El Cocuy, in northeastern Colombia is a park of staggering beauty, and alpine big walls that the world seems to know little about.
Story and photos by Cory Hall
Alien frailegon plants litter the sub-glacier landscape, their stocks pushing soft bunny-eared leaves skyward towards the waxing moon. Retreating glaciers relinquish century old ice in a calming dribble, never to return. Clouds race past. Rain, ice, and snow falls. A stray dog lies beside me, soaked to the bone, wining to the wind. Water drips into my bivy bag which dampens my down, and cools my body, as I lay in the dark questioning much – Why do the hills call me? What do they give me? And why didn’t I carry the tent up the short three-hour approach?
I haven’t climbed in months, have been firmly locked in the tourist-trail-party-scene of Central America, and am left asking the questions many climbers ask of themselves after a period of inactivity. I soon find my answers as a chill star-studded sky greats my 4:00 a.m. alarm. I push hard, fearful of the unstable weather of the Amazonian wet season, and am rapidly greeted by the familiar iron taste, and penning headache of un-acclimatised exercitation. Keen on some rarely travelled terrain I weave crevasses, traversing towards a mixed face I know nothing about. My body quickly remembers the mechanical swing of an ice axe, the solid kick of a crampon, and the desperate glove-in-mouth-crimp-mantel as adrenaline pumps, rope-less above a crack ridden death.
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In 1980, during the first ascent, the glaciers stretched over 2,000 linear feet lower into the valleys, and this face was uniform ice soaring to the summit. It is now solid M4. Clouds blanket the eastern Amazon side of the range, and the sun warms the crevassed and cornice ridge I must now traverse. I summit, weave cornices, duck under seracs, and then summit again – a slightly higher peak this time. Alpine faces, never to feel the swing of an axe, hear the ping of a piton, virgin and pure, plunge into a now nearly un-accessible valley. I have found my peace, and have answered all the questions I was only recently asking.
Colombia has big icy mountains, impossibly steep big walls, and beautiful remote alpine valleys, but it is nearly too late for the world to discover one of the best kept secrets of the Andes. Near the Venezuelan border in north eastern Colombia exists the national park of El Cocuy. Within the park there are 23 snow covered peaks, many with steep faces and alpine couloirs waiting to be discovered. The highest peak, Ritacub Blanco soars to 5,410 metres. With the quickest glacier decay rate in the world, 25 -inear metres a year, the clock is ticking for alpine climbing in this unique park. Full glacier extinction is predicted by 2025.
-Cory Hall is a climber from New Brunswick who has spent the last few season travelling around the world, exploring remote, off-the-beaten track areas. In 2013, with James Moneypenny, he pioneered two new route on Jungdung Kangri which got a nod from the Piolets d’Or.
Access – Since October, 2013 access to the bigwalls on the eastern side of the range has become difficult. The northern and southern trails into the secluded valley are closed because of unstable relations with the local indigenous tribes. It is still possible to climb on the faces, but the approach is more involved. Hopeful climbers must traverse over from the western glaciers, and rappel into the valley. Local guides claim they can gain you access to the east side via the standard, now closed hiking trails, but the legality of their claim is questionable at best.
Currently three trails allow access to the western side of the range. Getting there – I drove a motorbike from Edmonton Alberta, but flying to Bogata is probably quicker. Bus 10 hours north to the small colonial town of El Cocuy, buses leave daily. From the town hire private transport into the mountains, or jump a ride on the milk truck that does the trip into the mountains every day of the year.
Food and fuel – Basic mountain food can be purchases in El Cocuy, along with fuel canisters, and gasoline. White gas “bencina blanca” can be more problematic, try searching for paint thinner.
Gear – Crampons, warm clothing, ice axes and basic glacier walking equipment can be rented in town. A good topographical map is available for 10 dollars (COP $20,000). It shows hiking trails, camping areas, access roads, and even milk truck times along its route. Guides and pack horses are readily available.
Season – The dry season runs from mid December to the end of March. The rainy season settles in pretty heavy after that and clear days are rare. This was historically the high season, but with the closure of the once popular 6 day trek through the eastern side of the range tourist activity is minimal, and the local economy is suffering.
Formalities – A permit is required to climb or hike in the park, and is normally asked for at trail heads. Purchase one in town for a fee of 25 dollars (COP $50,000.) The permit is said to be valid for only six days, but like most things in Colombia the rules are fuzzy, and multiple permits and extensions are easily accomplished.
Here are links to all the info I have been able to find on established routes in the park, everything is very rarely climbed with the exception of the normal route on Ritacub Blanco, the normal route on pan de azucar, and the 5.8 rock line up the 70 metres east side of Pulpito del Diablo