Pico Bolivar

Feb 2004

By: Adam Helman


The Venezuelan Andes

On a heavily pinnacled ridge we stood, mere steps from the loftiest point in hundreds of miles. Poised to consummate yet another climbing goal - one that had brought us three to this most northeasterly offshoot of the mighty Andes cordillera. Why Pico Bolivar? Because it has large vertical relief something we refer to as prominence. In fact, some thirteen thousand feet of it by our reckoning.

We traveled to Venezuela just because that nation's highest mountain poses a high altitude technical climbing challenge, with considerable prominence in both the lay sense and in a well-defined technical sense.

After traveling so far, why not climb Venezuela's second highest as well? The goals were well-defined, our motives pure. Climb Pico Bolivar (16,427 feet) and Pico Humboldt (16,214 feet). All else was secondary. Bob Packard, Edward Earl and I cannot claim to have toured Venezuela in the manner a well-intentioned tourist might. We only saw the mountains and their principal city, M~rida - the summation of our Venezuela experience.

Surmounting Bolivar's summit ridge, Earth's opposite face was revealed - a spectacle so grand, cold, hunger, and fatigue were all relegated to some emotional backburner.

Would I not rather lounge at some beach, lapping up blue Caribbean waters? The story speaks for me. Read it and learn my thoughts.

Thursday, January 22
Eastbound to South America

Bob was late meeting us. Already eight p.m., our overnight flight to Miami drew nigh. Calling his home in Flagstaff, Arizona from a pay telephone, a corollary of Murphy's Law swung into action - your party will appear as soon as concern is expressed.

Bob Packard had been desert hiking that morning. Imagine that - poised for an international journey and yet so enamored of the outdoor life that an extra little climb simply had to be squeezed in! The action spoke of a determination that would do him proud in Venezuela.

After his hike, Bob's camper was rolled downhill to gain momentum for an engine-start. Adding to that a cancelled flight out of Phoenix, and his tardiness became a given.

Edward Earl and I had driven, and not flown, from nearby San Diego. Air carriers servicing the San Diego Los Angeles route were charging outrageous round-trip prices. Remarkably, it was cheaper to fly on Southwest' Airlines via Phoenix, on a four-leg itinerary, than it was to fly on either American or United Airlines directly to and from Los Angeles! So we drove, parking in section B-52 of long-term lot "C" at Los Angeles International Airport. As a famous Air Force strategic bomber, "B-52" would serve as mnemonic for locating Edward's pickup upon our return.

Schlepping our duffle bags from the car, a pair of landing jetliners flew directly overhead. Their sound and fury excited me like a small child. We had begun our journey - one which, unlike most vacations, featured the additional spice of an uncertain outcome!

Awaiting our flight, Edward schooled Bob in the ways of his computer program that automates calculation of mountain prominences. The prominence metric rewards mountains for having large vertical relief. Indeed, we were flying to Venezuela because Pico Bolivar enjoys much verticality.

In contrast to this enlightening technical discussion, I unceremoniously splattered juice over the airline gate's floor and furniture: my offering of whole, Texas ruby red grapefruit had fallen upon unwilling ears, and I was obliged to eat three of them over the day's journey. I had reasoned that we would be eating rehydrated, packaged meals for the six day climb, so that vitamin C - laden citrus would be our last taste of fresh food for the duration. The overnight flight was uneventful. We each managed some two hours of interrupted, low quality sleep. The jetliner swung low over the Atlantic coast, reversed course, and greeted Miami in the pre-dawn hours.

Friday, January 23
Miami to Merida

We never saw Miami dawn. Bob and Edward made a beeline for the Cinnabon bakery, which, along with Starbuck's, have become omnipresent fixtures of commercial airline terminals. The cinnamon rolls, and especially the pecan rolls, smelled heavenly - the odor pervading a hundred yard wide sphere, luring all to draw nigh and open their purses like some irresistible pheromone. I felt no need to eat breakfast at 3 a.m. biological time - especially as, owing to a four hour time zone shift, the day would be foreshortened as much; we would be fed on the flight to Caracas anyways.

That flight consumed three hours, and was indeed highlighted by a delicious breakfast featuring a cream cheese and chive-stuffed omelet accompanied by ham and potato wedges. For once, the coffee was not burned a veritable miracle for the airlines! I wanted to be on my linguistic toes upon arrival, my Spanish language skills being tested to several ends after touchdown. Hence two dixie cups of caffeine. After clearing Venezuelan immigration and customs we were greeted by a stranger and his buddy. They offered to exchange our American currency for Venezuelan bolivares at what we later learned was a typical black market rate of 2,500 Bs to one dollar. In turn, the bolivares would be used to purchase a trio of one-way airline tickets to Merida.

The man was insistent if nothing else. He followed us on foot to the adjacent terminal that services internal flights. I talked to the ticket agent about this annoying man, and an armed security guard escorted us to our gate after the ticket purchases - purchases made at the standard exchange rate of 1,600 Bs to one.

