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Climbing Chirripó: a 3-generation adventure

October 28, 2011

By Norma Kahn

Climbing Chirripó, the tallest mountain in Costa Rica at an altitude of 3,820 meters (12,500 feet), has been what I thought was an impossible dream. With each passing year, it seemed further out of my reach. Several months ago, my son, Neil, invited me to climb it with him before I was too old. I’m 72.

After immediately accepting, the doubts began, but so did the determination to succeed. My husband, Ken, climbed with me daily to train, giving me his total encouragement. I never was able to train at much above 5,000 feet, and certainly never hiking 14.5 kilometers up, up, up.

Neil, my 13-year-old granddaughter, Melanie, and I set out at 6:30 a.m. on Monday, Sept. 5 – Labor Day, and labor we did. The first kilometer took us one hour; daunting, steep, muddy and rocky, it was a harbinger of things to come. Neil was amazing throughout, incredibly helpful and patient. After a few kilometers, he was carrying my pack along with his. At certain points, he was carrying Melanie’s as well. Graceful, strong Melanie made most of the hike look almost effortless. 

Some sections were more difficult than others. The last one, Cuesta de Arrepentidos (Hill of the Repentant), certainly made you want to repent. Nine and a half hours later, we made it to the Crestones “hut” at 3,392 meters (11,130 feet), where we would spend the next two nights. We ate lunch and crashed.

The refuge had electricity two hours a day, Internet four. There was no hot water – the “coldest water ever,” according to Neil. Neil, Melanie and I did have our own room with bunk beds. The reigning indoor outfits were heavy coats, sweaters, hats and gloves. Inside my cold-weather sleeping bag, I was wearing several layers of clothing. We had hired someone to cook for us, but others fixed their food on little gas stoves. This hut experience added to the adventure.

Chirripo 2

At the summit with son Neal and granddaughter Melanie. Courtesy of Norma Khan

On Tuesday morning we had breakfast at 5:30 a.m. and then headed up to the summit. People said this was easier than the first day, but I can’t say I agree. It was shorter, 5.5 km, but with the higher altitude and the pure rocky steepness of the last portion, it was tough. I had to stop every three steps or so to breathe. Neil got behind me and pushed. I could not have done it without him.

When we arrived at the summit, the feeling of exhilaration, pure joy and sense of accomplishment was incredible.

The next morning we headed down, which some said was more difficult than up. I didn’t find it so, but when I got to Kilometer 1, my body pretty much wilted, and Neil held my hand for that last bit.

With every step down I wondered how in the world I had been able to climb that mountain, what had ever possessed me to think I could. But I could, and I did!

Thank you, Melanie and Neil, for this wonderful gift.

Norma Kahn has lived in Jacó, on the central Pacific coast, for 12 years. She works as an abstract artist and is founder and co-president of the Central Pacific Women’s Group. Neil and Yasmin Kahn are owners of Kayak Jacó.

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