Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Trip Report,
December 3rd. 2015 - December 16th. 2015.
WARNING ! If you consider these mountains, then please read this warning
How it all started.
I had no particular plans for the last few months of 2015. Heidi and
I had not yet decided where to travel for our traditional "week in the sun"
at the end of November or possibly in the beginning of December. I had signed
up to be trip-leader to the traditional pre-Christmas ski trip to the
Demmevass hut, - always nice with members of the Bergen Mountaineering Group
(DNT Fjellsport Bergen).
Then, an email arrived from John Biggar. It started sort of: "I do not know
if you are aware of me." I certainly knew of John, in fact I had two editions of
his guidebook to the Andes.
John is running a mountaineering company with
focus on trips to South America.
The email continued: "I have been able to establish contact with (local) people that
have obtained permission for a mountaineering trip to climb Pico Cristobal Colon and
Pico Bolivar with access from the north, would you be interested in coming along on
such a trip?"
It did not take much time before I wrote back: "Count me in!" I had for a long time
considered this peak to be impossible, due to all sorts of problems related to access.
This was indeed a very unexpected possibility to attempt the 5th. most prominent peak
on the planet.
I made an exception to several personal preferences when accepting to join. I never go
with commercial climbing companies. I prefer to organize the trips myself. I think of
my team in the mountains as being all equal, not always in strength and competence, but as
a team of friends that share both motivation and expenses
and go climbing because we all want to, nobody
making money, but all sharing expenses.
Obviously, John had made a big choice early in life, giving up studies in physics and make
mountaineering his way of life. Given this, I was prepared to reimburse him costs and
join on the normal conditions that he applied to all participants on his mountaineering
trips. He had secured what looked like a unique opportunity, it seemed quite fair
that he would use this as part of his normal business.
Preparations, a sunny beginning in Santa Marta.
What about my trip with Heidi? We quickly decided
to leave early and make Santa Marta our destination for "the week in the sun."
Thus, I booked a full week of accommodation
at the Casa de Leda hotel in
Santa Marta. This hotel had very good reviews and it was located in the
old, central part of town.
We left Bergen on November 27, the flight was problem-free, as planned we took a
night at the airport hotel in Bogota. Thus, we arrived in Santa Marta around noon the
following day. We were friendly greeted at our hotel
and quickly installed in one
of their best rooms,
on the very top floor with a private balcony facing
We quickly decided that Heidi would prefer to read her books and enjoy the warm
weather (about 30C) on the balcony. I asked that a sun bed be moved up from the
pool area and this was promptly granted. The pool was near the reception and quite
tiny, one could dip into it, but not much more.
Every evening our friendly receptionist
recommended a new restaurant, his advice
was generally good. On December 1st., I planned to investigate a nearby ultra prominent
peak called Cerro Kennedy. My friend at the front desk organized also this. We went to
the small town of Minca by (shared) taxi, then Heidi was up for a full day tour including
a swim below some scenic waterfalls,
while I had a motorbike that would provide transport
to within walking distance of the peak.
You may read more about this in a separate report.
The Kogi people, a brief background.
In order to access the high peaks of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta from the north, one must
travel across Kogi territory. Thus, a permit from the Kogi is required and their
assistance with logistics etc. has to be agreed. In general, the Kogi has been rather
reserved wrt. visitors from the outside world. Our opportunity to make this trip was
only possible because of their positive cooperation.
The Kogi people have lived
in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta since
long before the Europeans arrived in South America.
They are relatively short, completely black hair and they all dress
in bright white clothing. Only men are allowed to make the clothes.
Girls/women may be distinguished
from boys/men since they wear some form of
The leaders are called Mama, they are selected around age 7, then required to
stay inside a dark hut during all times of daylight for the next 7-8 years.
All children, women and men walk around with
a characteristic handbag containing
various useful/essential items. These handbags should always (only) be made by women.
All grown men walk around with a stick
and a special container
with a long, narrow neck called
a poporo. Mostly, they strike the neck with the stick, sometimes putting the stick down into
the container. The container contains crushed sea-shell, basically a rich calsium mixture.
This somewhat peculiar habit also implies a sexual symbolism.
Next, they will suck some calsium from the stick and mix this with the coca-leaves that
they constantly chew. Only men are allowed to chew coca leaves.
The coca leaves can
only be harvested by women.
The Kogi village has
chicken, turkey, pigs
and some cattle. The Kogi also have mules that
help carry loads along their trails. The Kogi also do agriculture and they grow various
vegetables and fruits.
You may read more about the Kogi people here.
Day -1, December 2nd. - We meet for dinner.
Phinella arrived around noon and Linda and John in the early afternoon. We agreed
to meet at 1800 and go have dinner together. John explained that his local contact
was a man named Wyman. Wyman grew up in Arizona and later got involved
in trekking in Nepal. In the last several years, he had lived in Colombia and
over the 3 past years, he had established closer relationship with the local
Kogi tribe that lived in Mamarongo and its vicinity. We would meet Wyman tomorrow.
team consisted of 4:
John Biggar, age 51, Scotland
Linda Biggar, age 51, Scotland
Phinella Henderson, age 57, London
Petter Bjørstad, age 65, Norway
Day 0, December 3rd. - The party grows!.
Around mid-day, we met Wyman. Actually, not only him, but also 4 Kogi that he
had brought to town. A man, his wife and two children, a girl and a boy.