The flight to Merida was on a turboprop aircraft and featured the amenities of a North American flight. I asked the stewardess to consult the pilot regarding our altitude - and she returned with a slip of paper saying "5.000 meters - 16,500 feet". The same elevation as Pico Bolivar! I was amused that all the space between us and the ground, a large void to my eye of great dimension, would soon be filled by a massive ridge system culminating in a noteworthy and sought-after summit.

A representative of Guamanchi Expeditions greeted us after landing - my name, "Adam Helman" imprinted in bold, black letters on poster board. After being whisked by van to the Guamanchi posada and place of business, we were pleasantly surprised to learn that our room, filled with bunk beds and immaculate, would set us back only ten dollars.

Edward read aloud the contract. The question arose as to whether a second party, should one suddenly appear, be allowed to join our six-day climb. We agreed in our unwillingness to allow such an event - such an act could jeopardize our chances of success because the skills of said party would be unknown and untestable until too late. In contrast, all three of us had been on previous climbs together. A rapport had been established - one that aids and fosters success owing to mutual trust and knowledge of individual strengths and weaknesses.

We all enjoyed dinners at a restaurant specializing in trout dishes - a specialty of the region. My trout filet was smothered in a four-cheese sauce and was accompanied by perfectly cooked broccoli and potato.

A glass of red wine (thankfully served before the fish course!) tasted peculiarly weak. Suspecting that the waiter had diluted it with water, I facetiously commented, "Que fuerte es el vino!" - "How strong be the wine!" He quickly brought the original bottle tableside, and poured another glass directly from it. From both the taste and degree of opacity, Bob and I agreed that the second glass was real.

It was Friday evening and dozens of college students were socializing in the local square. Strolling past its fountains and light-adorned topiary, I felt strangely guilty being so full, as just another wily American tourist, when every person about was pencil-thin. What gives me the right to choose gluttony? I could take little consolation that by morning we would be using all available energies.

Saturday, January 24
Day 1 Climb - Laguna La Coromoto

The behavior is typical - each backpacker waits for every other person to heft his load first as an unspoken signal that it is finally time to suffer, all day mind you, through the trials of an uphill slog. Not a sign of laziness, this behavior reflects a desire to avoid wasting energy standing with a full pack while others remain seated.

When you climb with an overnight pack every card is aerobically and mechanically stacked against you: the travel is uphill; the elevation is likely well above sea level; the pack is a major fraction of your own body weight; and the pack is behind your center of gravity. Try this sometime - walk backwards carrying a heavy load on your back. See how much less physical effort is required? That center of gravity concept is to blame. Never easy, and often it seems more like torture than somebody's idea of a "vacation".

The backpack must support you for several days. The list of essential contents is extensive. And, unlike packing a suitcase for a fun-in-the-sun normal vacation, if you accidentally forget one item, the entire climb is jeopardized: there is no convenience store. Nor assistance. Anywhere. Self-sufficiency is the name - of-the - game, most often resulting in an oversize pack that, as noted above, you refuse to pick up until the very, very last moment.

We began at the La Mucuy entrance of the Parque Nacional Sierra Nevada, elevation 7,200 (or 7,300) feet. Our guide Enrique is a free agent, working for various companies in Merida on an as-need basis. We hired a guide because it would improve our chances of success on summit day for Pico Bolivar. Ironically, and only in hindsight, the technical rock climbing could have been achieved by ourselves with Edward as lead. Instead, we ended up appreciating Enrique's services because of difficult route finding issues - a potential complication that we had not anticipated.

The trail wound its way through the cloud forest. The odd tree trunk blocked our path. A downhill section of perhaps two hundred vertical feet was annoying, for it meant that much additional ascent would be required before reaching our day's goal of Laguna La Coromoto.

We separated owing to differing pack weights (in proportion to body weight) and levels of conditioning. Somehow I ended up ahead of the others, arriving at camp by four o'clock. At 10,800 feet Laguna Coromoto was near the cloud forest's upper altitude limit. Indeed, a cloud deck was present all afternoon at just about lake level. It was therefore no coincidence that the cloud forest, bathed in this humid mist, exists within the prescribed altitude range. Slightly higher the paramo, or high altitude grassland, was visible.

By five p.m. we were all accounted for. After preparing and eating our own meals, we were all soon asleep in the four-person tent. The quarters were tight. Edward and Bob always slept on the ends, with the two smaller people, Ennque and myself, in-between.

Sunday, January 25
Day 2 Climb - Laguna Verde

High above I spied our first objective - Pico Humboldt. But minutes along the trail, it appeared too snowy, too lofty, too otherworldly to be associated with our current theme of grasses and shrubs. I quickly removed its seeming inaccessibility from my thoughts.

The route was shorter than yesterday, albeit steeper in several sections. There was some class 2 rock scrambling, all the while at an ever-rising altitude that provided shortness of breath if only because my pack weighed nearly one-half as much as myself.

Edward and I forged ahead of Bob and Enrique. Somehow we took a wrong turn and winded up negotiating a steep scree slope. We stopped and pondered. I ate much snack food and then took a nap! I awoke to Edward hollering from above that we were offroute, that he had spoken to Bob directly, and that we should get going: we were not ahead of Bob and Enrique - our navigation blunder had left us behind them.

