Mountain Madness (part I)

This is another story from my archives.  If you are a very long time reader of mine, you may even have read it before because it was originally posted on my first attempt at a website way back in early 2006.  This version is edited and includes photos.  It sure is fun to re-read these stories and re-live my crazy adventures.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

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Mountain Madness (part I)

Merida, Venezuela ; January 2006

As my regular readers are aware, I have lots of experience in trekking or hiking through the mountains, forests, jungles and deserts of other countries. It is something I love to do. Throw on the old backpack, grab a map and some food and head off into the great unknown. But there are dangers involved. I could get held up by armed gunmen or revolutionaries. I might get lost and never find my way back. I could get hurt or killed by a wild animal or fall and break a leg. A million little things can go wrong. But a little bit of risk is part of what makes the experience special. So the question I always face is; how much risk am I willing to take?

When I arrive in Merida, Venezuela my plan is to go on a several day hike in the mountains near here. But I don’t know what exactly I want to do or where to go. I just know that the mountains are supposed to be beautiful. As I check into my room at the hotel Italia, I notice a sign on the tourist agency outside that says they organize treks to Bolivar Peak or Humboldt Peak. I look it up in the guidebook and see that the two peaks are the first and second tallest mountains in Venezuela and they stand at almost 5,000 meters (about 16,000 feet). They are, in fact, taller than any mountain in the continental US. The guidebook also informs me that to get to the top of either, it requires quite a bit more than just trekking. This is serious mountain climbing over glacier ice with ropes and crampons and ice axes. Such information disheartens me. Although I have much experience in trekking, I have none in serious mountain climbing… True, I have always wanted to do it. But I never have. Why? Partly because of the cost. Mountain climbing requires expensive gear that I don’t have. But mostly because of fear. Real mountain climbing is dangerous. People die a lot undertaking such adventures. And although I like risk, I’ve never been willing to shell out the big bucks and stick my neck out in such a manner. But hey, there is a first time for everything.

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I go to the tourist agency to find out information. There’s a young kid there working and he has no information of value. He says he will talk to the guide and get back to me. Okay. I exit the hotel and go out into the street and there I meet a local guy who says he’s a guide for the mountains. This is not an uncommon experience in tourist towns. There are always locals who compete with the official agencies. They usually offer a better price at a significantly greater risk. I sometimes consider using their services because I am a “budget traveler” but am generally very careful about it. Anyway, I offer to buy this guy a beer and talk about potential trekking possibilities. I realize fairly quickly that he’s a hustler…. I know the type. I don’t mean that as an insult. It’s just a kind of character I encounter fairly frequently while wandering around the world. He is long on bullshit but apparently low on talent. I ask him what he will charge me to take me trekking and he says 70,000 Bolivares a day (about 32 dollars). I haven’t asked anyone else prices yet but still this seems rather high. I then ask him how many days we need to go to the top of Bolivar Peak or Humboldt Peak. And he says, oh no, he can’t do that. He only does trekking. We can walk the traverso through the mountains but we can’t climb. He needs a special license for that and he doesn’t have the equipment. As further incentive, he tells me if I hire him as a guide for trekking only, he will bring enough weed to keep us stoned for the whole time we are gone….. Hmmm, I will definitely have to think about it. But really, I don’t need a guide if I am just going trekking. I can buy a map and go a short distance on my own. And I can bring my own marijuana. I don’t need to pay this joker 32 dollars a day just for his company. But I thank him for his information and pay for his beer.

There is problem, however, because I am not legally permitted to go trekking alone in this particular national park. Apparently, the trails are very hard to follow, lots of people get lost, and rescue missions are sometimes required. Accordingly, permits for trekking are only given by the park agency to groups of two or more people. In fact, there are signs all over Merida about these two young Belgian guys who went trekking back in early December and disappeared. Search parties have been sent for them and there are signs all over town. They are presumed to be dead by now but perhaps they are still wandering lost in the mountains. Accordingly, if I want to go trekking, I have to find someone to go with me or hire myself a guide.

