Costa Rican Bliss

Originally published in the Telegraph Herald, Dubuque, Iowa, April 11th, 2004.

After two days on an airplane, Global Extremes had traveled halfway around the world and landed in Costa Rica. After an emotional and difficult elimination in Africa, we were now a group of 11, still searching for a team of five to tackle Mt. Everest.

Costa Rica was indeed a world away from the dry, hot, sun burned Kalahari Desert. Our first week was spent high in the Mountains, in the Rainforest, in the rain. Daily there would be inpenetratable fog coupled with pouring rain. Heavy rain and the resultant deep mud allowed for spectacular footage for the TV show. In knee deep mud we navigated through the dense jungle to find checkpoints in the middle of nowhere. One event two teams came across each other in the middle of the jungle and decided to travel together to find the camp where we would spend the night. Meanwhile, the other team was lost for hours, hacking their way through the thick underbrush with machetes. That night we slept to the sound of howler monkeys and a barrage of animal, insect, and bird sounds that created an eerie setting, as rain pelted our covered hammocks.

My team, now down to three after the elimination in Africa, was at some advantage as we were fewer and thus made it easier to negotiate, travel, and navigate. However, there were fewer hands and manpower when needed. One of the more memorable events was a course set in the canopy of the rainforest. Sixty feet from the ground we would travel through the canopy via zip lines, cables stretched between the tree tops. We would clip into a pulley with a climbing harness and “zip” from tree top to tree top. Each leg of the race required new skills. At one point we had two cables that we had to get our teams across, by walking on them. This turned out to be an amazing and amusing exercise in balance, trust, and teamwork. At other times we had to rappel down the tree and climb back up another to get to our launching platform and off we’d zip again. On one line, I had to stop in the middle, drop a rope to the ground, repel down, retrieve something, and climb back up the rope and carry one. Exhausting work, but great fun.

As always, cameras were everywhere, and interviews were constant. Costa Rica was hot and humid, and wet. So wet, that by the second day I was there I had nothing left that was dry and didn’t have a dry stitch of clothing again until we left. I became very aware early on that most probably my team would have to eliminate one team member again in this country. In a similar format we would race for two weeks and then have a big race the last week. The two losing teams of that race, no matter what, had to each eliminate a team member. Team Shackleton was still very strong, but, Eric and Sam did not get along well. In addition they both were very skilled, but where one was strong, the other was weak, and vice versa. As a result, it prevented us from moving very fast. I felt to be in a quandary. How could I evaluate my teamates on these skills, that had nothing to do with climbing Everest? It seemed using athletic skills was not going to work for criteria. I would have to come up with something else. This would be something I would think about frequently while in Costa Rica.

The second week was spent on a secluded beach on the Pacific. It was absolute bliss. White sand, lapping waves and sunsets to die for. Mostly it was great to be in the sun and have the ocean to cool off in, even though everything remained wet because of the humidity. All our races involved the water. We spent days running up and down the beach kayaking, and swimming for long distances. I never imagined traveling such far distances from our little beach and still returning by nightfall. One race started by retrieving map coordinates and instructions hung high in a coconut tree. I’ve climbed a lot and one of the hardest things I’ve ever climbed was that damn coconut tree. Onward down the beach we ran, only then to swim across large stretches of water only to find our kayaks and paddle longer stretches of water to islands in the middle of nowhere and then, on foot, circumnavigate the rocky shoreline. It was truly amazing, fun, and exhausting. Our last beach event, which would take us back to mainland Costa Rica, was a 22 mile open sea kayak race across Nicoya Bay. At sunrise we started paddling. By noon we were still paddling, but now in eight foot swells. Never in my life have my arms been more tired from the constant rotation of paddling. It felt like my arms would fall off, and in the end I think they nearly did. Shackleton finished second in this race, and like hungry wolves, we devoured fresh fruit at the finish line.

For the last week we would have a seven day race called “La Ruta”, which would take us from coast to coast across the country. This would entail a variety of sports, many that we weren’t even aware of. This race would determine which two teams would have to eliminate a member. We started on the Pacific side of Costa Rica, on mountain bikes. With a festive send off from the locals, the race began, going uphill, of course, for miles and miles on end. We headed into the mountains on a course that was barely navigable from the maps we had. All day we rode, several times not knowing if we were on course or not. At one point, two teams stop to ask directions from a small child. In broken Spanish we learn that we were going in the wrong direction. Oddly, no one believed the child and we pedaled five more miles, downhill, before we came across a grown up, that we believed, and ended up riding back the way we came, uphill, past the smiling girl that gave us the right directions in the first place. By mid afternoon we were on foot, with a horse in tow, heading to the checkpoint where we would camp for the night. Our horse turned out to be injured and thus had one speed, excruciatingly slow. Just as well, as the mountain tracks were steep, and with the humid weather, exhausting to say the least.