Perhaps even more of a surprise, he introduced two Dutch that also were to
join our expedition. Eric, a very tall young man. He had gone on a trip to
travel South America several years ago. The trip ended quickly in Colombia where
he met his wife to be. He now lived in Colombia and owned a small farm. In addition,
he worked on establishing some tourist activity to supplement his farm work.
The second Dutch was a woman that just arrived from Amsterdam. She seemed very
out of place and her objective was also very different.
Her name was Monique, she
wanted to visit the
Kogi people, hike to their sacred lake and extract "energy" from it through various
Day 1, December 4th. - We leave Santa Marta.
Here is an overview map of the route travelled.
Wyman turned up whith his Landcruiser. Immediate crisis when he firmly declared that
we had way too much luggage. This was definitely not the case. We each had a bag plus our
medium size backpack. John and Linda an extra bag for tents, climbing gear and other
team equipment. The trouble was rather the opposite, Wyman had planned to take 6 people
(also the Dutch) plus 4 Kogi, 11 persons with all luggage in his car. He should have
realized (easily!) that this would indeed be pretty difficult.
Somehow, we all loaded into the car with the 4 Kogis in the very back, and set off
to a large Exito supermarket located at a typical shopping centre with a correpondingly
large parking area. There, Wyman and John with some assistance from Linda, were responsible
for buying food and supplies for our 2-week expedition. How this should also
squeeze into the car, nobody wanted to even think about.
About one hour later, we were on our way, first travelling along a divided highway,
but fairly soon we made a brief stop
where the dirt road to Palmor branches off.
A very slow and bumpy ride followed. Still interesting as the road climbed along steep
hillsides and got us deep into the jungle of Colombia. The area looks pretty inaccessible,
a small wonder that people have managed to build this road at all.
It was already past 1500 when we finally arrived in Palmor.
Palmor is located at N10.76942, W074.02409, elevation about 975 meter.
We checked into the local hotel
and found dinner at a small restaurant. It was agreed to get up at 0600 the
next morning. The mules would depart from here, while Wyman secured a ride in a
more ruggedized landcruiser from here to the end of the road. We slept early, looking
forward to the start of our walking.
Day 2, December 5th. - We travel to Mamarongo.
We were up shortly after 0600, the plan was to have an early breakfast, get
the luggage to the mules, then travel to
the end of the road.
There were still some issues with our gear and the capacity of the mules.
John went to help sort things out. He ended up leaving my technical ice axe
behind. I had less weight than anybody else, thus not too happy about this
since I expected steep snow/ice on our ascent. However, this is part of being
a participant on a commercial climb, I had no doubt that John would be able
to get up whatever needed and that I would be able to follow on a rope.
We departed around 0700, this road was indeed rough. The road zig-zags around
and across pretty steep hillsides, most likely, the conditions turn from bad
to impossible in the wet season. On the good side, this route offers several good
view points and a good
feeling for this part of the region.
We all needed to exit the car at one point,
the driver wanted to get across
with as little load as possible. After 2 hours of driving, we arrived
at our trailhead,
the main trail connecting Mamarongo with the outside world.
It turned out that we were 6 kilometer (straight line) from Palmor, distance and
driving time tell that this is difficult country. From here, the direct distance to
Mamarongo was 12 kilometer. Thus, the proper trailhead for this trip was located
at N10.72482, W073.99297, elevation 1200 meter.
After only 20 minutes of walking, we reached a local ridge with a building on
our right hand side. They sold soft drinks, beer and could even make a small
meal if you were hungry. The last store/shop, better take advantage of it!
Location N10.72357, W073.98404, elevation 1280 meter.
From here, the trail gradually
ascended the ridge. The big valley were the Kogis
lived appeared down on our right hand side. The trail, however, continued to rise,
in this way it would connect with the valley appreciably higher up - good news.
Already early in the hike, but bigger mountains
were visible in the distance, our
adventure was about to begin for real!
The highest point on this leg is reached at N10.72758, W073.97387, with an elevation
of 1460 meter. From here, the trail
descends while passing several small settlements.
The lowest point on this walk is reached
where the trail crosses a (side) river coming
from your left, there is a nicely built bridge,
one is now at elevation
1050 meter, location N10.73556, W073.94173. We reached this point around 1200 - noon.
The trail now continues up the valley, gradually gaining elevation. There are some
scattered groups of huts,
not many overall along the route. We arrive in Mamarongo
6 hours of walking. They had decided to offer us a large hut
that was normally reserved for
the Kogi women to meet and discuss,
as an overnight shelter. Very generous and very convenient.
This hut was considerably larger than the average and there was ample space for
ten people to sleep.
We did some walking around to explore the village center,
however, the rain started and
most exploration was postponed until the next day.
Monique arrived at the very end of the day. She appeared quite exhausted and worried about
her future. None of us realistically thought that she would be able to trek all the way
to high camp.
Day 3, December 6th. - Mamarongo.
My 65th. birthday and my 30th. anniversary for being appointed
professor at the University of Bergen. What an unlikely place to be on
Yesterday ended with a splendid clear sky, no moon and incredibly many stars.
The Big Dipper looks terrible here south, I have seen it many times before. In Norway,
where you see these stars every clear winter night,
it is called Carl's Wagon, however here it has turned 180 degrees, that is, it is upside down.
