Its too hot down here!
The excessive summer heat was finally getting to me. It was 1983 and I was planting trees on a bleak hillside above my village as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Domincan Republic. I needed a break, and it had to be far from the merciless sun. Unfortunately in this, my village, trees were a scarce commodity after generations of slash and burn agricultural practices. To really escape the sun would entail a stiff hike to the nearest reassuring shade of an intact forest. No problem, I was used to that. For now though, drops of sweat stung my eyes as I raised my head and looked about. In the distance that brooding, broad shouldered forested peak was shrouded in clouds, just like it was most of the time. That would be perfect, I thought...
Culo de Maco, translated politely in English as the Rear end of the Frog, clearly sat above everything else in the region. At 2,201 meters or 7,219 feet above sea level, it is the 8th highest peak on the island of Hispaniola, indeed the 8th highest in all of the Carribean. Cloaked not only in clouds, it was also almost a total mystery even to the local people. I knew of nobody who had climbed it, but that shouldn't surprise me. To climb a mountain purely for sport is total foolishness to a campesino struggling to survive. A few did apparently venture onto its lower slopes to hunt feral pigs, but that was it.
So they left it alone--too high, too far away, not enough population pressure to warrant subduing its ridges and valleys for itinerant agricultural use...Yes, perfect it would be. Aloofly it reigned up there, lording over the hot misery all about its feet, almost taunting me. It was settled. I promptly sent messages to a couple other volunteers in neighboring villages and in a few days we were off. Though I'd never seen it, there was rumored to be a prodigiously sheer drop on the north side. We couldn't wait to stand on that summit ridge and marvel at the view.
Setting off for Culo de Maco, seen in the background
Oblivious to the toil ahead, Veronica, Pablo and I marched excitedly towards those beckoning clouds. So pumped was I for this, I barely paid heed to the annoying water jug clanging against my hip or Pablo's guitar chaffing my back with every step. We followed no trails to speak of. Route finding was a snap as all the landmarks were clearly laid out before us, illuminated by the very sun we were seeking shelter from. To first enter the mountainous fortress ahead we had to descend several hundred feet to a river called Arroyo Hondo.
Sharp descent to the Arroyo Hondo
From joy to misery
Plunge stepping down the steep grassy slope we reached the confluence of small rivers draining the mountain's base. We now officially entered the formidable gut of Culo de Maco, our excitement unabated, our noggins protected now in the shade. We ascended the river basin scampering over countless lovely waterfalls. Now a few hours into the trip we couldn't help but wonder if camping on that final ridge might be easily within today's grasp. We brayed like burros and chattered like little school kids. This was fun.
Surmounting one of many little waterfalls
Those delightful scrambles on the wet rocks lasted a couple more hours until the streams disappeared. As they disappeared so did our open ground--a harbinger of the toil ahead. Resolutely we thrust our bodies into a density of plant material that we had not dreamed could exist on this planet. Forward progress slowed to a figurative and literal crawl. Countless plant species surrounded us, some rather benign in appearance, others totally wicked. Generally there was no room to stand and kneeling down meant subjecting our knees to thorny root protrusions. Now immersed in this clammy dungeon, we might as well have been fettered to a wall as many times as we tripped and groped along barely passable terrain. Our bearings all but lost, we could only discern what seemed to be uphill and persevered on, wondering what kind of slimy plant it was that we just pulled our bodies through in the semi darkness. Our conversation reflected the obvious: this was ridiculous! Where were those slash and burn guys when you needed them? For all of our dogged pluck unspoken thoughts of our ultimate defeat started to cloud our minds as we threaded along through the material which was at times abrasive and a second later downright gooey. Onward we struggled, the crazy guitar on my back now a glaring nuisance, wedging me and catching me without mercy on every conceivable thing. Now i really was noticing the chafing, but like a resilient and submissive donkey i tried to keep at it, muttering only to myself in low tones.
A fine and pleasant misery
It was beginning to become clear that Culo de Maco was in no mood to surrender its pristine summit ridge to us that day---or even tomorrow for that matter. Clearly, we had met our match. Or had we? I shed my nasty burden, carelessly tossing Pablo's expensive guitar aside and forged ahead to scout. There were now subtle changes in the gnarly vegetation--possibly we were closer than we thought. Unfortunately nowhere though did i find an opening of any minuscule dimension, let alone one that would afford me a revealing view. Couldn't climb a tree either. We were in that ambivalent type of cloud forest where nothing was big enough to climb yet stymied you regardless with its tenacious mesh-like profusion of trunks. Discouraged, I returned to my companions and after apologizing to Pablo for my temperamental treatment of his guitar suggested we carve out a hole for a campsite. Pablo took the lead and made some deceptive headway looking for a campsite.
Pablo forges ahead on "easy" ground
From misery to joy again
The term "defeat" fortunately can be qualified in various ways. Sure, we did not get to the elusive summit ridge. But I will here and now suggest that construing a conquered summit to be the ONLY form of victory in a climb is shortsighted and can make you look arrogant. For the subalpine concert Pablo treated us to for hours that night was tremendous, actually even more memorable than the intense struggle bushwhacking. Without a doubt worth all the agony. He even later composed a song named after a little sweet singing rare tweety bird we heard up there. One of the best nights of my life, interestingly enough right on the heels of that grueling toil. (On a side note in the ensuing years Pablo has established a successful career as a musician. Visit his website. His real name is Steve, look for him (or simply ask for Pablo) at Night Heron Music
Songs in the night
The upswing in our moods carried over into the next morning, especially in a magical setting like that. Notice I just called it "magical"? When hours ago it was a "dungeon"? Excellent music by a great friend will do that.
Pablo still at it in the morning
Retreat with heads held high, a song in our hearts
Time to pack up the guitar and take a vote. It was unanimous. All of us had to be at work the next day. Besides, our remaining bread was pulverized to almost nothing, maybe quite moldy--and none of us had experience hunting feral pigs. So gravity would win. We tumbled and clawed through the tangle to the more civilized clearcuts below. Now mind you when i say "civilized" I am not advocating those kinds of farming practices. Ultimately they are the demise of a civilization--a short term gain for a long term catastrophic loss. But the comfort of the shade that we fought to briefly enjoy came with a great price. Face it, the sun will burn your skin down there where we came from or the brush will scratch the daylights out of it up here--take your pick. One environment may not be preferable to the other. And who knows? Perhaps the view from the summit ridge would have been as non existent as anywhere else in the last 6 hours of our climb. Nevertheless, after all these years I am still determined to find out. I will still promise to carry Pablo's guitar. We just need more time, a less hastily thought out game plan and a little more bread, perhaps some of Casilda's delicious tostones.
So happy to move freely again
A wonderful trip, an exceptional team. We probably covered 15 miles and a couple thousand vertical feet. We're happy with that, we did our best. I really don't know how close we got to the top. GPS's didn't exist back then, and if they did--certainly not on a Peace Corps volunteer's stipend. And we did not have a map, nor could we have easily used it given the lack of visuals. I think we were close though. Close enough to keep dreaming. Whether or not a return trip would mandate more misery is not the point. The trying experience we were subjected to was actually very fine and pleasant in retrospect---because there was a point to it. As the saying goes: "If there are no obstacles on the path you're on it probably leads nowhere." Wonderful motivation. And it leaves me on the cusp of returning to finish what I started. I wonder what it looks like 30 years later? Anxious to find out.
Veronica looks back with a sigh...