The next day, in the afternoon, I am walking into the Hotel Italia and I see this little elf of a man sitting in the hotel lobby. Elf is probably not the right word but that is the only word I can think of to describe him. He is really short, about five feet four inches, he has very pointy ears, a little bald spot on top of his head, beady little eyes, and rock hard but skinny muscles of a mountain climber. I can tell right away that he is the mountain guide from the hotel agency and he is looking for me.

“You Swiss guy who want climb Bolivar? I am guide, my name Gustavo” he says.

“Actually, I am American, not Swiss, but yes, I am looking for information about climbing Bolivar or Humboldt,” I answer.

He practically jumps from his chair with excitement and he starts talking very very fast in Spanish. He tells me he has all the equipment we need and we can go the next day if I want. This is Saturday. I tell him that I only want information and I’m not sure yet if I want to go. I ask him how hard the climb is and how much it will cost? I lie to him and tell him that I have only a little bit of experience in mountain climbing but not much. In reality I have no experience. I’m a hiker not a climber. He tells me that as long as I am in good condition, willing to listen to him and am not afraid, I can surely climb either Bolivar or Humboldt. He then tells me the price; 100,000 Bolivares a day (about 45 dollars). He says it will take six days to climb Bolivar peak because the teleferico (cable car), that takes you to the base is not presently operational. He says it will only take four days to climb Humboldt. I tell him that I would love to climb either one but that I can’t afford the price. I have a budget of only thirty dollars a day and I explain this to him. He says the only option then is to find other people to go with us. The more people that go in a group, the cheaper the price of the guide is for each person. So we make up a sign and put it up outside the hotel. Asking anyone interested in climbing Bolivar or Humboldt to come talk to me. The sign is up for two days. Nobody responds. Gustavo calls around to all the other agencies to see if there are other groups planning the climb. Nobody is going. I see Gustavo about four times a day, lingering around the hotel lobby and he is always hopeful. “I have meeting with three Swiss today at four o’clock. Maybe they go with us.” I see him again later, “Swiss people no want go, but I have meeting with two Canadians tomorrow. Maybe they want go. You wait. We find more people. We get group and we go.”

On Monday morning, I see Gustavo again and there is still nobody else to go. I tell him I might just go trekking for a few days with a guide I met on the street. It is much cheaper. Maybe I can’t do the big mountains but at least I can go. Gustavo says, “no, my friend, don’t go with guide from street. It very dangerous. Sometimes they set people up to be robbed in mountains. Last week, a guide took someone from this hotel up to mountains and they got caught with marijuana. Big bad trouble, they had to go to embassy. See what happens. No go with guide from street, they not professional. Go with me. You wait, we find more people. You can afford.”
But the Canadians don’t want to go either and neither do the Dutch. It seems as if Gustavo can’t convince anyone to go but me and I can’t afford to go alone. By evening time, on Monday, I am rather disappointed. I have just about given up on the whole thing. I might just take my tent and some food and go to one of the safe but boring camping areas on the edge of the mountains and do little walks. Not exactly adventure, but what can I do…

It’s about eight o’clock at night when there is a knock on my door. I open it up and see Gustavo staring at me with his eedie beady eyes…. He looks slightly crazed. He has a backpack and a whole bunch of equipment with him; ice axes, crampons, jacket, gloves etc. He walks into my room and dumps the stuff on my bed… “Okay,” he says, “no can wait longer. You want go. I want go. Others no want go, too bad for them. We go tomorrow morning. We go Humboldt. It will take only four days and I give you special price, only 80,000 Bolivares a day,” (about 35 dollars).

This price is still a little bit out of my range. And I’m still not sure if I have the guts for a real mountain climb. But what the hell; you only live once. And Gustavo is so darn enthusiastic, I just can’t say no. “Okay,” I say, “tomorrow we go.”

