Although I have been a regular runner – and, more recently, a walker – for more than 25 years, not since I was a kid at summer camp in Maine have I tried climbing any mountains, and those were 4,000 feet high at most. Except for Barva Volcano in Heredia, north of San José, my experience with higher-altitude hiking had been nonexistent until last June, when I tackled the Caribbean-slope Turrialba Volcano with a group.
In July I started some serious training for higher elevations, such as the Southern Zone’s Mount Chirripó, Costa Rica’s highest peak at about 3,820 meters (12,530 feet). Except for a turned ankle that slowed me up in October, my goal since has been to do, in addition to daily walks, at least one four- to six-hour hike every other week, at higher altitudes than where I live in the eastern San José suburb of San Pedro at 1,300 meters (about 4,300 feet).
On a recent two-day excursion, I took a bus to Cartago, a half-hour east of San José, then another bus up the slopes of nearby Irazú Volcano to Tierra Blanca (2,100 meters/6,900 feet), and from there hiked for almost two hours in the late afternoon up to the last village above that, San Juan de Chicuá.
“The book” says not to hike alone, but this was a well-traveled road on which help was available if I happened to twist an ankle.
I had covered eight kilometers (five miles), climbed more than 600 meters (2,000 feet), and was very tired and very cold, thanks to the thin air and a steady drizzle. The hostel room was unheated – it must have been close to freezing – and the bed left much to be desired; thus, I was far from refreshed when I arose before 6 a.m. and breakfasted on the generous helping of fruit and granola I had brought along.
As I started up the paved road – you can drive all the way to the top – the sky was a clear blue. The difference in temperature of about 15 degrees Celsius (59 degrees Fahrenheit) between sun and shade in the early morning really surprised me. A fluffy, white blanket of clouds covered the valley far below, a truly memorable sight. And what a joy it was to strike up a conversation with a smiling, bashful 6-year-old on his way to tend the cows. I doubt that anyone had ever told him not to talk to strangers.
In 1994 an explosion here created landslides – the name “Irazú” is a derivative of an indigenous word meaning “mountain of thunder” – but more renowned was the eruption that lasted two years and began on March 13, 1963, the day that U.S. President John F. Kennedy landed in Costa Rica for an official visit.
The soil here is very fertile because of the ash from the volcanic activity, so you can see potatoes, onions and carrots being harvested even above 3,000 meters (9,800 feet), mostly by young Nicaraguans who come to find work not available at home. I passed by small herds of milk cows almost that high up, but there were none of the Brahman cattle you see at lower altitudes.
About the altitude: A slight headache bothered me the first day, and then only at the beginning the next morning. I found the exertion required was more or less a function of the incline before me. When it was steep (no more than 30 degrees) I would climb until the pain in my thighs reached a certain threshold, and then rest for 30 to 45 seconds. But never was I gasping for air or breathing very heavily. The road was paved, so the climb was steady and smooth underfoot. On those stretches of road that were flat or downhill, I felt just as if I were at sea level.
As the morning wore on, the clouds rolled in. Thus, sadly, there were no sweeping vistas to behold, but at least there was no rain or wind. Thanks to the exercise, I was not cold; however, I would have been miserable without my winter gloves and, for a while, a fleece jacket.
The summit, at 3,432 meters (11,260 feet), was crowned by a virtual forest of microwave, telephone and TV relay antennae.
When the clouds permitted, I could see a small lake, bright, sulfurous green in color, maybe 1,000 feet below at the bottom of the principal crater (there are five). Otherwise, there was no sign of life.
Except for a light drizzle at times, the hike back down to Chicuá was uneventful. The slope was not so steep that my legs got much more tired than they already were. Including my 15-minute stay at the top, plus rest and snack stops, it had taken me just seven hours to cover the 24 kilometers (15 miles) up and back, all of it above 2,740 meters (9,000 feet) – not bad for a 77-year-old youngster.
Tourists zooming by in their cars must have wondered what possessed that lonely soul trudging along with his backpack. But I had a treasure they had not: I had conquered the “mountain of thunder.”
Bill Read has been enjoying life in San Pedro for the past two years. When not hiking up volcanoes or weight-lifting, he volunteers at the Quaker hostel Casa Ridgway and the Center for Peace, where he attends the San José Friends Meeting on Sundays. Previously from the U.S. state of Maryland, he also resided in France for 11 years; thus he still struggles to separate his français from his español. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.