Sep 16

Rock Gods and Hail Marys – Climbing in Colombia

A woman with long black hair rides a horse along the train tracks which run parallel to the handsome sandstone cliffs. The smell of fire, wet grass and dirt fills the air as hundreds of people gather for the long weekend to escape the city of Bogotá and get lost in time on the cliff face.

The Cliffs of Suesca
The Cliffs of Suesca

We walk through the climbing town of Suesca for our day trip out of Bogotá and are towered by its impressive cliffs which snake through the landscape for more than 4km into the distance. Already 2,600 metres above sea level at the bottom of the range, the striking rock elevations tower a further 125 metres and are dotted by overhangs, crags and bridging areas to tempt the serious climbers, while less intimidating rock faces are perfect for those still finding their climbing feet.

Train tracks running through Suesca
Train tracks running through Suesca

A trip to Suesca is approximately an hour from Bogotá, just 45km north, and is home to Marcelo Arbelaez, one of the first of a team of Colombians to climb Mount Everest, proof that this is the place to go if you want to climb in Colombia. It is also said to be the birthplace of rock climbing in the country and attracts sport and hobby climbers alike with its 400 routes, ranging from 5.1 to 5.14 difficulty.

But I wasn’t in Suesca just to climb, I was here with Adventure Campers Yambaló Aventura who was setting up and testing a series of climbing routes for a group of kids who would be arriving the following week for an overnight campout as part of a four-week summer camp. With instructors brought in from England, Scotland and Australia as well as Colombia, the camp was designed to empower, inspire and cultivate ideas in Colombia’s youth.

Making our way to the cliff face
Making our way to the cliff face

On day one, when the 30-something children were dropped off at the camp, with their Generation Y attention spans, mp3 players and iPads firmly glued to their faces, it seemed a big ask to get them to play outside, much less spend two days camping and climbing, and all without bribing them with the promise of snacks and the return of their computers. I wasn’t sure it would happen, but brother and sister team and owner of the camp, Juan Pablo and Karina Guerrero assured me it would. And with more than 15 years’ experience in adventure-based learning, compared to my meagre 15 minutes, I guessed they knew what they were talking about.

Climbing up Suesca's cliff face
Climbing up Suesca’s cliff face

After climbing one of the routes we were preparing, I realised there was something more to these cliffs. Regardless of ability, climbers tend to have some sort of connection with the rock they’re faced with – a need to feel connected to the ground is usually the case for me, but at Suesca there is something more going on. The fact that this place was the ritual site for the ancient Muiscas peoples might have something to do with it. They lived here between 5500 and 1000BC and performed human sacrifices to their Gods at the spot where the statue of the Virgin Mary now stands, the very spot we happened to be setting up our abseiling rig for the kids. Coincidence? I’m not so sure.

Abseiling in Suesca
Abseiling in Suesca

People often say kids have no fear, that they climb trees and ride bikes down hills and play without thinking about consequences. But on the bright Thursday afternoon the children arrived at Suesca it was clear we had an interesting mix, some timid, some outgoing, but in the end they all surprised us and probably themselves too.

“I can’t do it,” says one of the girls, only six.

“I don´t want to do it,” she says.

Those who were timid climbed to the top of the tallest climbing routes and asked to do it again and those who were loud and outgoing were afraid to climb up and petrified to come back down.

Those who liked being in control had to learn to trust others, be vulnerable and face their fears in front of the whole group. The smallest girl was the bravest of the bunch while the loudest and most confident of the pack needed the support of everyone to develop the courage to look down and abseil back to solid ground.

Making it to the top of the climb
Making it to the top of the climb

Sure enough, the children who came for a trip to Suesca with fear and quiet restrain left the camp having climbed to the top of cliffs, and every single one made it to the top, peered over mountains, abseiled down rock faces and developed a new sense of confidence that just can’t be gained from a looking at a computer screen.

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