Walking Colombia’s classic trek, and an ascent of Ritacuba Blanco
“I’ve always associated Colombia with drugs and gangs,” a colleague said to me after I returned to work last week following my Christmas trekking and mountaineering holiday in the country. He could also have mentioned kidnapping, a common hazard for locals as much as for foreign tourists as recently as 10 years ago. But this isn’t the Colombia I experienced, a green and pleasant land which felt very safe, very civilised, and contained some beautiful scenery. Moreover, the people I met were very friendly, a people aware of their country’s reputation who were grateful to us for coming to visit in spite of it. It’s a reputation which can no longer be justified. In fact, there were times when the people were friendlier than I wanted them to be, but more of that later.
My objective was to complete the classic Cocuy Circuit, a five day trek in the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy, an area of mountains a day’s drive north of Colombia’s capital Bogota, and climb the highest mountain in the region, Ritacuba Blanco. I signed up for a trip run by the British mountaineering company Jagged Globe, who in turn employed the services of a Colombian operator Andes World to provide the local logistics. Andes World is owned and run by Juan Carlos Gonzalez, who has led climbing and mountaineering expeditions worldwide and spent 10 years working in the travel industry in Spain before returning to Colombia last year to start his own guiding business now that conditions are favourable for tourism there at last.
The Sierra Nevada del Cocuy is a compact range of mountains running in two parallel lines north to south for about 25km. The Circuit actually starts on the western side and follows a trail right down the middle before returning almost full circle. Nearly all of the trek is at an altitude of over 4000m, and crosses several high passes up to an altitude of 4850m. Many guide books describe some of the passes as glaciated, though perhaps the only disappointment for us is that global warming is taking its toll here: the glaciers are retreating at a rate of up to 20 metres a year and most of the passes are now bare rock.
But don’t let this deter you, for the mountains are still very beautiful. On the western side they’re glaciated and slope gently up to their summits. By contrast, on the east they plunge dramatically in 800m sheer cliffs of red rock. There are many turquoise and blue lakes, and the lower altitudes are speckled with bizarre frailejones plants which grow as high as three metres. Perhaps strangest of all is the Valle de los Cojines (meaning Valley of the Cushions, not to be confused with cojones, which are of course testicles), a vast plain of bog-dwelling plants which grow into carpets as hard as rocks floating on a sea of mud and water, a hazard few of us escaped from without wet feet and one member of the team, Tom, almost got sucked into.
The mountains have a reputation for bad weather, but if you’re lucky as we were for the majority of the trip, the views are magnificent, and the climate is pleasantly mild, although you need to remember the double whammy of hot tropical and high altitude sun, and apply the sun cream liberally (or preferably stay covered).
The trip started with the issuing of regulation umbrellas at our hotel in El Cocuy, an indicator of things to come we had to assume, and as we crossed the rocky pass of Boqueron del Carmen in a thick damp mist on the first day of our trek to moans of “We could bloody well be in Scotland”, I was beginning to regret bringing along my lightweight approach shoes rather than sturdy walking boots. My feet were already soaked through and the only light on the horizon seemed to be that five days wasn’t going to be long enough to develop trench foot.
We woke up to clear skies above a picturesque mountain lake on the second morning, and the rain stayed away until we were descending from Ritacuba Blanco a week later. The only time I got wet feet thereafter was bog hopping across the cojines swamp, and that was an enjoyable diversion, something I’ve not done anywhere else, and I was quite happy to swap dry feet for it.
