I have a reputation. A reputation within my family. That is, it is not possible for me to take a “normal” holiday without tagging on some mountain activity. So it was in February 2023. Julie and I were to meet our daughter in Costa Rica and go on an organised trip to see some of the wonderful natural highlights of this Central American country. And, well, I decided that it would be a good idea to climb a couple of mountains. One of these was Cerro Chirripó.
The peak is not volcanic. It is located towards the south of Costa Rica in the Cordillera de Talamanca range. It is a land of rain forests and, above them, the paramo – a region of montane grassland and shrubs.
Cerro Chirripó is 3819m high and is the 36th equal most prominent peak in the world. That was one of the driving factors behind the choice. I blog about ultra prominent peaks here and further information about the top 50 most prominent peaks is here.
The day before I did my climb, Julie and I had been to the top of Volcán Irazu. Getting to the top of this volcano is not difficult. It is, in effect, a drive-up. Still it is interesting as you can look into a couple of the craters. At around 3400m in height it also gives some acclimatisation benefits. The greatest difficulty was navigating the San José traffic in order to ensure we were able to enter the National Park within the timed entry parameters of our permit.
It was here, however, the “accident” occurred. This meant that Julie would not be undertaking any further mountaineering activities.
If, traffic permitting, accessing Volcán Irazu is straightforward, Cerro Chirripó is certainly not – at least in the high season between December and March. A permit is required and these are snapped up very quickly once they are made available. At the date of writing this blog, the link to the relevant website for permits is here. I had obtained some “inside information” as to when the permits were likely to be available. So I was on the website on the day that applications for February 2023 were made available.
The website is a bit clunky, but we secured the permits and were set. At least until the “accident”.
The original plan had been to do the climb over two days with a night in the Crestones refuge which is around 14.5km from the trailhead in San Gerardo de Rivas. I decided that, as a result of “the accident”, to attempt the climb in a day. It is necessary to collect the permits from the Ranger Office in San Gerardo de Rivas before entering the National Park.
Having left Julie in the nearby town of San Isidro de El General to sort out her injury, I reached the Ranger Office 15 minutes before its closing time at 4pm. The permits are personal, so (as I expected) the only permit that would be issued was mine. I then made my way to our accommodation. This was at the delightful Casa Mariposa. It has a rustic feel and has been run by Americans, Jill and John, for around 15 years. It is perfectly located less than 5 minutes from the trailhead. But, if you plan to go whilst Jill and John are there, you need to be quick because they are looking to sell up.
Having related to Jill the woes we had suffered, she kindly implemented some flexibility in the reservation that I had made with them. I also made the decision to make the climb a one day one, rather than two days. That would involve a (very) early start the next morning. At that point I did not know if Julie would be kept in hospital that night. However, an hour or so later I received a message from her to say that she was taking a taxi to Casa Mariposa. Relief!
So it became a rushed organisation of kit and, once Julie had arrived, we had some takeaway food from the neighbouring Hotel Uran. And then it was earlyish to bed.
After 4 hours’ sleep, the alarm went off at 1am. The adrenaline of the previous day was still flowing to some extent, so I did not feel too bad. I was quickly ready and fetched the breakfast burrito that Jill had made for me out of the fridge. I would eat that later. And then I was out of the front door at 1.20am, my head torch casting the usual beam into the darkness ahead of me.
I was soon on the trail, signposted to the right off the rough and steep road. It was initially steep. The trail is well signed. Indeed, it would be difficult to get lost. Kilometre markers were placed after each kilometre was achieved – well mostly. I wondered if I would see anyone at this early hour. I was able to walk in just a base layer, the humidity and stillness of the forest and my exertions offsetting any chill.
Well, between kilometres 2 and 3 I heard someone behind me. It was a guy who was running up the trail. He was soon past me with a grunted greeting in I do not know what language. The National Park is not in fact reached for 4 kilometres. There is then a sign with a warning that you should not progress further without a permit.
It was, of course, still dark. I became aware of someone else behind me. I had had a quick drink stop at the Park entrance and moved off before the figure reached me. For the next 15 minutes or so, the figure did not gain on me. We were clearly walking at a very similar pace. So, I slowed a bit and I was caught.
The figure asked “Español or English?” I responded “English”. We introduced ourselves and I met Alyssa from Wisconsin. So we spent the next few hours intermittently chatting about the differences between “American” English and “English” English, mountains generally, her family in Costa Rica, the forest that we were passing through and the occasional sighting of birds.
At the 7.5km mark there is a building where one can buy food and drink, though not at the early hour we were there. However, it has a supply of potable fresh water available at all times. We took advantage of that. It was here also that horses laden with provisions for Crestones arrived, looming out of the dark. We left but were soon stepping aside as they passed us. The horses would not have any regard for climbers.
Between the markers for kilometres 9 and 10 the sun was brightening the sky and we could switch off our headlamps. It was a beautiful morning. We had also just exited the rainforest and were in scrubbier terrain. The air was now a lot fresher as well. Kilometres 12 and 13 were the hardest with the path steepening and becoming temporarily rougher. But soon we were able to look down on Crestones with an unwelcome loss of height of 60 metres or so to reach it.
The horses were still tethered outside the refuge receiving their loads for their return. I sat down at the far end of the building as Alyssa went in to see if she could get a coffee. It was very pleasant in the sun. Green hills and the rocky outcrops of Cerro Crestones surround the refuge.
