We crossed the glacier at the head of the valley in no time, aiming for a gap in the rock where the ice spilled down from a higher plateau. As we passed through this gap to the upper reaches of the glacier, we began to see the cities and lowlands far beneath us, masked by the blanket of thin cloud that we had climbed through. Closer at hand, the páramo landscape was speckled with shimmering lakes. It was magnificent – a view to capture the imagination, and I wished that I could walk there for eternity.
But that was impossible, of course. Nothing lasts for ever and there is always something to throw a spanner into your plans and bring the good times to an end. In this case it was the black rocks of the summit block rising above us, crowning the glistening glacier with a ‘not so fast, old chap’. We reached their base at 9am.
I’d been led to believe that the summit of Nevado Santa Isabel in Colombia’s Los Nevados National Park was an easy scramble, a type of climbing that cruder folk sometimes describe as a ‘piece of piss’. At first glance it didn’t look particularly daunting but this early impression was soon dispelled when our guide Diego took his time going up. It did not look easy.
It soon became clear that this was no easy scramble but a technical rock climb. What had been a gentle glacier was now capped by a broken mass of rock about 20 to 30m high.
It looked do-able, but there was a problem. We were a large group of eight clients and just two guides. The only way for all of us to get up was for our lead guide Diego to climb up and belay us one by one while our other guide Fernando stood at the bottom to assist.
This was going to take a long time and I was wishing I had brought a good book to read as I waited.
Our first volunteer was something of a rock climber. He struggled, pausing over three moves in particular. It took him a long time, but he eventually made it to the top without any outside assistance.
A high wind was whipping clouds briskly across the summit. It didn’t look like the ideal location to take a long rest.
I watched the next two volunteers with growing misgivings. They both took an age over every move. One ramp gave them great difficulty and they were virtually dragged up the final section, like a giant trout being rodded from the river (to paraphrase Sir Edmund Hillary and give his words a more Colombian context).
I remembered now why I wasn’t a big fan of rock climbing. Far too much time is spent buggering about with ropes and far too little actually moving. Even the movement part is something you have to spend time puzzling over. If I wanted to spend time puzzling over each move then it would be safer and warmer to play chess. But as a matter of fact, I get bored playing chess too.
Sometime during the ascent of the third man on the rope I realised there was a very real risk of dislocating my jaw yawning.
The fourth man was a little quicker, having watched the others. Even so, he had to ponder each move, and at one point he contorted his leg over a rock in a manner that challenged the fabric of his trousers. It occurred to me that if I wanted to raise my foot higher than my shoulder then I could learn to dance the can-can.
With four people safely up and four of us still waiting at the bottom, Diego shouted “Next” from his precarious perch at the top of the rock.
At that moment I wished I could simply slip my knight behind his bishop with a lazy flick of the wrist and whisper ‘I’m sorry, dear boy, but I’m afraid that’s checkmate’. Instead, I may have imagined a lowering of the wind to an eerie whistle. If this were a film then tumbleweed would be drifting into shot.
Diego and Fernando kept shouting and they seemed surprised that none of us were moving.
Around two hours had passed since we arrived at the foot of the rock and only half the group were up. Those that were up, were going to have to come back down again, and that was going to take more fiddling around with bits of metal and string.
“Next,” Diego shouted once more.
A reply was needed.
“We’re bored shitless,” I cried into the wind.
Having waited a couple of hours at the top, I expected them to come down right away. But they disappeared for a while, and when they emerged again they were in a different place from where they went up. They wandered backwards and forwards along the top and appeared to be looking for a way down.
Were they stuck, we wondered as we watched from below?
No, the guides were just arranging a belay so that the four clients could be lowered down one by one.
One of my companions at the bottom of the cliff looked at his watch.
“Christ almighty. We’ve been here three hours,” he said.
Christ almighty, indeed. I might even add: fuck me sideways.
Three hours for four clients. Had all eight of us gone up then we’d have been there over five hours. You’ve got to really want a summit to wait in line for five hours.
“They don’t even wait for five hours on Everest,” I quipped.
By good fortune, the sun had been bright for most of the time and we weren’t too cold. We had managed to keep ourselves entertained somehow and the view wasn’t bad, but I resented the time I could have spent learning to play the trumpet or memorising pi to several hundred decimal places.
Or better still, I could have been walking. In three hours, I could have walked many miles through a landscape full of surprises.
And this, in a nutshell, is why I’m not a big fan of rock climbing.