Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Runner Up in the John Muir Trust Writing Competition

On Saturday I was delighted to collect a runners' up prize at the Fort William Mountain Festival for 'The Family Mountain' a piece I wrote about a climb up Pico Duarte in 2001.

The Family Mountain

First light cracks open a new world as we abandon the swelter of Santo Domingo for the Cordillera Central. The car windows seep cool mountain air onto our skin, reminding us of Scotland. Morag exchanges the salsa cassette for Capercaillie. Hugo snores on in the back of the car.
We pass wooden houses painted pink, purple, ultramarine blue -- vibrating against forest pitching upwards on either side of the road. The faces which smile and nod us past from the edges of the road, from rocking chairs, from the fields, are sharp-featured, more obviously akin to each other than the mixture of black and Latino at lower altitudes. These are the Dominican Republic’s mountain people.
We abandon the car at La Ciénega village (1100m) and meet our guide, Fé Canela, at the entrance to Bermudez and Ramirez National Park. Fé rides one mule whilst two others carry our luggage. One of these will also bear the negligible weight of Fé’s son, Stalin. We soon learn that family history is in the making – this is Stalin’s first ascent of Pico Duarte, the Caribbean’s highest summit, and it was his grandfather and Fé’s father, Juan Canela, who was the first Dominican to climb it.
Stalin dangles six-year-old legs over the basket panniers. He cracks the mule forward with the switch and a higher-pitched version of his father’s cry, ‘mulo!’. He’s formidable despite the lollipop stick angling from his mouth.
The trail follows the river through banana-leaf shade. We cast off our sleepiness, and chat as we skirt terraces of maize, and pass waving children. But we soon leave the song-filled, glossy-leafed valley to gasp up through occidental pine forest, decorated red with bromeliads. The trees part occasionally to expose us to the vertical bite of the sun and to increasingly impressive vistas.
We take an early lunch. The pumpernickel we found in a Santo Domingo supermarket goes down well with Fé, but not with Hugo. Stalin only wants the chocolate. The mules eat our mango skins.
It’s late February and I’ve arrived from Scotland winter-hill fit. Morag’s been sweating it out in a Santo Domingo gym. But Hugo’s been sitting in an office. He needs frequent stops, and progress is slow. Fé teases him onto a mule and things speed up. A little before the first summit at Aguita de Fria (2,600m) a new view cheers us on. The haze of the afternoon has fluffed up cloud to fill a valley below us. We’re soaring.
We reach the hut at La Compartición (2450m) just before the sun drops. Toasted marshmallows and Speyside whisky compete for our taste buds at a campfire; a full moon rises; we watch the red glow of a forest fire a few hills away.
At five the next morning we release the cords sealing warmth into our sleeping bags and stumble into boots for the final ascent. We set off by head torch and moonlight, silenced by sleepiness, climbing over pine trunks scattered like matchsticks by Hurricane George. Within the hour the moon drops over one of my shoulders as the sun awakes sudden colour over the other. Two hours through the forest brings us to a pinnacle of chaotic rocks topped with the Dominican Republic’s flag. Juan Pablo Duarte stares out high above the nation he founded, daring anyone within several thousand miles to be more elevated.
A short scramble and we join him, victorious above the trees in a crisp blue sky at 3089 metres. Stalin and Fé smile and embrace the ‘papi’ of the nation for photos.
Regaining La Aguita, we descend dust-slippery trails on a new route towards our day of rest. The litter trailed by a school party marks our way. Further markers are provided by Hugo as he casts curses from the mule’s back – ‘Diablo’, ‘Ay dios mio!’.
Finally we break out of the forest into a wide savannah which we follow to our campsite. This is Valle del Tetero. Eighty-five school children with ghetto blasters welcome us to the secluded spot. Spirits nose-dive. But the cool river laps at hot limbs, gushes into ears and nostrils, washes away two days’ dust. We pitch camp at a distance from the school group and stare up at forest-blanketed hills backlit by sun, white boulders, pines dressed in lacy swathes of lichen. Despite the drop to 1500 metres the night is cool and we’re in bed by half past eight, wearied by heat and dust and eight hours’ walking.
The school camp departs at first light, sun glinting off the rumps of the long line of mules as they’re whooped out of the valley. At nine I take my sleeping bag outside and enjoy the rapid creep of warmth. But it’s not long before the sun becomes masked by smoke hanging over our side of the valley.
Our day of rest is punctuated by the landing roar of a helicopter ferrying in men to fight the fire. They gather in the shade, gulping down plates of food and loading mules with sacks of rice, cases of ‘India Malt’ and bottled water. With short sleeves, baseball caps, and a digging tool of some kind, none of them look equipped for the cold nights here. They leave us before dark. That night by the campfire, we suck up the last drops of the Benavie. Our National Park host declares it the ‘papi’ of whiskies.
The cool morning makes noses and eyes stream. Hands fumble at buckles and clips. Setting off through bracken, pines, deciduous shrubs, we could almost be in Scotland. As we climb, the temperature mounts until we burst back into sunlight and the tropics, shedding fleeces. Men’s voices resonate up and down the trail and soon big groups approach and pass us, heading for the smoke-filled valley with fire-fighting gear. They stop to greet us, and measure with their eyes the muscles that carried us up Pico Duarte.
We rejoin our outward path at El Cruce (2100m) and then descend towards the village, back amongst big leaves, the smell of orange blossom. We wobble across the river on a bridge made of two poles to Fé’s house where we are greeted by his parents. Stalin, the youngest climber in the family, is congratulated by the veteran.
We sit in a house made of sky-blue planks. The gaps between them frame the blinking eyes of children who pause from running with dogs and piglets to watch us drink sweet black coffee that the family have grown and roasted here. We leave the old couple with kisses and retrace the river to the National Park office and La Ciénega. Today it’s getting acquainted with itself as a village without men.
Our car is black. It’s been sitting in the sun. The air conditioning is broken. We have to hose it down before we can consider getting in. Acceleration creates a breeze and a ribbon of dust marks our departure from the valley. ‘Macpherson’s Rant’ by Old Blind Dogs pulls roadside eyes away from avocado picking, school books, wash-tubs, as it beats out of our glassless windows.
But by the time we regain Santo Domingo, the salsa is playing again.


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