Climbing Cerro Chirripo – Costa Rica’s Highest Summit

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The two of them stand alone at the trail head, adjusting their walking poles.

L: What time is it?

D: Err…6am.

L: Where’s everyone else? There were a dozen people queuing for permits with us yesterday, just during the hour that we were there, and presumably lots of others we didn’t see. I think they let 50 people a day climb the mountain.

D: They must all be starting later than us. Or earlier.

L: So this sign says we’re at 1520 metres. What time d’you reckon we’ll get to the refuge? Normally a 16km walk would take us about 5 hours, but we’ve also got to gain almost 2000 metres of altitude. That is a LOT of climbing. What if we don’t make it before dark? We could be trampled to death by tapirs. They’re nocturnal. And enormous.

D: It’ll be fine. We’ve got 11 hours of daylight. And torches. And tapirs are really shy.

L: Alright then.

D: It’s the jaguars we should be worried about.

They start walking steeply uphill on a clearly-defined path, past acutely sloping meadows carpeted in blue flowers, and a well-tended coffee plantation. The views are of forested hillsides and the scattered tin roofs of the village on the valley floor.

D: It’s a great path.

L: (panting) A lot less muddy than Devon.

L: (pausing) A lot less rocky than Italy.

L: (setting off again) Quite steep though.

D: Look, we’re coming up into the cloud forest.

L: (panting) Lovely mosses trailing off the branches.

L: (pausing) Gorgeous ferns.

L: (setting off again) Fabulous bamboo.

D: Stop. What’s that?

L: Yikes. Am I about to step on a snake?

D: No. Look – monkeys, way up there. Lots of them. With babies. I think they’re capuchins.

L: (craning her neck back uncomfortably) Wow, seriously tall trees! Apparently the biggest ones are oaks, which can get up to 50 metres tall. They poke out above the rest of the canopy.

She stretches her neck and looks at the ground.

L: Why is the path littered with leeks?

D: They’re not leeks. They’re bromeliads. Epiphytes. The monkeys must be throwing them down.

They continue.

L: (panting) D’you think we’ll see a quetzal?

L: (pausing) D’you think we’ll see an ocelot?

L: (setting off again) Do you think there’ll be a café just ahead?

D: Don’t be ridiculous. We’re now 7km from the nearest driveable track. Stop. What’s that?

L: Yikes. Snake?

D: No. I see a café just ahead.

L: Don’t be mean. That’s just mean. I need a fizzy drink.

Astonishingly, there is indeed a café – a small wooden hut, with decked terrace, four tables and a large list of available drinks.   D orders coffee, in a big white china mug and L enjoys a fizzy orange sugar-rush.

L: This is the best sort of mountain. All the blog accounts I’ve read just talk about the struggle and the steepness. None of them mention how beautiful the forest is. None of them mention the CAFÉ!

On they go.

Ahead, they hear shouts and laughter, and are passed suddenly by four heavily laden pack horses thundering down the track, followed by their keepers, descending the mountain at a comfortable jog.

L: What were they carrying?

D: It looked like laundry. And maybe rubbish. From the refuge. That would explain how the café gets stocked – probably by the horses on their way back up.

L: (panting) We must keep a look out for a bird called the buffy tufted-cheek.

D: Good name. What does it look like?

L: No idea.

L: (pausing) Do you hear that? Maybe that’s him. It sounds like a violinist tuning up.

L: (setting off again) Or a squeaky hinge blowing in the wind. He’s excellent.

(Days later, L identifies the bird as a black-faced solitaire. She types “squeaky hinge bird” into Google and he pops up immediately.)

On they go.

At the 11km mark, they find themselves at 3200 metres, having done the majority of the climbing.   The cloud forest has thinned at this altitude, and there is evidence of an old but widespread bush-fire, with great columns of bare tree trunks thrusting skywards. For the next 3km the path undulates, with lower shrubby plant growth to either side, pink cystus and wild lupin in flower. The views open up to reveal forested ridges devoid of any evidence of man, for as far as the eye can see. They stop for lunch.

L: D’you know that this is one of Costa Rica’s largest National Parks?

D: I didn’t.

L: Other than Cerro Chirripo, which of course is the highest peak in the country, the park has two other mountains over 3800m.

D: Excellent. Shall we climb them all?

L: I think one might be enough.

Then the clouds roll in and envelop them.

L: I think it’s raining.

D: It’s not rain. It’s cloud.

L: It’s rain. Can we stop and get out our waterproofs? I might have to sleep in these clothes. I don’t want them to get wet.

D: It might be drizzling. It’ll stop in a minute. Our waterproofs aren’t waterproof anyway.

L: It hasn’t stopped. It’s getting worse. I’ve got some excellent duct tape on mine. They are as good as new.

The heavens open.

D: OK, it’s raining.