We reached Laguna Verde around 3:30 p.m., the final section of our route being a two hundred foot descent from atop an overlook that required surmounting to reach our desired campsite. Our elevation was about 4,000 meters, some 13,100 feet. A sharp wind quickly became an unwelcome threat to our comfort as soon as the sun dipped below a nearby ridge.

The wind made cooking supper difficult. The entrance vestibule of our tent served as kitchen, with backpacks and rocks as windbreaks. We ate separate meals because each of us has unique dietary needs and desires. To this end our two stoves were shared, with somebody using the open flame of any given stove at any one time.

Enrique's pack was clearly heavier than any of ours, presumably because he carried the tent and rope while we carried the lighter (but still overly massive) fuel canisters and stoves. However I was surprised to see Enrique with a stereo sound system for his radio; quantities of food and spices that could not possibly be used up by one person over six days; and other items that I would not take on an overnight climb owing to their small utility-to-weight ratios With the cold wind and fatigue from another arduous day, we were asleep (or at least lying down) by just seven o'clock. Most of the vertical gain with full packs was behind us. What lay ahead was some real climbing. I knew from experience that reaching sixteen thousand feet on just the third day of an ascent was pushing my body's ability to acclimatize. Tomorrow would tell all.

Monday, January 26
Day 3 Climb - Pico Humboldt

"This is extremely dangerous", I exclaimed. Roped together on the glacial white, Enrique pulled me from above while Bob tugged from below. It was all-too-easy for me to lose footing with these uncontrollable forces acting at my waist's sit harness. The slope, a modest thirty-five degrees, expressed itself in hard snow and ice that barely admitted purchase with our ice tools and crampons. An unprotected fall would be disastrous at this point.

Enrique understood the hazard, spurring us onwards to gentler terrain - and yet Bob could not maintain our pace, being forced to rest completely every few uphill steps. His fatigue was appreciated - after all, at sixteen thousand feet our route would tax any person in the throes of acclimatization. And Bob is sixty-eight!

Having climbed with Bob under even more trying circumstances, I knew that he would come through. Bob's tenacity is remarkable, allowing him to climb some three thousand peaks, both large and small. In 2001 we climbed Bolivia's Nevado Illimani. A mountain fully five thousand feet higher still, our success reminded me that Pico Humboldt offered nothing truly new to our experience. As such, given adequate weather I was confident of our success that day.

The morning had been cold. We climbed up a use trail, Laguna Verde dropping off beneath us.

Direct sunlight at our first rest break. Whitecaps atop the lake, already a thousand feet below.

A steep path with much scree brought us an hour later to fifteen thousand feet. We were high enough to enjoy that unmistakable feeling of being above most of the world about. A most wonderful sense of loftiness, timeless ridgelines punctuated by distant summits for endless miles.

We climbed on jumbo slabs and rock-hopped for several hundred vertical feet to the glacier's base. Class 2 material that seemed enjoyable compared to yesterday's full-pack haul upsiope. Weighing only 110 pounds, a typical fifty pound overnight backpack is roughly one- half my weight. No allowance is made for this fact in either equipment design or in apportioning group gear on a multiperson climb. I am able to perform well only, as today, upon being unencumbered by an overnight pack. With just a daypack, my relative lightness then becomes a major advantage at high altitude. The glacier demanded respect - hard snow and ice that sought your attention every moment. No time for sightseeing, every footstep had to make purchase lest the all-too-seldom-practiced technique of ice axe self-arrest become a nightmarish reality. We paused for pictures when the slope eased-up, and, at the boundary of glacier and rock that presaged the final effort, we unroped and headed willy-nilly for the very summit on class 2 and class 3 rock.

A series of snowy summits far on the horizon made Colombia more than just another color on some map. Pico Bolivar was plain, the only object higher still in our gaze. Edward got his first "sixteener", a mountain in said elevation range (Bob and I already had this). Enrique's cellular telephone, although in-range owing to our unrestricted view, was low on battery power. I ate an uncooked package of lime and chili - flavored Ramen noodles. Yes, they are edible raw in a pinch. Looking about, I thought to myself, "This is why I climb!".

The descent was uneventful, Edward in the lead with Enrique pulling up the rear. We zigzagged on the glacier, the downhill trek being far easier. Below the nival zone I paralleled the scree-choked use trail to minimize losing control and slipping. Descent is always more precarious, be it on a steep trail or cross-country.

Back in camp the relentless wind made outdoors life unenjoyable as soon as the local ridgeline swallowed our sun. Although successful today, the main event was yet to come.

Tuesday, January 27
Day 4 Climb - La Travesia

Looking about, I could only guess at the route. After one hour of uphill travel, the blue-green waters of Laguna Suero served as watering hole while we contemplated the next step. At nearly fourteen thousand feet, the overnight pack felt heavy as ever. I was smothered under its weight. When Enrique pointed to a ridiculously steep scree slope, my heart sank at the thought of traversing the distance.

