South America, Colombia, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta

Publication Year: 1957.

Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Although the Englishman, Simons, produced the first useful maps of the Sierra Nevada in 1879 and 1881, British climbers did not set foot in the range until 1954. A. F. R. Wollaston, doctor to the first Everest expedition, and his wife, in 1923, failed to find a route into the high peaks from the hinterland of Santa Marta because of bad weather and thick forests. It was clear to us that we should climb in January, the only certainly dry month, and enter by a forest-free route. Before our first trip in 1954, Colombian, German, United States, and Swiss visitors had made the first ascents of the biggest peaks. Without a complete list of the ascents or even of the expeditions, all one can safely say is that the biggest four or five peaks have all been climbed two or more times.

In 1954 I led a party of five on a reconnaissance to the region. My colleagues were Miss J. Kirsopp, Doctors J. Waterlow, H. Bunje, and P. Hugh-Jones. To save time on our approach march, we eschewed the customary route from the south side of the massif, which traverses numerous east-west ridges of considerable height, and were encouraged by the aerial survey map made by the Cabot Expedition (Geographical Review, 1941) to try a new route from the east, following a river that flows out that side. This route we now recommend most earnestly to intending visitors, as the Donacui River (marked erroneously on the otherwise excellent Cabot map as the Guatapuri) leads right to the heart of the highest peaks. In 1954, as well as in 1957, we flew from Jamaica via Barranquilla to Yalledupar, whence we took a truck northward to Atanquez. This can be accomplished in a day. On the second day mules carried all equipment and stores to the Indian village of Sogrome, on the Donacui. On the third, Indian oxen brought the party to the foot of La Reina, possibly the most beautiful peak in the range (18,160 feet). In both years the oxen carried about a ton of supplies right up to Base Camp, at 14,600 feet, under the north glacier of El Guardián. The Indians are distinctly friendly, speak Spanish, and charge moderately.

The 1954 party got to its base camp so quickly that only there was it overcome by the discomforts of acclimitization. Hugh-Jones made a solo ascent of the prominent east peak of Simón Bolívar (18,947 feet), and I climbed El Guardián (17,175 feet) alone by the west ridge. These solo climbs, probably the only ones in the Sierra Nevada, were made only because the others of the party were unwell at the time. The party climbed Ojeda (18,012 feet) by the south glacier and west profile, and Miss Kirsopp and I climbed a rock peak east of Colón and named it Pico Juanita (ca. 16,800 feet). Snow conditions were uniformly good, though I met with literally hair-raising static electricity on El Guardián.

The objective of the 1957 expedition first made itself apparent from the summit of Ojeda. The Sierra Nevada falls into eastern and western groups, the highest peaks being in the latter. The high peaks had been most visited and no climbing east of La Reina had come to my attention. From the summit of Ojeda we clearly gazed upon the central of the three parallel ridges which form this eastern group. Ojeda itself is at the western end of the northernmost ridge, La Reina of the central ridge, and El Guardián of the southernmost one. Seen from Ojeda, the ridge running east from La Reina is an astonishing sight, of which no hint is given by the Cabot map. It is immensely steep and caparisoned in ice from top to bottom because of its northern aspect. Aside from an ambitious program of high- altitude physiology, the 1957 expedition aimed to execute climbs on this central ridge, which we have since called the Sierra Tairona, and to map the Guatapuri basin, enclosed between the northern and central ridges. The party again included Bunje, Waterlow, and myself; its new members were Major R. Allen, of the British Army, and my brother, F. F. Cunningham, as cartographer. After spending Christmas in Jamaica, we were able, despite a leisurely journey, to be at Base Camp by the first day of 1957.

We began four weeks of climbing and theodolite-surveying with a second ascent of Ojeda. The doctors had an arduous programme, which involved measuring carefully each person’s input of food as well as the analysis of regularly-collected blood and urine samples. Their chief concern was with the body balances of sodium and potassium. With the termination of surveying from the northern or Ojeda ridge, the party split, the doctors remaining at Base Camp while the survey team went back down to establish a new camp at 11,000 feet in the Donacui valley, which lies between the central and southern watersheds. From Tairona Camp, as it was called, the central ridge was partly visible, and from a col on the central ridge itself the whole of the northern range could be seen from Ojeda eastward to where the peaks drop away to reveal the Caribbean beyond. The four major peaks east of Ojeda were computed at 17,300, 17,509, 17,614, and 17,630 feet, respectively. Some peaks were climbed on the Tairona ridge, for survey purposes or pleasure, and the Colombian authorities have been asked to name two of these as Pico Santa Bárbara and Pico de los Hermanos. The latter is 17,377 feet; other Tairona summits were measured at 17,241 and 17,306 feet. It will be noticed that all these tops are higher than El Guardián, formerly thought to be among the highest half-dozen in the entire range.

A. E. Cunningham, University of London