Facts About Volcán Cayambe in Ecuador

Volcán Cayambe: 3rd Highest Mountain in Ecuador

Cayambe, the 3rd highest mountain in Ecuador, lies directly on the equator in South America. Photograph © John Coletti/Getty Images
  • Elevation: 18,996 feet (5,790 meters)
  • Prominence: 6,808 feet (2,075 meters)
  • Location: Cordillera Occidental, Andes Mountains, Ecuador.
  • Coordinates: 0.025063 N / -77.989368 W
  • First Ascent: Edward Whymper, Louis Carrel, and Jean-Antoine Carrel, 1880.

Fast Facts:

Volcán Cayambe, located 40 miles northeast of Quito, the capital of Ecuador, is the third highest mountain in Ecuador. It is the only major mountain in the world whose summit is crossed by the equator, which divides the northern and southern hemispheres, and the only snow-capped mountain directly on the equator. It is also the coldest place on the equator. Cayambe is an ultra-prominence peak with 6,808 feet (2,075) meters. The highest point is called Cumbre Maxima.

Two Subsidiary Summits

Besides Cumbre Maxima, the highest summit on Volcán Cayambe, there are two other lower subsidiary summits—18,828-foot (5,739-meter) Cumbre Norte and 18,749-foot (5,715-meters) Cumbre Oriental. They were both climbed in July 1964 by Japanese climbers Kazutaka Aoki, Keinosuke Matsumura, Susumu Marata, Ichiro Yoshizawa. It’s takes a half hour to climb each of them from the main summit. The summit is elongated in an east-west direction; there is no crater on top of the mountain.

Cayambe is an Active Volcano

Volcán Cayambe is a massive composite stratovolcano on the western edge of the Cordillera Real in the Andes Range, the twisting spine of South America, and on the east side of the long Inter-Andean Valley. The mountain is composed of successive lava domes, including some that spewed lava flows that reached the lower slopes. Today’s volcano is built atop an older extinct volcano. On the east flank is Cono de la Virgen, a cone that fed thick lava flows which traveled east for six miles during periodic eruptions during the Holocene period about 40,000 years ago.

Last Eruption 1785-86

The only historical eruption of Cayambe was in 1785 to 1786 on the northeast flank. It is considered an active volcano with the potential for devastating future eruptions. A summit eruption could cause massive melting of the glacier with the resulting mudflows or lahars threatening towns in the valley to the west including Cayambe.

Cayambe’s Glaciers

A 22-square kilometer ice cap composed of glaciers covers Cayambe, reaching down to 4,200 meters on the moist eastern Amazonian side and to 4,600 meters on its drier western side. The 20 glaciers on Cayambe are currently in full retreat due to global warming. Over 40% of the mountain’s ice cap has disappeared in the last 30 years, a trend which is expected to not only continue but to speed up. Ecuadoran glaciologists estimate that by 2030 all of Cayambe’s glaciers will have disappeared below 5,000 meters. The results will include less meltwater for urban areas and farming downstream from the mountain.

Name Derived from Native Word

The name Cayambe is derived from either the native Caranquii word kayan, meaning “ice,” or from the Quichua word cahan, meaning “high cold place.”

First Ascent in 1880

The renowned English alpinist Edward Whymper, known for making the first ascent of the Matterhorn, made the first ascent of Cayambe in 1880. During a remarkable expedition in 1880, Whymper accompanied by Italian cousins and mountain guides Louis and Jean-Antoine Carrel ascended not only Cayambe, but also eight other high peaks—Chimborazo, Cotopaxi, Antisana, Illinizi Sur, Carihuairazo, Sincholagua, Cotacachi, and Sara Urco. Whymper’s mountain exploits are still honored in Ecuador with a street named for him in Quito and the Refugio Whymper, a high-altitude hut on Chimborazo.

Whymper’s Place Names

Two of Whymper’s place names are still used on Volcán Cayambe—Punta Jarrin, a rocky outcrop, and Espinosa Glacier. Both are named for Antonio Jarrin de Espinosa, then owner of the mountain.

Cayambe Coca Ecological Reserve

Volcán Cayambe lies within the 996,090-acre Cayambe Coca Ecological Reserve, a species-rich nature preserve northeast of Quito with a wide range of plant communities and habitats that include grasslands, cloud forest, subalpine forest, and glaciers. Over 100 endemic plant species are found here. The area has 395 species of birds, including the huge Andean condor, which soars high above the region. There are also 106 mammal species, including mountain tapir, cougar, agoutis, armadillos, and spectacled bears; 70 species of reptiles; and 116 species of amphibians. Besides climbing the great volcano, the area offers great hiking, including a two- to three-day trek on the Oyacachi-El Chaco Trail.