The peaks of the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy National Park are challenging, but not insurmountable.
BY COLIN BARRACLOUGH
Special to The Miami Herald
We breached the snow line at 15,000 feet, clambering onto the glacier-laced face of Pico El Toti, high in the Colombian Andes. Beneath a scattering of fresh snow and moraine, I could see the ice cap's core of purest blue. My crampons crunched the crisp surface as I plunged my ice ax to the hilt and urged myself on for the long upward slog.
The Sierra Nevada del Cocuy National Park, close to Colombia's border with Venezuela, is one of South America's most impressive ranges, yet one of its least-visited. Two parallel mountain chains rise from the jungle floor to more than 17,400 feet above sea level, their ridges laced with spectacular trekking trails that connect glacier-fed lakes, rivers and waterfalls.
The park's circle of glacier-capped peaks is comparatively accessible, offering novice climbers the chance to summit without the need for advanced technique. Just as well, I was thinking, as I had never before tackled a serious peak.
My hiking buddy, Joshua, oozes the confidence that comes from considerable high-altitude experience. ''The last scramble to the summits could be nail-biting,'' he had told me, ``and you'll have to be fit and fairly determined. But you won't need any technical skills.''
I was drawn to the challenge by an additional incentive: Like other glaciers in the tropics, the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy's ice caps are melting fast. In 1983, local authorities predicted that the park's major glaciers would survive for three centuries; by 2005, new studies rated their life expectancy at just 25 years. Go now, I figured, before the ice is gone forever.
Mountaineers have shied away from Colombia's national parks since the early 1980s, when intractable political strife and drug-related violence effectively placed the entire country off-limits for visitors. Yet peace of a kind has broken out in Colombia, and visitors are returning -- in record numbers. Exploiting a lull in the country's internecine strife, 1.2 million vacationers flew to Colombia in 2007, up by 13 percent over the previous year. Many are risk-shy, high-spending American and European vacationers.
Joshua and I contracted one of Colombia's youngest mountain guides, 23-year-old Alexander Torres, who outlined a plan to set up base camp at a glacial lake, Laguna Grande de la Sierra, at 14,800 feet above sea level. The lake is encircled by five peaks, each reachable in a day. Once there, we would be able to pick our summits at leisure.
The highway from Bogotá towards the Venezuelan border roller-coasters through dizzying changes in altitude. From the 9,800-foot plateau surrounding the Colombian capital, where rolling grassland is dampened by near-permanent drizzle, it drops by 7,800 feet to the pepper trees, prickly pear and searing heat of Chicamocha Valley, switchbacking upwards as abruptly through a connecting valley that leads to the Andes.
The village of El Cocuy, nestling among verdant pasture at 9,000 feet, is surprisingly handsome, its flower-filled plaza and neatly painted houses displaying a sense of order unusual in remote South American settlements.
At the civil war's height, the FARC twice stormed the village, holding it successfully each time for a day. ''Seven years ago, the FARC stole my car, and used it to attack an army outpost in the next village,'' Alexander recalled. ``They returned it the next day, cleaned, and with a full tank of gas.''
KEEPING THE PEACE
Today, the army is determined to prevent a recurrence. Fully armed soldiers patrol El Cocuy's streets. The brigade has chased the guerrillas to the low-altitude flatlands that lie beyond the peaks, a barely mapped region still populated by the U'wa indigenous tribe.
Despite the visible military presence, traveling in Colombia feels safe -- just. President Alvaro Uribe, who first won office in 2002, has deployed the army to protect the highways and major cities, beaten the guerrillas back to their jungle hideouts, and posted a dramatic fall in violence.
The U.S. State Department noted in a March 2009 travel warning that ``security in Colombia has improved significantly in recent years -- the incidence of kidnapping has diminished significantly from its peak at the beginning of this decade.''
In El Cocuy village, local authorities' biggest fear is the speed at which the park's glaciers are receding. ''They're losing ice at an incredible rate,'' said Mario Reyes, a national parks ranger. ``We installed a climate station in the north last year, and it's already shown an ice loss of six feet. In a single year, that's a huge amount for a glacier to lose.''
