Climbing in Colombia
"The journey to the end is never boring." - St. Louis Post-Dispatch
The Sierra Nevada del Cocuy in the northern Andes
Most of this article was originally published in the May-June 1986 issue of Great Expeditions, Adventure and Travel Magazine , a small Canadian publication that is, like many of it’s kind, no longer in business. No one writing articles then could have foreseen sharing our work on something called Hubpages . Those who have spent hours pounding on manual typewriters know the immense, if comparative, joy of writing with fingers flying on a keyboard and publishing to a worldwide audience almost instantaneously. To suit our speedy cyber age, I’ve decided to present this article in three parts. Information and the impetus for the trip came from the 1980 publication Backpacking in Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador by Hilary and George Bradt, written with the sort of dry humor that comes from hiking for days in foul, wet weather, and which is still available from places like alibris books. Lastly, unlike say fashion trends or economic theory from the 1980s, backcountry experiences seem to remain, to some extent, relevant, regardless of the decade, thus my desire to share. Having said that, I wonder if the glaciers have receded, if the small towns have grown, if the people are still so friendly. So I would love to hear from anyone who has recently visited the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy.
A week before our flight to Bogota, the somber, unemotional face of Dan Rather appeared on TV, his steadfast voice promulgating that a car was bombed outside the American embassy, that there were death threats to all Americans living in Colombia. The drug wars were heating up. The "normal" US blockade was tighter than usual. The Navy was within 100 miles of Colombia's northern coast. We watch film clips of the Colombia army on patrol in their olive drab uniforms, searching for drug dealers, stereotypical hot Latino trigger fingers anxious to shoot a gringo. A year's worth of anticipation and planning seemed on the verge of collapse as we nurtured misconceptions about Latin America. We listened daily for Rather reports and were anxious to phone our gringo in Bogota. No answer. Oh no, maybe they got her. When we did finally make contact, she coyly assured us that we would not be gunned down at the airport.
The Sierra Nevada del Cocuy, especially when viewed from the Grand Valley, is described by Hilary and George Bradt's Backpacking in Venezuela Colombia and Ecuador as "some of the finest mountain scenery in South America." This book was one of a kind about the region and was written with the sort of dry humor that comes from hiking days in foul, wet weather. It was excellent, even essential, but not a climber's guide.
To John Zavgren and me, the 18,000 foot mountains of the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy seemed a worthy quest, so we made lofty plans to climb a few of the high peaks. We had, at best, novice experience, having scaled Mt. Fremont in Wyoming and Mt. Rainier in Washington, both by the "easy" routes, and we convinced our new partner, Eric Hahn, to come along. He only had about six month’s rock climbing experience in Missouri, but we assured him it didn’t matter.
Our hike began in a small town called Guican at 9,600 feet in the northern Andes. Getting to Guican was an adventure in itself. We paid about 600 pesos for a 13-hour bus ride on Trans Bolivar, leaving Bogota at 6 PM, and we received a wild, torturous night journey over unpaved, narrow, mountain roads. Careening around every turn, we peered into deep canyons, the bus tilting over sheer cliffs of crumbling rock and loose dirt.
Up the aisle, at the front of the bus, the driver, flailing hand over hand, turned the absurdly huge steering wheel first in one direction, then the other, like a mad wizard following his own bus lights up the side of a mountain. Dust and fumes drifted in windows and floorboard cracks.
Passengers appeared on the side of the road at all hours of the night. Maybe, John said, they don’t sleep. These campesinos, or peasant farmers, are more rugged than the English translation implies. Typically, they wear cloth shoes, ruana, and hat. The ruana is a wool garment that drapes over their shoulders and is similar to the Mexican serape. Their hats, worn by men, women, and children, bear a striking resemblance to 1930’s Chicago gangster hats. They are not gangsters, however; they are good, generous people.