The next morning there is a knock on my door at seven thirty. It’s Gustavo. He tells me to wake up and get ready. He is waiting for me down stairs. I gather my stuff in my backpack and head down to the lobby. Gustavo is a flurry of activity and a non stop chatter box. He speaks in Spanish really fast and I have a hard time understanding him. He packs and unpacks my pack. He tells me to wait. Runs out of the hotel and comes back fifteen minutes later with a different, bigger pack for me. He packs and unpacks some more. And then we have to go get food. We practically run through the city, from store to store to store. He picks out all the food and then we rush back. He packs and organizes and unpacks and organizes some more, all the while chattering away excitedly in Spanish. Finally, we are ready to leave. The packs are extremely heavy with clothing and food for four days, a tent, a stove, and climbing equipment. My pack alone must weigh 25 kilos (50 pounds) and his probably weighs a bit more. We take a local bus from Merida to Tabay. It’s a serious pain in the ass getting on and off the crowded bus with our big heavy packs but Gustavo talks his way through, blabbering with the bus driver and the passengers. In Tabay, we catch a jeep from the town square that takes us up to the entrance to the park. There we meet the park ranger who, of course, is a buddy of Gustavo’s. We pay the park entrance fee of 10,000 bolivares (5 dollars) and receive our permit. And then we head out on the trail.

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The first day’s walk is a long steady up hill climb. The entrance to the park is at about 2000 meters in altitude. We are heading to camp at Laguna Coromoto which is at an altitude of 3000 meters. So we have to climb 1000 meters over a distance of about 12 kilometers (8 miles). Not impossible but certainly not easy with such heavy packs. But it is a nice walk through the forest. There is an abundance of flowers and birds. The trail follows the stream for a while and crosses over a few waterfalls and then continues on up and up and up. I walk quite a distance ahead of Gustavo. About one hour into the journey, I start to wish I brought a little grass with me. It was hard to find in Merida. Cocaine was everywhere available but marijuana was difficult to come by… it’s an unfair universe. But I did manage to acquire a little bit. I didn’t bring it with me though because of what Gustavo had said about the other tourist getting busted and I thought we might get searched on the way into the park. But of course we don’t. I was just being paranoid and now I regret it. Such beautiful nature; it sure would be nice to smoke a joint.

I stop at a small waterfall and wait for Gustavo. I am getting hungry and he has the food. He arrives shortly thereafter and makes some ham sandwiches. I just finish washing the food down with a drink of Tang when Gustavo asks me one of my favorite questions, “fumas ganga?” he says. Truthfully, I am surprised though I shouldn’t be. On approximately 75% of all the tours and treks I have ever been on anywhere on the planet earth, the guides have brought marijuana.  If you choose your guide carefully, that is, thankfully, the way the real world works. It is just that, Gustavo doesn’t seem the type. He is an absolute spaz. He is without a doubt the most high energy person I have ever met in my whole life. Always moving, always talking; he never shuts up. He just doesn’t seem like a laid back marijuana smoking kind of guy. But I am wrong. “fumas ganga” he say again.

“Si,” I answer enthusiastically, “of course I smoke marijuana but I didn’t bring any with me because of what you told me about the other tourists.”

“Patrick!!” exclaims Gustavo, “don’t worry; I have enough for both of us!!” He pulls a plastic bag from his back pocket and waves it in front of my face. Sure enough, it is full of joints. He pulls one out and lights it. He smokes the same way he does everything; with uninhibited enthusiasm. He sucks in great big hits and blows out great big clouds of smoke. When he finally hands the joint to me, it’s about two thirds gone… Such is to be the pattern of all our marijuana smoking. Two thirds or three quarters for him, and a little bit for me. But I don’t complain. It is his grass. And he does share some… And anyway, it is very nice to be a little stoned for the second half of the walk.

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We arrive at Laguna Coromoto at about five in the evening. There are two other people camping there; a couple of Botanists from Austria. Gustavo immediately makes friends with them by spewing out the ten words or so he knows in English and then rambles on in Spanish that they don’t understand at all. We share some tea with them and have a pleasant talk. But truthfully, they act a little like they are afraid of us. Why? I don’t understand. What’s to be afraid of? A tall goofy gringo with out of control blonde hair and a crazy little elf climbing a mountain; isn’t that normal?

