Day 0 – Dec 28, 2018
We’ve been at the house near Dominical for several days now, almost a week. It’s a nice change of pace to head to San Isidro de El General, where we are to rendezvous with Walter, our guide who will lead us to the trailhead and ensure that we’re properly registered for the trek. The drive to San Isidro is rather calming. In the vehicle with me are my father, my brother-in-law, and my nephew, who is currently nine years old. We speculate that upon completion of our trek, he will be in the running for being the youngest person to summit Cerro Chirripó this year. Just in the nick of time, since our calendar year is almost over.
Not surprisingly, it’s rather easy to find our meeting place—Panaderia y Cafeteria Mi K-fe—however, there is some consternation over where to park the vehicle. We end up being able to park next to the cafe, and we head in to get some lunch. I order a cafe con leche and huevos rancheros. The waitress brings a cart to the table and makes my coffee on the spot.
My father has been communicating with Walter, and he joins us soon after we arrive at the cafe. Walter is quite amicable, and I find out later he is 72 years old, even though he only looks about 55 years old. He tells me more about Mi K-fe: it’s a local chain with ten or so locations, essentially a franchise, and if I understand correctly, the one in which we sit is the original. We finish lunch, and the first stop is to fuel up at a gas station in San Isidro since our vehicle is almost empty. We get a brief experience of rush hour in a Costa Rican city (the second largest in San José Province) before we continue up the road to San Gerardo de Rivas in the Talamanca Mountains.
Soon we arrive at the office of SINAC (the Costa Rican equivalent of our US National Park Service) to get our entry passes, then drive on up to the porter office to register our journey, even though we won’t be using the services of the porters and their horses to carry our gear up the mountain. From there we make our way up some egregiously steep roads to the hotel at the trailhead.
Hotel Uran is tucked into the hillside with an excellent view of the valley to the west. We quickly get settled into our two rooms as Dad hits it off with Walter; they’ve disappeared nearly half an hour before I find them engrossed in conversation near Walter’s truck. I can tell that they would be good friends if they lived in the same time zone (and nation). In the meantime, I’ve taken the requisite photos of my brother-in-law and nephew to send to my sister and mother back at the house in Dominicalito.
While those two continue to get settled in their room, Dad and I decide to walk up and check out the trailhead to get a head start on the next morning’s adventure. It’s not too far up the hill to KM 0, but it’s steep. It’s not the steepest terrain I’ve ever hiked, but it’s pretty close. Lofoten comes to mind.
A couple dozen meters up the trail, and I convince my dad to turn around. It’s starting to get dark, it’s time to eat dinner, and I’m wearing flip-flops, anyway. No reason to twist an ankle the night before we even get started.
As we walk back down to the hotel, I notice a wall with repurposed glass bottles and what looks like an old bicycle or wagon wheel. Something with spokes. I make a mental note for future project ideas.
We start the meal with a bit of liquid carb loading. Any athlete will tell you: You’ve always got to load up on carbs before any kind of endurance activity. 🙂
The hotel (which feels more like a hostel or lodge…definitely much more my speed) turns out to have an excellent kitchen for sustenance. Dad has a traditional rice and bean dish, and I have a “stuffed chicken” dish that is something similar to cordon bleu, with a Costa Rican flair. I’m happy to get some vegetables and mushrooms
My food has vanished in no time flat. Apparently, I was hungry.
It’s been a slow food kind of night, and by the time it has arrived at the table and we’ve finished eating, it’s after 7 pm. Knowing we’ve got a rather early start in the morning, we head to our rooms to bed down by 8 pm.
Sleep comes in fits and starts. I feel like it’s the night before a race.
There’s an errant bedspring poking me in my ass.
Day 1 – Dec 29, 2018
WAKE UP, IT’S TIME TO GO.
Or at least take a piss, according to the sensations.
I reach over and check the clock display on my phone. It’s 2:47 am. Excellent.
I get up to take the signaled piss, then shuffle back to my errant bedspring for what I hope to be another hour of sleep.
It’s not happening.
I lie in bed stretching, making letter and number formations for the imaginary camera on the ceiling. Maybe I’m dreaming, but I swear I remember similar pixilation-style stop motion animations on television when I was a kid. Sesame Street? Electric Company?
Regardless, I’m out of bed before my alarm goes off at 4 am.
Breakfast is ready at 4:30. Eggs and rice and beans, buffet style. Little do we know that this will be all too familiar in the coming days.
Coffee. Glorious, glorious coffee.
