Colombia, Sierra Nevada del Cocoy
Elevation: 5330 m
olombia is a hidden gem when it comes to mountaineering or rock climbing. There are some spots for rock climbing around Bogota (Suesca) but if it comes to mountaineering you often see the mountains and there peaks but getting onto them is difficult.
Especially around the departments of Tolima, Boyaca, Arauca and Magdalena you have a lot of beautiful mountains, often still active Vulcans, covered with a cap of snow and ice.
Colombias Highest Official Peak
Colombia’s highest mountain, the Pico Cristobal Colon (5730 m), is located at the north of the country, close to the Caribbean coast in the Department of Magdalena.
Hidden in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, and difficult to approach. In the Sierra Nevada there are a lot not accessible areas, because of native tribes. As this is hidden and almost impossible to climb without an expedition this peak will stay impossible to go.
Another Sierra – More Mountains
But – in the Sierra Nevada de Cocoy there is a huge national park with an “El dorado” for mountaineering. Several peaks with glacier, climbing and so on is awaiting you.
And in this beautiful landscape there is as well – Colombia’s second highest peak – located – the Ritacuba Blanco with an elevation of 5330 m.
Unfortunately the route accessing the mountain over the glacier was closed in 2017, so leaving it currently impossible to go to the Ritacuba. The main reason for this is, that the glacier and peaks are sacred areas for the native tribe of the U’wa. Unfortunately some people did not respect this and played football or sprayed paint on the glacier.
But fortunately I had the chance to climb this mountain – because I did the tour back in the year 2015. So enjoy my story about the adventure!
After being in Colombia’s Capital of Bogota, I took the chance of the “summer in Colombia” to go to the National Park of “El Cucuy”.
Being well prepared to this “solo-expedition”, I had all my equipment together. Not only my crampons, ice-axes and some self-belay stuff – I took my small tent, gas-stove and “mini-kitchen” with me, because calling or emailing to the “base-camp” of the huts of “Cabanas el Nevado” or “Cabanas Kanwara” did not write back or answered phone.
If they are closed or fully booked, I planed to stay at the “Lagunas de los Tempanos” with my tent.
Starting on 20. December 2015 for a long and exhausting bus ride from Bogota to the small city of Güicán. The bus broke already in Bogota, so we needed to change bus which took another 1.5 hours. Fortunately I was taking the early morning bus, starting at 7 am, so I really had the hope to arrive at the late evening.
The ride was beautiful, especially the changing landscape. The last hours of the trip from Sogamoso to Güicán over dirt tracks was challenging and at the end we all arrived good at about 6pm, not so bad if you do not mind, they estimated 8 hours for the ride :).
I stayed at the small “Hotel Brisas del Nevado” for this night, because the next day was planed getting ready for the park and already approach to the base camp.
Basecamp – Kabañas Kanwara
To get into the park, you need to register at a small office at the end of the paved street leading up to the Kabanas (huts). I needed to explain my route which I will take for the case of an emergency or accident. For 50.000 Pesos I got two nice bands on my wrist – on for the entry and the other for the security in the case I have an accident. A funny thing was, that I needed to tell them my expedition team and a leader, which was me and myself. After a quick check that I have the need equipment (crampons) the man told me, that its normally no problem to walk-in and get accommodation at the huts, but he was not 100% sure.
So I decided, to be safe and take my tend and things with me.. Packed up with 30kg on my shoulders, he asked me, if I want a transport by moto up to the huts. I declined and started the walk at 09:30am – having the track on my GPS – showing me about 17km to walk.
Over the dirty track it was an easy walk, there are from time to time small shortcuts you can take. I felt good and hoped to see soon some of the nice mountains, because at the first 10 km these were hidden by a trees and small hills. Everything went smooth and I could achieve an average of about 4km/h with my fully packed rucksack.
