What drives National Geographic Explorer Erika Bergman? It’s an endless desire to always reach higher, push boundaries, and explore more. So, when Coors Light asked about her ultimate My Next adventure, it was only natural that Bergman chose Costa Rica. Climbing high above her undersea comfort zone into the towering rainforest tree canopy gave her a chance to fuel that endless desire. In the third of four photo essays, join Bergman as she achieves her goal and sees the planet from a whole new perspective.
Preparing to Climb
Climbing up into the tree canopy is the whole reason I wanted to come to Costa Rica, so I am super excited to arrive at Hacienda Barú National Wildlife Refuge. First, we must hike about 30 or 40 minutes through forest and past abandoned cacao plantations to reach the tree we wish to climb.
The tree is massive, about as tall as a 10-story building. It’s called Cameron, which is Spanish for shrimp, because it has pinkish, flaky bark. I’ve never climbed using ascenders, the mechanical clamping device arborists use to pull themselves up along a rope fixed to the upper branches of the tree—I’m much more used to scanning navigation sonar and the other high-tech tools in my submarine. But learning about and trying new things is what exploration’s all about, right? After the safety lesson, I stand on the platform where there are two free-swinging lines dropping down from so high up in the branches I can’t see the top.
My sister Arianna shows me a picture she just snapped while we get ready to climb, I didn’t know she had taken it. The first thing I notice is the expression on my face. I have never seen anyone look so stoked about anything before in my whole life. I didn’t even know I could make that face. It’s pure elation and anticipation. My mouth is open wider than I thought was humanly possible, my shoulders are shrugged way up in my harness, and my eyes are squinting. I am so excited about what we are about to do.
Sharing the Journey
We’re side by side standing on the platform, all set to go up this pink tree on two separate rope lines and we start climbing. It’s 150 feet of strenuous hand-climbing, relying primarily on arm strength to pull yourself up the line to the top. I look over at Arianna and right away I can tell this is her hardest moment, so far, on the trip. Climbing this tree is the most athletic thing we’ve done in Costa Rica. I know she can do it, but I didn’t realize how hard—how physically strenuous—this was going to be.
We climb and I can see that Arianna’s muscles are shaking. She gets frustrated that she’s not making much progress, that she is going slower than I am. We both know there is no turning back. There’s no halfway rest stop on the climb. No turn around point. The only way is up. I am hanging in my harness a few feet away from my sister, but I can’t reach out to her or help her. I feel so powerless. She has to do this on her own.
Reaching the Top
Still, I need to do something. So, we count and go together: “One, two, three, up. One, two, three, up.” We are climbing together, just on separate lines. “One, two, three, up. One, two, three, up.” It takes us about 15 to 20 minutes to hit the 150-foot mark. We made it. We’re at the top, in the tree canopy.
Only now do I look away from my sister and scan the view. I can see the ocean. This is what I’ve dreamed about. I’ve spent so much time on ships looking up into canopy treetops from the ocean. Now, I am on the other side: looking down from the canopy into the ocean. The view is amazing, but all I keep thinking about at this moment is how proud I am of my sister. She tells me that while climbing up the tree was an absolutely insane experience, it was worth the struggle. It was something she never would have done unless I had pushed her outside her comfort zone.
Gardens in the Sky
There’s no platform to stand on at the top. We are hanging in our harnesses. I maneuver my way over to a Y-shaped junction of a tree and stand up like a monkey. My sister doesn’t want to leave. She’s worked incredibly hard for this moment. Time to soak it all in. She’s a bit of a botanist, so she’s taking a bunch of pictures of the bromeliads and air plants. They’re epiphytic, meaning they grow on trees or other plants, instead of in the soil, and get water and nutrients from the air and rainwater.
I’m looking at the bugs, of course, and she’s pointing out all the flowering things. We try to identify species of trees and vines. Wherever we look there are 100 different species to identify. It is so alive up here.
From Subsea to Canopy
One of my goals for this climb was to create a little period of time for myself up here in the canopy. My sister and I are silent now, each in our own thoughts. I reach that meditative calm space that I want to occupy. I’m relishing this moment. I feel dirty and sweaty and accomplished from the climb. It’s incredible. I am in a place for which human beings aren’t adapted—experiencing what it must feel like to be a monkey.
I sit and breathe and listen. In my mind, I picture a cross section of the planet: from the sea floor up through the water column to a golden sunshiny surface, and then, the breeze rising up through the canopy bringing the familiar smells of the ocean mixed with the leafy scents of the jungle. It’s subsea to canopy—and it is why I came to Costa Rica.