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Ascent of Ritacuba Blanco on 2014-01-14

Climber: Rob Woodall

Others in Party:Adam Helman
Date:Tuesday, January 14, 2014
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:4x4 Vehicle
Peak:Ritacuba Blanco
    Location:Colombia
    Elevation:5409 m / 17749 ft

Ascent Trip Report

This peak is usually climbed either in 2 days with a camp at 4600m or in 1 day with an early start at 3 or 4 am. The summit is usually in cloud in the afternoon, sometimes from as early as 10am, hence an early start is highly recommended, as the views are too good to miss.

The route is generally easy to follow and in January 2014 the glacier traverse was crevasse free. However the final 20m to the summit involved an exposed traverse on steep snow. From comparison with 2012 conditions, the summit climb on this peak is getting harder, due to glacial melt; also a big crevasse is opening up on the NW ridge - see Summit Day below for details. It would be advisable to check conditions if possible, and might be worth engaging a local guide: they are not expensive.

Reaching the peak is straightforward. From Bogota, a twelve hour bus ride to Guican, register at the national park office, arrange transport up to the trailhead, stay a few nights in one of the accommodations there, acclimatise for a couple of days and up you go.

Thanks to Petter Bjorstad for his report from 2012. A detailed account of our trip follows.

Fri 9 Jan Arrival in Colombia After spending 12 days peakbagging in the Chilean Lakes District with Duane Gilliland and Adrian Rayner, finishing with a fine ascent of Volcan Calbuco, Adam and I fly north to Bogota. As our arrival is too late to catch the 5am bus north, we have booked a hotel room in Casa Guadelupe (N4.59744 W74.06900), a nice clean comfy place with obliging staff and reasonable cost. Our top floor room has a view of downtown high rise buildings and steep wooded summits, not to mention the local electricity sub station! Being above 2600m the place isn't too bad for acclimatisation either.

We stroll to the shops, enjoying the vibrant colours and superb street art/graffiti. As usual we have difficulty locating white gasoline. The two camping shops only have propane type gas canisters. The nearby ferreteria (ironmonger/tool store) stocks something which seems suitable - but turns out not to work. They have no idea what we're taking about until Adam asks for degreasing agent! (we recalled this seemed to be its main use in Chile). Food supplies are also needed to augment the cooked meals which will be provided at the trailhead.

Sat 10 Travel to El Cocuy/Guican Up early for 5 am bus. On arrival at the main bus terminal (N4.65428 W74.11732) the red entrance (# 3) is needed (first pass the yellow and blue entrances - don't let the taxi stop too soon). Inside the main building the ticket office for the Boyaca/El Cocuy route is towards the right hand side. Our tickets cost COP 50,000 each (less than $30) - good value for an 11 hour journey. Then we go through and wait at gate 117. There is no queuing: it is straightforward: arriving before 0430 we have plenty of time. The evening before, Adam had gone to some effort with the hotel staff to find a phone number for the bus company but the departure time had not changed since Petter Bjorstad's trip a couple of years ago. There is also a bus at 6am. The bus company is Expreso Paz de Rio, customer service contact details are: cell no 310 207 0111, email servicioclientexpreso@outlook.es

The bus is a 15 seater, quite comfortable: somehow the main packs are fitted in the back and we keep our day packs with us. Also travelling to the Cocuy are a Mountain Madness group, including Dasha from San Diego, Mike Padden (on peakbagger.com) from Anchorage, and Michelle and Dominic from Gower in South Wales, plus Bogota based guide Juan Carlos Camacho (who is working to reestablish access to Pico Cristobal Colon which was closed in 1991 when a change in constitution handed more power to the local tribes, one of which is still totally opposed to allowing outsiders in). The group plans Concavo for acclimatisation and then Ritacuba Blanco - the reverse of our plan which is to get the main peak as soon as acclimatisation will allow.

