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Is El Tucuche really the second-highest peak?
We learnt in school that El Tucuche and El Cerro Del Aripo are the two highest peaks in Trinidad and Tobago. El Tucuche is the favourite among hikers among the two peaks to climb. To celebrate his 90th birthday, Raymond Banfield is the oldest known hiker to climb El Tucuche. Glenn Wilkes to celebrate his 75th birthday climbed both peaks on the same day.
The elevation of these two mountains El Tucuche and El Cerro Del were calculated using trigonometric levelling and found to be 3072ft (936.345m) and 3,085 ft (940.308m) respectively. The heights of these mountains originated in the Land Surveyors Handbook published in 1935 on trigonometric stations and for 80 odd years, we have been taught this in our geography books. However, at that time the surveying instruments used to measure altitude are now obsolete and may have been associated with errors. These values may not reflect the true elevations at these trigonometric stations. It was done long before GPS or electronic distance measuring equipment was available as part of the land surveyor’s trade.
The department of Geomatics Engineering and Land Management, Faculty of Engineering of the University of The West Indies conducted a survey to determine the true elevation of these mountains. Those involved in the survey were Marcus Arthur, Rajesh Doodlal, Anesh Gopee, Amit Seeram and supervised by Dr Michael Sutherland. Using modern-day GPS technology, the aim of this project was to verify the correct altitude of the mountains. The technique of a static GPS was used whereby several stationery receivers we set up to simultaneously collect data, from at least 4 satellites from an unobstructed sky. GPS receivers were placed on trigonometric stations located at El Tucuche, El Cerro Del Aripo and at the University of the West Indies which has known horizontal and vertical values.
The conclusion confirmed that El Cerro Del Aripo’s 940.796m is higher than El Tucuche's 937.339m and both values are higher than those recorded in 1935.
The late Land Surveyor and accomplished hiker Glenn Wilkes confirmed that while looking over the topographical map of El Cerro Del Aripo noticed an innocuous-looking contour south of El Cerro del Aripo. There was no height given, but by using the contour interval, he counted up from the nearest listed value of 2,750 and determined that it was the 3050 ft. contour, similar to what is shown at both El Cerro and Tucuche. This meant that the peak represented was also between 3,050 and 3,100 ft in elevation, and therefore qualifies for the running for the highest in Trinidad. Also in the Field Naturalist Trail Guide in the description of the hike to El Cerro, there is mention of the 900m(3000ft) spur that occurs just south of El Cerro Del Aripo.
Glenn called this hidden Peak “Pico Escondido” and since it was close to El Cerro he decided to explore the mountain and do proper measurements. El Pico did qualify as a separate peak since it is 600m away from El Cerro which is 100m more than the minimum and prominence of 200 ft which is 50 ft more than the minimum.
On the 16th of April 2015, Glenn, Carl Fitzjames, Chris Kelshall and Dan Jaggernaught hiked up to the summit of El Cerro toting a total station. The plan was to overnight at the top, and at dawn bush-whack to “El Pico Escondido”. He carried a hand-held GPS to navigate the coordinate location which he had scaled off the map and used the total station to measure its height relative to the trig. It took them 6 hours, to cutlass through the thick Elfin Woodland from El Cerro to the summit of El Pico. To mark the summit’s location they placed a survey iron on the ground.
On their next visit to El Pico on the 7th of November 2015, they took Winston Mohammed. He generously committed his company’s geometrics equipment. The aim was to get a more accurate height of El Pico. Glenn used feet as his unit of measurement since it is easier to relate to the traditional values for El Cerro and El Tucuche. They concluded that Pico’s 3077ft may be just about a foot higher than El Tucuche’s 3075.2 ft. Still, more accurate measurements need to be conducted but it seems that El Pico is slightly higher than El Tucuche.
Using popular GPS navigation phone Apps like Strava, Mapme, Gaia GPS, GPX Viewer and Google Maps, hikers are now able to accurately pinpoint the location and see the altitudes of the mountains. This is a game changer for everyone and finding a destination has been simplified. The digital maps show El Cerro 940m, El Pico 930m and El Tucuche 930m. However, the contours at the summit can vary by an additional 1m to 10m.
The expedition to El Pico can be done either from Lalaja Rd located 6 miles on the Arima, Blanchisseuse Road or from the Heights of Aripo Valley. On the steep slopes of Lalaja, there are several fascinating waterfalls to discover the most popular is the Sambasson Waterfall. On the Heights of the Aripo Valley, the trail leads to the Aripo Big Cave. Living inside the cave are the oilbirds or Steatornis caripensis. Until Surveyors are able to explore El Pico, we have to rely on GPS Apps to give us its altitude. In the meantime, we have to wonder if our geography books are correct and El Pico may be the second highest peak.