Eight years ago I visited Colombia to trek the Cocuy Circuit in the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy mountain range and climb its highest peak, 5,410m Ritacuba Blanco. It was one of the most beautiful, remote and unusual treks I have completed, but the climb was fairly ordinary. The Cocuy is a rock climber’s paradise, but as far as alpine climbing is concerned the glaciers are receding faster than my hairline, and the ascent was little more than a modest snow plod.
I hoped that one day I would return to Colombia. The place I really wanted to visit was the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta which rises above the Caribbean coast. This range is home to Colombia’s two highest mountains, Pico Colon and Pico Bolivar, both around 5,775m, but no one’s really sure. The peaks have been closed by the local people for many years and remain so even now.
Few a few years now, my friend Thierry has been trying to persuade me to sign up to one of Jagged Globe’s winter trips to the Los Nevados range in central Colombia. It seemed less appealing than the Cocuy Circuit and while I’ve always enjoyed group trips I know that Edita isn’t that keen on them.
But Thierry is an astute chap, and after I introduced him to Edita he realised very quickly who was the boss. He started working on her instead of me, sending her regular photos via WhatsApp (of Colombia, that is). Before long, there was nothing Edita wanted to do more than sign up for a Jagged Globe trip to Colombia.
And that is how I ended up going back there. I didn’t regret it though.
Los Nevados National Park in the Cordillera Central mountain range has some similarities with the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy. It rises to just over 5,000m and it surrounded by páramo, the high-altitude grassland environment that I talked about in last week’s post. But in one key respect it’s very different.
The main peaks of the Cocuy rise along a rock escarpment that falls away dramatically in a series of 1,000m cliffs on its eastern side. The main peaks of Los Nevados, however, are volcanoes. The highest one, Nevado del Ruiz (5,325m) is so active that you’re not currently allowed to climb it. We were soon to discover that the second highest, Nevado del Tolima (5,215m), is pretty active too.
Our trip started with a day of relaxation at a coffee farm, Hacienda Venecia, nestling in a hollow south of Manizales. We spent much of the day chilling out on a veranda drinking white wine, while colourful birds nibbled at fruit perched on the railings. But we were also taken on a tour of the farm by an entertaining fellow called Johan, who showed us how to roast arabica, and sent us up into the hills looking for the ripest red coffee beans.
‘You tourists are great,’ he said. ‘You pay us to come and pick beans for us.’
At some point the following day, there was a 6.2-magnitude earthquake just south of Bogota that caused the suspension of the city’s transport system. Edita and I are both quite familiar with earthquakes now and can usually spot them right away. This time we were bobbing about in jeeps on rough dirt tracks as we drove up into the mountains, and we had no idea it had happened until somebody told us about it two weeks later as we boarded a plane.
We spent three nights at a bleak, basic concrete building that could have done with a lick of paint and a spot of maintenance. We arrived in thick mist and the place felt a bit miserable. Our guide Diego described it as one of the better guest houses in the area, and he may have been right. It certainly wasn’t the worst.
Thierry insisted there would be a sunset that night, but this seemed as likely as a steam train blasting out of the mist. Languishing in a poky room waiting for dinner was going to be depressing, but stepping outside onto the grass wasn’t so bad. Edita and I decided to take a walk just as the unthinkable happened and the sun threatened to drill a hole through the clouds.
We walked up a rough vehicle track above the hostel. At the top of a hill I looked behind me and saw three summits of Nevado del Ruiz rising in a line. The middle one was spewing up a cloud of gas and the right one was a dome of light grey. We couldn’t agree if it was grey rock, ash or snow, but we later learned that it was snow. A pointed peak on the other side of the view was Paramillo de Santa Rosa.
We were joined by Peter, a jolly engineer who had been on our Ojos del Salado trip the previous year and was the person responsible for identifying the circumhorizon arc in the sky that I wrote about in a previous post. Edita suggested that we walk through a gate and down a grassy ridge that gave us great views of both peaks.