It seems to take a long while to get out of Bogota, with a fair bit of time occupied by ticket inspectors and street vendors. Once outside the city, the journey is scenic, the roads good and the driving steady. At about 8 am we make a brief stop at Tunja for toilets, food and sweet strong Colombian coffee. Another stop in Duitama: more snacks. In 4 hours we've done most of the distance. The remaining 90 km to El Cocuy involves 230 km of twisting road, initially through pleasant hilly terrain, quite reminiscent of southern Snowdonia back in the UK except there are few sheep, more cattle. After topping out at 3390m, higher than any of our Chilean summits, we descend through drier more rugged country, with our first view of snow topped Ritacuba at 60 km distance. The road is mostly paved, with just a few short unpaved sections which may be due to mudslides etc.

At 1pm we stop for lunch. The remainder of the journey is very tortuous with narrow roads crossing steep hill sides, passing through tiny villages. The bus makes many stops for passengers, often seemingly in the middle of nowhere. We're at El Cocuy at 4 pm as expected. The driver kindly waits a few minutes while Adam goes to the national park office to arrange our park entry - no check on mountain skills, just a fee, currently COP 49,000 (about $25) per person. We subsequently verify it is also possible to register in the park office in Guican. This would simply travel arrangements. See Red Tape section below.

The Mountain Madness group are staying in El Cocuy: we complete the bus journey to Guican, staying at a hotel N6.46258 W72.41346 immediately downhill from the crossroads where the bus dropped us; the bus driver is staying there too prior to his return journey tomorrow. The cost is COP50k for a twin room. There is a restaurant too providing a basic menu del dia and breakfast. Either village seems perfectly ok for accommodation but it's convenient to stay here, at nearly 3000m, in fine mountain scenery, with just a 4x4 ride to arrange to the trailhead tomorrow, gaining us an extra half day's acclimatisation.

11 Jan Guides/Red Tape A leaflet we were given yesterday stated it is obligatory to have a local guide. We went to the national park (PNNC) office in Guican to clarify, and the two lady officials there confirmed that it is not obligatory to take a guide and given our experience, we would not need one. A guide we spoke to later, said the fee is COP 70k for a day. All guides we met were friendly and had no problem with our going guided. The Guican PNNC office is at xxxx, a short walk from the village centre and on the driving route to the trailhead. It is open at 6am. It is possible to register here for park access, hence no need to stop at El Cocuy. Note that without registration one is not allowed into the national park: registration papers will be examined at checkpoints, potentially at camp sites and along the trail (although we were only asked for them at the road checkpoint on arrival).

Topo map A nice looking 1: 50,000 map is available in town (eg from the hotel), showing trails, summits and accommodation. The 50m contour interval isn't great and the trail marking isn't very accurate, but it's nice to have for general orientation and planning. I already had good mapping on my GPS with 20m contours and trails (obtained from openmtbmap.org free of charge or for a modest subscription), which is all we need for navigation.

Transport to trailhead The hotel arranged for a 4x4, costing COP 80k ($ 50) each way. A little excessive perhaps for a one hour drive. The road is a little rough but is clearly doable in a normal car - we see several at our trailhead accommodation during our stay. However 4x4 seems the normal arrangement.

Trailhead Accommodation Arriving at the park entrance (N6.47165 W72.35260), we are met by rangers who check our registration papers before letting us through the gate. There is a road fork here with a choice of accommodation. Left for Cabanas Kanwara (COP 40k pppn) which is where Petter Bjorstad stayed a couple of years ago. We go right for Hospedaje Posada (N6.47456 W72.34835, 3937m) which costs 35k ($20) pppn and is a little further along the trail towards Ritacuba. The young staff are friendly and competent. We arrange a four night stay, hoping to summit on day 3.

After settling in, we take our acclimatisation to 4340m with a 12km, 400m hike to a 4340m P69m summit (N6.48830 W72.35662) - heading initially west past the Cabanas Kanwara (N6.47235 W72.35402), hiking a dirt road then simply summitting the interesting-looking pointy peak ahead. We laze in the sunshine for nearly an hour, having a late lunch and enjoying views of the main ridge (partly in cloud as seems to be the afternoon pattern). Back at Posada we have the menu del dia (basic but good) then early to bed.

