Sierra Nevada del Cocuy

The following article of mine was published in the May/June 2013 issue of Adventure Travel Magazine:

I have used a number of mountain guides before, but Bernardo was the first to show up in Wellington boots. With a dog. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting for Ritacuba Blanco, the highest peak in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada del Cocuy, a small but well glaciated mountain range close to the border with Venezuela. But a guide in Wellington boots was better than no guide at all, and I hadn’t got up at three in the morning not to climb this mountain, so off we set, with dog.


The Sierra Nevada del Cocuy is still fairly unknown outside Colombia. It’s a small mountain range, only about twelve miles long, but stunningly beautiful with traditional rural Colombian communities on the west flank, where everyone still wears a poncho, and the plains of the Llanos (and possibly a few guerrilla) on the east flank. I had arrived in the nearby small town of El Cocuy after a twelve hour bus journey from Bogota with the objective of doing some easy mountaineering. I would have liked to hike the circuit which passes around the east side of the range and takes about a week, but I had been advised that this was closed, so had instead decided to climb some of the peaks, all of which are best approached from the west side.


A knock on the door of the guides’ office in the central square of El Cocuy produced no answer, so I made a visit to the Park Office. They had some good displays, but weren’t able to help much with a guide. I had the offer of a lift from a local up to the Cabañas Herrera in the mountains, so decided to accept that, and see what I could arrange up there..


After an hour’s drive we reached the Cabañas Herrera. I was now at 3800m above sea level. I was a little anxious about this. I had taken a flight from a town at 200m in the Amazon Basin only the previous afternoon. It was quite a rapid ascent and I had to watch out for signs of altitude sickness. Maybe I still had acclimatisation from the time that I had spent in the highlands a week before going to the Amazon, but I wasn’t that confident that it would have lasted. In the afternoon I went for a short walk up the valley, past some lakes to 4000m, where I still felt OK, before returning to the Cabañas to ask about finding a guide.


Success! There was a group of Colombian hikers staying at the Cabañas, and one of them, Oscar had hired a guide, Alfredo, to climb a mountain called Pan de Azucar the next day. I was welcome to join them if I wanted. Only thing was, Pan de Azucar was 5100m. It would mean going from 200m to 5100m in the space of 40 hours (not something normally recommended!). But, since I was feeling fine, we agreed that I would join Oscar and his guide early the next morning, and if the altitude started to hit me I could easily enough turn back.


We set off the next morning at five. Or rather, I set off. Oscar had a horse to take him a good part of the way and unfortunately there was none for me, so, since the guide could keep up with the horse and I probably couldn’t, I needed to start an hour earlier. But I rushed along and we all met up at a horse corral just about as the sun was rising. We carried on through the rocks from there. After we turned a corner it became a very pleasant walk – over gently sloping rock slabs until we reached the ice. We put on crampons and were soon off over the slopes to a small pass between Pan de Azucar and a large rectangular prism of rock known as El Pulpito, the pulpit. We roped up and carried on up the ridge towards the summit. The ridge was quite narrow and well corniced, but after a bit of huffing and puffing, we were standing on the summit. I could feel the altitude but really it wasn’t too bad. The view was wonderful with the Cocuy range extending to the north, and long vistas to the south down the Cordillera Oriental. I’ve done some more ambitious mountaineering in the past but this was very pleasant – no midnight start, no heavy loads and good weather. It had been tiring, but enough to make you feel like you had had some good exercise, no more.


We started down, and soon realised that the mountain was more popular than we had thought. No-one else was going for the summit but lower down there were now maybe two dozen Colombians who had walked up to ‘see’ the snow. As a tropical country, Colombia doesn’t provide many opportunities for people to experience the snow so people make special trips to see it. They seemed to be busying themselves with some sledging and snowball fights, and lots of photos. And clearly there was quite an industry in taking people up to see the snow, with lots of horses being taken up to the corral where we had stopped earlier, and then guides leading people further.


We had a pleasant walk back down to the Cabañas through the high altitude moorland, with its Frailejones, similar to the Lobelias of the high mountains of East Africa. I didn’t see a great deal of wildlife in the Cocuy but here the landscape was enlivened by Bearded Helmetcrest hummingbirds, very charismatic and only found in the high mountains of Venezuela and Colombia.


