Thursday, July 2, 2015

My Come to Jesus Moment: Climbing Corcovado to Christ the Redeemer

When I realized a friend of over a decade was ending her two year stay in Brazil, I did what any good friend would do: quickly try to take advantage of free room and board in a foreign country.

That's how I found myself in Rio De Janeiro for a few days at the end of June last week. As with any trip I take, I immediately scope out places that I can run which are either iconic or provide me with a wow factor. In Rio, I knew I simply could not miss running to the top of the hunchback mountain known as Corcovado and gaze upon the yes-we-are-now-telling-the-audience-we-are-in-Brazil-with-this-crane-shot-of-this-statue-in-every-movie-set-in-Rio Christ the Redeemer. You know the shot. It is law that this shot must be used (apparently.)

So, while having fun and enjoying myself was the main goal for this trip, summiting this mountain was something I had to do. Sure, I wanted to catch up with a friend and spend some time on the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema. But Jesus had his arms wide open to me and I was going to run to him.

Attempt One: Hiking Corcovado from Parque Lage

I do not like to plan things out. I like to have them planned for me, at least when it comes to physical endeavors. I will exert tremendous amounts of energy during the event but ideally I don't want to think. That's why stage races and carry your own gear races always are low on my list of "to-dos." That said, I often look for places to go for an adventurous run and do at least plan out enough to get by. I have to know how to get to where I am going and have a general sense of an idea of how to conquer the challenge. But other than that, I wing it.

As such, in my planning, it appeared that the best way for me to take on the mountain was to run from my friend's place in Copacabana, around the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon and to the Parque Lage. From there, just a few thousand feet straight up the sheer cliff and Bob's your Uncle, I high-five Jesus and come back down. Easy Peasy.

The run from Copa to Ipa (I have no idea if they are called that but apparently Rio De Janeirians[?] shorten all their words, so I am going with it) went smoothly as did the run to the Lagoon.  After running around the Lagoon, I turned into the city a bit earlier than my plan and got a little lost. Using my spidey sense I realized I was not where I was supposed to be but was not sure which direction I had to go.

I saw what looked like a police officer of sorts in a little phone booth on the side of the street and thought I would try to see if he could tell me where I should go.  Note, in all my travels to Central and South Americans countries, as well as some time spent in Italy, it seems every third person is wearing a uni which gives them some sort of police-looking-officialness to them. I assume they have power and just do what they say or what I can understand.

I caught his attention, held out my arms like the statue, and said quizzically: "Christo?" He knew exactly what I meant and pointed in the direction down the street. Then he gave me a thumbs-up. I learned the thumbs-up is HUGE in Rio. So I used the one word in Portuguese I knew ("obrigado") and ran down the street. Sure enough, there was the park entrance I was looking for right around the corner.

Cobblestone streets led past a few buildings in this beautiful park. I would have loved to check the buildings out and see what they held inside of them but I was on a mission. I told my friend to meet me in this park in about an hour. I laugh now thinking of my hubris with that prediction but I just didn't know how hard this climb actually was going to be. Mistakenly, I had read a few reviews which painted a picture of  climb to the top being one where you would get a little sweaty but otherwise would be fine. Apparently, these reviews were written by the offspring of mountain goats and Killian Jornet. Stating they were not difficult was an out-and-out lie.

The cobblestone continued up toward the mountain and I looked up to see Christo outstretched in the clouds. WAY above me. (For respective, that tiny savior up there is 12 inches short of 100 feet tall.) Time to climb!

The road seemed not too bad and I figured as wide as it was now it would narrow some. The cobblestones were slick and not exactly well-placed together but I have run over worse terrain. I passed a tiny shack on my right after about a quarter of a mile but paid it no mind as I wound around a bend. About another quarter of a mile later the cobblestone stopped and a reflecting pool of sorts took its place. Shrouded in mist and greenery, a few people gazed into it. I spotted what I thought was the trail off to the side and continued on.

Climbing some steps and continuing my running pace, I had to then pick my way over some fallen trees and around roots and dirty piles on the trail which was now suddenly single-track. So much for the cobblestone.Then abruptly the trail ended in a side of a sheer cliff. OK, maybe it was just a hill but my point is there was no going further. It was here I remembered from looking at Google maps that a little spur that dead ended went off from the trail I really wanted to be on. Sure enough, after returning home and looking up where I ran, this is exactly where I was now. So I went back down the stairs, around the reflecting pool. and back to the tiny shack. There, hidden under a low-hanging branch was a modest sign that said "Corcovado" with an arrow. (Talk about underselling an experience. Or assuming one knows where they are going.) I climbed the stairs, passed the little stone shack, and began to finally go up the mountain. I hate wrong turns but this wasn't too bad.