Somewhere along the way, I get my morning glory. Mission accomplished. No reason to start hiking before the morning glory. Glad it didn’t’ have to be forced.
I’m on the trail by 5:10 am.
Follow me up the trail, one kilometer at a time. The markers all have names.
Soon after the marker at kilometer six, I come upon a set of picnic tables next to the trail. I realize this would be a great place to stop for a snack since the table-as-prop will make it easier to put my pack back on once I’m done. I rustle through the food compartment of my pack and find a Snickers bar.
I never eat candy bars. I can’t remember the last time I’ve had one, actually. This is a rare exception, well earned, I believe. I vaguely remember inhaling the gooey goodness as it exited the wrapper and flew past my lips.
Essentially halfway between kilometer 7 and kilometer 8, I arrive at a rest stop concession shack that is bigger than what I hope to be the future house that I build for myself. Assuming the one young man hiking ahead of me didn’t stop for a break, I figure I’m the first hiker to make it to the rest stop today, somewhere in the neighborhood of 8:15 am. I’ve only got 1000 Colones cash on me, so all I get is a nice fresh cup of coffee to accompany the entire bag of trail mix that I rip open and try not to choke on as I make a charade of chewing before swallowing. This despite the vapor of Snickers I recently remember pushing past my lips.
Somewhat sufficiently re-caffeinated, I make the requisite motions to continue my upward journey, preparing to throw my pack back on my back. The concession attendant, Hansel, makes a curious remark about my pack, which, apparently is a rare sight on this hike. Apparently very few people actually carry a pack up the hike. Most take advantage of the porter service horses.
I plop my pack onto the counter of the concession area, and Hansel makes a casual attempt to lift it. His eyes practically bulge out of his head with surprise, and he basically yelps: “That’s so heavy!” I look at him, he looks at me. Then he turns and sprints to the back of the shop, shouting “I’ve got an idea, hang on!”
He appears on the back porch with a hanging scale and asks me to come around so he can weigh my pack.
The scale settles. Hansel does what appears to be half of a jumping jack, screaming with delight: “Twenty-four kilos! WHOA!” I still don’t have the conversion formulas memorized, so I figured my pack was about 40 lbs. Maybe forty-five. Actually, 24 kilos equals 52.9109 lbs. Let’s call it an even 53. Fifty-three pounds, mostly camera gear, with some warm clothing and a pair of camp sneakers.
I’m back on the trail by 8:43 am. Based on the fact it took me about three hours to get to the midway rest station, Hansel tells me it will probably take another 2.5 hours to get to Base Crestones. He also warns me there’s a pretty steep section coming up.
I make it to the Base Crestones lodge right around 12:25.
Typically I would have tracked my journey using Gaia GPS, my favorite trek mapping app, but not being sure of the electricity (thus recharging) situation at Base Crestones, I erred on the side of caution and chose to save my battery for potentially three days of snapshots on one charge.
My alternative tracking plan, thanks to the mostly excellent signage along the way, involved capturing a photo of each kilometer marker (including altitude readouts) and using the timestamps to chart out the progress of my climb after the fact. There were a few kilometer markers that are devoid of elevation data, but luckily it doesn’t affect the plotlines to terribly much.
I’ve charted my ascent to Base Crestones per kilometer in two ways: 1) altitude x distance and 2) altitude x time.
When I get to Base Crestones, I register at the desk and the staff member insists he shows me to my room before I eat lunch (despite the fact that I’m basically bonking). I take my pack and follow the staffer down the hall. He starts up the stairs to the second level, and all I can think is, “Well, at least I get to come back DOWN these stairs without my pack on. And there’s lunch at the bottom.” Our room is a double-bunk four-person room, at the end of the hall, conveniently (or perhaps inconveniently?) located next to one of the bathrooms.
Lunch is decent, but I don’t care. I’d probably eat shit-covered cardboard at this point. My body needs fuel to keep it from shutting down. I’m done eating within minutes, and soon I can feel myself getting back on the highway to normalcy.
My dad arrived at Base Crestones around 3 pm, and my nephew and brother-in-law showed up around thirty minutes later. The cutoff for lunch was 2:30 pm, but luckily they had tickets, which meant they were all able to get some post-hike food.
We all got settled in, still a little woozy. I managed to capture a couple time-lapse sequences as the sun set that evening, despite the increasing winds shaking the camera (clearly evident in the sequences).
I also captured about ten minutes of hi-def footage with my phone as the setting sun washed over the Crestones.
