San Gerardo de Rivas, Costa Rica – At 3820m, Mount Chirripó is the highest peak in Costa Rica. It’s higher than any mountains in New England, which are the only mountains I have ever climbed. And it’s certainly higher than Wachusett Mountain, which is the only “mountain” I climbed in preparation for this adventure. So you can understand why I was nervous.
And by the way, my fears were not unfounded. This sucker was hard.
Daddio was worried about me hiking by myself. I felt certain there would be plenty of people on the trail. But I promised him that I would find some friends to start with, even if we didn’t stick together the whole time. My guesthouse Casa Mariposa was just a few steps from the trailhead, so there were other hikers staying there. When I confessed how nervous I was, a friendly Dutch couple invited me to join them; and we ended up doing the entire route together.
Leg One: The Approach
The first leg was a 14.5km climb from the start at 1520m to Crestones base lodge at 3400m. This was a spectacular, invigorating, excruciating day. We had amazing weather, which made for fantastic views, in and out of the cloud forest.
Several parts of the route are steep–and seemingly endless. The owner of Casa Mariposa had told me “You just have to embrace the unrelenting up-ness on the first day,” so that’s what I tried to do. It was good advice. I took my time, I took in the marvelous scenery, and the whole thing–more than once–took my breath away.
About halfway up, we met an older woman and her younger friend who were on their way down. The woman, Brenda, was 74 years old. She had rented out her house and was traveling the world, seeing the sights and having adventures that she never had in her youth. They showed us a video of Brenda climbing up the rocks–on hands and feet–scrambling up to the final summit. Later, that little video clip would be critical.
The last 1.5km (the steepest!) was in the driving rain and freezing wind. But it was not hard to power through, knowing the end was so close. I arrived soaking wet and shivering, but totally stoked.
Leg Two: The Summit
The second leg was a 5km trek from base camp to Mount Chirripó summit at 3820m. We started at 3am in hopes of watching the sunrise from the summit. We were guided by millions and millions of stars in the black sky.
Unfortunately we lost the trail in the dark (so much for being guided by the stars). That was not as scary as it sounds, as we felt fairly certain we would be able to find our way once it was light out. (And yes, it helped a lot that I was not alone!) But we did waste at least an hour wandering around and waiting for the light of day before we could continue.
Most of the route was over fairly even ground in the gorgeous Valle de los Conejos.
But the last bit was real climbing, scrambling on all fours over rocks to do the final 120m to reach the summit. (No pictures because I needed my hands to climb! Plus, I was beat.) By this time, the clouds had rolled in and we couldn’t even see the peak we were trying to reach. I would spot my hiking companions on a plateau ahead of me, and I would call to them “Are you at the top?” The reply kept coming back “Not yet!”
“Are you at the top?”
I was exhausted from yesterday’s exertion, and every next level was an enormous effort. Then I came to a spot I had seen before–the day before–in Brenda’s video clip. I remembered how Brenda summoned her strength and pulled herself up. I realized “Brenda did this, and I’m going to do this too.” And I did.
Actually, that became my mantra for the rest of the climb. “Brenda did this and I’m going to do this too.” If only Brenda knew what an inspiration she was.
So we made it to the top of Mount Chirripó. The clouds roiled around the summit and the wind was vicious. We could barely see each other, let alone the views of both coasts that we were promised. It felt a bit anticlimactic, to be honest.
But later, a fellow hiker remarked that having the clouds swirl around your head at the country’s highest peak is a “spiritual experience.” Just like sunny skies, glorious views, driving rain and steep climbs: all spiritual experiences. I’m going to go with that.
Leg Three: The Descent
We hiked back to base camp in the rain. We decided to have breakfast and wait out the rain before continuing. This was not a bad strategy, as we ended up with decent weather for the entire 14.5 descent.
What we didn’t count on was the muddy trails. Super slippery. The going was very slow, and it took nearly 8 hours to reach the bottom. Last 3km in the pitch dark. (The cloud forest comes alive at night!) But we made it, exhausted, exhilarated and mud-covered. Pure vida.