you looms a massive glacier-covered volcanic cone. A cloud of volcanic steam rises from the summit cone, signaling the grim destructive power of the lava building in the volcano on which you stand.

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It turns out that the parking lot you're standing in sits at over 15,000 feet above sea level. Simply hoisting the bike out of the back of the pickup is a chore—but thankfully, there isn't much uphill pedaling to be done from here on out.

As you look down from the unbelievably steep sides of the volcano, an otherworldly landscape of rock and sand spreads out below you, with other glaciated volcanoes dotting the distant skyline. The trail down the mountain begins on a wide-open scree field set on a seemingly vertical angle that's straight out of an Anthill Films feature move. From there, the route funnels into a narrow, technical singletrack, ripping through the rugged paramo landscape that Ecuador is known for.

Cotopaxi—one of the tallest active volcanoes in the world. Photo: Greg Heil
Mountain biking at almost 16,000 feet on the flanks of Chimborazo, and drifting through an ancient forest on La Caceria 2. Rider: Greg Heil. Photo: Andrés Chacho López

The La Caceria trails began at 14,262 feet with wide-open freeride sand surfing before funneling into narrower singletrack trails—some of which had seen recent trail work and improvements. Unfortunately, the lower sections of the trail were turning into a muddy mess from the pounding rain. Andrés had already made the call to skip a different trail that promised even worse mud, but La Caceria was quickly turning into a mucky mess. Despite a couple of minor crashes, we made it down our first run just fine... until we decided to do a lap on the second La Caceria trail.

The upper section of the second trail was absolutely surreal. We surfed our two-wheeled rigs in 12-inch-deep sand through a forest of gnarled trees growing on the sandy slopes of the mountain, the mist filtering through the trees adding a spooky feeling to the quiet forest, punctuated only by our whoops and hollers as we slid around sketchy corners.

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Unfortunately, the lower muddy sections of the trail had only gotten dramatically worse in the time it took to run the shuttle back to the top. After successfully negotiating a few corners, my front wheel slid out as I approached a switchback, and I stuffed the front end, flipping over the handlebars and dropping about 10 feet down the mountain to the next switchback below me—my bike still stuck on the mountain high above.

Somewhere in that lightning-fast crash, I sprained my ankle quite badly. I managed to slowly make my way out of the trail, but this early injury didn't bode well for the next two weeks of riding and hiking in Ecuador.

Stop 2: Cotopaxi - 19,347 feet

Due to the ankle injury, Andrés was gracious enough to postpone our Cotopaxi day for about half a week. Not only did this give my ankle some time to heal up, but the rainy onslaught subsided and the clouds lifted, revealing the gorgeous summit of Cotopaxi for the first time in four days.

At 19,347 feet, Cotopaxi is the second-highest mountain in Ecuador and one of the highest active volcanoes in the world... and easily one of the most ominous. The volcano has historically erupted on 120-year intervals, but the last major eruption was in 1877. That means that Cotopaxi is over 25 years overdue for its next eruption. With the amount of development and the number of people that have populated the valley beneath the volcano, an eruption could prove catastrophic.

When the lava hits the glacial ice, it melts instantly, sending mudflows (known as "lahars") rushing down the mountain. The lahars in 1877 ran for more than 60 miles, traveling all the way to the Pacific Ocean in the west and the Amazon River Basin in the east. (Source)

According to Wikipedia, the Ecuadorean government estimates that some 300,000 people are at risk from the volcano.

And that's just for a standard eruption.

Geologists have determined that Cotopaxi is also prone to a much more catastrophic type of eruption, in which the entire top of the mountain explodes—exactly like Mount Saint Helens. These cataclysmic explosions happen roughly every 2,000 years, and guess what? Cotopaxi is overdue for one of those as well.

So what better place to ride a mountain bike than on the flanks of a volcano that could explode at any time?!

Photo 1: Andrés carving turns down the flanks of Cotopaxi. Photo 2: Greg ripping through the paramo with Cotopaxi in the background.

As we reached the top of a brutally rough shuttle road at 15,132 feet, we soaked in the view of the glacier above us, with steam actively rising from the volcanic crater. As we turned to look downhill, we were similarly greeted with a breathtaking view, with numerous glacier-covered volcanoes dotting the distant sideline. Thanks to the unbelievably steep sides of the volcano and the lack of any vegetation in the way, it felt like we were perched on the side of the mountain, looking straight down on the valley we had driven through earlier.