Morning found us splitting up our team in two groups. Sam and I would have to canyoneer up a river drainage and Eric would take a mountain track and the horse, meeting up with us several hours later at another transition point. The canyoneering was nothing short of spectacular. Climbing up and down huge boulders, swimming the river and climbing up waterfalls. Sam and I did this without incident or injury, although several times, Sam almost got swept away in the river current when she slipped on rocks. Meeting up with Eric, we took off on the bikes and would spend the next two days riding a variety of terrains and races.

One section was a sprint race while another required us to stop, shop, and carry all our food for the next leg of the journey. This leg found us doing a jungle trek, testing our skills to work as a team and survive with limited supplies and being totally self-sufficient. In knee deep mud and pouring rain we camped along a small stream, using only a blue tarp as shelter and cooking the food we had bought the day before. It was a long; fun, wet night, full of misery and mud. Hiking the next day through invincible jungle found us atop a huge waterfall, where we rappelled down the face of the falls, jumped from the end of rope into a pool of water and swam downstream until we could get out of the current and then find a way through the boulders to where we headed back up the side of a muddy track looking for poisonous snakes for the camera. Finally, by late afternoon we swam a large river and repacked our gear preparing for several days in kayaks. By nightfall we had even got in a few hours in the duckie kayaks and were camped along the famous Pacuare river. The entire next day was spent running rapids on the Pacuare and attempting to master a slalom course, which turned out to be great fun.

Oddly, three girls showed up from across the river asking for me. I hadn’t a clue who this could be, maybe Global Extreme Groupies??? Turns out a friend from Alaska was rafting the river and happened to notice some Everest signs and thought maybe it was the show I was on. Sure enough!! It was such a pleasure to talk with someone that was unrelated to show and get some news from home.

The rest of our time in Costa Rica was spent kayaking on the Pacuare. We paddled rapids for days through huge rock gorges, where waterfalls fell from high above. This was a truly amazing experience to be paddling this river and experiencing it first hand, even if we were racing. For the last day we switched from river kayaks to sea kayaks, which are long and have a rudder and are built for speed. Our goal, and the race finish was the Caribbean Sea. Little did any of us know how far away this still was. Long before sunrise we started paddling. This time, there were few rapids, but a wide river with slow moving water. All day we paddled, and slowly our team fell behind the others. Our fate was sealed. We could finish in last place and someone would have to be eliminated. We put in a good effort but the motivation just wasn’t there. Weighing heavily on our minds was the impending elimination that was going to happen necessary when we crossed the finish line.

For me, I knew that my decision would be the one that would matter. I had known for weeks I couldn’t evaluate Sam and Eric on skills or strength alone. I had to come up with a different criteria for my elimination decision. And, I did. I began to think about my climbing career and all the times I’ve had trouble in the mountains. I thought long and hard about what factors created the problems. Always it was communication, or lack thereof. Often a break in communication was the downfall of a successful climbing expedition. I’d been there and it was easy for me to recognize. When I began to evaluate Sam and Eric using this criteria, it was easy. Although physically, Eric was by far stronger than Sam, his lack of communication with team members, made him a liability rather than an asset in the mountains.

We finished the race, in dead last. On a remote beach, in the wind, amongst piles of driftwood, and pounding waves, the cameras rolled and we announced to the camera who we choose to eliminate. Eric picked Sam, Sam picked Eric, and as I guessed my vote would be the determinate. I picked Eric. Never did Eric say that he needed rest, needed food, wanted to go slower, when there were times that I knew he DID need to stop and take a break. Sam and I always communicated our needs, wants, hungers, and shortcomings. An attribute that I feel is indispensable in high altitude mountaineering.

So it ended, well enough. Two teams eliminated a member each and we were now down to nine. These nine would travel to Iceland for the final round, before the team for Everest would be selected. Costa Rica had been difficult and fun, all wrapped up in one. We were relieved that this leg was over, as it had been a long haul. It was seven weeks since we left the States and there had been very little recovery time. For all of us, this was an experience to remember. And, I learned that sometimes in life, what seems like an obvious decision to some, isn’t. Sometimes it takes looking at things in a little different light to make it all come clear. The trick is finding that light.

Troy Henkels lives in Eagle River, Alaska. He is a native of Dubuque, a 1985 graduate of Wahlert High School, a 1989 graduate of the University of Northern Iowa. He writes about his adventures and experiences from around the world. Copyright 2004 Troy Henkels