As the sun dropped behind Santa Rosa, we were treated to a light show over Ruiz as the sky changed colour behind its gas plume from light blue to orange to pink.
‘I know what Thierry’s going to say when we get back. “Did you see the sunset? You see, I told you there would be a sunset”,’ I said in a mock Gallic accent.
But I knew they couldn’t see Ruiz from the hostel, and this gave me an easy retort. ‘Did you see the active volcano?’
As the last of the sun faded away, Peter noticed Venus appearing in the night sky above the jagged outline of Santa Rosa.
‘Can you show us Uranus, Peter?’ I asked.
But Edita said it was getting late and we should return to the hostel before it was too dark.
The following day we walked 6km further along the vehicle track into the heart of the páramo. Here we encountered frailejones for the first time (see last week’s post) and ascended to a viewpoint overlooking Laguna Otun, the largest lake in Los Nevados, on one side, and underlooking the three peaks of Nevado Santa Isabel on the other side.
This latter volcano was the site of an extraordinary incident the following morning, the like of which I have never experienced in all my years of mountaineering.
Twelve of us set out at 4am, hoping to reach one of its summits. We were eight clients and four guides, our lead guide Diego and his close friend Daniel, accompanied by two local guides Fernando and Fernando. Diego was one of only five mountain guides in Colombia who are UIAGM-certified, a man of great patience, flexibility and experience. He had great faith in the guiding ability of Daniel, a man he climbed with frequently. But Daniel wasn’t certified to guide in Los Nevados, while the two Fernandos were.
However, Diego had only climbed with the first Fernando, who I’m going to call Old Fernando. Young Fernando he had never climbed with, and he wasn’t sure if he was any good. This meant we needed Daniel to come with us too, just to be on the safe side.
I hope you’re following this?
At 3am, just after breakfast, we had to stop by the ranger station and wake up the rangers to show them the size of Daniel’s first aid kit (or so Diego told us). This would prove to them that Daniel was a suitable person to accompany us on the mountain. Luckily Daniel happened to be a paramedic and an expert in wilderness medicine. His first aid kit was enormous and the rangers were impressed.
And so we set off in darkness up an eroded trail through grasslands. As the sun began to rise we climbed above the vegetation zone into a landscape of bare rock that had been scoured clean by the rapid retreat of the glacier.
There were paint marks on the rocks. One mark read 1960, the location of the glacier 60 years ago. We scrambled over rocks for a long distance until we reached more paint marks that read 2003. We caught up with the retreating glacier half a mile later. It was dry, grey and crusty, and it terminated beneath the walls of the combe just a few hundred metres away from us. It probably had less than ten years of life left.
Yet this alarming evidence of climate change wasn’t our main concern at that moment. Daniel and Young Fernando were nowhere to be seen and we had only a vague notion why from snippets of information Diego had picked up from his radio.
Later that evening Daniel described the story to me over dinner. It was hard to believe, yet apparently true. They had stopped to help a trekker and her guide whom we had seen descending. She had altitude sickness and Daniel was helping her as Young Fernando and the other guide stood behind him. When Daniel turned around, Fernando’s face was bleeding from a wound under his eye.
Fernando happened to have a glass eye, and the other guide had smashed him in the face with his ice axe in a spine-chilling attempt to skewer his remaining eye.
(‘How did you know he had a glass eye, Daniel?’ I asked. ‘Oh, it just came out in conversation.’)
There was clearly some past history here. Fernando tried to explain why the other guide had attacked him, but Daniel didn’t want to know. He just wanted to treat his wound and get him to safety. The trekker and her guide had fled. Apparently police came up from Manizales later in the day to arrest him.
Meanwhile, as this drama was being enacted below us, we were strapping on crampons and roping up for what I thought would be an easy walk up a glacier and scramble up to the summit. In fact, the main summit of Nevado Santa Isabel is rather more than a scramble, and this is the reason Diego was keen to bring four guides.
