Sandstone of Suesca
BIG CLIMBING IN COLOMBIA
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