Top of the Caribbean: Climbing Pico Duarte, The Tallest Mountain in the West Indies – Part 1
Try to imagine yourself in my shoes: There I was, in the middle of nowhere, deep in a Caribbean wilderness, pitch-black night was closing in all around me. I had no headlamp, no food, the batteries in my flashlight were dead, I’d left all my belongings in the care of a random old stranger hours ago with only a vague promise that I’d ever see them again, strange animal sounds alluded to massive wild boars lurking nearby, the temperature was dropping rapidly and, to top it all off, the only man for miles around had just pulled a long, rusty machete from an all-too-convenient, hidey-hole in a tree… and was now smiling at me as he squatted over a stone sharpening his rusty blade.
I’ve put myself in some pretty dumb situations on my travels over the years, but this one takes the cake… Oh, and at this point, I was only four hours into what promised to be a multi-day trek to the top of the tallest mountain in the Caribbean: Pico Duarte in the Dominican Republic.
It all started out so pleasantly the day before, when I met with Michael Scales of Iguana Mama to iron out the details of my expedition. We’d chosen to hash out our plan a few feet from the sand at the beautiful Velero Beach Resort bar. The sun was low, the sea breeze was flowing through the billowing pale green fabrics hung throughout the open-air bar, and I was flush from a successful day learning to kitesurf with LEK – Laurel Eastman Kiteboarding. Looking back on it all, that’s probably why I paid no attention to the first thing Michael said:
“Are you sure you want to do this?”
Ascending Pico Duarte is a hike and half. My proposed route starts at around 3,600 feet above sea level. Then over the course of 23 miles, it climbs steeply to a cloud topping altitude of 10,130 feet – a height that bests all other mountains in the region. Most people make the climb over the course of three days. Naturally, I wanted to do it in two.
Michael was trying to make the point that due to the unusual aspects of my expedition (solo, last minute, etc.) that I wouldn’t get the full “Iguana Mama Experience” (world class planning, structure, provisions, etc.), but I wouldn’t hear it.
“Are you kidding? Of course, I want to do it! Mmmm… This is a gooood Cuba Libre!”
And that was that. The next day, I picked up Carlos (who’d been my guide on the Ciguapa Falls canyoning adventure and would also be accompanying me up the mountain) and left Cabarete behind. In an effort to make better time, we skipped lunch and drove the nearly four hours to Armando Bermudez National Park without a stop.
On the edge of the park, Carlos had me stop the car atop a rise. Below, the last collection of houses before the wilderness nestled against the slope. It was here we were supposed to meet our guide/muleteer/cook/tent-pitcher named Willy.
“Willy is the best! I only use Willy. Been using him for years. I’ll be right back…”
Carlos stepped from my little, white rental car, scuttled around to my side of the dirt road and began yelling down at what appeared to be no house in particular.
“WILLY! WILLY! WIIIIIILLLLLLYYYYYYYYYYY!”
“Wait here one second.”
He then picked his way down the slope to the nearest house, a squat salmon colored box with a white roof, and disappeared. Five minutes passed. I just sat there in my car picturing him rousing Willy from a midday siesta to come join our mini-expedition before he magically reappeared at my window.
“Yeah, so… Willy’s no here. But do not worry, my friend. His uncle has another nephew who will take us. Go ahead. Drive in.”
The welcoming committee at the Armando Bermudez National Park consisted of a chicken, a bunch of 4×4’s crowded together under a few old trees in the mud parking area, and three yellow buildings that together comprised the “visitor center” — all of which appeared empty.
I was pretty anxious to hit the trail, so I unloaded our bags, few provisions, and gear, ignoring the mud I was getting all over everything. Just as I was beginning to worry that I’d lost Carlos, he materialized behind me with an old man in tow. My assumption that this was Willy’s uncle proved correct, but there was something weird about him: while my Spanish certainly isn’t impeccable, it’s fairly functional… and I couldn’t understand a word this guy said.
Turns out that these folks who live on the mountain have a strong, nearly indecipherable accent. So, Carlos translated for me that the old man’s other nephew, Alphonso, would be along soon and that we should go ahead and get started since it was already getting dark. Indeed, the sky above was already turning ominous shades of purple and orange, but…
“What about all our stuff?”
“Oh, don’t worry… Alphonso will load it all on the mule and catch up to us.”
“Uhm… You sure? It’s everything we’ve got, besides what’s on our backs… which isn’t much…”
“Yeah, it’s no problem, my friend.”
“Uhm… OK… I guess…”
So we left it all behind, entering the even darker world beneath the encroaching woods. The path, though wide, was slathered with a two foot deep layer of black mud that sucked at my boots with every slogging step. In five labored paces, I had mud covering my boots and creeping up my legs. Not one to quit before we’d even begun, I slogged on… For over two hours. We crossed a river, descended into a wet valley, and navigated out through areas where the path shrunk to a single-file muddy stripe. But mostly, we climbed and climbed.
By the time we made it to the first camp area, the sun was gone and Alphonso was a no-show. Where my worldly possessions were, I couldn’t say. All I knew was that I was tired, hungry, and starting to get cold. Silently, Carlos and I planted ourselves on a log and waited. Every mysterious rustling within the woods had us glancing back the way we’d come — hoping to see Alphonso, a mule and our gear.
But there was no Alphonso, no mule and certainly no gear… Just a night getting darker and darker and darker. No one was around for miles. We had no tents, no extra water, no food, no matches, no nothing. The only sounds were the wind in the trees and some suspicious animal-like sounds emanating from the dark woods encircling us. During the hike, Carlos had informed me of the wild boars that made the mountain their home… and hunting ground.
After an hour, or so, for no apparent reason, Carlos sprung to his feet and walked towards the edge of the clearing. There he paused, noticed something out of the corner of his eye, then made a beeline for a nearby tree. With a drawn-out, metallic, scrapping sound that sent shivers up my spine, he slowly pulled a long, rusty machete from a dark hole barely visible within a tangle of roots.
At this point he turned to me with a huge smile that shone brightly in the waning light and said: “Aren’t we lucky, my friend! Someone left a machete for us…”
Then began marching right towards me.