However several factors dampened my concerns. First, a slope viewed head-on always appears steeper than it really is, because there is inadequate perspective of the relevant directions. Second, the first one-half of its seven hundred vertical feet would be spent zigzagging up a brushy slope with opportunity for decent footholds. Third, the remaining scree could be largely avoided by climbing on the far right where rocks and boulders predominate for improved traction. Finally, I ate one of Bob's blueberry bagels for additional strength, adorned with grape jelly and chocolate hazelnut spread as was his way.

We were on La Travesia, a path leading from Laguna Verde to points west, including both the top of the aerial tramway, and, slightly closer by, our high camp for the attempt on Pico Bolivar. That rock and scree slope is notorious, known as the Chuchahoma, Chuchaxoma, or even Xuxahoma depending on the transcription.

Upon "topping out" at the pass we took a well-deserved break. I experienced my first of several brief headaches from the exertion at high altitude. The hours passed as we dropped perhaps four or five hundred feet on the traverse, eventually re-ascending to the pass elevation.

I was suffering from my pack's weight, unable to maintain a reasonable pace uphill. Bob and I lagged behind while the others pushed ahead. Later on I was in front with Enrique, having redoubled my resolve to get this bad day over with. Eventually we reached our objective - Lago Timoncito - small and pure, at 15,100 feet, immediately south of Pico Bolivar.

The main east-west trending ridge contained several peaks, any one of which to our gaze could have been the very highest and, therefore, tomorrow's goal. We enjoyed a wonderful panorama of all points south. A nearby rock cairn, unusually tall, stood silhouetted against a distant, cloud-filled horizon that was most obviously below our plane.

Wednesday, January 28
Day 5 Climb - Pico Bolivar

Had the mountain spirits been angry at us, bad weather would force an attempt the following day. The morning saw cloudless skies, and, as the sun hit our little camp, hopes rose that today would bear the prize fruit of our Venezuelan campaign.

The route began as a rock scramble with the occasional class 3 section. At an anchor point we tied-down our packs and placed just food and water into Bob's daypack, which Edward then carried. This saved weight, and more importantly, enhanced maneuverability amidst tight spaces later in the climb. We wore helmets to guard against accidental rockfall.

Using the rope we negotiated a class 4 section. Immediately afterwards was a short pitch that involved crawling on all limbs as one rounded a cliff face with a steep drop. Although the exposure was not great, perhaps just ten or twenty feet, falling would likely have meant an uncontrolled slide for hundreds of additional feet.

There followed more rock scrambling, unroped, culminating in a high class 3 section, perhaps eight or ten feet in extent, of nearly vertical rock, smooth, yet with excellent handholds.

We were suddenly on the main ridge, and, coming from the south, would not have guessed the route were it not for Ennque pointing out a traverse to the north side of the summit.

An awkward rock fin was passed, followed by a nearly level section leading east to the base of the final, crux pitch. Enrique free-climbed the pitch, and then belayed me from above as I negotiated the low class 5 rock with 70 degree mean slope. A final move around a massive boulder and I was "off-belay" mere meters from the summit.

Bob and Edward followed. Once joined, we gingerly scrambled atop knife-like rock projections to the very summit. Edward and I make a ritual out of simultaneously touching the highest natural point of land, and today was no exception. The bust of Simon Bolivar was not overly pretentious. Out of respect to the Venezuelan people, Edward did not touch the top of Mr. Bolivar's likeness even though it was higher than the highest rock. The requisite photographs were taken, including one with Enrique that I insisted upon. I enjoyed a gourmet chocolate/chocolate chunk cookie saved for the moment, a bite or two shared with others as is my way.

These extraordinary few minutes culminated our trip. The highlight par excellence and without peer. It was windy and cold - I did not care. I wanted more food, and again I did not care. This moment atop a high temple of Earth geology is of life-affirming significance. To a climber these words ring truer than any bell: nothing can replace this moment of oneness with earth and sky. Nothing.

We rappelled down the crux pitch. I down climbed the earlier high class 3 section, figuring that a fall would be only five feet or so. Halfway back to camp the packs were retrieved and helmets thankfully removed.

By 1:30 p.m. the tent invited me to enter. Warmer than outdoors and windless, I lay in my sleeping bag until seven the following morning. Not that I was sick. There was simply nothing outside that I wanted to do more than just rest inside. I did not even miss supper - a classical case of dampened hunger at high altitude. Even the snacks taken into bed with me were not enjoyed until the next day.

We had the option of breaking camp that afternoon and beginning our descent. However we would only reasonably be able to reach the top of the aerial tram by sunset, lacking the time to reach the main station, Loma Redonda, farther below at a mere thirteen thousand feet. Since there is no potable water at the highest station, we decided to simply wait until tomorrow. A second night at fifteen thousand feet was not enticing. However this concern was overwhelmed by our success on this, our day in the sun.

Thursday, January 29
Day 6 Climb - Teleferico

Merida boasts the tallest aerial tram in the world. A series of four legs brings one from the city outskirts, elevation 5,500 feet, to the top of Pico Espejo at 15,700 feet. Built by a French company in the 1950's, the system is a technological marvel.

