The Costa Rican Deathmarch
by Rusty Shackleford / 11 April 2018
Before any veterans jump my case about disrespecting the Bataan Deathmarch, I assure you I immediately considered the title in that light and have the proper respect for those involved. Please enjoy the article.
Blunt introduction aside, let me give those readers with a brief attention span the Cliff's Notes version of useful tips garnered from this experience:
- Update your self-assessed level of physical ability regularly.
- Always be prepared with adequate food, water, & medical.
- Arm thyself if at all possible.
- Keep a positive mindset -- sally forth (embrace the suck).
My wife at my side (who is as strong a workhorse as she is beautiful), we hiked a distance of 9.6 miles through the highlands of Costa Rica. Starting at an elevation of 8,100 feet at the base of the Turrialba Volcano, we increased elevation by over 2,000 feet to the crater of the Irazu Volcano at 11,260 feet. It was an average grade of 3.7 degrees which includes the rare flat spots and declines, as well as the up to 15 degree grades in some of the more difficult areas.
The pack I selected for the trip was a Voodoo Tactical Reaper LRRP, which varied in total weight from 30 to 35 pounds, depending on how much water and food we had consumed at any given time. The Reaper pack has an excellent yoke system so the weight of the pack was not a problem. I did find it hard to keep the waist strap tightened properly due to heavy breathing on tougher hills -- this lead to a bit of increased weight being sent to my shoulders instead of to my waist where it belongs, causing a bit of shoulder soreness after about 3 hours.
Refer to the graphic above and you'll find our starting point in the upper right corner, the pueblo of La Central (pictured below). Follow the red line through the very rural farmlands of the highland, through a forest, then back into farm country and finally to a short stretch of actual paved "interstate" (219) for the final approach to Irazu.
The proprietor of the lodge we stayed in was very kind to drive us to the base of the Turrialba Volcano. La Central, the village there, has about 20 structures and seemingly fewer people. Bottom line -- it's the middle of nowhere.
We told our host that we'd like to hike around the area a bit.
He suggested we hike to Irazu.
We asked how long it would take.
He said "it will take you the morning" -- and while technically true, this will go down in history as one of the most incomplete statements of fact anyone has ever made to me. Perhaps we just didn't phrase the question properly or utilize good follow up questions.
He drove away at approximately 8:45am local time. The temperature was around 65 degrees. We spent an hour near La Central poking around and seeing some beautiful side areas before we set out on what turned into our "Deathmarch".
The first hour was pretty uneventful and painless, although we did notice that the terrain was a little more unforgiving than we had anticipated. The road was winding and the grades were somewhat challenging. The first part of the hike was on gravel (as seen above), changing to compacted soil about 1/3 of the way through.
When we took our first break, we were already questioning our decision and I began to take inventory of what exactly I had brought, wondering whether it would be more prudent to continue (not knowing the distance) or to turn back.
The sources of confidence to continue with the hike were as follows:
- I had a Berkey water bottle filter with black element.
- I had packed an apple and seven protein bars.
- My wife and I are both in relatively good shape.
- We knew we were on the proper road/route.
- The weather conditions were good and unlikely to change.
At this first rest stop, the "evaluation stop" at 1 hour, we both hydrated. Henceforth on the walk, I would be watching for a suitable water source. We would fill the now almost empty 1 liter potable water bottle with dirty water, fill the heretofore unChristened Berkey bottle with dirty water, and then ration under the assumption we'd find no further water.
Luck found us in the next hour as we spotted an irrigation hose spouting a trickle of clean looking water. It was half buried under the dirt road and protruding from the ditch. We force finished the potable water container and then filled both bottles to capacity, again, assuming we would find no other water supply for the remainder of the journey. I had confidence that the lodge owner would not give us bad information, so we assumed we were in for at least another hour's march and possibly further.
This brings me to point #2: If I hadn't opted to bring the water filter on our trip, or if I hadn't packed it, we would have ended up dehydrated and possibly in need of assistance.
As you can see from the photos, 90% of the walk was through very isolated territory and the few structures we came across didn't exactly look "well kept" and/or "friendly" or even occupied for that matter. We would have become heat exhausted as the temperature rose that day and the sun beat down on us, likely suffered from mild delirium, headache, and loss of coordination, not to mention looking like a couple of stupid gringos.
We did come across one other water supply on the entire trip and while we could have and should have filled up at it (and we would have had it been an actual survival situation). It was a 55 gallon irrigation drum in the middle of a cabbage field in which farm hands were hoeing their rows. I'm sure we could have filled up, but it didn't feel right. This waterhole was at the 3.5 hour mark and we were certain (to a degree) that the lodge owner was right...we had to be nearing the end.