Not so much of what occurred on the bus ride was unexpected, but we made a few mistakes that are worth noting. For only two-hundred pesos we could have ridden a significantly better bus. We could have taken the trip during daylight hours and spent the night in Guican before hiking out. Guican is a beautiful town nestled in green pastures with rivers and steams. We saw many potato fields and campesinos with potato laden mules.
Our bus arrived at 7AM. We dragged ourselves and our gear out and stood, bewildered, in the town square, over-anxious about getting "on the trail." We gave hard candy to the children gathering around us and cigarettes and candy to the adults. (Note: We heard they loved Marlboros and, in 1984, it seemed a kind gesture.) We asked where the trail started, unnecessarily explaining the obvious, that we wanted to do some mountain climbing. We explained that we wanted to follow the trail through the mountains to the Grand Valley and possibly climb from the east.
Five campesino boys offered to lead us up the stone street to the start of the trail but first we had to go to the church. With overloaded packs, we knelt awkwardly. The boys took a few pesos and ran, returning quickly with candles. We set our lit candles among the many on the floor before the altar.
Then, finally, we began the slow, laborious hike up. The trail rose sharply, past homes, into the green pastureland where cattle and sheep were grazing. The boys ran ahead again and waited. A half-hour later, I stumbled off the path, sidestepping donkey dung, stripped off my pack and fought to keep from vomiting. The boys were curious. Why was I sick?
Eric came up behind me and told me to breathe normally. With that sound advice, I was able to regain some physical composure and continue, at a slightly slower pace. Assured we were going in the right direction, we gave the boys about 20 pesos apiece. They thanked us and ran full tilt toward town.
The Andes are old mountains and the trail is badly eroded, full of loose rock. We hiked past several neatly constructed homes, combinations of mud, stone and wood, usually with thatched roofs. Guican suburbs. We passed many people. All of them greeted us pleasantly. Buenos dias, adios. Some stopped and chatted. Usually, when there was a long pause after an easy talk about the weather, or anything in general, they would ask rhetorically, Que mas? What more?
At noon, we were on a road just outside of Guican, overlooking the town. We hadn’t gone far but were understandably exhausted. The trail was across the road, lined by a stone wall, heading north. Another four campesino boys joined us. We asked them where we could camp. Camp? Why, right here. We, of course, didn’t need to ask. Their land was ours. One boy pointed at a carabiner and an ice screw and asked what they were. In my brilliant Spanish, I responded, Este es cosas escalamos montanas, which translated something like "These are things we climb mountains with."
The spot was perfect, flat, enclosed by stone walls, with a nice view of Guican. We gave them postcards of our hometown, St. Louis, MO, and hard candy. An old woman named Rachel Blanco stopped to talk. She lived nearby and was on her way to Guican. I joked that we were crazy people who wanted to climb mountains. She laughed readily and enjoyed watching us set up camp. We gave her postcards and cigarettes.
Sometime during the night I woke to the sound of a horse galloping along the road, hooves clopping rhythmically into the distance and, before dawn, the steady sound of rain. We woke slowly. The sun returned and we dried our tents and gear. We headed north on the trail, rising over a hill, down briefly, then up for the rest of the day, toward a 13,616-foot pass. We camped just below the pass on a perfectly level spot, with mountains seemingly forever in sight. Late in the evening a lone campesino, leading his mule, hurried by. I asked where he’d come from. A long way, he responded.
The next morning, we made the pass, through a hole in a stone wall built along the ridge with at least a hundred stick crosses jammed into the rocks by God-grateful travelers. Not wishing to appear ungrateful, we made a few crosses of our own, and Eric spent fifteen minutes constructing a star of David.
In the early afternoon, we crossed the Rio Cardenillo, had lunch and pushed on toward the second pass at 14,600 feet, higher than any of us had ever been, carrying packs heavier than we’d ever carried. The weather soured. Rain, snow, and sleet pelted our faces as we overcame the passage. We immediately looked for a place to camp. The terrain was rugged, still pasture at that altitude, but not quite as green, more a washed-out yellow, full of Frailejon, the high Andes desert plant. We camped at about 14,400 feet on a gentle slope.
