Looking back, doubting yourself or losing focus is an option, only if you have time to spare. But to reach Pico Duarte’s top, to look down at the clouds while breathing victory long enough, and still make it back down safe and sound in an express style, you simply can’t hesitate or waste time. Your heart, legs and mind have to be ready, synchronized, positive and fit to take the pain that will bring you glory.
The crazy ones who came up with the idea of actually making this trip in one day, hiking, rather than three days as a normal person would and with the help of mules, call it “Pico Express.” The adventure is more of an extreme challenge that only a few dare to attempt. And even fewer are chosen to be welcome into this group of elite athletes that have made it a training habit and lead the way. It is a privilege to climb behind them and it is a huge accomplishment to make it out alive and triumphant. And on December 28, 2015, I did it, and it made me feel unbreakable.
I actually mirrored this experience to life in general. There is no real time to waste if you want to reach the top of anything. First and foremost, you have to be sure, you want it. You have to be determined and most importantly positive if you really want to get there.
The road is tough, circumstances may not always be perfect, there will be pain, lots of it. It is a long climb that will test your physical and mental strength, judgement and will for hours and hours, and hours non-stop.
Not many go there that way. I actually believe that only those who are either full of courage, full of themselves, or a bit crazy, try. Here I will tell you my experience. I hope you enjoy it. And, no I am not courageous, I think it is crazy that applies to me.
Pico Duarte is the highest peak in Dominican Republic and all the Caribbean. Its elevation is 10,164 feet or approximately 3,098 meters. There are three routes to take you there: One that starts in Jarabacoa, another one that starts in El Pedregal and another one that starts in La Presa de Sabaneta. The shortest route is the one that starts in Jarabacoa or Manabao. So we took that one. The group of us doing the attempt are all hard-working people, athletes with tons of family, sport events and business commitments. Taking three days to do the trip doesn’t come easy. So, we chose the express way (some do it to train for harder goals).
Keep in mind this is a climb that takes three days and it is usually done with the aid of mules to carry language and food. Our goal was to go up and down in 12 hours or less, carrying only what we could on our shoulders. There was planning for this, thanks to the amazing woman that led the way (Thais). But in my case, it was actually all improvised in two days.
I had always wanted to visit Pico Duarte. I had been a resident in Dominican Republic for 6 years and not once, had I visited Pico Duarte. By coincidence some time in November, a friend of mine posted pictures of his experience hiking Pico Duarte in an “express” trip. I asked him about it. He recommended the trip immediately and he said there would be a chance before the end of the year. So I committed. I thought it would be perfect way to end 2015.
What I forgot to consider was that this friend loves extreme adventures. He craves that sort of entertainment. I didn’t think much of it. The excitement of going that hight up before the end of 2015 clouded my reason. I was determined and I immediately contacted Thais.
On December 26, Thais created a Whatsapp group to organize the trip. The welcome message read: “If you are in this chat, that shows that your are missing a screw and you are about to do a three day trip in just a few hours… Welcome! oh… It has been raining non-stop in the area for a few days, I will give you the plan.”
The next hours were followed by messages about how we would meet, how some were eager to find difficult conditions, how the 46 Km hike had to have cutting time points, for safety reasons… how we should be carrying first aid kits, maps, emergency supplies, food and water, appropriate clothing for how cold it gets up there, electrolytes, and how if rain continued, we just might have to walk another 10 kilometers more, but “no biggie.” They talked of 10 kilometers as if they were talking about drinking glasses of water. I started sweating.
On December 27, nerves were setting in. By then, I had seen the route maps, with elevations and distances, I had time to digest what I had just gotten myself into. I had packed and over packed. I am famous for getting lost when I run trails. I get too distracted looking at the butterflies or the flowers. So I wanted to be prepared.
On December 28, I left my house at 3:00 am. I had a three hour drive ahead to find the group in Jarabacoa. The drive was awesome. No traffic and my music playing loud kept me awake.
When we reached the national park in Manabao to start our climb, it was pretty cold and it was still raining. I was surprised to see everyone started stripping and took their jackets off. I refused. I had the biggest backpack and I didn’t want to take anything out of it either.
I had the huge poncho that I got at the end of the NYC Marathon buried in my bag first. It is a huge poncho, warm and with water-proof cover, cushion filling and heavy. I had two sweatshirts, two huge containers of liquid (one with water, another one with tea). I had the first aid kit, bandages, electrolytes, power bars, protein bars, energy bars, a huge quinoa/cheek pea salad, phone, plastic bags, change of clothes, dry running shoes, sunblock, lipstick, fruits, nuts, flash-light, batteries for the flash-light, etc,. etc., etc. My bag was at least 25 lb.. heavy.