The morning was crisp and clear, daylight at 0530, but several more hours before
the sun strikes the village. We have very little to do today. Walk around and
explore the village. Hike a bit up
the hillside to get
an overview of the
village. Visit the school,
a building located a bit outside the main
cluster of huts. A few men were about
to build a new hut. They built the roof inside
the supporting structure, in this way they would know that the roof would have the
right size and shape.
It still remains unclear to me why we had to spend a full (valuable) extra
day here. Explanations changed and remained inconsistent. There should be
some sort of big, common meal. A cow was
killed and cooking did take place.
However, I never observed any common meal. Some children were supposed to dance.
This did actually take place pretty
late in the afternoon, together with some
sort of ceremony that basically implied that we each should give another
50.000 bill to the Kogi. A Kogi Mama,
a man having only one leg, was in
charge of the ceremony. It was claimed that this would bless our expedition, however, one
easily understands the motivation. You will meet this everywhere on earth, nothing
wrong about it, universal behavior.
In the afternoon, we went downstream, then more steeply
down to the river in
order to swim. This was nice, but clearly
not part of any preset program. The Kogis
were more than happy to have their
picture taken. The main motivation, as I have also seen elsewhere, to be allowed
to see the picture
immediately afterwards on the camera screen.
There is considerable concern and discussion related to Monique. She was completely
exhausted when she arrived here late yesterday. She complains, since her objective
is to hike up to the sacred lake, not climb any mountains. Wyman is caught a bit in the
middle. He wants to climb Colon together with a Kogi - Andreas. He now (finally) understands
that the mixing of our climbing team with Monique/Eric, will create some problems - sooner or later.
John talks to Wyman at length and informs us that they have agreed that we shall definitely
arrive at our last camp, at the base of the mountain, at the latest on Decmeber 10. We shall then
have 3 full days, if needed, before we shall start our return trek. The plan is then to spend two
days getting back to Mamarongo, then one more day to reach Santa Marta.
Day 4, December 7th. - Trek to Uramaka.
It rained last evening until well past 1900. The big hut next to ours is reserved for
male adults only. They assembled there and discussed some issues rather loudly. I heard
their voices off and on throughout most of the night.
This was supposed to be quite an easy day, and it was.
The morning came with a bright sky and a normal breakfast routine.
The mules were
loaded and everyone prepared for the hike up the valley.
at 0815. Monique very slowly, I was still thinking that it would be rather unlikely
to see her all the way to the high camps.
Shortly after Mamarongo, we would pass a nice waterfall.
As it turned out, there
are enough streams crossing the trail, so no need to carry water.
In the beginning, our trail passes several
small clusters of huts, subsequently we travel
through more wilderness with fewer huts.
I walked up front and for quite some time
together with the 11 years old boy Madejo,
he seemed to enjoy the trek, shouted to the
mules and opened a number of gates that clearly were there to prevent local
animals from leaving small dvellings.
The trail runs
pretty high above the valley floor,
there is lush vegetation everywhere.
The trail actually climbs to about 2500 meter before descending to Uramaka.
Uramaka is close to a valley fork,
we shall continue tomorrow up along the left fork.
I arrived at the small camp next
to a couple of huts at 1415. Time to unload the mules.
The rain started
already aat 1500. I was happy to observe that the elevation was about 100
meter higher than pre-hike information, at 2400 meter, a small adaptation
to higher elevation should begin. This was a good day and I was very happy about hiking and
gradually getting ever closer to our peaks, tucked away far into this huge wilderness area.
From camp, we could see some pretty impressive peaks high up, they certainly looked pretty
inaccessible given the jungle vegetation that extends up to 3500 meter.
Day 5, December 8th. - Finally above the jungel!
This section of the trail basically starts
at the bottom of the valley,
at Uramaka not far from
a valley fork.
It then climbs about 1300 vertical meter up the valley to the next camp, also
at the valley floor. The route runs high up in the left hillside (when facing up the valley)
from beginning to end. Several streams intersect the trail, access to water is therefore
easy, no need to carry.
I started together with the group, at 0810. I decided to carry 5 ice axes on my pack today
instead of on the mules. Two days, they just stashed these axes in direct contact
with my yellow bag. The chance that it will be damaged is significant. I quickly pulled ahead
sticking to my normal trail speed. After about one hour,
I arrived at a very nice spot with
grass and a small creek crossing. Excellent spot for a rest.
Everybody seemed to agree and
a long rest was called for. I continued uphill at 1010. The trail is of good quality as it
climbs and traverses the enormous hillside. The river is far down a pretty steep slope on my
right. I carry on alone and with a few short breaks where creeks cross the trail, I finally
arrive at a spot where the
trail again meets the main river. In fact, the trail cross over
to the right hand side here. I decided to wait and after
almost 1.5 hours, the mules arrived.
We proceeded across to the Kogi hut,
some of the mules were unloaded here, quite confusing since
I believed that we would camp a bit higher. This turned out to be correct, after
a break we did indeed proceed to a camp next
to a large pasture. I arrived at 1400, the rain started
already at 1405, so a hectic scramble to put up at least a few tents. The rain started early, but also
ended early, at 1600 the rain stopped.
This camp has one hut where the Kogi stay,
then one hut with a standard roof, but with no walls.
This hut was used as social place for a few meals and also for storage.
The camp is above timberline and the valley opens up and changes character from here on.
The valley slopes are still quite impressive
and the skyline forms a long rugged ridge.
Day 6, December 9th. - Our first camp above 4000 meter.
Another nice morning, the weather seems to follow a very predictable pattern.
