Sand­stone of Suesca

BIG CLIMB­ING IN COLOM­BIA

Gripped - - FEATURE - Story and pho­tos by Kieran Brownie

The cliffs of Suesca lean over a still used but ag­ing train track. The com­pact sand­stone, a mix­ture of steep burly cracks and slip­pery crimps is sur­rounded by green and yel­low fields pep­pered with roam­ing cat­tle that seem to stretch the en­tire hour long trip East back to Bo­gota. It was here in 1938 that a young Ger­man by the name of Er­win Kraus im­ported the Euro­pean “Eiger dreams” and set out to climb Mount Huila – Colom­bia’s high­est vol­cano – with his part­ners En­rique Drees and Herib­erto Hublitz.

While train­ing for this ob­jec­tive, the three men in­ad­ver­tently in­tro­duced tech­ni­cal climb­ing to Colom­bia, estab­lish­ing the first three routes at Suesca. De­spite the early trans­plant, it has taken a while for climb­ing to re­ally hit its stride. In a coun­try whose peo­ple have had their hands full deal­ing with gen­er­a­tions of un­rest, it is no real sur­prise. The old-school grades ap­plied to routes climbed by the first lo­cals who ex­plored the cliffs are a tes­ta­ment to

the dif­fi­culty of those times, the climbers hard­ened by their en­vi­ron­ment had saught an out­let. At an el­e­va­tion of 2,500 me­tres, Suesca was a burly en­trance exam into climb­ing in Colom­bia’s tem­per­ate high­lands for McSor­ley and I, who live at sea-level in Squamish. Dave All­frey, our third on this trip, is a bit bet­ter suited, hail­ing from the high and dry desert vil­lage of Las Ve­gas.

With some luck, it turned out All­frey’s friend Alex was in town; Alex, one of the first Suesca-born climbers and the best moun­tain guide in the area had laughed when we re­turned to town burst­ing with sto­ries from our first day. It was a laugh I rec­og­nized. I had laughed that same laugh at home in Squamish; I had heard it in Cal­i­for­nia, Utah, the Rock­ies, ev­ery­where I had climbed – the low and slow laugh of the sand­bag­ger.

We re­tired to the town cen­tre and dined upon hand­fuls of mys­te­ri­ous street meat. Bel­lies full and with leaden arms swing­ing at our sides, we wan­dered the dark back streets of Suesca buy­ing wa­tery Cervezas from brightly lit cor­ner shops, lis­ten­ing to thun­der claps rolling across the cow pas­tures, branches of elec­tric­ity sprout­ing across the night sky over Bo­gota to the south.

The climb­ing the next day was just as scrappy as the first. I tried to sweat my way up a glassy 11a arête to warm up and af­ter an ex­haust­ing bat­tle with a cryp­tic boul­der prob­lem came fly­ing off. I de­ci­phered the code and grunted my way through the crux, ego bruised. By the time I reached the ground McSor­ley and All­frey had com­bined their knowl­edge of the Span­ish lan­guage and trans­lated the guide­book and come to the re­al­iza­tion that our 5.11a warmup was the clas­sic 12a+. The les­son, take it as it comes, some­times too much

“AT AN EL­E­VA­TION OF 2,500 ME­TRES, SUESCA WAS A BURLY EN­TRANCE EXAM INTO CLIMB­ING IN COLOM­BIA’S TEM­PER­ATE HIGH­LANDS FOR PAUL MCSOR­LEY AND I, WHO LIVE AT SEALEVEL IN SQUAMISH.”

in­for­ma­tion is worse than too lit­tle – com­pla­cency the killer. I repo­si­tioned my­self at the chains and took pho­tos while All­frey styled the Arete with some re­fined beta, then at­tacked a steep 5.12 crack that sup­pos­edly felt like 5.11. We left the crag sat­is­fied hav­ing gained a new level of re­spect for this per­plex­ing stone.