When we arrived at Irazu, we were out of water, but had managed it OK. While we were most likely techincally dehydrated, we had no symptoms of dehydration other than a little sun weariness and fatigue -- but not thirst.
On point #2, again, this time medical. Toward the end of the journey, around the 4 hour mark, I noticed a tinge of rubbing on my right, upper/interior ankle.
I chose a poor pair of socks for the day, not expecting such a trek, and my boot was rubbing. The skin was red and would soon have turned into a very annoying low grade medical-related issue. Giving myself a proverbial cookie, I pulled out some moleskin, prepped the area and applied. (I had removed my tincture of benzoine, which as you know, acts as a "glue" for moleskin under sweaty conditions.) I was surprised, however, that the moleskin held its place for the remainder of the day. It took almost another hour of hiking to Irazu, plus walking around there, then walking back down another mile to be picked up by a cab. When I removed the boot and sock, the moleskin was a little ruffled, but still in place -- it really saved me that day. Very glad I had it on hand.
The thing I ommitted from the kit, which I normally have on hand, was the individual packets of sunscreen. As I write this, exactly one week after the march, my skin is still peeling from a mild sunburn which I and mi chica both suffered. I blame the TSA for this, as we did not check our bags. I said to myself I would buy sunscreen when I got there. I did not. I paid the price. Lesson learned.
Other things that made it in the minimized medical kit were: anti-diarreahals, ibuprofen, antihistimine, minor bandaids, antibiotic ointment, and of course an Israeli battle dressing, tourniquet, gauze, and medical wrap. Next time I'll also be adding rehydration tablets (potassium).
On point #3: Arm thyself.
Along the way, we passed a construction crew on an extra isolated stretch. They were talking, but as we passed they took note of us and their conversation stopped in an uncomfortable manner. We bade them good morning en Espanol and after we passed we could hear partial comments, nothing bad, but who wouldn't comment about a couple of gringos hiking in the middle of nowhere. Call me paranoid, but there were five of them and only two of us. One thing I hate about travelling abroad is that you must disarm.
As if the Big Man upstairs had sent an angel, we shortly thereafter found a grove of plowed over bamboo. Using the throwaway multitool the TSA let slip through in my carry-on (which was subsequently confiscated by the Costa Rican TSA), I cut myself a length of 1.75" x 6.5' staff. I train with bowstaff regularly, so it was almost as if one had been magically transported to my hands from the dojo 5,000 miles away. I'm sure the construction workers were just average joes and odds are you'd never need such an implement, but it felt better to have Staffy.
If you can, arm thyself as inconspicuously as possible. It's a walking stick.
Point #4: Maintain a high morale. Hey, I complain as much as the next guy, but something turns on (or off) in me when I get into a work situation that appears to have no end. It may be because it's already decided for me -- if you want to finish, and you must finish, there is just no other alternative but to place one foot in front of the other. It's time to work and there's no way around it, so whistle while you do it.
Here's a picture of my wife at what was probably the peak of the "suck" smack in the middle of a lot of steep switchbacks at high altitude. She's tough as nails, having completed two full marathons, our Tough Mudders, and other various such events. Most of the journey there was no sign of low morale, but this was an inflection point and I felt it was my job to crack jokes, prod, and be a positive force. She quickly rebounded and was back to normal. (I was glad to be the positive force, too, because normally with all the crazy preparedness news in the world it's her who is snapping me out of low morale.)
It's part of the mind/body relationship on which philosophers have pondered for hundreds of years. The body will naturally respond to what the mind dictates. If you let your mind get beat down, your body will follow. If you keep your mind energized and positive, your legs will follow. Know you will complete your goal.
Let's end on point #1: Update your mind/body perception.
Maybe you were in the military. Maybe you used to lift weights, be a wrestler, a fighter, or a marathon runner. Maybe....you're getting older.
In the past, I've completed a 29 mile hike with small pack on uneven terrain in about 9 hours. I've fought an amateur muay thai bout and completed numerous other rugged events like Tough Mudders and half marathons. I'm 43 years of age. I'm not out of shape, but I'm not in prime condition either.
Now that you have that base line, it's like the Toby Keith song...something about not being as great as you once were, but great once as you've ever been?
Point #1 may be the most important thing to come from this trip for me. In my mind I can still do all of these things, but the body may not comply. I held up ok stamina wise -- and this hurts the ego a bit -- but my hip joint started to hurt. I could have pressed on further than I ended up having to press that day, but I was very happy not to press. It's something that I've filed away for future reference and planning.
I strongly urge anyone who will be undertaking an adventure into isolated territory to take the above four points into consideration. The most important point, for me, has been point #4 -- get out there, test your equipment, test yourself. Then sort your equipment and make sure you have the tools necessary to aid your body in completing the task at hand.
Thanks for reading. Good luck & stay safe. Enjoy this video montage of the hike...