The ascent of the highest mountains of Venezuela was one of the main goals we had hoped to achieve when we were planning our round South America trip. After arriving in serene mountain town of Merida, we spent a couple of days scoping out a trek up the two highest mountains in Venezuela – Pico Humboldt (4,940m) and Pico Boliva (4,978m).
Mark, Jono and I had been travelling around South America for nearly three months by this stage. But for this trek, we were happy to be joined by Gareth who was a big, hairy, gregarious South African who we had met in Merida; and Nadya from Switzerland who we’d met the previous week whilst on the beach in Santa-Fé.
After enquiring around Merida for guides, we soon realised that October was in the off season due to Winter setting in and flooding in the approach routes and most people didn’t seem interested. However, we met Chao through a friend we had made in Merida and he agreed to guide us. The day before departure, we spent the afternoon buying food supplies, scouring for a few climbing items and repacking our rucksacks, stowing anything we didn’t think we would need in Chao’s flat.
6th October 1999: Day 1 – Merida to Laguna Coronato
It was an early start. Chao came around with more equipment which was loaded into the jeep we were sitting in ready to disembark. It included pick axes and crampons and made our rucksacks look seriously ‘hard core’! With our packs tied on the top of the jeep, we made a short stop for coffee and then set off on the road to Mucuy – the gateway to the Sierra Nevada National Park and starting village for the trek. The sun was out but it was not too hot – perfect walking weather. We entered the park and it was truly beautiful. Clear streams ran through crisp forests where the floor was a mat of moss-covered boulders. Rays of sunlight illuminated random patches to give a slight quilt effect.
We pulled into the ranger station and the fee was higher than anticipated at Bs3,000 (~US$5) per person. I only had a Bs10,000 note for Mark, Jono and I but the ranger only gave change of Bs100 and my objections received little response. Luckily, Nadya had her fee in smaller notes so we just removed our change up front. The man was not impressed and had the nerve to complain to which my reply was ‘no es un problema para mi‘ and we walked on. Mark said afterwards he had been trying hard not to laugh out loud at this which was probably a good thing he didn’t!
We donned our packs which were quite heavy with all the gear. Mark and I carried a tent each and Gareth had some extra food but Chao, who was tiny, led the weight stakes by far. It was quite funny to see such a small person with such a large pack. I led the way with Nadya and I was feeling quite fit following our recent trek up Mount Roraima but the first hour was painful. Luckily the walk was along a gently upwards sloping path through a serene rain-forest on the slopes of a smaller mountain.
We saw many birds and vine-like plants but the first few hours were straight trekking. The others began to lag behind and Nadya and I didn’t see them for ages. We heard them every now and then as the path looped back and forth as it ascended the hillside. There were simple rivers to cross and the cool breeze of mountain air made it a very pleasant walk. Occasionally, the forest would open up to reveal a great view across the valley with Merida still visible down below.
Clouds were beginning to form in nearby hollows and it was strange to think how high we were. We had not climbed a great deal, but Merida is about 2,000m to start with and Mucuy higher still at 3,000m. In the mid-afternoon, the path turned towards the mountain and the clouds gathered thickly in the valley. Visibility reduced as the forest grew darker and then the rain began to fall. Rain is strange in the tropics. It is like the movies – once instant it is dry and the next, it is pouring. There is usually very little preamble – just rain or no rain. We climbed into our anoraks and sheltered under a large leafed tree. It wasn’t very effective but our rucksacks stayed more or less ‘un-drenched’. This was important not for the sake of keeping the contents dry, but for the weight of the soaked-up water. Eventually, the others came along one by one with long stretches between them. Jono was suffering from the altitude but was making a steady progress. Chao pinned up a small plastic sheet and proceeded with a little lunch. I chopped some vegetables and before long, we were digging into some tasty sandwiches.
Before long, we were getting too cold to sit any longer and so set off again. The next few hours were harder with the path taking an uphill turn. Andya and I kept out in front and led the way until we reached Laguna Coronato where we would spend out first night. We were really tired by this time and although the rain had stopped, we were soaked not only from the rain – but also our own sweat.