Two condors circled high in the sky,
playing with the wind near the ridgeline.
We had no big hurry, Monique and Eric started early. From here, we will be above the trees,
the landscape is very impressive. We will follow
this broad valley as it climbs higher.
We walked, in good sunshine and soon
came upon the wreckage of a small airplane that
crashed up here. Not so lucky, they obviously had bad weather, no way to clear
the high ridges, perhaps too limited space to make a turn and escape.
We continued, but lost the trail in the process. Higher up, we spotted Monique and Eric
up on the right, a short climb and we were back on the trail. We crossed the 4000 meter
line near a small creek. A nice place
to drink and rest, from now on we will remain above
From here, I walked ahead and came up to the first, narrow lake.
I decided to wait for the mules here,
since it was not obvious where the route would continue.
The route follows the left side.
There is a short section with a cliff going straight
into the lake. There are stepping stones, but most of them do not break the
surface. I get across without getting wet, my boots are still quite good.
Small sandy beaches, a very nice contrast to the landscape around.
Next, the trail climbs left
in order to pass a cliff, then descends back down to the
valley floor. In this area, most surprisingly, there is a green meadow and quite a few
cattle grassing. This must be one of the highest locations with semi-wild cattle. The route
now leaves what looks like the main valley and climbs about 100 vertical meter to reach
a pretty large lake
with a good location for
a camp. This location is N10.86172, W073.75509,
elevation about 4430 meter. I am there already
around 1400. A short and easy day, but plenty
high to continue acclimatization.
Day 7, December 10th. - The (too) high camp by the (sacred?) lake.
Quite a bit of discussions last night. Eric wants to continue with us and perhaps make an attempt
to climb the mountain. Monique is not at all happy when she understood that she may have to stay
in the high camp by the sacred lake for 3 full days. This complication is not surprising, it has been
forecasted since we were in Mamarongo. Wyman and John have more discussions. John returns and
informs that plans have changed. This time in a negative direction. John says that he has agreed to
only hike to the "sacred lake" high camp tomorrow, not across to our final camp as was agreed back
in Mamarongo. He tries to say, but not very convincingly, that this does not make a big difference as we
had planned to do some exploratory hikes on December 10th. anyway. This could still be done as
he thinks we will arrive quite early. Even his wife Linda, is not very convinced that this is not
yet another concession to Wyman and likely related to Monique. It has also been decided that Eric
must stay at the lake and keep Monique company.
Thus, we will not reach our base camp on December 10th. as agreed. This is certainly bad news
and it will contribute to the breakdown of our plans to climb the two summits.
The night was crystal clear as it has been every night. The stars are very bright at this elevation and
with no light from any source on the ground. I stretch my arm out from the tent and hope that my camera
will catch an image of Orion. Then deep, undisturbed sleep.
No big hurry to get going, the sun strikes camp and everything
can dry a bit in morning sun.
A few bigger mountains tell that
we are closing in on higher terrain. The third highest peak,
Simons, is certainly impresive.
We get going leaving the lake behind,
the weather is great and the terrain is very nice.
Nice, but more rugged.
I am impressed by the mules, this must be one of the more
advanced routes where mules do carry supplies.
Another surprise is the isolated small patches of grass
with wild cows, way above 4000 meter
and very isolated with difficult terrain between.
We ascend a pretty steep
step and get up to a new, beautiful mountain lake.
I am ahead of the group here, but for some Kogi.
I try to ask in Spanish: "Lago finale?", thinking that this may indeed be the much talked about
highest lake. The Kogi nods his head in approval.
I look around and realize that if I immediately
try to climb a nearby peak, I may be able to get some photos and perhaps even see how to find a good
route. I leave my pack at the trail and scramble uphill on my left. The climbing actually turns
a bit tricky, I need to find a safe way uphill. I get around the trouble and proceed as fast as
I manage towards a local peak. As always, this takes longer than originally planned, but finally
I am at location N10.85920, W073.73106, elevation 4940 meter.
The time is 1220, the clouds have
not yet obscured the peaks and I do have a very good view
of the mountains. There is a very
large peak at close range, then a few
further away to the left. I am a bit confused about
what I see, but manage
to take several pictures. This viewpoint makes Pico Simons
appear very high, while the peaks further left look progressively lower.
(Cristobal Colon, Pico Bolivar, Pico Simmons, left to right)
I decide to descend along a different route going more left, but also much safer.
Almost back down, I suddenly meet Linda coming up on slick rock. Quite surprisingly,
the route actually ascends here. How can the mules walk up here? Appearently, they do
manage - very impressive.
I continue back down to retrieve my backpack, just before I am there, Wyman arrives with
my pack. Very nice, I understand that our high camp is even further uphill near another lake.
I turn around and walk back up the rock ridge. Higher up, I go more right and bump into
another high elevation lake, this is not the final lake, but it may be equally high, perhaps
even slightly higher. I finally arrive at the
correct lake, indeed a very spectacular site
for a camp. I noticed the local, easy to
ascend peak up on the left. This is where
I should have ascended if I had arrived here directly.
Pico Simons stayed clear of clouds until
a bit later, before the clouds arrived and
dressed the queen for the evening.
Day 8, December 11th. - We arrive at BC.
Another nice day, we should finally get to the base of our mountain. Leaving at
normal time in the morning. My pack was heavy, I carried food, fuel, climbing gear and
all personal gear for the first time on this trip. The first leg of todays trip was across
fairly easy, but broken ground to the distinct col
that separated this side of the
mountain from a completely separate drainage going east.
is very close to part of
the glacier coming
down from Pico Simons.