They stop in the shelter of a tree to pull on their jackets and waterproof trousers. And then continue. For the last hour, they walk in a steady downpour.

L: It’s nice and cool walking in the rain. If it were sunny we’d be miserable. And hot. And thirsty. This bit is seriously steep.

D: I’m glad we haven’t needed the 4 litres of water I’ve been carrying. Not heavy at all.

L: I read that Chirripo means “Land of Eternal Waters.” They get up to 7 metres of rainfall a year.

D: Are you sure that’s right? We’ll be lucky not to drown.

L: (changing the subject) Look how fit we are – overtaking those people.

D: They’re in their sixties.

L: Oh. Still. We won’t get there last. Uh oh.

D: What?

L: Catastrophic duct tape failure. My coat is leaking like a sieve.

The path eventually levels out and ahead they see a cluster of breezeblock buildings with tin roofs, in a rough grassy cleft between two jagged ridges.

D: That is the Crestones refuge. I think we’ve made it. What time is it?

L: Half past two. I don’t think we got here very fast. But at least it’s not dark.

They enter through the dining room, which is crowded with around 40 hikers of a dozen nationalities. An efficient woman ticks them off a list and then leads them along a long concrete corridor and up a steep flight of stairs to a line of dorms. Their room contains two pairs of bunk beds. The other pair has been claimed. The mattresses consist of a wooden board covered with an inch of foam and a layer of vinyl. Innumerable blogs mention how uncomfortable they are.

Woman: Here you are. You have a pillow and sleeping bag on each bed. There are lockers for your stuff. The bathrooms are at the end of the hall. There are showers but no hot water. Dinner is 6-7pm and lights out at 8pm.

D: Lights out?

Woman: We turn off the generator. After eight, there is no electricity in the building. Do you have torches?

D: Umm….yes.

They thank her and she leaves.

L: This is actually much nicer than I feared. And spotlessly clean. That last flight of stairs nearly killed me though. I’m really puffed and I’ve got a headache.

D: Not surprising. We are at 3400 metres.

L: So I’ve got altitude sickness. Am I going to die?

D: Probably not. Take a painkiller and have a kip.

They drape dripping rucksacks, coats, trousers, socks and other clothes around the frame of their bunk bed, where it fails to dry in the chilly little room. L dons extra dry clothes and has a rest. D, as though not having taken quite enough exercise yet, goes for a walk.

At sun down, the temperature drops like a stone. After a mountain of spaghetti Bolognese, there is nothing for it but to go to bed before being plunged into darkness. They wriggle into their sleeping bags. D has kept his T-shirt on.

D: Are you going to be warm enough?

L: (happily) Oh yes, I’m wearing everything I brought. Two pairs of socks, two pairs of leggings, four tops including my thermal jumper and my fleece. And a woolly hat. And gloves. I’m toasty.

They set their alarms for 2.40am, and the lights go out.

3am

They creep along the refuge corridor by the light of their torches and let themselves out. To their surprise, almost no-one else is around and they can hear snoring from nearby rooms.

L: I thought everyone got up at this time so as to be on the summit for sunrise.

D: Maybe they all walk faster than us and so don’t need to get up quite as early.

L: Well I must say, it’s very efficient sleeping in all one’s clothes. I got straight out of bed and was ready to go. Just needed to clean my teeth. I might do that more often.

D: There’s a temperature gauge on that pole. What does it say?

L: Three degrees. Balmy. The coldest ever temperature recorded in Costa Rica was up here somewhere. Minus 9.

They set off. It is pitch dark. They won’t see a glimmer of dawn for at least two hours.

L: Oh my gosh, look at the stars. I had no idea there could possibly BE so many stars!

The night is cloudless and there is a total absence of light pollution. The sky is truly magnificent.

They start walking, swiftly realising that their torches should be as close to the ground as possible, held at arms’ length, mid thigh, so as to sufficiently light their way. Without them on, they cannot see their hands in front of their faces. The path is flat, but crossed by numerous ditches and drainage channels. After a while, a crescent moon rises, on its back, from behind a silhouetted peak. They can just about make out that they are crossing a huge plain, encircled by mountains. They are above the treeline – up here the vegetation is mostly coarse grass and clumps of dwarf bamboo.   Several times the path leads them to wide expanses of limestone bedrock, where it is necessary for D to scout around to find the onward route. In the distance, way ahead of them, they glimpse a cluster of four tiny torch lights, and another group of two. A long way behind, a few more torches have appeared but get no nearer.

An clearing of short rabbit-grazed grass shimmers at their feet. There is the barest sprinkling of frost.

They begin to climb, picking their way slowly up the rock-strewn path, step by step.   All focus is on the ground and the careful placing of feet, but every time they pause, they are again entranced by the great dome of night sky above them.

