PNN El Cocuy: The Time We Almost Trusted Someone A Little Too Much

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South America » Colombia » Boyacá
December 21st 2014
Published: April 4th 2015
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Remember Radio? Well, this is the short story of how someone who seemed trustworthy and like they knew what they were doing, and slowly lost our trust. Don't get me wrong here, he's a super nice guy, but we were relying on him to take us up a glacier...

Things started out fine. We met him at 7 am outside our hotel and took the bus to Guican, and even paid for our trip.

At his house in Guican he introduced us to Suzanne, who's a Venezualan tourist who's also coming with us to the top of Pan de Azucar. She's a serious climber, and was hoping to do as much adveturing as she could while on holidays in Colombia. Like us, she was excited to climb a mountain that was higher than anything that she had climbed before.

The group of us went into town and Radio bought us breakfast. Then we set out on a two hour hike to a lookout point where we could just see the top of the range that features all of the glacier capped 5000m+ peaks in PNN El Cocuy. These mountains aren't quite visible from the towns of El Cocuy or Guican because they are obstructed by the other mountains in between that border the towns. So this was our first glimpse of our targets. We could just see the tops, so we're going to have to get closer to get a really good view, and right to the top to get a real sense of the elevation!

Back in town we had a couple of post hike beers and some lunch, and Radio again paid for us. We went to the park office to register, pay our fees, and get our insurance. Actually, this involves two different offices, because the insurance office is in a different building. But you can't register to go in the park without insurance. A bureaucrats dream.

Everything was going well so far, that's for sure, and we returned to his house to take it easy in the afternoon.

We really had all day to pack, but it wasn't until the evening that Radio started pulling out gear and having us pack. Vanessa and I were hoping to take our little 30L packs with sleeping bags and essentials while Radio shouldered the tent and cooking gear, but that was a pretty naive wish. The gear Radio had was old and not the most compact, which is really to be expected. It's not like their are North Face stores on every corner in town, and high end gear comes at very high end prices. So I was going to have to take one of Radio's big bags and stuff it full of gear.

It was a pretty lousy bag. I'm going to guess it was about 20 years old, and it had several small holes in it. This bag had seen some shit. It also had a really crappy and worn out suspension system, so I'd be carrying the load on my shoulders and back instead of my hips, like modern functioning packs.

I started to pack it, but Radio stopped me and started packing it himself. And he wasn't doing that great a job. If you're enthusiastic about packing properly, then you'll understand my frustration while I watched him stuff things randomly inside, and then strap the tent to the outside of the pack, and right on the back of the pack where the weight would be the furthest from my body, perpetually pulling me backwards. And he wouldn't let me repack it. I lost a little bit of faith in him right there.

Packing can be stressful, and it seemed stressful for Radio, even though he's a guide and does this all the time. He had a particular moment of frustration while trying to tie a sleeping pad to Vanessa's bag, and ended up throwing the sleeping pad aside. Vanessa said if he had a mini freak out like that on the trail, she was going to lose it on him.

I wasn't super happy when I went to bed. I wondered if it was a bad sign that I didn't have 100% faith in our guide and his knowledge and abilities. I mean, he packed a loaf of bread. Who does that?

Still, I gave him the benefit of the doubt and was looking forward to the hike. My over-packed and under-supported backpack was going to be a bit of wild card, but I was confident I could struggle through.

And the four of us slept on various mattresses on the floor of Radio's one room house to the sounds of the town party and fireworks. It's not just El Cocuy with the eight day Christmas party, it's every single town around.

We got up very early, at 3:30am, to catch el lechero (the milk truck) which would take us to the mountains. Sleep was hard to come by thanks to the late night and very loud town party and we were glad to be getting away from it into the mountains for a couple of days.

Radio and Suzanne made a breakfast and coffee for us. We got the last of our things ready to go, and lifted our giant bags and headed down the road to where the milk truck would pick us up. At 4:30am the town blasted the sound of Christmas carols from the town church. It was incredibly loud. Seriously, I don't know when people get to sleep!

We waited for the milk truck at corner. It's not just a milk truck but also a supply truck for the small towns and a bus for passengers. There are no seats but Vanessa and Suzanne got seats on barrels. I stood holding onto a big square plastic tank with a metal cage around it at the front. Set off down the road picking up more people and things as we went. We stopped in El Cocuy and waited for about half an hour. Too bad we hadn't slept there. We could have slept in... a little.

The milk truck carried on away from town along the gravel road. It stopped to pick up more passengers, deliver goods, and pick up milk from each of the farms. They just leave milk canteens at the side of the road and these guys pick it up and put it on the big plastic tank I was holding onto.

Finally we got to a junction in the road where we got off with our monster bags. We took a couple of minutes to apply sunscreen, enjoy the view, and go tip the bathroom before setting off down the road to the park entrance. And we begun our hike above 3000 m. Great, only 2 vertical kilometres to go.

The trail continued through the valley of the frailejones. These look a little like a cactus type bush, or a palm tree trunk with leaves that feel like wool. They grow one centimeter per year, so many of the ones we saw were well over a hundred years old. They were pretty cool, like something out of a Dr. Seuss book, and vegetation that's unique to a tropical glacier climate, whatever exactly that means.