Another tidbit I learned later is this shack is a check-post where all hikers are supposed to announce their climb. Some directions are given and they keep a head count of who is on the trail. That all makes sense. Too bad I knew none of that and no one stopped me. Then again, maybe they tried. I don't speak Portuguese. Also, upon returning and reading more on the internet, I learned of some robberies which had happened on this trail. I guess I am happy/fearful I did not know about this in advance. However, as you will see, I have no idea how those could have occurred.

The path turns from the cobblestone to a rooty, dirty, single-track here and starts to begin its climb. Nothing too ridiculous to begin with which gave me hope the reports I had read were true. You cross a slow moving stream over exposed rocks, not once, not twice, but three times as you switchback up the hills. Hardly a Columbia Gorge crossing but one's feet might get wet here and there. After the final streaming crossing, the trail turned up some steep steps hewn out of rock and began getting ridiculous soon thereafter.

I wish I had taken some pictures here to show how difficult this portion was to walk, let alone run. But by this point I was drenched in sweat and had burned through 3/4 of my Camelbak handheld. I did not have my Karhu trail shoes on and was absolutely not dressed properly for the terrain I would encounter soon thereafter. Live and learn. Fortunately, I found a picture online which puts this into perspective.

I passed more than a few people for a while as I tried to make my run seem at least mildly faster than their hike. A couple of small groups came down the mountain at me, most looking far less prepared than I to climb. How they got where they did was beyond me. One group, obviously filled with Americans, came out me and wished me good morning in Portuguese. I said the same back in English and they looked surprised as I was obviously American. He gave me a quizzical look and I said; "You are wearing a University of Pennsylvania hat. Not too many Brazilians are big Quaker fans." He laughed. I asked how bad it was and he said they only made it another 50 feet or so. That did not bode well for me but I figured I had to be much more prepared than they. I just wished I had the foresight to wear my IceSpike.

Here and there the trail would get so bad that only by using vines and the grace of God (I mean, he was right there, for his sake) was I able to get up the trail. Meanwhile, my watch was doing two things: one, it was dying as I forgot to charge it recently. Two, it told me I was rapidly approaching the time I told my friend I would meet her and I still hadn't even reached the top. This trail was nothing like I suspected. I knew running down was not going to be a fast affair either. But up I went just a little more hoping perhaps she was delayed by traffic and wouldn't be waiting for me too long.

Here and there you will catch the slightest glimpse of the the statue of Christ through the trees. But seeing the statue breeds nothing but false hope as it is so much further away than it seems. Soon, another group of girls was heading down the mountain, gingerly picking their way. I asked them how far left it was to the top and they said about 30 minutes. Now, I didn't know if they meant 30 minutes coming down, 30 minutes going up, 30 minutes their leisurely pace or 30 minutes at my more brisk. So, I simply passed them and kept climbing. A few minutes later, however, I made the executive decision to turn around. I was completely out of water, my watch had died, I was out of time and the path had barely stopped going straight up over roots and rocks and everything else.

But don't take my word for it.  Look at over 600 feet of gain in less than a 1/3 of a mile. And now I had to go back down it.

The descent ended up be marginally easier than I thought it would be. I did have my foot hit a root near the last half mile where it was runnable and I almost became part of the mountain.  However, I used one of my running superpowers (they are limited) and somehow stayed upright and running. Finishing the run, I had to search for my friend for a bit but finally found her. I described my attempt and was a little disappointed in myself.  However, I knew I had made the right decision for the circumstances. I looked up at the mountain and said:

 "You won this round."

Without a doubt this is not an easy hike or run. I am not trying to make it seem harder because I failed to get to the top. It will take you an easy hour to go just the 3-4 miles up and that is if you are in good shape. Coming down is easier but requires concentration. I would also suggest wearing some sort of gloves so you can grasp the rocks and roots and vines. If you can wear a waist or back pack instead of a handheld, do so. It frees up both hands and allows you greater balance as well. I don't think hiking poles would help you any but trail shoes definitely will. The girl wearing jellies who was going up when I was coming down probably made it about 20 feet.

Fortunately, I was doing this hike during Rio's winter. I can't imagine what a hot humid day on the mountain, trampled underfoot by the steamy jungle, would feel like. While I was pleased with my choice, it did gnaw at me. When I got back to the apartment, I sat down and looked at other ways to get to the top. I decided I was not done just yet.

