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Costa Rica Update #6: Cerro Chirripó

Posted by kevinwolz on July 2, 2011

I had never climbed a mountain before. Hell, I’m from Illinois…not too surprising I guess. Living in a valley surrounding by these beasts for over a month now, there was no way I was going to pass up the opportunity to climb the tallest of their kind here in Costa Rica. Maxing out at an incredible 3,820 m (12,533 ft), I have had my eyes on conquering Chirripó since I first stepped foot in its territory. Last week, I finally headed out to the do the job.

My lack of experience became blatantly obvious as I began to pack my backpack: I had to idea what to bring. A bit of research on current weather conditions shed light on the clothing situation, but the “3 days of food” thing was a bit more complicated. I didn’t know how much I could eat in three normal days let alone three days of strenuous activity. In the end, I had no choice but to over-estimate. Overloaded shoulders sounded better than going hungry.

The Climb

June 23, 2011 – 4 am: My alarm sounds early, but the sun won’t rise for another hour. It’s necessary to start the climb early for the best views and to beat the predictable afternoon rain. After a traditional Costa Rican breakfast of eggs, toast, and gallo pinto, the hostel owner drives me down the road to the trailhead. As usual, everyone is running on Tico-time, and my departure is delayed.

5:30 am: I strap on my backpack. It is heavy but comfortable. I am happy that I spent the extra money to get a good one. I know my body will thank me later.

5:53 am: Kilometer marker #1. Ever a runner, I split my watch.

7:27 am: Kilometer marker #5. Average pace thus far has been about 23 minutes per kilometer, but this means very little to me as I have nothing to compare it to. I decide to take a short break for a few PB&J’s. This staple will make up 50% of my diet for the next two days.

8:04 am: I pass the first individual returning from the summit. She simply nods, failing to reveal anything of what lies ahead.

8:35 am: I reach the half-way point of today’s climb, 7.5 kilometers in. There is a small building with clean water and dry place to sit. It is only used as an emergency refuge. I don’t stay long.

8:45 am: Kilometer #9 begins. Climbing a net 217 meters, it is the steepest kilometer of the hike. My legs truly begin to tire, and I must stop to stretch my calves.

9:34 am: Legs are in need of a break, and stomach needs some fuel. I eat some refried beans on tortillas and chips. This staple will make up the other 50% of my diet for the next two days.

10:05 am: The surrounding ecology changes dramatically and rapidly. Within a few hundred meters, all trees vanish as I emerge from the forest below into a grayish landscape of burnt stumps and small shrubs. My emotions change with the landscape, as if the burn scars tell my instincts this place is unsafe. I have entered an area recovering from a forest fire. Ecological succession hard at work.

10:21 am: It starts to drizzle. I have been lucky with the rain so far. I am reluctant to stop but quickly take out my rain gear and backpack cover to prevent future misery.

10:47 am: Kilometer #11.5. I crest Monte Sin Fe (Faithless Mountain) and get to enjoy some downhill hiking for the next kilometer or so. The end is drawing near. The rain has stopped, failing to become anything significant. This is why you hike in the morning.

11:38 am: I crest a smaller hill and lose my breath once I see what lies in the valley below: Crestones Base Camp, my home for the night. The view is magnificent. I stop to take pictures.

12:00 pm: Kilometer #14.5. At 3,400 meters, I have reached my goal for the day. The last kilometer was the hardest of the climb, taking me over half an hour. I check in, find my bed, remove my clothes, and lay in my sleeping bag for an hour of recovery. It has been a great day.

2:10 pm: I head to the kitchen ready to refuel with some hot food. The ranger tells me that I was supposed to bring my own gas. NO one told me this at the bottom. We exchange some strong and pointed Spanish. My dreams of spaghetti quickly fade to some more PB&J and refried beans.

4:04 pm: I hike down the trail a bit towards Chirripó, hoping to catch a good view of the sunset. I am surrounded my mountains and can’t find a lookout my  legs can agree with.