The others trudged into camp soon after and we set up the two tents. Previously, we had re-christened Mark as Poombah (from the Lion King) due his constant farting and was hence banished to the two-man tent with Chao who hadn’t yet learnt about his foul deeds! The rest of us would squeeze into the bigger tent. Chao set about with dinner while we relaxed with a cup of something sugary. The sun set at about six and gave an eerie silhouette to the mountains which the clouds had now revealed all around us. They looked tall, black and impossible and I felt like Frodo at the foot of Cahadras in the Misty Mountains. The lake was quiet and still except for the occasional plop of a fish. The thick soup Chao produced for dinner was lovely and disappeared quickly. Tiredness sent us to bed early but we chatted a while before drifting off. The night spent on the stony lake shore was not comfortable, but I had plenty of time to find some sleep before morning.
7th October 1999: Day 2 – Laguna Coronato to Laguna Verde
Real coffee! Waking up to Chao knocking on our tent with one hand with real coffee on offer in the other – GREAT. The night was long and uncomfortable but I felt almost ready for a new day. After a breakfast of chicken arepas [a sort of chicken and avocado wrap] and watermelon, my readiness was complete. The weather was duller than yesterday which increased the ominousness of the mountains ahead. It was clear enough so we could see the crack of the valley that we would be following until it disappeared behind a rather jagged ridge to the right. Nadya and I led but today the group stuck together as the going was tough. We lost the trail quickly as it had become overgrown with plants. We met another group who apparently had left the day before us but they had turned back due to concerns about the deteriorating weather conditions. We spent two hours climbing but every time we looked behind us, the lake where we camped seemed still seemed very close below us. We didn’t seem to be getting very far very quickly! The path wound up and down, over rocks and under trees with the rain venting in sporadic fury. I had taken all the rope off of Chao for he looked to be suffering and by our late lunch I felt quite tired even though it was only about 5 or 6 pounds extra. Everyone was getting a bit more snappy then they had been the previous day. Jono was feeling the strain from the altitude. After a quick lunch of sandwiches again, we set off for we still had a long way to go.
The path became a jumble of rocks and then a free for all up the side of a gorged-out valley. Nadya and Jono were finding it quite difficult and Mark, Chao and I would sometimes push ahead and return to carry their backpacks a way. After a long while, Laguna Verde came within sight but there was a steep cliff to traverse before we could reach our intended campsite. Following the narrow path, it became increasingly narrow with a sheer drop on one side and a vertical wall on the other. Nadya, who has vertigo had a panic attack, but Chao and I worked together to bring her along the path. Our last obstacle was a river flowing down from the glacier where built a small stepping stone bridge and then half an hour later, we reached out the camp spot and the tents were setup up in a green flat spot. This would be base camp for our Mount Humboldt summit attempt for the next day.
Nadya had caught a chill so we put her straight to bed while dinner was prepared. Jono and Gareth went to attempt to catch a fish but returned empty handed a short while later. Dinner was spaghetti with canned sardines and I ate loads anticipating tomorrow’s big climb. The view from our tent looked up towards the range of peaks where we knew Humboldt was hiding with its head buried deep in the clouds. It would be another early start, so we took another early night.
8th October: Day 3 – summit attempt of Mount Humboldt
Today we would be making an attempt to reach the top of Mount Humboldt. Nadya decided to stay at base camp since she seemed to be suffering from a mild fever. She had found the altitude quite tough but it was the climbs that really worried her. Since we would be returning to base camp in the evening, she would stay with the tents which we would be leaving in camp. We felt sorry she couldn’t come but packed and set off for an early start. Chao, Mark and I took a rucksack each to make the way easier for Gareth since he hadn’t done and rock climbing before, and Jono who was still suffering from the altitude.
