Cerro Chirripó for the Overconfident & Underprepared

3 May 2010

Last month on the Monkey Project was insanely busy.  On top of my MASSIVE load of data (and emails) that just kept piling up needing attention I was blind-sighted by an eruption of human drama en el campo.  Fortunately I think things have settled for the time being.

The last day of work is usually a half day where we finish up data collection on a group and usually do trail maintenance.  Then everyone comes home, finishes the last of their data editing and proceeds to participate in the End of the Month Party.  I had to take two extra days out of the field at the end of the month just to try to get on top of all my data.  For reasons I won’t get into, I essentially had about 90% of the data collected last month.  That meant full monero-days (i.e. long, 12+ hr days) of editing, dictaphone transcription, and poring over shadow follows of the trainees.  My last day of work was at least 13 hours of data editing, trying to tie up all the most immediate loose ends before I took off for vacation.  At 9:30pm I finally closed up shop and joined the now-drunk and sleepy hoard of people out at the BBQ in town.

After an exhausting month, the thought of spending 5 days in a hammock on the beach drifting seamlessly between napping and reading sounded far more appealing to me than maintaining my commitment to climb Costa Rica’s highest peak, Mt. Chirripo.

Yup. THAT’s what I wanted. But those snuggle-muffin kitties would have to wait 8 more months for me.

But I couldn’t back out, tempting though it was.  I realized that if I didn’t do it then, it wasn’t going to happen.  So after zero minutes of sleep I headed out early on the 26th with Isabel and Whitney.  After a full day of travel we arrived in the small mountainous town of San Gerrardo at the base of the mountain which seemed to be perched in a bowl of high peaks.

San Gerrardo, Costa Rica

We rose the next morning to hike down to the permit office to be there by 5am.  The sky was just starting to lighten as we walked out onto the road from our hospedaje and all three of us were struck with awe as our chins pointed skyward.  Above us the black profile of the surrounding mountains rose up to support a thick dome of cobalt cathedral glass in the richest shade of cobalt imaginable.  I desperately tried to lock into memory the deep blue tone, but my efforts were futile as with every focus of my eyes the tint detectibly evolved and escaped me.  Oh the heartbreaking beauty of impermanence!

The park office opens at 6 but only issues 10 permits a day to stay at the camp up on the mountain, so we needed to make sure we had three of those 10.  We camped out in the dark at the gate enjoying unmemorable conversation.

Fortunately we had no problems getting our permits and headed back to our hostel for what was one of the most delightful days I’d had in a loooong time.  After a glorious hot shower (all my hot showers in the last year have been highly memorable events) we all collapsed back into bed where we spent nearly the entire day sleeping and reading.  It was glorious.  Absurd and delicious.  Isabel didn’t even read.  She just laid there when she wasn’t actually sleeping.  You’d think our room had been exposed to some sort of neurotoxin the way we just laid there like worms.

We DID manage to get up a couple times, though if I’d had it my way I would have played no part in it.  At one point we went for a walk and found this beautiful boulder that I immediately fell in love with: smooth, warm, atop a hill overlooking a valley lined with purple flowers and surrounded by lush mountains.  If I lived there, that would be my reading/napping/lunching/writing rock.  >sigh<  I long for it already.

Begrudgingly breathing fresh air.

We had a predictable but no less enjoyable lunch of Gallo Pinto across from the elementary school where we watched the children carom around the soccer field with their teacher while a smaller subset tirelessly rolled down a hill like little caterpillars spilling off a leaf.

Our marathon mattress-loving time ended in the four o’clock hour of the next morning when we hefted our packs, clicked our buckles and headed out.  It’s never a good idea to underestimate a mountain or overestimate one’s preparedness.  Being that I’ve never climbed a mountain and that I spend the majority of my days backpacking anyway, I made the erroneous assumption that conquering this mountain would be no big deal.  Good lord, was I wrong.

Look at that smug confidence. She has no idea.

Cerro Chirripo’s peak rises 12,530 ft above sea level and is one of Costa Rica’s seven wonders.  Granted, in terms of peaks this is a baby peak (or maybe a grade-school peak), but it was my first one and it kicked my ass.  As you make your way to the top, you pass through rainforest…

cloud forest…

and finally tundra ecosystems…

At the top on a clear day you can see both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.  But the top was still a long way away at this point.

Starting out, my glutes were immediately (and mysteriously) sore.  I must have been running through someone’s thoughts all night!  But seriously, I didn’t think much of it and for the first 3-4 km it did not affect my stride and I powered on ahead of Isabel and Whitney.

Then things changed.

One of these is not like the other. It’s me… snarling.

The burning of my glutes grew steadily more present in my mind until eventually every ascending step was an agonizing force of will and I trailed behind my compañeras.  I did a mental inventory of everything in my pack and censured myself for each unnecessary item I’d foolishly flung into my bag.  Why did I pack that?! I should know better!

On the two reprieving stretches of level ground and the cursed relief of descending slopes that came at kilometers 12 and 13, I was able to resume my usual clip and console my ego.  I realized that it’s just the steep ascents that I was not in shape for and poignantly that was all this was – the essence of what I was doing.  There was no escape.  No way around it.  Only one direction: UP.

