Climbing Cerro Chirripo, Costa Rica

In August 2018, I was extremely fortunate to spend three weeks in Costa Rica with work. When I say fortunate, in the three weeks I had only one weekend free and worked 12 hour days pretty much every day. I also experienced a minor tremor on my first day, with my computer monitor shaking on it’s stand. My colleagues told me they like those, as it means a gentle release of pressure. It’s when there are long periods of inactivity that they start to worry.

If you only have one weekend in three at your own leisure, you really ought to make the most of it. So I had arranged, with the help of colleagues in Costa Rica who soon became friends, to organise to climb the highest mountain in Costa Rica – Cerro Chirripo. At 3820 metres, or 12,533 feet, it’s a proper hill. Much bigger than anything in the UK, although also nowhere near as far north. So whilst I certainly wasn’t underestimating what was required to climb it, I also knew that smaller hills in Scotland pose as much if not a bigger risk, especially in their winter clothing. So I felt prepared.

There are a few differences climbing this mountain to climbing in the UK. Firstly, a permit is needed to climb it and numbers are limited each day on safety grounds. Secondly, the climb is well signposted. This is an emotive subject in the UK since generally hillwalkers don’t want signposts on the hills, but actually I quite liked it on this occasion. Each kilometre is named, and marks your progress on what turned out to be an extremely tough climb for a chubby guy from the UK!

Once work had finished on the Friday, we jumped in the car and headed off to the registration centre in San Gerrado. Here I showed my passport and was given a permit and also some vouchers to get meals at the base camp centre in Crestones, where we would spend the night before summiting the next day.

We had a meal there, and then headed to our hotel, Hotel Uran just metres from the trail head. After ordering our packed lunch for the climb and enjoying a beer, we agreed our start time for the next morning. 4am! I asked twice if it was necessary to start that early, only to be assured that it was.

All too soon, the alarm sounded and I dragged myself up, showered and packed. The shower was completely pointless, since it was so humid even at 4am that I was dripping before I had even started walking. We met outside and grabbed our packed lunches and filled our water bottles. Then, off we went.

It was after 100 metres that I realised that I really wasn’t used to walking in such humid conditions. I was huffing and puffing and soon I was wondering if I could even do this. The base camp was 15 km away, and 2200 metres higher than I was now. To put that in perspective, I had to climb Scafell Pike more than twice, in high humidity hot conditions I was not used to walking in. After what seemed like an age I came to the first kilometre marker. Only to find it was a sign that said “Hotel Uran – 500 metres”, clearly designed to encourage those coming down that they were almost there. This was going to be a long day!

Before long, in the light of my head torch came the first marker. Progress! I continued trudging up the path, gradually acclimatising to the conditions. And as the light started to come up I realised how beautiful the landscape was as I climbed through the cloud forest.

We stopped to eat our wraps, which is when I realised putting it in my pocket was a bad idea even, as it was, wrapped neatly in tin foil. Beans, cheese and bits of wrap had smeared their way into my trouser leg and what was left was about half what I had set off with. However, it was food and I greedily ate it at the 4 kilometre marker. We continued the climb, by now with burning legs and wishing I wasn’t so proud to have declined the option for horses to carry my pack up.

We continued up the track, and I don’t mind admitting I had to stop quite frequently for water and a breather. But I’m a stubborn man and I kept going until eventually reaching the “Refugio” or mountain hut at Llano Bonito at the 7 kilometre mark. Here there are toilets, a standpipe to replenish water (a good job as I’d run out) and even a small shop selling a few essentials. A bit bizarre in the middle of the forest half way up a mountain, but probably no more bizarre than having a cafe at the summit of Snowdon. I took the opportunity to refuel and have a drink, and a short rest. Soon we were off again.

As we set off, my hosts declared the next section to be the “Cuesta de los Arrepentidos“. As someone who is a little challenged when it comes to Spanish, I assumed this meant “lovely stroll with great views”. Turns out it means “slope of the repenters”. Soon my enthusiasm for the climb was reduced to muttering and swearing up every metre. And by the time I was finally reaching the base camp at Crestones, it seemed to never get any closer. I reached a peak of swearitude, but I made it.

After arriving in the basecamp, we checked into our room, had a cold water shower and changed into more comfortable clothes before heading for lunch. The kitchen staff were looking impatient as we arrived and I soon realised just how slow a walker I was, as everyone else had arrived ages ago and they were waiting just for us. I didn’t eat much, as I often don’t when I’m exercising hard. But the food was good and I was grateful for their patience.

I declined the offer of summiting anything that day, preferring to rest up and prepare for the next day. We were still 5.5 kilometres from the summit, although it wasn’t as brutal as the last few kilometres had been for most of it (a short scramble is required to reach the summit though). Although most people get up really early to see the sunrise from the summit, we decided to get up early but not excessively so. This turned out to be a mistake.

As we started to walk, the light was gradually coming up and I could see the clouds were far below us. Not so much an inversion as we might know in the UK. We weren’t just above the clouds but way above. The air here was thin, and although I was not struggling with it from a nausea perspective, I was lightheaded and certainly slower than I would normally be.

Having come through the humid forest the day before, now we were in hot, dry conditions on the paramo. The views were spectacular.

And then, there was the summit. It was windy, very windy, but I could see the summit and an amazing view from just below it. We stashed our walking poles on our packs and readied ourselves for the final scramble. I could taste success and the summit was clear of cloud!

Unfortunately, as we scrambled the last few hundred metres, the cloud rolled in and the wind increased. So by the time we reached the summit, the views were non-existent. After so much effort, this was disappointing, although the views from just below the summit were worthwhile and I felt a sense of achievement as it was definitely something I had had to work for.

After signing the book at the summit and waiting hopefully and it turns out fruitlessly for a break in the cloud we started heading back to Crestones for lunch. We had a great lunch and started the route back down. If you do this, I recommend staying two nights and taking in some other summits. But I only had one night available so there wasn’t any choice.

It turns out, heading down was worse than the climb. My knees were not loving the constant pressure of walking downhill, and after a while we were slipping and sliding over thick mud, as it had rained hard overnight. My walking pole collapsed at one point and I went for a mud bath, completing the rest of the descent half caked. After what seemed like forever we reentered the forest, and continued our way ever downwards.

Despite having set off at lunchtime, it was dark before we had reached the hotel, so we donned our head torches and I grumbled and swore my way down the path. My legs by now were way beyond the burn and were total jelly. I could have kissed the sign that read “Hotel Uran – 500 metres”. But even then, I had to sit down on the road to rest before even contemplating the final few hundred metres. When we did make it, finally, a cold beer was inhaled before a shower and much needed change of clothes. And soon we were in the car on our way back to back to San Jose and another week at work.

This was type 2 fun. But I couldn’t think of a better way to spend the little free time I had available. I am forever grateful to my hosts for making this possible!

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