Early the next morning I moved on from the Cabañas to take the road further north along the side of the range. I was hitching a ride in the lechero, the milk float. Here the milk floats don’t deliver milk, they collect it. It was a very interesting insight into rural Colombian life, but also very slow as a means of transport. We stopped at every single house, where the owner was waiting outside with jerry cans full of that day’s milk ready to be transferred into a huge vat in the back of the lechero. After a while I had had enough and I jumped out at a working farm, Hacienda La Esperanza, which I knew offered accommodation


Hacienda La Esperanza was wonderful. Inside was a big sunny courtyard with old farming implements hanging on the walls. My room was spacious with a big old wooden dresser, and very comfortable. There was an open fire in the communal area. (Unfortunately the owner’s washing machine was as old as much of his furniture, and when a lot of my clothes came back from the wash, damaged by bleach, I could only forgive him, given the bargain £8 a night that I was paying to stay there).


After a couple of days at the Hacienda I moved on, to the Posada Sierra Nevada, at the foot of Ritacuba Blanco, This place didn’t really have the ambience of the Hacienda – it probably had accommodation for about eighty people, but unfortunately I was the only person staying there, and, at 4000m, it was very cold. But the proprietor helped me arrange a guide for the next day, Bernardo.


Bernardo was not really in the same mould of mountain guide as Alfredo, in his poncho and Wellington boots, but after our 3am meeting, he showed me the way up the mountain in the darkness, which I would never have managed on my own. After a couple of hours, as dawn broke, we reached the edge of the ice. In front of us was a huge wide, open area, more of a snow dome than a glacier. I put my crampons on, but it almost wasn’t necessary, as the slope was very gentle. Bernardo was going to be OK in his Wellingtons. The dog ran ahead of us, stopping occasionally. It occurred to me that perhaps the dog was a actually serving a useful role, if not part of a standard mountaineering set-up. It seemed to stop and put its ear to the snow quite often. I couldn’t help thinking that it was trying to listen for the sound of air moving in a crevasse, like the sound of a shell if you hold it to your ear. It seemed plausible and I read up on this afterwards. All I could find was that husky dogs have been known to become nervous and stop before hidden crevasses but nobody is quite certain how they detect them. Unfortunately there are also teams of husky dogs that have fallen right into crevasses, so you wouldn’t want to place too much reliance on them. Anyway I had been assured by a number of people including Bernardo that there were no crevasses on our route, so I wasn’t too concerned.


We moved on and the scenery was spectacular. Ritacuba Negro close by to the north of us, and to the south a big ice field with pyramid-shaped mountains sticking up out of it. Clouds were starting to billow up from the lowlands to the west, reducing the distance we could see, but making what we could see all the more atmospheric. Finally, and, without all that much exertion, we reached the base of the small summit mound at the top of Ritacuba Blanco. It was quite steep, maybe 45 degrees, but not that high, 20m perhaps. Bernardo clearly hadn’t been expecting me to carry on up to the top, and he certainly wasn’t going to in his Wellington boots, but I got my ice axe out and kicked steps up to the top, which I soon reached. From the top I could now see right down to the Valle de Los Cojines, 1000m below me, and through which the circuit passes. It was a pity not to have been able to hike there.


I waited about twenty minutes at the summit, out of sight of Bernardo. He must have grown a bit concerned at the time I spent there for he walked around to the side, out into the open in order to see me. It was a great opportunity for a quick photo of him, looking very out of place, in his big hat and poncho standing out in the middle of all the snowfields, and I snapped a quick shot.


I set off back down, back to Bernardo, and we made our way back down the snowfield. The cloud started coming in rapidly – we had been lucky, half an hour later to the summit and there would have been no view at all. As we descended it started to snow quite hard, and this then turned to rain. Back at the Posada, I bid Bernardo farewell, and then found a minibus down to the town of Guican. The next day, after a restorative swim in the thermal springs of Guican, I got on a night bus to Villa de Leyva, a beautiful colonial town, where I stopped for a couple of days, and thence back to Bogota. Quite easy really.


Posted on Saturday, December 28, 2013 at 17:18 by Registered CommenterRobert Ulph | CommentsPost a Comment