Even though I've dedicated my life to seeking out the best mountain bike trails around the world, the trails we ripped down the flanks of Cotopaxi were unlike any I've ever sunk my tires into. Steep, wide-open scree field surfing was followed up by flowy ripping down exposed ridgelines and techy bits down a narrow valley to finish.

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The riding on Cotopaxi is the closest I've ever come to true freeride mountain biking—and let me tell you, carving turns into loose, shifting sand is a lot harder than it looks! Simply skidding down these near-vertical slopes was, at times, all I could hope for... and it was an absolute ball. While we had to rush to fit in our rides before the thunderclouds built in the afternoon, we enjoyed a truly epic day of shredding on Cotopaxi, which proved to be the exact opposite of our experience on Chimborazo.

If you, too, want to freeride down Chimborazo, be warned: most of the "mountain bike tours" that you'll find online consist solely of riding clapped-out piles of slag down the rough, rutted road that we used for our shuttle to the top. In fact, I saw buses with dozens of bikes on their roofs braving the road to the top, determined to drop off their payload of tourists. The road was so absolutely destroyed by the constant traffic and lack of maintenance that I'd personally have no interest in riding down it. As Andrés astutely observed, "Those tours are shit." For any intermediate to advanced mountain bikers looking to ride real trails, be sure to book with a reputable mountain bike guide like Epic Andes Tours.

Stop 3: Guagua Pichincha - 15,696 feet

I should have known that my planned ride down Guagua Pichincha was doomed when Andrés mentioned that he hadn't been up there in two and a half years. I had found a GPS track for the Valle de la Muerte trail online, which appeared to drop straight into the city of Quito. How hard could it be? The plan was to catch a shuttle to the top, rip straight back down to the AirBNB that I was staying in on the west side of the city—simple, right?

It's never that simple in Ecuador.

Before getting in touch with Andrés, I had already planned a single shuttle uplift to the refugio high on Guagua Pichincha with Xavier of Ecuventures, and I planned to navigate the entire ride myself. Paying for a shuttle was, again, definitely the right call. The dirt roads that wind their way to sky-scraping elevations high on the sides of these volcanoes are not the type of terrain that you want to risk with a rental car. If I ever come back to Ecuador, I'm definitely going to plunk down the extra cash for a pickup truck or an SUV because, without one, there are very few trails that you can even access.

Photo 1: Descending from the crater rim. Photo 2: Riding lower down near the irrigation ditches.

While Guagua Pichincha isn't nearly as high as the third tallest mountain in Ecuador—18,996-foot Cayambe—the proximity to Quito made Guagua Pichincha a must-ride. That, and you can pedal almost off the summit—I topped out at 15,353 feet on the rim of the volcanic crater.

The trail descending off the mountain that is most popular with mountain bikers is known as Valle de la Muerte, and it proved to be a death march for a shuttle run boasting over 6,000 feet of elevation gain. After slogging to the crater rim at 15,353 feet to be greeted by thick clouds and no view, a mile or so of great ripping led to overgrown singletrack through Ecuador's grassy high-altitude paramo landscape.

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After crossing a low saddle, the route truly turns downhill, but about the time it starts heading down, a never-ending series of ruts and holes begins, eliminating any chance of fun descending. For the worst ruts, I had to take my feet off the pedals to outrigger, allowing the pedals to drag in the dirt on the sides of the ruts. Some of the trenches were even handlebar deep!

The challenges went on and on—endless cow shit (and cows to chase down the trail), gates to open and close, steep, muddy scrambles into and out of ravines, pushing the bike through overgrown tunnels of vegetation, sending it straight down the fall line through open pastures, and so much more. While Valle de la Muerte had its moments and some incredibly scenic views, it proved to be a brutal adventure ride. Despite the challenges, I managed to make it back to my AirBNB without any actual crashes.

Parting Thoughts

Greg ripping through the paramo next to a massive canyon carved into the side of Cotopaxi. Photo: Andrés Chacho López

I came to Ecuador looking for adventure, and damn did I find it—sometimes even a bit more than I bargained for! Braving the travails of the country's sky-scraping volcanoes is not the domain of beginner riders—or even expert riders who aren't willing to suffer. Rain, thunderstorms, snow, and mud are all common. Thick clouds, rough roads, hours of driving, steep climbs, technical descents—none of it comes easy.

Granted, Ecuador does offer some more accessible and better-maintained mountain bike trails—most notably the fantastic flow trails at the Cotopaxi Bike Park—so it isn't all white-knuckled descending and suffering in the rain. 

And yet, for those who are willing to persevere, riding mountain bikes above 15,000 feet on some of the most beautiful and intimidating volcanoes in the world is guaranteed to be a memory that will last a lifetime.

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