the new york times

Above the Clouds in a Secret Colombia

Aug 3--AS crampons crunched ice, our guide, Rubará, raised his traditional woven sisal-thread handbag by his face and asked me to snap a photo. We were climbing above 17,000 feet, just shy of the summit of the Ritacuba Blanco, a glaciated peak shaped like a soft-serve ice cream cone, at El Cocuy National Park in Colombia. Aquamarine-hued icicles hung from the maw of a crevasse and, far below, clouds blanketed the Orinoco Basin.

The landscape stretched across dozens of ice-capped peaks and deep cirque valleys. Moraine lakes, formed by the natural erosion from glaciers’ unhurried flow and retreat, shimmered in mineral hues. Nearly 30 miles away, we could just make out the telltale church spire of the town of Soatá. Save for a photographer friend and one other guide on the ice field, no other people were in view. The February day was bright. I’d finally caught my breath.

“The snow is sacred to us,” said Rubará, the only indigenous U’Wa ranger of the eight who work in the park (he used only his single U’Wa name), before acknowledging that, as a guide, he’d never been this high before. “We should be heading down.”

Down was the only way to go, but I wanted to linger.

Solitude at high altitudes is increasingly rare. Unlike congested climbing destinations like Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua, Cocuy, both remote and, until recently, risky to visit, has been South America’s undiscovered gem of mountaineering.

This may be a temporary condition. The park has also had a marked increase in visitors. Fabio Muñóz, the park’s director, said it registered nearly as many tourists in January as in all 2008.
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