A very special and very narrow valley descends
on the far side of this col. There are three distinct steps, first down to a small pond,
next more down to a second, small lake.
Finally, significantly more downhill to reach
a very distinct meadow that may have
some (wild) cattle. This area is approximately at 4560 meter
elevation, so significantly lower than the camp by the high lake.
We actually descended more right and bypassed this meadow. This was clearly a poor choice, lots
of side-hilling among lots of boulders. Impressive
scenery on our right hand side.
Our two peaks are finally in sight.
The Kogi had pushed ahead and were out of sight. Phinella moved slowly and I went ahead.
The idea was to locate a small lake up the next valley and find a spot to camp there.
To get there involved crossing several smaller ridges (moraines) and climb a slightly
more substantial slope. I stayed high and was just about to traverse higher into the
valley when I noticed the Kogi below me on the left. They waved and I descended to a spot
that looked like it could serve as a camp. As it turned out, the Kogi had been up at the small lake and
concluded that no good spot for camping existed.
This looks to be a reasonable spot. There is some supply of water here, but it is not running and
should be boiled. However, the small lake further uphill is not far away and the small stream draining
it is even closer. One can see the lower
end of the glacier that flows from Colon and Bolivar a bit
higher up in the valley. After some time I head a bit back to meet/guide the rest of the party.
I first meet John and he asks that I go and help Phinella with her backpack. She refuses any help,
while Linda somewhat more sensibly, accepts to be relieved of her pack. We all help setting up
camp. Wyman arrives a bit later and sets up camp for himself and the Kogi just a short
John asks if I can go uphill while there is still daylight and establish a GPS track that we can
use the next morning while still dark. I suggest that we shall explore/ascend up on the right
hand side of the glacier, but this is clearly out of the question. Wyman has informed that he
will ascend Cristobal with the Kogi, by first ascending to the local col on the left hand
side of the glacier, then traverse left and subsequently climb the east ridge of Colon.
John feels that the glacier is a more promising option, but that we shall carry rock-gear and
possibly cache it at the col. If Wyman's route goes, then we can repeat it the day after with the
rock-gear already carried to the first col.
I pick a route uphill, passing the small lake, then on smooth slabs of rock, then through a more
complex section near the glacier. I turn around after reaching the beginning of the slabs that
continue uphill towards the col. This position was N10.85015, W073.68599, elevation about 4940 meter.
Unfortunately, the fog was pretty dense and I did not have enough visibility to make any
judgements about possible routes from the col up on the left hand side of the glacier.
I returned to camp and felt ready for dinner, then rest before an early rise tomorrow.
Day 9, December 12th. - Explorations and Crisis!.
This was planned as our first summit day. We agreed to get up at 0200, with a planned
departure at 0300. This was intended to be a summit attempt. I was unhappy with the decision
to ascend along the left hand side of the glacier. All my research using Google Earth had
convinced me that the best route up the glacier would start out on the right hand side
of the glacier. However, Wyman was convinced that the best route would lead up on the
left hand side followed by a traverse left in order to gain the East ridge of Colon.
John seemed to prefer the glacier route himself, but since Wyman had been in the area
before, his view weighted in. I guess he also thought that we might be able to
access the glacier sort of left to right across the upper part of the (lower) glacier.
I also worried a bit that Phinella would slow us down and ultimately reduce our
chances of success, her poor performance across the (big) boulders yesterday was cause
for concern. I was generally unfamiliar with this setting, on my trips the ability of
the team to move and act together had never been an issue.
We left around 0310, I could see that Wyman and his Kogi followed close behind.
I led the way following my GPS track from yesterday. We walked by the small lake, then on
slabs before the slighly more messy terrain close to the tongue of the glacier.
Daylight was coming as
we started up the slabs on the left hand side of the glacier.
Easy scrambling on more slabs in order
to ascend on the left side of the glacier. The very upper
part had a thin layer of snow. At least the route had been easy up to here. It was still well
before 0700 as I recorded the location of the col as N10.84561, W073.68430, elevation about
Pico Cristobal Colon was certainly close, but how to proceed from here?
Except for the easy access to this col, things looked quite bad.
Wyman's planned route, descending across
this col, then picking a route to gain the east ridge of Colon,
looked next to impossible.
Our alternative plan, to access the glacier,
did not look any better. The glacier was completely
broken with towers and seracs
and a maze of crevasses. It seemed pretty obvious that this route
would lead nowhere. In fact, the Kogi were extremely unhappy. I think Wyman had given them
unrealistic expectations, now seeing that there was no easy way to the summit, they reacted
strongly against him.
The north ridge that extended from this col, had a very fine and characteristic summit that looked
possible to climb. I set out, thinking that I might be able to get some better pictures of
the glacier from the summit. This ascent was quite a bit of fun, partly along a sharp, narrow
ridge, then partly a bit off on my left hand side, before regaining the ridge and finishing
the ascent with a short move around to the right hand side. This summit is at location
N10.84839, W073.68282, with an elevation of 5115 meter. From here, I got a pretty complete view
of the east ridge of Colon, no easy access from here to there.
Our camp was visible way downslope.
I also studied my preferred route,
it did indeed look pretty promising.
I returned to the col, my party was already about to start their descent back down towards camp.
We would arrive early, the rest of the day would be rest and further acclimatization.
