What People Don’t Tell You About Victoria Peak
“Take an Orange”, they said. “It’ll be cold”, they said. “There’ll be ticks”, they said. No one, not once, said the words “free climb” to me. That was true, of course, until I was clinging to a rock face 3,200 feet in the air.
Please allow me to start at the beginning and to elaborate on why I am writing this article. For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Shaylene Todd and I have lived in Placencia, Belize for the past 5 years. I started coming to Belize ten years ago and that was when I first heard of Victoria Peak, often referred as “the highest peak in Belize”.
I’d like for you to understand that I’m a beach bum through and through. I adore the sunshine and get out on the water every chance I get. Why the rock face then, you ask? Well, after a few years in the country, I found that the jungle had grown on me. That I started to yearn to get out into it, the same way I get antsy for time on the sea. I started to relish the shade the canopy provides and the refreshing cool of its waterfalls. I started to marvel at how big the trees are and how small the ants are and just the intertwinedness of it all. Eventually, the same way I’m awestruck by the different shades of blue when on the water, I was captivated by the many hues of green.
It was on Facebook three years ago when I first saw Martin Kredit, the GM of Turtle Inn, change his profile picture to a selfie of him and his staff on the top of Victoria Peak. And, with that, the idea was born. I could climb it. The year after that, it was Lyra Spang of Taste Belize, with that expansive view peering over her tattooed shoulders in victory pose, that spurred me to actually gather a group of willing friends and sign us up for the next dry season.
And that was when she started taunting me. Victoria, that is. When I was swimming in the turquoise waters of Moho Caye, due east of Placencia, I’d see her curves in the far off horizon. Having a sundowner on the lagoon at Potlicker’s in Maya Beach, her silhouette was there set against the orange sky. It seemed to me, wherever I looked, there she was, saying, “Da wen yu wa climb me?” to which I’d reply, in my mind’s voice, “soon”.
I freely admit that I was nervous before the climb, but also, that I was naive in the things I chose to focus on. My overall lack of cardiovascular fitness was paramount in my mind, then those ticks that everyone told me about. I knew I didn’t want to fall behind everyone and embarrass myself, but in truth, I was not nervous about the right things and I was not nearly nervous enough.
Our team met in advance and divided up the food responsibilities – we’d bring pasta and flour tortillas. Hard boil the eggs in advance and pre-cook the bacon. Everything packaged in Ziploc to save room and weight. I borrowed all the recommended equipment from a good friend, accessories that I would later consider my saving grace. A waterproof backpack that wasn’t too big, but that had strong, padded straps and a waist clip. A set of walking poles (which I would now declare as mandatory), a headlamp and a large mouthed, good sized water bottle.
And with that, the day arrived and we convoyed to the Cockscomb Basin where we would spend the night before a very early start the following morning. We got up at 5am and as we hiked those first kilometers I remember us saying innocent things like, “this isn’t so bad” and “if it’s like this the whole way, I’ll be fine”. Up until kilometer 12, truthfully, it was quite easy- best described as a pleasant hike. We passed kilometer 13.5 where our guide pointed out that this was the last spot an ATV could come to. And it was after that, that I got my true taste of what the next next two days of my life would entail. It was hard hiking with steep uphills and equally pitched downhills.
We made it to kilometer 19, where we would spend the night. We hung our hammocks and were instructed to always keep them zipped because of scorpions. We hung our packs because of Jaguars in the night. When our camp was set, we walked to the nearby waterfall. Now people DID tell me about the waterfall at camp and, in my mind, it was this tall cascade that I could stand under and a large pool that I could bathe in and soothe my muscles. The reality was more of a freshwater downpour off a 7 foot high rock face that trickled into a shallow stream. Enough to wash myself and my clothes and to fill our pots and pans for dinner though! A campfire, pasta and some chicken soup and we were all dead asleep before 7pm.
