Chirripó National Park, Costa Rica - Who would've thought that you could freeze your ass off in tropical Costa Rica?
My girlfriend, Asha, and I had been living in Costa Rica for over a year when the opportunity finally arose to climb the country's highest mountain, Chirripó, located three hours south of San José.
It's a long way up to the top of Chirripó, a 21-kilometre hike that starts in San Gerardo de Rivas and ends at the 3,820-metre summit. This hard little climb isn't known just for its Tonka toughness (the descent busts your kneecaps like a Mafia goon) but for its stunning beauty as well, taking you through oak forests, tundra and marshlands that are home to hundreds of species of amphibians, birds and mammals.
We remain perfectly silent as we pass through a mist-shrouded rain forest that is nothing short of enchanted, where the resplendent quetzal bird can be heard among the branches of the canopy. Further on, there's a break in the forest where, 12 years earlier, a fire swept through, laying waste to big swaths of trees. Despite the destruction, new life now blooms along the windswept valley.
Throughout the hike, the weather switches rapidly between sun and cloud, hot and cold. We shed and replace layers of clothing faster than runway models. It's best to hike Chirripó between December and April, in the dry season. Despite Costa Rica's PR as a sun-seeker's paradise, it receives eight months of rain a year in what's euphemistically called "the green season."
Five kilometres below the summit, we arrive at a concrete refuge that has beds for 40 hikers (make reservations ahead of time). The Chirripó Park Lodge has all the warmth and comfort of a German bunker on the Normandy coast. A year away from the Great White North has made us soft; when the temperature tonight dips well below freezing, I whine and shiver like a baby despite layers of clothing and the protection of a rented sleeping bag.
More than 2,500 metres above sea level, altitude can become an issue, causing breathlessness, nausea and an overall unpleasant sensation. This is what I experience in the wee hours of the night when I become panicked and can't get enough air into my lungs. It's a relief when the alarm clock sounds at 3 am to get us up for the hike to the summit.
Asha and I set off into the darkness, using headlamps to illuminate the ground a few paces ahead. The beauty of the terrain remains undisclosed to us, though the sky is filled with an infinite number of stars.
The sun is still below the horizon when we catch the final trail that leads to the peak. It's a steep section that requires us to scramble over slabs of rock, made frightening by the darkness that still clings to the cliff's edge. The cold has left my fingers and toes stiff with cold.
Asha, overwhelmed with fear, freezes. She insists I go on without her. Reluctantly (selfishly!), I continue, testing the difficulty of the route for her.
On the summit of Chirripó, layers of mountains stretch toward both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts. As the warm light of the rising sun begins to paint the landscape, Asha appears above the lip of the summit, smiling widely. We celebrate a cold but precious moment together at the top of Costa Rica before gratefully returning to warmer climes.