Crag Profile: Suesca, Colombia

DSC_9669

There are two iconic features which characterise Suesca – the first is the railway, and the second is the shining, white effigy of the Virgin Mary. Together, they encapsulate the experience of climbing at Colombia’s premier crag.

Set among lush, green farmland, the train tracks offer a flat and fast approach. You’ll soon find yourself below a moderately graded introductory climb, enticed and ensnared by the apparent ease. Next minute, you’ll be struggling for purchase on polished sandstone, inexplicably out of your depth and offering ineffectual prayers to the closest deity. The Madonna will remain silent.

Often considered the birthplace and the spiritual epicentre of Colombian rock climbing, the first route went up way back in 1938. As with many classic crags, the earliest outings were simple training runs for mountaineers, something to help break in a new pair of boots and fill in time between expeditions.

Since then, of course, rock climbing has become a sport in its own right. There have been several boomtimes, occasioned in part by new visitors with shiny new pieces of kit. The 1970’s featured a small renaissance with the importation of specialised trad equipment, and the addition of bolts in the late 80’s and 90’s opened the potential for many harder lines.

Suesca has been seen to be a crag in flux, always adapting to the style of the times. That said, it retains an old school flavour with stout grades, minimal route information, and a mix of natural and bolted protection. As far as ethics go, it seems to have been flexible enough for adaptability, and yet rigid enough to stay true to its roots.

After a preliminary glance at the guidebook, one could be forgiven for thinking Suesca to have an abundance of low to moderately graded routes. Reality is somewhat different. Not having succumbed to the reverse inflation of modern grading trends, the routes are quite often fiendishly difficult for the grade. Honestly, I think there were fewer sandbags to be found during Cyclone Yasi, and I’m pretty sure I pulled the hardest single move I’ve ever pulled whilst climbing trad on a 5.9 (17).

Part of the reason for this may be due to the rock, rather reminiscent of Arapiles-style quartzite. The uber hard Suescan sandstone can feel slick and glassy in many places. This, of course, is significantly more pronounced on the “easy” routes which naturally receive more traffic, the upshot of which is that some of the beginner routes can often feel just as difficult as those a grade or two harder.

P1010444.JPG

Another interesting factor comes in the form of a ubiquitous South Americanism – little to no route information. There is decent (ish) guidebook, currently in its third edition, which contains the majority of the names and grades, but that’s more or less where the information ends. Brief route descriptions offer choice nuggets of information such as “a crack” or “the corner” or “go up” as well as a blurry photo and, occasionally, an almost intelligible hand-drawn topo. This is not a huge drama on single pitch routes, but it can give some of the longer routes a hint of alpine mystery.

Once you come to terms with all these quirks and nuances (and adjust your ego accordingly), you’ll find yourself enjoying what Suesca has to offer. For an admittedly diminutive crag, it packs in a surprising amount of adventure. Sometimes just finding the routes can be a bit of an expedition, there being a constant battle to maintain clean rock against the rampant vegetation fed by prodigious tropical rains.

But when you do find them, you’re usually in for a treat. Australian climbers, and particularly SEQ denizens, will find the experience to be rather familiar at times – as well as smooth Arapilisean bulges, one often finds spooky Brooyar-esque horns, Froggish face cracks and grotty Tibro-style chimneys. There are even a few Eucalyptus trees scattered about to set the scene!

I personally relished the opportunity to place gear for a change. Trad climbing is a rare commodity in South America, it seems, and although Suesca also has some stellar sport climbing, I mainly stuck to the old classics. The gear is generally excellent, predominantly wires and medium to large cams. A rack of hexes would also be an excellent choice here and would get quite a workout.

As for recommendations, it really depends on what you’re into. If projecting hard sport routes is your jam, you won’t find any shortage of those. Moderate trad multipitches are also in good supply, and ease of access and a walk-off descent means you can probably knock out two or three each day. There are some pretty solid single pitch cragging sectors as well. My favourite routes were La Clavicular (5.6, 80m) for easy dihedrals, La Rana Reniegra (5.8, 80m) for overhangin’ drop-kneein’ chockstone haulin’ wide crack madness, and Suenos De Un Selector (5.9, 30m) for old school crack work with a real sting in the tail.

But for better recommendations, I suggest you hit up my amigo Felipe at Caminos De Suesca Hostel. It’s comfortable, affordable accommodation in very close proximity to the rock and several restaurants, and you’ll be hard pressed finding a friendlier host. Felipe can also offer guiding services if you require them, as can many others in the village. If you want to pair your time here with some Spanish language lessons, Nino at Green Languages Colombia is your go-to.

I certainly didn’t come away from Suesca with any ascents to brag about, but I definitely enjoyed the vibe of the place. Personally, I wouldn’t say that the crag merits an overseas trip on its own, but if you’re in the region, it’s definitely not to be missed. But maybe bring extra underwear and leave your ego at home.

Ryan Siacci, Esq.
May 2018

Thoughts? Opinions? Cries of dissent?