Cerro Chirripo

the final steps to the summit

Cerro Chirripo, at 12,530 feet, is Costa Rica’s highest peak.  The crux of the climb may very well be merely getting to San Gerardo de Rivas, at the base of Chirripo National Park. We circled the northbound turnoff from the Pan-American (called the Inter Americana in Cost Rica) for an hour stopping to ask for directions a few times.  Each time the directions differed.  At our 4th stop along a rural dirt road nowhere near the turnoff, we got the correct beta.  Turn at the Maxi Bodega, there will be no sign.

San Gerardo de Rivas is a sleepy mountain town reminiscent of Aspen 100 years ago.  The one road to town is a rocky two hour uphill affair despite being only 20 kilometers from the highway.  Most of the locals use dirt bikes, horses, or ATVs for transportation.

We pass by the town’s 10 buildings, continuing north in search of the ideal campsite and find it only meters away from the Chirripo trailhead.  Hotel Uran is reluctant to allow us to camp out back, but we’re persistent.  Once established we both agree this is the best camping perch of the trip.

At 11,200 feet, an environmental research station, Base Crestones, allows up to 60 backpackers to sleep in its spare dormitory beds each night. Camping along the trail is forbidden.  Lacking a “reservation” we simply show up outside the agency’s San Gerardo office to secure a spot the afternoon before the hike.  Many guidebooks recommend reserving a spot 10 weeks in advance but on this particular day they were barely up to a quarter of capacity.

From the trailhead, it’s nine miles to the Crestones research station. Nine miles and 6,700 feet of elevation gain.  My wife,  who is also a lover of the outdoors, comtemplates this and decides upon a better way to spend her solo days (soaking in the green surroundings and ravishing a few books) while I went marching up the mountain.  That aspect and a late start ensure solitude as I consider each foot of gain with my 25 pound pack.  It is utterly exhausting but the Great Outdoors are my place of worship and I am in seventh heaven walking among the clouds.

The Cloud Forest

Before converting to an alpine savanna at 10,000 feet, the landscape is green and wet.  The dense cloud forest doesn’t allow for animal spotting, but a chorus of whistles, buzzing, and chirping accompany me along the trail.  After 8 hours of uphill, the green roof of the Base Crestones came into view.  The station has computers with wireless internet, cold-water showers, and bunks.  While passing the computers on the way to the mess hall, I give them the evil eye for following me to this altitude.

A sight for sore eyes

With the hard work behind me, I rise before the sun and enjoy a cup of instant Folgers as the sun emerges at 11,200 feet.  With most of the pack weight left behind at the station, I head north to tackle the final 2 miles to the summit.  From the valley I ask which of the majestic peaks ahead is the one that holds the honor of highest.  They remain stone silent, seeming to resent the concept of highest or better.  The trail takes a hard left and takes me up over a saddle and I see Chirripo for the first time not half a mile from her summit.

The morning air is crisp and clear during the final scramble.  At the top, both Pacific and Caribbean oceans can be seen.  I pause at the roof of Costa Rica for 45 minutes before it is all reversed and I’m back home, back at our camper.