Here I am, standing high above a sea of clouds, looking off into the deep, deep sky. Above me, around me, and even below me, is the realm, a domain that even birds cannot reach. I am standing on a snow covered mountain-top, an active volcano, the second closest place on earth to the sun that you can reach. In the distance, I can see a handful of similar peaks poking their way through the white cotton-candy waves that envelope the ground below in a dim, meager embrace, incomparable to the brightness hidden behind my orange tinted sunglasses.
My rope-team and I take a 20 minute breather, Climbing a mountain isn’t easy. As we admire the beautiful sunrise atop the summit, I think back to when I took the first step on the slope of the mountain, unsure if I would make it. The rock fields were silty, and my mountaineering boots would sink as I took steps up the various mounds. It was pitch black, we had slept for about two hours in the afternoon, as we had made our way to the high-camp to prepare mentally for the plunge, mere hours into the vast climb up the wall above.
As we walked onward, others in the team would “WOOP!” and yell small words of encouragement to each other in between deep, slow breaths of air. After a bit of time, we had reached the glacier. This was where we would prepare our ice gear; spikes on our shoes, ropes in our harnesses, and ice axes in our hands. We were unable to camp here, under the glacier, for the rock tended to shift at random, boulders easily came crashing down, the sound ringing out across the silt. If we were caught unaware, just a shift of the wind, or an ill chosen pee location could send us to rest underneath a massive rock.
As we climbed up and on the glacier, our progress was smooth. We had spent the last week preparing our glacier skills on another mountain for the summit attempt. With each step, the crunching of the ice under our spikes became like a mantra; a systematic form of meditation to understand that we were another step closer to the top. After an hour of walking up this near vertical wall, and as the ice slowly transitioned to snow, we came across our first snow bridge. A snow bridge is a mass of snow covering over a giant crack in the glacier that could give way and cause you to pull your rope team in, that is, if they don’t use their ice tools to stop your descent into darkness. Our guide started out first crawling on his hands, knees, and feet. Using the back of his ice axe, he poked holes in front of him to see whether the snow was thin and could give way underneath if we were to cross or thick enough to hold our weight.
At this point my heart was racing. If he were to fall in, I would be dragged forward and to the ground. I had my ice axe ready to jam into the surface of the snow laden tundra, if my team was to get dragged down. A minute passed, and the Ecuadorian man names Tupac (I swear) decided it was okay for us to follow him across on our feet. This was the first of many snow bridges we would encounter on this mountain.
As we increased in altitude about a thousand feet or so, I started to get some AMS (acute mountain sickness). My head throbbed, my breathing had quickened, and I was feeling like absolute shit. I could tell the group was also feeling it, because we had stopped our banter, and at this point the only noise was the constant crunching of the snow and ice under our feet. Crunch, Crunch! I pull the ice axe out, lift it up, and bring it down into the ice. Crunch, Crunch! My breathing is now labored; I need to find a solution to this problem. After a while I started breathing to my steps. [Breath out] Crunch, Crunch! [Breath in] Pull Ice Axe up, move it, and drive it into the ice. [Breathe out] I soon found that this sort of breathing gave me focus and salvation from most of the AMS.
As we danced onwards to the crunching of the ice and the raising of our axes, the hours ticked by and eventually the sun started to rise, and we were able to turn off our headlamps. The sunrise was beautiful. At this point we were high above the clouds, and the folds and bends on the surface of the mountain flowed in ways that only a master artist could dream to make. The illumination from the sun kept the snow sparkling and glistening.
Soon after that, we clambered our way over a bend, and as we made our slow progress over the folds of the ice, we were able to make out what we (correctly) believed to be the summit, just several thousand feet further. It was an inspirational feeling to see what we were working towards, on our horizon, but from here on out, it was only steeper, and with the sun hitting us, our energy was renewed like a runner getting their second wind. After half an hour though, that energy was depleted. We were about halfway there, but other rope teams in our group had been passing us, and my morale was lowered a bit. I didn’t have the energy to look around at the beautiful landscapes, I couldn’t look at the clouds below us, or the deep blue sky above of the likes I’ve never seen before. All I could bring myself to look at was the spaces in front of mer, and all I could think about was the rhythmic and hypnotic song played by the harmony of my breath and footwork pulling my heavy, tired body forward and upwards.
45 minutes or so later, I felt like I was hit by a train, and we were 100 feet from the top. As our team reached and pulled ourselves onto the summit, we all collapsed into a pile and laid there for a while, trying to wrap our heads around the fact that our three month journey to prepare for this was over, and we were on top of the second closest place on earth to the stars, to our sun. After a couple of minutes, we made our way to the true summit. While we were on top of the mountain, the true summit is the highest point on the top of the mountain. This was where we would be able to see the other peaks, popping up from under the sea of clouds, this was where we would gather around with the rest of the rope teams who made the journey on this day before us.
We embraced each other in exhausted smiles, congratulating and appreciating the company and culture we had built with each other over the previous 81 days within the wilderness. There were tears, confusion from exhaustion, and love and appreciation in the air. I spent a minute snapping the beautiful picture (above) of the rounded top of the mountain with glimmers of the sun in the snow, and the expansive sea of clouds stretching out beyond the horizons in all directions. It was the most beautiful place I’ve ever been with some of the most beautiful people I have ever met, and I truly treasure my time with them all. We snapped a group picture, and then it was announced that it was time to go. A thought occurred to me; one that I hadn’t wrapped my head around since the climb had reached the final stages…
“‘WE HAVE TO GO BACK DOWN NOW?!?!?!?!