“…a view of incredible beauty lifts me…”
“…the clouds billow over mountain tops and valleys…”
“I spy Chirripó peak.”
A happy gringo
“…clouds that are broiling over signposts and seating areas…”
Returning to the cloud forest
“…shots from the Lord of the Rings films.”
“…I reach base camp.”
At four o’clock in the morning in the forest of Chirripó National Park, it is cold and coffin-dark. The higher I ascend, the less the companiable sound of the river below quashes the squawks, grunts and snapping branches that sound out from the convoluted forest mass. The obscured moon offers no aid, and the white pool of my flashlight is shrinking, barely lighting the muddy track through the cloud forest.
At a break in the forest wall I see an faraway city bright as a fire’s embers. This knot of civilisation delivers me a fleeting reprieve from the abounding spookiness. Back into the subterranean cool of the forest, a bat swooshes past me, close enough so that I feel its vibrations. My heart is as heavy as a sledgehammer as the flashlight fades and dies. Then there is a funereal silence.
A guttural shout nearby is followed by a thud. I call into the darkness, and there is a response: a man calls hola. I wait. From below, a torchlight dances across tree trunks. A porter leading a spindly, heavily-laden horse approaches. I ask in Spanish if I can follow. “Claro,” he replies.
In Alonso, I chanced upon a knowledgeable guide. He asks what time I left San Gerardo. I tell him 3.am., and that I hope to reach the peak and return in a day. He challenges me to climb with him. “I’ll try my best,” I reply. We talk of our disparate lives and football. When a faint light has brought shape to the immediate surroundings, he alerts me to the call of a Resplendent Quetzal. He informs me that the city of embers was San Isidro, and that I will see no monkeys here – one kilometre section of the cloud forest is named los monos – as they have long since moved away from the man-made pathway into their domain.
Alonso’s pace is rapid. Climbing with him has increased my speed dramatically. For the first time that morning I feel confident of reaching the point where a park ranger told me to be before midday, otherwise I should give up returning from Mount Chirripó in daylight. A permiso is needed to sleep at base camp, something I don’t have. Instead, I have a fourteen hour round trip that is almost the distance of a marathon.
I match his pace for ninety minutes. Around the morning’s eighth kilometre, I call my surrender and gratitude to Alonso, and allow him to continue without me slowing him and his horse. “Hasta pronto,” he calls, waving. He whips his horse with a vine and they press upward.
Dawn arrives and I’m still deep in cloud forest. The park ranger’s words repeat through my mind. I check my map. The lighter it gets while I remain in the forest, the more my doubt builds. I drink and eat on the go. When I finally break free of the forest, it seems as though nature is in commune with my beleaguered mind: a view of incredible beauty lifts me, makes the morning struggle all worthwhile. Morning shards of sunlight project into the valleys. An array of soft colours and textured peaks exist for miles underneath an enormous blue sky. For the first time this day I get out my camera – it will not be the last. I listen to some music for further motivation. When I remove my headphones after twenty minutes, the silence is staggering. The sun has pulled from from the mountains ranges and I enter los quemados.
Hours later, but ahead of schedule, I reach base camp. Alonso is inside drinking coffee. He waves at me form his seat. I ask how long he’s been here. “Una hora,” he says; I don’t believe him. After a documentation check, I push on. The going is flatter now, but I’m still seven kilometres away from Cerro Chirripó. But I now know that I’m going to make it in good time. I can relax into the trek rather then pressing forward with blinkered obstinacy. I pass trekkers who’ve witnessed the sunrise atop Central America’s highest mountain. They are all smiling, enthused, heady from seeing both the oceans buffeting Costa Rica in the dawning sun.
Perhaps two hours later, I spy Chirripó peak. To my left are deep blue lakes resting in the lap of the mountains. Fortified by a nutrient-dense breakfast with a hospitable Costa Rican family, I begin the final climb. It’s the steepest slope so far, vertical in places. I’m pressed into the rockface by a forceful, swollen sun, contrasted to its benign version of itself that lit the mountains and valleys in gentle tones when I’d left the cloud forest. Blood hammers at my temples. An altitude headache has long since set in, and my sun-heated water doesn’t quench my thirst.
When I reach the top, six hours after leaving the Roca Dura (Hard Rock) hotel in San Gerardo, the most noticeable thing at 3,820 metres is the absence of sound. It’s as though I’m in a vacuum. For some reason, this surprises me. I stagger around the mountain top, dizzy from the altitude and from the achievement. The panorama is stupendous, momentarily overwhelming. The jagged path back down disappears over a distance ridge. In all directions the clouds billow over mountain tops and valleys like purposeful cigar smoke. The surfaces of the navy lakes that are set in the valley below are as still and reflective as mirrors. The contrast to the jungle over five hours before is striking. I am alone except for two tiny birds. I listen to a song to inextricably link it to the place and time. “Move on Up” by Curtis Mayfield. I dance, aware that I’m the only human being for miles and miles and miles.
Returning to the cloud forest is hard work. The scenery is beautiful, but every step jars my knees. I level with the clouds that are billowing over signposts and seating areas. It’s cooler once I reach the canopied forest, and the wildlife has woken up, filling the air with song. Hours later, I exit the forest and the sun beats down, lighting up the agricultural valleys. I’m reminding of shots from the Lord of the Rings films.
12 hours and thirty-five minutes later I arrive back in San Gerardo.
Climbing Mount Chirripó: You can climb and regress in a day. It’s challenging. I’d recommend obtaining a permiso in advance to be able to enjoy every moment of what is an unforgettable journey. But if you can’t, and you want to see the views from the top, set out early – around 3 a.m. – with ample supplies (extra batteries! sun cream!). Either way, it’s well worth the effort.