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 far 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 tree 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. Then, as I press on, 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.
Why am I here at this early hour? I’m determined to reach the peak of Mount Chirripó, the highest mountain in Central America, where both oceans buffeting Costa Rica can be seen one clear days.
A permiso is needed to sleep at Mount Chirripó’s base camp, something I don’t have. Instead, I have a fourteen hour round trip that is almost the distance of a marathon. The day before I paid $15 for a park entrance. The park ranger in San Gerardo de Rivas, told me I would have to leave at 3 a.m. to have a chance of climbing and regressing in a day. He also advised me about sturdy footwear, a torch and water, plenty of water. Energy foods and sun cream were also a very good idea. I have everything except spare batteries.
As I rub the batteries in an attempt to deliver them some life, 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 mossy tree trunks. A porter leading a spindly, heavily-laden horse approaches. I ask if I can follow. “Claro,” he replies. Of course.
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, the city where intrepid travellers have to catch an-hour-and-a-half bus to San Gerardo over unpaved roads through glorious, green countryside. I ask if I’ll see any monkeys here (Each kilometre section of the cloud forest has its own name; one is los monos). Alonso tells me no. 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. 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. “If you’re not here by 11 o’clock,” he said, pointing to kilometre eleven, “turn back.” He was an amiable guy suddenly turned very stern when he told me this. In the park ranger’s office close to bridge at the entrance of San Gerardo de Rivas where permits are obtained, the peak seemed very far away. (An ticket to enter the park, even to explore the sumptuous cloud forest, has to be obtained the day before entry.)
I match Alonso’s 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.
Hours later, but ahead of schedule, I reach base camp. This is where the climber in possession of a permiso will sleep before rising early to watch the sunrise from the mountain top. I can’t vouch for the quality of the accommodation, but I was told it was rudimentary but more than satisfactory for one night. Jumpers are highly recommended. As are kerosene stoves which can be hired below in San Gerardo.
Alonso is inside drinking coffee. He waves at me form his seat. I ask how long he’s been here. “Una hora,” he says. After a documentation check – take your passport! -, 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 climbers who’ve witnessed the sunrise from the mountain top. They are all smiling, enthused, heady from seeing both the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea in the dawning sun. I’m the only person heading up, giving me a novelty value to the descenders. Soon they have all gone, and only scrambling lizards move around me.
Perhaps two hours later, I spy Chirripó peak. To my left are navy blue lakes. Fortified by a nutrient-dense breakfast with a hospitable Costa Rican family, I begin the final climb. It’s the steepest slope so far, a vertical scramble in places. I’m pressed into the rockface by a forceful, swollen sun, now free of the mountain tops. Blood hammers at my temples. An altitude headache has long since set in. My remaining sun-heated water doesn’t quench my thirst. Doubt picks at me even at this point, the culmination of six hours endeavour.
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 feeling after being locked in the jungle for hours that morning is one of total freedom. I listen to a song to inextricably link it to the place and time. “Move on Up” by Curtis Mayfield. I am alone except for two tiny birds.
Climbing Mount Chirripó: You can climb and regress in a day. It’s challenging. I’d recommend obtaining a permiso weeks or months in advance, if scaling mountains is on your Central America itinerary. By splitting the climb over two days you’ll 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!) and your passport. The path is easy to follow with each kilometre introduced with a sign. You are given a map at the ranger’s cabin. All you need then is your determination and sweat. It’s well worth the effort.