With only two or three people on the rope, a guide can take his clients up quite technical terrain by keeping the rope short and tight. This wasn’t possible with eight of us and only two guides. It wasn’t our guides’ fault – it was the result of a freak incident – but what was to be our ascent instead became a descent into farce. I described it in a little more detail earlier this month, so I won’t repeat it here.
But any disappointment we might have had was quickly relieved by three days of pleasant trekking across the outlandish páramo landscape. It was familiar to me and Thierry from our trek in the Cocuy eight years earlier, but to Edita and the rest of our group it was entirely new.
We trekked along a ridge and across plains of paja grass. Forests of frailejones sprouted from the mist, and little lakes were everywhere. We finished the first day by camping in a pleasant meadow on the shores of Laguna Otun.
The next day was sunny and bright. We continued along the shores of the lake, then over ridges and valleys of tall grass. We descended into farmland through a polylepis forest. These ancient trees with bark that peels away like tissue are said to be the highest growing trees in the world, found at altitudes of up to 4,000m through Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.
We ended the day at Finca Berlin, a remote farmhouse beneath the collapsed crater walls of Paramillo del Quindio. The farmhouse was little more than a tin shack, but there was a homely feel to it. The comfy porcelain toilet needed to be flushed with a bucket of water, but the floor was clean and there was a chest of drawers next to it with a vase of flowers on top – a nice touch.
The next day we continued high into the páramo on a hillside of frailejones. Higher and higher we climbed into the mist until, all of a sudden, we found ourselves walking along the rocky surface of a beach. It was the collapsed caldera of Paramillo del Quindio, which must once have been a vast volcano. Only half of the crater remains, but when the whole thing existed, the crater must have been two kilometres across.
Paramillo del Quindio has a number of summits lining the remaining walls of the crater. The highest points are rocky and technical. We were aiming for the central summit, which is just a walk up.
We could see nothing of the mountain to begin with as we stopped for a packed lunch in the base of the crater. But as we climbed above the vegetation zone on a path of yellow gravel, the mist began to clear and we could see more of the crater rim above us.
To our left, the west summit was a fortress of rock. To our right, the east summit remained hidden in cloud, but we could see the gentler central summit crowning scree slopes straight ahead.
Our path took us up these slopes to a ridge between the west and central summit where we looked down into an emerald combe with a lagoon. Another mountain across the combe was called Peñas de Caracoli, or Snail Rocks (not to be confused with Penes de Caracoli, which means Snail’s Penis).
We were sheltered as we climbed, but it was windy on the ridge. We now had a splendid walk along this fine dry ridge of yellow rock to the central summit. It steepened towards the end and we reached the 4,765m summit at 2pm. It was a small, flattish area where three ridges joined.
Edita and I ran down the scree slopes back to the base of the crater. The only person to keep up with us was Iain, a Munro and Corbett compleatist. When I pointed out that he must have had plenty of practice racing down scree slopes during those 504 Caledonian summits, he said that most of the scree in Scotland has now slid to the bottom of the slopes.
We had another two hours of so of trundling up and down grassy ridges to get to Finca Primavera, the farm where we would spend two of the next three nights. The trail wasn’t very clear and a mist was threatening worse weather that never came. In these circumstances Diego wanted to keep the group together, which meant a painfully slow pace (like, indeed the caracoli de peñas) to cater for the slowest member. Such are the drawbacks of group trips where patience is sometimes required.
Primavera was a squalid place to spend the next three nights. The family who owned it appeared to be doing nicely from tourists – it was busy throughout the time we spent there – yet they had done little or nothing to improve the facilities. It was very noisy, not just from us tourists, but the family and their many offspring who ran up and down the corridors.
The dormitories were basic, with bunk beds crammed into every available space and little room for bags when the rooms were full. Mud was everywhere; the floors of the toilets were particularly blessed with it. The shared kitchen and dining room had just enough room for a bench of diners squashed behind the stove. We had to eat in shifts so that everyone could get their turn. We spent less than an hour there before being shuffled away for the next group. The food wasn’t worth spending time over in any case.
