December 11, 2012


Well, I turned twenty one years old last weekend, and I did it on top of the world. I’ve been nervous about writing this blog post because I am at risk of sounding painfully cliché and saying a lot of lame things about great achievements and climbing mountains and reaching new heights. But I’ll just say it – I had a truly amazing and unforgettable birthday! I spent it with two hiking pals, Anjali and Cameron, and we hiked Chirripó.

Chirripó is the tallest mountain in Costa Rica, its peak reaching 12,533 feet. The distance from the trailhead in a little town called San Gerardo up to the very peak is about 19.5 kilometers (12.1 miles for all of us non-metric system friends), and it is not a hike for the faint of heart. Or for the faint of legs. This was the most intense, steepest, and longest trek I have ever attempted, and I am proud to say I made it to the top in one piece, with all limbs intact.

This was taken about a quarter of the way up the mountain. You can see a nearby city in the distance.

When my friend Cameron invited me along to hike this mountain on the weekend of December 1-2, I thought for a second about vague plans I had had about going to the beach for my birthday, maybe getting my friends together for some beach dancing and cocktails. Then I remembered that hiking is awesome and that mountains are awesome and the matter was settled.

The sunrise as we started the hike!

On the big day, we woke up at 4:30 AM, grabbed our bags, and we were on our way up the trail by 5:30 AM. The first part of the hike was 14.5 km long – from the trailhead to the base camp. (The base camp consists of two cabins up in the mountains, built for people like us to stay during our mountain travels). As we began our hike, the birds were chirping their heads off, probably discussing normal bird things, but I liked to think that they were wishing us luck. The sun was rising – initially, it just peaked up over the tips of the mountains, and later on, it cleared the mountains and began dumping golden light all over the valley, making the grass and the trees and the cows glow. It all looked very idyllic. Needless to say, we were in high spirits for the first two or three kilometers, running on adrenaline and excitement.

Signposts had been placed at every kilometer by whoever was in charge of things like sign posts, informing us of how many kilometers we had come, our current altitude, and the name of the upcoming kilometer. The kilometer names were interesting – things like “Old Men’s Beards” and “The Climb of the Water”. The names reflected something about that particular kilometer. For instance, during the entire “Climb of the Water,” we could hear the sound of a waterfall rushing in the distance. It was extremely satisfying to pass sign posts telling us how far we had come, how high we had climbed, and and how far we had left to go.

Between six and seven hours is a long time to hike on a steep incline, but I thoroughly enjoyed the hike up. The weather was too beautiful to imagine, and, just as I was feeling kind of tired and draggy, we cleared the treeline and were greeted by breathtaking views of the mountains and valleys and forest around us.

The world above the tree line did not feel like Costa Rica. It was cool and windy, the trees were sparser, wildflowers dotted the landscape, and the foilage transitioned from dense forest to bushes and bamboo and shorter trees. The best kilometer was named “The Gardens,” but I started calling it “The Hummingbird Sanctuary”. During that kilometer, we saw more hummingbirds of different sizes and shapes and species than I have seen in my entire life. My body was getting tired and angry at me by then, but those hummingbirds zipping around our heads, flying up into the sky and dive-bombing back down, and, occasionally, posing on tree branches for our cameras, was enough to lift my spirits pretty darn high. 

We finally arrived at the base camp sometime between 1:00 and 1:30 in the afternoon. Tired and cold, we signed in at the desk, found our room, and sat there for about thirty minutes, munching on food and congratulating each other on making it. We had been throwing around the idea of going all the way up to the peak right away, since the weather was so gorgeous and ideal. We were just so excited to be this close to the peak that it was hard to resist going to see it. So, although our original plan had been to rest and complete the climb on Sunday, we set out thirty minutes later to hike the last 5 kilometers.

During these last kilometers, the three of us ended up separating, each going at our own paces. The exhaustion was setting in and my steps were getting smaller and slower. We could not actually see Chirripó for the first couple of kilometers due to the lay of the landscape. Finally, as I trudged up yet another hill, Cameron turned around and yelled back to me, “Almost there. You can see the mountain from here! It looks like Mordor!” When I crested that hill, the peak of Chirripó literally rose up in front of me, out of nowhere, a huge, stony peak reaching up above the surrounding peaks. Yes, it looked incredible. My first thought, however, was, “There is no way I can climb that.”

So began a mental battle between my head and my feet. I knew I had to reach the peak because it was there and it was beautiful and it was my birthday. However, the rest of my body disagreed. I started playing games with myself, giving myself little rest-rewards for making it to this rock or that rock. The going got pretty rough once I reached the actual base of the peak and began the final hand-over-hand climb. I’ll admit, I said some pretty unpleasant and mean-hearted things to those rocks while my muscles cried.

Cerro Chirripó

And then, I was there, on the peak of Chirripó. A large wooden sign told me so, informing me that I was at “Cerro Chirripó” and that I was at an altitude of over 12,000 feet and that I was awesome.

It’s a strange feeling to simultaneously catch your breath while having it taken away by a view so magnificent and intense that you don’t have anything to say except, “Wow.” Cameron was busy taking pictures in every direction and going on and on about the view. I slowly turned in a circle and saw Costa Rica stretching out below me in every direction, clouds flowing and billowing across its surface like a fluffy, white ocean, and the reds and purples and pinks of the sunset painting the Western sky. I really do not have words to describe how it felt to stand on that peak. I can only say that the three of us just stood around for at least thirty minutes, shivering and repeating to each other how amazing it was. It made me feel tiny. It also made me feel huge.

There aren’t words.

After taking unreasonable amounts of pictures that could never do justice to the sight before our eyes, we signed the book that they keep in a metal box up there to prove to the world that we stood on the peak of Chirripó. Then, we reluctantly began our hike back down. I was downright high off of adrenaline and excitement and possibly the altitude, so the 5 kilometer hike back to the base camp went by pretty quickly, if painfully.

We saw an armadillo on the way down!

This post is getting very long, so I won’t go into detail about our cold evening in the base camp (there was no heat or power in the lodge and temperatures up in the mountains can get near freezing at night). My hiking buddies surprised me with a little chocolate cake that they had lugged up the mountain, and they were also kind enough to bring up a can of Guiness beer for me to have as my 21stbirthday drink. We went to bed by eight thirty, and as I drifted off, wrapped up in my thermal sleeping bag and wearing every long sleeve shirt and pair of pants that I own in Costa Rica, I sleepily acknowledged to myself that I had just spent my birthday in the coolest way possible.

And a really cool lizard!

Yes, the hike up was hard, and the hike down hurt my knees and ankles. I was mentally and physically wiped out by the time we made it back to San Gerardo on Sunday. Every joint in my body ached, and my brain was working at slug-pace. Yet, the satisfaction of what we had done filled me with enough pride and excitement to last all the way down the mountain, onto the bus, and back to San Jose.

And then – our cozy host house, our host mom telling us all about her tamale-making weekend, our beds (which, that night, were made out of cottonballs and marshmallows), and a long, deep, satisfying sleep.


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