Sunday, January 15, 2012

Honduras Cloud Forest Wilderness Adventure

At 4:30 in the afternoon it is already becoming dark. By some small miracle we have found a flat spot next to a high mountain creek in a deep furrow in the middle of an immense jungle-like cloud forest. We are exhausted, sore, wet, and lost. I am usually the one who prepares the supper, but instead of jumping to it, I quietly direct Hernan from a perch on a mossy wet log. My stomach hurts a little and our situation is sitting heavily on my shoulders. I am the architect of this little excursion and I am in the middle of a crisis of faith in my own decisions up to this point.

The Cloud Forest
There are four of us here in this makeshift camp. Melvin is our guide and trail blazer. He lives in the mountain community of El Horno and he is able to open a trail using his machete and carrying a heavy backpack about as fast as the rest of us can walk. Melvin has grown up near the mountain, but he has never been to this part of the Park. Hernan hikes behind Melvin. Hernan is a longtime friend from Comayagua who has gone on every one of our adventures into the cloud forest that is the Comayagua Mountain National Park. Hernan is careful and takes his time to find secure footholds and firmly held roots for handholds. I hike third, so Melvin and Hernan can pick a trail and Hernan can lend a hand if needed. Adalid, the president of the coffee co-op, hikes last, mostly out of the belief that if there are poisonous snakes the safest spot is last, but more than once I appreciate having him behind me so if I slip, he can steady me.

Melvin with a cross section of a tree fern




We are all subdued as the water boils over Hernan’s camp stove for our spaghetti supper. We have put up the tents and changed into our driest clothes. It is cold and in the gathering darkness I shiver and wish for my wool stocking cap. At least tonight we have water. The first night we camped high on the ridge and had to conserve water. But that night we were at the beginning of a splendid camping trip and the lack of water was a minor inconvenience. Tonight is serious.
The first day, as we enter the old growth forest.

Purple Orchid found throughout the cloud forest.


Our day had started out well. Earlier today we hiked the ridge for 2 hours until we decided to descend to find water. After skirting the mountain for half an hour and not finding water we climbed back up to the ridge to try the other side and located water easily. That was our first taste of hiking off of the ridge and I had hoped it would be our last. When we are on the ridge, there is usually a steep drop on either side, but the ridge itself is relatively secure and walk-able. We can make good progress, although the occasional fallen tree or dense vegetation can slow us down. Off the ridge, the mountain sides are another thing altogether. At least half the time when skirting the mountain side I have to be very careful to secure myself by choosing a strong tree root or rock to hold onto and a solid place for my foot. The going is slow because a false step could mean a precipitous fall. The heavy backpack doesn’t help either.

Walking on the ridge can be quite pleasant.
There is a dense undergrowth of a sort of bamboo-like grass in some areas.
Every tree in the cloud forest is covered with moss, vines, and other vegetation.
After getting the water and getting back to the ridge our spirits were high. We had passed the test of the mountain sides and now had water and an easy climb on the ridge ahead of us. The sun came out. The ridge took us higher and higher. I am usually not afraid of heights in the cloud forest because there are trees all around and I feel closed-in enough to fool my natural preoccupation. But as we climbed higher and the wind started to blow, the vegetation thinned and the sun came out, and I was able to see how high we really were. We were now looking down on the rest of the mountains and in the far distance below we could barely the discern houses and coffee farms of the high valleys. I trembled a little and actually crawled for a little while, but I took some deep breaths and steadied myself. That helped, and I continued the climb.

Soon we stopped. There was a problem ahead. Melvin had taken off his backpack and was scouting ahead. He instructed us to take off our backpacks and come look. There were two things to see. First there was a massive wall of rock in front of us. There was no way we could continue on the ridge. The second was that from the base of the wall we had a fantastic view of the valley below. Adalid knew the coffee farming villages well and he pointed out the houses of farmers that he knew in the far distance. Between us and those villages a series of ridges and valleys seemed to stretch to forever, carpeted with dark green cloud forest vegetation. It was a thrill to really be in the center of an immense wilderness. After almost 20 years of coming to the Comayagua Mountain, I realized then that I had only ever been on the edge of the Park until now.

The view from the high point. Note the sheer wall of rock on the right. On top of the world.
After taking photos from the high point, we had a long discussion about what to do. We could try to skirt the rock face and look for a way to continue on the ridge. But the geology had changed and instead of the deep spongy soil of the lower reaches, this high point had slippery bedrock and fewer small trees to hold onto. Further, we didn’t know if we could even regain the ridge or if more sheer rock faces waited for us. So we decided to descend into the wilderness valley below and try our luck making a grand detour around the mountain top. I was in the minority against descending because the route I had chosen for our trip was to follow the ridges to return to civilization. But if Melvin said there was no way to climb the rock face, then who was I to disagree? Besides, I had seen this wilderness on maps and aerial photos for years and I was curious to see what it was like. This was noon.

Try walking sideways along the mountain. Not so easy.
For the next three hours we descended and skirted the mountain side as we went. Our goal was to find a far ridge that would climb back up on the other side of the mountain top. It was slow going on the steep sides. Sometimes we would come to the site of an old landslide with deep chasms in front of us and we would be forced to backtrack and either climb or dip to find a place to cross. Melvin was awesome. He was patient and careful and chose routes and guided us to footholds and handholds. He tested the ground as he went and slipped many times as holes would open up in the fragile soil. He would then pass the message back to be careful and turn around to continue hacking his way through the forest with his machete.

