In 1861, French sailors spotted something mysterious in the waters near the Canary Islands, something they could only describe as a sea monster, a gigantic octopus or squid of some kind. They fired their guns and cannons at it, but were unable to capture the frightening beast. Back in Europe, they told endless tales of this gigantic animal. The sailors' stories grew overtime, as myth replaced fact. But what they had seen was very real . It was immense, terrifying and unlike anything anyone in Europe had ever seen.
The Colombian monster
In the 1980s, as Colombian riders began to dominate climbing stages in European races, Lucho Herrera spoke to the press and uttered some rather unusual words. He said that climbs like Alpe d'Huez were far too short for Colombians. At 8.3 miles (13km) in length, it would take many additional kilometers for the climb to be well suited to their style of climbing. But how many more miles/kilometers could Herrera possibly want? Five? Ten? Fifteen? How much longer could a climb be? Many were surprised and confused by Herrera's words.
Soon enough, however, French and other European riders began to venture to races like the Vuelta a Colombia and the Clasico RCN. There, they saw what Herrera was speaking of. They saw the frighteningly huge equivalent of the octopus that haunted the dreams of French sailors in the 1860s. It was massive, bizarre, inhuman, and appeared to make no sense at all. It was the Alto de Letras.
52 miles long (83 kilometers), with 10,482 feet (3,195 meters) of climbing, and sometimes apocalyptic shifts in temperature, the Alto or Paramo de Letras was unlike anything they had ever seen. But at least now they understood what Herrera meant.
Far from a mythological apparition of any kind, the Alto de Letras is quite real, and holds a special place in the heart of Colombian cyclists. To know a little more about current conditions in Letras, and what it's like to tackle the climb, I contacted Juan Carlos Cuervo (pictured above). He lives in Medellin and rides with the Mariela's cycling club , while running the Rigoberto Uran cycling club in the town of Urrao.
Juan Carlos last climbed the Alto de Letras with friends in April of this year, and was kind enough to share photos and his insights regarding his ascent. In future posts I will discuss other iconic climbs in Colombia like La Linea, Alto de Minas, El Vino, Alto de Patios, Boqueron, and Paramo de Verjon. But for my first post about Colombian climbs, it only makes sense to start with the gigantic monster among them all.
The most obvious obstacle you face with the Alto de Letras is its length. 50 to 52 miles, depending on where you start measuring from. It's often been said that the first and last 15 miles are the toughest. It's in those two portions that you are either facing the steepest parts (along with severe heat), or are tired and breathing thin air at the top while experiencing cold temperatures (and potentially precipitation as well).
I also asked Gustavo, proprietor of the Altimetrias de Colombia blog (which is completely devoted to climbing in Colombia), about the climb and he told me the following about the Alto de Letras:
"Though it doesn't have extremely steep/difficult portions, it's a a continuous punishment that in the end leaves you completely out of commission. The best part of the climb are the unbelievable views you're able to enjoy, and at one point you are in the middle of nature that is completely untouched. Personally, I prefer to do climbs like La Linea because after a mere two hours, the punishment is over. "
Altitude Alto de Letras (or simply Letras , as it's commonly referred to) rises from 1,535 feet (468 meters) in the town of Mariquita, to 12,017 feet (3,663 meters) at it's peak. Though it's average grade is manageable, it does include ramps of 11%. Not the steepest in the world...but then, there's the whole issue of this being a 52 mile climb, that goes up 10,482 feet (3,195 meters). Due to the climb's location in the world, this shift in altitude brings with it severe changes in temperature.
Around the Equator, temperature is regulated by altitude, and not by seasons. The lower the altitude, the warmer the weather. The higher the altitude, the colder it is. So when you consider the change in altitude during the ascent, it should come as no surprise that the change in temperature will be severe. You're basically climbing from a humid summer day, into early winter in one ride.
At the start, in the town of Mariquita, temperatures are often in the mid 80s to low 90s (30-34 celsius), with very high humidity. Juan Carlos refers to the weather in Mariquita as often being "infernal". Though I have not been there since I was a kid, I concur.
Vegetation is lush in the lowlands, with some areas being fully covered in dense ferns. Though perhaps not technically a jungle, many visitors might see it as such because of its impenetrability as well as its wealth in animal life.