Prior to these captures, I had taken some time to venture back “down” the trail from Base Crestones in order to see what sorts of things I might be able to capture in the scrub along the trail. I also just wanted to stretch my legs a little after sitting so long since lunch.
Here’s one of the shots I got of a gnarled old tree in frame with the Crestones. It reminded me quite a bit of Bryce Canyon and the Fairyland trail.
Here’s a shot I captured at sunset just after I finished the time-lapse captures. It’s nice having a tripod handy. 🙂
As apparently is custom every evening at Base Crestones, dinner happened at 6 pm sharp: a menu of chicken and pasta in some kind of creamy red sauce. I vaguely remember inhaling every ounce off my plate. I was done eating no later than 6:20, most likely.
We were all in the room within an hour, and I was actively trying to fall asleep by 7:45. I think I started drifting around 8 pm.
I didn’t sleep well at all. The wind seemingly continued to increase in velocity throughout the night, and I guess about once every twenty minutes a door or window somewhere up or down the hallway would SLAM-BAM-BAM open or shut with the pressure change of the wind.
After chugging water at what I gather was a constant rate all afternoon and evening, I had to gingerly amble my way up and down off the top bunk at least once or twice to pee down the hall as well. My leg muscles weren’t happy about that. I’m just glad I didn’t lose any teeth on the tile floor.
Day 2 – Dec 30, 2018
Lying awake stretching as well as I can inside the impossibly tight sleeping bag corkscrew, I finally give up and get out of bed once the sun is up at 5:30 am, despite the fact that we had planned to take it easy and “sleep in” today before hiking to the summit.
Breakfast is what turns out to be the usual scrambled eggs with beans and rice. I’m not as hungry as I thought I would be, but I still wolf it all down pretty quickly. I’m happy to find out that I can get a refill on my coffee. The second cup of coffee that I’m used to having every morning will come in handy when I’m halfway to the summit and the last of the caffeine kicks in. For now, it coaxes along the morning glory. It’s nice to get it out of the way before heading out on the trail.
I’m on the trail at approximately 7 am, and now that I know I can recharge my phone in the lobby of the base lodge, I start my map tracker. Here are the results from the day.
About halfway through the hike, there is an intersection with another trail leading to Laguna Ditkevi. Near the intersection is a now familiar structure with two benches, back to back, under a small shade roof supported by four posts. The benches and structure (as well as all the newer signage) are made with some sort of composite recycled plastic material, made by a company (which I assume is local to Costa Rica) called Producal.
I get to the top, and in typical fashion, I let out a barbaric yawp to celebrate the summit. I’m taken aback by the fact that it echoes three or four (or FIVE???) times off the nearby peaks. So, I make sure to do it again as I shoot a quick video to summarize my experience.
I also took the time to capture several minutes of footage of the clouds rolling across another peak nearby.
A few other folks from our “cohort” of hikers arrive, and soon thereafter my father makes it to the summit. There is enough room for probably fifteen people to sit comfortably on top of the peak, so it doesn’t really feel crowded with the half dozen or so who are up there. I was glad to have some time alone first, though.
I was able to capture several photos with my Venus Optics (Laowa) 15mm macro lens, as well as my “nifty fifty” Canon 50mm f/1.2 L lens, which I left on my 6D to get some handheld stuff on the hike back to the lodge soon to come.
The first shot from the summit of Chirripó I got with my 15mm:
The clouds were all around, especially to what I believe is the north and east of the peak. I kept scrambling around trying to get the best frames possible while the clouds danced. Here is another one of my favorite shots with the 15mm:
I switched to my 50mm to get a different feel from the top, some with a tripod, but mostly handheld. This one, in particular, catches my attention as I continue to study its contents now, with the lake in the foreground shown at elevation in contrast to the distant mountain ranges beyond. I think this is essentially due west from the peak of Chirripó.
Here’s one of my favorite black and white shots with the 50mm:
In case I forgot to mention, and you’ve not discovered for yourself already, these “EP” watermarked photos should be clickable, and you should be able to visit my photo galleries and purchase prints or downloads of these if you’d like. (If, for some reason, the links do not work for you, please do let me know.)
This 50mm shot gives a sense of the severity of the final climb to the summit of Chirripó.
Finally, here are a couple of the better shots I got with the camera on my Google Pixel 2, which I then process using the Snapseed photography app. This one does a particularly good job of defining the trail’s course across the saddle, viewed looking back down during the ascent of the final peak.
Here’s the view of the last vertical push to reach the summit. I did use both hands at one point.
I believe this photo is the view directly north from the peak.
