Hopping across a continent – Costa Rica coast to coast (Justin and Tet)

Justin and Tet were our first Adventure Challenge winners here Justin gives his account of their Costa Rica expedition:

“Urbano wants to know why you always have to come in the wet season,” asked Ronald as we discussed the plans for my expedition three weeks away.  Ronald Bottger was organising the in-country planning and logistics for my attempt to cross Costa Rica from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Coast over the period 19 December 2010 to 3 January 2011.

The concept had been born from a hazy conversation with Ronald over guaro and coke during a previous trip in 2004.  As guaro is particularly lethal sugar cane rum, it seemed like a straight forward idea at the time.  Previous transects had been completed but they had used roads and large trails and eaten up the distance by cycling much of the way.  My trip would be by foot and kayak and would take a straight line from the Pacific, through the rainforest and up over the Talamanca Mountains, before plunging down to the Rio Pacuare.  At this point, I would transfer to a kayak and take the river all the way to the ocean; how hard could it be?

I was serving as an infantry officer until 2007, when I made the decision to leave the Army with a view to concentrating more time on expeditions.  However, as the reality of starting a freelance business came home, the Costa Rica concept was pushed to the side and I only thought of it sporadically.  However, by the beginning of 2010 I realised that I had made such a significant change to my life for a reason and could always find excuses not to do things; the trip was back on.  I emailed Ronald in Turrialba and asked him to start the preparations but the timing could not have been worse.

Over the years, the damage done to my left ankle after a climbing accident in 1998 had deteriorated despite a series of operations.  My consultant had decided the only option remaining was to fuse the offending joint and he would do that in late July.  Spending 12 weeks on crutches whilst largely unable to work had left me broke, despondent and barely able to walk the dog.  The consultant said I should not attempt any strenuous activity before 2011; there was no option, I would cancel the attempt.  As I contemplated my decision, serendipity played its hand and I received an e-mail, explaining I had won the inaugural Berghaus Adventure Challenge competition. Everything had changed.  I would go.

The team would be small.  Tet Stavely and I would be accompanied by Urbano Chavez and Martin Venegas from Costa Rica.  Urbano was a Cabecar Indian friend, who had acted as guide and interpreter for most of my previous trips, and Martin was a farmer who knew many of the Cabecar areas we would pass through.

Preparation pushed ahead in earnest on both sides of the Atlantic but the challenges kept coming.  As we made a series of changes to the proposed route, I found myself in hospital in November for a routine operation. There were complications and I developed a large haematoma which required emergency surgery the next day.  Three weeks before we were due to fly I was at a really low ebb and worried about whether I had the physical robustness to attempt the journey.   Now to add to these problems, Ronald was telling me that the heavy rains had led to many trails and rivers becoming impassable and he was not sure whether it would be possible to succeed.

Standing on the sands of the beach at Dominical, on the Pacific Coast, on the 19th of December, these set-backs that had dogged my preparations seemed insignificant.  As Tet and I posed for photographs, the sense of excitement for the journey ahead flooded through me and as we began to walk inland, I felt in great shape.  The next three days were a straightforward walk along the road to San Isidro and beyond it to the village of San Gerardo, the gateway to the cloud forest and the Talamanca Mountains.  I had made the decision to use this route to save time and to avoid a more contrived trail through the cultivated Pacific hinterland.

By the afternoon of the 21st, we had taken the 47 kilometres in our stride and at an altitude of 1500 metres were able to look up at the dominating bulk of Cerro Chirripo, at 3800 metres.  As the highest peak in the country, this was to be the objective for the next day and the key to gaining the valleys that would lead us to the Caribbean.

I knew there was a problem the moment Ronald came back to the refuge from going to collect our permits to enter the national park.  “Justin, they won’t let you through.”  Despite having spoken to the Rangers and having obtained the letter they requested from the local Cabecar Cacique, the park authorities had decided that they would not allow us to cross Cerro Chirripo as a point of access to the Caribbean side of the mountains, as it was a biological reserve.  Frantic casting about for alternative routes drew a blind and the only potential option would take an additional week to 10 days; time we did not have.  However, a chance encounter with Jorge, one of the porters who worked on the peak, delivered an option we had not considered.  There was a route the Cabecar used that followed a steep and difficult ridge called the Fila Palmito Morado.  Jorge would guide us as far as he could in half a day and then we should be able to follow the trail recently cut by a Cabecar party.

We crept out of the village in a car at three in the morning and drove just 300 metres up a farm track, in order to avoid being spotted by anyone in case they decided this route was closed to us as well.  Setting off by torchlight, we began the plodding ascent of the loose and densely forested spur. By now my ankle had begun to flare and every other step sent a shooting pain through my leg but I just kept telling myself that it would all be descent after today; just one day to hang in and get it done.

After 6 hours, Jorge said goodbye and trotted off down the hill pointing the rough direction we should take as he went.  His kindness to this strange band of 4 people was incredibly touching and pivotal in our ultimate success.  Upwards progress was interminable as we spent time hauling ourselves through the thickets of bamboo and vegetation that thrived beneath the canopy, on the constantly slipping mulch that constituted the forest floor.  Fleeting glances down from the ridge allowed us the only visible reference point as we continued to climb in silence.  Steadily the group pulled up the ridge before we at last broke through to where the forest ended and the tall grasses and dwarf shrubs of the paramo began.

At around two o’clock in the afternoon, we stood at the paso de los Indios, the high pass that was the gateway to the Caribbean side of the country.  At 3,300 metres, the anticipated view was obscured by the swirling and humid mist.  After a few hurried photographs, we began the tramp down the North East side of the col towards the cloud and rainforest below.  Thoughts of celebration were dimmed by our empty water bottles and the need to find a source of water and somewhere to camp in the next couple of hours.

Immediately, the rain shadow of the Caribbean side of the country made its mark as we struggled down through sloughs of thick peaty mud, whilst battling through the tangled vegetation that covered the trail in many places.  The relentless stumbling through the cloud forested mire took its toll and it was with great relief when we finally stopped at a clearing at around five.  A small area had been cleared by Cabecar who used the trail and water was found 20 minutes away.  Wearily, the tents and tarp were erected and we gorged on the food cooked by Urbano and Martin.  Huddled in a jacket to counter the relatively cool temperature, I looked out over the Chirripo Valley far below and felt that we had cracked the hardest day.

To read Justin and Tet’s full expedition diary click here.

For more photos of Justin and Tet’s expedition check out the ‘Adventure Challenge’ album on our Facebook page.

Where are we going?