We learn from an early age and are encouraged that you can do anything you put your mind to. The power of the mind to talk you into or out of things is astonishing. For instance, after exercising my whole life and taking just about every type of workout class under the sun, I would consistently hear the instructors of all different workout varieties shouting “Your body can do much much more than your mind thinks it can!” “Tell yourself you can!” Usually I would think to myself “Omg shut up” or simply think about how annoying they were. After choosing to embark on a 3 day, 2 night trek through the Colombian Andes (PNN Los Nevados) I sincerely wish I would have taken this advice on mental vs. physical struggle and practiced it earlier on. Instead, I had to learn it from scratch on the most physically demanding thing I have ever done.
Dan and I both really enjoy being outside and have found a common interest in trekking or hiking. We have a few treks under our belt but are not experienced whatsoever. One of the goals we have for this trip was to get into the outdoors more so before we arrived in Salento we did some research and saw that there was a large national park nearby called PNN Los Nevados. We found a reputable company based in Salento, Paramo Trek, and decided to book one of their 3 day treks into PNN Los Nevados to Paramillo del Quindio. The owner Cristina was extremely helpful and responsive answering all of our questions and addressing our concerns. She met with us the day before the hike and re-explained the route we were taking, what we needed to bring, and what we should prepare for. She reaffirmed that it was going to be a “difficult mountain hike”. We were going to hike 20km, each day for 3 days, and gain about 1,200 meters in elevation each day, ending at 4700m (which comes to 12.5miles per day, and 4,000 ft gain per day, ending at 15,400 ft). To me, these were all just numbers and I didn’t really think much about it.
The next morning we meet the rest of the group (3 other trekkers and 2 guides Cristian and German) at 6:30 am, have a hearty breakfast, and head to the trail head in a Willy. I’m feeling optimistic as the sun is shining and we are chatting and getting along with the others in our group. The trail begins at the same point as the Corcora Valley trek and was way less muddy than when we were there the first time. I’m going along at a great pace not really knowing what was ahead of us. After about the first 30 minutes, we were climbing up the rest of the day. We spent the next 3 hours winding up the mountain, through the humid forest to our first stop, at Estrella de Agua.
We have some lunch there and I’m already exhausted and ready to just sit on my butt for the rest of the day at 11:30 in the morning. After lunch, yep you guessed it, we continued up again for another 3 hours or so. Although we were going up, I was starting to realize why this hike was feeling so much more difficult than others in the past – because the trail sucks. It isn’t a nicely paved, marked path. It is a mud pit full of horse poop, rocks, and is at times very narrow. I had to look down on every single step and concentrate fully on where I was going or else my foot would be stuck in mud or I’d slip.
After the 3 more hours of continual up, we arrive at our final resting point, and the elevation causes a dramatic shift in the vegetation from cloud forest to the “paramo” which is much drier. Following this rest, we are told we are have about 2 more hours to go and then turn off the path. Off the path meaning we are bush-wacking through the mountain side in the cold. This is the point where I start to question my sanity and why the hell I did this trek. I knew we were almost done for the day so I pushed out my negative thoughts and trudged on to the campesino/refugio (farmer’s house in the middle of nowhere) where we stayed for the night.
The farmers are completely self sufficient off the land; owning cows, sheep, turkeys, chickens, dogs, and mules. They make their own cheese and cook everything on a wood burning makeshift stove from which they fed us more food than I could ever eat. The house is very rustic with very little running water, no electricity, and have 2 spare rooms for hikers to spend the night. The best part is the farmhouse is nestled on a clear ridge, with fantastic views. The remoteness and calmness of the place and pure exhaustion made us all retreat to our beds at about 7:30 p.m.
Do you ever have those mornings where you wake up and instantly you think “Noooooo” in the whiniest voice possible? My immediate thoughts of negativity stemmed from realizing where I was and the headache that was pounding my brain. Altitude headache, just what I needed to complete 13 miles. The guides were very sympathetic to my situation and offered me medicine, coca leaves, and lots of water. It didn’t help but I decided to go on anyways – I couldn’t miss the day we visit the extinct volcano Paramillo de Quindio! The highlight of the entire trek!
