February 15th-19th, 2016
For me the highlight of my dad’s two month long visit was our 5-day trek in Parque los Nevados. We chose Salento as our base for accessing the park. Arriving there we followed the iOverlander app to the sublime Finca Mocambo, located in the valley below the town. This guest house with camping is run by a friendly Canadian couple from the Yukon. Mocambo is still a working farm, so there are cows and goats wandering around the surrounding pastures. There’s a river below that’s good for swimming. It’s one of the most peaceful spots that I have stayed in on all of the Panamerican. From the farm it’s a thirty minute walk up to town along the same trail that Simon Bolivar used in 1830 to recruit soldiers in his campaign to liberate what is now Colombia from Spain. Salento itself is a charming mountain town which gets extremely busy with local tourists on weekends. There are a variety of handicrafts in the many small shops. A short Jeep ride up the valley brings you to the surreal Valle de Cocora and it’s Doctor Suess like wax palms. They are the tallest palms in the world and grow as tall as 60 meters. Beyond Valle Cocora is Parque Los Nevados, a beautiful highland landscape home to 7 volcanoes. We set our sights on Nevado del Tolima for it’s relative ease of access and aesthetic climbing appeal. It’s a non technical glaciated peak and at 5276m it was a perfect challenge for us.
We discussed at length whether we would hire a guide for the trek, and stopped in at Paramotrek in Salento where they were extremely helpful. Taking a guide increased our odds of success, meant we didn’t have to worry about meals, and included a horse to carry most of our heavy gear. Technically a permit is required to hike in the park. Without a guide you could only get it making an unappealing trip to the nearby city Aremnia and we heard it took 2 weeks. We almost paid our money and took the guide. But the thing about a guide is that it changes the whole experience. What I have come to love about recreating in the mountains is the independence and the challenge of the experience. It’s multifaceted and interesting; navigation, food planning, right gear, managing group dynamics, good physical conditioning, and mountain and glacier skills are all required. A guide takes charge of all of these things, and a horse carries your stuff so your pack is light and you can save your energy for the summit push. Ultimately we had the gear and felt we had the skills to climb on our own. Making the summit, or even coming up short, would be much more satisfying on our own initiative. Asking around revealed that no one ever checks for permits in the park, so that wasn’t really an issue. And so it was decided, we would go on our own.
Climbing glaciated mountains is dangerous and requires specific skills, training, and experience. Without these things going with a guide is a great way to get there and back safely and start to learn those skills!
We chose to do the trek as a loop, starting first up the valley North of the Cocora Valley. We caught a jeep from Salento up to Cocora and started hiking from there. Soon we left behind the throngs of tourists hiking the Cocora Valley loop and were more or less on our own walking on good but steep trails. We picked up a 4 legged guide along the way, who walked with us for hours. We camped our first night at El Bosque, an old farm that was burned down by the guerrilla group Farc that used to control this region years ago. The ground here was more or less covered in cow paddies but it served as a fine place to crash after a sweaty first day of climbing through the rainforest.
The next morning my dad was feeling ill, due to the previous night’s dinner or perhaps the elevation. Without much else to do we put our heads down and climbed the 800 vertical meters to the highlands above, setting our sites on Finca Primavera for our next accommodation. As we broke tree line the the landscape started to open up and become more and more spectacular. Unfortunately Finca Primavera was under renovations and they sent us on to Finca Playa farther up the valley. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise as the latter farm was much smaller and more personal. Staying with the family here was one of the highlights of the trip. We caught our first look at Nevados del Tolima’s glaciated peak. It was usually only clear until around 6 am. We would need to summit early to have visibility.
After a some tasty comida tipica and a good night’s sleep my dad was feeling much better and we departed for high camp at 4600 on the lower slopes of Nevado del Tolima. It was a tough slog, but incredibly beautiful. We started by making our way accross the rolling highlands of Parque Los Nevados to Laguna El Encanto. There is no drinking water at high camp so we loaded up on murky greenish water from the lake before setting off on the toughest climb yet from the laguna to high camp with fully loaded packs. We started to really feel the altitude.
High camp afforded more spectacular views of the highlands. We set up camp in the lee, threw together some dinner, and brewed up some tasty mint and ginger tee. Another group had arrived just ahead of us, 2 guides and a friendly young french couple. We chatted and took in the sunset before getting to bed early. The other group was aiming to leave at 11 pm, we figured we wouldn’t need to go until midnight. It took me a while to get to sleep but I got a few hours, my dad tossed and turned most of the night and didn’t really sleep. The alarm rang way to soon and we dragged ourselves out of bed in the dark. I was feeling pretty good despite a strong headache. Dad was tired and had a headache, nausea, and a swollen face. We considered the possibility that we might not make it, but decided to give it a shot while keeping a close eye on the symptoms of altitude sickness.
The first part of the climb is an easy walk following a trail up the scree. At 4800m you encounter a steep rocky section that needs to be negotiated. There are two routes marked by cairns, one more direct going straight up and the other cutting hard right and traversing along the top of a series of cliffs. In the dark we couldn’t see the second option so we went straight up. It was straight forward scrambling mostly with one section requiring a few quick climbing moves to pass through. We moved steadily and my dad started to feel better. We reached the glacier (5000m) at first light. Perfect timing to have some visibility for navigating the ice and still make the summit before the clouds rolled in obscuring the views. We took a quick break, donned our glacier gear and started out onto the steep tongue of the glacier.
The grade lessened shortly and travel on the ice was good. Putting one foot in front of the other we slogged our way to the summit just behind the other group. It was a beautiful morning and the views of the volcanos of Parque Los Nevados were spectacular. Nevados del Ruiz smoked gently across the valley. We shared a moment of camaraderie with the other climbing party like one only does after overcoming a formidable challenge together. It appears we had won the respect of the guides as their attitude changed from indifference to warmth and friendship.
Most of all it was a special and emotional moment for my father and I to stand together on the peak of a volcano in the highlands of Colombia. I’m especially proud of my dad who put his head down and truly dug deep to make it to the top of a climb that would have turned younger men back. Proof that age is only a number. He still has more energy than me, an admirable curiosity for the world, and a truly passionate approach to life. I’m lucky to have such a role model in my life.
We enjoyed the summit immensely but soon it was time to head down. We packed up camp and walked back down to Finca Playa to enjoy another night at the cozy farm before hiking back down the Cocora Valley to return to Salento.
The photos featured here are a mix, shot by myself and Anders Renborg.