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Busted on Pico Bolivar:
Or the Treasure of the Sierra Nevada de Merida

by Lindsay Elms

Looking down and out on a park bench in a hot, dusty city, Humphrey Bogart was drawing on the butt of his last cigarette and asking for a few pesos from a passer-by. The passer-by pulled out a peso, looked at Bogart and told him this was the second time he had been asked for money and that this would be the last time he would give him anything. Bogart apologized saying he never looked at their face only the money he was being given and promised not to ask this fellow American for anything again.

That opening scene was in the city of Tampeco near the Sierra Madre mountain's in Mexico for the classic Bogart movie The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. However standing here in the Plaza Bolivar of Merida, the Venezuelan city located at the foot of the lofty mountains of the Sierra Nevada de Merida, one could easily believe that this was the same city. Although there is a significant time difference from when Bogart's movie was filmed and now, the scenes in some of Venezuela's cities haven't changed. The streets are alive with people standing around talking, some loud with hands waving around in the air, vendors selling cold drinks and spicy foods, beggars asking for a few Bolivars or a cigarette, and children running around with dirty, snotty faces.

Elaine Kerr and I had arrived in Merida during the weeklong Fiesta del sol - 'festival of the sun' in February 1994, and now found that all the Government offices were closed for the week. We were hoping to get a permit for climbing in the Sierra Nevada de Merida but this would have to wait for a few more days so we decided to get immersed in the festival. By the end of the week after many cervezas, gory bull-fights and late nights, we were ready for the mountains.

Merida is a tourist city of old and new architecture and boasts the highest teleferico in the world, starting downtown at 1,600m and rising over 3,000m to the summit of Pico Espejo (The Mirror) at 4,765m. Unfortunately for us it was out of action due to a cable-car falling off several years ago and they hadn't got around to re-opening it.

The Parque Nacional Sierra Nevada (Sierra Nevada National Park) protects the Andean mountain ranges of Serrania de Santo Domingo and the Sierra Nevada de Merida. This area encompasses not only mountains but pine forests, hundreds of lagunas (lakes) and the high paramos (plains). At first the paramos appears bleak and inhospitable but there is an abundance of plant and bird life and if one is lucky a condor or two, or an eagle, might be seen soaring in the up-drafts above the mountains.

The highest peak in the Serrania de Santo Domingo is Pico Mucununque at 4,672m. This mountain is accessed from the town of Apartaderos on the Merida/Barinas highway, famous for its cold cured hams that taste like Italian proscuitto. The highest mountain in the Sierra Nevada de Merida is Pico Bolivar at 5,007m, which is also the highest in the country. To the locals or Andinos, this mountain range is called Las Cinco Aguilas Blancas (The Five White Eagles). They are: La Corona, La Concha (the Shell, 4,922m), La Columna, El Toro (The Bull, 4,755m) and El Leon (The Lion, 4,740m). La Corona is at the eastern end of the range and is actually two peaks, Pico Humboldt (4,942m) and Pico Bonpland (4,883m), while La Columna is comprised of Pico Espejo and Pico Bolivar.

Merida was first founded in 1558 by Juan Rodriguez Suarez, but its present site was established by Juan Maldonado Ordonez. Merida became famous on May 23, 1813, when the city was the first place to proclaim Simon Bolivar - El Liberador. Simon Bolivar became the countries most revered character when he liberated Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia from the Spanish in 1821. In honour of El Liberador, the highest mountain in Venezuela (Pico Bolivar) was named after him. Pico Humboldt and Pico Bonpland, the second and third highest peaks, are named after Alexander von Humboldt and Aime Jacques Bonpland, a pair of 19th century naturalists who explored the Orinoco River but never actually saw the mountains of the Sierra Nevada.

After visiting the Imparque (National Parks Office) we were informed that we couldn't enter the Sierra Nevada's without a guide so we then went to Guamanchi Expeditions and talked to John Peña, one of the countries foremost climbers and manager of the company. He agreed to help us get our permit so he drove us to the trailhead Imparque office at La Mucuy. After talking to the Rangers and explaining my mountaineering background and experience we were given the permit but then they turned to John and said that this was the last time they would do this. We were given a week on our permit to climb the mountains. That was all we needed so we carefully folded the permit into a waterproof bag and started up the trail.

