Climbing Pico Duarte, The Tallest Mountain in the West Indies
Try to imagine yourself in my shoes. There I was climbing Pico Duarte, in the middle of nowhere, deep in a Caribbean wilderness, the 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. Yes, I was climbing 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 a 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 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 4x4’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, scraping 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.
Climbing Pico Duarte 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 5:30 am when we broke camp and the goal was to make it to the top before 5:30 pm. 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 the 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 campsite — plunking down on a couple of 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 10:30 am, 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?!
Climbing Pico Duarte Part 3
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 campsite 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!
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.
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!”
“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 climbing Pico Duarte took me 12 hours just 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?
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.