Primavera’s saving grace was its garden. Despite being hemmed in by the ubiquitous barbed wire, it felt spacious and commanded fine views along a valley to Nevado de Tolima (5,215m), our main objective for the trip. It was to be our first view of Los Nevados’ most isolated and conical of volcanoes. We chose to camp.
This being a working farm, I was rudely awoken at 4am by a crowing rooster outside the tent and I found it hard to get back to sleep. When I eventually rose, I was greeted by a fine view of Tolima as soon as I unzipped the door. It looked like a mini Aconcagua, with a thin streak of snow resembling the Polish Glacier. By the time we finished breakfast it has disappeared and we packed away in a mist too thick to see but too thin to shield us from the sun’s burning rays.
We had a short four-hour walk that day up to our high camp at 4,450m on Tolima’s flanks. The trail followed a dry gully past another farm. It was pleasant moorland scenery with high grass hills rising up beyond, but I was feeling a bit laboured and my pack rested heavy on my shoulders.
When we crossed a stream and stopped beside some secluded banks for lunch my mood was wistful. Although the scenery was pleasant and everything I enjoy in the mountains, I felt like I had done trips like this so many times before that it was no longer special. In truth, I was missing our new life in the Cotswolds – it is so different from my old life in London that it feels like an adventure to me.
I couldn’t be too down-hearted about this because it meant I would be happy to return home, but it was odd to not be excited about the climb.
In any case, a few hours later this feeling was gone. We started a gradual climb up a frailejones-clad hillside until we saw our horses, who had gone on ahead, descending above a cleft to the right. We climbed more steeply up to high camp on a trail that had been widened into many parallel trails by the tramping of horses’ feet. We passed above the cleft and the trail swung back to the left. Edita and I strolled on ahead, and before we knew it we had climbed 300m.
We had been in mist for almost the whole day, but when we arrived at camp the yellow wall of Tolima appeared from the cloud as if to welcome us. There was a flat area on sandy soil among scrubby vegetation before the mountain rose more steeply.
Daniel had pitched the tents for our arrival. It was a wonderful campsite with a feeling of great elevation. The sun also had a warming effect; I knew we would be comfortable for the short time we were here. I had missed camping. There were some fantastic locations for it here in the Colombian Andes and we had spent far too many nights in ropey farmhouses.
It was 3.15. Edita and I settled in quickly and organised our tent. We had a couple of hours to relax in our sleeping bags and prepare our few things for tomorrow’s climb. The intention was an early 6pm dinner to give us a few hours’ rest before the climb. This being South America, we had the obligatory stupid o’clock start and a climb in total darkness to make the ascent as forgettable as possible.
The crew did everything to look after us. Daniel brought coffee to the tent door. Then one of the horsemen appeared with a bowl of delicious pasta, bacon, mushroom and tomato mix which was too much to eat. They filled Edita’s flask with tea. Diego stood in between the four tents of the group and described the route for the following day so that nobody had to stir from their sleeping bags. The two slower members would get up at midnight and leave at 1am, while the rest of us had a big lie-in till 1am before leaving at 2am.
By 7pm all our things were ready, we’d had dinner and were settling in the tent for a good five or six hours’ sleep.
But the crew then stayed up having what sounded like a party. Four or five voices were chatting in animated fashion and laughing loudly.
‘Are they going to stay up till midnight now?’ I grumbled to Edita.
After about half an hour of this Edita decided to stick her head out of the tent door and ask them to be quiet. But she was tired, annoyed and had trouble getting her words out. She ended up speaking in three languages, none of which were English.
‘Daniel, un poquito piu tranquillo, s’il vous plaît.’
This was a bit harsh on Daniel, as he wasn’t the only one making the noise. I also thought she could have thrown in some Lithuanian for good measure, but it had the desired effect. They quickly finished what they were doing, went to bed and left us to get some sleep.
We left promptly at 2am. It wasn’t a cold summit day. Diego’s pace was gentle, but before long we were removing layers and ventilating. Richard even unzipped the half zip of his base layer so that his chest hair was blowing in the breeze.