Right away we start going up and my headache will not relent which is causing the exhaustion in my body to set in even further. We continue walking sideways across the mountain side, my weak ankles wanting to just give out, and wind whipping at my face and then our guides stop us. YES a break. No, SYKE! We have to slide down the side of this steep mountain on our butts grabbing onto weeds for dear life. Dan says he looked back at me during this point and just saw pure misery in my face and he was right. All of those negative thoughts started to enter my mind – “I’m so tired”, “this seriously sucks”, “my ankles hurt”, “if I take one wrong move I’m going to fall off this stupid mountain and will never have to trek again”. I really wanted to give up. It was too hard and I was not enjoying myself.
When I finally reached the bottom after a good 20 minutes of pessimistic thoughts I finally got a chance to take a look around me and see how beautiful it was. There was a slow fog rolling in over these green and brown mountains and a bright green swamp ahead of us. Despite my headache, my mind had immediately told me I couldn’t do this, I hated it, why did I pay money to be miserable? I was surrounded by so much beauty so why couldn’t my mind have told me “Keep going”, “You got this!”, “You’re strong!” I was talking myself into despair. I was my own enemy, not the mountain. Right then and there after this realization, I changed my attitude and outlook immediately. My altitude headache was still persisting but I decided to play in my head the song “My Body” by Young the Giant. My best friend Megan says this song helps her run faster, harder so I just repeated over and over in my head “My body tells me no but I won’t quit cause I want more”.
I pressed on towards the green sulfur swamp with the volcano in the background which was breathtaking. In the swamp we had to hop over the water onto these green mounds of earth to avoid getting wet and muddy. Multiple times I misstepped and my entire foot went into the mud and I just didn’t care anymore. I was actually finding it fun to be jumping from mound to mound – almost like when you were a kid trying to avoid the hot lava and hopping across parts of furniture. When we finally reached the ascent of the volcano Dan and I both decided to hang back and nurse our altitude headaches. I’m actually so glad we did this because we just got to sit and bask in the views around the volcano, chat in detail with one of our guides, and enjoy each other’s company for the first time since the trek began.
With my mind set in the right place, the hike back to the farmhouse went by very quickly and I had more energy after taking a rest. My headache even felt better which I personally think is ironic due to its coincidence with my mood change. Dan and I both enjoyed dinner and were good spirits that night before we went to bed.
The universe decided it really wanted to test me. I thought and said out loud multiple times throughout the first two days “At least it’s not raining”. Of course on the very last day we woke up to rain and we had to walk down most of the day. Trying to continue my positive attitude from the day before I thought “Good thing at least it’s raining on the final day instead of the other days when my stuff maybe wouldn’t dry as quickly”. This good attitude lasted for about a solid 10 minutes into the trek.
My rain jacket straight up sucks. It really only deters drizzle and this rain was coming down hard and sideways. I stopped avoiding the mud and the puddles at all because what was the use? I was soaked and dirty anyways. My mind went back to that bad place of just hating what we were doing and wishing I could fast forward the final 12 miles. After about an hour of a bad attitude, the line from Forest Gump popped into my head, “One day it started raining, and it didn’t quit for four months. We been through every kind of rain there is. Little bitty stingin’ rain… and big ol’ fat rain. Rain that flew in sideways. And sometimes rain even seemed to come straight up from underneath. Shoot, it even rained at night…” And I laughed unexpectedly. Suddenly my situation became kind of funny. I again thought about the fact that the majority of making it through this was mental and I had to change my attitude if I was going to make it out alive! Once I had accepted the situation and turned it into something hilarious, I just focused on my steps and trying to enjoy what we had left.
We stopped at another campesino’s refugio (Finca La Argentina) for a warm lunch, sat by the fire, and even got a glass of wine. Interestingly enough AGAIN after I changed my attitude, the rain stopped (just like the day before when my headache subsided). We powered down the mountain knees and toes on fire but Dan and I actually were talking, making jokes, and probably annoying the others around us. We finally made it down the mountain and were treated to delicious pasta and craft beers as our reward.
Now that this trek is in my back pocket, I can say I’m so glad I did it. Besides loving the pure beauty of the Colombian Andes, it was such a physical challenge that I unwillingly accepted at first but the mental challenge is where I learned so much during and after. I have to stop letting my mind be my own worse enemy and letting it slowly suck the happiness and enjoyment out of things. I can talk myself out of anything but more importantly, I can also talk myself INTO anything.