"I've decided I'm a mountain girl"
At 4:30 I dizzily stumbled out of bed. My skis waited in the car, and as I passed the table by the front door I grabbed the breakfast I'd set out the night before. By 4:45 I was coaxing my eyes open as I barreled through the snow, NPR on the radio, banana in hand, waking up to news of skiers who had been lost to avalanches in California. Unseasonably high snowfall this year. At 6:00 I climbed steadily upward in the dark, the cold mountain air burning my lungs with each breath, the ski slopes illuminated only by the snow's reflection of the stars in the night sky. Through my headphones I was immersed in a podcast about traveling the world. This was part of the ritual.
After an hour of hiking in the dark, imagining travel to faraway places, I reached the top of the mountain. 7:00 – just in time for the rising sun to cast a shadow of the San Francisco peaks all the way across the high desert to the Grand Canyon, barely visible below the horizon. As I put away my climbing skins, pulled on my jacket, and kicked my telemark boots back into my ski bindings, I couldn't shake the silly grin from my face. With a nudge of my ski pole I sent myself sailing down the mountain I'd just climbed, crouching into each turn and springing up again, laying down the day's first tracks. At the "headwall", half way down the mountain, I picked up enough speed to scare myself. Yep, still alive! I still couldn't get that silly grin off of my face.
By 8:00 I was back in the car heading down the mountain, just in time for an 8:30 meeting at work. There's just something about being in the mountains.
On our first morning in Colombia's El Cocuy National Park I awoke to an unfamiliar crispness in the air. Having spent the last five months in Central America, we were getting used to stifling heat and humidity. We crawled out of our down sleeping bags and put the coffee on. It was going to be a long day.
James and Lauren emerged from the 4Runner bundled up like New York City hobos. Overnight their front tire had gone flat, causing the truck to tilt steeply to one side, so James had spent the night crushing Lauren against the low side of the truck. Another night in the life of a homeless person, I guess.
We donned our packs, bid ado to our new friend Jeni – a small red-cheeked girl who lived in the rock hut next to our camp – and set off toward the towering, snow-capped peaks to the Southeast. The doubletrack dirt road ended shortly beyond our camp, and gave way to a small singletrack leading up the valley toward Pan de Azucar and El Pulpito del Diablo, looming above.
The hike through the valley led us up grassy slopes and through fields of frailejones; the plants grow only 2cm per year, and are only found in this corner of South America. Before long the path turned upward where the thin air made each step a small victory. We had started the hike just below 13,000 feet and were climbing ever higher.
The trail rose higher and higher over mountains of shale, and before long we found ourselves scrambling over boulders up a steep rock fall towards the first pass: Paso de Cusirí. If all went well we would complete two 15,000′ passes before descending to the Laguna de la Plaza, a high glacial lake at 13,780′, where we would camp. We were told the hike would take about seven hours, and by the fourth hour dark clouds had moved in and cloaked the pass like a woolen shawl. The trail wound upwards in a series of steep switchbacks straight into the cloud.
In the early afternoon we reached the top of Paso de Cusirí, and in doing so found ourselves in the middle of a snowstorm. A mixture of snow and rain pelted us like horizontal pellets from an invisible army of rabbit-hunting boy scouts. We hid behind the summit sign, which announced that we'd arrived at the inhospitable elevation of 14,469′. We assessed the situation, running out from behind the sign to look beyond the pass to see what lay in store for us; the trail disappeared into a carpet of dark clouds and whipping wind and snow.
"Onward and downward?" I asked, hoping for dissenters.
"Uuuuh...It's decision time, guys," James said. Seeing the out, we decided to throw in the towel and head back down in the direction we'd come. We weren't prepared for blizzard conditions, and some of the team were already experiencing numb fingers and toes. Nothing says "killjoy" like frostbite. Or pulmonary edema.
When we reached the rock fall on the way down, we discovered that the entire stretch had been turned into a freezing cold waterfall. I had a split-second daydream of me waking up dead, wrapped in my soggy sleeping bag at the bottom of a raging, icy cascade. I silently lauded our decision to turn back.
The best time of year to visit El Cocuy is December through February for its pleasant weather. Seeing as how we chose to visit in June, we knew we were playing with fire. With unpredictable weather in this part of the range, we opted to drive to another area about two hours to the North. Given the condition of the roads in these parts, this basically equated to us moving about 10 miles. I'm no meteorologist, but this sounded like a surefire way to ensure a drastic change in weather. The following day we picked up camp and moved to Hacienda La Esperanza where Marco, normally seen scurrying about his farm wearing a traditional wool poncho, cooked us dinner in his kitchen and showed off his antiques and old photos of the area.
