Saturday, April 26, 2014

Why the Mountain?

Why the man climbs the mountain? 

I wanted to experience the highest altitude in Costa Rica, El Cerro Chirripó. 3.82 Km above sea level. Roughly a third of the altitude of a commercial fly.

I checked with everybody and there was a myriad of reason for not doing it: people with office jobs, people afraid of the insects, the rain and the effort. And those who had the physical condition told me that you need to reserve space three months in advance because there are only 25 permits per day.

So I decided to go on my own.

I picked up the phone, asked for the next available permit, and I got it for the very next week. Then I went to the bank, paid the fee ($24) and faxed the slips to the ranger’s office. That granted me a stay for one night in the hostel of Crestones, into the park. I needed to arrive at the closest town to get the actual paper permit one day before start hiking.

I packed my things and hit San Isidro del General, a small city three hours south of San José. I almost forgot the excitement of traveling in El Cerro de la Muerte (The Death Hill) while the bus driver was passing trucks through dense fog. The road is full of crosses in memory of those who died in frontal collisions.

Once there, I asked for the next bus to San Gerardo de Rivas, the town where the ranger seals the permit. There was only one bus, and it was scheduled to make its second and last trip at 2 PM. I had up to 4:30 PM before the park’s office close, but I didn’t want to gamble, so I took a cab. When the driver got to the main road to San Gerardo, he found it was closed. A guy sitting aside told us that it was under repair and it won’t open until 4:00 PM. It was midday. So the cab driver took an unknown route through the hills. Fortunately, it was a 4X4 car. The trail was just suitable for horses and dirty bikes.

The guy found a way around, and we managed to get to San Gerardo de Rivas. The whole town is nothing more than a soccer field, a church and a bar. There is a welcome sign that says “San Gerardo de Rivas: inhabitants 305. Leave only your footprint and take only your memories”.

After getting my permit, I spent the afternoon at the local bar, where almost everybody was speaking English; bohemian characters from all over the world in that foggy isolated place surrounded by dense vegetation. A young man made conversation with me and dip into my nachos while he was asking for his tenth beer. He told me that he knew dear secrets of the USA government and the CIA was after him. Then he diverted his attention to a group of Canadians to whom he was trying to sell parts of crashed planes.

I slept in a local set of rooms that I wouldn’t call a hotel. Next morning I had a good breakfast cooked by the wife of the owner, a woman in her 50s that was born in that little town. The owner of the cabins offered me transportation to the entrance of the trail that goes into the mountain, a couple of kilometers from there.

Just at arrival, a group of Germans were descending. They told me it took ten hours to come down starting at night and they weren’t able to complete the whole trip.

I started at 7:00 AM. That was late, but I didn’t know it.

My heart started pounding vigorously with the first slope. I was sweating and gasping just like in my regular workout, but this one was estimated to last eight hours. There are fifteen kilometers to the Crestones hostel and five more to the mountain’s summit. After half an hour climbing, I heard that popping sound in my ears that indicate a change in altitude. But I was very disappointed when I read the milestone and found out that I just completed my first kilometer (0.6 miles). 

The place is beautiful, and the silence is so deep you can only hear your own heart. Long trails packed with leaves cracking under your feet and a green wall of moss decorating the stone walls.

Another thing I didn’t know was that you can actually pay for a horse and have all your gear been transported up to the Crestones hostel. But I was climbing with all the weight of food, a spare pair of shoes, sleeping bag... everything.

At 11:00 AM I was midway to Crestones. At the kilometer seven, a ranger asked me why I was getting there so late. - Is it? - I asked. I thought I had plenty of time before dawn. Yes, I did, but there was another consideration: weather. Starting at 2:00 PM it began to rain nonstop. That added weight to my already oversized load.

Here is one interesting aspect of extreme physical stress: At one point you want to give up, but then, when giving up isn’t an option, you feel like you can go even farther. The main weight you carry is your mind.

The walk would have been tortuous if I were thinking about the final destination for nine hours. Instead, I narrowed my conscience to the next step, and then the next one, and then the next one. I wasn’t trying to climb the mountain; I was just this wet walking creature which existence was constrained to the current moment.