Sun 12 Acclimatisation and route recce to 4700m A lazy start: breakfast from our own food, away at 10.10 Keeping to the most travelled trail will get you to the foot of the glacier, and the route is well represented on the GPS mapping. However here is a description.
Route to 4700m From the Hospedaje Posada we take the trail uphill through a rickety gate then keep right and in a few metres join the main trail from Cabanas Kanwara (saving half a mile compared with the Kanwaras start). There are a few minor ups and downs before crossing the first bridge (N6.48019 W72.34033, 4029m) over the main stream. The main trail goes R here although there is a shortcut L which we use on the way back down. On the main trail another bridge is crossed (N6.47905 W72.33757) (ignoring fainter trail R) and the trail traverses L to rejoin the main stream. Shortly afterwards a shortcut forks L keeping closer to the main stream while the main trail takes easier zigzags. They rejoin before a third bridge (N6.48478 W72.33063, 4404m) where the main trail keeps L but everyone we see takes the shortcut R. This is steep and close to a waterfall and might not be the best option in the dark. Another bridge is crossed at N6.48610 W72.32907 and the two trails rejoin. The trail is now quite braided, climbing up nice clean slabs. At another bridge (N6.48657 W72.32686) the main trail goes L while a smaller trail keeps R, making a route directly into rock slabs below the glacier. The main trail soon reaches a camping area (N6.48882 W72.32672, 4585m) at the start of a moraine ridge which the trail follows for about 350m before exiting R and reaching a signboard (N6.49245 W72.32324) stating 4700m.

We are here in 2h15m and decide this is plenty high enough for day 2 acclimatisation and rest and take lunch. The afternoon clouds come down to the foot of the glacier just above us: there's a cold wind and we descend after about 40 minutes. A local girl who has got ahead of her two older male companions has been tagging along with us. She starts down with us then sees her two friends on the slabs below and joins them, borrowing a pair of Adam's gloves which she later returns to our Hospedaje.

I'm feeling the altitude (too high too fast) and am sick a couple of times on the way down. We're back at the Hospedaje by 4 pm. I eat nothing until the following morning by which time I'm feeling fine with resting heart rate of about 70.

Mon 13 Acclimatisation hike: Pt 4618m Adam gets a good phone signal so we check the weather forecast. mountain-forecast.com says clear for the next few days with light winds. The seemingly more precise yr.no has some cloud and minor precipitation but it usually says that for the summit (which is invariably in cloud from mid afternoon). Looking ok.

After a leisurely start we hike the main trail from Posada back a short way towards Cab Kanwara then follow a trail NE to a saddle N6.49239 W72.34269, 4351m. The trail becomes very sketchy after a while: we follow it by means of the GPS mapping although it is open ground and easy to find a way. Very pleasant valley with horses and sheep grazing. Just short of the saddle is a stone boundary wall (easy to cross).

After a good rest I head E up the ridge, wanting to spend more time at altitude after yesterday's problems. Adam stays at the saddle, saving energy for a likely summit bid tomorrow. I climb slowly, up easy clean slabs punctuated by frailejos terraces - fascinating landscape, fine views. Keeping to the rougher slabs it's easy climbing. I take a good rest at 4500m, not wanting a repeat of yesterday's problems. The final climb is steeper, slabs to about 30 degrees. Again, keeping to the rougher rock it is straightforward, enjoyable climbing, mostly hands-free. At N6.48948 W72.33683 I reach the ridge - to the right is a sheer drop of 50-100m. There's a fine view of the main Ritacuba trail; the peak itself not yet clouded in. I carefully follow the edge NE to the first summit, which has a nice cairned rocky top beyond (N6.49096 W72.33583, 4618m). Only about P15m as there are higher summits beyond, but a very nice spot. This is the striking notched ridge dominating the northern skyline on the normal route to Ritacuba and it's great to be up here.

I eat and drink and laze for nearly an hour before descending to rejoin Adam. We descend the valley, initially keeping close to the stream then traversing easy pasture (with a few boggy streams to hop over) to rejoin our upward trail. Back at 4pm, same as yesterday.

Tue 14 Summit day We start from Posada at 4 am, meaning 1.5 hours in the dark (first light is 30 mins before sunrise). Despite previous recce and GPS tracks we still briefly lose the trail a couple of times. There are a few low clouds but these disperse and it turns into a gorgeous morning with wonderful views constantly changing as dawn progresses. We're at the 4700m sign board in 3 hours and the sun meets us here, its warmth welcome after the morning chill.