We kept expecting to look back and see our third guide Juan Carlos catching us. But after we had climbed about 200m, Diego said that Juan Carlos was ill and wasn’t coming. Something about the way he said it suggested that he wasn’t entirely happy.
We were having bad luck with guides. Juan Carlos was already a last-minute replacement for another guide who had been taken ill earlier in the trip. Then, of course, there was the one-eyed guide who had been attacked by another guide with an ice axe. All of this meant that Diego and Daniel were having to work harder to keep us all happy. From our point of view, it meant less flexibility for our large group and increased the chances of something going wrong like it had on Nevado Santa Isabel.
After about 300m of ascent up steep scree, we reached a flatter area and actually went downhill slightly. We arrived at an open area of sand and rocks, where we caught Daniel with our two slower members.
We were beneath a rock face. It was the place where the walking ended and the scrambling began. We roped up for the next section and divided into two rope teams. Iain the Munroista was given the short straw and went on Daniel’s rope with the snails.
‘What have you done to deserve this?’ I said as we left. He shook his head in resignation.
This technical section was only about 20m high. Someone had attached runners to the rock to clip into. There were only two of them and the scrambling was so easy that it hardly warranted such protection.
Once above it, Diego unroped us and we scrambled up another 20m on easier ground. Here we waited a long time for the other rope team to catch up. For the first time we started getting cold. After a short discussion, Diego agreed to go back to fetch Iain and bring him up to join our rope. This would turn us into a large rope team of one guide and five clients, but we were a fast and experienced group, and it meant Daniel would only have the two slower members to look after. It was the right decision, and Diego evidently felt that the glacier posed no danger for such a large party.
And so it proved. We weaved between and over rocks for another hour on a rough pathway that was more like easy scrambling than walking.
We arrived at the edge of the glacier at 5am. Edita’s altimeter told us that we had only 200m to climb. It was dark and I was annoyed that it would still be dark when we reached the summit.
We could see nothing of our surroundings, but it was an easy walk up a crisp glacier. After a short distance there was a steeper section. The trail bent to the right to reach flatter ground then back to the left.
Gradually the gradient lessened until there was nowhere higher. We were on top of a large snow plateau and the sun was still below the horizon.
We had reached the summit of Nevado del Tolima at 5.45 and there was an orange glow to the east. I was still a bit grumpy that we were there too early. But my mood lightened when Diego said there was another summit fifteen minutes away that was only a few metres lower.
Since we had time to kill before dawn, I asked Diego if we could go there to measure and compare the altitude on both summits. He readily agreed. Edita checked her altimeter and it read 5,219m. Diego’s was reading 5,235m.
By the time we set off again, the sky was lightening. Diego, Edita, Thierry and I set off at a brisk pace while the others waited. Ahead, we could see the plateau drop away and rise again to a more prominent, pointed summit. It was hard to gauge the distance, but Diego was right. In fact it took only ten minutes to get there.
This summit rose above the plateau only 3m. It was a cornice. Edita tried to go as close as possible, but none of us wanted her to climb onto it.
It was now quite obvious that we were below the plateau, and we didn’t need Edita and Diego’s GPSes to confirm that this summit was about 15m lower.
After a quick stop to tighten my right crampon, we left, but we didn’t return to the plateau immediately.
What happened next was the highlight of our trip.
‘Let’s do a circle of the crater,’ said Diego.
He took us a little to the left of the line from the smaller summit to the plateau, aiming for what looked like an enormous serac with a huge crevasse underneath. But as we approached, the smell of sulphur became more intense until it was almost overwhelming.
Then Diego told us to keep the rope tight, and one-by-one we walked right to the edge of the crevasse and peered down.
It was one of the most amazing sights I had ever seen. It was no bottomless, yawning crevasse at all.
There, only about 20 or 30m below the edge, a bubbling lake was emitting clouds of gas. I have looked into a few volcanic craters now. I have seen plenty of fumaroles, but this was the first time I had climbed a mountain, looked down and seen it bubbling. Diego was a braver guide than most to allow us to do this.