Up at 4:30am and hiking by 5, we were excited not to have to bring our full sized packs with us for our second day. What a relief when the very first kilometer turned out to be what our guide called “the hill that never ends”. Now, I learned many lessons about myself from Victoria on this trip. She taught me about mind over matter. She taught me about my ability to push through pain and to overcome fear. She also taught me about physics. “Wat goh up mus com don”, she’d whisper in my ear incessantly as I’d propel myself forward over and over again, leaning heavily on my walking sticks. And let me tell you, it’s the downhills that get you! Uphills are physically taxing; they steal your breath, you need to take breaks and you can become exhausted. The downhills though, as you step around rocks, hold onto trees and even slide occasionally, put such a strain on your knees that you’d rather just keep going up.
The benefit to going down, however, is that at the bottom of every hill there is a creek. “Drink and Refill” the guide would say over and over. I had brought the recommended Chlorine tablets with me, but along with everyone else, I drank straight from the creek, unable to wait the required 30 minutes for them to dissolve. I simply refused to make eye contact with the debris floating in my container and promised myself repeatedly that I’d deworm when I returned home.
It was at kilometer 21 that we were told this would be our last creek for the next 10 kilometers, including the summit. It was at kilometer 23 that one of the members of our group decided to turn back. This was where I heard “free climb”. To be specific, my guide’s words were “if someone falls while we’re doing the free climb, don’t try and grab them unless you know you have a really secure hold. It’s better to have one victim, than two”. This was the exact time we starting murmuring to each other with exasperation, ‘how could no one have mentioned this?!’
So, with the guide telling me where to put my hand and then my foot, how to leverage myself over and over again, we started the climb. Now, in all fairness, my good friend Kyle, who manages RumFish restaurant in the village, loved this part of the trip. He enjoyed the adrenaline rush and didn’t feel the same overwhelming and debilitating fear that I did. On a ledge no wider than my foot at one point, I rested, leaning flat against the rock, as the others climbed up behind me. I remember tilting the brim of my hat so that I could not see out. The view was spectacular, I’m sure, but I could not look lest my eyes fill with tears again. I had given my chin strict instructions to maintain a 90 degree angle with my neck and I kept my eyes locked on the rock in front of me. There was no looking down to digest what a fall would actually mean.
And then, the rappel. A rope and a harness between me and what I was sure was my imminent demise, I apologized to my mother over and over in my mind as I prepped for my turn. I was sorry for taking my life so cavalierly. I was sorry for the $10,000 bill she would get from the helicopter company at the top. “I’m sorry, Mom, but there was simply no way that I could climb back down!”, I practiced my speech. Grateful for the strength of both the man at the bottom of the rope and the one at the top, I leaned back and put one hand over the other and made it. Then, with all the energy in the world I raced ahead.
Straight out of Avatar, the moss was light, fluorescent green and thick at this point. Soft on your hands and all around, it was truly beautiful. Buoyant from the adrenaline of surviving, I raced ahead and was the first through the clearing. I stood, hands on my hips, heart in my throat. I had a moment that can only be described as a sheepish concession, where although we’d been in a fight all day, I had to thank Victoria for offering this view that very few get to see. I overlooked the country I love and felt gratefulness and awe.
My friends joined shortly after and we all high fived and drank rum and took selfies, for a whole five minutes before we had to head back. And head back I did. I’d love to tell you that the 27 kilometers home were easier. That we didn’t end up hiking in the dark for an hour and a half that night, that the blisters on my feet didn’t take weeks to heal and that more than four of us made it the entire way without help, but I’m not going to tell you that. I’m writing this to tell you the truth and what nobody told me:
- Bring a sharpie. There are places to sign your name if you’re able to at kilometer 12 and 19.
- There is a capsule at the top that is a diary entry originally from 1993 at Ben’s Bluff (also in Cockscomb) and it was then carried to the top of Victoria Peak. Others have added to it over time and I wish I’d known about it.
- This is not a hike. This is an expedition. Prepare accordingly.
- Have health insurance that covers helicopter evacuation.
- There is a free climb.