Attempt Two: From Cosme Velho to the Top

I am a frugal man and any chance to avoid spending money is one I take. Well, that might be oversimplifying things. I tend to spend money on experiences not things. However, sometimes I acquiesce to save myself time and energy. Like changing a tire. I could change a tire but I pay AAA for a reason. I would rather have a professional do it. Likewise I knew in order to ascend Corcovado from the other side than I had tried previously, I would need to take a taxi to and from the entry point. I could run there but it would take a long time, in a country whose streets I did not know, and language I did not speak. As such, resignedly, I realized if I was going to tackle the mountain, I was going to have to spend a little money. I had researched my routes a little more and knew that the road on the other side was a paved one and would not require trail shoes, walking poles, a sherpa or a compass and sextant.(As fun as the last one sounds, it isn't. Google it, you damn millenials.)

I woke up a little earlier on this run than before. The weather promised to a little warmer and I wanted to avoid as much of the heat as possible. I hailed a taxi, spoke the address, and away we went. About 20 minutes later I was standing at the train station that takes less fit people to the top. That's a slight dig at the tourists and I am sure some of them were perfectly fit. However, when you are running up a mountain and everyone else is using motor vehicles, you sort of feel like a bad ass. Running arrogance, I guess.

For this run I was far more prepared than the previous day. Instead of just a single handheld, I had the new Camlebak Ultra4 strapped to my back with ice cold water in it. If you know anything about countries in these warm climes, finding ice is like finding gold. With it on my back, I was ready to start running. (A review of this fantastic pack is forthcoming. It was really top-notch. I had worn it already on a few other less technical occasions and wanted to really test it out when the incline got tough.)

As people loaded themselves onto the train, I turned on my Timex OneGPS. I waited just a few seconds for it to gain satellites (it really is the fastest watch I have ever had when it comes to this), checked my pack for its contents, and away I went. I ran down the street about a block, turned the corner, made another quick turn and immediately ran into quite possibly the steepest street I have ever seen.  Not again, I thought. Hands on knees, I began to powerwalk up this incredibly sleep slope. At least the footing wasn't atrocious.

I passed some houses and shacks that were not abhorrent like the favelas in other sections of Rio but I wasn't sure how safe or friendly the people were here in the neighborhood of Cosme Velho. I definitely do not wish to come across as an ignorant person but when it comes to this area, I truly was just that. I knew nothing of their lives and whether this sort of housing was substandard or above par.  All, I knew was that it did not look like a place I wanted to live. Then again, even some of the million dollar condos in Copacabana were in buildings that hardly looked safe, secure or worth the seven figures. Maybe that is American arrogance. But it is what I knew. Here, I figured I would just act like I belonged, look as tan as possible, and try not to smell American. Regardless of the condition of the homes or the grade of the slope, the artwork on the walls was amazing. In the picture above you can see not only the artistic ability of the painters but also the ridiculous grade of the slope I was running, or rather, walking. The camera was not tilted to create an optical illusion. That is simply the 45 degree angle this road was built on.

As the climb became more and more crazy, the thought I had was how I had to ascend roughly 2,000 feet on this run. If a great deal of those feet happened to be conquered at a snail's pace here in the beginning, so be it. Doing so simply meant I got to get as many of those vertical feet out of the way as possible. I turned the corner and a few more people were out on the streets. The cobblestone road became more widely spaced and a cracked, uneven sidewalk provided very little more of footing or stability. I did not mind the slow pace as it gave me a chance to figure out if I was correctly following the right path.

Suddenly, the road flattened. I was confused. I rounded a bend and I started to go ever so slightly downhill. Had I made a wrong turn? I definitely did not recall any downhill on this road to the top. As I stood there, another runner, a local woman, went by. We exchanged the knowing smile of one runner to another acknowledging that what they are doing others will think is insane. Then I realized I might be going the wrong way. I ran back to a small intersection I had just come up. The only other possible way I could go led to what appeared to be a dead-end. While it had felt right to go down the slight downhill, my head had told me I was wrong. But I trusted my instincts and decided not to let my non-memory of this small flat section keep me from moving forward. Continuing a bit further I saw the road did a quick 180 degree turn and began to climb steadily. Up the hill there was a sign for Christo. I now knew I was on the right road. Time to climb.

The next few miles were relatively runnable. The degree of incline was manageable, the tree cover took away the bite of the sun and aside from a small shoulder to avoid cars barreling down the road, it was fairly safe. I soon took to running on the righthand side of the road as I could hear the laboring buses coming up from behind me and react quicker than I could the careening, out-of-control vehicles on the left side of the road. I drank liberally from my back and stopped to take some rather breath-taking views into my camera lens. I posses neither the camera nor the skill to get shots that will be awe-inspiring of the surrounds alone, so I insert my ugly mug in the picture to make me want to look at them later.