Hernan looks serious.
At some point we realized that we could not camp on the mountain side, and that our best chance to find a flat spot was to follow the course of a mountain creek. I wasn’t thrilled, because up until now my feet were still dry, even though the rest of me was covered in dirt and sweat. But I had to agree that we would never find a flat spot by skirting the mountain side. So at the next mountain creek, we turned and started downriver. Even though it was three o’clock, the deep creek bed was already darkening, and I wondered if the sunlight ever truly reached this far down. Going down river was a new challenge. The creek was no more than five feet across, but it seemed like an expertly constructed obstacle course. There were intermittent logs criss-crossing the creek that we had to climb over or slide under. The rocks were slippery with moss and they would sometimes give way when I put weight on them. The gravel of the creek floor was not firm, but instead would suck my foot in, like a sort of quicksand. After five minutes on the creek bed I had fallen twice and my feet were both soaked through. But I soon learned to navigate. I had to let go of my need to be dry in favor of taking concern for my safety. I would crawl over the slippery logs and step carefully on the dodgy rocks. After about an hour of this slow progress, we found a small flat spot next to the creek, big enough for two small tents, and we gave up the hike for the day. It was the only flat spot I had seen since we left the high ridge 4 hours ago.

Our campsite for Friday night. I hope never to see it again.

Now as I try to finish my spaghetti with little appetite, the reality is settling in. We have deliberately descended into this steep valley. I cannot imagine trying to hike out tomorrow by continuing in the creek bed, because there are surely waterfalls ahead and as the creek joins with others, it will become a raging river. The other option is to try to continue to skirt the mountain, and make careful progress until we find a good ridge to climb out. That option is disagreeable because of the ever present possibility of finding a steep spot where we can’t continue. Again. It is Friday. My original plan was to hike out on Saturday, and rest on Sunday because my airplane for Minnesota leaves on Monday. We had brought enough food along with us to camp Saturday night if necessary. Now, as I dump out my unfinished spaghetti, I start to wonder if we will make it out by Monday and if Delta would honor my ticket on another day if I have a good excuse, like being lost in the mountain.

After supper there is nothing for us to do except go to sleep. It is too wet to try to start a fire and we are all cold and exhausted anyway. By five o’clock we are in our tents and soon I am taking mental stock of my situation. I am currently safe and dry. I have three companions who I know I can count on. I know that if one of us were to get hurt in the middle of the wilderness, it would be very difficult to bring him to safety, but we have been through some very difficult spots today and with calm nerves we have persevered. Slow and steady wins the race. I am able to construct a shaky faith that I have not led us into a truly dangerous site. I trust my companions implicitly, especially Melvin. As we go to sleep, Adalid and Melvin trade stories of people they know who have been bitten by poisonous snakes or gotten lost or injured in the forest. I know this is their own way to cope with the situation, but wish I could turn off the sound on their conversation.

It rains all night, but I wake up refreshed and almost cheerful. My tent kept me dry and I actually slept for most of the night. At some point in the middle of the night I woke up and I realized that in the face of the reality of the situation I could not retreat in fear. I did not have that choice, because my companions needed me to keep it together. I also realized that I had been tested during the previous day and I had passed the test. I had done a gut-check found that I had it in me to face this uncertainty and that I could trust my friends and myself. Now, in the morning we are all laughing at the place we find ourselves. It really is funny, and we are joking about how this is a trip that only a crazy person would take. We are in the very center of the National Park and we are quite certain that we are the very first humans to be in this spot. It is exhilarating, and with fresh energy we don our wet clothes and put on our backpacks.
The last river before we climbed onto the ridge again.

At the camp before setting out on Saturday.

Our morning hike is similar to the mountain skirting hike of the previous afternoon, but by now we are experienced climbers and after a few sketchy places where we actually put the rope we brought to good use, we find a ridge that looks promising to climb out of the valley. By noon we are back on top of the world on the windy high ridge. We have completely circumscribed the rocky peak that had prevented our progress and now we make rapid progress along the relatively flat spine of the mountain. When we come to the end of our ridge, the sun has come out enough for us to see the Comayagua valley stretched out in front of us, our destination. It is like seeing a long-lost friend. 

Now all we have to do is climb down off the mountain into civilization. At first we scramble down the mountain side until we run into a place where the people have long ago cut down the primary forest. The re-growth is dense and virtually impenetrable. But we are all happy to see evidence of humans and we reason correctly that these humans must have some sort of access trails to these places. After about a half an hour of scouting we find the incredible gift of an existing trail. It is a small, overgrown track and we lose it a few times, but as the trail descends off the mountain it gets wider and more traveled until it brings us out onto a new ridge, covered with immense pine trees and carpeted with rusty pine needles. The wind in the pines is a beautiful sound. On either side we have incredible views of the valley below. It is a great comfort to know that we are on a real trail that leads down off the mountain. Soon we exit the pine forest into the overgrown old corn fields of a village called La Sampedrana. The fields are covered with an incredible variety of flowers, some growing 6 feet tall and enclosing the trail on either side. It is a magic spot and we stop frequently to marvel at the crystal clear views and spectacular flowers.

The pines above La Sampedrana.
Melvin, with Pino Real pine cones.

Soon we find ourselves on a road used by coffee farmers and we say hello to the coffee pickers and pull out our cell phones to call Hector to tell him where to come to pick us up. I get out the last of the Snickers bars form my backpack and we pause to reflect on our adventure. The mountain has measured us, has baptized us. Melvin, Adalid and Hernan are all able to note that God must have been watching over us and protecting us. Although I am not a religious person, I have to admit that I have hedged my bets and asked for protection from a higher power more than once during the hike. As we look out over the valley, I have a grateful certainty that we have been under protection of some sort. I do not know if I will ever go back into that deep wilderness, but I now know that I am capable of it.          

The coffee farms of La Sampedrana with the valley in the distance.

1 comment:

  1. Wow Andy, What an adventure. Great writing. Glad you made it out. Thanks!