Above the clouds in a secret Colombia

As crampons crunched ice, our guide, Rubara, raised his traditional woven sisal-thread handbag by his face and asked me to snap a photo. We were climbing above 5,180 meters, just shy of the summit of the Ritacuba Blanco, a glaciated peak shaped like a soft-serve ice cream cone, at El Cocuy National Park in Colombia. Aquamarine-hued icicles hung from the maw of a crevasse and, far below, clouds blanketed the Orinoco Basin.

The landscape stretched across dozens of ice-capped peaks and deep cirque valleys. Moraine lakes, formed by the natural erosion from glaciers’ unhurried flow and retreat, shimmered in mineral hues. Nearly 50 kilometers away, we could just make out the telltale church spire of the town of Soata. Save for a photographer friend and one other guide on the ice field, no other people were in view. The February day was bright. I’d finally caught my breath.

“The snow is sacred to us,” said Rubara, the only indigenous U’Wa ranger of the eight who work in the park (he used only his single U’Wa name), before acknowledging that, as a guide, he’d never been this high before. “We should be heading down.”

Down was the only way to go, but I wanted to linger.

Solitude at high altitudes is increasingly rare. Unlike congested climbing destinations like Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua, Cocuy, both remote and, until recently, risky to visit, has been South America’s undiscovered gem of mountaineering.

This may be a temporary condition. The park has also had a marked increase in visitors. Fabio Munoz, the park’s director, said it registered nearly as many tourists in January as in all 2008.

But for now, at least, there are no 200-tent shanties there. No trail quotas, lottery peak permits or trashed base camps. Roberto Ariano, a ranger for the park, who focuses his efforts on conservation, called Cocuy a “lost corner of Colombia.”

Rising from the Plains of Arauca, near the Venezuelan border, El Cocuy National Park covers nearly 2,600 square kilometers of terrain and 4,570 vertical meters. Its stratified ecosystems shelter red-footed tortoises, pumas, howling monkeys, tapirs and, soaring above them all, condors. U’Wa Indian reservations make up half the park’s domain. Tourism is concentrated in the Sierra Nevada, covering just 2 percent of the park.

Erwin Kraus, a dapper Colombian of German descent, was the first explorer to document the sierra thoroughly, in the late 1930s and ’40s. Kraus photographed and painted the range, producing important baselines in the study of glacial retreat, on his way to several first ascents of peaks in Colombia.

By
the 1980s, the intrepid backpackers and climbers who made the five-to-seven-day trek through the range or opened routes on virgin rock faces usually kept news of its surpassing beauty to themselves.

Today, much of the glacial area of the park is disappearing. In Bogota the week before we began our trip, the Colombian glaciologist Jorge Luis Ceballos showed me evidence of the rapid retreat of Cocuy’s ice cover. From a single, 148-square-kilometer sheet in 1850, he said, just 18 square kilometers of scattered snowcaps remained in 2007. Recent photos displayed side-by-side with Kraus’ black-and-whites showed distinctly different mountains.

Within three decades, Ceballos estimates, the Cocuy will be nothing but mostly barren rock and high-altitude tropical tundra. Ceballos attributes this glacial retreat primarily to warming temperatures. (During our trip up the glacier, we came across one of his red-tipped ice-mass probes: the Ritacuba had shrunk about 2 meters in just two months, well beyond normal seasonal fluctuations.)

It was the tail end of the dry season when the photographer Marcos Roda and I made the 400-kilometer drive north from Bogota: an 11-hour journey, almost all of it curvy, most of it paved. Marcos throttled his Mitsubishi jeep northward, slowing only for military checkpoints.

For years, any point past the sixth hour of that trip was a no-go zone, home to competing fronts of guerrilla and, later, regional paramilitary. At times, Ariano said, the state simply abandoned the park.

In 2003, though, as part of a broad military offensive, the Colombian president, Alvaro Uribe, installed an elite brigade high in the Cocuy. The ensuing battle over the strategic corridors between the northern Amazon and the Andean plateau was bloody and brief. The park is now considered safe, and pro-guerrilla graffiti has been scrubbed off walls in the towns of Guican and El Cocuy nearby.

From El Cocuy (elevation, 2,745 meters), a pristine colonial town of uniform whitewash and light-green trim, acclimatizing and donning layers of fleece as we went, we churned 1,220 meters higher into the misty alpine tundra of the Lagunillas Valley, past potato farms and long-haired dairy cows. These soon gave way to stacked stone walls and grazing Merino sheep. At the end of the road lay the campgrounds long owned by the Herrera family. (Miguel Herrera, 50, climbed with Erwin Kraus, as did his father.) The Herrera camp also serves as the gateway to the striking southern peaks of the range and a staging ground for the more elaborate 71-kilometer trek through the whole park. The latter route laces together lakes and exotic vistas over a series of strenuous passes, the highest of which tops out at 4,570 feet.

A pair of Austrians, whom we had met at the camp, spent half their parkwide, eight-day trek huddled in a tiny lightweight tent, away from freezing rain. Nevertheless, they bagged two summits that required technical-climbing gear and mountaineering expertise, and only encountered an American and six Slovaks along the way.

“Wonderful, despite the rain,” said Gerhard Tuchler, Austrian No. 1. “We’re repeat visitors.”

“Best-kept secret in the Americas,” said Stefan Pappernigg, Austrian No. 2. “But perhaps Gerhard and I now know each other a little too well.”

That night, as Marcos and I sipped steaming potato soup, Herrera told stories about Erwin Kraus, roaming Andean bears with unusual facial markings that resemble glasses, and his father’s pack horses sinking in brittle snow on the passes. Drowsy from the altitude, I retreated woozily to a well-blanketed bed.

The next morning, we walked the valley. A marked trail took us up a ridge into fields of furry 4-1/2-meter-tall plants called Frailejones because they are thought to resemble hooded monks in silhouette. Over 700 species of endemic flora have adapted to the conditions of the Cocuy. The combination of wonder and isolation felt akin to a scuba diver’s at a remote but lively reef.

Above the valley, the rocky moraine afforded spectacular views of the ice-carved granite faces and snow caps. From there, on a clear day, you can see El Pulpito del Diablo, the Devil’s Pulpit, a perfectly hewn cube poking out of the snow-draped shoulder of Pan de Azucar, and the twin bell-shaped peaks called the Campanillas.

That afternoon we drove 45 minutes north to the Posada Sierra Nevada, a work-in-progress guesthouse perched at 3,950 meters, where we rested. Before dawn the next morning, Belisario Santisteban, who runs the posada, saddled four mares, while his wife, Nelly, prepared a breakfast of cheese, eggs and hot chocolate. Several hours of riding later, we reached the lip of the Ritacuba Glacier, where we laced on crampons and roped up for the white icy incline ahead.

Rubara led the way past the science station, shaking his head. “The glacier suffers from our trampling,” he said, repeating a common U’Wa belief. We set rest targets of a few hundred yards, one foot at a time, breathing heavily. Slowly, the Cocuy’s 30 other rugged peaks began to reveal themselves over cornices, more fierce and vertical than their lakeside views had suggested.

Rubara gazed over his tribal lands, thousands of meters below to the east. I thought of Colombia’s audacious new tourism slogan: “The only risk is wanting to stay.” Almost alone at the top of the Cocuy, this slogan rang true.

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