After a couple hours we got to some lakes called (suitably) Las Lagunillas and set down our packs so we could walk out and see the lakes. I asked about camping and how much further it was, and Radio just said “tranquilo”. I was getting frustrated because I wanted to know the plan, and it seemed to be changing.

At the lakes, he told me we were going to camp up past the actual campsite. But we had to keep it a secret and not let anyone see us because we weren't supposed to camp there. Hmm. Well at least I know what's going on but this seems a lot less official then I originally thought. It's also different from what he told us before when we registered at the park office, and what he told the park rangers we'd be doing. I guess he had to keep it a secret from them to. It was suspect, but he was our guide, so I guess we'd follow him.

He gave me some food to carry because he was getting tired, including some chopped beets which were leaking beet juice through the bag. He put them in my bag at first on top of evening else, but I stopped him because I didn't want best juice leaking all over my clothes, even though they were in dry bags. So I unpacked my clothes which were on top and put the beats underneath. At least that way they'd only leak on his stuff.

So we donned our packs once again and headed further up the mountain. After another hour or so we passed a couple of signs saying camping was not allowed anywhere in the area. This was clearly marked in English and in Spanish. That's where we made camp.

On the way up we passed a couple of guided groups coming down and they took long looks at our big packs, so at camp I asked radio if the other guides were OK with him camping here. He said no, but if they said anything about it he'd just say, “Please it's only for one night!” and they'd let him get away with it. Which is odd since I'm getting the impression that he does this all the time. So I don't know why he keeps getting away with it.

I unloaded my pack and surveyed the beat juice damage. I had to clean some best juice off of one of the dry bags at camp. And it was on the inside of the backpack and on the outside of the garbage bag my sleeping bag was wrapped in. I was not impressed, but at least it wasn't all over my stuff.

We set up our tents and radio made lunch. It had been nine hours since breakfast, so we were hungry. We napped in the afternoon, and then he made dinner. The clouds were rolling in in the afternoon, so I asked him when we would be doing the hike. I understood we'd be doing it in the afternoon which sounded stupid, because the sky was so clear in the mornings. With the peak shrouded in clouds, it might not be safe, and there would be no point with no view. But I'd just misunderstood, and later he clarified that we'd be getting up at 2am and leaving camp at 3am for the peak.

That made more sense. A little faith restored.

But he kept washing dishes in the river, so that eroded some of that faith once again. We were told to just go to the bathroom anywhere and cover it with rocks, even the toilet paper. The park office was pretty clear that it was not ok to do this. I decided to go well upstream to collect drinking water, since I didn't trust Radio to not shit where he eats.

Radio kept commenting that he was impressed with how strong and fit both Vanessa and I were. I think he could tell we weren't super happy with him, and was trying to make up for it.

Before going to bed I managed to spill some tea in the tent and had to clean it up with a towel before it got on my sleeping bag. Vanessa and I agreed to take all of our personal belongings to to the summit with us in case the park rangers cane to our camp and took things down or something. I set an alarm for 2am, and we went to sleep.

When my alarm went off I didn't hear noise in tent next door, so I let Vanessa sleep while I went to the bathroom and prepared water. Condensation on the inside of the tent froze in the night. My towel that I'd used to soak up the tea was now frozen solid. I had gotten cold in my dirty, over compressed worn out sleeping bag that Radio had lent me. He obviously doesn't store them properly. It was also a bit too short for me, but that's not his fault that I'm too tall for the average sleeping bag, but it just exacerbates the problem of keeping warm in a sleeping bag that's lost it's loft. To combat this, I had worn everything I had for clothes to bed, including long underwear. So even though it was early in the morning, I was just as happy to get up and start moving around to wake up.

Sub-zero temperatures are not the image you'd really have in mind when you first think of a trip to Colombia, and we didn't either. But after reading about the mountains in El Cocuy, we knew it could get chilly so we packed our long underwear, toques, gloves, an lot's of layers just to be prepared. It took some strategy to get it in our small packs, but it was definitely worth doing. Colombia is certainly living up to the climatic diversity we'd read about. And to think, we'll be on the Carribean coast in week or so and it'll be 30C or more.

After going to the bathroom and walking around a bit, I started to get a bit worried that I'd misunderstood the plan again, and that we weren't supposed to get up at 2am. I finally woke up Radio at 2:40. Their alarm didn't go off.

He quickly made breakfast and we got ready to go. We hit the trail at 4:10am in the dark with our head lamps lighting the way. We hiked up the steep ascent to the saddle, which Suzanne said is called a rabbits head in Spanish, because the peaks on either side are like the ears.

The sky gradually started to get lighter and lighter. As we marched along the glacial Rock near the peak it was much flatter, but the elevation meant taking lots of breaks to catch our breath. The sunrise illuminating the snowy peaks was beautiful, and something I'll never forget.

Pan de Azucar waited in the distance. the glacial peak looked daunting. At the toe of the glacier we geared up for the summit. Harness, ropes, crampons, gators, and ice axes. Vanessa and I talked about how we were not really trusting of Radio anymore thanks to the general lack of professionalism thus far. But the first part of the glacier looked good. No crevasses, and I was confident we could have handled it ourselves anyway.