The next day we followed the trail north to Laguna Grande de Los Verdes. Just before arriving at the lake, we met three students from Bogota who were trying to make a fast hike into the Grand Valley but had to stop because of altitude sickness. One of them was white-faced and weak. We offered them help but they declined, warning us to be careful of the altitude.
Anticipating bad weather, we set up camp early, at the lake. By now we had come to expect afternoon fog, rain, and/or hail. The clouds would creep up the valleys, gloomily engulfing everything, until finally the high peaks were shrouded. The Grand Valley was just over the next ridge and, beyond that, the llanos – the vast plains of Colombia, home to cocaine factories, bizarre wildlife, and alluring stories.
At Laguna Grande, we met a Swiss couple, living in Honduras. They told us the only way to climb the two high peaks, Ritacuba Blanco and Ritacuba Negro, was from the west, and even then, they had to turn back because of weather, and they weren’t properly equipped.
Our Swiss friends roused us early and said goodbye, hiking the trail toward the ridge and Grand Valley. We retraced our steps, looking for a western approach, and the clouds came even earlier than usual. At 10AM we were in our tents, making cards out of notebook paper while the hail rapped against the nylon.
Two campesino hunters, dressed in pants cut to the calves, cloth shoes, hats and ruanas , stood in the hail, shotguns loosely held at their sides. John was napping while Eric and I greeted them. The guns were the first and only ones we saw carried by campesinos. We were nervous. The two rugged men stared at us while we tried to make idle conversation. Then they left abruptly, marching off the trail and disappearing in the mist.
Later, while we were cooking dinner, two men and a little girl visited. We let them look through our binoculars. The girls shyly returned them as if there were only so many times she could make things look bigger. The men laughed readily and pleasantly (revealing gold teeth) at our foibles, us gringos trying to cook powder in a hail storm.
The following day we edged closer, hiking off trail, up a dark rock slab slanting into the thick fog. A little after noon, we set up another camp. The fog grew denser, flying fast, rising from the earth. During a brief period of morning sunlight, we caught glimpses of moraine and the gray rubble-strewn edge of a glacier. We scrambled, slipping and bashing skins, making our way through the moraine and into glacial rubble, well over 15,000 feet. Small pale blue lakes like giant filmy eyes were linked to the glacier by ribbons of gushing white water, surging and crashing from the base of the glacier. Blue-white rivulets emptied down the rock slope, sending mist floating, disappearing and appearing like the fog. Even now, we see the blue water flow for miles far down the valley.
We selected a camp in the midst of the desolation, walked to the glacier’s edge and touched it – huge slabs of snow, and deep blue ice, like the chin of a giant blue whale scouring out the rock. A few stubby Frailejon jutted from the glacial edge. Strange plants, seemingly not good for anything, yet they grow everywhere.
That night, our eighth, we listened to rock fall from the glacial snout and the water gushing beneath. We slept to the familiar rapping of the hail, the storms not violent, but incessant. We never knew when one might become dangerous.
To us, what lay ahead was an unknown among many. We had never been to this country and these equatorial mountains. They were strange. Where was "timberline"? What sort of storm was hidden in the relentless fog always creeping up the valleys? What was higher?
Late in the morning, we climbed onto the glacier. We wanted to establish a route and evaluate the need for a higher base camp. The climb was not technically difficult, but we needed our ropes, our crampons and ice axes. We slogged past gaping crevasses, blue glistening walls of scoured ice descending into darkness; we stepped cautiously over snow bridges, exploring the northwest approach. Extending ourselves further than planned, we climbed to 17,000 feet, stopping on a "saddle" between the two imposing Ritacubas.
Eric and I were sitting on our packs, resting. John walked about forty paces, onto the rounded edge of a huge cornice, and he stood at the edge of a sheer drop-off thousands of feet to the Grand Valley perpetually shrouded in clouds and beyond, clouds seemingly forever over the llanos of Colombia.