Hopefully, we could make a second attempt tomorrow.
John had informed Phinella that she would not take part in our next attempt, naturally
she was disappointed about this.
I studied the hillside across left when descending. It looked entirely feasible. I decided
that we should leave our current route roughly at location N10.85271, W073.69043, elevation
about 4690 meter, cross the stream, then ascend uphill (slightly right), all good to know
when coming back here in the dark. We returned to camp around 1040, obviously rest, then make
a better try tomorrow.
However, a crisis was now in full development. One of the Kogi that was supposed to
try for the summit with Wyman, his Spanish name Andreas, was very angry with Wyman (and
likely vice-versa). I never understood the complete reason, but obviously he was very
disappointed with the complete failure of the proposed route (East ridge). Wyman claimed
that Andreas would not speak to him any more. Moreover, he wanted us all to
return back to the high camp with the mules already today. This was clearly
unacceptable to our party. I had counted on at least two more days and corresponding
chances to climb the two peaks. There were similarly ideas that the mules would
depart for the valley already tomorrow.
It was suggested that Phinella could hike back to the previous camp in the morning,
this made her quite upset. She wanted to return to that camp together with the
rest of us. Linda then suggested that she could return with Phinella. This was quite
a strong move by her, since this meant that she would also give up a possible
summit attempt. Lots of respect for her decision as it was clearly motivated by
resolving an issue that mainly affected Phinella.
John sat down to negotiate with Andreas, the result was that everybody except me and John
would return to the other camp tomorrow morning. We could make a single/last attempt on
the mountain, return to camp by 1400 and on the same day, also make the carry out to
the previous camp.
I expressed my unhappiness with this result. It was clearly a breech of the strong
promise of having a minimum of 3 summit days from our final camp. Also, after a possible
long and hard summit day (where our objective should be to climb BOTH summits if at all
possible) one should definitely be able to rest back in camp. It would be ok to hike across
to the previous camp the next morning, but to do this the same day as our summit attempt
did not make much sense. I asked if it made sense at all to plan a summit push with the
provision that it should not be a full day committment.
John felt that this was the best he could get and that it was worthwhile to
try it. I agreed, somewhat reluctantly. This situation was indeed very bad and the
reason for the mess was clearly a bit complex.
Day 10, December 13th. - Summit day (and more).
John and I agreed to get up at 0215, with a planned departure at 0300.
I woke up a bit earlier and started to organize my stuff. Since it had been
decided that camp should move today, it was necessary to organize everything before
leaving. John cooked breakfast and tea, we were pretty efficient and left on time
I knew the first part of the route very well by now, as we passed the small lake,
John said that we were about twice as fast as yesterday. I replied that with some luck we
should be all the way up at the edge of the glacier by dawn.
We quickly found the waypoint that I had marked yesterday. From here, the idea was to cross
the stream, then ascend the steepish hillside sort of traversing right. This worked well in the
dark and soon we were on higher, more stable ground. We took a line that ascended pretty much
directly uphill. This worked well as we largely avoided terrain that required the use of
hands. Higher up, we ascended easily and as daylight started to break, we could assert
that our route had brought us exactly to the point we were aiming for, the edge of the
small glacier and a spot from where access onto the ice was straightforward.
It was very nice, the sun not yet up, but the day on its way.
Finally, an agreeable
glacier, harness and crampons. We took 20 meter of rope between us with an additional
20 meter for each man to carry. John set out uphill and we discovered almost immediately
that this would be heavy work above 5000 meter. The snow crust did not support us, each and
every step broke through and to half-way up the leg. There were plenty of ugly looking
crevasses, but route-finding did not run into problems.
John led nicely up to the small rock that extended out of the glacier next to the
larger rock that we had used as a major waypoint, location N10.84310, W073.69161, elevation
about 5265 meter. A rest was both deserved and needed.
From this point the couloir that
extended up between Colon and Bolivar looked
Unless the glacier looked better as we got closer, the prospects of finding
a good route looked grim.
I went ahead on the next
section, giving John a pause from the
hard work of breaking trail. I
started out walking next to the rock quite some way before turning left and onto the main
glacier. Fortunately, the nicer part of our couloir had been hidden from view earlier,
our planned route suddenly looked feasible again.
Charged with energy and optimism, I led the way uphill towards the couloir higher up.
However, a crevasse started to appear up front. Certainly, there had to be some snowbridges!
Looking a bit left, then more right - no, its like the infinity pool effect, the snow seems to
connect continuously across until you are indeed very near, then you see the gap, in this case
more than 4 meter everywhere. Unlike many crevasses that run sort of perpendicular to the
flow of the ice in the glacier, this one had a big turn, then ran downhill all the way
to the more level part of the glacier below. Bad news indeed,
we needed to descend and all the
uphill trailbreaking in the last 30 minutes or so, wasted. I gave John the bad news and he
started back down the slope.
We circumvented the crevasse down below,
then started to climb the same hill again, but this
time on the right side of the crevasse. Changing the lead and effort
of trailbreaking, we now
advanced up into the couloir.
I had considered a very different route back in Norway, going right (west) of Pico Simons, then
descending into this couloir, but decided it was to risky. Now, I got a good look at
the steep snow that one must
descend on such a route. Not impossible, but it did look inconvenient.
