Standing at an altitude of 5,300 m (approx 17,400 ft), the Volcano Nevado del Ruiz is truly a magnificent sight. Covered in snow and glaciers, this volcano – the highest in Colombia – can be climbed in a day, up to an altitude of 5,125 m.
We booked a tour to hike Nevado from our hostel in nearby Manizales, departing at 6:30am and including breakfast, park entrance, guide, lunch and a trip afterwards to soak in some hot springs. The only other people in our group were a couple from Costa Rica, Any & Victor. They were very sweet and a lot of fun.
The day started off nice – a good hearty breakfast, some delicious aguapanela (hot cinnamon tea) and also some coca tea, which we had heard helps your body adjust to the high altitude. The night before, I had also taken some altitude medication (Diamox) we had brought from the States, but I feared I hadn’t taken it early enough ahead of time. On the very windy ride up to the main entrance to the national park, our guide stopped a few times and had the windows open to help us acclimatize to the altitude. But, in this instance, it would have almost been better for us to climb up instead, since a slower ascent would have given our bodies more time to adjust to the altitude.
Manizales itself sits around 2,150m (7,050ft), which is high enough to cause problems with altitude. The problem was, we were climbing (by car and on foot) an additional 2,900m in the span of just a few hours! On the ride up, I got a terrible headache and knew this was not a good sign. It only got worse despite more coca tea and altitude medication. We saw some neat rock formations, towers of rocks that appeared quite ominous in the foggy mist. Our guide kept telling me to take off my hat and scarf to ease the pressure, but I was cold! Erik & I were layered up wearing literally every piece of clothing we are carrying for this trek.
Once we got to the climb on foot, I was feeling pretty terrible. We were advised to ascend slowly, breathe deeply and slowly, and stop to bend and lunge over one knee to help us breathe. This wound up being a regular occurrence with me about every 10m (32ft) or so. It did help, but my headache was getting worse. I don’t know how people with migraines survive.
The trail was marked with signs indicating every 50 meters, which made for nice photo-ops, as well as another chance for me to catch my breath. Victor and I were feeling the worst and he was really sweet trying to comfort me and pat me on the back. There were a few very painful moments when I thought of turning back, but I was determined.
We made it to the top! Well, as high as they let you climb, anyway (the summit stands at a towering 5,300m). We were standing at an altitude of 5,125m or 16,814ft!!! Insanely high. And there was snow at the top! Somehow, Erik convinced me to narrate a video in my horrible state. You can hear the shortness of my breath and how my mouth failed to work properly.
We finished the day with a soak in the local hotsprings. This felt fantastic after the long hard climb we had just endured.
The next day, a girl staying in our hostel wasn’t able to climb Nevado del Ruiz since it had snowed the night before and the roads and trails were supposedly too dangerous for an ascent. And she didn’t even get a refund! I guess we were lucky, even though my headache from the high altitude lasted a couple of days!