The second day of the Cocuy Circuit contains a great surprise. The climb up to Boqueron de la Sierra, the second pass of the day, is dry and rocky, much of it across rough scree with little in the way of vegetation but for the occasional yellow sparks of espeletia flowers. In the hot sun it’s tiring, but the reward on cresting the pass is one of those rare moments when reality exceeds expectation and the only real word to describe the view that greets you is WOW. I’ll try some others, anyway. A long way beneath us in the far distance is the lush green carpet of Valle de los Cojines, an incongruous smudge of vegetation in a barren brown landscape of snow and rock. Beyond it is another pass, Boqueron del Castillo that we’ll be crossing at the end of the following day, and immediately below is a pure turquoise lake, Laguna del Avellanal, with our tents already pitched by its shores. All of this is pretty special, but these are just incidental details, for on the right hand side of the picture, and clearly its main subjects, are the 800 metre sheer cliffs of the three Ritacubas – Blanco, Negro and Norte – that we saw as gentle snow slopes from the other side two days earlier, dark and rich and laced with lashings of delicious thick snow like rum sauce on a Christmas pudding. It was a true taste sensation, and to make it even better our horsemen had even left us some bowls of fruit salad beside the cairn at the top of the pass. Yum Yum! This last detail has to be arranged in advance, however.
It didn’t escape the notice of my friend Thierry Levenq, the French mountaineer and photographer, that the cliffs of Ritacuba were east facing, and the following morning I was dragged out of my tent at 5.30 to witness the sunrise across the red rock. It was worth it, though, and I didn’t even say “Merde!” It was the prelude to an enjoyable day cojines hopping. Towards the end of it, however, Thierry, an alpine climber who’s used to rushing up and down mountains in a day before the afternoon sun starts melting the ice, was finding our languid trekking pace a little too easy.
Jagged Globe had sent along one of their most experienced leaders Neal Short, who has guided successful expeditions to Everest and Cho Oyu among other peaks, to lead the trip. Neal is one of the best leaders I’ve come across and a thoroughly nice guy to boot, and he was wise enough to realise there was experience enough to divide the group up into a fast and a slow team so that everyone could enjoy the trek at a comfortable pace. Those of us in the fast team went ahead with Juan Carlos, but over the next few days Neal may have started to regret his flexibility. Through no fault of his own the slow team seemed to get into a number of Keystone Kop-style scrapes which eventually led to them being labelled “Death Squad”. On the first day of the split on descent from Boqueron del Castillo on rough scree, Death Squad veered too far to the left and started descending across rough slabs into Venezuela, which may have required passports. On the second day the quietly spoken David went to bathe his feet in a lake, but ended up wetting more than he bargained for when the slippery rocks underfoot decided what he really needed was a fully clothed swim. The crossing of Bellavista pass became a 13 hour day for Death Squad and they arrived well after dark. Vicky was so tired that she looked only marginally less dishevelled than she had when arriving at Heathrow Airport at the start of her holiday after celebrating rather too diligently at an all night Christmas party. Davy injured his knee during the ascent of Ritacuba Blanco and had to finish his day on horseback.
These things only happened to Death Squad, though. For the rest of us the trip was a positive joy. Tom’s own swim in the very same lake which had brought on such suffering for David was even rewarded when a dark-haired, dusky-eyed Colombian maiden came down to the lake to join him. The waters were quite cold though, and Tom needed to cover his modesty with an ice axe.
One of the many advantages of the Cocuy Circuit is the great diversity of terrain. After traversing a scree slope high above a valley under more giant cliff faces, and weaving our way through another weird frailejones maze, the fourth day of our trek ended when we skirted the Cocuy’s biggest lake, Laguna de la Plaza, on a series of endless grey slabs in an eerie mist. As the shores of the lake lapped against the rock a few metres below us, we could have been by a beach rather than walking across a mountain range 4km above sea level. Somewhere to our left more clouds billowed up far beneath us and the land gave way as it plunged down towards the rainforests of the Orinoco. It was a great feeling which sent the imagination off on many journeys.
The trek’s great disappointment came on the final day. We made an early start and I swapped my lightweight Meindl approach shoes, which had done sterling work given the nature of the conditions, for a big pair of clomping Scarpa Omega mountaineering boots. As I trudged up to Bellavista pass on rough scree which at times was no better than boulder hopping, I felt like Lloyd Scott, the man who completed the London Marathon in six days wearing a 70kg deep sea diving suit. Moreover, I was carrying some additional weight on my back in the form of an ice axe, crampons, climbing harness and carabiners, as well as my trusty approach shoes. The reason for this was because we’d been told that Bellavista pass was glaciated, and it would be necessary to descend a snowfield on the other side. The ascent was hard work, and all the more so for Ed who needed to dodge a few missiles close to the top as Tom and Thierry ahead of him played Last One Up’s A Sissy and dislodged a few stones. But they were still too slow. By the time they got up there it seems the glacier had already retreated. The extensive snowfield I had so looked forward to, for which I’d traipsed up steep boulders in heavy boots, was little more than a snowdrift, a short sloping section of deep snow no more than ten metres in height. I could almost have walked down in sandals.
