Cloud forest above my home in Costa Rica.
Between Chompipe and Delicias mountains, at an altitude of around 8,000 feet in a cloud forest in the middle of Costa Rica, nestles a remote pond ripe for discovery. This body of water reveals itself from a distance by tendrils of clouds rising between the two peaks; these clouds forming as the sun slowly warms the water. Luis, my Sunday morning hiking companion, readily agreed to the proposal of venturing due east and upward to this intriguing saddleback nestled between the peaks. It would be a tough hike, but it would be an adventure.
Forest area that had been clear cut to harvest a few cypress trees
The first leg of our journey brought us to an area of illegal clear-cut forest measuring around 100 square meters. All the trees, vines and shrubs had been bulldozed, scraped clean on a steep mountainside in order to harvest a few virgin cypress trees. A huge mound of excess planks and boards denoted the place where trees had been ripped and shredded into sellable lumber. Nearby, a rough lumber road facilitated removal of the illegal harvest. Erosion of the mountainside was already evident, despite the fact that we had just recently entered our rainy season. Our true journey began just above this obscene scar on the mountainside.
Luis had his intelligent cell phone, capable of taking photos, indicating compass heading, depicting our position on satellite photos as well as making the mundane phone call. I had my topo map, compass and machete. We two weekend warriors were set to venture into the unknown on a quest for that elusive feeling of being truly alive.
At first the difficulty lay in zigzagging our way upward and around numerous tree trunks that had been bulldozed and discarded on the hillside. A new growth of vines and shrubs further complicated our assent. Just beyond these clear-cut remains virgin cloud forest, thick and green, beckoned seductively. Entering this verdant forest, we quickly lost sunlight as a profusion of leaves from the tree canopy high above filtered and eventually blocked the sun’s rays.
Vegitation in the cloud forest.
Easy hiking soon gave way to foliage so dense we had to resort to bush whacking with the machete. After a while, even this proved almost impossible. At this point we encountered a barricade of foliage punctured by numerous game trails. These trails had the distinctive three-toed hoof marks of dantas, a 300-400 pound cross between a wild boar and anteater. These marks, fresh from the previous night or early morning, were scented by urine. As we slowly whacked our way through these game trails covered by bamboo and ferns and inch thick spine covered vines, we sometimes resorted to crawling on hands and knees. Gratefully we followed these trails until they inevitably vanished into the undergrowth because without them the path was truly impenetrable. Nevertheless, at any moment, we half expected to look up and find ourselves face to face with a mammoth ant eating pig.
Danta– sure glad we didn’t see any!
Prior to our assent into this forest of the clouds, we took a compass bearing in relation to the sun and deemed our heading to be just to the left of that rising orb, or about 75 degrees. Thus far our assent was fairly true to course despite numerous detours in our attempt to navigate to the summit. We were hoping to discover a pristine lagoon on the top. We were expecting to climb to the ridge of a series of mountain peaks affording incredible views, perhaps even providing a glimpse of the blue of the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Caribbean on the other. As things turned out, we found neither.
Max, my two-year old German Shepherd, always accompanying us on our hikes, provides security as well as companionship. This morning, we relied more often than usual on his ability to detect the surest course to follow. Completely blocked by stands of fallen trees knocked to their sides by strong winds, exasperating clumps of thick and prickly bamboo, compelling masses of heliconias and ferns mixed with clinging vines that somehow managed to grasp feet at the worst possible moment, Max unerringly led us to yet another game trail in this precarious ever upward trek that grew more dense, more slippery and more questionable with each step.
It was, at this bleakest of moments, that Luis, looking down, pointed by my foot and exclaimed, “Hey, isn’t that an orchid?”
There, twelve inches from my boot, grew a wild orchid. Having but a single perfect flower, golden with brown spots and defined by the distinctive shape of the ‘slipper orchid,’ this unexpected gift of nature buoyed our spirits and fueled our desire to trek onward.
‘Slipper orchid’ resembles a dutch shoe
Periodically, Luis would crank up his cell phone, acquire a signal and proclaim, “Only 200 more meters to go.” “Only 150 meters left.” And so on. I thought 150 or 200 meters was quite attainable. After all, a football field is only around 100 meters. Surely I could climb up this slippery, muddy, almost vertical slope another football field or so, even if we did have to navigate through a wall of green. No sweat. Well, yeah some sweat.
