Our Epic Fail
You know when you just have one of those days where everything that could go wrong does? The kind of experience where you know you should feel accomplished and excited and blessed to be witnessing the natural beauty of the world around you… but the setbacks are so frequent they crush any positive thought you might have along the way?
Haha okay so that’s a little dramatic.
First of all, this hike is "do-able" in one day - as in, people have done it. Assuming you’re fit enough to hike the length of a marathon (which we are 100% NOT). But even for us, it would have been possible had it not been for the following series of setbacks (follow these tips for success):
1. DO YOUR RESEARCH
We didn’t do any research until the day before (not a setback, just a mistake)
2. DON'T USE YOUR iPHONE TO BOOK
We used our iPhones to purchase the permits… the website malfunctions frequently so we accidentally only paid for a 1-day permit ($18).
Without a 2-day permit, you CANNOT stay the night at the base camp lodge. Tent camping is no longer an option, you MUST stay at the lodge and if you are not registered for 2 days in the park, they will not allow you to stay.
3. READ THE FINE PRINT
At the ranger’s station, we are told that purchasing an extra day on the spot, or hiking up to the lodge and just asking if they have availability is also not permitted.
So our options were to either get online in that moment and purchase 2-days for $36/person (losing our original $18 in the process), then reserving a bed at the lodge for $35/person which would put us at a total cost of $72/person PLUS the $16/bed for the hostel in town that we’d already agreed to pay, AND the original $18 we would have lost from the 1-day permit we already had in our hands…
OR... summit the mountain in one-day for $18 and hike all the way back down to stay at our hostel that same night (we chose this option thinking "lighter hiking backpack + MUCH less expensive + a cool challenge…" oops)
So we made as much food as we could with the limited groceries we were able to buy from the mini super down the road + leftover groceries (no-bake protein balls, tuna roll-ups, and a TON of trail mix).
4. GET A LOT OF REST
The goal was to go to sleep at 6:30pm so we could get 6 full hours before our alarm went off at 12:30am. (The park ranger suggested we start by 1am to make this whole thing work). We weren’t in bed until 7pm and none of us were asleep before 9. Which means we all ended up with a max of 4 hours of sleep.
We did it though! We got dressed, had coffee at 12:45am and out the door by 1.
THE ORIGINAL 1-DAY PLAN: start Chirripo by 1am, hike for 5 hours (people take between 5-7) So we knew we had to book it to make it to the lodge by 6am so that we could start the 2-2.5 hour hike to the summit and get there by 8:30am to miss the clouds rolling in. No problem...
5. STAY ALERT
Walking up the hill to the start of the Cerro Chirripo hike we were using our headlamps trying to spot the beginning of the trail. Everyone said the signs would be clearly marked… and they were… in the daytime.
We ascend the steady climb up the semi-paved road and about 20 minutes later, we arrived at the entrance to the Cloud Forest Reserve. That didn't sound right but the map they had outside the building showed a long hiking loop with a tiny little trail at the bottom labeled Cerro Chirripo. Hm… okay well maybe we just hike through the cloud forest and look for that hard right turn to the Chirripo hike.
Our legs were burning from the first little ascension but the next 45 minutes were pretty easy. Wandering around in the dark , climbing over mossy trees and walking through small creeks... we were having a good time. It wasn't until after we took the “right turn” we thought would lead to Chirripo that we ended up on an unmarked, overgrown, fairly dangerous trail, still in complete darkness that we started to say, ok there is NO way this is right. So we begrudgingly turned back. We took a left at the fork and hiked 5 minutes uphill before seeing another sign for the Cloud Forest loop.
Where is the Chirripo trail?!?!
6. WEAR GOOD SHOES & TAKE A HIKING STICK
Hiking all the way back down to the beginning, (we were almost back to our hostel!) we found the Chirripo signs. Sure enough, there's a clearly marked dirt path off to the right - we accidentally stayed left on the main road and it’s now 3am and we're just now STARTING the hike (a 2-hour detour).
That warm bed in our hostel is sounding pretty nice, but its too early to admit defeat.
Legs already a little tired, we had to really push ourselves up that first hill. We’d been told the beginning was steep. And long. And muddy. And this is ALL true… it was a steady, steep climb and it was VERY muddy. We recommend wearing good shoes. Lots of people carry hiking sticks too, which we did not.
7. DOUBLE CHECK YOUR GEAR
5-minutes into the hike, Meg’s flashlight batteries go out… both flashlights.
Luckily my iPhone had a full charge and I was able to use that. Thankfully, Tyler and Matt still had their headlamps and the moon was big and bright.
8. STAY POSITIVE
For the next 4 hours the only setback was Meg complaining that we’d be halfway to the top had it not been for our 2-hour detour at 1am. I'm still apologizing for this.
