We were in Colombian Andes and life was good. I was eager to hit the trail, so after adjusting hiking poles and packs we set off. I saw a sign with a trail map, but didn’t really see much of a trail. For the first 30 minutes we jumped from rock to rock, to avoid sinking into the rich deep mud.
The trail was more of a creek bed or bog. I think the sheep and cows were as surprised as I was, when several times I came nose to nose with them as they blended into the shrubbery. As we passed our third cow, I tried to not look at Ol who has this crazy cow phobia.
Soon we were high enough that the the wet grass gave way to rocks and alpine flowers. Far to our left was a series of water falls and to our right a high cliff rock wall. We were in the Valle De Los Frailejones (a perennial shrub in the sunflower family) and a sign showed our altitude at (3,790 m) or 12,430 feet.
It was slow going as it took almost all of my energy just to breathe. In two hours we had ascended almost 1000 feet. The trail was rough and steep and did not resemble the linear trails depicted on the park maps. The valley was the perfect place to stop for our first break. We took the opportunity to shed a few layers of clothing and share snacks. Evan took the time to tells us about the sacred waterfall of the indigenous people and the slow growth of the plants. Even though we were on the equator with the alpine environment the plants grow less than a centimeter a year. He warned us the next section of trail was a climb.
I tried to ignore my symptoms but I was starting to feel bad. I was getting a little dizzy and nauseous and was worried my body was having trouble with the altitude. Ol and Ivan kept me company when I stopped to catch my breath and offered words of encouragement. I decided to press on as it was a beautiful day and I was excited to be back in the wilderness.
Ivan and I fell into an easy and deep conversation. We discussed our faith, our families and our futures. It seemed no subject was off limits. He told me things he hadn’t shared with friends or family. Though only 24 years old, he is a kind and serious young man with big dreams. He is already well traveled and after listening to him, I became convinced he will accomplish anything he sets his heart and mind to. We promised to visit one another’s homes and keep in touch via email.
Hiking is his passion and we discussed our favorite hikes and shared what mountains we would still like to conquer. Before I knew it we had made it to a second sign showing that we were now at 4,078 meters or 13,380 feet. No wonder I wasn’t feeling well, that was an altitude gain of 4,360 feet since we woke up that morning.
We were trying to make it to Laguna Grande, a series of alpine lakes, before 1:00 pm which is the time we would need to start our descent in order to make it safely back before nightfall. After a steep 6 miles and 5 hours of hiking we finally made it to the first alpine lake. I am not sure of the elevation, but it was about an hour hike from the last sign. There we stopped and visited with a small group of young hikers from Switzerland, who were returning from the next lake. They decided to turn around as they had someone in their group also suffering from altitude sickness.
We were now closer to El Pulpito Del Diablo (The Devil’s Pulpit) and it grew considerably colder as we got closer to the glacial ice. We all put our jackets on. Ol took a bunch of photos. We refilled our water bottles with from the crystal clear lake. I was just glad that we would soon be heading down, as I now had a headache and was getting more worried about altitude sickness. I felt terrible that my pace kept Ivan from reaching the top lake, but he said not to worry about it, he was young and would be back again one day.
Going down was considerably faster and after an hour my headache was gone. I was still dizzy and again I was slowing everyone down, as it is harder on my bad knees to descend. I was cautious over the loose rocks and the steep descents as I did not want to get hurt. Just as we arrived back into the Valley of the Frailejones, the clouds and fog started to roll in. Within minutes we were putting on our rain jackets as the first drops of rain began to fall.
It was now getting close to 4:00 pm and growing considerably colder and darker as the light rain turned torrential. We were still an hour from the trail head and I was struggling over the now wet and slippery rocks. My fingers were numb from the cold and I was starting to lose my balance from fatigue. Oliver and Ivan patiently waited for me and offered words of encouragement. Our guide was no where in sight.
The trail quickly became a small creek and the brush alongside the trail became weighted obstacles that we had to duck under. I was happy to run into a sheep because it meant that we were getting closer to the bottom. At this point, I was soaked and my waterproof boots were filled with freezing water as I repeatedly slipped into the trail that had turned into a creek. The streams that we crossed easily on our ascent were now small rivers. Within thirty minutes our lovely hike turned dangerous and I had never been more cold.
Had we been permitted, Ol and I would have sought shelter in our tent and waited out the storm. However, tents and camping are not allowed in the Park. This made for a dangerous hike in so many ways. The last 30 minutes of the trail was really difficult. I watched Ol slide a few feet down in the deep mud. After, slipping twice myself I was shaky and cold. I finally broke down in tears and stopped just to catch my breath. Again, it was Ol who got me through the worst parts. When we made it through the last few yards of deep mud, I was shocked to learn that our driver was nowhere in site. Freezing and soaking wet, we now had to hike1.8 K to our hut.
As our guide got on his motorcycle, my anger turned to fury. Had I stayed where I had planned, I would be changing out of my freezing wet clothes and getting into a warm shower. Instead, I couldn’t even rest as a deep chill had set in. My teeth were chattering and I had no feeling in my fingers or toes. I set off down the road cussing our driver and guide for putting us in this situation. I know it was my anger that fueled the longest 40 minute walk of my life. Ol and Ivan fell back to a safe distance. When Evan pulled up alongside me on his motorcycle there was no language barrier. My face made it clear how I felt. We were required to hire a guide for our safety and it was how he handled the bad weather that made it into the most dangerous hike of my life.
As I approached our hut, there were three men in ponchos sitting under the eaves, drinking their Poker brand beer. No one got up as I approached. When I opened the door there were three small school age children sitting at the metal table with their mother doing homework. I felt like an intruder into their home. I didn’t know the way to our lodging as it was dark when we had dropped off our gear.
I was distraught, and wanted to get out of my wet clothes and into a warm shower. I was sure that I was hypothermic. Ol helped me to our room and as we crossed the threshold we had to step over fresh wet chicken droppings. I started to break down and sob all over again.
My fingers were too cold to unlace my boots, so Ol helped me to undress. We tried to get the shower to heat up, but it remained icy cold. I went back to the room, put on my thermals, and climbed into my sleeping bag. It took two hours for me to finally quit shivering and crying.
Our hostess was gracious and brought me a cup of hot tea and a warm bowl of delicious bean soup. As there was no heat, and I could see my breath, I declined joining the family for dinner. I really regret this because it would have been wonderful to visit with the children.
Ol used every available surface and tried to hang up our gear to dry. Unfortunately, with no source of heat, I knew that we would have to worry about that in the morning. As Ol climbed into his sleeping bag next to me, I realized that this was not the romantic trek that I had envisioned. But, it was an adventure and we had a lot to be thankful for. We had made a really good friend, we were warm and safe, and we were blessed to visit such a remote and beautiful mountain wilderness that few people will ever see.