Costa Rican mountain climber Warner Rojas traces his mountaineering interests back to an expedition he made at age 9 with his family to the Cross of Alajuelita.
“I could see everything,” he remembers. “The whole valley and all the other mountains.”
The 2,000-meter pilgrimage site with its trademark cross visible high above the Central Valley and tagged for its namesake southern San José suburb seems a mere hill compared to the mountains Rojas has conquered and is about to scale.
Rojas, 36, has embarked on a variation of the legendary Seven Summits feat, named for the highest peaks on each continent, and an accomplishment so well known in mountain-climbing circles that its name is capitalized.
He is tackling the highest mountains in each of South America’s seven Andean nations: Aconcagua (Argentina), Bolivar (Venezuela), Chimborazo (Ecuador), Huascaran (Peru), Ojos del Salado (Chile), Sajama (Bolivia) and Simon Bolivar (Colombia).
Aconcagua, the hemisphere’s highest mountain at 6,962 meters was checked off his list this past February. Next on tap for Rojas will be Ecuador’s Chimborazo volcano in September, with 2010 a target date for completion of all seven ascents.
Tica climber Gineth Soto is in the midst of the worldwide Seven Summits challenge. Plummeting temperatures and altitude effects jettisoned her April attempt at scaling Mount Everest (TT, March 23, May 30).
Standing 1.76 meters and weighing muscular 82 kilograms, Rojas lives an intensely healthy life, one geared toward staying in shape for mountain climbing.
“No drinking, no smoking,” he says. “I don’t even drive.”
Dutch-born wife Thessa Rienhart handles that task for the family, a necessity coming from living on the slopes of Pico Blanco, above the San Antonio church in the western San José suburb of Escazú.
Those hills of Escazú – Rojas has lived there his entire life – have provided the perfect venue for staying in shape, with hiking and mountain biking his preferred means of transportation.
Rojas makes a point to put on a few extra kilos before undertaking an expedition. Lower oxygen levels at high altitudes make digestion more difficult, meaning the body will metabolize muscle tissue for energy.
“Better to lose some extra fat than muscle,” he explains.
One fly in the healthy-lifestyle ointment exists, Rojas admits with an odd mix of sheepishness and pride.
“I’m a coffee lover,” he says, giving the word “lover” a particular emphasis. “Six to eight cups a day.”
Yet realizing that caffeine limits the production of red-blood cells, and the attendant ability to transport oxygen efficiently around the body, eight months before his Aconcagua ascent, Rojas began a gradual program of weaning himself off coffee.
“I’m now down to one cup a day,” he states proudly.
The expedition to Argentina was born in a roundabout way.
Rojas had set a “Peaks of Central America” goal for himself, tackling the highest summits in each country of the isthmus.
While ascending Guatemala’s Tajumulco volcano, Central America’s highest mountain, one of his climbing companions from that country suggested they take on Aconcagua together.
In the end, that fellow climber couldn’t make it. A lot of phone calls and e-mail messages, making new contacts, and contacts of those new contacts, put Rojas in touch with two Chilean climbers also interested in conquering Aconcagua.
“The first time we met was at the airport in Santiago (Chile),” Rojas says, explaining that sizing up potential companions without the benefit of face-to-face contact is not uncommon in climbing circles.
“The best team is one that focuses on the same objective,” Rojas says. “I’m responsible for my actions, but also for those of my companions.”
Although the good pre-expedition feelings were mutual, everything truly gelled at the camp that first night of the ascent.
“We talked frankly,” Rojas says. “What did each of us feel? This is what I like. This is what I don’t like.”
It all clicked, and Rojas now describes his fellow climbers as “great, great, great friends.”
The actual mid-afternoon arrival at Aconcagua’s summit on Feb. 18 came after a 12-hour day of climbing.
“At Chirripó (Costa Rica’s highest peak) you can enjoy the view, even spend the night,” Rojas says.
The rapidly dropping temperatures and an approaching snowstorm limited Aconcagua’s mountaintop time to 30 minutes for the three climbers, however.
“We took pictures, we enjoyed the view, we congratulated each other,” Rojas says.
“But a peak is only halfway.”
The four-hour descent to the highest encampment did go much more quickly than the climb up.
The life of a Costa Rican mountain climber is always a quest for the things that don’t exist here, and not only fellow climbers, Rojas says.
“Here we don’t have the clothing, we don’t have the equipment,” he explains. Supermarket chain Auto Mercado, dairy producer Dos Pinos and satellite-television provider SKY Costa Rica are among the local companies that help finance Rojas, sponsors being a necessity when engaging in an expensive expedition.
“It’s not only Warner who is there,” his wife explains of her husband’s climbs. “Everyone who backs him and the public is with him there too.”
Pico Tours (www.pictours.com, 2288-2118), Rojas’ own tour company, also helps defray costs. When not scaling the hemisphere’s highest peaks, he leads hiking excursions around Costa Rica. They range from the beginner’s level walk around rural Escazú to the more advanced walk up the Turrialba volcano on the Caribbean slope to multi-day hikes in the Northern Zone’s ArenalNational Park.