We arrived in Manizales late in the afternoon on a day of equal importance to the locals as Independence Day. Colombia was facing Brazil in a football match in Miami which was to the locals, a rematch of the World Cup game that saw Colombia kicked out of the competition. We learnt of this match when, upon arriving in Manizales 90% of locals were decked out in Colombia jerseys and there was an air of excitement around the town.
Wade, Hanna and I checked into our hostel and decided to have a few beers while making our plans for the following day. Upon our arrival, the young guy at reception suggested two different day trips for the following morning. One was a full day trip to a volcano, hot thermal pools and an historic church while the other was a shorter trip involving a three hour walk up to a Glacier and breakfast and lunch on a local farm. Before even finishing our first beer we all agreed that the trek to Santa Isabel Glacier in Los Nevados National Park sounded much more interesting even though the guy had assured us that you don't get to go ON the glacier, just near it. After all, the volcano day trip was mainly spent in the vehicle and we were much more interested in doing something active.
That night we packed into an authentic Colombian "Irish Pub" to watch the football match. Sadly the two months since the World Cup were not enough to change the result and Brazil won again, 1-0.
Saturday morning came and our alarms sounded at 4am. We had all slept for around 4 hours after kicking on for a late dinner and beers after the football match. The tour guide would be collecting us from our hostel at 5am before heading out to breakfast on the farm. My hiking pants had what now looks like a trivial splash of mud on the cuff so I decided to get them washed along with our other dirty clothes and instead wear my denim shorts. After all, Manizales was in a reasonably warm and sunny region of Colombia.
We jumped in the car with a small bag of essentials, sun cream, water, a bag of nuts and a long sleeved top each just in case it got cold closer to the glacier, but hey we weren't going ON it, just near it so a vest and long sleeves should be plenty warm enough.
The first sign that something was wrong was when we noticed the bamboo hiking poles in the back of the 4wd. Secondly, our guide looked prepared enough to hike Everest, but we just figured that he was the pro and had all the right gear because this was his job.
We stopped off to buy some water and the guide reiterated how important it would be to stay hydrated during the trek. He mumbled something about thin air and lots of water so we grabbed a few extra bottles between us.
After breakfast as we sat around laughing and sharing stories with the other English speaking travellers in our group, our guide interrupted us to give us a bit of a rundown of the day. It was now 7am and we had another 1.5 hour drive "up the mountain" before arriving at the start of the trek. We would be walking a 6km round trip before returning to the farm for lunch and then heading back to town around 6-7pm depending on how long the walk takes us. The math didn't quite add up. 6km should take an average person around one to one and a half hours to walk even if it was up hill, not the 5-6 hours he was estimating! Next our guide explained how important it was to keep the car windows open for the next leg of the drive so we can acclimatise to the altitude. Alarm bells had been niggling at the back of my mind for a while now but this had the whole damn cathedral going off in my head loud and clear!
After a brief private discussion with our guide, Wade, Hanna and I established the following:
1. the walk would take around 5-6 hours NOT 3 hours
2. at "the top" we would be able to walk ON the glacier
3. we would be starting the walk at 4200m and trekking up to an altitude of 4700m (around 1500m higher than Wade or I have ever been)
4. The temperature could drop to below 5 degrees as we neared the top
And finally 5. Wade and I were ridiculously underprepared, under dressed and uninformed about any of this!
We explained our to our guide that this was all news to us and he laughed when he realised that neither Wade nor I had long pants or a jacket. I'd love to know where he thought we had been smuggling them all this time as our bag was barely big enough for the extra litres of water we had just purchased. He said he might have a spare jacket for one of us depending on the size and would check when we arrived at the mountain. Sorry Wade but I secretly hoped it was my size cause there was no way I was climbing onto a glacier without at least one more layer on my already shivering body.
As our 4wd climbed the steep and bumpy road to the National Park I started to get a headache. I assumed this was just the lack of sleep combined with a few beers last night and now the incessant bumping and shaking of the 4wd over a never ending unsealed road. The further we climbed, the more I wished I had brought my big, warm, waterproof jacket that I left back at the hostel…. Not to mention a pair of long pants!
After a long 2 hours of driving we arrived at a carpark and crawled out of the car. Our guide walked towards Wade and I like Santa Claus with two almost perfect-fit, wind jackets in his arms. Finally some relief from the cold and best of all, for both of us!
It was also at this starting point on the walking trail that we saw a sign listing the following (also previously unmentioned) precautions:
* If I had my way, I would also add that hiking in short shorts and summer clothing is also not recommended, let alone drinking copious amounts of beer the night before doing the trek but hey, who am I to correct the Colombian National Parks Rangers!
We all started commenting on how it didn't make sense that 6km would take us 5-6 hours and compared the time/distance to other walks we had done recently. In our well educated opinion surely it would be more like 3 hours.... MAXIMUM.
