Cerro Chirripo: 12,530 Feet

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I don’t know what ‘Chirripo’ means, but based on the climb to Crestones Base Lodge, it makes me think it means “The Annihilator.”

Sitting at 12,530 feet, Cerro Chirripo is the highest peak in all of Costa Rica. I decided it would be a good idea to set my sights on hiking up the thing – a kind of ‘right of passage’ on this solo trip I have taken to Central America. Starting in San Gerardo de Rivas, which lies at the same elevation as the town of Banff, I think, I embarked at 4:45 am on Day 1 with hopeful optimism. “I’ve done this dozens of time before,” I thought to myself, trying to boost my confidence as I entered the mess of vines and trees that line the 20 km trail to the top.

Around the 7th km, I found out that the base lodge where I would spend the night was actually at 14.5 km in and not 10 km in (thank you, Lonely Planet). It ruffled my feathers a bit, but I had no choice but to keep going. The sun was coming up higher and the heat and humidity starting to produce beads of sweat all over my face…the kind you see in a Gatorade Commercial. Around the 10th km, I stopped for a rest, feeling the weight of my pack starting to bear down on my shoulders. All of a sudden I felt like I had two anvils attached to my feet, and the Empire State Building sitting between my shoulder blades. It made for a fairly painful climb for the last few kilometers to the base lodge, which is situated in a valley that was the victim of a large forest fire back in the 1990s. Skeletons of trees reach out eerily from a fairly barren landscape, with only lizards to keep them company. A dense fog rolled in, welcoming me to 11,000 feet, where the rather large hut sits in the hillside.

My 2:30 am alarm the next morning was actually music to my ears after a cold, sleepless night. I hit the trail just before 3 am, and saw that a lightning storm was attacking the earth not too far away. I waited a few minutes to see which direction it was going, and just when I decided it wasn’t coming towards me, a guy from the UK came up the trail and we hiked to the summit together. The summit lay just over 5 km from the base lodge, and involved a rather exciting scramble at the finish. Clouds were low at the top, but had they been clear, apparently I could have seen both the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean waters from the this viewpoint. It was still a beautiful moment, not just because of the scenery but because I had reached the top. It was the highest I’ve ever been, in fact.

I spent the rest of the day at the base lodge, wrapped in a blanket and wearing my toque and mitts…never thought I’d be that cold in Costa Rica. Another cold night awaited me but I was prepared with the blanket, which cost me about 1000 colones, and was well worth it. The hike back down the 14.5 km the following day only took me 4.5 hours, compared to the 7 hours it took to get to the summit.

After arriving back at Albergue Uran, where I enjoyed a wee feast of fajitas, “The Annihilator” simply became “Cerro Chirripo,” and a big check-mark on my itinerary. And so did the spider monkeys that I saw along the trail shortly before I exited the park. Swinging with not a care in the world, they definitely excited the little girl in me, and lifted the weight from my shoulders for the last leg of the trail.

Coming up is Volcan Arenal in La Fortuna, the Cloud Forest in Monteverde, and the beach at Santa Teresa.

© Meghan J. Ward, 2009.