Eventually, my brother-in-law and nephew arrive as well, and we get the requisite photos in front of the summit sign before beginning the descent in order to make it back to the lodge in time for lunch. As I’m descending, I separate from the pack due to my pace and the fact that I’m stopping fairly often to take photos.
I ponder a side trip to Laguna Ditkevi, but the sun is already getting a little too hot, and I’m not sure I can make it there and back and still get to the lodge before the lunch service cutoff. I figure I can come back later this evening before bed if I really want, especially since I’ve got a headlamp if I need it.
I do start to worry about sun exposure and intensity at elevation, so I quicken my pace once I feel the consistent heat on my face. However, it’s not enough to deter me from stopping to investigate a dry lake bed (and, as it turns out, a hidden waterfall!) that is close to the main trail.
I’m back to the lodge for lunch by 1:30.
One thing I noticed about the hike this morning was the fact that I was regularly engaged with hummingbirds. I might have seen one or two, but I heard dozens fly in rather close proximity to my head. It’s as if they hang out in the scrub next to the trail, blending in almost completely with their perches, only flying off if you get really close. Based on the Doppler effect, I could tell that they never flew toward me, only away. One aspect of the prevalence of hummingbirds that made me quite happy in Costa Rica was that, unlike the norm up here in the US, I didn’t see a single hummingbird feeder anywhere. Plenty of native flora available to support the hummingbird population.
Though I had planned to summit Cerro Crestones for a sunset view and time-lapse capture, after lunch I decide it’s not a good idea. I’m still fairly tired from yesterday’s hike, with additional fatigue from the morning summit hike. Coupled with the extensive sun exposure I’ve just experienced, I realize I would have to hike to Crestones during the hottest part of the day, in direct sun, in order to arrive in time for sunset (especially if I want to spend nearly an hour beforehand capturing enough frames for a decent time-lapse sequence). I don’t want to risk a heat stroke or something similar, so I just kick back and wait for my dad and nephew and brother-in-law to arrive back at the lodge.
Seems like everyone in the group is gassed. The other three gents spent more time in the sun than I, and when they get back, naps are taken. It’s a pretty quiet afternoon. Eventually, while I’m waiting for dinner, taking the occasional shady stroll near the lodge, one of three sons from another family in our cohort, with whom we’ve become quite familiar, comes up to me and tells me about his experience yesterday with Hansel from the rest stop on the trail up to the lodge. As it turns out, my heavy pack was the most exciting thing of the day, and Hansel raved about it with everyone else who stopped in at the rest area on the way up the trail. According to the son, he tells me apparently I’m some kind of legend now. Ha! I think, “More like gringo loco.”
Dinner is some kind of clear broth beef stew, loaded with potatoes, and sprinkled with carrots and something else…turnips? Whatever it is, it’s downright divine. Perfect sustenance to fuel up for the next day’s descent. Knowing an early day awaits us again tomorrow, we have packed most of our stuff already in order to be done before the lights go out at 8 pm. We’re done well before that and actually end up going to bed around 7 or 7:30.
It doesn’t seem like many other people in the lodge are up much later than that. It gets pretty quiet pretty quickly.
Day 3 – Dec 31, 2018
Having been able to rent a reasonably-sized blanked to place on top of my sheet bag, allowing me to forgo the aforementioned sleeping bag corkscrew provided by the lodge, I slept much better last night. I’m pretty sure I got at least six hours of non-contiguous sleep, thanks to the early bedtime.
I’m up and out of bed at 5 am. I’m cleaned out, loaded up and ready for breakfast at 5:30 am, but for some reason, the staff isn’t quite ready for us. Around 5:45, I get my coffee and eggs and beans and rice, and I inhale them.
Tired of waiting for the rest of the crew to get into gear, I’m on the trail by 6:20 am. I tracked the descent on Gaia GPS.
During the first steep decline, all I could think about was the next cup of coffee I was going to get once I made it to the rest stop between kilometers 8-7. I arrive, set down my pack, and say hello to Hansel. He asks me if I want coffee. Good man. I also get an arrollando pollo, which is a little greasy, but damn delicious.
There’s another young man that has arrived before me, wearing what appears to be a rather official looking Chirripo dry-fit shirt. I strike up a quick conversation with him. As it turns out, he’s heading up for seven days of volunteer work with SINAC, including swapping out several wildlife cameras within the park.
I get the idea that maybe I should come back and volunteer my time to do the same. Figure out what I can do and offer to provide photo documentary services in exchange for room, board, and access.
Finished with my coffee, I transfer water in my bottles then wish the two men well and continue on my downward journey.