After eight hours we finally dragged ourselves in to base camp at 14.5 km.  The refugio is this large stone building that hugs one of the mountainsides.  It has no heating and has solar panels that allow for electricity for an hour after dark, not that we needed it.  We peeled off our rain gear (half our hike was in the rain) and sweat-soaked clothes and Whitney and I braved the icy-cold showers.  We bundled up, ate some cold food, and went to our bunks.  I massaged Isabel’s glutes and thighs and then she blessedly returned the favor.  A lot of people don’t realize the true pleasure and reward of a fist or elbow sinking into your glutes.  It’s glorious.

Dark descended upon us and we bundled up further in all the clothes we had, crawled into our sleeping bags and zonked out.

My alarm went off at 3:15.  Within 20 minutes we were ready to go and headed out to make our summit.  Six more kilometers in the dark.

The break-a, break-a dawn.

We all felt wonderfully refreshed on the trail.  That lasted about 10 minutes.

Fortunately a significant portion of the 6km was through a valley, but every flat plane was balanced out by an even steeper ascent later on.  After two hours we were nearly to the top.

The last leg was just rock and very steep – hands and feet required.  Fortunately, for that last portion the sun was rising so we could climb without flashlights.  It would have been much trickier to climb up in the dark (as many people do) in order to catch the sunrise from the top.

When I finally dragged myself up and over the last rock-face completing my nearly 10,000ft climb I was so exhausted I just collapsed on the nearest rock and let my lungs massage the thinner air.



There were three others atop the peak with us, signing the book, chatting, enjoying the view.  After a few minutes I livened sufficiently and began to look around.  The sky was still clear at that point and the view of the glacial lakes and the layers of mountains in successively lighter shades of blue spanning out into the distance in all directions was simply put: beautiful.

We took pictures, ate some food, signed the book, bundled up in sleeping bags and more layers to fight off the frigid air and basically killed time waiting for the other parties to leave before we could enact our brilliant plan. After a few minutes buffer of the last person leaving Isabel and I sprang into action.

What was our brilliant plan, you ask?  Only the most sensible thing in the world: we got naked.

Whitney was having none of this “foolishness” and did not participate herself but was certainly amused by our antics.  It was exhilarating!  And so much fun!  Standing on top of Costa Rica in nothing but my boots and a hat: awesome.  I think any peak I summit from now on (if I decide to torture myself again (which I most likely will at some point)) will have to be punctuated with my bare ass.

After a couple of hours on top of Costa Rica, we began our invigored descent.  We paused to enjoy the beautiful tundra landscape when I half-jokingly suggested Whitney reconsider the nakedness and offered to join her so as not to feel awkward as the lonely divested monera on a mountaintop.  She adamantly refused the suggestion.  Isabel turned to me and asked in a cheeky voice “want to get naked again?”  Definitely.  So, fully amused with ourselves we stripped down and did a little naked-tundra backpacking.

Because we can.

We made great time going back down the mountain – only took half the time.  We made it half way before it started pouring.  Going down in the rain presented a far greater challenge than going up.  The trail was extremely slippery and the last two kilometers saw me falling again and again.  I was well ahead of my amigas on the way down, what with my healthy knees.  We had planned to take pictures at the bottom for a Before & After but at each waypoint I had no desire to stop.  I wanted to get the hell off the mountain.  Every time I stopped I could feel my legs pulsing with the heartbeat of a hummingbird.  I just kept going until I was done with the 27+ km of the day.  By the time I was done I had lost all euphoric sentiments and was exhausted and grumpy as hell.  Eventually food, a hot shower, warm clothes, a bed and my book restored my contentedness.  We spent the rest of the day supine, reading and playing my new word game (this is where I list all the words I don’t know the definitions of out of my T.C. Boyle book (I am in love with this man’s vocabulary) and other people try to see how many, if any, they know.  Yes, we play vocabulary-building games for fun.)

The next day was the first day of vacation in which we actually got to wake up naturally after the sun had risen.  I think we were all awake by 5:30am and luxuriated in “sleeping in”.  We returned home to Bagaces that day, all having quite a bit of difficulty moving.  Sore all over.  Every time I had to step off of that last extra-high step on the buses without a rail was dicey to say the least.  I never knew if I’d be able to catch myself or if I was just going to crumple to the ground accordion-style.  Fortunately all went well and though I’m still sore the threat of collapse is no more.


2 responses to “Cerro Chirripó for the Overconfident & Underprepared

  1. What a well-written story of your amazing adventure! Reading this again was just as exciting as the first time around. Fit as you are, it’s difficult for me to imagine you struggling on a climb. But, the detail you shared leave me no doubt that you were not exaggerating. The love the caption for that one photo: Because we can. Defiant. Wild. Brilliant!

  2. I wish Erin, Bec and I could’ve done that with you! What a blast! You make me wish I’d done so much more while I was there. I still want to go to Nica with you one day… Or maybe India.

    Naked on a mountain? Love it.

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