Time passes. At this point, the going was so tough we had two ways to climb after first clearing a path with the machete– grab a tree and heave ourselves upward or drop to hands and knees and claw through leaves and mud and danta shit. Max was getting freaked out and, bit by bit, so was I. Every other moment I found myself exclaiming, “Fuck me! Fuck me! This is just too much!”
I overheard Luis exhorting, “Jue pucha! Jue pucha!,” which he later translated as ‘Wow, this is a lot of fun.’ (not really)
I had had it. We’d been climbing this exasperating mountain for over three hours without a rest, without a view, without any indication of ever reaching anything worthwhile, aggressively whacking the machete three times for each single step upward, forever upward in this muddy green almost-hell.
“That’s it,” I said. “That’s the longest 100 meters I ever climbed. I quit. What do you say we have a rest, eat a tangerine and turn back?”
Luis, covered head to toe in muck (as was I), dripping sweat (me too), grinned and replied, “That’s fine by me. I thought you’d never say so. Let me check our altitude one more time so I can mark our route.”
Altitude? I thought, altitude! He’s talking 100-200 more meters in altitude? I was under the impression he meant distance! No wonder we can’t even see the top of this damn mountain we’re trying to climb. It’s another 300-400 feet higher up, straight up. Fuck me!
And here’s where things get good, or at least better. While Luis attempted to check in with his very smart cell phone, I looked around and realized the tree canopy was so dense we hadn’t seen sunlight for several hours. This same vegetation was now apparently giving birth to clouds as the tropical sun began to bake water droplets from last night’s rain. This explained the evaporative clouds I had noticed earlier. There was no pond awaiting discovery; there were in fact millions of leaves beaded with water that changed into vapor as part of nature’s rain cycle. Lost in amazement, I watched clouds, thick and moist, swirl up and away into the incredibly blue sky.
Luis abruptly brought me back to earth by shouting, “Jue pucha! Jue pucha! We’re standing next to a road! Chompipe is right over there,” he said as he pointed North.
The satellite view on his cell phone showed that although we were way back in virgin cloud forest, we were also within 200 meters, distance wise, from a road. Chompipe had a telecommunication tower on its summit, as well as a road leading to the tower. We knew a return trip straight down this muddy slope meant a butt mud ski trip. Since we were both dressed in hiking shorts, this method of conveyance was distasteful, to say the least. So, altering our heading from 75 degrees to pretty much due North, we decided to aim for Chompipe.
In retrospect, I believe Luis took pity on my pathetic whacks of machete and valiantly took over leadership of the hike. That was fine by me. I was whipped. Each step upward was so much effort that it felt my last. My diminished capacity so freaked out Max he huddled next to us at every opportunity, frequently forcing one of us off the side of our slippery slope in chilling descents punctuated by my rebel yell of “Fuck me! Fuck me!” This echoed by Louis’ equally sincere, “Jue pucha! Jue pucha!”
Incredibly, the slope got steeper. Now we were clawing our way almost vertically. Max began to whine. I probably would have whined as well, if I’d had the breath to do so. The immediate goal was to make one more step, then one more. If we could make it up to the road to Chompipe, we’d be ok. Reaching that road meant safety, security and most of all it meant we hadn’t given up. We wouldn’t have to quit and turn back. It meant we could valiantly hike into the wilds and make a noble return. And that’s what we did.
The last 15 meters to the road were hell– muddy, incredibly steep, outright dangerous with Max shivering at my knees and I shivering at his. We didn’t see the road until we were 10 feet away. Then all we saw at first was a bit more sunlight breaking though the trees. It was just so beautiful. We made it!
Heaving a collective sigh of relief, we plopped down on Chompipe road and rested a while, sharing high fives, sweet tangerines and bars of trail mix that tasted oh so good. Later, we noble warriors of the weekend triumphantly marched down the steep, albeit paved, road toward home. Sweat drenched, muddy from head to toe, bloody and torn in spots, utterly exhausted, in turn we smiled and occasionally chuckled as we relived our morning’s adventure.
Max kicking back after the hike