L: (for the twentieth time) Just look at those stars.

The path gets steeper, and rockier, and eventually the sky begins to lighten through a pass between two peaks.

L: Is that the one we are going up?

She points at the taller of the two peaks.

D: No, it’s deceptive, it must be nearer to us. The one we need to climb is over there.

L: Oh yes, I see the torches now, heading vertically up the side. Hell that looks steep.

They reach the pass as the horizon begins to glow a vivid orange, blackening the wisps of cloud above in sharp contrast.

The last half hour is a vertical scramble and a race against time.

D: Pass me your sticks. Turn off your torch. You’ll be better off without them. Use your hands.

They reach the summit, breathless, before the sunrise, and greet a dozen others who have also made it – half of them Ticos, but also a sprinking of Europeans: German, Austrian, Norwegian. Some sit silently, almost meditatively, others chat, delve into their packs for snacks, or take photos. There is a brisk, chill breeze snapping at a proudly flying Costa Rican flag, and a large wooden board proclaiming: Cerro Chirripo – Altitude 3820 metres.

L: Take a photo of me. By the flag. By the sign – can you read what it says?     I know I’m wearing 20 layers, but make sure I look thin.

The sky lightens – the blackened wisps of cloud flare orange and the landscape around them is revealed. Layer upon layer of wooded and grassy peaks stretch away in every direction, and below them, at the pass beneath the summit, is the glimmer of several small lakes.

And then the moment that they have all been waiting for. The sun rises and immediately paints the landscape golden. A moment savoured, and shared, is then over, and the climbers start to pick their way back down.

The return to the refuge is easier, but shocking.

L: I can’t believe we did this in the dark, without breaking all our legs.

She skids on loose rocks and catches herself.

D: Look how beautiful it is. The peaks, the cliffs, this great big grassy bowl. Paramo, they call this landscape – above the treeline. There’s even a proper mountain stream. With a pool. Right, I’m swimming.

In an instant D has shed all his clothes and is standing naked on the bank.

L: Blimey – at least get in the water. Everyone can see you!

D: What everyone, there’s no-one around. It’s perfect. And anyway, the water is going to be unbelievably cold, so I’m not getting in until you’ve got the camera out to capture the moment. Are you ready?

L: I’m ready.

He leaps into the pool with a bellow.

D: Bloody hell that’s freezing! Quick, take it, stop messing around, damn you, take the picture, so I can get out!

Back at the refuge, they are too late for breakfast, but the kitchen staff produces tea and buttered toast.

L: What are you doing?

D: Sprinkling sugar on my toast. You should try it.

L: That’s delicious. I think we were fed this when we were children. More sugar please.

D: We’d better get a move on.

L: I’ve done some sums. Today, including where we’ve already been this morning, we will walk 27km, up 420m and down 2300m. That is one giant day.

D: But the sun is shining and the birds are singing. It’ll be great.

So down they go.

D: Stop, what’s that?

L: Yikes! Snake?

D: No, orchid. I need to take a photo.

And…

D: Stop, what’s that?

L: Yikes! Snake?

D: No, a blue and green lizard.   I need to take a photo.

And…

D: Stop. Stand still.

L: Now what do you need to photograph, for pity’s sake?

D: Nothing. Just walk gently back towards me. You are about to step on a snake.

In front of L’s shoe, a metre of black snake slithers casually across the path and regards them from the safety of the bank.

L: (weakly) Thank you for saving me. Please can I have a biscuit?

And…

L: It’s a long way down. My feet hurt. And my knees.

D: You walk much too slowly – you’re prolonging the agony. Let’s whizz-path.

L: Let’s what?

D: Whizz-path. It’s what we did when we were kids. You run downhill letting the momentum carry you. I still find it much the easiest way to lose altitude.

So they whizz-path. And it works. For a time.

L: Stop, stop. My brain isn’t talking to my feet any more. I’m going to fall over and break everything.

D: OK. We’re nearly down. Only 3km to go.

And….

D: Only 2km to go. How are your feet?

L: Comedy.

D: What do you mean, comedy?

L: You know when someone in a cartoon hits their hand with a hammer and their hand turns bright red and starts throbbing? That’s my feet. Comedy feet.

And…

D: Only 1km to go. Don’t sit down now.

L: Go on without me. Just leave me here to die.

D: Don’t they have an outdoor hot-tub at our hotel? Next to the pool?

L: Do they? I don’t know. Maybe. I didn’t notice. I don’t care.

And finally….

L: Oh my goodness – this is complete bliss. It’s as hot as a bath. Put your feet against the jets – it’s a perfect foot massage. I’m in absolute heaven.

D: (wallowing happily up to his neck in bubbles) Well, of course it’s difficult to compete with my morning dip, but it’s not a bad way to end the walk. Not bad at all.

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