Hiking Cerro Chirripo. At 3,821 meters (12,536 feet), it is the crown of Costa Rica’s magnificent Talamanca Mountain range, our highest peak. Every year a few thousand people make the trek to the top, on one of the three routes. Some break for an overnight stay at Crestones Base Camp, five kilometers from the top. Other, more intrepid climbers do and up and back without overnighting. This can take anywhere from 15 to 20 hours.
The most popular route begins at San Gerardo de Rivas. Each kilometer along the climb has a signpost and a name. Some of the names are innocent. Kilometer 1 is Los Monos. Later you can hike past El Quetzal (km 4), Los Robles (km 5), and Llano Bonito (km 7).
The names get ominous at kilometer 11– Los Quemados (The burns or the burned ones). At this point you have walked 11 kilometers while ascending 1.5 kilometers, or almost a mile, in elevation. Then comes Monte Sin Fe (No faith Mountain) and Los Arrepentidos.
This can be translated as The Remorseful Ones, and you may be feeling that way at this point, as the wind chill may be well below freezing, the air will be thinner and breathing more difficult, and your muscles weary. From here, you are close to the base camp before the final 700 meters up in elevation, over about five kilometers of walking to get to the top.
Perhaps you have climbed to the summit, or you know someone who has. Or perhaps you know someone who has climbed part way, but has yet to make it to the top–like me. Since I first arrived in Costa Rica half a lifetime ago, I have considered climbing to the top, but until now have only gone at most about a third of the way up on various training hikes.
My issue isn’t so much the ascent as the descent. If my knees could scream from pain, the steep path down the mountain would sound like the soundtrack to a slasher movie.
Last year my wife (in her early 50s) and her niece and her niece’s husband made it to the top. They did a ‘relampago’ (lightning) climb, as they put it. Left before nightfall, equipped with head lamps, and made it up and back in about 19 hours. My wife’s first words to me on arrival were ‘’Nunca mas’’. I did not accompany them because I know my limitations.
If and when I do this, I will reserve space at the base camp to spend the night, then ascend to the peak in the early morning before the long descent. If I tried a ‘relampago’ climb, I might end up like one of those eternally frozen corpses that line the summit to Mount Everest. Local guides would say, ‘at about 3,500 meters you will see off to the side the dead gringo with the blue backpack and the West Virginia Mountaineers ball cap. That will let you know that you are going the right way.’
I am presently training, doing a mix of local hikes, weight training, and occasional cycling and body surfing. Though I am not young– I ride the interurban buses for free, and younger Ticos regularly address me as ‘Pa’– age is no excuse.
People older than me make the climb every year. I recently read about a man with a prosthetic leg who made it to the top. I tell myself that if they can do it, so can I. But I have yet to complete the climb. Maybe 2024 will be my year. The clock keeps ticking, but at least I know that Chirripo will always be there, in her majestic glory, awaiting my effort.