It was a couple of miles up of warm up walking to a small lagoon at the foot of a glacial rock wall. It was cloudy but the mountains loomed all around us like the teeth in a mouth with the small lake as the throat. At the top of the glacial wall, the white glacier could be seen stretching off into the distance. A few lonely cows had claimed the boggy ground around the lake although we’d seen none at all on the way up and thought perhaps they were stuck up here. Jono made a brave decision to continue even though he was feeling pretty rough since he didn’t want to miss out. The climb started and it was slow progress as we each ascended a small part at a time. Gareth turned out to be a pretty good climber although he said he was ‘shitting himself the whole time’. At one stage, we needed the rope as a safety precaution but from then on, it was just an arduous climb to the snow line. The snow thickened quickly helped further by more snow which had begun to fall. We tried to avoid the deep snow by jumping from rock to rock but they weren’t all that stable and would sometimes cause a mini avalanche behind us. So instead ended up wading through the snow drifts, separating out and treading in each other’s footprints to minimize the danger and the effort.
After a couple more hours, the remaining rocky outcrops were disappearing under the deepening snow and the wading become more continuous. But the sky had cleared and provided a wonderful view of the valley behind us, the mountains around us and the glacier ahead. The latter appeared just an endless dome of white stretching off into cloud. The snow began to reach our knees and then the rocks below the snow could no longer be felt at all and each foot step would sink until the snow compressed enough to hold us. In places our legs didn’t stop, and we’d fall sideways into the gulf of snow. Finally, we reached the last rocky outpost before the glacier and here put on our crampons and roped ourselves together. It was time for the final push.
We were in a long line and it was tough going. We were sinking deep and every twenty or so steps, someone would fall and jerk the line to a halt while they climbed out of the deep snow. We had been trekking for about six hours and were hungry but we needed to move fast to avoid too much trekking in the dark. Up ahead, the mist swirled to reveal the 50m rocky head of Humboldt. It seemed like a relief when we finally reached it but it was just the start of a new upwards rock climb – but this time covered in snow. The going was cold and hard and it took another hour or so but finally we broke out on the final ridge walk to the top. At that moment, or maybe just unnoticed before, the sky cleared and the sun warmed us even though we stood at 4,952m. The snow-covered top was small- only about 2 or 3 meters around with only the small narrow ridge reaching it from the rocky climb we had just made. To the north one could peer over a sharp cliff and spy Laguna Verde as a small blue stain on the green valley floor. To the west, the snow dropped steeply to another peak which looked very menacing. If I was to name this other peak it would be called something like ‘Grey Fang’ as this is what appeared to mimic. The steep snowy drop off in this direction was straight down to a valley far below. In the distance, the lands of Los Llanos could be glimpsed where it is famous for the abundance of wildlife. To the south, another fearful mountain scarred the horizon and this range continued to the east – the direction of our ascent. Here the glacier separated or peak from the ‘mouth teeth’ we had ascended. Across the glacier was an almost straight blue line of footprints and the glacier seemed to hang down two sides of the mountain as if these footprints were a washing line.
It was truly a magnificent feeling and I felt on top of the world. I felt such satisfaction and glory for having made it. I dug my ice pick into the snow and made a metal seat for myself and here we had a lunch: of two biscuits! I suppose it was a bit much to expect Chao to carry anything more than the biscuits but we were all starving. We took a few pictures at the top and then set off for the long descent. We made fast progress following our own footprints all the way but just below the snowline, the sun set, and darkness quickly shrouded the land. We began to get separated in descending the rock wall as each person differed in their chosen route and speed. We had two torches, but they were limited and a shouting match ensued to keep everyone informed as to each other’s whereabouts. Finally, we were on the flat of the valley floor and trekking back to the tent which we finally reached at 9pm, 12 hours after we had set out! Here, Nadya prepared a soup dinner and we finished with more spaghetti. She had been quite worried about us but at least she was feeling better.
That night was beautifully clear, and we watched shooting stars and a lightning storm over Merida before we tucked in for a deserved sleep.
