Close to summiting the longest climb in the world, all I could hear was the sweet turning of the pedals, the small breeze that blew under the clouds. I could feel the pain in my tired legs, the difficulty of grasping for some very very thin air. This is Alto de Letras and it’s throwing all it has at me.
As far as I know it, Alto de Letras in Colombia is the longest climb in the world. It is 82 kms long and 3400 mts of vertical ascent to crest it. We cover it regularly in our bike tours and still is one of my favorite climbs (although this one isn’t a good measure since all the climbs are my favorite climbs).
My relationship with this almost mythological mountain is longer than the time that I’ve been a cyclist, and has been a staple in my life. My mother’s family is from Manizales, which sits on the other side of Alto de Letras summit, and we occasionally would go over there and spend some time at my grandparents farm. To arrive there we would have to drive the whole climb. Its length and landscapes were from then on fixed in my head, and when I eventually started riding, those memories were a strong call to conquer it.
I would describe the experience of climbing Alto de Letras like a symphony, given how epic, and how dramatic it is. It can take you from ecstasy to feel miserable, and back to the ecstasy, making an everlasting mark. Still the part that I like the most, and offers the most grandiose notes of the climb, happens on the second half of the climb. Pedal stroke by pedal stroke, the whole climb gets more dramatic. The start usually happens in beautiful weather with lush vegetation, but its the second half that offers instead a cloudy and dramatic feel. The last quarter of the climb is usually ridden under cloudy and sometimes foggy conditions, which only makes the scenario more epic worthy. It’s like getting inside the darkest part of your head, you are there all by yourself, suffering, grasping for some very scarce air, still a good handful of kms to go, inside this grey and green bubble of fog and vegetation, without any real reference point, just a few digits on your GPS, telling how badly you are doing, but still you are in the deepest state of concentration, like in a void space. It’s so hard to describe. It’s a intense session of meditation.
The difficulty at describing Letras is because the time and space are by a large measure perceived just inside your head, and somehow loses touch with reality, very much like Proust. Sure, I’ve got memories of the road, I’ve feelings about it, but, just like the climb, all of them get foggy, and it’s difficult place them in measurable variables like time or distance. Still Letras makes such a vivid impression, that every once in a while I try to relive it, because when I do it, an old taste of those conditions resubmerge, and it’s a deep state of my mind, it’s finding again the quietness of the road and the slow moving of the cranks. Is a collection of very powerful flashbacks but without any real substance to them, I might remember vividly about the light rain, or the fog, or the road, but somehow it seems impossible to put together a picture of the whole climb.
While other climbs might just be a clear memory and somehow you can distinguish your physical memories from the line of thoughts that rumbles in your head, as for Letras everything is just one big experience, where the physical part is blended with the meditation part of cycling.
I don’t think I will ever have enough words to describe Letras. I think that over time I’ll try to clarify my feelings more, and definitely will come back and try to describe it in another way.
From a physical point of view Letras is very doable, it’s not your steepest climb, is just a long day in the saddle.