7:30 pm: After exchanging stories of the climb with my two roommates, I head to bed in the cold bunk room with one layer of clothes and a thin sleeping bag.

———————————–

June 24, 2011 – 2:30 am: My alarm wakes my mind, but my body is unwilling to go with it. It is necessary to start early. My roommates and I will finish the trek together. Our goal is to see the sunrise from the top of the world.

2:41 am: I pound down some granola and dress with every layer I brought.

3:03 am: We head out the door, into the pitch black. It is drizzling and quite windy, but I am clad in my full rain gear and feel well protected. I switch on my headlamp. It works. I’m happy I bought the good one.

3:10 am: The sign says five kilometers to Cerro Chirripó. We hike in a line as the path is not as wide as yesterday’s. It starts relatively flat, but we know we must climb over 400m.

3:42 am: We pass several small waterfalls, full with last night’s rain. Every time the trail rises, my legs tire more. Every time the trail drops, my heart sinks with it. The more we descend now, the harder it will be later.

4:05 am: We hit a high point in the trail and decided to turn our lights off for a moment. Once our eyes adjust, we can see silhouettes of the ominous objects surrounding us. We make bets on which one is Chirripó.

4:15 am: I spot a rabbit, one of the few mammals that lives in the Páramo ecosystem that dominates at this altitude.

4:26 am: The trial grows steeper. This must be Chirripó. As we gain elevation, the wind quickens and the temperature drops. My heart rate intensifies as my muscles demand more despite the rapidly thinning air.

4:41 am: The path becomes less defined. Our hiking turns into scrambling as we begin the final ascent.

4:58 am: The waving Costa Rican flag comes into sight. We have reached the summit. All pain leaves my body as the adrenaline rushes in.

5:04 am: We make breakfast as we wait for sunrise. The light begins to break, but nothing can be seen past the sign and the surrounding ground. We are in a cloud – a consequence of climbing in the rainy season.

5:16 am: Several more groups reach the summit and random bouts of picture-taking begin. No one wants to be the photographer because it requires taking at least one glove off.

5:2o am: Everyone stands next to each other facing east. We look in exasperation, hoping for the clouded sky to break. My goal of seeing three countries and two oceans quickly fades from my mind. As this fire inside fades, the cold wind takes over and I begin to shiver.

5:23 am: All of a sudden, a strong wind blows across the peak. The expressions of grief are quickly replaced by silence as the cloud engulfing us moves on. We can see everything.

5:29 am: I try to capture a few pictures, but don’t expend much effort as I know nothing can capture what my eyes currently see. Instead, I just watch in awe.

6:01 am: We begin the descent back to the camp. Despite taking the same route, nothing looks familiar. We can now actually see where we’re going.

6:20 am: I make several stops to examine the extraordinary plants that live in this unique ecosystem. Thick leaves, small flowers, and unusual pigments are typical here…all in an effort to fight the strong rain, wind, and ultraviolet rays.

7:48 am: We make it back to the base camp and have more breakfast while packing our backpacks. We waste no time continuing down the mountain. We want to miss the afternoon rain.

12:15 pm: We are halfway down from the base camp. The going has been rough. Last night’s rain has demolished the trails. Walking sticks are often essential to remain upright.

2:25 pm: As the end nears, we get anxious and push the pace. But then, the rain starts. Slowly at first, but not for long. The trail turns into a network of streams as the water flows past us. We have two kilometers left and push on towards the end.

3:30 pm: I arrive at the trailhead. I have completed the descent in about the same time as the ascent the previous day. My legs shake as my quads become confused with how to act on level ground. I simply smile with joy and think about the next mountain I will conquer.

Summary (for those engineers who find it difficult to interpret dramatic prose): for each direction….

∆x = 20 km     ∆y = 1,760 m     ∆t = 6.5 hrs     max HR = 180 bpm

Pictures

Cerro Chirripó

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6 Responses to “Costa Rica Update #6: Cerro Chirripó”

  1. Roger said

    Great story, I felt like I was there. It’s one of those things that you wonder, why am I doing this but happy when your back down at the bottom and can share with someone who hasn’t done it yet.