Jagged Globe are one of the more safety conscious mountaineering companies around, and despite the straighforward conditions we were told to put on our climbing harnesses so that we could be lowered down. “Lowered” is perhaps not the most accurate word to apply to the act of belaying someone down a 30 degree snow slope, and after tugging on the rope a few times on my way down to be granted more slack, I felt more like a cart ox dragging a bus out of a mud slick than a climber. I wasn’t even wearing my crampons, and my heavy mountaineering boots had been about as much use as a condom machine at a Star Trek convention, but at the bottom I was able to change back into my approach shoes, and felt like a ball and chain had been released from around my ankles. I found myself in an amphitheatre of dramatic rock towers. It would be a rock climber’s paradise to spend a few days beside the lakes here below Bellavista, but a mountaineer can only lament the absence of snow which I can imagine will be gone completely within a couple of decades at the current rate of retreat.
With our trek at an end, there remained the small matter of climbing Ritacuba Blanco. At last our boots and crampons came in useful as we had a glacier to cross for 500 metres, sloping gently up to a ridge which tapered to a short steep summit dome. Finally I felt like a mountaineer, albeit all too briefly. But even in this feeling I was to be left somewhat dissatisfied by a bizarre episode the like of which I’ve never seen on any mountain. As we waited roped together at the base of the summit dome as Juan Carlos fixed a rope above us, some figures emerged on the summit ridge below us, five young Colombians unroped and wearing – wait for it – jeans and wellingtons. No plastic boots, no crampons, no ropes, no harnesses, and very likely no mountaineering experience. They were just a bunch of youngsters out on a Sunday stroll, and when they got to the glacier they must have decided to keep going. Now here they were just a few metres short of the summit, laughing, smiling, and very happy. They greeted us warmly and waited below us.
Thierry later described them as “a group of young fearless Colombians”, but this may perhaps explain why the French have needed our help in a couple of wars. Other members of our team were less charitable. As they shook hands with each of my companions in turn I stood up and turned my back on them. I preferred to watch the good deal less fearless but considerably wiser David ascend the summit dome on a rope, with his ice axe planted firmly in the snow beside him. The summit turned out to be a narrow blade of snow slanting steeply on either side, and we knew from when we were in the Valle de los Cojines that the other side terminated in an 800m rock face. I was around half an hour on the summit, and took out my GPS to measure the altitude. Maps record the summit of Ritacuba Blanco as 5330m, but I was reading 5410m and Juan Carlos 5412m on his own GPS. Jim came up later and recorded 5399m, but his GPS was clearly faulty with a reading like that. I put my GPS away and started worrying again – all the while I dreaded turning around to see those nutters coming up behind me. To stride these slopes in smooth soled wellies with not so much as a trekking pole to steady yourself – well it seemed to me that certain death was about to occur.
The youngsters were still waiting at the foot of the summit dome when I came down. The day was probably saved by Davy, who with his injured knee appeared to need a bit more of an effort getting up. As I waited a short distance away I turned and saw the Colombians coming back down again. They had thought better of it, and as Tom held the hand of one of the girls to help her down the steep slope in her wellies, I breathed a sigh of relief.
We had completed the Cocuy Circuit and climbed its highest mountain, and nobody had died. For the last week we had enjoyed great weather and beautiful views. About an hour later it started pissing down, and we arrived at Kenwara huts like drowned rats and caked in mud. It had been a thoroughly enjoyable holiday.
If you’re thinking twice about going to Colombia, think no more. It’s beautiful. The people can be crazy, but that makes it all the more entertaining.