The week­end brought crowds, not just climbers but oth­ers look­ing for slightly more tran­quil forms of re­cre­ation, an old push cart was used to trans­port the el­ders and the heavy loads along the train tracks. Alex had a few days off and in­vited us to go climb with him at a new zone an hour bus ride away, with one day left we fig­ured we should take a look and so early the next morn­ing we caught a bus north.

Alex was laugh­ing as the bus turned on to the free­way out of Suesca, ex­cit­edly talk­ing about the climb­ing we were about to ex­pe­ri­ence. It was that same laugh I had

heard be­fore. As the bus bar­reled through the steep farm fields of the An­dean low­lands, blindly pass­ing slow-mov­ing trucks at break­neck speeds. Alex en­thu­si­as­ti­cally de­scribed what to ex­pect and I lis­tened, cau­tiously. “Forty-me­tre pitches, steep and ex­posed beau­ti­ful sand­stone,” he said be­fore a pause and then added, “but some­times, it’s just sand.”

The bus barely stopped mov­ing as we came to our stop. In a flurry of limbs and ex­cla­ma­tions, we made our way out the door and to the bag­gage com­part­ments at the back of the bus to free our bags. Within sec­onds, we were left in a cloud of dust and diesel fumes. A small villa came into view as the air cleared, a red clay roof stand­ing proud against the lush green of the jun­gle, adobe walls sur­round­ing an open court­yard, a few dogs, and a par­rot in a palm tree. Above, the jun­gle bil­lowed out be­fore fad­ing into steep pas­tures criss­crossed with cat­tle trails all cul­mi­nat­ing at an im­pres­sive vi­sor of orange and grey, Ma­cheta ap­peared to be where the big kids came to play.

We were greeted warmly by the fam­ily that runs a hos­tel from the villa. They are the care­tak­ers of the area and the in­ter­me­di­ary be­tween those pur­su­ing re­cre­ation and those who have lived and de­pended on this land we must en­ter to ap­proach the climb­ing. The dif­fi­culty of ac­cess is a very real is­sue in climb­ing. How we han­dle our­selves in the places we visit to­day can af­fect the ex­pe­ri­ence of count­less gen­er­a­tions to come. Luck­ily for Ma­cheta, the cows keep an eye on the place, the steep pas­tures keep these crea­tures in fine form and the bullish bovines’ un­blink­ing stares kept our conga line aware that we were vis­i­tors on the land as we weaved along the steep switch backs.

The sand­stone is provoca­tive, tan­ta­liz­ing, but not with­out a hint of spice. The guide­book is a sin­gle lam­i­nated page that folds up like some in­no­cent travel brochure. It holds in­for­ma­tion for 50-plus routes and reads more like a dusty trea­sure map than a guide­book by mod­ern stan­dards. It is dot­ted with lines lead­ing into strange and wild places, noth­ing more than pa­per and ink, a hint at some­thing, a sug­ges­tion. Noth­ing is guaranteed – for some, that’s all it takes.

“WE LEFT THE CRAG SAT­IS­FIED HAV­ING GAINED A NEW LEVEL OF RE­SPECT FOR THIS PER­PLEX­ING STONE.”

Op­po­site: The moon rises in an oth­er­wordly set­ting

Top: Crag­ging in Ma­chetaRight: Paul McSor­ley sam­ples some lo­cal crag­ging

Above: Crag­ging in Ma­cheta Be­low: McSor­ley lis­tens to the lo­cal le­gend of Princess Inirida who climbed the four ma­jor for­ma­tions of the area (Mave­cure, Mono, Di­ablo and Pa­jar­ito) dur­ing a ram­page fu­elled by a mag­i­cal love po­tion. Ac­cord­ing to the le­gend, she still lives in the south wall of Cerro Pa­jar­ito. Op­po­site left and right: David All­frey heads up a split­ter in Ma­cheta Op­po­site bot­tom: On steep Ma­cheta stone

Above: All­frey heads up lo­cal routes as McSor­ley chats with lo­cals Be­low: All­frey re­laxes af­ter a long day of climb­ing Op­po­site: Crag­ging in Ma­cheta

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