Unfortunately the system, Teleferico de Merida, is often closed to the public. Therefore it is "hit or miss" when it comes to using it for a rapid descent after climbing nearby Pico Bolivar. In particular. the tram was not operating the day we climbed Pico Bolivar. Had we chosen to break camp immediately after climbing it, hiking downhill would have been mandatory. However today we were lucky. Quite lucky.

As an aside, we do not consider it "cheating" to descend by mechanical transport. In contrast, we insist upon ascending in self-propelled fashion. Furthermore, in the case of Pico Bolivar, to have taken the cable car system for the ascent would have met with near certain altitude sickness owing to insufficient acclimatization time.

After descending from high camp to the "main" Travesia route, we continued uphill, trending southwest, to the summit of Pico Espejo along the steeper of two possible routes. I only needed enough energy to get up there: all the rest was downhill regardless of whether it be on-foot or by mechanical conveyance. The going was very slow with that awful overnight pack. I cussed when I saw yet another downhill section, for as noted earlier, it implies that much extra uphill travel to make good the lost altitude.

Edward topped out first, and promptly disappeared. Then Enrique came and, from the motion of wheels and cogs, concluded that the topmost leg of the tram was operating! I dropped my load and waited while Enrique climbed a final two hundred feet to investigate. Bob arrived and I advised him of the situation. The tram was only operating for workers. You see, they have to get to work in the morning too! However for a double fare we could be accommodated. To further secure our plea for transport, it was recommended that one of us should feign altitude sickness. No problem we were already breathing heavily from carrying our packs.

Once freed of my burden, I made the easy scramble to the highest natural point of Pico Espejo -a rocky outcrop. I was mere feet from a large, white statue of the Virgin Mary that is visible for miles. Several minutes later we enjoyed a ride down to the next station where we waited perhaps forty-five minutes for workers to join us for the next cable car down. The floor was being cleaned and polished as if the tram company was preparing to accept passengers in the immediate future. The cleaning machine made a pleasant "rum rum rum" sound as reminder that we were back in civilization, with all its amenities, yet riddled with noise, complication, and untold inequity.

It took us three hours for the entire descent, a large amount given that the actual transit time for a given leg of the aerial tram lasts but ten to twelve minutes. Ninety minutes were consumed at the second lowest station, presumably waiting yet again for workers to conclude their chores. I used this time to throw out accumulated empty food packages and eat lunch. No matter where I go, everybody likes the kosher salami I bring to share and eat. Bob, Edward, Enrique, and today complete strangers appreciate this simple and convenient source of protein and good taste. Perhaps its all-beef composition is responsible - the "design specification" of a "higher authority".

Before the climb I had filled a large empty plastic jar with cashews, prunes, chocolates and assorted hard candies. Kept handy near the top of my backpack, these edibles were enjoyed in numerous combinations by myself, Bob and Enrique. Now the teleferico workers had their chance as well.

All told, our 5 1/2 day climb involved 14,000-14,400 feet of total elevation gain as defined by the sum of all uphill travel. The exact value depends upon estimated elevation losses along the route, each of which must be regained as part of the total figure. Of this amount, a sizable 9,500-10,000 feet involved overnight packs, i.e every leg except the two summit climbs from Laguna Verde and Laguna Timoncito.

Departing from the lowest station, it was a few hundred yards to Posada Guamanchi where we promptly paid for two nights. A student demonstration blocked a direct walking route to the ice cream parlor of my dreams. I therefore decided to wait until tomorrow for this extra special treat, and, after showering, would join Bob and Edward for dinner at a good restaurant. I care greatly about what I eat and how I enjoy it. Please bear with me as I describe our celebratory meal. Edward wanted pizza or pasta. However in deference to my wishes he was courteous enough to agree on a place serving traditional fare. As usual, upon sitting down I became the master of ceremonies, acting as translator between the waiter and his customers. By dint of an unusually kind manager, we were in for a feast. No longer in that "Caution: Do not touch the washed vegetables and water" mood, I ordered an ensalada rusa ("Russian salad") as appetizer - a large, hemispherical mound of potato salad, with chopped tomato and ground pimiento on the side. Reaching into my daypack, I enhanced the salad with salami, hot Indian vindaloo paste, and gorgonzola cheese - not all in the same bite! Bob and Edward each enjoyed chilled goblets of thick, creamy-tasting and highly refreshing melon juice.

The owner arrived with bowls of vegetable soup for each of us, a section of corncob floating atop. We had not ordered this - it was, as the cliché goes, "on the house".

Bob and Edward left briefly to arrange a driver and vehicle for tomorrow's activities.

While explaining this to the manager, he set down an entire platter of fried plaintains with melted cheese. Ha! All I had said was that my main course should have much cheese on the bananas. Perhaps this "misinterpretation" of my wishes was intentional. Regardless, I was filling up. Bob had trout stuffed with ham and cheese. The fish head and skin tempted me, as is my way, but I was too occupied with my own affairs. I forget what Edward ate, although I believe it was a steak with cooked yuca, a starchy tuber, in place of potatoes. My main course was the comida criollo ("traditional dish") consisting of shredded beef, rice with fried egg atop, black beans, and, yes, a normal amount of fried plaintains - the "national dish" of Venezuela.

