Chasing Chirripó

After two years of living in Costa Rica, I was never able to obtain a ticket to enter the most notable National Park of Costa Rica: Chirripó. Five months after I left Costa Rica, I finally succeeded in securing an entry ticket, and thus, in January 2015 I made my way up the most magical mountain in Costa Rica…this is my tale…

I set off before sunrise, with the stars twinkling above, and a sliver of a moon glowing high in the sky. My headlamp lit the areas of the ground which the moonlight left untouched and my ears were alert to every rustle in the brush, sure that a puma was about to emerge in my path. I hiked the first two kilometers in darkness, engulfed by the night, and panting, shedding layers as I made my way higher and higher.

Around kilometer three, the dawn began to break. I looked back on the valley below, with the lights of the city glowing a deep golden orange. I breathed in the fresh mountain air and watched the sky fade from black to blue to a light white, signaling that the sun was just behind the mountains, but the sliver of the moon was still shining brightly in the sky.

As I entered the woods, the sky came alive with hues of pink bouncing off every cloud I could see behind the trees. The birds awoke and surrounded me in a chorus of chirps which sounded like the highest and purest notes of a flute, and delighted my ears from every possible direction.

The forest was dense, and I was alone, until suddenly I heard the voices of people, singing loud. I knew I did not want this ruckus disturbing my moment in nature, so I nodded my hellos and walked on by, leaving this small group behind to again find myself alone with my thoughts and the sounds of the forest.

Each kilometer marker has a name, and as I came upon the different sections of the climb they all made sense. I made my way through the goldfinch sector, with the sharp beautiful songs of the birds dancing in the branches above my head. I passed through sectors of bamboo, creaking in the wind, and walked a kilometer where I could hear a rushing river below, but it left me wondering how far down it actually was, because I never once saw it. I made my way through the Old Man’s Beard sector, where beautiful mossy clusters hung from every branch I could see. I couldn’t help but pause and see how I would look with a beard…

As I came upon kilometer 10, I left the forest and began walking in a desert-like land. The sun was shining brilliantly, and it warmed me to my core. The dense, vibrant forest, faded away, and I was left with a spectacular view of where I had come from, and where I would go to. With each step I took, I heard the satisfying crunch of gravel beneath my shoes, moving my forward in my hike up the mountain.

The last 4 kilometers were beautiful, but more brutal than before. It was hot, and I was high in the sky. I paused frequently, catching my breath, and then losing it again as I took a look at my beautiful surroundings. There were flowers blooming, adding a pop of color to the dry hillside, and there were many wind-warped trees, and also trees which had been burnt to a crisp in fires of past decades.

The trail stretched on before me, and as I looked ahead, I was passed by some very fast-paced French walkers. We spoke brief hellos, but I hung back, maintaining my solitude in the beautiful national landscape. As the climb became steeper, the kilometer markers started to have names like the Arripientes, or Your Regrets. There were also signs of encouragement, saying things like, “As you get tired and weary, know that your will to succeed will prevail.” I can honestly say, I thought I was in decent shape beforehand, but the last kilometer took me at least an hour. I was stopping every few steps, catching my breath and reminding myself to enjoy the scenery.

The last trail marker on the trail to the Crestones Base Camp had no name, simply “14”. The trail leveled out, and within a few steps I was greeted by the glorious view of Albergue, or base camp, nestled below. I made my way into the camp registration with a smile, just in time to take a recovery nap before lunch. The base camp is windy, and quite chilly, but looks right out on the magical rock formations, the Crestones.

I had pre-paid for meals, and after eating a delicious “olla de carne” soup, and reviving myself with a cup of cafe con leche, I felt like a completely new person, ready to take on another hike for the day. I had met a friendly couple in the camp, and they gave me a recommendation on hikes to do, and the order which I should do them, in order to maximize my time on the mountain.

I spent my afternoon hiking Los Ventisqueros. This trail was by far my favorite of all that I experienced. It was another steep climb up a beautiful grassy, flowering hillside up to the rocky trail at the top of the mountain range. Again, I was alone with my thoughts and the most spectacular views you could ask for. The clouds started to swirl in around me, and I had a moment of fear that I might be caught in a “white-out” of clouds. They moved quickly by, and I never lost track of my trail, but instead I was constantly surprised at what the clouds would expose and they flew on by. I saw lakes shimmering in sunlight far below, mountaintops peaking out all around, and too many lizards to count.

