February 21, 2018
Jorge is very easy-going, but his colleague wearing the Cambio Radical baseball cap scowls when I ask him about the party. ‘Is it a centrist party, to the left, or to the right?’ ‘To the right’ he tells me. ‘Very much to the right?’ I ask. ‘Yes, very right-wing’, already sensing that as foreigner I would not be inclined to be very sympathetic to his political cause. What I am not sympathetic to is that he is strutting his political inclinations on a job that involves dealing with the public, and that is not acceptable.
Ascending one of the more painful ridges, a lengthy rock slope appears to the left, covered in a sheet of cascading water. Creeks gurgle near the trail, the sound omnipresent as we approach the snowcap. Higher up, traces of frost cover the grasses and plants. The trail features small red stakes placed at 200 metre intervals, where the ground permits, and where it doesn’t, piles of artfully arranged stones.
Finally, following the arduous climb, growing increasingly difficult as oxygen becomes scarcer at the higher elevation, we approach what must be the last ridge. The entire group of German women we had seen at a distance is now standing before us with their guide on the lip of the next rise. But I need to sit down myself, as I can’t muster the energy to continue, despite the notion that we may be nearing the end of the hike. Finally I join the rest of the group on the ridge, looking out over the much larger lagoon ensconced in a thick envelope of rock fall and the massive hoods of snow. To the left lies the culmination of our trail, El Concavito, to the right, the ridge of El Portales, and to the far right, El Pan de Azucar and El Pulpito del Diablo, which appears as a small butte from a distance, but from closer inspection is actually a huge tower.
Technically speaking, the end of the hike should lead to the chasm below the bottom of the glacier, where another smaller lagoon is visible. I have no desire to walk further, never mind ability. And while David is somewhere in the distance, the German women camped around the small outcropping looking out over the Laguna Grande de la Sierra don’t seem to have much intention of going any further, either. The guides look askance at us as we huddle together in the blistering arctic winds. Looking at their relatively skimpy clothing, it seems difficult to believe they couldn’t be freezing – not that I am wearing that much, other than several layers of rain gear over thermal underwear.
It is bitterly cold here, cold by any standard. So much for coming to Colombia to enjoy the tropical sunshine. And given the hardship I have been through the last few days, I momentarily think of actually heading to a tropic zone of the country. I would at least like to reward myself for the accomplishment of having made it this far, but also realize that the trip back to the Valle de Freilejones will be fraught with difficulty, given that the descent through the steep ridges is characterized by liberal amounts of loose rock, painful to descend over.
My nose won’t stop running while on the hike, even worse today than it was two days ago. So I had gone to the effort of buying Kleenex, just that the tissues in my jacket pockets became sopping wet due to the moisture accumulation under the outer shell. Then even to retrieve the Kleenex from my pocket I have to take my gloves off, except that the gloves barely fit onto my hands, given that my fingers are swollen due to the impact of the elevation. And I can barely feel my nose, it is so cold …
Then adding to the mix, I am also recovering from a severe sunburn and heatstroke …
The snowcaps before us provide perfect photo opportunities, set to the back of the lagoons embedded in rock. Of course, the relatively static photos do little to give an idea of what it actually takes to get here! And then the snowcaps are not really that big when compared to the endless snowfields in the northern hemisphere, particularly in the mountains.
The vistas of the glaciers crowning the highest peaks in the country is breathtaking – as long as we can remain huddled in our inert position! But snow and rock is really only so appealing, and the visual drama of it all is hardly that prepossessing, especially given what we see on a regular basis in Southwestern British Columbia. What I would really love to see is the profile of the mountains from the llanura to the south, as the entire majesty of the mountains would be visible. Looking at images of the Cocuy range online, another thing that stands out is that the air here is not that clear – vistas are beset by a constant dull haze.
Jorge motions us that we need to begin our descent. Although the sky is somewhat hazy, and it is obviously quite cold, it doesn’t look like any major clouds are about to move in. But we have to return at some point, and it will be a challenging journey back to get to a more comfortable elevation. The initial descent through the succession of plateaux that connects the two lagoons is easy enough, but already the beginning of the trip downwards towards the Valle de Freilejones wears me out. Jorge is again very generous in offering to carrying my daypack, but I can see that the heavier bag is taxing for him as well, noting that he proceeds cautiously and repeatedly comes close to slipping on the loose rock.
I am soon in agony even without the pack, having to stop at regular intervals, seized up in pain. The difficulty of the descent seems unrelated to the issue of diminishing oxygen with the increased altitude: continuously attempting to manipulate my footfall on the downward-sloping loose rock fall is creating intense havoc with my back, triggering long-dormant sciatica issues. The travails of age, but also of difficult hiking conditions.
My throat is parched, and I can only think of drinking water, and a lot of it. It seems strange: I am not really thirsty, so much as my body is wracked in pain, and a large injection of fresh cold water may help to assuage the pain. Jorge assures me that the water from the lagoons is drinkable. I didn’t want to have to clamber across the heavy rock fall down to the shore of the laguna grande, and David gave me half of what remains in his bottle. But much further down, close to the Valle de los Freilejones, the trail crosses the gushing creek, and I cannot resist. I fill bottle upon bottle of water, pouring the contents down my throat before kneeling down and filling the bottle again in the clear cold water gurgling over the rocky creek bottom. The water tastes of snow …
I had wanted to take great photos of the environment we are hiking through on the way down, as the light would be better, but it seems that the escarpments we descend, the massive ridges to the side, and the Valle de Freilejones don’t look much better on the way down as on the way up. Only towards the end, descending towards the valley La Esperanza is located in, does the valley system beyond appear in bright shades of forest green.
Ironically, the light becomes too intense to capture good photos of the more delicate flowers descending from the Valle de Freilejones. Irrespective of the angle and distance, my expensive camera seems to capture no more than an overexposed blur of the the lighter specimens. On the other hand, the lone living creature we see, a salamander posing on a rock, seems to be too comfortable with heating up in the sun to be bothered by our approach.