Our couloir made
gentle turns as it seemed to continue all the way
up to near the top of the slope. There was a short, 4 meter almost vertical snow-step
that we soon would need to climb. I was a bit amused, but realized that this was hard
work, when John tried to get up the step. It seemed like bottomless powder snow. Every step
he made gave way and he would sink back down. Well, eventually he made progress, sort of
swimming (steeply) up the slope. I knew that it was soon my turn and that it would come
down to hard work.
All the higher crevasses could
be avoided and we got up to what was
a final headwall before the col higher up.
There were bad crevasses,
but clearly a few possibilities.
The best option presented itself clearly,
a seemingly straight snowslope that extended to
the horizon above. The snow was initially good here, but as we entered the steepest
section, perhaps slightly more than 45 degrees, the snow was loose and the surface beneath was
ice. Not perfect, but no big issue. Soon John shouted back down that he was reaching the
crest, thus able to add a bit of protection for my last 20 meter. We had reached the main ridge
connecting Bolivar and Colon. We were perhaps 10 meter above the lowest point on the Colon side.
Our location was N10.83596, W073.68874, the elevation reading slighly higher than 5600 meter.
We left our backpacks, then set out for the summit. The ridge was easy to follow, the snow crust
did still break and we felt the elevation. The first horizon was a false summit, quite a bit
of distance still remaining. I tried to walk 25 double steps between each short rest, it was now
just a matter of time before we were on the summit of Cristobal Colon.
Arriving there around
1120, clouds were moving around both lower and higher.
The summit might
be corniced, I stopped
about 1.5 meter short of
the edge, John sat down slightly
below me. We were both happy with
our achievement, in particular, in the light of the discussions that took place yesterday..
Looking across to Pico Bolivar, it
did look (perhaps?) of similar height,
clearly higher? No, none of us had that impression.
Pico Simons was also visible
in clouds further right, it was supposed to be almost 200 meter lower, very hard
to see this. To climb Bolivar after returning
to the col would most likely require at least a couple of more hours. Very tempting, but
it would imply a late return to camp and another night there. Normally, this would
have been perfectly in order, but with the disasterous conclusion of yesterday, not
really an option. The fact that we would have no time today (or tomorrow) to attempt
Pico Bolivar will remain the biggest disappointment of this trip. The reasons for
this are complex and essentially the sum of many smaller things that did not
go according to plan. If we had been able to settle the relative elevations of
these peaks, we would have made a big achievement. In particular, in that case we
had climbed the prominent peak with certainty.
We remained about 15 minutes at the summit. I took a 10 minute reading of the position
and elevation, followed by two additional "point" measurements. It was time to return.
Walking back down to the backpacks
were easy. Pico Simons grew taller as we descended towards our saddle.
From there, I took a 60 meter
abseil, nice and easy.
John, the only one with two ice axes, subsequently
climbed back down
without any complications.
Walking back down the glacier was also easy compared
to climbing, but still a bit of work due to the steps that went into the snow. First, back to
the edge of the glacier,
then back down to the creek. Still, our
descent was reasonably efficient and we were all the way back to camp shortly after 1500.
A well deserved rest, some hot tea and wrapping up, in order to backpack across and up
the narrow valley to the high camp by the lake. We left around 1600, John had a good route,
mostly following some old tracks, across the moraines and to the distinct meadow from where
we could start ascending the valley. A possibility would be to have Linda and Eric waiting
at the col to give us some assistance at the very end of a long day. John was coughing quite
badly as we returned to camp. He assured me that this was a normal high altitude sort
of thing (with him), I still did not like it. As expected, the ascent up the valley was
a rough ending to a long day. Just as it got dark, we noticed people up in the col and
I sent some light signals with my torch. It was indeed Linda and Eric, patiently waiting
for us. Eric descended the first slope and took John's pack, soon therafter I had my pack
carried by Linda and all that remained was to navigate back to camp in the dark.
I had GPS tracks, but the terrain is rough and one easily steps 5-8 meter off the
best line. Progress was slow, but morale high. Closer to camp, a Kogi appeared and soon
we were back to the tents. The time was around 1900, a 16 hour effort, John and I both
felt that we had achieved what was possible given the constraints imposed upon us.
Day 11, December 14th. - Descend below 4000 meter.
Today is a day for reflection. Happiness for having climbed Cristobal Colon, something
almost nobody (except John and I?) believed possible, given the constraints and the almost
impossible requirements to not only explore an unknown route, but to complete it before also
breaking camp and climb back UP to the previous camp in the same day.
This feeling mixed with some resentment - the fact that we did not get a full summit day,
long enough to climb both peaks. The very complex interaction of Kogi-Newman-Dutch-John-Team,
we would have had a much better situation with a more direct link to the Kogi.
Under slightly more normal mountaineering conditions, we should have climbed Pico Bolivar today!
Well, all this is history. Today is a nice day and I will enjoy the good scenery and the pretty
unique landscape as
I return back down to the camp with the large pasture. A full day with above
timberline hiking. The walking is pure delight. Obviously, with mostly downhill and only a lightweight
daypack - the mules carry most everything, it is indeed an easy stroll. I walk back down passing
our camp by the lake.
Further downhill, then out along
the right side of the last few lakes.
Gradually, I find myself walking behind 3 mules. They seem to know the way, no Kogi
can be seen in front or behind of these mules. When they make brief stops, I say "Ola!", it seems to be
the proper signal to remind the mules that they are heading for fresh and tasty grass further down.
