One of the things we were most excited about in Colombia was a summit attempt on a 17,000+ ft glaciated volcano in the Northern Andes: Nevado del Tolima. The ascent is pretty non-technical and guides don’t require any previous mountaineering knowledge or fitness restriction. There are multiple guide services and itinerary for this trek between 3-5 days, some with a stop over to a natural hot springs, some extending to hit the two other nearby glaciated peaks. We booked a guide for four days with SAWA Travel with 12,000 ft of gain and picked up one extra person on the itinerary for a little lower cost (still $450 pp). We wanted to use a guide to help us navigate logistics, local weather and contribute to the local economy. I think a guide is required to attempt the summit, but I’m not sure.
This was the itinerary: 30.7 mi, 12,000 ft gain (GPX)
- Day 1: Finca La Argentina (11,300ft)
- 5.7 mi, 4,000 ft
- Day 2: Finca La Playa (12,500 ft)
- 4.3 mi, 2,000 ft
- Day 2 (night): Summit (17,310 ft)
- 11.25 mi, 4,500 ft
- Day 3: Rest
- Day 4: Cocora Valley
- 10 mi, 1,000 ft up 4,500 ft down
Given what I know about high altitude mountaineering, I am quite surprised they offer a three day trip bringing people from Salento (6,000 ft) up to the summit (+11,000 ft) in two days for a summit bid. I feel like most people would get altitude sickness? Many people get altitude sickness attempting 14ers on a weekend from the SF Bay Area (sea level).
A week into our trip in Colombia while experiencing hot equatorial temperatures with 90% humidity that required at minimum sweating through a shirt and a cold shower each day…Sadie looked at the warm clothes filling half her bag and said, “I think I overpacked”. SAWA’s pack list was essentially for a winter mountaineering ascent with things like “Polar Mittens”, but the volcano (despite being at 17,000 ft) is on the equator and we weren’t sure that a pack-list for any random person with no mountain experience in a hot country really applied to two experienced mountaineers who are coming from winter.
Also, hauling around a bunch of warm clothes you’ll use for 8 hours of a three week trip is something worth minimizing so we hedged with something like late-Spring mountaineering equipment with rain gear and enough clothes for freezing but not frigid temperatures. I confirmed with our guide the night before that what I saw on Mountain Forecast of 32 degrees on the summit and low wind was basically correct. Lucky for us, the “rubber boot /. poncho” equipment requirement was not necessary as we were in a dry-spell after the wet season and the trail was mostly dry.
Day 1: Finca La Argentina
We met our guide Juan at 8am for breakfast at Brunch Salento, a very tasty American themed restaurant with good breakfast, coffee and large portions. From here we loaded up our non-hiking equipment (toiletries, warm clothes) and gear into bags and took a taxi to Cocora Valley. Those bags would be transported by donkey between farms while we would hike with day bags.
We started up a trail across the valley opposite from the main-super-touristy-busy-trail. For the day it would be like traversing on the side of a ridge gaining elevation over a 5 ft wide dirt and rocky trail with light traffic. Sometimes it could get mucky, but there were always stones to step on. Views were mostly consistent forested ridge until the La Argentina Farm.
La Argentina was a true rustic farm with small hairy pigs, horses, donkeys, sheep, chickens and some very bossy ducks. We had a cozy, semi tight, sturdy three-bunk room that was very air tight and warm with blankets. There were two other groups trekking that stayed here. Most the travelers acted like it was cold this evening, but was in a T-shirt and pants most of the night. It was going to be a lot colder up 6,000 ft…
We spent the couple hours before dinner talking and watching the animal TV around the farm. Surprisingly for something so off-grid, there was a flush toilet, electricity for light and instant hot water if you wanted to take a shower.
Day 2: Finca La Play
The next morning we hiked up the valley, crossed over it and entered the Páramo eco-zone (12,000+ ft) with these weird Joshua Tree-esque Frailejones (Espeletia) which supposedly grow 1 cm a year (I saw many over 200cm high). The trails became less a wide dirt trail and more a heavily rutted braided path from all the horse / donkey traffic. We gained a saddle at 13,000 ft where we spent some time to see if anyone exhibited altitude sensitivity, which no one did.
Then we descended to La Playa Farm for our first view of our cloud topped Tolima. After a short demo of ice axe + harness + crampons (we would rope team on glacier) and discussion of our summit bid we had free time outside of dinner at 6pm. Sadie had been sick for a week but was recovering. However, she thought she would be healthy enough to make the summit. Plan was to wake up at 10:45pm for a warm drink and a bite to eat before hitting the trail with the goal to summit by 6am.
We tried to get as much rest as possible outside of dinner, but farm life was just going on around all us trekkers staying here. Kids were playing loudly, someone was chopping wood that shook the bunk house, dogs barked, horses winnied, a branch dragged across metal sheeting, people laughed and talked loudly, horses arrived stirring up dirt and horse poop which aerated into our not quite fully sealed bunkhouse. It was novel and authentic, but also we were trying to get some sleep before a summit attempt at 11pm.
