Thursday 2 July 2020

Conquering Cerro Chirripo

This post was originally written in 2103

Ever since bad weather prevented me from climbing Volcan Baru in Panama in 2011, I've been thinking about going back to do it. There is something special about the idea of ascending a peak so high that on a clear day allows you to see the ocean on both sides of the country.

In January this year, I got the chance to do one better, Cerro Chirripo, the highest peak in Costa Rica. At 3800m, 400m higher than Baru, this was always going to be a challenge. I wasn't worried about the altitude because I had been higher in Peru with no problems, but was trying to determine the possibility of making the trip to the summit and back in a day. The recommended way is to climb the first 14 km, and stay overnight at the lodge that is situated there, then do the remaining 5 km the following day.

This presented a few challenges; the limited number of park permits meant reserving space in the lodge well in advance or camping at the ranger station to attempt to get one of 10 last minute passes. This, combined with a recommendation I had been given not to attempt it in a day, led me to do the exact opposite.

After picking up our day passes and buying snacks to take with us, my dad and I got an early night so we could begin our trek at 3 am the following day. Officially 38.2 km return (I'd say it was actually closer to 40 km) and 2.5 km of climbing (starting at 1300 m and going up to 3800 m), this would surpass the Grand Canyon and the toughest thing I've ever done.

Racing against the clouds to make it to the summit before the view disappeared, we arrived at the lodge (14 km) just before 8 am. The first 5 km had been mostly uphill, before it leveled out slightly, then started an intense, unrelenting climb for about 4 km between 8 and 12 km. We were walking in the dark until about the 9 km mark, and were treated to amazing views of the Southern Cross just above the horizon (in the northern hemisphere!).

The last kilometre before reaching the lodge was the hardest part of the whole climb. After a strenuous climb to reach 3000 m, the trail does a cruel descent after the 12 km mark. It was disheartening as all our hard work was seemingly undone, and we knew we would have to do it all over again. I don't think that what I was doing after the 13 km sign appeared even counts as walking, it was more like plodding, and took everything I had to get to 14 km.

After stopping for breakfast and checking in with the ranger, we started the last 5 km (I'm sure it was really 6 km), to the summit. The race against the clouds was truly on, we could see them coming in our direction from the Pacific side of the country. Following multiple incorrect guesses about which peak we were climbing, the summit finally came into view. After a few quick photos, we made it up the last, almost vertical, 100 m by 10 am and we were rewarded with near perfect 360 degree views.

There were a few clouds on the Pacific side, but we could see the Atlantic Ocean to the east, the Panamanian mountains to the south, and as far as the active Volcan Irazu in the north, which was sending thick, white smoke into the sky. We also had a great view of the lakes nestled on either side of the peak.

We took pictures, signed the guestbook and chatted with the locals who had also made it to the top. At only a few meters wide, and higher than anything else we could see around, the summit was a magical spot, and we ended up staying there for about an hour. There was something extremely peaceful about eating an early lunch in this isolated place, with only the falcons whizzing by for company. It was a surreal feeling that we were alone, standing on the highest point in Costa Rica, worlds away from the rest of the country bustling below us. We were the last people who made it the summit that day, and with the cloud increasing as we left I wouldn't have wanted to arrive any later.

The way back down started off easier. With no need to worry about the clouds, we took our time and stopped for several rest breaks. With about 8 km to go, I could feel blisters on the side and underneath my toes. From that point on, it was an increasing form of torture, even harder to deal with than the most challenging uphill sections.

I couldn't get back fast enough, for no other reason than to take off my shoes, and arrived back at 4:30 pm, making the day a 13.5 hour round trip. I haven't run a marathon yet, but when I do and I'm feeling tired, I'm going to think of Chirripo. I don't think I will ever find a physical activity more challenging, and that was definitely a once in a lifetime experience.. I am never doing it again!

Accommodation: Hotel Uran (located in San Gerardo 50 m from the trailhead)
Getting there: Bus (2 hours, 1,500 colones) or taxi (half an hour, $30/15,000 colones) from San Isidro
Passes: Stop at the ranger station at the entrance to San Gerardo, cost is $15 for 2 days or $10 for one day (per person). Overnight passes and lodge reservations must be done a few days in advance

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