When Carlos C a s t r o , B o n k y Campos and Eduardo Solís climbed Mt. Chirripó, Costa Rica’s highest peak, rising 12,530 feet in the country’s Southern Zone, in February, their arrival at the shelter near the summit was met with cheers, tears, hugs, blazing lights – even though it was hours after normal closing time – and a Channel 11 news crew there to record the event. All three are amputees, and the normally seven-hour hike took them 15. But better late than never.
“We were tired, hungry, cold, sore and wet from the rain, but we proved we could do it,” was their response.
“We wanted to show that life doesn’t end after an amputation,” Castro said. “When you lose a leg and you wake up in the hospital, you feel useless, like you don’t serve for anything anymore. For me, life opened up. It was a challenge.”
Castro, 33, lost his leg while loading a truck three years ago. He now has his own mechanic shop and still drives l8-wheelers.
“Besides, I always wanted to climb Chirripó,” he added.
Campos, 28, an accounting student, lost his leg in a traffic accident. Solís, 27, a heavy equipment operator, lost his when a backhoe fell on him. Today he continues to drive a backhoe.
To achieve their feat, Castro used a new prosthesis, Campos used Canadian-style crutches (the metal ones on which the hands bear the weight) and Solís conventional ones (wooden ones on which the armpits bear most of the weight). All three hail from the Alajuela to Grecia area, northwest of San José, and play sit-down volleyball, basketball and other sports. Last year they traveled to Brazil for a volleyball tournament. A friend and neighbor, Oscar Rodríguez, joined them on Chirripó to record the trip in photos and a notebook.
Climbing Chirripó tests the hardiest among us. The going is very rough. The uphill trail is three to seven feet wide, stony and slippery. Castro used a bamboo staff with a thumb rest on top, and with his prosthesis had it easier than his companions. But they all fell and slid on the stony surface. At other points, the crutches sank up to 10 inches in mud. Although they are all athletes and worked out, they were not prepared for Chirripó, Castro admitted.
“It was very, very rough,” added Solís. At kilometer seven, a park guard tried to persuade them to turn back, but they were already at the halfway point – seven kilometers either way. They ate energy bars and kept going. At kilometer 11, they reached the most difficult part. A forest fire had swept through the area years ago, and the trees were still bare. The wind and the cold made the trek even more painful. It was zero degrees Celsius. Rodríguez had brought along a bottle of tequila, which they used “inside and out” to warm up and to rub on aching necks and shoulders.
“The path up there is called ‘Los Arrepentidos’ because that’s when people regret they’ve come,” Rodríguez said. Still, they staggered on.
By 6:30 p.m. it was dark, and their only light came from their cell phones, which they scanned along the ground. The stars above were impressive, they said, but too far away to light the path.
At kilometer 13, with two more to go, park guards from the shelter came down to meet them – a glorious sight! The guards brought hot coffee, agua dulce and snacks and flashlights, and they communicated their progress to all those waiting at the top – the TV crew, park employees and other guests. Fifteen hundred meters to go! One kilometer.
Five hundred meters. By now Solís could barely walk. He had taken a nasty spill and pulled muscles in his legs, and his arms hurt from handling the crutches on the 15-kilometer uphill hike.
“We urged him on by saying there was hot soup waiting,” Rodríguez said. “We didn’t know it, but the kitchen staff did have hot soup waiting.”
The shelter was awash with lights when they reached the top and everyone came out to meet them.
“It was a triumph. Euphoric. We experienced something nobody had done before,” Castro said.
“Incredible! Happy! Surprised that we’d made it, but we did it,” echoed the others. It was like a fiesta that night, “a celebration,” Campos said.
Even after a 15-hour climb, there was little sleep that night. It was very cold inside the shelter and the beds were narrow. There was also the excitement of climbing to the top the next day.
The four started out for the final five-kilometer climb, but after two kilometers Solís had to turn back. His leg had swollen and was too painful to continue. It was a disappointment for all.
“We started out together and we wanted to finish up together,” Castro said. He, Campos and Rodríguez reached the top around noon after climbing for four hours.
“It doesn’t matter what religion you are; it’s a spiritual experience,” Rodríguez said.
For Campos and Castro, it was the “incredible feeling” of having achieved the impossible.
While the descent down was anticlimactic and even more difficult because of slipping crutches, sore bodies, loose gravel and mud, they carried along the feeling of success from having climbed Chirripó on one leg.
Now they are thinking of what they can do next. Spelunking in the caves of Barra Honda? Scuba diving? Rappelling? A film of amputees skydiving, rafting and bungee jumping (if they can find a sponsor)?
In the meantime, they have become heroes to their friends, families, TV audiences, to other amputees and to themselves.
Watch for Mitzi Stark’s next “Around Costa Rica” for more on Carlos Castro’s prosthesis.