Route from 4700m From the sign it is best to keep straight, skirting the foot of low cliffs, walking on slabs (there are several cairned routes) to join the glacier tongue near its left hand side (N6.49553 W72.31761, 4885m). We put on harnesses and crampons but there is a wide boot trail along the broad ridge above and no sign of crevasses on the route so the rope stays in the backpack. Views are superb under a cloudless sky, particularly of nearby technical looking Ritacuba Norte and the tangle of glacier leading south to Concavo.

The angle of the ridge eases and the summit can now be seen looking pretty steep, as expected. There is another obstacle en route: two large crevasses nearly meet, leaving a wide short steep snow slope at about 40°, not difficult but needing care as a fall could result in a slide into a crevasse. Comparison with Petter's photographs indicates that this crevasse was almost absent in Jan 2012. Assuming it opens completely in the next year or so, it could become a significant obstacle.

The summit climb itself is more difficult than expected. The boot trail leads R across a slope of 30° or so, bypassing a steep nose that we assumed is part of the summit. However it is separated from the summit by a big gap which has opened in the last two years. The boot trail continues R, past a small crevasse then climbs L, with a near vertical drop below of likely several hundred metres. Once round the corner it is a simple 15m snow slope at about 45°. In view of the exposure Adam gives me an axe belay from the foot of the climb while I ascend, then I place a snow picket at the top and bring him up. Our 30m rope is ideal.

The highest point is a cornice edge (N6.49460 W72.29648, 5398m). We arrive at 10.30, 6.5 hours after setting out. We enjoy the views and superb setting for 15 mins then descend, front pointing down in turn, Adam first. Back on safe ground we have a proper break before descending, retrieving Adam's walking poles from just below the glacier. There are a group of youngsters enjoying themselves on the snout of the glacier. In the tropics, climbing to 4800m is just about the only way you get to touch snow, and it's a popular hike.

We're back at Posada just after 3pm, an 11hr round trip and a wonderful day out. We wonder if the summit will become more difficult as glacier melt continues.

Peak elevation: Blanco vs Negro My GPS reading for Blanco was 5398 m, a little lower than the expected 5410. Two years earlier in January 2012, Petter Bjorstad recorded 5404 and 5406m. The difference is possibly due to snow melt. A leaflet we were given by the park authority on registering, states 5333m which is clearly too low. A relief model in the dining hall of the Hospedaje Posada has 5330m for Blanco and 5230 for Negro. Negro is 5290m on peakbagger.com which is consistent with Google Maps contours. Visually Ritacuba Negro is significantly lower than Blanco - viewed from Blanco summit, Negro stands at eye level with the lower background peaks, hence is lower than Blanco - but not by 100 metres. The distance between the two is approx 1km. Photographic analysis indicates Negro is c.30m lower than Blanco:-

Referring to my 2014 photo of Negro from Blanco summit, annotated by Jonathan de Ferranti (see last photo in set linked below)

Using peak #6, taking Blanco (5410m, 0m), Negro (tbc, 1km) and Caracol Norte (4020m, 51m) to be in line, interpolation gives the elevation of Negro as 5410-(5410-4020)*(1/51) = 5383m
i.e. 27m lower than Blanco.

Using peak #2, taking Blanco (5410m, 0m), Negro (tbc, 1km) and Preciosas (3980m, 63m) to be in line,
gives the elevation of Negro as 5382m, i.e. 28m lower. These two calculations agree well.

Visually, Negro appears to be approx 3m lower than the sightline from Blanco to the two background peaks. This would make Negro 30m lower than Blanco; i.e. Ritacuba Negro = 5380m.

As the melting process continues, it is possible that Blanco will lose elevation. However Petter Bjorstad noted in 2012 that the small snow summit is underlain by rock, hence it is unlikely that Blanco will become lower than Negro.