A single cocktail frankfurter hid within. I finished eighty percent and called it enough. I enjoyed a plate of diced cantaloupe and pineapple for dessert. The manager had a final free offering - samples of the house moonshine! It was absolutely delectable, with hints of mint, ginger, possibly hibiscus, and a lot of alcohol. Bob tried some and found it too strong to his taste. Edward abstains completely and had none. Seeing my enthusiasm for the concoction, I received another tiny glass. This stuff is strong, let me tell you. The brew cannot be purchased at some store, it is solely a house specialty.

After Bob and Edward departed I gave the manager a personal five dollar tip, and this on top of the generous tip we had already given. (Shh! I also drank Edward's glass.)

Friday, January 30
Merida - Free Day

Venezuela has recently had more than its fair share of internal strife and turmoil. Engage any Venezuelan in political discussion and you are guaranteed an animated conversation partner. So it was with our driver on this free day after our climb. He would not stop until I asked him so. The mental exercise of interpreting his words and then translating them for Bob and Edward was effectively hampering my ability to take-in and enjoy the passing sights on our trip to Pico El Aguila - a high point near the paved road leading east by northeast from Merida.

Finding it a more enjoyable option than visiting museums and window shopping back in town, we had paid eighty dollars for a driver and his vehicle, to be. used at our discretion, for a road tour of the Merida countryside, with emphasis on the higher terrain.

The road tops out at a 4,007 meter pass (13,146 feet) with a church and small complement of roadside stalls. The church lies atop a hill and was reached after a fifty foot gain from the pass itself. Nearby we spotted yet another paved road leading higher still past both Pico El Aguila, and past some potato storage silos, to a peak with twin summits and radio facilities at 4,260+ meters (13,976+ feet) with a twenty meter contour interval.

Not knowing which bump was the higher, all of us, including the driver, hiked up both with a modest elevation gain of maybe two hundred feet, followed by a drop and reascent of maybe fifty feet to the second bump - one which proved to be slightly higher upon backsighting to the first bump. The views and subsequent photographs of both Picos Humboldt and Bolivar were worth the effort. Edward noted a somewhat prominent summit a few miles away, and desired climbing it with perhaps one thousand feet of elevation gain. The effort requiring an estimated two hours, I balked at the concept - I had a gastronomic "appointment" in town that I had been planning for quite some time, and I did not want to be "late". Bob was not interested in the summit either, presumably because we had temporarily depleted our desires to do anything physically demanding.

Being nearby, we drove down to the National Astronomical Observatory (at some 12,000 feet), which we found gated to the public except for limited Saturday hours. A unique combination of circumstances enable the majority of backcountry roads to be paved in Venezuela. indeed, we traveled on roads that even in the United States would have been dirt owing to their remoteness. Venezuela is a major oil-producing nation. Asphalt is petroleum-derived and so, like gasoline, is quite cheap. In fact, gasoline sold for just 70 Bs a liter roughly nine or ten cents a gallon! The labor is also cheap to construct the roads. Finally, the Venezuelan tax structure is loosely enforced, so that the average citizen never really ends up paying the construction bill.

Upon return to Macuterida I was dropped off at Heladeria Coromoto, possibly the most famous ice cream parlor in all South America. In the Guinness Book of World Records, it boasts the most number of flavors anywhere in the world - 806 at last count. I enjoy ice cream more than any other food, and, being at the proper venue to that end, I was prepared for an eating orgy of major proportions. I stationed myself on a wooden bench and proceeded to enjoy that day's selections, four scoops to the bowl, for just 3,000 Bs per bowl. I paid by the bowl and imparted "textural contrast" by mixing-in ice cream cones at my pleasure. Customers came and went as I gorged myself. Seeing my enthusiasm for his products, the manager gave me his business card. Later on, Bob and Edward arrived and ordered scoops for themselves. Bob followed my recommendation for the exquisite rose flavor. Bob photographed the manager and myself in a lively dialogue wherein I proposed three additional flavors for his long-term menu. One of them, mocha hazelnut, was immediately mixed-up, as a test batch, using available ingredients from their back kitchen. I would be most pleased if my suggestions were actually used. Indeed, the manager told me that he would like to add two of three flavors. Why not all three? Perhaps because "808 flavors" is more pleasing to the psyche than "809".

For the record, here are the twenty-one flavors I enjoyed -(bowl 1 - fruit) Rose, fig, banana, and prune (all delectable) (bowl 2 - bizarre) Trout, asparagus, garlic, plus mushrooms and wine (an intentional "meal" in the form of ice cream) (bowl 3 - alcoholic) Rumcoconut, rum-raisin, grand marnier (or cointreau), and strawberry liqueur (Scowiss?) (bowl 4) Chocolate almond, candied pineapple and cherries, cookie, and "Power Ranger" (cornflakes cereal) (bowl 5) Oreo cookie, dark chocolate cookie, kiwi, spaghetti, plus spaghetti and cheese (disgusting) In addition to twentyone scoops, the manager gave me samples of several other flavors currently in an "experimental stage" of development. I never thought I would meet somebody more crazy about ice cream than me! I wanted more flavors, having room for it, yet felt that a return to Posada Guamanchi with Bob and Edward was prudent, particularly as night was approaching. I left the heladeria with a personally signed poster proclaiming Coromoto's status as world leader.