I knelt at the edge and peeked over. A climb from the east would have been spectacularly dangerous. To the left was the dark, sheer rock face of Ritacuba Negro, the route to its summit following a (comparatively) narrow snow ridge along the fantastic rock cliffs. To the right, the white route to Blanco’s summit, rolling glacier full of crevasses. We were within range of either peak.
It was 2PM. We were baked by the fierce equatorial sun. Black clouds boiled ominously to the southeast. We toyed with the idea of making a summit bid on Blanco. So close, but we were only establishing a route. It was late. The storm looked as though it would hit at any moment. Plenty of reasons. We descended and, unlike most of the previous days, the storm did not move in. The fierce sun held, melting into some of our snow bridges. My leg plunged through, foot touching air.
The rain and hail finally arrived for dinner back at base camp. The hail lasted throughout the following day. As usual, we were holed up in one tent, only today, the twenty-second of December, was Eric’s birthday. We celebrated with great enthusiasm. His present was a tiny C-ration of peanut butter. He shared his treat as we discussed our summit plans.
I made a half-hearted vote for an attempt on Negro, suspecting that the higher, yet technically easier, Blanco would have to suffice. The tent bottom felt like a waterbed. With our ice axes we dug drainage ditches out of the silt and rock. We agreed to wake at midnight and prepare for the summit of Ritacuba Blanco...
I am awake! It is only 10PM. My eyes are maniacally open wide, alert, ready to climb. Only two hours to wait like this.
Eric is awake also. It’s 11PM. I rustle around so much bumping into him occasionally that he can’t sleep either. He suggests we go climb. We begin preparation one hour early. None too soon for me. This is not the Himalayas but it is, for us, pretty weird. The stars are bright. There are no visible clouds but we are absolutely certain they will come soon enough.
After forcing down breakfast and scrambling over the glacial rubble in the dark, we are at the glacier. It is 2AM. The snow creaks and groans with our first tentative steps. We hear snowmelt crashing underneath the glacier. Following our small headlamp beams, we step ponderously, searching for our tracks. Yesterday’s precipitation has obliterated them. It is around 5:30. Uneasy about the crevasses, we wait for some daylight. Twenty minutes later, we continue.
The sunlight is orange on the jagged knife edge extending north from Ritacuba Negro. As we crest the ridge, the sun blazes in our faces. We put on layers of sunscreen on our already fried faces. We find our route and use tested snow bridges.
We are higher now than we were two days ago. Our objective is the heavy snow mass to our right. Ritacuba Blanco, 17488 feet. To the left, Ritacuba Negro, slightly lower at 17,389 feet. We are at the edge of a drop-off thousands of feet to the Grand Valley, the quick way in one easy jump. We are at 17,200, higher than any of us have ever been before. We take a few photographs.
Now it is time to push toward the crevasses, the white peak, the higher of the two. We are above the clouds. For what looks like hundreds of miles, an ocean of clouds floats over the llanos, eerily creeping up the valleys. Our steps break ice-crusted snow. Clouds smother smaller peaks to the south. A slight wisp tails like a comet over the summit of Ritacuba Blanco. The comet’s tail grows larger as we step slowly.
We are probably less than 200 feet away. The climbing ahead is more difficult. Words between us are strained. We push on, inching a little further than any of us has ever been before. The summit is no longer visible, the route uncertain. The weather worsens. We stop.
Maybe we shouldn’t have waited for the daylight; we shouldn’t have spent valuable time taking pictures; we should’ve gone for it two days earlier. All unpleasant hindsight. We wait. Visibility worsens to about 20 feet. It’s misty and the snow or hail will soon follow. We begin our descent, knowing that we will not be back. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve.
We were beaten, not by the ferocity of the storms, but by their relentless consistency. A lot of our mistakes could have been avoided if we had been more familiar and comfortable with the bizarre weather. More experienced climbers might have pressed on to the summit. A firm resolve is perhaps most important. As it was, we assured each other that for us lowlanders and novices, it was a notable accomplishment to climb above 17,000 feet, unguided, in Colombia’s northern Andes.