The trail began at 2,200m in the dense cloud forest and gradually climbed up through the various vegetation zones until our first camp under a bivvy rock above Laguna Coromoto at 3,300m. The next day we started moving early to try and avoid hiking in the hot afternoon sun. By now there were very few trees to shelter under so we were looking forward to the cool water at Laguna Verde. Here we had lunch under the shade of our umbrellas. This was the middle of the dry season and the temperatures were soaring close to thirty-five degrees celsius. We were determined to get up to Laguna El Suero that day which meant we would be out in the midday sun - just like mad dogs and Englishmen. After traversing around Laguna Verde we crossed an alluvial pasture where the locals were grazing their cattle. Finally a short scree slope brought us up to the refugio (hut) at Laguna El Suero at 4,200m. Here we were able to get out of the sun until it cooled down.

In the early hours of the morning we were woken by the sound of cattle grazing near the tent so instead of lying around until it got light we prepared ourselves for the climb. As the sun starting hitting the tops of the peaks, we were found skirting around Laguna El Suero on the trail to the base of the climb. A huge, steep wall of glacial polished rock loomed in front of us. We gradually zig-zagged our way through the benches always angling up to our left towards the scree slopes at the base of the glacier. As we moved across the glacier the summit began getting closer. Eventually we were at the base of the final climb where we moved over some 4th class rock to the summit.

It was mid morning and the weather was beautiful. We looked down onto both Laguna Verde and El Suero, sparkling in the morning light and then across to Pico Bolivar and Espejo. There was a long traverse across the paramos to get to Bolivar's base camp at Laguna Timoncitos.

From the summit of Pico Humboldt we then descended off the south ridge back onto the glacier and traversed across to Pico Bonpland. The route was straight-forward with only a couple of sections of 4th class rock before we got to the summit an hour later. To the south, coming in from the jungle, we could see the clouds building up which we knew would come in and shroud the tops in the afternoon. After half an hour on the summit we decided to head back down to camp.

The twelve kilometre traverse the next day across to Laguna Timoncitos was a hot, dry hike and the only shade available to us was behind the frailejons or grey frairs. These plants range from ground-hugging velvety crowns to centuries-old trunks with tufted tops whose silhouettes reminded the Spanish of a procession of frairs or frailes. To the Andinos, the frailejons, of which there are many varieties, are used in numerous different ways. Some wrap home churned butter in one type of leaf to impart a delicate flavour while others fry the pith of the stems of another as a food.

The terrain reminded me of the Bogart movie when he was up in the Sierra Madre Mountains digging for gold, an area where water was more precious then gold. It was easy to imagine banditos being chased by the federales across the paramos on their horses. By mid afternoon we were at the base camp and like a thirsty camel taking on badly needed water.

Our camp that night was at 4,700m and we didn't get the best of sleeps having not yet fully acclimatized. At 4 A.M. the alarm went off and again the weather was clear and cold. We began climbing across scree slopes to the bottom of a gully that comprised of loose rock. Care was required not to dislodge rocks down onto another party also climbing the same route as us. There was nothing difficult about the route until the last pitch up to the summit. For the first time we were moving over solid rock but then we had the exposure to deal with as we had to traverse out onto the west face. We arrived on the summit and found ourselves face to face with Simon Bolivar. This was the highest memorial to Bolivar in the country - a bronze bust four times life size of the liberator. Next to him we placed our modest craniums and took our photographs.

We spent half an hour on top but unfortunately clouds were already swirling around and the views were restricted. We did catch a glimpse of a small rock tower (Pico Abanica) nearby on the ridge that looked like it had good rock. We began descending just as the others arrived on the summit. It was a hasty descent, as we wanted to be off the mountain before the others decided to come down. Back at camp we packed up and then moved across to the disused teleferico station on Pico Espejo. We could see Merida now 3,000m below us looking like a quaint mountain village, quiet and sleepy but we knew the truth. The next day we would also be down there joining in with the hussle and bussle of a city in a developing country.

The trail to Merida switchbacked under the teleferico, down passed Laguna Los Anteojos and the stations of Loma Redonda, La Aguada and La Montana. We spent the night in a small finca (farm) near La Aguada and in the clear, morning light we could see back up to the summit of Pico Bolivar.

As we turned our backs on the mountains, our thoughts went back to Simon Bolivar and Humphrey Bogart. We were going down to Merida to catch a midday siesta before going out to celebrate. The Sierra Nevada de Merida was a real treasure, maybe lacking in gold but making up for it in its natural beauty.


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