After dinner, Gustavo and I walk down to the lake and sit on a rock. We smoke a joint and watch the stars. Gustavo talks. He talks some more. I have a really hard time understanding him because he speaks in very fast Spanish and he never seems to stop talking or even slow down or pause to take a breath. He talks about climbing mountains, he talks about taking tourists who don’t know what they are doing climbing. He tells stories about clients that tried to rip him off, he tells stories of how people almost died on the mountains, he talks about the politics of Merida, his travels in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, and the time he served in the Venezuelan military as a mountaineer. He talks and he talks and he talks. His favorite subject though, is the wimpiness of trekkers. He makes fun of people who just walk in the mountains. The real men, he says, the real people, they climb! He tells me about the time he took a whole group of people to climb Humboldt and when they got as far as the glacier and the real climbing began, the whole group changed their minds. So they went back down without climbing it. Can you believe those wimps? Those sissies? He would say the word “trekkers” with such disdain I felt a little bit embarrassed by my own wimpiness. I am just a hiker after all. This is my first real attempt at mountain climbing. But anyway, I don’t say any of this to Gustavo. With him, there is little chance to speak because he doesn’t even stop talking to breath.

We go to bed early but still don’t get moving early the next day. We linger around the lake to smoke a joint and drink a few extra cups of coffee, and then we head up the trail. We have another thousand meters to hike up over a distance of 16 kilometers (ten miles) or so this day and it sure isn’t easy. We are now too high in altitude for dense forests. It is mostly barren rock and shrubs. The trail skirts the side of a canyon with a raging river far down below. I can see now, why it is best to take a guide on such a trek. The trail is very hard to follow. Much of the time we just scramble from rock to rock to rock. Sometimes we have to balance our way across thin ledges and climb a ladder of stones straight up to another ledge. It is definitely not an easy trail. There are many opportunities to slip and fall hundreds of feet into the gorge below. With the heavy packs on our backs, the danger is very clear. How many times do I hear Gustavo shout out, “Attencion!” because we have reached a particularly treacherous spot? But we always maneuver our way through somehow and eventually, at about four in the afternoon, we reach Laguna Verde… a beautiful green lake that sits at the bottom of Humboldt Peak and is surrounded by mountains on all sides. This is to be our camping spot on the final night before the big climb. Oh what a beautiful place.

Once again, Gustavo is a hustle and bustle of activity and he never for second seems to stop talking. He unpacks the packs, sets up the tent, fixes dinner, rolls a joint, packs and unpacks then packs some more. He organizes stuff and fiddles with equipment. He never stops for one second unless he is taking a hit off a joint. We have a huge meal of pasta and tuna sauce. Gustavo says we will need the carbohydrates for the morning climb. The plan is to head for the mountain at 4:00 AM. And to prepare for such an early exit, Gustavo prepares everything with particularity the night before.

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Just after dark, we settle into our sleeping bags in the tent. A candle is lit and we smoke a joint. I can hardly believe it. I’m going to climb a mountain tomorrow. Really climb a mountain, with glaciers and rocks, and ropes and crampons…. the whole fucking deal. Will I really go through with it? Can I do it? I sure as heck hope so. Gustavo is talking by candle light. More and more stories about climbing. He tells me about the time he took four French girls trekking and one of them forgot her cigarettes. He hiked down from Laguna Coromoto in the night to fetch the girl cigarettes…. a five hour round trip…. and she paid him twenty dollars for the trouble…. Ha ha ha ha, Gustavo laughs, “crazy crazy tourists; they know nothing… He tells me about the time, he was climbing in the Andes alone and he fell through a crack in the glacier. It took him a day and a half to find his way out of the crevasse and during the whole time he had no food or water….. only marijuana….. ha ha ha ha ha ha……… But he made it. He talks about the times in the mountain rescue in the military when he had to operate on people in the backcountry. He’s no doctor and has no medical training just rescue stuff. He tells me he carries a local anesthetic in his bag and can stitch up a wound no problem. He talks about climbing in Colombia and Ecuador. And how he wants to climb everywhere in the world. He is 45 years old, and he has climbed all over South America. But there is so much more he wants to do….. Yes, I think to myself as I doze off to sleep. If I am to embark on a life risking adventure in the high mountains, I have hired the right guide to show me the way…

To be continued…

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