Climbing the Mountain

13 min read

In November of 2023 I traveled to Salento, Colombia for the adventure of a lifetime, climbing and summiting Colombia's second highest peak, Nevado del Tolima.

The view of Nevado del Tolima (5,276 meters) from Finca La Playa de Aquilino at 4,000 meters elevation.The view of Nevado del Tolima (5,276 meters) from Finca La Playa de Aquilino at 4,000 meters elevation.


I never really had a burning desire to climb a mountain; I mean it was not on my bucket list. I have missed hiking in the forests of Oregon a lot since moving to Colombia in 2020. I did not realize how much going out into nature to “touch grass” had become a necessary part of life as a software developer. It is funny because I live in the Colombian Andes but seldom venture into the mountains. The logistics of getting to and from the mountains while not owning a vehicle; and the safety concerns of being a gringo venturing into the mountains alone have been what have held me back.

2023 was a hell of a year in more ways than one. I will not even try to list all the things that happened but the big ones were:

  • Almost dying from carbon monoxide poisoning in February.
  • Moving two more times (one being between cities).
  • Saying goodbye to my wife’s dog Tommie far too early.

By the end of August I was so emotionally and mentally burnt out by the events of the year that I was phoning it in across all fronts of my life. Most days I did not want to get out of bed let alone clock in to work a job I had no desire to do anymore. I had mentioned to my wife several times since moving to Colombia about wanting to go hiking in the mountains. For the past two years she had been trying to get me to take a trip for myself. After everything that had happened I figured there is no better time than now. With absolutely zero research into anything at all I booked a guided “tour” that would take me through Valle de Cocora and all the way to the summit of Colombia’s second highest peak, Nevado del Tolima.

If I had known what I was getting myself into I likely would never have gone on this “adventure”.


I flew from Bogotá to Pereira and then by car to Salento. Albeit I did not spend much time at all in Salento I will definitely be returning. It is a very beautiful town and is a popular tourist destination in Colombia. It is known for the nearby coffee farms, Valle de Cocora, and the nearby Los Nevados National Natural Park. Unfortunately I do not even have photos from Salento as I only stayed that first night and left immediately for the airport in Pereira after finishing the trek out of Valle de Cocora.

Valle de Cocora

A view of the beautiful Valle de Cocora.A view of the beautiful Valle de Cocora.

The guided climb began on Friday, November 10th at 0500 with a 22 kilometer hike through Valle de Cocora and Páramo de Romerales to what would be our base camp and lodging for three nights, Finca La Playa de Aquilino. It was a beautiful and fun hike…initially. We traveled through Valle de Cocora, the sun was out, and the birds were chirping, then we hit the páramo. It was easy in hindsight, but about half way through the páramo a storm hit. We were standing on the top of a hill completely exposed to the high winds and rain. The temperature dropped by about ten degrees Celsius and visibility dropped to roughly 100 meters. All we could do was sit there and take it until the storm passed. After 12 hours we made it to the base camp and I was very excited to stop and lay down. I was not necessarily in terrible shape, but I was certainly not prepared physically to go from walking seven to eight thousand steps a day to +35,000 steps in one day. I had already begun to realize this would be an absolute war with myself to get through this.

The páramo that lay between Valle de Cocora and the summit.The páramo that lay between Valle de Cocora and the summit.

Day two was an easy ten kilometers to acclimate us to being 4,000 meters above sea level. Living outside of Bogotá I am roughly 2,600 meters above sea level so acclimating was not all the bad. I can not imagine coming from sea level or just above it to that height and not suffering through altitude sickness. Our meals were the typical traditional Colombia cuisine: lots of rice, beans, a little meat, and plantains.

We were told that we would be leaving for the summit at 2300 and to get as much rest as we could leading up to our departure and triple check our gear. It would take roughly seven to eight hours to reach the summit that was ten kilometers away and another 1,200 meters in altitude. I used to run quite a bit back in my younger days and the prospect that ten kilometers was going to take eight hours was a daunting reality check. The fastest time I clocked running ten kilometers was just over 33 minutes…so this, this was gonna be a whole other kind of suck.

And so it begins

We set out for the summit under a fairly clear sky that night. The moon was not all that visible as it was in it’s waning phase; however the stars were out and visible. Unless we paused to rest there was no stopping to look at them as I needed my head lamp to illuminate the path before me that was ever changing. The night sky reminded me of my time in Afghanistan with how I could see the Milky Way in ways I had never seen it before. I would later be told the reasoning behind starting under the cover of darkness. I figured the reasoning was for those Instagram worthy sunrise photos from the summit, not quite:

If we started you at dawn you would give up within an hour or two of starting because of the daunting task before you. Yeah sure you just walked for three hours and it looks like absolutely nothing changed in front of you. Your only gauge is too look back and that is just as disheartening to see how far you have traveled.

The Glacier

As we moved closer to the summit we would occasionally pass signage that would state at the current elevation in X year the beginning of the glacier would have started there. The glacier for us in 2023 began around 4,990m elevation. Perhaps 45 minutes prior to us reaching the glacier it began to rain, sleet, and then snow. It did not take long before I was soaked to the bone and the freezing temperatures began to really take their toll on me. As we put on our crampons and did a quick recap on how to use our ice pick all the voices of doubt in my head began to get louder and louder. As loud as those voices were the reality was there was no immediate option to throw in the towel. I never went through BUDS to become a Navy SEAL; but ringing the bell was not an option. No one was going to bring me a warm towel, cup of coffee, and option to get out of the cold. The only option out was back down the mountain. Had I really come this far to tap out?

We began our painfully slow ascent to the summit. We were split into two groups. One being the group that the guides believed could make it to the summit and another that was a 50/50 shot of getting there. The group I was in would be the one that made it to the summit. Around 0630 the sun began to backlight the clouds we were hiking through on our way to the summit. I cannot really put to words what it was like looking out and realizing you are hiking at what was likely a +50% grade that was solid ice. It truly felt like I was in a dream…or a nightmare at the moment. The fact that one misstep could result in falling through a crevasse was terrifying. I though back to the exhaustion I had experienced in marathons. This was different because not only was there this utter exhaustion I was facing but also the acute awareness that death was always one step away.

The four of us were tethered into one another with our guide Luisa at the helm. We were only going to move as fast as she deemed it to be safe. Later that evening back at the base camp she would tell us we honestly should not have attempted summiting with how bad the weather was. Seeing as we were maybe 150 meters from the summit our choices were descend in the storm, wait it out, or take a shot at getting there. Waiting it out is never advised and descending is just as dangerous if not more complicated than going for the summit.

Summiting Nevado del Tolima

The Colombians and myself at the summit.The Colombians and myself at the summit.

It was roughly 0710 when we finally reached the summit of Nevado del Tolima. It was a complete white out at the top. Visibility was maybe 20-30 meters. Luisa told us she would give us about ten minutes to take pictures before we needed to begin our descent. I was frozen and exhausted, but I had not time to waste. I dropped my pack and went for the small pouch at the top where I had been carrying our dog Tommie’s ashes. He never got the chance to know what snow was. This was my mission more than any kind of self discovery: letting go and saying goodbye to Tommie.

Losing Tommie in August to what we believe was cancer so quickly left my wife and I reeling. We had seven days from the time we found out he had a mass the size of an orange closing off his colon to the time we had to put him down. His health declined so fast. He held on for us; it is clear to me now that he was trying to let us know it would be okay and it was his time to go. I used my pick axe to make a whole in the glacier and dumped half of his ashes into the hole covering it with snow while I cried telling him how much we loved him and missed him. The other half I let go on the wind while telling him goodbye. My tears were frozen to my face, but Tommie knew what snow was now. The guys I reached the summit with never asked anything they just watched silently. Then we gathered for some quick photos. The three selfies I took quickly after spreading Tommie’s ashes were quite funny. I believe it was the shudder having trouble with the cold so what I thought was a half frozen smile was the utter agony of cold, pain, and tears on my face. If I still had Instagram it would totally be a worthy shot for the Gram.

A quick selfie at the summit in the whiteout.A quick selfie at the summit in the whiteout.

What I learned from the experience

These first items were not necessarily learned during the trip I knew them already, but was failing to truly acknowledge them. I have felt super isolated and alone since moving here. I have my wife and my mother-in-law and that is it. I have no hobbies and basically work 24/7. Losing Tommie really exposed how alone I felt. I have struggled to learn the language and adapt to the culture. That has translated to not making any meaningful relationships outside of my marriage. I would be a fool to say that has not had a huge negative impact on my marriage as well. I have failed to lead my wife and for that matter myself over the last three years. I sat back and let life happen too me. There was no game plan after moving to Colombia and “happily ever after”.

Now as for what I learned/reminded myself (standby for expletives):

I am a bad motherfucker and always have been. The shit I have been through in the last 15 years would have broken most men. I will chalk a lot of that perseverance and grit up to my upbringing. Probably the only “goodish” thing my father gave to me: an unbreakable will to look adversity in the face and say “is that all you have got pussy”. Even in the midst of feeling like I was going to freeze to death, fall off a mountain, or my body shutdown from the sheer pain all over the voice in my head never once admitted defeat. As I was traveling out of Valle de Cocora back to Salento and taking in the countryside I remember feeling this overwhelming sense of accomplishment that I had not felt in years. It was like my confidence tank was completely full again. Working in tech I rarely feel that or have any tangible thing to point towards after weeks if not months of work. This though, this would be yet another memory I could reach for when things get tough to remind myself that “No Cody, you are in fact not a weak pathetic piece of shit, but one hell of a man who is doing the best he can with what he has.”

Wrap Up

2023 was honestly the worst year I have had since I lost everything to a fire and wound up homeless for most of 2018; however it was the reality check I needed to remember everything is finite. Success, failure, pain, joy, it is all finite. You hear a lot about going through “seasons” in life and the trek reminded me that this was just a season, albeit a pretty rough one. During the ascent I repeated the following to myself over and over again when the pain, cold, and discomfort were crashing down on me. It was the words on every rope bridge we crossed in Valle de Cocora:

“Uno a Uno” (“One by one”)

Every step: “uno a uno, uno a uno”.

Every choice: “uno a uno, uno a uno”.

Every moment: “uno a uno, uno a uno”.

Each step built upon the last to get me to the top of Nevado del Tolima. In the same way each decision we make daily builds upon the last to lead us to where we are at the end of every day, week, month, year, etc. A thought that ran through my head the whole trip was that “this will be over before you know it”. I am 35, almost 36. How did that happen? I often think to myself “25 was not that long ago right”? Or “wow it has been four years since my wife and I were in Europe and I asked her to marry me”. That saying “life comes at you fast” is beginning to really mean something as the years pile up.

I certainly will never forget this experience. I have a tremendous amount of respect for anyone who says they have reached the summit a mountain. It is no walk in the park and when I come to the realization that Mt. Everest would have been another 3,573 meters of altitude I think “yeah no, I am good with just this one summit!”

A final look at Nevado del Tolima on a sunny Sunday morning.A final look at Nevado del Tolima on a sunny Sunday morning.
~ Cody 🚀

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Cody Brunner

Cody is a Christian, USN Veteran, Jayhawk, and an American expat living outside of Bogotá, Colombia where he works as a Senior Frontend Developer for Bitcoin IRA.