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Top of the Caribbean: Climbing Pico Duarte, The Tallest Mountain in the West Indies – Part 3

Top of the Caribbean: Climbing Pico Duarte, The Tallest Mountain in the West Indies – Part 3
Climbing Pico Duarte by Patrick Bennett
Climbing Pico Duarte by Patrick Bennett
Here we are at the final chapter! Don’t forget to start with Parts 1 and 2 and to visit Iguana Mama Eco Tours for more info on adventure tours in the Dominican Republic.

Who knew, when I decided to summit the highest point in all the 7,000+ islands that make up the West Indies, that my trek would turn out to be such an adventure?

I’d been through a night with a plot straight out of a B-grade slasher movie, I’d awoken alive (yay!) only to get back on the trail before dawn (sigh). I’d marched for over six hours, climbed something like the equivalent of six Empire State Buildings, I’d sidestepped deathly drops where lost mules had come to their final resting place. And now, there I was — in a clearing among the magnificent Hispaniolan Pine forests of the Armando Bermudez National Park. Tired. A little annoyed. And, most importantly, nowhere near the top of Pico Duarte.

Being the only one on this trek, I could have simply said “That’s it! I’m done!” and made my way back to the welcoming shores (and beautiful, smiling women behind rum bars) of Cabarete

Instead, I did something else.

I remembered my patent-pending 2-step process to achieving anything:

STEP 1: Set a simple goal you can achieve in basically one action.

STEP 2: Do it.

I looked at the sandwich in my hand (the most recent failed attempt at producing something worth eating by our muleteer/cook/tent-pitcher Willy Alphonso) and set my simple goal: Finish that sandwich.

Then I did it.

From there, the goals kept coming and kept getting completed. Get your boots laced up. Done. Stand up. Done. Grab your gear. Done. Grab Carlos and get climbing! Done and done!

This was going to happen, dammit!

“Ok, my friend!,” Carlos declared. “I can tell we’ll get there fast now!”

“Nice! Let me know when we can see the top.”

“Oh no, no, no… We will no see the top anytime soon!”

“But, you just said… Oh forget it.” Grumbling under my breath Carlos could probably hear me saying “Step one… Step two… Step one… Step two…”

So, we set off and the going was good. From Aguita Fria to the final camp site at La Compartición may only be 4kms (2.5 miles), but it’s a deceptive leg of the trek. On the map it appears to be all downhill (yay!), but trust me, it’s not (sigh). It’s a fickle, winding portion of the hike that finds you picking your way down steep declines in the path, only to scramble back out. It’s a lot of down, down, down, up, up, down, up, down, up, up, up!

Spectacular Views Climbing Pico Duarte by Patrick Bennett
Spectacular Views Climbing Pico Duarte by Patrick Bennett

Keeping you company, though, are spectacular views. Peeking through the sparse pine growth, the green mountains sharply drop away. You feel so high above the grey/brown/green ridges rising in the distance you can’t help but allow your mind to drift toward the ultimate goal… But the up and down takes its toll.

As we got closer to La Compartición, I allowed myself to break from my simple two-step plan for a moment and set a more long term goal: take a gorgeous photo from the top.

It’d make everything worth it! One shot to bring back down the mountain like some kind of digital tablet professing the wisdom of trading in my cushy hotel room at the Velero Beach Resort in Cabarete for a cold, little tent on a mountain.

I don’t know why I did that…

In response to my overreaching, just as we were making the last push out of a valley up to La Compartición, the sky almost immediately clouded over. A cold rain began to fall.

Clouds Roll In Climbing Pico Duarte by Patrick Bennett
Clouds Roll In Climbing Pico Duarte by Patrick Bennett

I trudged into camp cold, wet, tired and miserable. At least, I thought it was camp. The whole clearing was shrouded in grey clouds. Shadows moved through the mist and I could hear mules braying, but visibility stunk.

“Ok, my friend! We’re early! Only one o’clock! You’re fast! Now, we make camp, then to the top! No problem!”

“Well…”

“What is it, my friend?”

“I need a photo.”

“OK, no problem. I take your photo at the top.”

“No, I mean I need a great photo from the top. I can’t take a great shot with all these clouds around us. You can barely see the other side of the camp!”

“Well, either we make for the top today or we have to wake up… uhm… 3 o’clock. Then two hours or so to the top. Then all the way down tomorrow.”

“Ugh… Let’s set up camp and see how it goes.”

“No problem, my friend.”

In a few moments, I was laying on my back in my tent. It was colder still. Squarely in the Caribbean, I found myself bundling up in layers against the creeping cold. I tried to read. I tried to eat. I tried to review my photos. I tried to relax, but I was too tense. I just didn’t want to take the peak now, in the rain and mists, but I also dreaded sitting around for the rest of the day doing nothing but shivering in my tent only to wake up in the middle of the night to make the last climb. Somehow, I managed to fidget two hours away.

Around three, I figured I’d poke my head out of my tent. I had to blink. What the what? The sun was shining bright. It was warm. The mountain beckoned! I shot back into my tent.

Goal: put on shoes. Done. Grab gear…

In one minute-flat, I was outside Carlos’ tent shaking it Blair Witch style for him to wake up and look outside. A little groggy, he poked his head out.

“Hey, my friend, the sun is out!”

“Yeah! Let’s do this!”

Two more hours, five more miles and over more than 2,000 feet in elevation and I was there! I’d made it. I almost kissed the bronze bust of Juan Pablo Duarte as it gazed off to the east. Then I set up my camera for my “great photo,” which turned into many great photos, which turned into this timelapse video from the highest point in the Caribbean:

Mountain climbed. Photo(s) taken. I’d done it.

(And honestly, it wasn’t that bad. Sure I could have been killed the previous night, and it took me 12 hours that day to reach the top, but I spent two of those hours chilling (literally) in a tent.

Of course, the big question is: Should you do it?

Well… I can’t unequivocally say “yes,” but I wouldn’t say “no” either. It’s a three-day commitment pretty much any way you shake it, the trek is long and not always easy, believe me when I say it gets cold, there are some dangers here and there that may involve rotting corpses… The reward, though, is the most uncommon view from the most singular location in the Caribbean.

What’s that worth to you?

Pico Duarte bust at the top of Pico Duarte
I climbed the tallest mountain in the Caribbean and all I got was this lousy photo

Should you decide to make the trek, definitely, definitely, definitely grab five fit friends to make it a bit more fun, and call our friends at Iguana Mama Eco-Tours in Cabarate to make it happen.

Happy hiking!

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  • http://twitter.com/aunt_clara Clara Gonzalez

    I loved the series, and I love your writing style. This is the most entertaining account of a Pico Duarte climb I ever read.

    • uncommoncarib

      Thanks so much, @twitter-80140904:disqus! Despite the uncertainty and hardships, it really was a great experience. Plus you’d be hard-pressed for find a more uncommon Caribbean excursion. See you in the islands!

  • Ginna

    Oh Patrick! I must say, i enjoyed reading this.
    I climb Pico Duarte every year… even longer trails… once it took me 8 days to go up and down, and basically i cross the country from north to south… but i tell you, it is worthy every time.

    I asure you, the only problem there was you were too tense! and your guide didn’t bring any rum :)

    Congrats.