Pico Turquino – 6,476ft
Eric and Matthew Gilbertson, with Jake Osterburg
Date: June 11, 2015
With our ascent of Pico Turquino (elevation 6,476′) on June 11, 2015, we became the first people to climb the tallest mountain in all 23 of the North American Countries (“country” defined as a U.N. Member Nation). We began our quest on the summit of 20,237′ Denali (Mt. McKinley) in Alaska in May 2010. After that, we made eight other climbing trips to other corners of the continent: three to Central America, three to the Caribbean, one to Yukon of Canada, and finally to Cuba. Reaching the summit of Cuba’s Pico Turquino marked the culmination of a challenging 5 year and 16 day quest.
The challenge associated with climbing Pico Turquino was not so much due to difficulty of the route (Denali in the US and Mt Logan in Canada both required about two weeks of highly demanding, Arctic high-altitude mountaineering, whereas Pico Turquino required only 10 hours), but rather the extent of the red tape. As we know, although some Cuba-related travel regulations have been recently relaxed, it is still not permissible for Americans to travel to Cuba for the purpose of tourism. But it is OK to travel as
part of a People-to-People cultural exchange. We worked with Paul Prewitt from Hot Cuba Travel, who put together a custom tour for us that included an ascent of Pico Turquino (a mountain that very few Americans ever climb), and also interwove a number of enriching cultural activities including homestays, speaking with locals, tours of Havana and Santiago, visits to churches, listening to local music, and sampling local cuisine. Paul, along with Cuban guides named Jesus and Juan, gave us an excellent sampling of life in Cuba. The trip was much more enriching than simply the ascent of one more mountain; although the trip was only six days long, it gave us a much closer glimpse of life in Cuba than we had even gotten before.
First, we flew from Miami to Havana, and our guide Jesus led us on an walking tour of the city. In the evening, we rode in a pristine 1957 Buick convertible along the coast. We spent the first night at the casa of a gentleman named Gustavo, who used to be a professional singer. The next day, we flew to Holguin via Cubana Airlines, and had a tour of the countryside by bus. After a self-paced tour of the city while running, we spent the night in Santiago at a casa. Next day, we drove to the Pico Turquino trailhead and set up the next day’s climb with the park service.
The climb itself was challenging. We started hiking at about 4:15am with our guide Yordi (all climbs of Pico Turquino require you to hire one of five park-licensed guides) near the village of La Mula, situated on the southern shore of Cuba, about 3 hours east of Santiago. Joining us for the hike was our friend Jake. Our Dad, Keith Gilbertson, along with our guides Paul Prewitt and Juan stayed at the trailhead. To go for the gold, we started the hike by dipping our hands in the warm, Caribbean, so that we could traverse the entire elevation of the country during the hike. Although it was dark, the hike started out hot and humid, and we had to take frequent breaks for water. For three gringos from up north, the heat and humidity were stifling. The trail is quite steep; with a total ascent of about 6500 ft over 6.2 miles – nearly a 20% average grade – it rivals or exceeds most American trails in terms of steepness. But the staff of Turquino National Park do an excellent job of maintaining the popular trail. Although the area sees abundant rainfall, and there are quite a few muddy areas, there are frequent wooden steps which help to prevent erosion, and occasional hand rails in the particularly steep sections.
Just after sunrise, we stopped for a break in a nice clearing with benches. Our guide Yordi reached in his pack and dug out three gigantic and delicious mangoes, which he handed to us. They were about twice the size and twice the tastiness of any mango we’d ever seen in the US! They were the perfect food – full of water and sugar. The mangos and our excitement propelled us onward, and we reached the summit around 10:15 am!
A large bronze bust of Jose Marti – the Abraham Lincoln of Cuba – adorns the center of the large clearing at the summit. Legend has it that the 56 kg bust was hauled up by two intrepid hikers in the 1950s. We paused for our traditional summit photos: one with our arms raised, one with both of us jumping, and one juggling rocks. The trees surrounding the summit were a little too high to afford a view, but we had caught several glimpses of the turquoise Caribbean during the ascent. (Pico Turquino was aptly named for “turquesa” – the Spanish word for “turquoise” in reference to the color of the Caribbean.)
We basked in the warm summit sunshine for about an hour before heading down. During the descent, we realized just how far we had climbed that day. We triumphantly reached the trailhead at about 2:15pm, for a round-trip time of 10 hours. We jumped in a natural freshwater pool nearby to cool off and celebrate.
We will keep working on country high points. There are 195 countries in the world, and together we have climbed the highest point in 78 of them. Nobody has ever climbed all of them. So we still have 117 to go.
The importance of the cultural exchange:
The cultural exchange nature of the trip was essential and definitely two-way. All of the Cubans we talked to expressed happiness in the recent improvements in American-Cuban relations, and hopefulness that things would continue to improve. We were surprised to see many American flags; we saw flags waving from cars, American flag bumper stickers, and even clothing patterned with Old Glory. People often asked where we were from, usually asking if we were from Canada or Germany. When we told people that we were from Los Estados Unidos, everyone was universally surprised and excited. We got the sense that they don’t see many Americans. We asked many of them if they had ever been to the USA, and they all said that they hadn’t, but would really like to. “Hopefully in a few years,” they said. They like the direction that things are moving, but “it’s still slow,” one man said in English. “It’s like a turtle – one step forward, one step back.” I think that through the cultural exchange, we Americans can act as ambassadors, giving Cubans a favorable impression of America. Meanwhile, we gained an excellent and positive impression of Cuba from meeting with the locals. We can only hope that the turtle continues its steady pace forwards on the way better relations.