Cerro Chirripo Hike, San Gerardo, Costa Rica

Hiking. What’s that all about then?

Having just completed our third hike, I must confess – I’m none the wiser. Admittedly, this was a far more successful climb than the last one, which will be known forever more as The Hike of Death. It turns out that Costa Rica knows how to do its national parks, with clearly marked signs each kilometer, playful names for every section and even motivational mottos to keep the flagging energised. This time round we would not be relying on blind luck and the kindness of wandering watermelon farmers to get us home.

And it started extremely well. Sensibly packed with enough water and food rations for at least a week, we left ourselves the whole day to reach base camp, where we’d stay before pushing on for the top. Setting off at 4am and climbing upwards in the dark, we were breakfasting on hot coffee and homemade brownies by 5, overlooking the valley below as the sun glimpsed from behind the tallest of many peaks. Beyond the first official resting stop the terrain grew pretty steep, but the landscapes were varied and interesting – cloud forest full of curious birds, spooky grey bracken and stripped trees, engulfed in wispy fog. As we trekked Chris happily hummed the Jurassic Park theme, no doubt imagining himself as Sam Neill, hat and all. Brandishing as I was a large walking stick, and with Chris’s well-defined and hairy calve muscles in my direct line of sight, I was feeling more Gandalf than Goldblum. By the time we reached base camp, the air was thin and our bodies were tired, but we were pleasantly surprised that we’d made it by 11am. The base was overpriced and basic, but within minutes we were wrapped in blankets and huddled like penguins, fast asleep.

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After a fairly uninspiring meal served by a surly chef, we had an early night and set the alarm for 2am. Creeping out of our dorm room and armed with torches, we were soon picking our way towards the summit. In the main the trail was clear, and the only time we questioned our night hike was when we had to use hands as well as feet to clamber to the top. But we were rewarded with the Costa Rican flag snapping in the wind and a clearly painted sign to tell us we’d reached our destination. We didn’t have long to wait before sunrise, which was lucky as we were the coldest we have ever been – even with all extremities covered, it occurred to us that we might never have feeling in our hands again. Yet the view was more than compensation. As spears of pink darted across the horizon, the folds of mountain and deep, cratered rock around us were revealed. Beyond, and very faintly, we could see both seas, to the east and west. And, amazingly, it was ours to enjoy alone.

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Duly rewarded we set off back to base to collect the rest of our stuff. By 8am we were on the move, ready to tackle the 14k back home. Or so we thought. On reflection, and despite popular opinion, down is not always better than up. Having seen the landscape once, it feels a bit like overkill having to pass through it all again, at least by the time your knees have started to feel like balls of fire with every laboured step down. And while this time the descent didn’t involve getting lost, it did involve torrential rain, hitting about the half-way point and acting like cold, sneaky fingers that work their way into collars, cuffs and waistlines and turning the formely robust path into a mulchy slide.

With three hikes now behind me I’ve realised something – hiking brings me out in a rage. All rationality goes out the window: if Chris dares to suggest that, perhaps, my toddler-like pace might be quickened, I feel utterly affronted; the occasional mosquito on the way up become scheming, evil swarms determined to fox my every move; each slip or step in ankle-deep mud is Mother Nature herself slapping me in the face. And there’s something else. I am not designed for hiking. My back aches within an hour and my ridiculous flat feet barely keep me upright when standing still. What’s more, there is not a competitive bone in my body. I blame my arts-led school: where elsewhere children were encouraged to fight for that cup, or medal, or title, our school were busy using rugby balls as papier mache mask moulds for the next school play.

Ultimately though, it’s not the discomfort, the mud, or the rain that is to blame. The problem, I’ve realised, is ourselves. We chose to climb this mountain. We put ourselves in this situation; hell, we even paid for it! Chris spent a good 3 days trying to phone someone to arrange a permit and the first time he got through a woman screamed at him in rapid Spanish while apparently in the midst of a fist fight in a wind tunnel. Just to get to the right town involved three buses, two taxis and a punishing climb, laden with all of our belongings.

But it’s the strangest thing – as soon as the pain is over, it’s forgotten. Once we reached Casa Mariposa – mercifully at the trail’s end, and one of the nicest places we’ve stayed – all was forgiven. We even revelled in our aches, acting as they did as the contrast to the pure joy of a hot shower and a proper bed. It’s like tattoos, or child birth, or golf – in the relief of getting through it, you’re somehow convinced it was a good idea all along.

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