Wed 15 Point 4415m and back to Guican In the morning I head out for a couple of hours, the main peak being the summit which tops the ridge leading up from Kanwara. I initially take the sketchy path we used on Monday then climb a steep mostly grassy gully north to the summit (N6.48994 W72.34815, 4415m P64m). It's a nice spot and a fine viewpoint for the Ritacuba ridge and the tangle of glacier to its south. Concavo is already in cloud, which engulfs the whole massif over the next hour. I descend the easy ridge west to identify the prominence saddle (N6.48962 W72.35501, 4271m) of the 4340m summit we visited Saturday on our first afternoon. I then return via the dirt road.

A nice acclimatisation hike would be to take the dirt road beyond Kanwara then link these two summits N6.48830 W72.35662 4340m and N6.48994 W72.34815 4415m, returning down the valley.

Early afternoon we arrange for our driver to take us down to Guican. While waiting, Adam discovers that the secure blue Postobon box at the gate contains the beer! I enjoy a Poker cerveza with the local guide, his family and some horsemen while Adam chats with them in Spanish. Life is pretty good.

We stay in the same Guican hotel as before. In the main square we look inside the impressive church, visit the heladeria at the lower end of the main square (bottom right as you face uphill, Internet sign) and discover we need to reserve seats for the bus to Bogota and that this is the place to do it! Late pm there is a thunderstorm: vertical tropical rain.

Thu 16 Homeward 5 am bus back to Bogota. The heladeria man gets up at 4.30, we pay for our tickets, Adam buys an ice cream (!) then the shop keeper goes back to bed! Again a fifteen seater, which we have to ourselves until El Cocuy where a few more folk get on including a Belgian couple here for two months backpacking; all other passengers are Colombian. We keep watch on our baggage to ensure nothing is unloaded in error during the frequent stops. The ventilation is poor and it's a long hot journey. It is amusing and a little worrying to see horses, cows and sheep grazing unfenced on the verges and even central reserve of the 120kph freeway - hopefully they have better road sense than their UK counterparts!

Back at Bogota central bus terminal, we are surprised to find a long taxi queue: after maybe ten minutes we are allocated a taxi based on our destination. I would have expected the majority of people (ie non tourists) to transfer to local buses for their destinations within Bogota, but it seemed that a large proportion were using taxis. Strange.

We are back one day early and Casa Guadelupe don't have room for us. Instead we stay at the Dann Colonial (N4.59947 W74.07119), quite a smart place but a little cheaper than the Guadelupe and seemingly almost empty.

We spend our last day sightseeing around Bogota. In the morning we climb Cerro de Monserrate which is a visually prominent and very popular summit on the edge of Bogota overlooking downtown (and is the reason why downtown is on the edge of the city. Monserrate trip report.

Back at the foot of Monserrate we get talking to a Norwegian man who married a Colombian and has a home over here. He and his wife recommend the Quinta (large house and gardens) of Simon Bolivar so we explore this interesting tranquil place then take up his other suggestion, the Museo de Oro (museum of gold N4.60232 W74.07213), a fancy place with some impressive interpretation and wonderful craftsmanship on display.

We fly home on Sat 18th, reflecting on some fine peaks and two fascinating countries.

My next ultra is to be Ponta do Pico in three months time when we make a spring trip to the Açores.

Ritacuba photo album

Bogota photo album
Summary Total Data
    Elevation Gain:1460 m / 4790 ft
    Distance:16 km / 9.9 mi
    Route:West ridge
    Trailhead:Hospedaje Posada  3949 m / 12959 ft
    Grade/Class:PD-
    Quality:8 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Maintained Trail, Glacier Climb
    Gear Used:
Ice Axe, Crampons, Rope
    Weather:Pleasant, Calm, Partly Cloudy
Ascent Statistics
    Time Up:6 Hours 30 Minutes
Descent Statistics
    Time Down:4 Hours 
GPS Data for Ascent/Trip


 GPS Waypoints - Hover or click to see name and lat/long
Peaks:  climbed and  unclimbed by Rob Woodall
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Note: GPS Tracks may not be accurate, and may not show the best route. Do not follow this route blindly. Conditions change frequently. Use of a GPS unit in the outdoors, even with a pre-loaded track, is no substitute for experience and good judgment. Peakbagger.com accepts NO resposibility or liability from use of this data.

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