9th October 1999: Day 4 Laguna Verde to Snow Camp
Today we afforded ourselves a lie in and laid our wet clothes in the sun to get a bit drier. Chao had said last night that Nadya and Jono should return to Merida the way we had come because of their sickness with the altitude but today he changed his mind and thought we should all go together. I agreed with this an after we packed our things, we headed back up to the glacial lake at the foot of the wall. Nadya was quite content about not going yesterday since when she saw the wall, she said she never would have made it. The main ascent today was called the ‘Traversia’ and started with a steep screen climb called ‘Chomohomo’. Mark and I split Jono’s bag between us and he was still feeling rough and we started the ascent. Ahead of us, about half way up, we saw four other climbers making their way up. I was feeling quite energetic that morning and seemed to zoom up the 400-500m ascent arriving at the pass only a minute after the last climber of the group we had seen from the bottom. They turned out to be a group of Germans who were just doing the Traversia. I caught my breath, dropped my rucksack and went down to where Nadya was to carry hers up as she was still suffering. At the top, we had a good view of Humboldt in the distance and our footprints could still be seen as a light blue line across the glacier. Before I could take a picture, the mist came in and shrouded everything.
For the next few hours, it was a gentle sideways walk across a rather barren landscape except for the strange indigenous plants which we thought were like alien triffids dotted all around us. It began to get late and it started snowing. It was uphill now and hard going as we were all getting tired and cold. We sang songs to keep our spirits up but when we were back in the snowline, it become too cold to open our mouths.
The walk seemed to be endless and Chao sent Gareth and I ahead to pitch a tent. We managed to find a more or less flat stretch of snow near a frozen lagoon and here put the tent up very quickly indeed. The snow was deep here and the pegs were useless so we had to dig down a foot or so to find rocks to tie the guy ropes around. Needless to say, our hands were getting very cold and Gareth retreated into the tent. I was still feeling okay so finished putting up the tents. Meanwhile, Nadya and Jono had made it and were warming up inside our tent and Mark was in the other with Chao. I climbed in about quarter of an hour later as it had taken a while to erect the snow sheet to provide shelter for the cooking gear. It was now pummelling snow and when I came into the shelter I had little piles on my head and shoulders like severe dandruff! Chao was feeling quite ill and couldn’t cook so Gareth took over that job and made a round of chicken arepas but I was also feeling ill and couldn’t take more than a bite.
We were camping at 4,600m under the peak of Mount Bolivar. The temperature outside was dropping fast (Chao estimated between -20 to -30 degrees. I couldn’t stop shivering but I knew from past experience, I wouldn’t probably only last the night and I’d be fine by morning. It was a cold, cold night.
10th October 1999: Day 5 – Laguna Timocito to Merida
The weather was too bad to climb the final section of Mount Bolivar and I was quite disappointed. The breaks in the clouds revealed the top of the mountain just 400m above but between us and the peak was a rocky ice wall which would be treacherous to attempt with such heavy snow ready to fall at any moment. Instead, we decided to climb Pico Espejo where, upon the summit lay the terminus of the world’s longer and highest cable car station via which we could then journey back to Merida. I felt fine but having not eaten did not have much energy. The trek was tricky as it involved a lot of walking across cliff faces and much climbing.
We rounded one side of Espejo and then pushed on for the final ascent. Ahead of us, we could see the station and around it, many day trippers playing in the snow. We must looked pretty mean with our weathered faces and large rucksacks because we could read the mixed looks of fear and envy on people’s faces as we passed. I remember one scene in particular where one man was leading his wife down a snowy path. She wore white fluffy ear muffins, a leather coat, black jeans and white sneakers and she gave a little audible squeak with each step. Nadya was up ahead and the look on this lady’s face was just perfect as Nadya walked past. We stomped into the station and threw down our stuff. We’d made it and we felt great. We ate some food which we had left over and the Germans we had met the day before came in a short while later which was a relief since we had been quite worried about them in the heavy snow the night before. They had also had a cold and uncomfortable night and were equally happy to have made it to the station.
The cable car cost Bs11,000 to get down but we didn’t fancy the 8 hour walk. It was a great view and the last section showed Merida from a bird’s eye view. There seemed to be a festival but we were too tired to do anything but take a shower at the hotel. Chao sadly learnt that one of his friends had committed suicide in the time we were away and disappeared quickly. Later that day, Chao returned and we all went out for a steak at a nearby restaurant and celebrated our achievement. That night was one of the best for a long time.