Back on the plateau, the others were ready to descend, but when we described what we had seen they wanted to go and look too. Now it was Edita, Thierry and my turn to wait on the summit while the others went off sightseeing. By the time they returned, we had been on the summit over an hour. We were just about to leave when Daniel’s head appeared above the brow, leading our two slower members, Peter and Leo.
It was a triumph. We were all on the summit together, which of course meant a team photo. I crouched in front of the others and cradled my axe in my arms like a trophy.
By the time we finally left for real at 7.15, we had been on the summit 1½ hours and I was no longer regretting our stupid o’clock start. You win some and you lose some, and this had definitely been a very big win.
We descended at a leisurely pace. The skyline had cleared a little and we could now see two of the summits of Paramillo del Quindio. We were off the glacier in next to no time. The section back on rock was difficult to follow, with many trodden paths heading off in different directions. Diego took us on a different return path, I don’t think intentionally, and we emerged below the rock cliffs in a different place from where we first reached them.
The rest of the descent to camp was quick, including some easy scree running. A light rain was just starting when we arrived back at 9.30. It turned out to be perfect timing. The tents were still standing and our things unpacked from our early start. We cowered inside them while the rain hammered like cannonballs.
One hour turned into two. I slept for nearly an hour and when I woke up the rain was continuing relentlessly. There was no point in going anywhere in that deluge, and water leaked into the porch like rivers.
At 11.30, two hours after we arrived in camp, I heard Peter’s voice outside and knew that the others had returned. Edita and I sprung into action and had our things packed in fifteen minutes. In two short hours, our campsite had been turned into a mud bath, but it was a theme that was to continue for the next day and a half.
We made a cautious descent on a steep path that was churned into mud by the horses. We somehow managed to keep on our feet until we reached the frailejones plateau, where the going became easier. The rest of the walk back to Primavera passed interminably. Edita strode ahead as I limped behind. There were a couple of river crossings that gave us more trouble than they had on the way out. The water had risen considerably and the rivers had become raging torrents.
The rain was constant, the sort of British hill drizzle that seeps into you so that you end up drenched without really remembering it. Despite the squalor of the farmhouse, there was no question of unpacking our tents. We peeled off our wet clothes, hung them up in the corridor and hunkered down for an uncomfortable night in one of the dorms. The walls were paper thin and we could hear every word that anyone spoke. The floors were now running with mud and some of the low-end Nepalese teahouses would have put the place to shame.
Our discomfort continued into the following day, our last of the trek. We had a long walk out to Cocora on a high valley trail in mist. It reminded me of the Himalayas. This feeling was enhanced when it started raining… and continued for the rest of the day. It had become a monsoon trek, but without the leeches. We passed some more farms, which like farms throughout the world, seem to set aside more fields for mud than they do for farming. We descended steeply through muddy holloways. There were some precarious log bridges that we crossed with the help of a single rope slung across as a handrail.
By now the rain had become a deluge. We were soaked to the bone and continued in a daze. The muddy trail was now so steep that had we been carrying skis, we could have won the downhill at the Olympic Games. Lindsey Vonn would have had trouble keeping up with us. How I stayed on my feet was a miracle.
Mercifully the gradient slackened and then we saw people coming the other way. We had reached the roadhead at Cocora. We had a last wade across a weir to get to the other side of the river. Local tourists were crossing on horseback, but for us it was a welcome opportunity to clean our boots.
Unfortunately there was a final fifteen minute walk up a muddy track swilling in liquified horseshit. We stopped at a shack by the side of the road and there were the horses and horsemen with our bags.
It was a watery end to our trek, but we had a day to relax in the cosy, cool town of Salento where we had a hot shower, a comfortable hotel room, and a meal in a nice restaurant. We reminisced about Nevado del Tolima and its amazing crater. It had been an enjoyable two weeks; I don’t know if it will be Edita’s last group trip or whether Thierry will talk her into another one.
You can see all my photos from our trip in my Los Nevados Flickr album.