Due to the heat and high humidity, it's best to start early, as Juan Carlos and his friends did. A 6 to 7am start will get you out of the hot and humid lowlands by the time it really becomes "infernal". So that's the heat. But what about the cold?
When you reach the top of Letras, you're often greeted by rainy conditions, dense fog and temperatures in the low 40s (4-6 celsius) on a bad day. The top sits at over 12,000 feet after all, near the beginnings of the snow line at the Nevado Del Ruiz (a semi-dormant, snow-capped volcano that has been spewing ash as of late, and was responsible for the death of 20,000 in the 1985, which I wrote about here).
At high altitudes like the top of Letras, vegetation is minimal, with yellowing grasses often being the most common form of life. It's an unbelievable contrast to the variety of plants and animals common in the lowlands, around Mariquita.
The radical change in temperature that comes with shifts in altitude means you have to pack clothes for summer and winter for one lone climb. And since it's cold, and potentially wet up there, the descent might be tough. More on that in a minute.
According to Juan Carlos, another issue to contend with is that as you reach the colder temperatures, you will be very tired and are inclined to take a break. Once you do, you'll have a hard time warming back up, since the temperature has now dropped many, many degrees from the time you started, and you still have hours of climbing to do.
By most accounts, the fastest time up Letras was accomplished by Santiago Botero in 2007. He managed to complete the ascent in just under three hours, on his way to winning the Vuelta a Colombia that year (some accounts have the ascent at around 3:30). With this in mind, any time under four hours is considered very good. That's four hours of nothing but climbing, though most fit Colombian amateurs (who live at altitude) make it in around 5-6 hours.
If you're like many American or European cyclists today, you're probably wondering what bragging rights a climb like this can bring among friends, particularly those who use services like Strava. In reality, very few people in Colombia use Strava, since GPS enabled bike computers are fairly rare there. Having said that, it has certainly been logged already. See here, and Juan Carlos' entry can be seen here.
A long descent
Everything that goes up, must come down, right? Letras is no different. Pretty much everyone that goes up from Mariquita, and rides the full 52 mile ascent, goes down the other side. That means descending 18 miles or so into the city of Manizales. That, in and of itself, can take nearly forty minutes if you don't take unnecessary risks and go at a leisurely pace. If it rains, it can take much longer.
The real question, which I've been unable to get an answer to, is what happens if you try to descend the way you came up, and descend the full 52 miles. Considering that the terrain is similar to the descent into Manizales (though the long way up is less steep), it's not out of the question that going back down into Mariquita could take three hours. Yes, three hours descending. But Gustavo from Altimetrias de Colombia blog thinks it would actually take much longer:
"As far as descending that way, I have no idea. It can certainly be done. My guess is that it would take more than three hours."
Regardless of which way you come down, the descent's sheer magnitude attracts more than just cyclists. Balineros derive their names from the cartridge bearings they use as wheels in their makeshift carts. Less ornate version of their carts can be seen in towns throughout Colombia, helping people haul small loads, and also serving as toys for young kids. But in Letras, everything is bigger. The carts are adorned to look like the very trucks that they will have to avoid during the frightening descents, all with no brakes. Balineros weave in and out of heavy traffic, sometimes with their whole family in tow.
The video below shows a family enjoying part of the Letras descent in their homemade truck. Note that they get a tow back uphill with the aid from a truck (and a policeman). Also note that the bearings get hot enough to make the water that touches them sizzle toward the end of the video.
The longest climb?
So are there longer climbs out there? Perhaps, though I have not heard of any, particularly ones that are commonly done by cyclists and have been used in races. Additionally, Letras holds a special place in Colombia's cycling mythology. It's been used in nearly every Vuelta A Colombia, and many decisive battles in the race have taken place there. The climb's unbelievable difficulty and length (and thus its shift in temperature) are all indicative of Colombia's terrain, as well as the cyclists that the country has bred. Letras has famously broken many professionals during races, with a good few of them being non-Colombians who simply didn't expect such a long climb, along with the radical shift in temperature that if often brings.
This, I believe, merely adds to the love that so many have for Letras. Like so many other things in Colombia, Letras is unwieldy, and borders on insane. But it's also beautiful. So in every way, Letras is perfectly Colombian.
This article originally appeared in Alps & Andes, and is posted here with permission.