Sounds Like a Challenge...I'd just like to note that even though I'm publishing this in October 2010, I wrote it in 2008 just after climbing Chirripó. I've since moved on from Costa Rica but I still miss it. Especially the chicharones.
Continuing on my vain, pointless and futile quest to climb the highest mountain of every country on Earth, I found myself heading to Cerro Chirripó in Costa Rica. This is not as unlikely as it sounds, given that I now live in Costa Rica. In fact you could say that it was inevitable that I would end up there.
Due to having to work five Saturdays on and five off, for 50% of the year I get a three day weekend (the school is closed Fridays). This is not really sufficient time to attempt climbing Chirripó because it takes a day to get there from Heredia, two days to get up and down, and a day to get back. Therefore, I have workers around the world to thank for giving me an extended weekend. Without them there would be no public holiday on 1st May, fortunately this year on a Thursday.
Close to the top of the mountain is a large, well kitted out refuge, the Creostones Lodge. The lodge has sixty beds which are booked up many months in advance; except for ten beds, which are available with twenty-four hours notice. It was one of these ten beds that Justin (fellow teacher, flatmate and pal) and I were trying to score. Actually it was two of these beds, we aren’t that close.
We made it to San Gerardo de Rivas at 2pm via two buses and a truck from Heredia. We deliberately left home early because the ten available beds are offered on a first come first served basis, the day before you wish to use one. We were told at the national park ranger’s office in San Gerardo that all beds were taken. Drat!
We were left with two options:
1. Don’t attempt to climb the mountain. Do something else instead. Come back another time.
However, The Parque Nacional de Chirripó was scheduled to close in two weeks time and wouldn’t reopen until December. We telepathically toyed with the idea of returning for an attempt when the national park is closed but the ranger, sensing our plot, informed us that the closure is due to rains so heavy only Noah could cope. My contract in Costa Rica is for a year so this really was the first and potentially last opportunity I would have to further my vain, pointless and futile quest mentioned earlier. This brought our telepathic toying to option two.
2. Do attempt to climb the mountain but in one day.
Again the ranger sensed our musings (this guy was better than Derren Brown) and began giving us distances, times, altitude gains, and potential other hikes. He suggested we went to a certain point and returned. He discouraged us but never actually said we shouldn’t give it a go. The nail in the coffin for option one and the nudge in the back for option two came when he told us that he knew of only one person who had done it in a day. We were out the door and buying supplies before he had pronounced the full stop.
Basically from the village to the summit and back is a 40km round trip with an altitude gain of 2600m. Previously I had walked that far in a day, but I had never ascended and descended so much without at least a bit of kip in-between. The advantage of not having to carry supplies like two or three days of food, clothes and a sleeping bag could not be underestimated but I still thought we might have been approaching this endeavour too nonchalantly.
We began the trek at 4am. The narrow beams of our head torches lit the way up through the slippery rainforest. It may well have been an advantage to start in the dark because the inky blackness hid what would have been demoralising long and steep climbs.
Despite Thursday’s heavy rains, it was a clear morning and the billions of stars gave way to a beautiful sunrise. As the huge tropical trees gave way to low scrub we were greeted with wonderful views over the Cordillera Talamanca. It quickly got hot as the path became more and more shadeless, but the scenery was sufficient a distraction. As were the hundreds of hummingbirds that seemed to be in competition over who could fly closest to your head.
We reached the lodge at 8.30am (14km and 1800m achieved) and the rangers weren’t quite as surprised to see us as you would have thought if it’s true that only one person had done it in a day before us.
A hearty breakfast of sardines, bread and dried fruit ensued, then we continued ever upward. I had been warned that this stretch was a bit flat and featureless but I really enjoyed it. The path undulated across coarse boggy grasslands through scenery not dissimilar to Cumbria.
The final rocky climb to the summit I was flagging. My legs and lungs reminding me that football once or twice a week may not be sufficient preparation for this kind of hike. Justin skipped up there like a mountain goat; the 2174 mile Appalachian Trail still fresh in his back catalogue of jaunts.
We reached the top of the 3820m peak at 11am feeling knackered but satisfied. Cerro Chirripó is the highest mountain on the Central American Isthmus from Guatemala to Colombia. It is famed for the view of the Caribbean Sea on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other. Giving a sense of not only the small size of Costa Rica, but also, if you want to get smart, the physical barrier that the isthmus has presented to human, animal and plant migrations since time immemorial. Unfortunately this magnificent, and more significant on an anthropological level than your first glance reveals, vista, was completely obscured by cloud, as it is for 367 days of the year. We had the place to ourselves for the 40 minutes we stayed up there, gorging on chicharones (Costa Rica’s national dish – very much like pork scratchings) and feeding the little friendly birds. Then we did the whole trek again but upside down.
Semi-jogging down, the kilometre markers seemed to pass by rapidly until my foot started nagging. This was a football injury that I picked up during my first match in Costa Rica months ago and I mistakenly thought it had cleared up. A heavy downpour further forced us to slow down as the steep slimy path through the rainforest became treacherous. At least it meant I hadn’t lugged my bright yellow and surprisingly heavy thick plastic poncho up the mountain for nowt.
We arrived back in the village at 5pm, ate a lot then slept.
The conclusions and recommendations I will leave you with after this adventure are thus: It is definitely very possible to hike up and down Cerro Chirripó in a day. But don’t. The scenery is too wonderful and the potential for other hikes around the peaks are such that it would be a shame not to spend at least one night in the Creostones Lodge. The previous weekend, Volcan Arenal had become my favourite place in Costa Rica. Now it is Cerro Chirripó.
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