The morning of the twenty-forth, we packed up base camp in the godforsaken glacial rubble and began our long descent. We hiked directly down the valley of the Rio Cardenillo, eventually intersecting the trail and following it over the 13,600 foot pass. At the top, it started raining as usual. From there it was a long, muddy slog to Guican. We arrived at about 5 PM and the rain quit.
Letting our legs fall naturally one in front of the other like plastic wind-up toys, we headed toward the center of town. Suddenly, children ran screeching and giggling away from a man with long stringy hair all over his body and bull horns sticking out from his shoulders. He was tethered to a rope around his neck. The rope was several yards long and held by a campesino. This was the "Mikolita," the monster that lurks in the hills and eats children. Every Christmas Eve he raids the town.
In the center of town there was a "bull" – a beat up bicycle wheel, big sticks, horns and a black plastic bag crafted around the person who makes the bull come alive. He held it like a wheelbarrow and chased the children. They ran away wildly, screeching. The bull went after an unsuspecting old woman. She smiled and tried to move a little faster while everybody roared with laughter.
Two pantomime clowns "fought" the bull and invariably fell into one another trying to get away. We enjoyed the spontaneity of their play while we sat on a curb and were immediately surrounded by curious children. Soon, the bull attacked us and everybody ran away laughing. We took turns respectively fighting the bull and being the bull.
From Guican we hitched a ride in a truck to nearby El Cocuy, a slightly bigger town, where we hoped to find a modern hotel with hot water. The whole town was gathered beneath the big "conversation" tree for the Christmas fiesta. As we arrived, we met Yolanda Mord and Lilia Fuentes, and they helped get us a nice room for 200 pesos. The shower consisted of a small pipe pouring ice cold water next to the toilet, disturbing the resident dragonfly that I initially mistook for a hummingbird.
No matter, tranquillo, it was Christmas Eve and these people were extremely friendly and accommodating. We were hungry but no restaurants were open, so Yolanda and Lilia led us through the back streets to find Yolanda’s mother. They took us to their home and fed us. After dinner, we returned to the fiesta, danced under the conversation tree, and drank Aguardiente (literally translated "firewater"), Colombia’s national drink, a crispy light anise flavored liquor that makes your face glow brighter with each shot.
Next morning as we were walking around the town, the locals hailed us into their bars for more aquardiente. Officials quizzed us about the three students from Bogota. Apparently, they were lost. As best we could, we explained where we had met them and that they had altitude sickness. The officials thanked us and sped away in their jeep.
That afternoon we walked almost all the way back to Guican with Lilia and Yolanda, to hot springs. Ahh, the first hot water since God knows when. We met two Venezuelan climbers. They told us that they had tried to climb the Ritacubas directly without acclimating and one of their party suffered pulmonary edema. All of this made us feel lucky and in a strange way, logical. Because the weather had been so lousy, we had acclimated properly.
Back in Bogota, we read in the newspaper that the lost students had been found, alive and in relatively good shape. Eric remained in South America to tour several other countries. I parted with John in Miami. He was returning to a job in New Jersey.
Dressed in campesino hat and ruana, unshaven and dirty, flying back to St. Louis, I sipped Aguardiente from a paper bag, feeling the glow, having traveled to remote lands and returned transformed. I was happy to speak English again and wanted to talk of adventures and trade stories, perhaps also explain that we were not beaten or robbed by the people of Colombia, that it seemed to be a country misunderstood my many. Nobody was willing to share my exuberance. It was a typical transition time. I've experienced it often enough. Reentering the routine. The impersonal, high tech cleanliness. For it, a price is always paid. I even offered they guy next to me a sip of my Aguardiente. Not surprisingly, he declined. Colombia? he asked, assessed, and rejected in the one-word question, no thanks.