We Conquer the Mountain

After a great night’s sleep at Rancho Baiguate, it was time to get to work! Along with our guide, Misheal, we drove about an hour through the gorgeous mountains to get to the Jose Armando Bermudez National Park. This region is extremely fertile land, and we passed farms growing tomatoes, squash, bananas, coffee, and cacao. Once we arrived at the park, we paid our 150 peso entry fee, and registered by signing into a very official spiral bound school notebook. We laced up our shoes, grabbed our packs, and checked out the park maps to figure out exactly what we were getting ourselves into. Basically, 23.1 kilometers to the top, and over 2000 feet of climbing.

Next we met our pack mules and their handlers (or as Misheal called them, our “country guys”) The park requires you to hire a mule and a guide, but I think our tour company had very little faith in our fitness and abilities – because we had six mules. This was enough to carry all of our food and camping equipment, as well as a couple of extra mules with saddles just following behind and waiting to rescue us if needed. They were very cute and patient, and they loved to eat our pineapple rinds.

Misheal told us “You go at your pace. I’ll come behind slowly.” Yeah, right. Our lazy butts haven’t climbed a hill in five months and our pace is slow as molasses, so Misheal was right on our heels the whole way. The first few miles were smooth and gradual. But then things got real.

After Los Tablones, the climb started. And I learned that Dominicans don’t believe in switchbacks. When they make a trail up a mountain, they just go straight up the mountain 😳. And when you’ve gotten into a groove, and started to get used to the climb, then you hit the mud. Not “oh dear, my shoes are going to get dirty” mud but “oh my gosh, I’m going to fall and slide down this mountain on my behind” mud.

By the time we reached Alto de la Coterra we were ready for a break. Each of the significant landmarks provides a small shelter with a roof, a wooden table, and a few benches. Great for resting, and I’m sure very welcome in the frequent rain storms. Our “country guys” weren’t quite on the ball. They were supposed to have gotten there before us to get lunch ready. Instead, we waited for then for about 20 minutes and got pretty cold before lunch arrived.

Sorry about all the mule pictures, but that face!!! About that lunch, Mike and I have to eat gluten free for medical reasons – no wheat, barley, rye, or oats. I’d communicated this ahead of time to our guide company. So they didn’t pack the usual sandwiches and cookies. But they didn’t really replace them with anything. So our meals turned out to be more like snacks: cheese, pineapple, juice. I’m glad I packed several Rx Bars and Kind Bars, as well as nuts and electrolytes.

Misheal had packed a couple of Milky Way chocolate bars for each of us, and I have never tasted anything so delicious in my entire life! When’s the last time this girl ate TWO candy bars in one day? Try never!

After lunch, we tackled the steepest part of the climb – and the rockiest. We’re talking Appalachian Trail through Pennsylvania rocks. Big rocks, little sliding gravel rocks, baby head sized rolling rocks. Super tricky footing for most of the rest of the climb. Look who blended right into the rocks:

We finally made it to the camp site at La Compartacion around 3:00 and we had a decision to make – continue the final 5k to the peak (and then back down to camp), or stop here for the night and make for the summit at sunrise.

We dithered a bit, and then the light rain stopped, the clouds parted, and I decided we should go for it! We told poor Misheal, who was already getting comfortable, and he said “Ok! Vamanos!” So back to the climb. In my head, 5k would be easy. But we’d already hiked about 15 miles, and this was the steepest trail yet.

It was so steep, and I was so tired, I had to count my steps to distract me enough to keep on walking. I was allowed to stop to catch my breath only after 200 steps. Misheal didn’t have much faith in me. He had one of the country guys follow behind us with a mule just in case….

Finally, I caught a glimpse of the monument at the rocky peak. Hooray! Finally! The good weather held, we had amazing views from the summit, and there was much rejoicing!

So the final 5 kilometers back down to camp weren’t easy either. I encouraged myself out loud “Just watch your feet. Don’t trip now. Just a little bit farther” and finally made it back to camp. Camp was interesting. Basically just a muddy field with a whole lot of mule poop and a cabin where everybody sleeps on the floor.

It gets pretty darn cold at that elevation! It was in the low 40s according to the thermometer on the tree. Good thing there was a fireplace in the hut and a huge bonfire outside. Misheal was very apologetic for the country guys who never could get their act together to make hot soup. But eventually, they produced a yummy pollo guisado and rice and plantains over a wood fire, with a bottle of Brugal rum to wash it down. Again, there was much rejoicing!

I put on every piece of warm clothing I had (wool tee shirt, wool long sleeve, wind breaker, fleece top, sweat shirt, hat, gloves tights, rain pants) and sat by the campfire. A group of Dominicans were celebrating a birthday, and they drank and danced and sang all evening. I couldn’t follow the Spanish lyrics, but I understood the vibe and the fun, and soaked it all in.

After a chilly night on the floor with an air mattress that leaked, we packed up and headed back down the mountain. Now you’d think down would be easy, but today our legs were no longer fresh, and down is actually really, super hard! All of that mud, and all of those rocks are just as hard in the other direction. Plus these old lady knees can’t handle down! But the skies were blue, the views were gorgeous, and eventually we made it.

When I heard the roaring of the river I knew we were close. Phew! In the blink of an eye, we found ourselves back in park headquarters in the middle of a school camp trip of chatty teenagers who all smelled a heck of a lot better than I did. Misheal herded us back to the Rancho Baiguate truck, stopping to take a group picture with our guide crew! Back to the hotel for as much lunch as I could fit into my tummy and one more night in a bed before reversing the whole truck – bus – taxi thing back to Luperon and to Sanitas. We did it!

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