Mountaineering is more than just a hobby for me; it is a way of life that directed me on a path that has not only led me around the world but to the top of untold beautiful mountains. Those mountains could be 1,400 metres in height such as some of those on Vancouver Island where I now live while others have been up to almost 7,000 metres. I have scaled technical routes such as on Mount Waddington in British Columbia and Alpamayo in Peru but many of the mountains have been non-technical. But being non-technical doesn't make them any less beautiful, to me it is all about being in the mountains and how it makes me feel.
Located in the south-western part of Colombia, facing the Pacific Ocean to the west in the Department of Cauca, is Puracé National Park. Most of the park is over 3,000 meters high and two of the highest peaks are Volcán Puracé and the Pan de Azúcar, both well over 4,500m. These two mountains are non-technical peaks and are easy hikes. The park also contains the sources of four of Colombia's greatest rivers: the Magdalena, Cauca, Caqueta and Patia. Geoff Mahan and I had just spent the last month climbing in Ecuador and were beginning to make our way north. Puracé National Park piqued our interest and a quick hike up Volcán Puracé would be a nice introduction to the mountains of Colombia before we got to Ibaque where we hoped to climb some of the higher mountains.
After crossing the border from Tumbes in Ecuador into Ipiales on the Colombian side, we caught a bus to the town of Pasto two hours to the north where we spent the night. Before we left the bus station to find a hotel, we booked seats on the bus to Popayán for 7 a.m. the next morning. Popayán is the capital city in the Department of Cauca and is known as the "white city" because of its beautiful colonial houses. Located at an altitude of 1,737 metres, the city is well-known for its colonial architecture and its contributions to Colombian cultural and political life. More presidents have come from Popayán than any other city in Colombia and it was also home to noted poets, painters, and composers.
The next morning (August 29, 1988) we were at the bus station early and found ourselves haggling with the driver over our large packs. He was trying to charge us extra but we stood our ground. The crowd that had gathered around us were obviously on our side and soon the driver gave up and put our packs on the bus, however, he decided to make us wait and we didn't leave until 7:30. So be it! We arrived in Popayán at 1:20 p.m. after traveling through some spectacular countryside: lush, tropical forests and steep sided canyons. In Popayán we visited the Tourist Office to ask about climbing Volcán Puracé and then changed some money at the local bank. There were only two buses a day heading to the town of Puracé: one in the morning and the other leaving at 5 p.m. so we had a couple of hours to wait. The bus ended up taking us a little further then Puracé so we only had to walk about two kilometres to the Rangers Station at Pilimbalá. By now it was dark and the rain was falling! We found a high spot to pitch the tent and then cooked dinner under the veranda of the station. Sometime in the early hours of the morning the rain stopped and the skies cleared. There was no need for an alpine start so we didn't rush in the morning.
After cooking breakfast we chatted with the Ranger for a few minutes and he let us leave our packs in his office. The trail began behind the Rangers Station and we climbed for an hour and three quarters to some radio buildings higher on the mountain. Somewhere to the west of us were the sulfur mines where those with vehicles are able to drive. From here it was only another three quarters of an hour to the rim of the crater. Unfortunately the clouds started coming in and we only got brief glimpses of the view. Below us the smell of sulfur wafted up filling our nostrils with the acrid aroma while all around us fumeroles were belching out steam and smoke. I decided to drop down into the crater and then go up the other side to the summit while Geoff chose to just go around the rim as he wasn't feeling that well. With limited visibility there was no point in staying on the summit any longer so we began the descent back to the Rangers Station. Once there we boiled up a brew then walked back down to the road to catch a bus back to Puracé. Again the bus that was due through at 6 p.m. was late and didn't show up until 7:30 but on a positive note, at least we didn't have to walk all the way.
At 4,646m, Volcán Puracé can be covered with a thick coating of snow or completed devoid and just a big scree slope. The weather can be just as fickle but usually the best time to be on the summit to get views is early in the morning when the skies tend to be clear. Although scientists are continually monitoring the mountain for volcanic activity, earthquakes are common occurances but there appears to be no immediate concern of the mountain erupting which it has done in the past. For now it is a great mountain to hike and to experience the descent into its crater, however, there is always that morbid feeling that at any moment you could be blown towards the heavens if the mountain so chooses.