• Brian D. Hinson

A Defense of the Little-Known Mountain Trek

Don’t choose a mountain trail for the bragging rights. You’ll show up, discover how damn crowded the trails are and how you’re really just one of many, herding along with hundreds of others doing the exact same thing. This takes some of the zazz out of the whole endeavor.

Some of the zazz. Not nearly all. I’ve done some very popular treks, like the Inca Trail in Peru and the Everest Circuit in Nepal. The scenery is breathtaking, the trek challenging, the cultures fulfilling to immerse yourself in. But seeing all those Westerners out there waters it down.

I know people (yeah, and me) who have gone on these overpopulated treks and envisioned it a bit differently when planning from home. I always thought of myself and the other people in my group huffing it up the steep trails together. But in real life, your group of a dozen gets all spread out along the trail, the fast hikers way out ahead, the slow ones at the back, and me somewhere in the middle, now mixed in with dozens of other folks hiking with different outfits. People are always passing you, or you them. I never figured in saying “Excuse me,” so much on a “remote” trail.

If you’re there to spot the rare and elusive red-tailed spotted bong-nosed hoot fox, just forget it.

I recommend seeking out the trails that few have heard of. My faves have been some of these unpopular treks. There’s something about having all this majesty to yourself. I’ve blogged about the Cordillera Real in Bolivia, the Rwenzori Mountains in Uganda (all right, maybe there’s a reason that one’s not so popular). All of the photos on this post are from El Cocuy National Park in Colombia.

Now, I’ll praise this little-known stretch of the Andes. Even a native Colombian on the plane to Bogota never heard of it. Colombia is back. There’s peace, there’s investment, there’s safety, there’s a welcoming, friendly culture. Go. Only four of us hiked a three-day stretch, with only me and the guide continuing on for the next three. Being in the midst of such gorgeous grandeur nearly alone stirs the soul. It beats bragging about seeing Everest with your own eyes.

I found a transcribed passage of my travel journal. If you haven’t been on a high-altitude trek before, this is now required reading. Things can go wrong, and that’s why it’s called adventure travel. I was alone with Roderigo, my guide for this stretch. My journal writing is far less polished than my blogging, and for that I don’t apologize.

It was just Roderigo and I in the morning, since Antonio left last night. He told me that Carlos should be arriving with the horses by 10am, and that we would be long gone by then, abandoning our extra gear for him to pick up at the site and carry on to the next…It wasn't until after we had crossed the first pass that we met up with Carlos, 10:30am and a couple hours from the last camp. I was now wondering when the horses and our gear would arrive at the next camp. After dark, I concluded.

... [After the second pass and the descent, now clouds and a very light rain.]

We came down the rocky trail to hike alongside a grass-ringed lake. Roderigo, ahead of me, crossed a river on its protruding rocks, hop-hop-hop, as we had done numerous times before. When I caught up, I did the same: hop-hop-slip-splash. Not the same. This was not like the vast majority of the rivers we crossed until now, ankle- or knee-deep. I landed backpack first in a waist-deep stretch of rushing water. I fought the current and made it back to the rocks that were my failure. Roderigo was there to haul me up and out. I stumbled to dry land, dry land that was getting rained on harder now. I was soaked up to the tits. I had no dry clothes or shoes and our extra equipment was nowhere to be seen. Night was coming and the temperature was dropping. I dug into my backpack to see exactly what might be useable in my drysacks. Found: fleece jacket, thermal long johns, underwear, socks, wind pants, rain gear. I stripped everything off from the waist down and got out my towel for a dry-off before slipping on the johns and the wind pants. I stripped off my wet thermal shirt and hiking shirt and replaced it with the fleece and the rain jacket. Roderigo suggested that we either head for a cave he knew for shelter, or a rancher's house not too far away. The house! Obviously, it would have a fire source to dry out my hiking boots.

I had to endure my soaked hikers in bare feet, so to save my only pair of dry socks. They felt like they each had a kilo of water in them. We made our way uphill from the lake, through a pasture. Roderigo caught sight of the horses approaching through the fog and signaled Carlos to follow. He caught up with us at the ranch gate. The house, well, was modest: three rooms. The old rancher greeted me in his gaucho hat and blanket and welcomed me into the earthen-floor kitchen of the house, walled with the soft trunks of the native trees. The portable propane stove was fired up and black coffee was soon served. Two younger gentlemen were there, either hands or sons or both. Fish that were strung up outside were brought in and cooked. I ate, still in my raingear and soaking boots. But after that meal, I set to drying my hikers by the wood cooking fire that I tended for a few hours as night settled in and the rancher and the hands conversed around me in Spanish.

We camped in the pasture outside his house for the night.

That, friends, is when the camera gets put away in the backpack and you just do what's necessary for safety—which in this case was seeking shelter, warmth, and dry clothes.

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