The rest of the climb was rather uneventful. Before I knew it was passing parked cars and taxis and could hear people. I knew I could not possibly be to the top yet but I must be getting close. I rounded the bend and saw lines of people forming. I wasn't exactly sure what they were lining up for but the road continued up to the right. That was where I was going. But before I could leave the area, I had to take at least one picture of the marmosets which dotted the walls and landscape. It also gave me a breather before what I assumed was the final mile or so.

I started running again and felt good. The road was again rather flat here and I wasn't sure why.  I figured I had perhaps simply mis-remembered the map and continued onward. I was running relatively fast and the fact I covered a fair amount of terrain before the road began to climb again should have been a sign. Any picture of Christo reveals it is on a solo peak, which rises drastically from its surrounding. There is nothing gradual about its ascent at all. But when the road climbed high again I made the assumption I was in the right place.

Not quite sure what made me decide to glance over my left shoulder but believe me I am glad I did.  There, off in the distance, on a peak I was no longer climbing, was the statute I was trying to go to. This is the face of a person who realizes they made a wrong turn somewhere and have a lot of running to do just to get back to where that turn might be.

I had no choice but to turn around and figure out where to go. Back down the road I went finally making it to where all the people were lined up. I asked someone how exactly I got up to the top and they pointed toward the line of people. I shook my head and moved my arms to indicate like I wished to run to the top. Again he pointed toward the line of people. I simply said thanks and headed back down the hill. Down was not the direction I wanted to go. Suddenly, I saw a small road, hidden by vines and shrouded in shadow. A small bus popped out of the darkness and I realized this was indeed the road to the top. Huzzah! That said, it was no wonder I missed it. These Brazilians like to hide their treasures.

Up I went knowing I had about a mile and third left until I finally hit paydirt. Here the road got more and more steep and the switchbacks became numerous. The buses from behind me were louder and louder as their gears strained to make the turns and grade. I would wave at the people in the comfortable seats as they stared back at me. I might have been struggling but I couldn't wipe the smile off my face as I was finally going to get to the top. I tried not to think about it too much as I wasn't there yet and a torn achilles and organized marmoset attack could easily stop me.

Finally, one last turn and ...a turnstile. Yep. All this way and the non-payoff comes from the fact that I didn't have the equivalent of $16 to get past the attendant to climb the final few steps. Drat. I guess by being a runner and being able to see some of the most amazing things in the world for free, you get a little uppity when it comes to paying for sights. Now, if I happened to remember my credit card I may have paid the amount needed to swing around the other side and see the front of the statute. But I think it was rather fitting that after all of this, there was still something left for me to view some other day.  So I took the best shot possible that I could, with a wall and trees seemingly in place to keep anyone from doing anything of the like and then turned to run back down.

As expected, it was far easier to head back down the road but from from easy. The grade was so steep that the quads really took a pounding. But as I zipped down the hill, chatter from marmosets in the trees and sun on my back, I was happy nonetheless. While others could take a train halfway up, and then take a bus, and then pay to get through the turnstile (each costing a different amount if I recall correctly) I was lucky enough to be able to run to the top. Almost twice in two different ways. Neither went as planned but both helped paint this tale.

Before I hit the steepest part and couldn't do much looking around and enjoying lest I go ass over teacups and break a collarbone, I was still enjoying the scenery. All over town I had seen what I would say is graffiti of a certain face. Sometimes he had a pencil-thin mustache. Other times he had on a gas mask. But it was undoubtedly the same character probably drawn by the same guy. Now I say graffiti because I don't think it was commissioned by anyone to do. Obviously the artwork took talent and it would be great if more art like this could be turned into paychecks for the artists. Nevertheless, even though I had seen the face in numerous places, it was only on this final descent did I see one that struck me. It struck me because, holy crap, did it look like me!

OK, maybe I am stretching it a bit as my teeth lack the gap and I am not orange and my chin is not pointy but still. It made me feel all warm and fuzzy. It was like the mountain, after making it so hard for me to get to the top, was kinda winking at me and saying good bye.

I may not have seen the statute from the front but I saw so much more as I wound my way around Corcovado. I ended up running more than a few miles more than I wanted to originally yet those extra miles allowed me to see even more of the mountain and its environs. In fact, as I ran on my extended visit of the mountain, I overheard that a waterfall was up the road a piece from one of my meanderings.

Now I have something else to see if I ever go back. Hope they don't charge for it.

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