When I finally came to the top of Los Ventisqueros, I left a note in the signature book, along with a picture and a quote that I always enjoy. “A cloudy day is no match for a sunny disposition.” Even though I had been surrounded by clouds the entire hike, I absolutely loved the trail and thought that it made it even more magical and mysterious. I sat on the top of the mountain and surveyed my surroundings, giving thanks for the opportunity to be in the beautiful Parque Nacional Chirripó.

Making my way back down to base camp was fast, and I arrived in time to take a cold shower while the sun was still shining. I watched the sunset illuminate the Crestones, and ate another typical meal prepared by the ever-smiling Chirripó staff. After socializing a bit, and helping a French-Canadian couple plan their trip through Costa Rica, I made my way up to the bedroom I was sharing with the three fast-paced French walkers from earlier. It was lights out by 8am, and I slept soundly.

3AM came around quickly, and after dressing in the darkness, I made my way outside to start my hike up to Chirripó. I was greeted by rain misting down around me, but the air was warmer than I had anticipated. Within minutes, I was passing other groups of people all with the same intention: to be on top of Chirripó to see the sunrise. For different periods of this trek, I was not alone, and I was glad I had people to follow. For a short period, we were out of the rain, and able to see the most starry sky I have ever experienced. I saw a star shoot across the sky and made a wish deep within my heart.

Just before dawn, we were back in the misting rain, climbing up the steepest part of the mountainside. We emerged at the top, with a few minutes to spare, before the sun started to peek out above the sea of clouds which surrounded us. Everyone at the mountaintop was alone in their own world, yet together, celebrating the fact that we had made it to the top, and we were watching the day unfold. After a few more minutes, the sun melted the clouds away, and we were able to fully appreciate our views. We could see to the Costa Rica-Panama boarder, and we were able to see the beautiful Turrialba volcano steaming in the distance. There were many lakes resting deep below us, and mountaintops popping up around us for as far as the eye could see. It was truly a sight to behold.

As we made our way down, it was a trek that required a crab-like crawl, using both your hands and your feet to help keep steady. I made my way ahead, leaving the group behind, and went on to Valle Los Conejos, where I set off on several different hikes. The first hike, to Laguna Ditkevi, took me over many small rivers, and through lands glistening with dew drops in the sun. It was short hike, and I arrived at the perfectly secluded lake in about 20 minutes. The sun shone brightly from across the lake, and the wind created little ripples which danced across the surface. It was so calm and so peaceful. I ate a bit of breakfast and marveled at the wonders of the world around me.

After making my way back to the Valle Los Conejos I set off on another trek up Cerro Terbi. This steep climb took me to the top of the mountains, where I could look back on all the trails I had traversed so far that day. I could look across the valley to Chirripó, and see the trail leading directly to the peak, with the sign perched on top. From Cerro Terbi, I followed the man-made rock piles which led me to the beautiful Crestones. These massive rock pillars are bigger than buildings, and stand distinctly apart from the rest of the mountainside. The area has strong winds blowing through, but the sun kissed my face and kept me warm within.

As I made my way down the steep trail, back to the base camp, I came upon the most tranquil river. I sat there, listening to the creek babble below, and to the wind blowing through the grasses. It was a little paradise, and it was only five minutes away from the camp.

Lunch was served, and I met some wonderful people who had just made it to the basecamp, sweaty and exhausted as I had felt the previous day. We talked, laughed, and enjoyed the warm typical casado meal, before heading out separate ways.

The trail back down was beautiful, but it was almost more difficult than the way up. The dry and loose gravel of the desert section slid out from underneath your feet, so I found that a “light jog” was the best way to handle it. Around mile 7, I came across the singing group from the day before, and one woman had hurt her ankle. They were awaiting a horse to take her back down the mountain. I headed on alone, but after a kilometer of walking I turned back, worried that the horse might not come and the woman would be stranded there. Just as I arrived back to the group, the horse came, and I ended up walking most of the way back down the mountain with them. Rain came down hard, and stayed with us for 5 kilometers, turning the dirt path to a slippery muddy slope, but around kilometer 2, the sky cleared enough for us to catch a rosy sunset. From that point on, I took off again solo, enjoying the sound of the drops falling on the trees, and the frogs croaking in the woods.

I finished the hike in the darkness, the same way I had started it. I was tired, and my legs were shaky, but I felt an incredible satisfaction deep within. I had hiked over 10,000 feet to the top of the famous Chirripó mountain, and I had lived to tell the tale. Finally, my chase for Chirripó could come to an end, and that chapter of my life in Costa Rica could be complete.

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