Colombia: Santa Marta’s Summits, the Kogi People, and White Sand Beaches — A Complete Adventure
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.
~Mountain Madness President Mark Gunlogson