I take another quick water break at the tables near kilometer 6 (where I ate the candy bar on the ascent) and as I’m about to begin again, two horses without any human companions come sauntering down the trail. I decide to let them pass, as I assume they’ll be much faster than I.
Soon I realize that may not have been the best idea since apparently I’m now tasked with driving two seemingly stubborn horses down the trail. I catch up to them several times, stopped in the trail, eating or just standing there. Each time I make clucking or farting noises with my mouth, causing both horses to continue down the trail.
I catch up to the pair once more, and while the mare continues down the trail as soon as my presence is sensed (I assume), the stallion behind her continues to stand, sideways in the trail, taking what appears to be a long satisfying piss. He’s looking straight off the trail, not moving, solid as a rock until he finishes urinating. The dribble stops, and, I swear to you, dear reader, the stallion turns and looks at me…and then farts. Still not moving from his post, still blocking the entire trail, I realize I must figure out a way around this horse without getting kicked or bitten. Based on the proportion of navigable terrain surface area on either end of the stallion, I opt to walk behind the horse, but luckily he doesn’t spook, and I’m far enough off the trail that his hooves would’ve made a glancing blow to my head anyway.
Continuing down the trail, I catch wind of the mare once or twice more but never see her again. Soon thereafter, two porters catch up to me from behind, and they’re driving the stallion. Hearing them and judging their speed of approach, I quickly step off the trail to the left to allow the party of three plenty of room to pass. The stallion slows to a stop as his eye meets my eye. He stands in the middle of the trail and stares me down for at least ten seconds. I wave my hand in an ascending arc from the uphill to the downhill direction, and the stallion gets the “Keep it moving, chief!” memo. He continues down the trail, and the porters follow. As they approach me, laughing about the horse (I assume), they query as to whether I’ve seen otro caballo, and I assure them that the mare is ahead of them on the trail. They smile and move along quickly, deeply engrossed in what seems like a rather personal conversation with each other.
Sooner than I think, I’m down to the last few kilometers. I can smell food cooking in what I assume to be one or more restaurants or homes near the trailhead. It’s torturous.
Before I know it, I’m at kilometer zero. I check my route mapper, and I’ve completed the descent in right at 4.5 hours of moving time, at roughly 11:15 am. I found out later from the rest of my crew that I stayed ahead of the sunshine, getting mostly shade on the way down. Apparently, the other three in my crew weren’t so lucky, getting a much hotter experience on their second half of the descent.
Back at the trailhead motel, there are showers available. I drop my pack at the vehicle, grab my stashed clean clothes, and take one of the two showers I’ve taken the entire time I’ve been in Costa Rica. It was a bit of freeze scald acrobatics, but totally worth it.
Then, I get a Costa Rican beer (perfectly cold, crisp, and light) and sit down on a couch. I want to wait for the rest of my crew to join me for the celebratory lunch.
I finish my beer and grab a citrus soda, conversing with the three sons of a family from our cohort as they wait for their parents to arrive as well. I’ve been communicating with my father as he has been texting me distance and ETA updates, and this gives those three boys comfort, as they know their parents started just ahead of the rest of my crew. We’re all pretty blasted, a bunch of post-hike zombies sitting on the couches in the outdoor living room of the motel. A few of us have feet propped up in metal folding chairs requisitioned from nearby cafe tables.
At some point, while we’re all still waiting for our families, the crowd of “alternative fitness” folks (who had made their presence known with quite a bit of silicone-infused fanfare at Base Crestones yesterday afternoon) arrived back at the trailhead motel. One of the beefy beardos in the entourage starts yelling numbers and other sorts of motivational jargon (all in Spanish) at the beefcake queen as she’s doing all sorts of burpees and squats while one of her daughters shoots video. Soon, it’s apparent they’ve gotten their lunches to go, and they thankfully disappear.
My dad and brother-in-law and nephew arrive soon enough, and we order lunch while quick showers are taken. Dad and I both get the “Chirripo special” hamburger from the limited menu, and it’s quite a beast of a sandwich.
Neither one of us comes anywhere close to finishing our burger.
We finish the lunch session quickly in order to get on the road and get back to the house above Dominicalito in time for dinner with the ladies. It’s a relatively easy drive home, and I actually enjoy “going with the flow”, ebbing and flowing in the chaotic traffic of cars, trucks, motorbikes, and pedestrians at around 40 to 45 mph.
We’re home just in time to watch the sunset and eat leftovers out of the fridge, including a heap of rice and beans. 🙂