the winter of 1993, I hardly even knew that the country of Belize
exisited. That was until I read "Jaguar", Alan Robinowitzs' dramatic
account of his attempt to create the world's first Jaguar Reserve.
One passage was exceptionally intriguing to me. It was his description
of Victoria Peak, then thought to be the tallest mountain in Belize.
Alan wrote, "It was not until 1984, while I was in the basin,
that a group of fifteen Belize Defense Forse soldiers made what
was to my knowledge the first successful attempt from the south.
It took them two weeks, and only one man, a Maya Indian, made
it to the top of Victoria Peak." I wondered how many people
had been successful in climbing to the top of that mysterious
and remote mountain in the 9 years since Alan wrote that passage.
I vowed that one day, I would follow in the foot prints of that
one Maya man, and climb to the top of Victoria Peak. Ten years
later, in July of 2003, I had my chance.
Peak (3675 feet) is located on the remote northern boundary of
the 150 sq. mile Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary and Jaguar
Preserve. Anyone who has been off the coast of Belize on a clear
day has seen it looming in the distance. Big, tall and impressive.
It is often shrouded in clouds and until recently thought to be
the highest mountain in Belize. It is a total of 28 km to the
summit from the Cockscomb headquarters. So the round trip is approx.
35 miles. It was indeed a difficult hike, often described as the
"hardest hike in Belize."
Eduardo and Valentino on
to Victoria Peak.
all our provisions stored in our backpacks, my guides Marcos
Cucul, Eduardo Pop, Valentino Kzub and I hiked from the
Cockscomb headquarters for 12 km to a small camp next to
the Sittee River where we spent the first night. The hike
to km 12 was easy and enjoyable. The Belize Audubon Society
now controls and manages the reserve and has done an excellent
job maintaining the trail. Sitting by the river camp that
evening was a bird watcher paradise. We spotted a pair of
Great Carrosaws flying between tree tops and heard the clicking
sounds of the White-collared Manakin and the unforgettable
songs of the Oropendola. As the sun set and we prepared
to retire into our hammocks we were treated to the haunting
calls of the Howler monkeys in the far distance.
following day we hiked to km 19. Here the hiking becomes
much harder. Even though the distance is only a total of
7 km, the hike is much more arduous than the first day.
The trail was in good condition and the weather cooperated
but we started a series of continuous up and down grades
of between 20-60 degrees. There are no switch backs. Just
straight up and down. Many times just hanging on to trees
or roots to maintain footing. The jungle is incredibly vibrant
and lush here. No secondary growth, just mature forest with
massive tropical hardwoods. We crossed many small jungle
streams that are a fine source of good drinking water and
great places to take a brief rest. At km 19 we spent the
night in our hammocks, close to a clear fast running stream.
Dozing off with the myriad sounds of the rainforest.
third day is the most difficult and the most rewarding.
From km 19 to the top of Victoria Peak at km 28. Here the
trail becomes very difficult. We started the morning hike
with a 40 minute climb up a 45+ degree incline. That got
the heart pumping. Hanging on to roots to pull yourself
up and sliding on your butt sometimes on the way down. But
that was just the beginning. It took about 3-4 hours to
reach the true base of Victoria Peak. During those hours
it is rough hiking, especially with the burden of carrying
heavy backpacks. But the forest is just incredibly beautiful
and the wildlife prolific. Eduardo saw a Puma on the trail.
All I saw was the tail end disappearing into the jungle.
And we encountered many Jaguar markings on the trail.
on rope near summit.
We started climbing Victoria Peak up a dry creek bed that eventually
turns into solid stone. Most of the way to the top was 60 degree
or more incline up wet stone. Good foot holds but very slippery
and potentially very dangerous. Because of the remote location
and treacherous terrain, a fall here could be a real disaster..
At this point it is a good idea to have some basic climbing gear
to help over the 'rough spots'. Marcos Cucul, my guide and friend
is an accomplished climber. I am not. When the climbing became
too difficult or too dangerous in my opinion, he would fix some
ropes. The 'trail' continued straight up then eventually veered
left and leveled out onto a very narrow path (2 feet) with a 700-800+
foot fall over the other side. Not good for those prone to vertigo.
After several hundred feet the trail terminated next to a vertical
rock face that had to be scaled. It was only 50 or 60 feet high
and not a problem with good climbing equipment . From the top
of the rock face we scrambled over another series of small steep
inclines and rock faces. Here the forest changes dramatically.
A very wet tropical forest environment dripping with moisture
and moss. Then, tired and exhilarated, we finally reached the
summit! The total time it took us from the camp at km 19 to the
top was approx. 7 1/2 hours of continuous hard hiking and climbing.
on top of the summit.
Most people or groups give up before reaching this point. I
believe it is because alot of guides expect people to climb
to the top, stay 15 minutes, then climb back down and make that
difficult hike all the back to km 19. That's a 12-14 hour day
and most expeditions find that there is not enough daylight
to complete the hike before sunset, so they turn back. We did
not have that concern because we camped on the summit. Probably
the first expedition to do so. The primary advantage of making
the summit in one day and returning to camp km 19 is that you
don't have to carry much gear. Just water and some food. We,
on the other hand had to carry all our camping gear up to the
summit. But it was well worth the effort.
cleared when we reached the top and the view was inspirational.
The air was cool and crisp. A thick carpet of unbroken forest
and mountain ranges stretched as far as the eye could see. But
quickly it changed and the clouds moved in. The wind picked
up along with a strong drizzle and the temperature dropped.
We pitched our hammocks among the stunted growth of foliage
and spent a somewhat sleepless night listening to the winds
roar with a thick mist swirling around us.
next day, day four, we were completely fogged in. No view, just
a strong wind from the East. We started the climb back down Victoria
Peak early in the morning.. I found the climb down much more intimidating
than the ascent. We used the ropes to repel over the most dangerous
areas and hiked back to km 19 in about 6 1/2 hours. There is a
wonderful jungle stream close by and a small waterfall that created
the most exhilarating shower. A great place to wash away the days
hike and get refreshed.
evening our group sat around the camp fire sharing stories. Valentino
told fascinating stories about the diverse wildlife he has encountered
in the jungles of Belize. Marcos spoke about his various trekking
and climbing adventures and his love of his Mayan ancestry. I
mainly just listened, content to be in their company and remembering
that one Maya man who first made the summit less than twenty years
earlier. Marcos told me that less than 175 adventurers have climbed
to the top of Victoria Peak since then. And unless you are very
well prepared I can see why. We were well prepared.
Greg and Marcos on the top of Victoria Peak.
For more information about guided
trips to Victoria Peak, contact Marcos Cucul at www.mayaguide.bz
or Greg Harris at firstname.lastname@example.org
next morning, day five. We hiked from camp km 19 all the way back
to the Cockscomb headquarters. Approx. 12 miles of steady hiking..
But we did stop often to observe the bird life. We saw a 'Bush
Dog' dash across the trail. We smelled the strong odor of a peccary
herd. We hiked in the pouring rain. We listened to Toucans sing
in the trees and we saw a snake whip past. We slipped and fell
on the wet trail. We were tired and wet and very happy campers
when we arrived at Cockscomb headquarters as the sun slipped beneath
the jungle canopy.
photos provided by Greg Harris. All rights reserved.