The upsides: moonlit hikes are pretty cool when you’re not slipping up the hill and its dry enough to relax. The brief, 2-minute moments when you take a breather or a snack break and turn back to look over the valley of tiny little city lights in between the shadows of the mountains is incredible. Watching the sunrise in the rainforest is pretty beautiful – even though we didn't have a view at that point, it was neat to see dawn in a forest and watch the sky change through the trees.
9. DON'T HIKE WHEN YOU'RE ILL
About 30 minutes later, we realized Matt was really sick. He wouldn't admit this in the beginning, but after a certain point he couldn't hide it any longer; his pace was slowing significantly and he was so pale. Once we realized he was feverish, weak, and chilled to the bone, we insisted we stop more often (which was a great excuse for us to rest our legs anyway).
We still can’t believe he made it as far as he did before telling us how he really felt. We were all pushing our bodies to the limit at that point but having a fever and deciding to continue is unbelievable.
We arrived at the lodge at 10am (that’s a total of 7 hours up the mountain to camp). The avid hiker takes 5 and most take between 6 and 7, so considering Matt’s condition we felt we'd done okay. We’d come to terms with not making it to the summit by 8:30 after our 2-hour detour.
Side Note: The clouds rolled in at 8am that morning meaning we would have missed the view even if we’d been able to reach the summit by 8:30 as we’d originally planned (this was an odd sort of consolation after what we ended up experiencing).
10. CONSIDER THE WEATHER & ELEVATION
At the lodge, the clouds were heavy and almost immediately, it began to rain. The summit was no longer an option at this point. There would be no view whatsoever, we hadn’t made good time, Matt was so sick, and even if he had been healthy, our legs were shot. Athletic as we like to believe we are, an elevation climb of that degree, in that amount of time, is best left to people who’ve been on more than 2 hikes in their entire lives.
Elevation gain from start of trail to base camp:
1800 meters / 5,901 feet (what we did)
Elevation gain from start of trail to summit:
2600 meters / 8,530 feet
Height of Cerro Chirripo:
3820 meters / 12,533 feet
* the hike begins at an elevation of 1,220 meters / 4,003 feet
So from 10am-12pm we spent our time lying face up on cold benches in a cafeteria. And at 12pm we scarfed down a hot, expensive lunch knowing we need to make good time if we planned to reach the bottom by dark.
We were hiking back by 12:30 and were making surprisingly good time. Practically jogging down to the first checkpoint (7km) we made it to the halfway point in exactly 2 hours.
11. PACK ENOUGH FOOD
The food and rest must have really helped because for the second half of the decent, the energy wore off and we were in rare form. It’s now 3pm and we’ve been on this journey for 14 hours. The fatigue we’d been ignoring was becoming unavoidable.
Our quads and hamstrings were already exhausted from the climb, but now our knees, ankles and lower backs were beginning to compensate for the fatigue. And the significant stress on our joints from the steep decline was sending shooting pain through our lower bodies and backs. Every. Single. Step… was like a blow to the kneecap.
I would love to give you some “upsides” for the end of our journey but the weather wasn’t on our side. So while others who’ve taken this hike will tell you it was beautiful on the way down, surrounded by lush green rainforest and spectacular views, we saw only fog and rain. In a way, this too was beautiful. But we were hurting too much to appreciate it.
12. SO CLOSE & YET STILL SO FAR
Remember that first, muddy ascent at 3am? Well coming down it at 5pm is stressful because in about 20 minutes, we knew it would be completely dark and we still had 1km left to go (about .5km too long). The batteries are still dead in the flashlights, our phones are now also dead, and Matt (who miraculously got a burst of energy in a final 'hail Mary/survival of the fittest' moment and somehow RAN the wettest last .5km) had our only working headlamp. So Tyler is taking the lead, doing 360 degree turns down the mountain (not intentionally) as if he were on roller blades, Meg is deliriously laughing right above him, watching closely to make sure she avoids all of his slippery footholds, and we’re both yelling out for Matt wondering where he’d gone with our only source of light. To this day, we’re still not sure HOW the heck he escaped our fate and managed to round the corner with an unlikely win.
We arrived at the hostel at 5:45pm for a total journey of about 16 hours and 45 minutes.
Ascent: 7 hours (not including the 2-hour “pre-hike”)
Decent: 5.15 hours
We waddled up the stairs, forced ourselves to take showers and were asleep before 8pm.
The next morning we checked the iHealth App in Tyler’s pocket out of curiosity and here are some numbers for you (assuming it was accurately recording our day):
· 61, 891 steps
· 537 flights of stairs
· 25.38 miles (The worst part about this? It’s only 26 miles to reach the summit…)
So we’ll leave you with this final statement to encourage you to visit: “As he stood hunched over with his hands on his knees, his face now 2 feet closer to the horse poop on the trail, he willed himself to take another step.” I believe those were Tyler’s exact words about 9 hours into the trip. And the laughter it incited in Meg gave her all the will power she needed to continue.
We recommend hiking with people who can make you laugh, God’s speed.
Meg (+ Tyler)