Monday, January 12, 2009

Challenge: Return to the Summit

After hiking up the trail from Boquete, I reached the summit of Volcán Barú after 6 hours of walking in the dark. Thankfully, there was no hail storm to greet me at the top, just breezy mountain air, a couple of hikers, and the fantastic views that I (and my last hiking buddies from the year before) had missed last Christmas.

Almost stumbling to the summit cross, I didn't feel a spark of excitement, more-so there was a feeling of release. After the disastrous trip from the previous year, the return-trip had gone smoothly and yet the overwhelming sensation was: peacefulness.

I had started the hike at 11:30pm, a taxi dropped me off at the National Park entrance. I had left behind the drizzle of the bajareque and the starting elevation (roughly 4,000 ft) put me above the valley clouds. With a LED headlamp and a full moon above me, I hiked for 6 hours (maybe more like 6 and a half) up the long, 14-km trail.

Unfortunately for me, the wonderful ¨Flower Festival¨ of Boquete happened to be starting at the exact time when I arrived to begin my hiking adventure. I regret the timing, not because I don't love coffee, not because I don't love country fairs, but because I couldn't sleep worth a damn to prepare myself for an all-nighter, hiking toward the stratosphere.

When the trail passed the Los Fogones camping area and then snaked up to the observatories and radio towers, blasts of cold air hit me from the North. The sudden shocks helped clear my head from the strange LED-induced tunnel vision, the dreaming- yet- not- quite sentient awareness of shadowy rocks that resembled animals from moment to moment, and general fatigue. I was shivering and rickety as I finally found an outcrop enticing me to take a seat.

I picked a wonderful nook in the rocks and this is what I saw:
It was roughly 5:45 am and the lights from Davíd were multicolored and festive from this elevation (11,400 ft or 3.5 km). The moon had just set and the stars were still bright. I was sitting next to one of ANAM's buildings and wondering just how long a sunrise would take... not that I wasn't happy to hang out at the summit, but I was down to one last water bottle, feeling tired enough to sleep on the spot, and feeling cold enough to wonder if my knees would splinter to bits if I stood up too quickly.

I spent 15 dark minutes photographing the summit observatory area while the sky brightened. Then it was time to make the final hike up to the benchmarked summit.

There were already 5 people there: 3 Panamanians and 2 Germans. There is a stark-white cross at the highest point and unfortunately, a fair amount of graffiti on the dome rocks. But the sight wasn't completely marred, some rocks showed beautiful, curving dacite, small flowers sprouted inches up from the gravelly hollows, and then there was the view.

There were clouds moving in from Costa Rica and from the Caribbean Sea. The sun wasn't quite above the horizon, but the pre-dawn light allowed a wonderful view of the Sea and the Pacific, of Costa Rica's mountains and Panama's Cordillera: "then" the sun came up.
A perfect triangular shadow appeared behind Volcán Barú against the blue Costa Rican backdrop. The yellow light touched the highest peaks and warmed up the grayscale views. The details of the world below 10,000 feet became fuzzy and then, suddenly everything was clear and brightening from the anticipated sunrise.

To my delight, the little hills around the small town of Volcán were alight, individually touched by the sun. For anyone paying attention, little hills anywhere near Volcán cause a knee-jerk response:

Hills? Oh, you mean hummocks? Oh! I wonder if I've been there yet!

It was fun to see my study area, my field of hummocks lighted and already identified. That was when I decided it was time for a self portrait with my subject:

The Panamanians were glad to take the photo and in turn, I photographed them - but all of us were struggling to stay still for the shots, we were still shivering from the cold.

The view to the North was quickly filling with clouds, but the Bocas del Toro coastline was clearly marked by the pale-blue sea. The view East had the dramatic Cordillera and the direction of my little community within the Comarca Ngabe-Bugle. Boquete was visible just behind the crater rim and to the South the lights of Davíd had mixed with the sunshine but the Pacific coast was well-lit and the long point of Burica Peninsula shot out into the ocean like a breakwater. To the West, the congestion of Volcán was roped in by the Río Chiriquí Viejo and the distant blueness beyond represented Costa Rica's mountains.

It was also gratifying to stare into the gulch of Barú's crater. The surrounding peaks fit into my mental map of lava domes and the dark ring further away was the bounding wall of the most recent failure - the debris avalanche scar that was currently muddling my brain with thesis questions.

I only spent an hour and a half up there, at the peak. I knew my energy would continue to leak away and it would be better to find a warm rock somewhere below 10,000 ft where I could snooze for a while.

So I took one last photo from Panama's rooftop and wished the other hikers well (some of them had actually pitched their tent on the neighboring dome next to the summit - their little tent must have been blowing like a windsock last night, completely exposed to the 4 Winds). Then slowly, like a timid abuela, I inched my way back down to the observatory area. Once back down to the main trail, I put one foot in front of the other until, after 2 hours, I had to stop - I hadn't even crossed the first "moat," the deep ravine between the lava domes and crater rim. It was sometime around 9am but at least I was below the tree line. Birds were singing, the wind hardly moved the mossy tree branches above me, flowers were glowing in the sunshine, and so I found myself a nice warm rock.

I fell asleep for roughly an hour, I can't remember exactly now... but several hikers were passing by when I realized that I felt more hungry than tired. After snacking, I continued the descent: crossed from the last dome to reach the crater rim, then across the "moat" to the rim again, and then descending, descending, descending for hours.

I stopped by the Park Entrance, paid the visiting fee ($3.00 for residents) and then didn't stop walking until I reached the Volcancito parada to wait for a bus - around noon I was dropping off to sleep again - this time in a soft hostel bed that was just as comfortable as the sun-warmed rock I found above the clouds.

I am happy to report that the trip was successful, I enjoyed every view along the way, I was never actually hit by rain, there was no fear of frostbite, I took many photos, I am not afraid of volcanoes in the dark, and my feet are still attached even though my shoes need ShooGoo attention.

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