Finally I could see my final desitination – the Ritacuba Blanco, far away but already in sight. This gave me a great motivation and I almost ran up to the hut. Being between the two huts of “Kabanas Kanwara” and “Cabanas de Posada” I decided to go the “Kabanas Kanwara”, because I loved the thing having a small nice hut for me with a view onto the “Ritacuba Blanco”. Arriving there, there was a checkpoint were my name and planed route was noted, I quickly described my route and went to the family who manage the small nice village of huts.
All my fear about doing camping on 3900m was not confirmed, I got a nice small hut for 50.000 Pesos per night. Happy about that I enjoyed the evening with a great dinner and a spectacular view onto the glacier and the small peak of the Ritacuba Blanco.
Small hikes up and planing the approach
The weather forecast was great and I planed to take the new day (22. December) for acclimatization in this height and walk up to the glacier at about 5000m. Taking this chance as well to mark the waypoints on the GPS, because I was not sure how good the path is marked and how easy it is to find without light (of course with a headlamp – but it looks all different at the dark). Hiking up the path to the glacier was fun and went quickly, the sun and the blue sky with the sometimes strange looking flora made it like a weekend walk. Being up on the Lagunas and close to the glacier, the plan was clear – to take the tomorrows day for approaching the summit…
But well – sometimes things turn out differently then expected – on the way back, I got my feet injured – not bad, but not being 100% in condition is not the best for a solo walk up to the summit.
Being back at the hut the Ritacuba Blanco seemed more far away than I thought – with some disappointment but with a good dinner I went to sleep.
The next day, I felt my feet was getting a bit better and after some small walks and more or less a relax day the decision was clear – I will try it on 24. December – Christmas – if I feel well and manage it without any problems up to the glacier I will continue, otherwise it’s better to close this and remember the great views and the nice people at the hut.
Up to the Summit
After a good sleep, the alarm rang at 3:15am – I woke up well and in good condition. Ready to approach – having a small breakfast of porridge, apple and a tea, I started at 3:45am.
Following the track on a moon lighted night was romantic and somewhat meditative, the temperature was cold, but up to the Lagunas there was no wind. I reached the Lagunas after 2 hours and the first sunbeams welcomed me to the first ice fingers of the glacier. Unfortunately with a chilling cold wind which made it a bit difficult to put on the crampons without getting an ice-block…
The glacier showed a good path, from time to time there were some crevasses visible. The walk was easy, but the elevation of 5100m made it hard to breath and sometimes it felt like being a snail. Onto the left the Ritacuba Negro was getting visible and I could saw the summit of the Ritacuba Blanco. The Ritacuba Negro is difficult to approach and especially it is a more ice-climbing without an direct path next to the steep wall down the valley.
But my target was clear – the Ritacuba Blanco.
The difficult step was the last approach to the summit, a vertical wall of snow and ice.
Year ago this was much easier, because there was a small snow bridge which you could easy walk up. But now, the only way is to go directly vertical.
The challenge is, that you need to climb it on the ridge – and there is nothing below you – just air and in about 600m the next ground. With crampons and ice axe I started to climb up this about 30m – it was easy, because the wall was solid and not melting because of the early morning. After accomplishing this difficulty I had only a few step up – to the summit.
And then – at 09:00 am I reached the top – 5395 m – with blue sky, sunny weather a bit wind and a great view.
And Return to Güicán
After a long breathtaking break on the summit, I started my way back. By crossing the glacier I saw the first and only people on the glacier – 2 native people from the Tribe of U’wa – and they just did wear leather shoes (I think) without crampons. The return was quick (45 min) and I reached the end of the glacier (which is as well the small summit of “Divino Nino” at 4993m. Happy I descent to the hut and reached it about 1.5 hours later. There I packed my equipment which I did not need and just started to walk down the dirt track to Güicán. As I walked there, some pickup (I guess from the other Cabanas?) stopped and the guy asked me, if I want to drive down to Güicán (for free because it’s christmas). Being already a bit tired and again with 30kg on my shoulders I agreed and enjoyed the taxi back to Güicán.