WHERE: Las Alturas and Cerro Echandi – Costa Rica (day 6-8)
WHEN: December, 2015
WHO: Karma
OBJECTIVE: rainforest orchid expedition

Costa Rica travel diary

This was the big climb, the crescendo, what I had been preparing for all summer… the hike up Cerro Echandi. The morning brought a lot of anticipation and preparations as we were getting ready to leave for the long hike and two nights of sleeping out. Very exciting but also a little daunting considering how much more we had to carry along for the duration. We are all carrying sizable backpacks now and it will be a tough climb along animal trails at best.

We set out early, and the mountain soon revealed its true nature… we climbed over gigantic fallen trees, cutting our way through underbrush with machetes at times, and all the while going up, up, up… relentlessly up! Two members in the group were forced to turn back after only a few kilometers due to the demands of the climb. Luckily our intrepid chauffeur had hiked along with us for a while and could guide them back to the station at Las Alturas when he turned around.

The rest of us pressed on. There were lots of orchids, primarily epiphytes, to see along the way and we were lucky to have not one but two great guides with us to tell the story of what we were seeing along the way. Daniel has an uncanny knack for spotting even the smallest orchids out of a sea of green and did so along the way. He is also a bottomless well of knowledge of the local orchid flora and can put a name on almost anything, in bloom or not, which I found extremely valuable! Made it all the more rewarding. Both Daniel and Eugenio are also quite well versed on birds, much to the bird watching contingency in the group’s delight. I for one feel extremely fortunate to have such knowledge at hand on our trek.

Oh and did I mention it was up, up and up all day? With heavy backpacks on top of that… Mine was not the heaviest one, but still weighed in at about 16 kg! Waaay too much for a hike like this! A more reasonable load would be around 10 kg, but that was hard to achieve. I must master the art of light weight packing before next time… I was daydreaming about the Andrew Shurka school of ultra light packing as I pressed on and “failure is not an option” kept running through my mind. Amazing what you can force the body to endure as long as the mind is still in the game. I admit though, I was really lucky to get some carrying help for my sleeping bag for which I am eternally grateful!

The climb truly was grueling, or as Andrew Shurka would have put it, level 2 fun*. “Not all that fun to do, but fun to talk about afterwards.” We would have done better had we not gotten lost, which happened on and off all day admittedly, but this time we lost about 200 vertical meters in the process which was serious business. Apparently no-one has been up here since 1993, and Eugenio is one of the few guides allowed to take groups up the mountain at all. This meant of course that we were following animal trails if any trails at all. So I don’t blame anyone for getting lost, it was just part of the experience. It is an expedition after all – not a charter trip.

This detour did however mean that we did not meet our intended distance for the day, having to make camp in the ravine we found ourselves in which in turn had more repercussions further down the line… It also meant that we were met with an absolutely murderous climb out the next morning, 500 vertical meters in 900 meters! It was basically nearly a vertical wall which had us climbing on our hands and knees pulling ourselves up by the vegetation and sheer willpower – with 16 kg on my back on mind you. Hard work!! Eugenio told me he thought we were very brave. He said he had guided many people over the years, and a climb like that would have broken many in the process. I guess this was his first encounter with the classic Swedish viking stubbornness… we all drew from it that day.

It felt nice to hear though, and I was proud. I really knew that failure really, really was not an option for me, even though at times I feared I would not be strong enough… But the hardest part was that we had to ration the water pretty hard at this point, so I felt a bit dehydrated the whole time, but we managed. I am sure there were orchids to see here too, but I was forced to concentrate on the task at hand and did not have any energy to pay them too much attention. You are a lot stronger than you think you are when faced with challenges like this. The mind is your worst enemy really, or strongest ally. Much is mental preparedness, and I am grateful that I have come as far as I have in my recovery. I not only made it, but living through it actually made me a lot stronger too! Empowered!!

Early day two we reached the ridge we had originally set sight on for day one. We got there pretty early and made a new objective of the trip. I am sad to say we were forced to give up on the summit. Instead we made a basecamp on the narrow ridge, left our heavy packs in camp and did a day hike up to The Continental Divide of the Americas instead. A little disappointed the summit was lost, this was a pretty cool place to experience as well.

The vegetation up here was rather different, drier and at times dense bamboo forests. Not a whole lot of orchids, but we did run into a deer. A beautiful animal that quite evidently had never seen a human being before. It stood watching us for a long time before we moved on. Quite magical really. The Great Divide is the most prominent hydrological divides in the Americas following a line of high peaks at high elevation along the main ranges of the Rocky Mountains and Andes. We came up right onto the border to Panama, and the stone marker which said Panama on one side and Costa Rica also marked an elevation of 2 861 meters, the receipt for the 1 333 meter vertical meters we had climbed since we left Las Alturas two days earlier. Pretty cool! We all stopped to reflect and pose for pictures.

We enjoyed a very nice evening that night out on the mountain. We all got our hammocks decently well hanging from the dwarfed oak trees inhabiting the ridge. Still no rain, but the wind really kicked up during the night, but I was impressed to find that all hammocks and tarps made it through morning. I am very pleased with my Black Bird XLC hammock from Warbonnet. I slept like a baby, but then again, I probably could have fallen asleep anywhere at that point. Tired. Dreaming of water… so very thirsty… I am not really used to having to ration water this hard, but there simply is no water to be found up at this altitude, especially when it has been this dry for so long.

Next day we had a long decent to do to get back down to the research station again. A light drizzle and a bit windy when we broke camp, more normal weather for the season I was told, but it soon dissipated once we came down a few hundred meters. I have yet to break out my rain gear on this trip, not what I had expected at all. While it was a lot easier going down hill it was still a very long and demanding day! I am happy my knees held up as well as they did. A little swollen and sore, but not debilitating. (They can be temperamental after a horse riding accident and subsequent surgeries in the 90’s.) Nice that all that training and physical therapy I did in preparation for this trip paid off! A days rest while we move onto Las Tablas will do them good.

We self medicated with some wine and whisky by candlelight after the generator was turned off that evening. Reminiscing and sharing stories from the past few days. We had experienced so many cool things, but it is almost hard to appreciate it all in the moment and easier to do so once you have had a little bit of time to reflect. We had walked through pristine primary forest, encountered countless orchids, fabulous tree ferns, stunning birds, very animated monkeys, a few snakes and lizards and of course the aforementioned deer. A high point for me was that we actually might have found a new species of Lepanthes! It may or may not be the case as Lankester Botanical Gardens had received one similar/same plant a few years ago, but killed it before it had been described and published… hopefully our contribution will make the books. Another highlight for me was seeing a lot of Lepanthes atwoodii in-situ. A very nice species I grow here at home.

In the morning we are leaving for Las Tablas. I will miss this place, my favorite so far!

*The fun scale:
Level 1 fun = fun to do, fun to talk about after.
Level 2 fun = not all that fun to do, but fun to talk about afterwards.
Level 3 fun = not fun to do and not fun to talk about later either.