One of the girls in our group had a GPS watch and within the first 400m of the walk we had all come to a halt puffing and wheezing like ten-pack-a-day smokers. The air was thinner than I ever could have imagined. Almost all of us had ripping headaches and some were already feeling muscle and joint pain. I will happily argue with anyone who says altitude sickness is a myth as the five of us leaned on our hiking poles composing ourselves and trying not to waste oxygen on conversation.
One, then two hours passed. The breathing was becoming easier as we settled into a rhythm however every short hill climb was followed by a 2-5 minute break and our group slowly began to stretch out as some struggled more than others. It was becoming more difficult to remove my right hand from my walking stick as the cold was causing me to lose feeling in my fingers. As for my legs, they didn't hurt a bit because every bare centimetre of them was numb to touch.
The landscape was a breathtaking contrast of snow, rocky outcrops and sparse vegetation as we climbed against the turbulent winds scraping down the mountainside.
Wade and I shared what looked like an intimate moment as we hugged behind a rock for a few minutes in an attempt to warm up even a little bit. It was the only place we could find relief from the freezing cold wind and two hugely under dressed bodies contained more body heat than one!
As we started to see small piles of snow scattered amongst the rocks, the cold air intensified to the point where I was a freezing, coughing mess and Wade's nose was physically dripping without him even knowing due to a lack of feeling in his face. We pushed on in silence as a few members of our group threw in the towel and returned to the warmth of the cars waiting at the base of the trek. It was a shame seeing as there was one last summit before the huge white mass of the glacier appeared in front of us.
After three hours and 15 minutes of huffing, puffing and shivering our way up the mountain, we finally set foot on Santa Isabel glacier. It always amazes me to see glaciers so close up as they seem to roll down a hill before suddenly coming to a complete stop. My favourite part about glaciers is the cracking and groaning of the ever moving, ever changing ice underfoot. It is a hauntingly real reminder of the struggle these natural formations are facing with the everyday battle of global warming.
Everyone sat down for a short break and a few photos on the glacier. It was an incredible sight, but in reality our job was done and I think it was around 10 minutes before everyone agreed that it was simply too damn cold to stick around any longer so we began the slow climb back down.
Photo: Yay, we made it!
Now do the essentials such as take selfies, throw snow at one another and then get the hell off this freezing cold mountain!
The walk down was much easier on the lungs but presented a new pain in the knees and legs brought on by the steep slope and lose rocks. During the return journey, Wade and I unanimously agreed that we would need an extra day or two to acclimatise as well as a few more training treks before our upcoming trip to Macchu Picchu in October.
As the feeling returned to my fingers and legs and the cold wind once again disappeared behind the mountain, cheerful conversations began amongst our group knowing that the hard work was done and we were almost back at our starting point. It was during a conversation with our guide around this time that I was also told that the underprepared Wade and I were lucky we didn't book into the 2 day trek. Apparently that one involves ice-picks, cramp ons and an overnight sleep on the glacier. That wouldn't have been much fun in our shorts and t-shirts!
We all ate our words as we checked the GPS watch to discover that in total we walked 7.5km and as estimated by our much more knowledgable guide than ourselves, it took us a total of 5 hours and 55minutes!
By the time we ate "lunch" it was 5pm and everyone was exhausted. Warm soup and coffee were a sight for sore eyes and cold bodies!
Of course the day wouldn't have been complete with one final twist in our itinerary and as we pulled back into Manizales, the 4wd barely slowed down long enough for us to see our hostel, before heading back out of town in the opposite direction. If we thought we weren't prepared before, we were even less prepared now. Apparently as a September promotion, the tour also included a visit to the local thermal pools! This would have been perfect besides the fact that it was now 8pm, we were all exhausted and most importantly only one girl in our remaining group of 10 had been told about this and brought a bikini.
We all ummed and ahhed before agreeing that we were here now so why not. We stripped down to some less than ideal underwear and plunged into the steaming pools. I think I lasted 10 minutes in the scalding hot water before my body turned lobster red and decided that this was simply all too much for one day and I was forced to sit on the edge of the pool sweating up a storm.
Seeing as none of us had a towel in anticipation of the thermal pools we didn't know about, (surprise surprise!) we all dressed back into our dry clothes which soon became soaking wet and sat shivering for the 20 minute drive home.
Although in most ways the day had been a complete and utter (and vaguely life threatening) mess, we finished the night with a sense of accomplishment, an unquestionable need for sleep and best of all Wade and I had our first experience of high altitude in preparation for Macchu Pichu.
Climb Santa Isabel glacier in short shorts, without gloves, thermals or the slightest idea of what we were doing....Tick!
Hanna, myself, Wade and Sophie all tired but feeling accomplished, after having defeated Santa Isabel Glacier!
Enthusiastic but Useless Traveler.