The breakfast burrito was demolished. I drank a lot of water and refilled my bottle with more water. I only carried a single litre water bottle. This was just about sufficient for the trip with the availability to refill at the points described.
A Scandinavian couple caught us up. They were also doing the climb in a day and had reached Crestones about 40 minutes faster than my 6¼ hours. They asked me to take their picture by this sign.
We would see each other later as they descended from the summit. Alyssa was unsuccessful on the coffee front. So we continued.
The kilometre markers end at Crestones. The way becomes more undulating as one passes through the paramo. The Crestones river flowed to our right. Lizards darted at our feet.
At Valle del Los Conejos (Valley of the Rabbits, though we saw none) there is a crossroads of paths. The way to Cerro Chirripó is to the left, signposted. We would not have the time to explore other routes.
Here the ground rises more steeply again and, as it breasts a rise, the pyramidical summit of Cerro Chirripó appeared over a col ahead.
We quickly reached that col. We were now passing a few people coming the other way – perhaps having been to the top for the sunrise. The path then dropped as it traversed the slopes of Cerro Piramide and reached the col between that top and Cerro Chirripó. There was then the final 120m of ascent. This involves a little easy scrambling and we passed the final groups.
We were at the top of Costa Rica. It was just after 10.30am. We had the summit to ourselves.
The panorama was magnificent. There was hardly a breath of air. The chill at 3819m was tempered by the strength of the sun. Any clouds were well distant and below us. We could see the Pacific but not the Caribbean. You are supposed to be able to see both when conditions allow.
Pretty lakes lay below. Other peaks popped up through cloud.
We took the obligatory photos and rested for around 45 minutes, eating and drinking. There is a summit register and we both signed it. Unfortunately, we knew that we could not stay any longer. So we started our descent. Just as we left a couple of men arrived.
The scramble down the first section was easy. At the foot of the summit pyramid, we passed a Park Ranger. We noted that another group had turned around ahead of us without proceeding to the summit. I speculated that the Ranger had forced this upon the group. I had read somewhere that the Rangers do not allow climbers to depart for the summit from Crestones after 10am.
Legs were weary by now. But we made fast time over the col and down to the Valley of the Rabbits. Here there was a couple sitting under the shelter by the four way signpost and I finished the last of my water. I felt somewhat dehydrated.
Then we continued across the paramo on the undulating path before the final descent to Crestones. I welcomed the opportunity to sit by the water fountain and drank and drank, nibbling some snacks between gulps of water. Only a few other people seemed to be around. It was 12.15pm.
I stayed there around 25 minutes. Alyssa decided that she wanted to get back to San Gerardo before darkness fell. So, we said our goodbyes and she departed. I slowly gathered myself for the 14.5km walk out.
The climb up from Crestones was unwelcome but kilometres 13 to 12 were much easier in descent. I even passed a few people going both ways. There is then a climb between kilometres 12 and 11 which slowed me, but the path improved after then and I could speed up.
At kilometre 10 I saw a figure sitting at the shelter there. I was surprised to see Alyssa there. She was suffering from cramp. Whenever she started to move it was quite painful for her. I suggested some stretches. That provided some temporary relief.
We eventually made it to the building at kilometre 7.5. Here I found her the only snack I was carrying that contained any salt, gave it to her and I urged her to drink. We stayed here perhaps 20 to 25 minutes and watched squirrels gamboling around us, playing in the rafters of the building and raiding the rubbish bins.
Beyond that it was a slow plod for both of us. The Park authorities have “improved” the trail in various places in recent times, and not very well in my view. Erosion control is understandable with the volume of footfall and use of horses to resupply Crestones. However, the rocks used to line the path are very awkward, especially in descent. For tired legs there is every potential for twisted or broken ankles. And I cannot imagine what it would be like when the rocks are wet.
The quality and effectiveness of the works is being evidenced by the fact that the trail is widening in those parts where the rocks have been laid. Climbers naturally seek to avoid that awkwardness and, consequently, erode the ground to the side. That then creates channels where rainwater further erodes the exposed soils. The Park authorities need to reconsider what they are doing before the erosion becomes worse.
Whilst it was still light when we were at the building at kilometre 7.5, slowly the light dimmed and it was dark by the 3 kilometre mark. As dusk fell wispy clouds penetrated the forest. They came and went. It was quite atmospheric really. Then various animals and birds started to appear, perhaps not expecting humans to be around at that hour. Dazzled and confused by our lights, we almost stepped on a couple of hares that froze on the trail. Quails were particularly prevalent.
The last kilometre was tortuous and we even passed a family group gingerly making its way down. Alyssa sped off and I was grateful to get to the haven at Casa Mariposa.
There I flopped. It had been a 18 hour day all told. That was a longer day with more climbing and distance than even my Sajama climb last year, albeit at a somewhat lower altitude and without the penitentes!
Still it had been an enjoyable challenge with (mainly) Type 1 and (some) Type 2 fun. If you can navigate the challenges of the permit, I highly recommend the climb. A climb over two or more days might be more enjoyable. Thanks to Alyssa for the company. And I hope that she gets into this mountaineering malarkey.
Julie and I spent the next two days festering in San Gerardo before the next stage of our exploration of Costa Rica – the National Parks at Tortuguero and Arenal, the wildlife refuge at Caño Negro and the Cloud Forest Reserve at Monteverde.
Finally, here is a link to a video that I took from the summit: