Pico Duarte Mud, Mules, and Mountain

Pico Duarte is a real mountain- it’s 10,164 feet above sea level. It’s taller than anything on the east coast of the U.S. by quite a bit. In January, after our winter break back in Vermont, I was lucky enough to join one of the retreat trips that our school here in the Dominican Republic runs. With my experience in the outdoors, I thought I could help out with the trip that took our seniors up the Dominican Republic’s tallest mountain, Pico Duarte. Coming from a state that includes the word “mountain” on its license plate, we are the Green Mountain State, I wasn’t sure how the Caribbean would compare.

The hike up Pico Duarte itself takes about three days, not because its 20 some miles are incredibly strenuous or steep, but because it is remote enough to merit a base camp and a summit camp. It's possible to hike in a single day but probably not enjoyable. Our group hit the mountain with about fifty seniors from the Carol Morgan School in the middle of January. The weather was nice and cool but it had rained quite a bit so we were warned about the mud. Most of our students would not describe themselves as “outdoorsy”. That being said, there are a few that have done some amazing adventures on high peaks, glaciers and some pretty serious terrain. For many, however, mountains are outside their comfort zone.

I have never been on a guided trip where food, water, sleeping arrangements, and even rides on mules were available. At the beginning of the hike, the mules were loaded up with all our food, clothing, sleeping bags, and everything else we needed for our stay. But like many things here, the experience was a combination of amazing and disturbing. The mules were loaded with 100’s of pounds of gear. They slipped and skidded through the ankle deep mud both up and down the mountain. Whips cracked like gunshots above and on rear ends of the animals. Some are pushed to exhaustion and even death. Although we were told that our mules were treated better, we saw one animal near death beside the trail and another that had died so recently and so suddenly that we had to step around it in the path.

The hike up Pico Duarte is long but not terribly difficult. There is no place that requires using hands and much of it looked like a logging road in Vermont. The mud, however, was like nothing I had experienced before. At times it was up to our knees and when it wasn’t deep, it had the consistency and viscosity of peanut butter. With every step you slipped backwards, sideways or had to grab for a nearby branch. Months later my shoes are still stained orangish-red. And I was lucky, every couple of miles we would see the unattached sole of a shoe ripped completely off by the mud. I will remember for a long time the security guard assigned to our group, limping and slipping down the muddy mountainside with a sole-less shoe.

After a day of hiking in the rain, mud, and darkness, the camp we stayed at was comfortable and clean. We slept on the floor in a giant single-room and our hired cooks prepared everything from elaborate dinners to tea on open concrete fireplaces in a smoky shed. We camped at about 8,000 feet so the elevation combined with the wind made for a chilly, especially by Dominican standards, night. Several of our group were not prepared and spent a long cold night on the mountain. A few unlucky campers placed their wet, muddy shoes a little too close to the campfire and melted them so that rubber or plastic pieces became useless blobs. Temperatures dipped to near-freezing and the next day there was even a little ice in the shady spots on the trail. Most of the students had never seen naturally occurring ice in the D.R. before. The amazement and wonder was genuine.

The highlight for me was the pride the students had as they reached the peak and their tenacity. Despite the remarkable cold, mud, rain and gaps in planning of the previous day, almost everyone made it to the summit. The peak itself felt fresh and clean despite a bit of graffiti. It’s like one of the foothills in outside Denver. Not a dramatic rocky peak but a summit that revealed an awesome view of the rich green Dominican landscape. Summiting this peak carries with it some national, as well as physical pride. In the 50’s the dictator Trujillo renamed it Trujillo peak. After he was killed, it reverted back to Pico Duarte- named for one of the D.R’s founding revolutionaries. I think I felt the same sort of pride and patriotism after visiting Washington D.C. for the first time.
Climbing the tallest peak in a country of mountains is worthy of pride. I heard several kids say that they would tell their kids and grandkids about this hike. The struggles and the joy of climbing that last rock with a group of friends on a sunny day, taking a few selfies and knowing that despite all that was thrown at you, you had the grit to meet your goals. A life lesson for our students, the Dominican Republic, and perhaps a more global audience.

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.