Like glaciers in other tropical zones, the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy's ice caps are now melting ten times faster than just two decades ago. They have already shrunk to just one-fifth of the length recorded in 1850.
Unchecked, Reyes warned, the disappearance of the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy's glaciers will lead to water shortages in Colombia's major cities.
The trail to the peaks begins at a ramshackle hacienda above El Cocuy, its open courtyard strewn with saddles and ponchos. We rose through a succession of páramos, high-altitude peat bogs distinctive to the Colombian Andes, their gulleys carpeted with frailejones, mysterious, yucca-type plants that stand in vast numbers like a silent army stationed in the mist.
The vegetation disappeared abruptly at 13,800 feet, leaving in its place a desolate, rocky wasteland, utterly without smell. I could detect no insect life or fauna, save a single bird, a stout-billed cinclodes, which flitted close in curiosity.
Heads pounding from the altitude, we set up camp at Laguna Grande, where other climbers had erected an altar to Pachamama, South America's earth goddess. The outlook was savage and unremitting. In all directions, nature was reduced to its most basic elements: rock, water and ice.
Alexander had chosen the spot well. All around, a morass of boulders and moraine rose unbroken to a circle of jagged peaks, each capped on its upper reaches by a glinting coat of ice. To the east was the snow-dusted pyramidal peak of Pan de Azúcar. Behind it, standing in dramatic profile, was the Devil's Pulpit, a 230-foot stack of sheer rock skewering the sky.
Yet evidence of the glaciers' retreat was all too visible -- swathes of ochre rock and moraine, once obscured by monstrous sheets of ice, now lie exposed to sight.
We took a day to acclimatize, boosting energy with sugar-cane juice and steaming pots of melted chocolate. Alexander prepped us with rope technique, and demonstrated how an ice ax can halt a fall. I learned to perform a rapid descent in crampons, and how to master the myriad buckles, clasps and harnesses we would need in ascending.
Our first peak, 15,994-foot Pico El Toti, was comparatively easy. We leaped sink holes and crevasses that tore jagged lines across the glacier, skirting menacingly weak ice that threatened to shatter at a footfall.
But the band of ice that once protected El Toti's peak is already reduced to a mere 500 feet in height, and we soon climbed beyond, scaling boulders and scrambling up naked rock in rapid ascent until a last haul brought the summit within reach. A warming jolt of adrenaline shot through my veins: It was the highest I had climbed in my life.
A STERNER TEST
It was our second summit, 17,060-foot Pico El Cóncavo, which provided the sterner test.
The hardest part of climbing a glacier, it turns out, is the need to move in step while roped to other mountaineers. Move out of sync and the rope can over-tighten or fall uselessly slack. Coordinating each step while climbing the 1,312-foot glacier that protects Pico El Cóncavo would have me howling in frustration.
We hiked out of camp at 6 a.m. amid slashing sleet, rising among boulders and banks of exposed moraine. At the glacier's snout, winds were canyoning in from the east, gusting snow into flurries that reduced visibility to 20 yards.
Tethered ahead, Alexander peered into the whiteness, nosing out the route by instinct. Somewhere ahead, he knew, snow drifts obscured the lip of a 1,500-foot vertical drop. Suddenly, the crampons, helmets and ice axes no longer seemed like frivolous accessories.
The climb was punishing. Sheets of snow flurried across the mountainside, swishing downward in our wake. Just one carelessly chosen foothold, I knew, could spell disaster. Yet El Cóncavo reserved its meanest trick for the final push. We found the summit itself topped by a 30-foot pinnacle of ice, sheer-faced and curtained with icicles. Alexander edged cautiously onto a brittle ice bridge that led to the top, gazed below at a sheer fall of several hundred feet, and shimmied hastily down.
Utterly exhausted, we sat mute in the snow, staring at the ice stack that had so cruelly withheld the summit from us. Then, one by one, without a word, we rose and turned for the long trudge down, stepping out into a blinding blur of white.
Última actualización el Domingo, 11 Noviembre 2012 14:01