Cerro Chirripó, and on being high, part i.

12 December 2011 § Leave a comment

Amanda, MaLisa, and I reached the 3820m mark at the same time the sun peeked out of its cloudcloset and blanketed us and the mountains we’d just climbed by moonlight and upsidedown constellations spinning in orange fog and unfocused love. This was long before it touched ground in our two-month native San José. It was cold and the stones were well-marked with inscriptions of those who’d come before, eager to leave their make on the spot to which they may never return.

I didn’t have a camera with me that day. That the clouds near us and opened up to the north, just for me and my outstretched arms, just for a minute, so I could see what covered the great north, and north of the great north had me insisting subconsciously that I must remember this. Keep your eyes open, even when you can’t see anything.

In the logbook at the summit she wrote:

you don’t need to see everything to feel it. 

and we didn’t. We’d been feeling our way over granite slabs and through rainforest below the dry burned areas of almost-alpinewonder below us for hours of tired and sleepy gazes. We got up at three that morning, after talking until the late late hour of eight in a room which was not ours, wrapped in sleeping bags which were also not ours, but belonging to the hostel owner, Francisco, at the bottom of the mountain, who’d rented them out to us and played unknowing tricks on our sense of worry over a lost friend. But that was later. that was in the post-tundra. The post-conquered fear.

After arriving at the hospedaje in the perfect valley, we were tired, legs sore from living on flat land and in city life for as long as we could remember. MaLisa’s from the Midwest, and Amanda’d never climbed anything before, though stories of her father seem enough to stamp [mountaineer] on her DNA map without consent. But we made it, waded through impatience and climbing granite boulders scattered.

Still restless, I ran up to the Crestones, perhaps Costa Rica’s greatest geological wonders – smooth giant spires reaching to the sky from the high mountains of Central America, with handgrips and confidence enough for all. There were pitons in the rock when I arrived there, and I swore that the next time I was here, I would not wear skate shoes again, but rather bring my rock shoes, and get some climbing in.

Of course the mere insufficiency of my shoes could not stop me from exploring around the soft corners of the rock. I was standing between monoliths, and true to form, I had to test at least one limit, To see more. To feel more. To make this more genuine. I was up in the mountains again, at home for the first time since Carmel left Alaska and I climbed Knoya in the middle of the night, much to the dismay of my left knee and it’s still unhealed tendon, and I was alone. I walked out to the platform, careful. Careful. Test each spot for good traction. Make sure you have a grip. Both hands. Thirty feet later, water trickled from the dry rock. Lime green algae quickened its pace, like a long-exposure photograph.

Right as I was about to turn to the corner to reach the north side of the front crestone, I got this feeling. Kind of like the feeling in Cristo Rey a few weeks ago. Kind of like the feeling when I was hitching out of Anchorage and the army medic picked me up. Kind of like that Christmas desolation in Zagreb last year. Kind of like I was standing at the top of a granite precipice above a sixty-foot drop with wet skate shoes and leg muscles which were on the verge of giving out because I’d eaten so little for the last few days. My mind wasn’t working right, and my hands were too cold to hold onto the rock with any assurance that, if my feet slipped, they’d keep me alive.

So I turned around. Like I didn’t do in Cristo Rey. Like I didn’t turn down the ride in Anchorage. Like I didn’t get on the train to Zadar for two slow, contagious days because I wanted to feel the very bottom of the traveltank where all the loneliness and treachery go when you’ve gone as far as you can, and still haven’t found a single thing that makes you want to see the sun rise again. I stopped. I wrote. With freezing hands, which I hold claim to loving, I wrote unintelligible garble in the last pages of a torn notebook:

streetlightorange sunset still, fiery clouds. glowing from all angles. quasi-civilization below. mountain culture. sans pretension. sans money. 

mother of god: your clouds are wondrous. I can see the top of them for ages. all of history, but now without the airplane. lightbluewhite edges delicate as starlight. you’ll cover them up now. I am above the sky, on earth. addiction. in flux. I am without words to describe the beauty I’ve been company to today. 

this reminds me of nothing. it is Now, and only can be. this is Life.

I sat up there too long. It got dark, and I still had a rock to negotiate down. There was death present; I knew it, and refused it. One slip and it got its way. But I wasn’t high enough. I had no light, of course, and stood at the water trickle for minutes, my hands on the only handhold available, a two-finger0wide hole in the middle of the water trickle. My soles wet with cloudrain. I stood there for entire lifetimes. Four feet to life again, because I couldn’t stay at home. Breathe. Breathe again.


On the way down the mountain, hours before we’d ascend the highest point I’d yet been to on earth, I lost the trail. Good going. I found a stream bed right as the last orange glints of sun disappeared, and felt my way down through sharp leaves and loose rocks.

A group of ticos were still on their way down, suited up in ponchos and large jackets. I called to them from above, from the dark. Lights caught me, the sneaker-wearing, uninsulated Alaskan, who stood above them, asking in poor Spanish if I could return to the hostel with them. We talked about Into the Wild the whole way back, and of Marcos’ malamute, Wolf.

There were only a few moments this weekend where I felt that I was part of my regular reality – it wasn’t because of the mountains.

If I’d never turned right instead of left out of the university that day, just to go explore…


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