In the morning we awoke to find a Kiwi named Joe lurking about our camp with his touring motorcycle. He was on his way to Alaska from Argentina, and decided to tag along with us for a while on our hike. We threw our things together and departed camp through fields reminiscent of Switzerland, interspersed with rocky spires jutting up through the grass while long-haired dairy cows moseyed about.
The hike took us through a low glacial valley filled with plants and streams before climbing upwards over a series of rocky plateaus. On our right, an enormous rock wall separated us from the sprawling mountains and the tiny towns we'd driven through to get here; Onzaga, Covarachia, Soata, El Cocuy, and the truck driver's secret road. To our left, glacier-capped peaks shimmered above the rocky terrain, taunting me with their 17,000 foot powder bowls. Would it be worth it to come back here one day with my skis? I imagine that nobody has ever skied El Cocuy.
After five hours of uphill slogging we reached our destination for the night: La Cueva del Hombre, or The Man Cave. I had asked Marco why it was called the Man Cave before we set off from La Esperanza.
"Long ago, some men used to climb to the lake. Ducks would stop for a rest from their migration, and the men would shoot them. The ducks don't come any more. The men would sleep in the cave after they shot the ducks, so it is called La Cueva del Hombre." I noted that Marco should make up a more titillating story about how the Man Cave got its name.
Once inside the Man Cave we set up our tents, and then Sheena and I decided to hike up to the lake to have a look around while James and Lauren took a nap. We intended to spend the entire next day exploring the glacial basin, but we couldn't stand the suspense. We bundled up and bounced out from under the overhang feeling light without our packs.
The trip from the cave to the lake took a damn, dirty long time, but once we crested the ridge and the landscape spread out in front of us, we lost our breath. Uh oh, pulmonary edema again? Nope, just friggin' awesome! The mountain to the left was capped by an enormous bowl of untouched snow from top to bottom, where the glacier spilled over the edge of a vast chasm; a crashing calamity of building-sized ice chunks paused in suspended animation. On the opposite side of the basin, another glacier spilled down from the top of another 17,000 foot peak, terminating at the edge of a colossal shear rock wall. The ice composing the second glacier bore a map of its ancient history in dirty veins of ice crisscrossing its surface, and diving into its depths. Between the walls of the basin were a series of small lakes fed by the runoff from both glaciers. For minutes all we could do was stare in awe, a mixture of blood and adrenaline coursing through our veins.
"So, how was it?" James peered out of his tent as we ducked back into the Man Cave, having just awoken from his slumber.
I was at a loss for words. "It was so damn awesome... I felt like my heart was going to explode."
As evening rolled around, we made a gourmet concoction of broken up lasagna noodles with canned tuna in olive oil. Soon, the shadows engulfed our cave and a harsh chill pressed the warm air into the valley below. We all huddled into our tent and passed the evening playing the travel-size board game, Trouble. You remember the commercials: It's fun getting into TROUBLE!
The feeling as we unzipped our tent in the morning to discover the ground covered in snow was a stew of nostalgia, serenity, awe, surprise, and regret. The continued snowfall and resulting accumulation meant that there would be no more excursions to the glacial lakes. It also meant that, since we didn't know how much snow would accumulate, we would have to make a mad dash for a lower elevation. We hastily drank our morning coffee and packed our things. James and Lauren, both having lost their gloves, fashioned mittens out of wool socks, and we all pulled plastic bags over our feet before slipping them into our shoes. Poor man's Gore-Tex.
Hiking in the snow is about as close as we can get to a state of total serenity. The snowflakes absorb any stray sounds and create an unnatural silence, while the muffled crunch of snow under our feet creates a rhythmic soundtrack to our movement. As we silently descended through the snowy landscape my mind wandered to our winter camping trips to Durango, filling our tent with good friends and sleeping in the snow near the ski hill. I reflected on my regular hikes to the top of Agassiz Peak before work, the shadow of the peaks stretching across the desert, and the rewarding turns. I thought about our dear friend Mike who perished in an avalanche while backcountry skiing near his home in California. I had heard about it on NPR while heading up to the mountain before work, but never imagined it would be my friend who was lost. I remembered the discussion that Sheena and I had on the way home from his funeral, which ultimately led to us quitting our jobs and setting off on this very trip.
I liked that it was snowing; It put a silly grin on my face. There's just something about being in the mountains.