Merida is home to the University of the Andes and much of the city has a college town atmosphere. As such there is a preponderance of young people all about. So it was on our walk of several blocks to "home". Again I felt guilty eating so much. I do not feel that way normally, because in California I appear to be the underfed one.

With the approval of the Guamanchi staff, at my suggestion Edward Earl downloaded a version of his Winprom prominence calculation software from the Internet. Bob Packard got a quick lesson on how to use the software ... and then, as the office closed, the entire file structure was efficiently deleted before the next day's business. The entire affair was an amazing display of modern technology seeing as we were distanced thousands of miles from both home and the Yahoo! server.

We enjoyed dinner, Bob having chicken breast with some fanciful mushroom sauce, Edward his spaghetti. I had a light supper consisting of Caesar salad, both presaged and followed with a full-bodied glass of wine.

Bob is member of a Flagstaff choir, while Edward plays violin in the La Jolla Symphony. The conversation soon gravitated to a musical theme. As they talked enthusiastically about this note and that piece, I considered the equally lovely artistry in a glass of German dessert wine.

That evening Bob and Edward slept early. I watched much television in the upstairs lounge, remaining awake until well past midnight. Nearly all the programming was in Spanish, but for me that was "OK".

Bob Packard and Edward Earl agree that climbing Pico Bolivar was the best day of their vacation. I beg to differ - to me, this day in and around Merida seemed quite appetizing indeed.

Saturday, January 31
Merida to Caracas

Were you ever excited about a taxi ride? Probably not. Unfortunately, it was selected as the least painful of several unsavory options for our return to Caracas.

The long-distance buses travel from Macuterida to Caracas only by night. Apart from the lost sleep and security concerns, we would arrive in Caracas mere hours prior to our flight stateside. Should the bus break down enroute, we would miss the flight. Bob and I have experienced unserviceable long-distance buses in Bolivia - a fact that surely biased our current decision.

An internal flight would set us back some S250 for three tickets, and would preclude seeing the countryside - a desirable for Edward in particular. After hearing a rate quote of 250,000 Bs for the one-way taxi fare, some $156.25, we decided on the taxi: it would travel by day, the driver stopping at our convenience, and likely take less time than a bus.

We met the driver at 8 a.m. It was convenient to aim for Catia La Mar, a community outside Caracas and near the international airport. We verbally agreed the fare would be the same as Caracas. Traveling east from the highlands, the road descended monotonously for dozens of miles. A rear-window view revealed mountains eight to nine thousand feet above our gaze - prominence! The road continued into the ilanos - flat countryside populated by farms and growing sun-drenched produce such as coffee and watermelon.

One highlight was stopping for refreshments midafternoon. Originally planning upon a soda pop, I was captivated by a pint of Venezuela-produced Arequipe Fudge ice cream. The diet coke came later.

We reached Caracas at nightfall, the driver pressing onwards some twenty additional kilometers to Catia La Mar. After some fumbling around with street navigation, a barely adequate motel room was taken in what appeared to be a slight calm in an otherwise rough neighborhood. The driver asked for additional money despite our agreement that morning. Rather than possibly incite a fight, we gave him an additional twenty dollars.

The ride had not been enjoyable except for brief episodes of roadside discovery or photo opportunity. Perhaps we should have requested the air conditioning, as it would have made each passing minute more tolerable. Bob and Edward ate Chinese, remarkably at a restaurant without the customary tea service. Not being particularly hungry and wary of the neighborhood's denizens, I stayed in the room and had one of Bob's leftover bagels with my gorgonzola cheese.

Sunday, February 1
Westbound to North America

Always happy to return from a trip abroad, I looked forward to stepping on American turf. It is more than just wanting to go home. It is a sense of belonging. As Edward explained the previous night, an American citizen with a valid passport cannot be denied entry into his own country. This fact, incidentally, allayed some minor concerns I had that my severe high altitude sunburn and rash would prevent my passport from adequately representing me for identification purposes.

Simon Bolivar International Airport is thoroughly modern. The duty-free shop saw me purchase a bottle of Venezuelan Kumba coffee liqueur. In retrospect it tastes identical to Kahlua, the more well-known Mexican spirit.

Edward had his collection of Venezuelan coins and currency, and, unfortunately, a touch of Montezuma's revenge for which he had just started taking Imodium. Bob had his fourteenth of Earth's F~fty Finest prominences. And I had my fill of ice cream. So we departed.

I hoped for the same cream cheese omelets as on the outbound flight. There was precious little else to think about, now that the trip was basically over. Scrambled eggs with shredded beef and taco salsa proved adequate. Incidentally, the meal portions on airline flights, although they seem small by restaurant standards, are actually quite adequate in size: it is the restaurant meals, that, at least in the United States, are disproportionately large compared with physiological need.

Edward felt compelled to check his "liquid assets" on a regular basis. His internal plumbing was slowly settling back to normal.

