A hike to the peak of the Santa Isabel glacier is a race against global warming


A three-day hike in Los Nevados National Park, culminating in a night ascent up the Santa Isabel glacier and volcano reads the programme. But, an ice-covered volcano in the tropics? It sounds geographically impossible, yet exactly the out-of-my-Cali-comfort-zone challenge 2019 was calling for. Except now, it’s two days before the expedition start date and I’m finally reading the required kit list complete with pictures of highly-prepared people dressed head to foot in all the right hiking gear.

While the tour agency provides the specialist equipment for the glacier, I’m lacking a key item on the Essential Packing list: proper hiking boots. I sense the dawning of a packing panic.

I message Montañas Colombianas to admit my foolhardiness, reluctantly sending pictures of footwear options: better an aging pair of trainers lacking tread? or some bargainous hiking shoes bought online and never worn? Sebastian López from the agency responds telling me that while either might do for days one and two, the day three glacier ascent requires more serious bootage. He sends back a picture of some ginormous heavy-duty moon boots fit for scaling Everest, which he can lend me for the weekend.

With boots semi-sorted, I complete my packing with a few beg-borrows from friends – a head-torch, decent sunglasses, and several pairs of thick socks. Then, it’s off to meet my all-girl Team Summit to catch an evening bus to Pereira. In a late-night pre-trip briefing with our guide James, we talk hiking gear. Do we have thick waterproof gloves? Sheepish ‘no’s’ all around. Do we have waterproof trousers? Another round of headshaking. It’s not looking good, but he’s calm, making a mental note of what is missing before telling us he’ll see us at 6 am.

Post-breakfast, we get organized – the option of loading onto a mule any stuff we won’t need during each day’s hiking makes me feel like a princess-y cheat but also secretly relieved. Then it’s into a 4×4 to El Cedral to start our walk through the Parque Regional Natural Ucumari?. With an altitude of 1,900 meters, we’re walking through lush green cloud forest with babbling brooks and woodland trails.

Post-lunch, it’s a rainy afternoon of sloshing through rivers with no chance of keeping our feet dry, proper hiking boots or not. Tonight’s lodging is at Mariluz’s house, a humble campesino homestead with stunning views. It’s a squeeze in dorm beds and shared doubles, but soon we are hanging out in her warm kitchen where she cooks over firewood. The mule arrives! I’m embarrassed by how much weight the poor brute is carrying appears to be mine. With the hope that our sodden shoes will be dried by the warmth of the kitchen stove overnight, we hit the sack, more tired than we want to admit.

An early start is offset by a breakfast of champions – hot chocolate, eggs and a Colombian double carb combo of rice and arepa brought to the table by the mule. We set off with a packed lunch, our shoes dry and spirits high.

Today’s walk takes us through a highland páramo, the otherworldly ecosystem of towering, mist-wrapped frailejón plants with their thick, silver-green, furry leaves soft as rabbit’s ears and fuzzy-felt yellow flowers. In between, there are flashes of bright red and purple wildflowers. Walking across the wetland our voices drop to a whisper. We picnic overlooking Lago Otún before an ominous roll of thunder has us moving again.

We arrive at the refuge where we’ll be sleeping wet and unable to warm up, despite bowls of agua de panela while our guide lounges around in shorts insisting it’s not “haciendo frio.” We are then briefed on how to fit crampons and harness. We’ll need to do both once we get to the edge of the glacier, and as quickly as possible before our ungloved hands freeze, or we feel the effects of “hypoxia” – an unfamiliar Spanish word I don’t like the sound of. I imagine a hostile glacier in a snowstorm where I’m left behind, fumbling to fit crampons onto my Everest boots while gasping for oxygen.

After a few hours of broken sleep in our hiking clothes, the team downs more agua de panela before deciding its boot-putting-on time. They are heavy and big, but I’m grateful to have a pair. We leave the hearth in a bright night with the moon casting a silvery glow across the páramo. We walk in silence until dawn breaks behind the mountains and we’re treated to a clear view of the snow-capped peaks of Los Nevados, including the active volcano Nevado del Ruíz.

With the glacier in sight, we pass a boulder painted with 1960 IDEAM, referring to Colombia’s Meteorology Institute and the first marker of where the glacier’s edge once used to be. We pass more markings, the closest, labeled July 2017 and already quite a distance – some 40 meters – of where we tread ice. It’s sobering to see just how far, and fast, the glacier has retreated.

The morning sun warms our faces as we calmly fit our crampons with no sign of the snowstorm that had been brewing in my mind. Harnesses and ice-picks in hand we clipped onto the rope and start the ascent. We head up step by step, spikes crushing into the ice-snow and it’s not long before we reach the summit. We’re surrounded by mountain peaks under blue skies and the phones are out for the requisite selfies on ‘Poleka Kasue’, as Santa Isabel is known by indigenous communities – roughly translated as ‘Mountain Maiden’ or ‘Princess of the snows’. Very apt for an all-female team.

The journey back down is much easier and we are jubilant. Then, back to Pereira and Cali, where I have the chance to reflect on Colombia’s mighty glacier peaks and real-time laboratories for observing the devastating effects of global warming. Checking IDEAM’s webpage for some stark figures on Colombia’s glacial retreat, I find that in 1996, Santa Isabel covered an area of 5.3 square kilometers, and when I made my ascent less than one square kilometer remains. According to researchers, the majestic glacier has less than a decade of life, a sobering thought after a three-day expedition.

Montan?as Colombianas offer tours in Los Nevados and El Cocuy National Parks and the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.


Tel: (+57) 3105048984 / (+57) 315 5585839



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