PART 3: KNOWING MY LIMITS ON PICO DUARTE
After a night of inventing new ways to sleep in a bunk with zero support in the middle, and a breakfast of bread and cheese cubes, the events of the prior day’s harrowing driving adventure faded fast. I wasn’t enthused about the food we had been able to bring, but I did my best to fill up. The hike up the tallest mountain the Caribbean wasn’t going to be easy, not with the accelerated itinerary we had been forced to make.
We had one day to try for the top, and I wanted to shore up as much energy as I could.
Martin, my hiking partner, and I finished breakfast around 5, but we ended up waiting for our guide for nearly an hour before we could leave, because our illustrious mule had escaped in the night. Perhaps he sensed the coming hike and wasn’t all that excited about it. Luckily, we didn’t have much for the lovely animal to carry, just a jug of water and our two small day packs.
The first part of the Cienaga route, the main trail up Pico Duarte, is fairly flat. So, we had a nice warm-up as we followed the stream up the slope, pausing only to take pictures at the little wooden walkways that served as bridges. We moved as fast as we could, anticipating the long haul that was the come. The question about whether or not I could make it to the top hung over my head.
From Los Tablones, things started to get real. The trail became increasingly steep, with the steepest incline hitting us about halfway up between La Laguna and El Cruce. I kept repeating to myself “There is no way that this is only 0.5 kms!” as I struggled up the incline. The trails on this part of the mountain had carved deep canyons into the soft soil of Pico Duarte, some taller than me. The wear of people’s feet and the tropical weather seemed to be a hard force on this place. The trees here also took on an oddly swampy quality, with moss hanging down from the tall branches as the forest shifted from tropical to temperate and the air grew colder.
Little did I know that the worst was yet to come. We reached El Cruce, and judging by the map that’s at the top of its post, I was expecting to settle back into the same plod that carried us up from Los Tablones to La Laguna. It was tiring, but nothing that we couldn’t maintain.
This part of the trail was far more difficult than that ever-present map suggested, however. I don’t know if it was just that we were tired after our ascent, but those 3 km felt endless. I have to believe, even now, that whoever measured that segment was simply wrong. Maybe it was the same someone that measured the La Laguna-El Cruce segment. But it was here that the tropical forest finally fell away, leaving us in the fog, amid the temperate pines that seem so at-home on tall mountains.
As you may read if you look up Pico Duarte, there was a fire on the mountain in 2005 which wiped out vast swaths of the forest. For some, this made for a disappointing trip, but I found this part of the mountain (now partially regrown) to be really beautiful, despite the fact that I was exhausted. The little trees dotting fields of grasses among the tall survivors of the fire opened up a wide view of the mountainous inland. The views of the sunrise from there the next day were unbelievable.
Once we finally hit Aguita Fria, I cursed the sign. This was the high point before the camp where we would spend the night, and I knew right then that I wasn’t going to make the top. My feet were blistering in my boots, my legs were starting to feel weak, and my head just wasn’t in it. I knew how much further I had to go, and it just didn’t feel feasible, not with the entire hike back down the mountain waiting for me in the morning.
So, I complained my way down to Comparticion camp, annoyed that we had to hike down after hiking up for so long. But the camp was a welcome sight. Several small, wooden cabins huddled around a fire pit. A little garden peeked out from behind a long building with a kitchen that housed wood-fed stoves. Mules relaxed in the fields that surrounded that little spot of human habitation, and when I finally dropped down to rest, a camp cat came to relax in the sun with me.
Martin went on to the summit, although he didn’t return until the sun had nearly set. I was disappointed that I didn’t make it to the top, but when he finally got back to camp, the look of exhaustion on his face let me know that I made the right decision. Pushing for the top would have been irresponsible of me, and I hike enough to know my limits.
Even without the summit under my belt, the whole experience was adventure enough, and that is still one of the hardest trails that I have ever hiked in a day.