  2. Joan said

    Kevin,

    What a wonderful experience! Loved the play-by-play. It was so real….I felt your exhaustion,
    cold, hunger and all the thrills, too.
    Want to hear more about it!
    GB

  3. Ann Brame said

    KEVIN- I AM A FRIEND OF GRACE. I HAVE A SON 23 AT AUBURN UNIVERSITY (AL)
    GRADUATES 12/11 WITH ELECTRICAL ENGINEERING DEGREE.
    HE JUST GOT MARRIED SO I AM SO HAPPY!

    I HAVE ENJOYED READING ALL YOUR BLOGS, AND APPRECIATE THE FACT THAT
    YOU ARE NOT ONLY VERY SMART, BUT A “LIFE LEARNER” WILLING TO SHARE
    YOUR WONDERFUL TRAVELS AND EXPERIENCES WITH OTHERS.
    SOMEDAY, I WANT TO MEET YOU AND ASK YOU SOME GARDENING QUESTIONS.
    I AM STUCK IN ALABAMA, (NOT FOR LONG), HEADING TO WISCONSIN IN FUTURE.
    SO I WATCHED YOUR GARDENING PROCESS AT YOUR PARENTS HOME.

    HEY=I LIVED IN ALASKA FOR 26 YEARS-SOMEDAY TAKE A LONG TRIP UP NORTH.
    YOU WILL LOVE THE BEAUTY AND EASE OF TRAVELING THROUGH THE STATE.
    NEVER EVER SKIMP ON OUTDOOR GEAR=ALWAYS GET THE BEST=IT IS WITH
    YOU FOR ALL OF LIFE’S ADVENTURES.

    REI-IS VERY GOOD IN HELPING YOU DECIDE WHAT GEAR TO GET FOR DIFFERENT
    TRIPS. SO JOIN WITH REI=YA GET DIVIDENDS AT THE END OF YEAR ON GEAR
    YOU BUY.
    AK HAS A BOOK (55 WAYS TO HIKE ALASKA)-SOME OF THE BEST MOUNTAINS
    TO HIKE ARE IN THE BOOK.
    I WENT TO MC NEIL RIVER TO SEE THE BEARS FEEDING ON SALMON.
    IF YA DIDN’T BRING IN GAS FOR YOUR STOVE, SOMEONE WAS KIND ENOUGH
    TO SHARE. HAD TO FLY IN ON A BEAVER, AND THEY WEIGHED MY GEAR,
    BEFORE I GOT ON THE PLANE. ANYTHING OVER THE LIMIT, COULDN’T GO.

    SO YOU REMIND ME OF MY GOOD OLE DAYS OF ADVENTURES.
    NEVER STOP TRAVELING OR LEARNING.
    SEE YOU IN FUTURE,
    KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK IN SCHOOL.

  4. Jim said

    Hey Kevin,

    Your blog is awsome on just about every level I can think of.

    Jim Macchia (a Batastini relative)

  5. puravidaeh said

    Hi Kevin – just stumbled across your blog and really enjoyed your Chirripó post. We receive tons of questions about Cerro Chirripó from clients visiting Costa Rica and despite the detailed information we provide, the experience captured by your writing is definitely worth sharing. In the future when we have clients interested in Chirripó we will forward them to your blog post. I hope to write a post re: Chirripó in the future and will link back to the above article when I do so. Pura vida (from La Fortuna de San Carlos)!
    http://www.costaricatravelblog.wordpress.com
    http://www.puravidaeh.ca

  6. Dale & Joyce said

    Grampa and I are sure enjoying your posts. I felt like I was climbing the mountain with you – perhaps you should look into putting all of these adventures in a book to be published. Just glad I didn’t have to carry that backpack.
    Love,
    Gramma & Grampa

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