Climbing Chirripo, Costa Rica's Highest Peak
Three thirty in the morning always feels too early, but add stiff, sore muscles and freezing temperatures, and it feels like the only sane choice is to remain warmly wrapped in a sleeping bag. Sunrise at the summit of Cerro Chirripo – Costa Rica’s highest peak at 12,533 feet – would make it all worth it.
My ascent of Chirripo began two days before, when I arrived in San Gerardo de Rivas, a small town strung along a lone mountain road that follows the Chirripo River. I checked into my guesthouse, the closest to the trailhead, and spent the evening packing my gear for the next day’s hike. I woke at five a.m. to a pre-arranged breakfast and hot coffee, a crucial luxury as I would be carrying and cooking all of my food for the next few days. I shouldered my pack – which felt disturbingly weighty – and stepped out the door and onto the trail for the first day’s climb.
This trail doesn’t mess around. Within the first half mile, I shed my fleece and used it to wipe sweat from my face as I slogged up the brutally steep grade through cattle fields. The heavy incline provided instant sweeping views of the Chirripo Valley before plunging into the forest, where a trio of collared peccary crossed my path. As the trail climbed, the forest slowly shifted its character, and lowland forest became oak, which became bamboo.
The trail is well-marked each kilometer, and every section is named, giving climbers an idea of what is ahead. “Cemetery of the Machines” (where the machines go to die), “The Burns” and “The Sinner’s Repentance” should provide some idea of what the climb is like. However, despite its challenges, the trail was more beauty than burden. The path wound through the peace of the oak forest and the overwhelmingly verdant cloud forest where every available surface was draped in moss and epiphytes and then it finally burst into the brightness of the paramo. After a difficult but amazingly beautiful six hours, the Crestones base camp came into sight.
The base camp is a rustic stone lodge with a large gathering area filled with picnic tables, a common kitchen and shelves piled with left over dry goods donated by past hikers. Here I set up my stove next to fellow climbers and cooked a pasta dinner, eying the steaming plates of fish, rice and beans being prepared with envy and a hint of derision. It is possible to arrange for your supplies to be carried up the mountain and have a meal prepared at the base camp, but this is accomplished by overworked pack horses and wiry men who literally run past climbers on the trail, burdened by the trappings of able-bodied hikers unwilling to shoulder their own packs. Needless to say, the purists do not look upon them with favor, but their dinners sure smelled great.
Weary from the hike, I soon left the common room, crawled into my sleeping bag and, despite the movement and chatter of my fellow climbers, fell fast asleep. It seemed like seconds later that my 3:30 a.m. alarm went off, and I laced up my cold boots and stepped into the frigid morning. The air was utterly pure; the Southern Cross hung at my back as my eyes adjusted to the light, and the narrow trail threaded through the magical Valley of the Rabbits. I climbed up over a saddle guided by cairns and finally the peak of Chirripo rose before me, surrounded by glacial lakes and wind.
The last 500 feet of the climb is a near-vertical hand-over-foot scramble. The glow of the approaching dawn lit the eastern horizon as I reached the summit. Perched on a stone, I took in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, sharing the view, the accomplishment of scaling the country's tallest peak, and some of my granola bar with a lone sparrow who seemed impervious to the cold.