I got to Crestones at 4:00 PM. I took off my wet shoes. The hostel’s attendant was kind enough to borrow me the dryer machine. He let me know about the cargo service, and I set apart all those things I won’t need tomorrow.

The place has WiFi, so I had the chance to send some pictures and updates. I fell asleep as early as 7:00 PM. The walking to the summit was resumed the next day at 3:35 AM

I joined a group of climbers that were guided by a guy familiar with the area. The idea of getting up this early was to see the sunrise at the top. But our guide lost track when we were half an hour on the trail. The darkness was complete, and not even the moon was showing up that night. At some point, we ended up with the shape of a hill in one hand, the sound of a creek in the other and a labyrinth of trails over the rock. But our guide was able to find the path and he signaled us with his lamp from a distance.

We made it. The sun covered the shoulders of the mountain with a coat made of shadow. A quiet lake, flat as a mirror, reflected the sky so clearly that it looked like a hole in the ground filled with clouds.

A couple from Quebec joined us and started to climb the last stretch with four limbs.

What really moves you on the top is this sensation of everlasting calm; a silent that has been there for tens of thousands of years. The air is so clean of noise we could hold a conversation with people that was still at the bottom. 

Physically I felt great, and I naively thought that going down must be easier. That was my last mistake. I took my time on my way back to Crestones, shooting pictures and contemplating the landscape that was hidden from me at night. I only had one chocolate bar, so I convinced the cook to sell me some rice and beans before heading down. The food was actually part of a more expensive tour package.

I was doing a good speed down, like three kilometers per hour. One thing you remember while walking downhill is that your feet are not designed to fight gravity. I took the stress on my knees without a problem, but something strange started to happen with the nails of my toes, they began to detach from inside. The constant pounding of the toes against the shoes over the course of hours creates an internal hematoma and, all the sudden, you can’t walk anymore. Your muscles are fine, but you feel that something very painful is happening with your nails. 

With seven kilometers left, my feet started to swell. Had I kept my current pace I would have been in the town by 4:00 PM. But at the third kilometer, a heavy rain started to fall. To slip up with wet feet adds more pain to every step. Whit the help of a stick, I was barely at the speed of a ninety years old. The sky was dark and the sun kept going down. I knew that in minutes the road would be completely dark.

I hit the main road of San Gerardo just at sunset. Not having an idea where to stay for the night, I kept walking very slowly under the torrential rain with my stick aid. By the way, don’t try to do this without hiking poles. I learned this the hard way. I stopped at the first light, and there was a beautiful hostel. I showed at the main entrance begging for a room.

The next day I was able to walk normally again. La Casa Mariposa turned out to be an excellent discovery. I went to the “Asociación de Arrieros” where my backpack was waiting for me. I had enough time for a delicious breakfast in the local bar, which also functions as a restaurant and a massage center. I would love to have one for my feet but had no time. By then the road was open again, so I took the bus to San Isidro, then traveled from San Isidro to San José, and a few hours later, fly from San José to Fort Lauderdale.

My feet took a couple of days to recover, but the purple tone of my nails is going to stay for a long time.

It was an excellent adventure. Don’t think those tours offered by local hotels are overpriced. Pay for a good guide, order your food to be served at Crestones, stay two nights on the mountain (not one) and be ready to be wet. Don’t forget to rent hiking poles, you will love them in the way down, and you will avoid the nail injury in your feet.

Also, if you haven’t walked for nine hours straight in a single day, practice in some smaller hills. San José has a popular hike called Monte de Alajuelita. Is a populated area and you can hardly get lost there, especially if you carry a phone with two batteries. Have a lamp if night catches you outside and never get out of the trail.

The park and the hike are loosely regulated, which is nice but risky. If you twist an ankle and you can’t walk, you may have to sit that night under the rain until the horses pass through at dawn. There’s no communication for miles, and you may be the only human soul in the forest.

So again, why the man climbs the mountain?  I have made an observation in every hiking: the higher I climb, the more interesting the people I find. At the summit there’s a bunch of achievers; back in the city, all those square lifes with so many reasons for doing nothing. 

That’s why the man climbs the mountain.