Before kilometer one, I was hot already. I stopped, took the windbreaker off, squeezed it inside my bag and kept going. There was lots of mud and it was still drizzling. Running was difficult. It became more like a slow jog uphill with obstacles to cross, while carrying heavy weight.
I soon realized how necessary was a camel bag too. Every time I wanted to drink water I had to: stop, take my back pack off, open it, take the water container out, open it, drink, close it, put it back in the bag, close the bag, mount the bag on my back, then continue… It happened lots of times.
The mud and climb got worse, it was super slippery, lonely… they all left me. I was the slowest of the group. Occasionally I met one or two hikers coming back from the peak. They looked tired, but accomplished. We would greet and cheer one another, then kept on going.
The clock kept on ticking. But I did make the cut-off times each time and though I felt like stopping or turning around several times, because it does hurt. I did not. I remained positive and determined. I knew that if I turned around I would regret it. Besides, it was only 22-23 kilometers one way.
But every time a downhill came, I wanted to scream. Even though I could go faster, because it was a downhill, I started getting angry at the fact that I had to go down, in order to get to the top. Just like life sometimes. I started making bridges in my mind. I wanted a shortcut. I wanted it to be easier. And while I wrestled with my mind and my reasons, I kept on climbing. Legs, shoulders, hips and feet hurting.
When I finally reached “El Valle de Lilis.” I was feeling triumphant. 1.2 kilometers to go. The fastest in the group had already passed me by minutes ago, he was heading back and in a mission… He was there testing his abilities and time. Hikers who I found hours before, had referred to him as “the guy who probably left beans cooking up there.” The next one, was descending with caution, injured, but determined to make it back to safety. He told me the rest of the group were either on the top enjoying the view or not far from me.
That last kilometer was the longest kilometer I had ever walked. My bag felt heavier and if I had not had the will, I could have simply quit. Everything hurt. I was hungry, and when I get hungry I get bad moods. But if I stopped, I wouldn’t have made it.
When I reached the top, I don’t know what came on me, but tears started rolling. I didn’t feel emotional, they just came out. I don’t know if it was a physical phenomenon, or a chemistry situation. But at no moment in time, did I feel like crying. Tears simply came out. I was happy, excited, proud of myself, the pain faded and the clouds looked amazing. I looked down and I took a deep breath. That is what victory feels like, indescribable.
Unfortunately, because I was the slowest and time didn’t allow for me to stay there to contemplate longer, we had to head back down almost as I arrived.
The group was nice enough to wait for me and take a picture or two of my accomplishment. But if we didn’t leave, we could run into trouble returning. We only had a few hours left with light.
I couldn’t even have lunch. But the high of making it there erased any bad moods.
The return was painful. So painful. One of the most painful experiences I have lived. It was intense. I felt as if my knees could break at any moment. I tried keeping up with the rest of the group. This time, darkness was approaching quickly and I admit, I was a bit scared.
From time to time, Thais tried to keep me clam with nice conversation, but no matter what she said, the pain kept on getting stronger and sharper. I started drinking painkillers. I had to stay with them. And they were running. I had made it up to the peak mostly walking. But they were definitely going faster than the pace I had set. Hours later, we tried to stick together. Darkness came at around 6:00 pm.
We turned our flash-lights on (mine being the brightest) and we all stayed closed. We slowed down. Muddy conditions plus darkness don’t allow for jogging really.
At 8:00 pm, we were back at the base of the park. We had completed the challenge just under the expected 12 hours. I felt like my hips and knees were done. But my spirit was lifted in a way that only those who ever set and accomplish what seems to be an impossible goal can describe how.
After that trip, I have come to love and appreciate myself even more. My legs, my lungs, my hips, my knees. They are precious. I probably turned into the type of runner who is totally and completely full of the self. Not because I think I am better than others. In fact, I was the slowest in this challenge. But because I know I can go till the end.
I know now, that in order to reach the top of anything, you must really want it. If you do, there will be nothing to stop you from reaching it. If you really want it, no matter how many downhills you have to cross, you will eventually reach the top.
So there, before you start a climb, make sure you are on the right climb. Make sure you really want to make it to the top. Define the challenge, stick to the plan and stay positive, no matter how hard it gets. It is possible!