Top of the Caribbean: Climbing Pico Duarte, The Tallest Mountain in the West Indies – Part 2
So where did we leave off…? Oh right, it was pitch-dark, I was in the middle of nowhere, I had lost all my possessions, and the only man for miles was squatting across a clearing from me sharpening an old, rusty machete against a rock. Luckily, my trek to the summit of Pico Duarte, the tallest mountain in the Caribbean, gets better from there… Sort of.
You see, my traveling companion Carlos turned out not to be a rusty machete wielding homicidal maniac. He was only preparing to chop dry bamboo stalk for a fire. And our guide/muleteer/cook/tent-pitcher
Willy Alphonso turned out not to be a brigand, only unreliable. He showed up around 10:30 with his mule, a surly attitude and, more importantly, our gear. As with his uncle, I couldn’t understand a word he said, but by then, I didn’t care.
Sure, my start may have been rocky, but things were looking up! At least I wasn’t about to re-enact a Spanish-dubbed scene from Friday The 13th, plus my possessions were back in hand.
The only thing keeping me awake now, was the clearly audible rumbling of my own stomach. So, once I shoveled a plateful of Alphonso’s lackluster rice and peas in my mouth, I shuffled off to my tent and crashed…
I awoke, still in darkness, to the sound of more than two men speaking rapidly in Spanish right outside my tent. I sat alone in the darkness and listened… Was that three voices? Wait, no, four! Five! Six? Here we go again…
Resigned to whatever fate awaited me, I sloughed off my sleeping bag, unzipped my tent and emerged armed only with a very geeky headlamp strapped to my noggin. Raking my goofy light through the gloom, I quickly deduced the additional voices I’d heard were just some overanxious newcomers to the camp making an early go at the peak. Before long, I even fumbled across Carlos.
“Sleep well? Let’s get walking, my friend!”
It was about 5:30am when we broke camp and the goal was to make it to the top before 5:30pm. Approximately 19 miles climbing over six thousand feet.
That’s like spending the day climbing four Empire State Buildings!
How hard could it be?
Picking our way through the dim morning light, we climbed through a deep, green forest along a yellow, stony path. At times, the dirt walls on either side towered over us. Other times they dropped sharply away into ravines making any misplaced step a recipe for disaster.
Not once, but twice we held our noses as we hastened past carcasses of mules that most likely had strayed from their keepers in the night only to tumble from the path and die. I didn’t want to join them. After all, by the rancid smell coming off those mules it didn’t seem like rangers would be along anytime soon to collect me if I did, so I chose my steps carefully and moved on.
After four miles and around 2,300 feet (one-and-a-half Empire State Buildings!), we took a break at the La Laguna camp site — plunking down on a couple logs. Alphonso was bringing up our rear somewhere, but the issue wasn’t what lay behind us. The problem was the next section would be much more severe. From where we sat to our next break area, Aguita Fría, would only be a little over two miles, but we’d be climbing another 2,300 feet!
Dejectedly, I stared down into my ziplock bag of trail mix. Little blue M&M’s mingled with unadorned almonds and raisins. Why did I leave sunny and warm Cabarete behind with its beautiful people, soft beds and well stocked rum bars? Receiving no spiritual solace from the trail mix, I had to remind myself of an old saying:
Travel is only glamorous in retrospect.
Right? At some point, I’d look back on this cold, strenuous adventure fondly… At some point. Right? Right?!
Rather than dwell on my questionable choice of itinerary, we continued on up the yellow(ish)
brick dirt road. Within minutes, the landscape began to change drastically. The typically crowded West Indian forests gave way to the decidedly uncommon sight of a sparse Caribbean pine forest, or more specifically a Hispaniolan Pine forest.
As though a pine forest in the Caribbean isn’t uncommon enough, back in 2003 a wildfire blanketed the area for days changing the face of the whole mountain. It consumed the unique pines and burned away all undergrowth. Plenty of toppled, blackened trunks still lay strewn along either side of the path, but short grass and small shrubs had crept in to fill the gaps. As a result, the newly recovered natural splendor is a little other-worldly. You just feel like it shouldn’t look like this…but it does.
And it’s beautiful.
It really needs to be seen to be believed. So, I kept my head up, watching the trees, the clear blue sky and the rolling valleys in the distance…and plodded on.
Finally around 10:30am, five hours (and three Empire State Buildings) after starting out that morning, we crested a ridge and began descending toward the camping area at Aguita Fría. Alphonso materialized from some bushes at our back just as I was slumping down onto the ground and yanking off my boots.
Maybe this whole excursion really was turning around. Maybe the beauty of the mountain would all be worth it. Maybe this was going to be easy. I mean, we’d probably just done the hardest part…
“Hey Carlos,” I said as I kneaded my feet, “Can we see the top from here? We gotta be getting close, right?”
“Oh no, no, no, my friend! No way! We still have many, many hours to go before you can even see the top! Then more to go again before you reach it!”
Suddenly another old saying returned to me. The three rules of mountaineering:
It’s always further than it looks.
It’s always taller than it looks.
And it’s always harder than it looks.
Which got me wondering: How far, tall and hard is it when you can’t even see what it looks like?!