Before we set of on this adventure we were often asked what we were most looking forward to. My common reply was either Colombia or hiking in the Andes. Today both elements combine as we attempt to summit volcano Purace, will the relative disappointment of the former be carried on the grandeur of the latter? Today the dreams of a year will be dreamt in the first throes of slumber, a blank canvas of wonder awaits the morrow.
At 4760m altitude Volcan Purace is by no means breaking new grounds of human endurance: yet it’s also bloody high and well over 1000m higher than I’ve been before. I’ve never felt altitude effects before but my understanding is that it’s not fitness reliant, it either gets you or you get it. I’m not overly concerned about this height but the question remains, what if I’m just one of those people who aren’t good with altitude? We are spying other Volcanoes named Cotopaxi which is at 5897m and possibly Chimborazo which is at 6310m so this is a training run as well as an adventure itself.
Up at 4am, we get a bus out to a tiny town (literally three buildings) named Cruca de la Mina, and from here it’s up and up. Past the checkpoint and through the more welcoming lowlands terrain we go following yellow markings on our Hansel and Gretel-esque bread crumb path. Within the first hour we are wrapped in the comforting embrace that comes with mountains and altitude. The crisp air, the endless vistas and a grandness of space reserved for only those that venture upward. After a frantic travel schedule of late this tonic is the panacea for all ills, ghostly stress forms into welcomingly aching legs of far more tangible challenge.
It’s an essential element to hiking, this sense of escape, this ascendance beyond what you were before, the denouncement to worries to a place far below. Fittingly, it’s a space to think clearly, poetically and indeed with grandeur as your constant companion. Fittingly we spot our first Andean Condor, the biggest flighted bird in the world (wingspan over 3m, standing taller than most adult Equatorians mind you), and as the name suggests: can only be found in the Andes. Adding to the mystique, condors are endangered, hard to find at the best of times and only exist in the upper altitudes so sighting one of these beasts is an event symbiotic with a challenging hike. The bonus for today is that we see one from above, something we’ve never seen before and as always, this takes on the feeling of a good omen if ever there was one.
True to the balance that is so much of nature the dark side assails with equal elegance and aggression. some years ago we had travelled to Chile as which point we refined three rules of hiking in the Andes, the peak you see next is never the peak you think it is, you’re never at the top and it’s always further than you believe. From the very beginning we can see the scooped peak of Purace, not so much above, but distant, partly concealed by a second peak before it. At about an estimated half way we’re still tauntingly distant from the penultimate peak and the deities of the Andes are already waving their fingers in warning; disappointment begins to set in, it’s possible we wont reach the crater, the literary exclamation mark for any volcano ascent.
We set our sights on a small weather antenna topping that secondary peak, satisfied that will make for a successful day. Comfortingly though just reaching the top doesn’t seem to be beyond us, the 2:30 bus however just might be, we have to turn back by 11:30am. A final push, we will make the antenna, a mountains challenge can not be avoided, speed is the barrier set for us today, not altitude. We reach the antenna just after 10:30am, the push seemingly well worth it. And true to form the mountains deliver a trick we know all too well but have not been party to for so long, Purace summit is agonisingly close, close enough to reach, there’s no other peak between, no tricks at play, it’s our next step.
Disappointment banished, pain abated we literally yell out as we run across the shallow saddle before settling into the rhythmic counting that comes with difficult climbs. On a zig-zagging path a bent over breath batters down the aching after five left turns, just another 20 to go. It’s a monotony that collapses into a singular: left, right, left. right. The coin of achievability is wickedly flipped, hopes and disappointment tumble together as the clock ticks away.
It’s nearly a time for tears, a relatively flat plain for about 100m and the time is 11:10am. The excitement of running that gripped us before is there, sadly the legs are not, we’re gonna make it, but not celebratory run, just a satisfied stride befits this glorious walk.
There’s something special about a volcano. Nothing we’ve encountered typifies humility quite like it. At this point I’ll allow pictures to tell a story my words cannot. What I can attest to is a gratifying sense of victory; no not victory, you never ‘beat’ a volcano, but a sense of worth in being allowed to reach the top. A volcano always seems imbued with consciousness when you stand on the rim of its black crater. All here is deathly black, a lunar-scape that allows no life, just forlorn sorrow. A sulphur geyser hisses poisonous yellow/ green gas into the sky, a pallid scar of toxic white blister the only interruption to the blackness just to punctuate the inappropriateness of life.
Yes we stare down into all the nightmares religion concocts to impart abuse to children, hell sits so close below, we just never seem to think about it.
We take in the gift for just a few moments before we must return, always time for one last look. If the ascent was an epic romantic battle, the descent is a comical farce. We make good time so we decide to take what we heard was the “easier “detour via the road instead of the knee punishing bash downhill. Little did we know that the road does eventually go out as we more or less knew; what we didn’t know was that it went through the sulphur mine, not around it, shit! We walked for about an hour and a half, too far to turn back and we’re right on the edge of the processing centre of the sulphur mine.
At this point the consequences creep to mind, sulphur is poisonous, mines sometimes blow up the ground, are we trespassing, what is a Colombian gaol like anyway? It’s too late to turn back so we basically 007 it on the roads skirting the mine, jump a fence, rough track it a bit and we’re on the road the other side of the mine… simple as that. Well it seems so now but the process was not fun, we were very aware that we weren’t meant to be there, and the romantically forbidding nature of the volcano paralleled an all too unromantic version.
It was quite a detour so with timing running out we run the last part of the road to hit the town at 2:25pm. What a bloody day, Colombia as a destination is coming home with a wet sail.
Victory is declared!