The mules in front, I follow behind in auto-pilot mode. My mind wanders and my eyes are on the landscape
further away. Then, the 3 mules walk straight across a small pond of water. There are vertical cliffs
directly out of the water on both sides! Hey! I cannot walk here - the water is more than knee deep.
I realize that I am off the trail for hiking, this is the mule route in order to bypass some cliffs
that are easy for a man, but difficult for a mule.
I backtrack, then pick up the proper trail. From here, the route heads downhill to the broad
valley with the pasture. I walk all by myself. Everyone else is far behind. I continue down
the hillside, passing the airplane crash site before arrival at the high pasture camp.
I am there long before anybody else. I lay down in the grass and soak in thick, 3700 meter air, and
warm sunshine. I briefly sleep and woke up abruptly by the arrival of the mules. I get up and
help the Kogi unload the mules. I am quite good at this by now, it is helpful to be two, one
on either side of the animal. The mules enjoy the arrival, they lay down and shrub their back against
the ground, all four legs kicking in the air.
I help putting up some tents, you never know when the rain will start and it is so very nice to have
the tents up beforehand. John, Linda and Phinella arrive, much later also Eric and Monique. Tomorrow, we shall
walk all the way back to Mamarongo, this is more than today, it is difficult to see how Monique will
Day 12, December 15th. - Back to Mamarongo.
Interesting! I woke up around 0600 and it was raining outside! All mornings
had been clear, so this did not make much sense! I went back to sleep, thinking that
this was just a bad dream. Next, at 0700, it had stopped raining, but it was overcast
and clearly, the rain had really happened!
Normal morning rutine, cereal and tea. Monique left early, I wondered how this day
would go. The plan was to walk all the way back to Mamarongo, a long trek even if
mostly downhill. We left around 0800, first down to the lower hut, then across
the river. The trail was closed by
a (permanent) gate, most likely to prevent
animals for taking the trail downhill.
Looking down the valley, the peaks on the
other side of Uramaka are very good looking. Before long, we caught up with Monique.
Our Andes group walked together, but
Phinella could barely keep up with the pretty good pace.
When we rested at the nice stream about
one hour above Uramaka, she suggested to go ahead.
I proposed that we hike together, thinking
that it would be nice for Linda and John to walk together.
This worked just fine and
Phinella and I
arrived at Mamarongo ahead
of the mules, the hike had taken about 6 hours.
The mules arrived a bit later as did Linda and John. We wondered about Monique, in particular
as it got dark around 1800 and she still had not showed. By 1900, we figured that she (and
the party going with her), likely had stopped in one of the Kogi huts higher up
in the valley. However, just as this idea was generally accepted, she did turn up, the hike
had taken nearly 13 hours.
Day 13, December 16th. - Return to Santa Marta.
The mules were happy to do another day, thus we started out early with the intention
to travel all the way back to Hotel Casa de Leda in Santa Marta. Again, Phinella and I would
walk together, leaving some time for Linda and John to stay together.
This worked fine, we crossed the bridge, then the
crest of the main ridge already by 1115 and subsequently
pretty much directly back to the small shop on the final ridge-line.
I asked about cerveza and a cold beer was promptly served - not bad at all!
A bit later, John and Linda joined us, John successfully ordered four servings of a dish
consisting of scrambled eggs and rice - quite good and well timed. We waited around a bit
more, then descended (very muddy) the last bit of trail back to the road. Wyman had done
his bit of coordination, a landcruiser with driver had already arrived.
Another hour and the mules came in one
long row, they immediately proceeded along the
road to Palmor. Then, earlier than expected, Monique and Eric also arrived. Quite a good job
today, there is no question that Monique was in considerably better shape for hiking
at the end of this trip. She definitely deserves credit for having completed a trek
that looked quite a bit beyond her capability.
The drive back to Palmor
was about as muddy
as last time, we all arrived well before dark.
A somewhat long break with dinner
and giving a tip to our Kogi friends followed.
I spent a few more days in Santa Marta, since my return flight departed on December 19th.
How much better if these days had been spent up at the peaks! I made two trips to the
beach and made a pretty accurate measurement of the local sea level, averaging the same
waypoint across two different days. The sea level measured 5 meter on the GPS. This most
likely means that one should subtract off 5 meter from the elevation measurements in
Leaving on the 19th., my flight via Bogota and Frankfurt
back to Norway was convenient and on schedule.
After the Trip, Wrapping Up.
The year 2015 quickly moved to a nice end after my return to Norway.
I spent two busy days in my office,
then travelled to my mountain cabin
for a traditional Christmas and New Year celebration. Short days, lots
of delicious food,
nice ski climbs of
our nearby local mountain.
Returning to Bergen, early 2016, photos of the peaks had meanwhile been
studied carefully. They may indicate that perhaps Pico Bolivar is indeed
a notch higher than Pico Cristobal Colon. There may be only one way to settle
this with certainty, return to the peaks and climb Bolivar. This is what
we should have done, but unfortunately failed to do. We obviously should
also have carried a hand-leveler, - a small instrument that helps when
deciding the relative heights of nearby peaks. It is, at this writing, very
unclear how easy it would be to make a second trip, let us see what the
It remains a fact that our trip was the first documented, pioneering trip back to
these peaks in a very long time. Previous trips, by now a long time ago,
approached the mountain from the south. We were the first party climbing and
describing a route from the north. Our trip is the
first that has been well documented on the Internet, now about 25 years old.
As such, the experience and information provided
here should be useful for any future climbers.
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