Once in Miami we ran the twin gamut of Immigration and Customs - a necessary hassle in this age of international travel and, yes, terrorism. Bob left us two in high spirits, off on four days of county highpointing in Florida. Ironic - "climbing" in Florida!

The cross-country flight to Los Angeles was uneventful, apart, as usual, from mealtime. We. had a choice of entrees from baked rigatoni with a tomato and mozzarella sauce, and chicken breast with celery stuffing. Edward and I requested one of each, and we split them each down the middle. The sponge cake with a pineapple and shredded coconut icing was delicious. A green salad with creamy dressing, dinner roll and beverage of choice rounded-out the repast. Edward drove us home on Interstate 5. I reclined in the passenger's seat and loathed the thought of deleting three hundred spam messages surely on my in-box.


We did not tour Venezuela except in the broadest sense of the term. Now that you know our story, you understand that, at least to me, this observation is irrelevant.

Our expedition, and indeed the entire trip were both completely successful. Much advanced planning and discussion were in part responsible. Remarkably, the entire journey was arranged from my bedroom computer without a travel agent or a single overseas telephone call - yet another miracle of an efficient, enabling technology we call the Internet.

Climbing is a personal statement of who you are and what you prize. There are as many reasons to pursue it as there are people to ask. Challenge. Satisfaction. Companionship. Vigorous exercise.

The need to be at peace with yourself.

By any and all of these intangibles, Pico Bolivar and Pico Humboldt measured up as prominently as one could hope.

About the author and climb participants

Adam Helman lives in San Diego and pursues climbing all year-round. Although he earned a Ph.D. in chemistry, for the past dozen years he has been a software designer and programmer.

Adam is a county highpointer, with the goal of reaching the highest summits of counties in the western United States. He is webmaster for the county highpointer club - http://www.cohp.org a site that he designed and implemented in 2000. Since then, the county highpointing hobby has seen an explosion in activity - with now over 200 members throughout the nation. In the winter months Adam enjoys hiking and climbing in the desert southwest, a pursuit often done in conjunction with Edward Earl. Although many of their desert-oriented goals are peaks on the DPS list, their intent is climbing the summits with the greatest prominence as technically defined - http://www.cohp.org/prominence/index.htm

Indeed, Adam is writing the first book on prominence, emphasizing it as an alternative means of generating peak lists apart from altitude.

When time and finances permit Adam organizes and participates in climbing expeditions to Latin America, his knowledge of Spanish being helpful. He is most pleased with an ascent of Nevado Illimani, Bolivia's most famous mountain, in May 2001 with Bob Packard (21,201 feet). Adam's second hobby is cooking and baking, his enthusiasm for the subject being quite apparent in the various reports he authors.

The author thanks Mark Adrian for providing this story to a broader audience through publication in the Desert Sage

Edward Earl lives in San Diego and also has a doctorate in chemistry. As with Adam, he found that employment in the software industry was easier to secure than employment in his original field of training.

Edward is a "prominence guru", this new metric being the guiding principle behind many of his climbing goals. He has perfected a Window's-driven software application that calculates prominence without need for recourse to the traditional, tedious and error-prone method of exhaustive map analysis. Edward is also moderator for an on-line prominence discussion group prominence~yahoogroups.com . This group has a worldwide membership, their goals being to develop new means of measuring mountains; generate peak lists based upon these metrics; and share reports about climbing prominent mountains. As with Adam, Edward is also a county highpointer. He recently climbed Denali (Mount McKinley) and looks forward to a re-attempt on Aconcagua, this time with Adam, in January 2005 or 2006. They are eager to recruit qualified participants, with a history of successful ascent above 17,000 feet. Edward is a private pilot.

Bob Packard is a retired Professor of Mathematics, having taught the subject for thirty-eight years in Arizona.

From his home base in Flagstaff, Bob has amassed a truly remarkable list of climbing accomplishments - many of which are unique: * More than 3,000 summits worldwide with at least 300 feet of drop - the standard definition of a separate peak. Most are in Arizona and Colorado. * More than 1,200 county highpoints, including, uniquely, every county highpoint of the contiguous Western United States (414 counties). Many of these are difficult climbs, as well as mere hills in ranch country or mounds in some farmer's midwestern field. * Every one of the fifty-seven summits of the forty-eight contiguous states with at least 5,000 feet of prominence. To date only Bob has accomplished this feat. In fact, Bob has done the top sixty-nine by prominence. * The fifty state highpoints.* The most prominent summit of all fifty states. Again, only Bob may claim this.* "4 1/2" of Earth's Seven Summits - Aconcagua, Denali, Elbrus, Kilimanjaro and, for Australasia, Mount Cook of New Zealand.

With their shared interests in climbing, highpointing, prominence and mathematics, Bob, Edward and Adam have enjoyed multiple excursions together.

An on-line version of this story is available at Adam Helman's personal web pages - http://geocities.com/adamhelman/Venezuela/revision2/intro.html

The on-line text is embellished with full-color photographs maps for every day's travels, and hyperlinks to information resources for planning your own trip to the Venezuelan Andes

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