Climbers are always looking for lines that push possibilities and take their abilities to a next realm. They push the limits of their mental and physical endurance while toeing the fine line between mastery of the unknown and reckless risk.
In January, professional climber Ben Spannuth, adventure writer Chris Van Leuven and climbing photographer Rich Crowder decided to throw the stresses of travel through the volatile Colombian interior into the mix. Their trip took them to remote crags largely unseen by gringo climbers. It tested their limits as they overcame the hurdles of navigating a country known for violence, poverty and drug trafficking — as well as a spectacular rugged landscape.
“I think most people who have fallen in love with rock climbing are keen for a little adventure,” Crowder says. “That’s all we wanted.”
Van Leuven had visited the country about seven years prior. With political change rippling through the nation, he says he felt eager to return. Crowder had intended to film a big wall ascent in the Colombian alpine area a year before, he says, but plans fell through. Van Leuven renewed his stoke, convincing him it’d be a great place to document and craft a climbing story. Crowder invited Spannuth, who had heard of Colombia’s potential from friends, along. He saw an opportunity for first ascents and a chance to push his skillset.
The entire trio met only once before finally departing on the trip, Van Leuven says. But they were united by their drive to explore Colombia’s emerging climbing scene, newly accessible to gringos after a quell in narcotics-related violence.
“It’s only been in the last few years that the area has really opened up,” Van Leuven says.
While the drug cartels remain, violence in Colombia has started to wane, largely due to support from the United States and increased governmental capacity to crack down on trafficking. According to a U.S. Department of State International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, the Colombian government amped up its efforts to secure rural areas where drugs and violence converged in 2009. As the guerrillas are pushed out, towns in the interior have drawn intrepid travelers in, lured by a thirst for adventure and a desire to explore areas still unknown.
For Spannuth, Van Leuven and Crowder, 2013 was the year the town of Florian calmed and the La Ventana cave beckoned.
“I enjoy dispelling myths about danger, so I figured this would be a good opportunity to show it was a safe country,” Crowder says.
Ultimately, the climbers learned to maintain their calm after being through a gamut of Colombian travel snafus. According to Van Leuven, on his first trip through Colombia, he traveled light and alone. This time around, the trip involved a significant amount of baggage — cameras, tripods, power drills, hammers, bolts and multiple ropes. Just getting out of the airport was exhausting.
“We would do bus transfers all day long,” Van Leuven says. “It’s like catching a bus in Denver — if you walk onto a bus in Denver with five over-sized bags, they’re going to say ‘No way.’ We had to learn to just wing it.”
After a cirque through the country’s more popular and reachable sport crags at Suesca and Mesa de los Santos, the three hopped a van taking passengers to Florian — home of a newer and wilder Colombian climbing mecca of La Ventana cave — and a few small towns along the way.
The road was long and rocky. One of those rocks popped a tire. The driver jimmy-rigged a jack that Crowder said was not exactly made for a big van.
“The jack came loose and probably would have killed the guy if he didn’t happen to get out from under right before,” Crowder says. “It was a pretty impressive display of tire-changing ingenuity.”
It served as a testament to the changes sweeping Colombia over the last decade. Only a few years ago, the road was accessible only by donkey, tractor or possibly motorcycle. And it once ran through the heart of drug country.
“At the time, things feel a little out there — that’s sort of the fun thing about trips like this, your perception versus the reality of things,” Van Leuven says.
After a few more hours of bumpy riding, the climbers reached Florian, nestled below a looming 2,000-foot limestone cliff. Spannuth noticed three waterfalls pouring from the cliff from three separate caves. The largest, highest and most spectacular among those caves was La Ventana.
“It’s more a tunnel than a cave,” Van Leuven says. “You look through this tunnel into never-ending jungle.”
Crowder featured the cave in his video documentary Forbidden Fruit: First Ascents in Colombia. The limestone cave drips with stalactites — one of the most arduous rock features in climbing.
By nature, stalactites are often monstrously overhung. They’re juggy but delicate, sometimes snapping on a whim or when pulled with too much force.
“It’s really quite challenging to climb on,” Van Leuven says, who has extensive experience both on Yosemite’s pumpy boulders and its heady big walls.
The unfamiliar features fueled Spannuth’s drive. He spent the first day bolting a line connecting stalactite to stalactite, moving from the ground up, stopping only when the features became too fragile at the cave’s apex. After working the crux, Spannuth established a new 5.13 line, calling it “Macho Man.” The ascent is featured in Crowder’s film.
High on success and ready for more, Spannuth looked for more lines and greater challenge. He turned his attention to the smaller cave just below La Ventana. Crowder was able to zoom in on a photograph he took of the unnamed hollow, which looked chock-full of stalactites and climbing potential.
“It was the exploration bug in all of us,” Crowder says. “We just looked for the coolest place that would keep us psyched.”
The climbers asked local villagers about the unnamed cave. The area surrounding it had never been explored, they said, apart from a few rappellers who had ascended the waterfall linking the cave with La Ventana above. They were recovering the body of a young boy who had fallen to his death.
“Only a very strong climber would consider going there, and only for the sole purpose of climbing,” Van Leuven says.
Photo courtesy of Chris Van Leuven
For his part, Van Leuven stayed behind to do laundry, write and mingle with locals. But Spannuth and Crowder decided to push on.
It took four rappels and some intense jungle-whacking, but Crowder and Spannuth made it to the lower cave. They were in awe of the blobby stalactites, views of a long valley and deep jungle, the waterfall rushing to the left, birds whirling in the breeze above.
But the bliss was soon interrupted, at least for Crowder. One of the ropes they’d used for the tumultuous ascent was missing, leaving them stranded.
“I figured out our rope was pulled way before Ben did, so I had plenty of time to have an internal freak-out,” Crowder says.
As darkness set in and the two didn’t return, Van Leuven also began to worry.
“When they didn’t come back that night we went out to rescue them,” he says. “‘We’ — as in basically half the town.”
After some bushwhacking and shouting over the roar of the waterfall, Van Leuven was able to throw a rope to their rescue. Spannuth, for his part, was able to send a new 5.13 line. He dubbed it “Gringos Verados” — or “Stranded White Guys” — as a tribute to their misadventure.
Despite the snafus, the three travelers made it home relatively unscathed. They returned with their load of equipment and a new appreciation for Colombia’s rock — finicky and challenging, set among friendly people and a rich culture, with plenty of lines left untamed.
“It was a wild trip,” Crowder says. “Adventure at its finest!”
At 7 p.m. on Thursday, July 18, Chris Van Leuven will share highlights of the trip at Neptune Mountaineering. He’ll discuss the details of “Stranded White Guys,” the joys of stalactite climbing and the finer points of Colombian travel.
More information is available at www.neptunemountaineering.com/events/.
Editor’s note: Boulder Weekly does not endorse climbing on cave features.
Advice on Colombian travel
“Go to Suesca, hang out with the local climbing scene. Just go with the flow from there. It would be hard to pre-plan a trip. There aren’t online hostel booking or bus tickets to be purchased in advance via the Internet.”
— Rich Crowder
“Go for it! It’s far safer than I was told, has been in the past, and probably the Forbidden Fruit video makes it out to be. Everyone we met was openly friendly and anxious to show off their country.”
— Ben Spannuth
“There are so many different things to see — beautiful beaches, jagged Andes, culture, great people … [but] you wouldn’t want to go to nightclubs in Bogota and take a random taxi home.”
— Chris Van Leuven