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Kids in Columbia

Colombia: Santa Marta’s Summits, the Kogi People, and White Sand Beaches — A Complete Adventure

Mad­ness own­er Mark Gun­log­son con­tin­ues the explorato­ry trip to estab­lish the Caribbean to Glac­i­er Climb & Trek in the wild Kogi trib­al land of Colom­bia. Missed part one? Read it here.

As we left Dove Camp and the last bit of cloud for­est, we entered the San­ta Mar­ta’s ver­sion of the sub-alpine zone where dwarfed plants, occa­sion­al small trees, and grass­es cov­ered the land­scape. The goal, how­ev­er, was the alpine zone where we’d set-up base camp for our climb of Colon.

Mov­ing into the sub-alpine zone and an area of many lakes. All pho­tos Mark Gun­log­son and Juan Car­los Gonzalez

With the rainy sea­son fast approach­ing, each day’s cloud build-up had a cer­tain omi­nous feel­ing to it; lead­ing us to won­der if it sig­naled the change of sea­son. On this day, the rains and hail pelt­ed us ear­ly as we walked up to camp. Mis­er­ably soaked, we opt­ed to set-up camp and call it a day about two hours from base camp. Is this the begin­ning of the end?” we won­dered, as we lis­tened to the rain turn to snow and accu­mu­late on our tents. Hope returned the next day, though, as we crawled out of our tent to clear skies and incred­i­ble views of the peaks. Warm sun melt­ed our ice-encrust­ed tents as we pre­pared to move to base camp. A pleas­ant hike up gran­ite slabs and along crys­tal clear alpine lakes led us up to camp. Above, Colon and Sim­monds rose in dra­mat­ic relief, their reced­ing glac­i­ers cling­ing pre­car­i­ous­ly on the slab­by bedrock.

Dry­ing out after a wet and cold night. First view of the mountains.

We made it; from trop­i­cal forests to glac­i­er clad peaks- an epic jour­ney for sure. We all dropped our loads thank­ful­ly and enjoyed a break, tak­ing in the incred­i­ble sur­round­ings in one of the planet’s few remain­ing rel­a­tive­ly unex­plored wild places.

Base camp and Sim­monds Peak

Juan Car­los had climbed the moun­tain thir­ty years pri­or as an adven­tur­ous teenag­er, men­tored by old­er Colom­bian climbers, but they had tak­en an alto­geth­er dif­fer­ent approach. With only his dis­tant mem­o­ries about climb­ing Colon, some GPS map­ping, and a trip report to rely on, we depart­ed the next day into rel­a­tive­ly unknown ter­rain. But, with an ear­li­er than usu­al cloud build-up and star­ing down a nar­row, canyon-like defile that dropped a long way before we could ascend slabs towards Colon, we saw only uncer­tain­ty and a short­age of time to take on the moun­tain. Recon trips like this often open the doors to amaz­ing things — or some­times slam the door shut where you thought it was open. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, Colon slammed the door on us, and we returned to base camp to regroup.

Colon, the high­est peak in the range, on the left.

Ris­ing direct­ly above camp, 18,450-foot Sim­monds offered a wel­com­ing west ridge to the third high­est peak in the range; a fine con­so­la­tion prize. The next day, Juan Car­los and Mat­teo climbed Sim­monds, while I took an enjoy­able rock scram­ble with porters Min­jo and Bene­dict up the 17,351-foot Wilch­es Peak. We took in an amaz­ing view at the top; from the jum­bled ice­fall chaos that would have been our route up Colon, all the way down to a marine lay­er of clouds cov­er­ing the Caribbean Sea, we had a view unique to Colom­bia and the high­est coastal moun­tain range in the world.

Sim­monds and the view from on top of Wilches.

Mean­while, Juan Car­los and Mat­teo enjoyed an easy-mod­er­ate glac­i­er climb up Sim­monds. From its top, they also con­firmed the route we had been look­ing at on Colon would have like­ly been impass­able — its sum­mit guard­ed by huge crevass­es and bergschrunds span­ning the entire width of the glac­i­er. While our sus­pi­cions were con­firmed that the route would not go, it was still a bit­ter­sweet discovery.

The high­est part of the range and Juan Car­los and Mat­teo head­ing up Simmonds.

This expe­di­tion was not just about climb­ing Colon, how­ev­er, but about the whole expe­ri­ence, from jun­gle to glac­i­ers and a step back in time vis­it­ing the Kogi peo­ple. Their lifestyle remains large­ly unchanged for hun­dreds of years, but they now live only a day and a half walk from civ­i­liza­tion and their future inter­ac­tion with the mod­ern world is all but ensured. Moun­tain Mad­ness will undoubt­ed­ly be the first com­mer­cial group into the area, and our hope is to build a viable tourist mod­el with the Kogi that encour­ages sus­tain­abil­i­ty for the long-term; some­thing that has often proved elu­sive in this type of scenario.

Author and Moun­tain Mad­ness own­er, Mark Gun­log­son, with Kogi shaman and family.

As we walked out, savor­ing the adven­ture we just had, but also eager for the lux­u­ries of San­ta Mar­ta, we came across the shaman that had giv­en us his bless­ing to trav­el into his peo­ple’s land over a week before. As is the prac­tice here, he and his fam­i­ly were clear­ing the for­est for a new place to live, grow crops, and con­tin­ue their sub­sis­tence way of liv­ing. He and his wife gra­cious­ly lis­tened to our sto­ries about our adven­ture, while their son played and chased the fam­i­ly dog through the jun­gle. This was for me one of the most poignant moments in all my years of trav­el; being amongst a cul­ture soon to be changed for­ev­er. We lat­er learned that the shaman’s wife was blind; she walked bare­foot in the forest.

Juan Car­los and Mat­teo, top; bot­tom pho­to show­ing our team.

Post­script: We dis­cov­ered our trekking and climb­ing route proved dif­fi­cult at best and not suit­able for a guid­ed expe­di­tion. Recon trips are full of both expect­ed and unex­pect­ed chal­lenges, but once checked into bun­ga­lows on the Caribbean in Tay­rona Nation­al Park, we found our­selves sat­is­fied with the out­come of the trip and for­mu­lat­ed a new game plan. After some rest and relax­ation, Juan Car­los and Mat­teo would trav­el to a dif­fer­ent Kogi set­tle­ment, one that we hoped would have eas­i­er access to the moun­tains and include pack ani­mals. As they would find out, after some care­ful nego­ti­a­tion, this group of Kogis would wel­come us in the future as well. The sense of adven­ture is still intact with this approach to the moun­tains. Famil­iar­i­ty with would-be trekkers and explor­ers is all but unknown, let alone the dif­fi­cul­ty of obtain­ing per­mis­sion to access the region. And with the bless­ings of the Kogis and some mutu­al­ly agreed-upon con­di­tions, a trip of immea­sur­able unique­ness awaits in a world where wild places like this are rapid­ly shrinking.

Beach time!

~Moun­tain Mad­ness Pres­i­dent Mark Gunlogson