All the Way Up (Almost)

By Nikki Roach, GWC associate conservation scientists (re-purposed from Nikki’s blog)

It started as most field expeditions start: I forgot to bring something important—my camera lens. We were hiking to 3,500+ meters, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so why prioritize my camera? After a frustrating day preparing for the expedition and trying to navigate the language barriers, I finally was “ready” to leave.

The first day we drove from Santa Marta, Colombia, to our base camp in San Pedro about three hours away. It is no small feat to get up to this mountain town. It takes 2 – 2.5 hours of bumping along a dirt road to get to 1,400 meters. Here we set up camp at our guides’ house. Our guides Nelson and William are brothers, their entire family lives in the same house and they have a spectacular view of the valley beneath their coffee farm.

Naturally, I had been attempting to prepare my body for the ascent from 0 meters asl to 4,500 meters asl. I had been drinking a ton of water for a few days prior and the night before our first climb (which was slated to begin at 4 am) I did yoga to calm both my body and mind for the intense trip ahead.

I had slept little when the roosters started to crow at 3 a.m. By this time, we needed to be up and packing our latest belongings to make sure we were ready for the journey to the paramo. The paramo habitat—or high-altitude habitat (above the treeline)—in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (SNSM) is enormously difficult to access. The SNSM, being the tallest coastal mountain range in the world, has extreme topography that makes even the greatest athletes pant their way up the mountains. We were supposed to climb to 4,500 meters in two days, however once we were informed that we only had enough food to last our group of 12 for four or five days and that the ascent to 4,500 meters would take around five days, our plans had to change.

The Ascent

We started our hike at 4 a.m. and I was panting by the time we reached the trail head after 30 minutes. The first day we climbed 10 hours and about 13 miles to 2,500 meters. Our large group hiked in fragments, much like the forest patches we traversed through. We almost reached our first destination when we lost sight of the guides and the rest of the group. Six of us remained behind while the clouds began to roll in and rain splattered our plastic jackets.

Inside a cloud forest you can see for kilometers in the sunshine, yet seconds later your sight may be filled with white swirling smoke and you can hardly see one meter in front of you. It can be a bit of a scary experience, particularly if you do not know your destination. While we were searching for the trail we were whistling and hollering to the guides. Finally, we heard a faint noise from the guides and tottered off in the supposed direction. At this point the rain and thunder had set in; now I am no stranger to getting caught in a thunderstorm, but I still do not particularly enjoy being outside while there is lightning.

We searched for the guides and kept whistling and yelling, all the while the storm raged around us and we got completely drenched. Finally, the clouds parted enough for us to find the path up to the house where everyone had hunkered down. When we arrived, the rest of the group (dry) was huddled together, while we were soaked to the bone. We immediately took off our raincoats and proceeded to huddle together for warmth, like a couple of wet mountain chickens.

Once the rain subsided, we continued on our hike. We didn’t have far to go and hiked for about 30 more minutes to an Arhuaco (indigenous) home at 2,500 meters. The SNSM has four indigenous groups living within the mountains. While they all have different languages and traditions, there usually appears to be a “mamo” which is an elder who is responsible for all the decision making and payments to the mountain for gifts. The mamo was not present on our first stay. We waited out the rain under the overhang of the family’s huts. We were lucky enough to make friends with the kids who spoke some Spanish. They called us “yurkano” which translates roughly to “lazy ones” or “flojos or perezosos” in Spanish.

Six of us slept on the floor. The two women who allowed us to sleep in their room had cell phones, radios, DVD players, and the walls were plastered with 1980s/1990s ad cutouts. Again, I slept terribly, only about two hours. Now I was going on three hours of sleep in the two days of our hardest hiking. The next day we woke up early again to begin our hike. We hiked five hours and about eight miles to get to 3,500 meters.

At one point, we spent two hours just climbing one mountain on a tiny trail, up, up, up, no end in sight. The answer to surviving all this hiking is: sugar. I now understand why the trails are littered with cookie and candy wrappers and why the coffee is just black sugar water. People living in the mountains thrive off of sugar to give them energy to sustain these intense hikes.

Morfo Negro

We finally got to 3,500 meters, our destination for the next four days. It was incredible, the trees disappeared and the mountain opened up into a shrub-like landscape, cows littering the landscape. It reminded me more of Ireland or Iceland than the Colombian rainforest I had just climbed. We set up camp and I quickly realized we were going to be cold and wet for four days straight.

During our stay in the mountains we searched for frogs—it’s what we came to do after all. We found streams abundant with Guajira Stubfoot Toad (Atelopus carrikeri), a species that is listed as Critically Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. The colors of A. carrikeri are splendid: orange, yellow, red, green and black! The black morph of A. carrikeri is what my collaborator Beto had come to look for—he believed the black morph was the original species of A. carrikeri and that it persisted up at 4,000+ meters. Beto didn’t find one when he climbed to 4,200 meters, but I did, at 3,500 meters. On our last night of surveys, I came across an extremely dark Atelopus, which Beto confirmed was morfo negro. Success!!!

After a successful trip, we headed back down the mountain. We had to schlep our bags (and my equipment) all the way down to San Pedro. The first day was four hours of hiking down back to the indigenous home, where it rained ALL day. The Colombians sat for eight hours chatting and laughing while the rain passed. I was so impressed with how cheerful everyone was in each other’s presence after a week together. No electronics, just sitting, talking, and joking. It was nice to watch and attempt to follow along.

The final descent was hard. The guides told us it would be a four- or five-hour hike, but I guessed it would be more like six or eight for me. It was. I came in fourth, clocking around seven hours. All three women in the group were in the top four out of 12 to finish the hike. I had a 30+ pound pack on and consumed three energy bars on the descent. We passed the school that was a four-hour hike from the Arhuaco house we had left and saw some of the young boys from the same house running around in their rubber boots and mochillas (little bags that everyone, man and woman, wear here) playing soccer. This kid had us beat by hours. He walked at least two or three hours one way up and down mountains to get to this school.

After an intense week I learned that 1) I can accomplish new physical and mental limits and 2) the SNSM is unpredictable, but you can usually find a friendly face or food when you need it the most.

(Check back as the Wild World Blog follows Nikki’s adventures and work in Colombia)


About the Author

Nikki Roach

Nikki Roach

Nikki Roach is a GWC associate conservation scientist and a conservation biologist. She is a Ph.D. student at Texas A&M University, where her research focuses on conservation planning for threatened species through assessments of species distribution, abundance and vulnerability to land use and climate change impacts, using a mixture of modeling and field-based data. For the next year she will be collecting her dissertation data in Colombia on a Fulbright Fellowship.