Day 2 (night): Summit
We were the first of the four groups to attempt a summit bid from La Playa as we packed our bags and started up the heavily rutted trails towards the saddle where we’d join the ridge to the summit. Our additional teammate lost one of his water bottles, but was told it was fine to just bring one liter even though there was no refill along the route, despite this being like a 10-12 hrs outing…which was interesting because hydration is one way to keep away altitude sickness.
We reached the saddle and the wind was picking up. The conditions were not a light breeze down low and 5-10mph on summit, it was already a 35-45mph wind that could move me around despite my size. We stopped every 1000 ft or so for an extended 20 minutes of time where I would lose all my heat and start getting cold. I hadn’t put on my warm layer yet (just sun hoody + shell), but Sadie had all her layers on.
At 2am we stopped at 14,500 ft for a break in an old bivy site. It was constant wind and easy to get cold while not moving. Sadie expressed she was already pretty cold with all her layers on and was nervous about continuing the ascent knowing that it would get windier and colder (until sunrise four hours away and going up in elevation). Our guide, didn’t really know what to do, he sorta just didn’t say anything… In absence of his problem solving, I stepped in to see what gear we had and whether we could redistribute it. The young guy in our group was the only one with an unused layer, but Sadie and I were pretty sure he’d need it later.
Our guide suggested we just keep going up and check back in, but Sadie was like, “what difference will that make?”. Our guide had said before that mountaineering was more mental than physical and that is true, but so is exposure if the body is consistently loosing more heat than generation. It was kinda hard to communicate this point and our guide felt of the mind that Sadie just needed some encouragement while I was of the mind that Sadie knew these conditions and herself well enough to make the call.
His other option was to hike faster between rests (which was a good suggestion), but Sadie did not think she could go much faster. After some conversation and plenty of silence on his part, we finally worked out a deal where we would take a radio from another guide we encountered and check in every 30 minutes by radio to him as Sadie and I descended and he continued with the other guy in our group. This was best case scenario to us since we didn’t ruin the summit bid of the whole group and the trail was very straightforward. I also had a digital map.
We made it back to La Playa at 4:30am and went to sleep.
Day 3: Rest
Waking up late morning with several interruptions of people clunking into the bunk house after their summits, there was plenty of time for Sadie and I to talk about the summit attempt. Sadie has worn every layer she brought and it just wasn’t enough given her body probably wasn’t as good at keeping her warm while recovering from being sick. We would have kit’d differently if we were at home, but we only could devote so much space (and it was significant) to warm clothes we would use for 8 hours of our three week trip. One hack might have been bringing a thermos of hot coffee on the summit bid. The other might have been renting an additional warm layer from the guide service since we only packed for just enough.
If we had gotten better condition information from Mountain Forecast, our guide or the guide service we would maybe have packed differently. The pack-list from the guide service is great for someone who knows nothing, it is not the right information for someone who has some experience.
Sadie was disappointed she didn’t make the summit and that it affected my ability to try as well. I was resolved that mountaineering is a team activity and you should go into it not expecting every time to be a success. The photos we saw later of the glaciated summit showed a heavily rime-ice’d glacier and some interesting small crevasses. In true Colombian fashion, someone had brought their dog to the summit.
We had a lot of down time and went for a short hike. It was now Friday and the farm swelled to three times as many people by dinner. We ate in shifts and there wasn’t much room to hang out inside unless you were actively eating. There were two toilets for 50 people which was a lot, but we were told sometimes it gets up to 100 people here. The bunk house was busy with people entering and leaving all day and all night.
Day 4: Cocora Valley
We returned a different way than we arrived past Finca La Primavera and down to the Cocora Valley on a similarly condition trail as the one we ascended on the other side of the valley. The forested 4,500 ft descent was more hilly with ups and downs than I expected past its middle.
This route was the main trail from Cocora Valley (which is one of the most popular destinations in Colombia) and in the last couple miles we started seeing the many people. The trail went across a river many times with fun, bouncy, single file bridges and then spit us out into the wide-open-farmland with a few tall Wax Palms. Like everywhere, we had to pay a guy for some reason to exit the trail this way…
Back at the road, we hung out for an hour waiting for the donkey with our stuff that should already have arrived before taking our ride back to Salento Brunch for lunch. In another hour the donkey would arrive and we would end the trip.
Colombia is diverse in that it has all the attributes of South America: Pacific Coast, Caribbean Coast, desert, tall volcanos, high alpine Andes mountains, the Amazon. However, it’s not ‘the best place’ for any of that. Ecuador for Volcanos, Brazil for the Amazon, Peru for high altitude mountaineering, Patagonia for ruggedness, Island nations for the Caribbean, etc. Tolima was one of the most technical peaks in Colombia and it was not very technical. The trek was not world class like the Cordillera Huayhuash in Peru, it had okay views but was mostly on a heavily rutted horse trail in the forest. Meanwhile, the more interesting Colombian Andes mountains in El Cocuy have very restricted access to a couple days of guided day hikes.
So the trek was okay and not hard. Maybe adding in the natural hot springs would have been more interesting. The farm experience while not exactly optimized for the lodging experience was an interesting cultural experience of farm life. Aside from packing different layers, probably bringing a travel sheet would have been good since it’s not clear the turn over of our blankets and pillowcases among sweaty hikers in shared bunk houses.
A good experience is one that is unique and that breaks expectations.