So we followed him up. Immediately I could see that Vanessa's crampons were sized about three quarters of an inch too big. I'm no expert on mountaineering, but I know that's not a good thing, and on the top of a mountain your gear better be reliable.

We stopped and showed Radio. He adjusted her boot in the crampon and tried to tighten it. And we walked a little further. It was still wrong. He reassured us but our trust was waning quickly. We went up a steeper part of the glacier. We stopped him again when Vanessa's boot was twisting within the crampon. I don't think it would have slipped off, but it was pretty frustrating that he didn't size the gear right the night before.

To try and fix it, he took off one of Vanessa's crampons and tried to shorten it with his Swiss army knife. He hadn't packed a screw driver, and the Swiss army knife couldn't adjust it.

He then asked Vanessa what size her boots were. “7,” she says. He says, “37! Mine are the same!” And I tried to protest that 7 and 37 weren't the same, and US and European sizes were different, and men's and women's shoes are different still, and that a 7 and a 37 were not likely the same, and how would he know anyway.

Then he took off both of his crampons and both of Vanessa's. We were on the steepest part of the glacier and he was swapping them. This seemed stupid. How about trading them one at a time? And to boot (pun?) his crampons were still were too big for Vanessa. Then he tried Suzanne's. Still too big. They were all the same size, and it didn't make any difference.

We continued anyway and walked up to the ridge which was a big flat part of the glacier near the top. Looked at the narrow steep 15m wide track up the glacier to the peak and told him we didn't feel safe going up there with the wrong gear, and that we didn't trust him. He tried to reassure us, but we were done. He wanted to leave us on a rock for an hour while him and Suzanne went for the summit.

Vanessa had to yell at him and tell him what a bad guide he was before he agreed to take the two of us down. Suzanne carried on by herself o the summit. At the bottom we still had to keep giving him shit. He called a taxi to meet us at the road (reception at the top of the mountain? Not bad, Colombia) and we would be able to shorten our stay in the park and would not be staying another night. We'd hike out today instead. That sounded like a good plan to us, so we had a snack and waited for Suzanne.

Radio told us a story about how he and his niece, who was visiting from France, were going to climb el Pulpito, and a great big rock feel down and hit him on the head, shattered his helmet and knocked him right out. His niece was pretty scared, and I guess he was convulsing on the ground before he came too. Sounds like a pretty big impact, and a bit of a brain injury, which actually explains some of his odd behaviour, and I say that respectfully. Brain injuries are serious life-altering business.

We may not have hit the summit, but we cleared 5000m, and that's all I needed. We also got great views of the scenery, and el Pulptio del Diablo, which is a big square looking rock that sticks straight up out of the glacier.

We hiked back down, and when we got back there were park rangers waiting for us. They gave Radio shit for camping where we weren't allowed. He pleaded, like he described he would. Suzanne protested that it wasn't like it was a criminal offence. They ended up writing him up with just a warning.

It's really disappointing how little respect Radio has for the natives and the land. Hopefully he gets fined next time.

We packed up camp and hiked down. It was a long haul back to the road. Radio tried to take short cut over the vegetation instead of following the trail. Why? I don't know. It was so unnecessary and probably took us longer while he hunted for the trail again.

We finally got to where the taxi would meet us. We went back to Radio's place packed up our stuff and found a nice hotel in town to stay at instead. To his credit, he gave us 100,000 peso discount each, since it was only a two day trip instead of a three day trip.

We figured that because our hotel was closer to the square that the party would be even louder that night, but it wasn't. The party was somewhere else and we slept good after a delicious meal at the hotel restaurant.

So in summary, El Cocuy is pretty beautiful. Our experienced was only slightly soured by an inadequate guide, but we got a good story out of it. And Radio really is one of the nicest and most personable guys you'll ever meet, but he's just not the greatest guide (actually, he's not an official guide for the park at all).

It's disappointing to have seen the general lack of respect for the natives and their land, not just from our guide but from others too. There's a 6-7 day circuit that you used to be able to hike through a valley around the mountain range, but they closed it off because it's considered sacred land and it was getting damaged. After being led by our guide off the trail and over vegetation, camping where we weren't allowed, watching him wash dishes in glacier streams, and leaving garbage behind, I can completely understand and support that move.

Being able to camp up above 4000m and to climb above 5000m was a very cool experience that I may never have the chance to repeat. I'll never forget the sunrise over the glacier capped mountain range, over Ritacuba Blanca, el Pulpito del Diablo, and Pan de Azucar. That was breathtaking. The mountain peaks are so high the mountains cast a shadow on the hazy morning sky on the horizon.

The scenery itself is not world beating, and I'd say there's better mountains elsewhere in the world. You wouldn't come to Colombia just for these mountains. But since we were here, and we like mountains, it was absolutely worth it for us. But I probably won't make an effort to go back. If you go, maybe pick a different (official) guide, that's all.

All of the small towns were neat too, especially getting to see them in the midst of their eight day Christmas celebration. We definitely got to experience this place at it's best.

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