I’m not talking about a hike that can be done any other weekend. I’m talking about a challenge so grand that you get the what-the-hell-am-I-doing-here kind of moment. I am also not saying everyone should attempt to climb the Everest, those sacred heights are reserved for people who have studied the demon they are about to wrestle with, and have prepared to encounter it in the best possible way.
I am talking about a climb that challenges not only your physical force but also your mental and spiritual power. Because when the legs have given their all, it comes the time for the mind to start doing the work. And sometimes, spiritual strength might have to kick in and give the last nudge towards accomplishing the feat.
There is a reason why some of the greatest challenges ever accomplished have been made in the name of God. Spiritual strength is the ultimate power source.
My first real mountain experience was so peculiar that I can only understand it looking backward. There are those moments when the people you are with seem entirely random, but when you look back at the experience, the people you shared it with were not accidental but essential to the story.
It all started when this guy I was into convinced me to join a weekend getaway to climb a 5,230 meter-high mountain. The gym we were both attending organized an outing for those interested in nature and climbing.
What could be cooler than hanging out in tents, under the clear starry sky, while hiking and taking cool pictures? Without much thought on the real obstacles a mountain of that height was going to involve, I paid the fees and signed the paperwork.
Unfortunately, this guy canceled last-minute due to a family-related issue, and I was stuck with a pre-paid excursion to the second-highest mountain in the country. With no concrete reason as to why I was still going along with it.
The night before we left I went to a dinner party for a friend’s birthday and I announced I was leaving early because for some reason I was climbing a mountain the following day. My friends stared at me quizzically. I had never been the kind of person to do sporty weekend plans. But a friend of mine, one I wasn’t particularly close to, asked if she could join the plan. I gave her the guide’s number so she could ask personally if there was still room for one more.
To my surprise when I got to the meeting point in front of the gym I found her and her brother waiting near their car. She looked excited and nervous next to his brother, who smiled calmly. We organized to carpool in order to fit into the least possible number of cars and I ended up on the back seat of their Jeep Wrangler.
On the way to the base camp, I learned some things I didn’t know about her brother. He was a professional photographer, he spent his time traveling and capturing on film his experiences and he was mad for mountains. I chuckled at the unplanned turn of events.
We got to base camp and started setting the tents. The temperature was dropping quickly and my fingers started to hurt as I struggled to pin the tent to the ground. The guides asked us to verify our checklist of equipment and make sure we had everything ready for the next morning.
The realness of what I was soon going to face started to sink in as I double-checked my crampons and chewed on some Coca leaves. They served us dinner consisting of pasta and rice and told us the departing time was at three in the morning.
As I stood at the skirts of that magnificent mountain I marveled at the starriest sky I had ever seen in my life. The sky was a shimmering canvas divided by the hills and cliffs of the mountain. The beauty of the landscape diverted my thoughts from agonizing over the challenge awaiting me up there. My gazing got interrupted by one of the guides who advised me to profit from at least some hours of sleep.
With a jittery stomach, I went into the tent and tried to rest. But a storm had other plans for us. Before we knew it, we were in the middle of a full-on storm. Powerful winds shook the tent while lightning brightened the night sky. The deep rumble of thunder made me flinch in my sleeping bag every minute or so. Sleeping was out of the question. We were left wondering if the ascent was even going to be possible.
My friend’s brother came over to check up on her, he remembered she was afraid of lightning. I thought it was so nice and considerate of him. Experienced as he was with nature-related activities, he calmed us all by assuring this was just a typical night in the mountains. His calm, low voice was like a balm that cleansed the atmosphere in the tent and dissipated the tension. Eventually, we dozed off.
Finally, the alarm clock went off while we were slumbering in light sleep. Everything was ready: playlist preselected, equipment and snacks arranged; a big ball of nervousness settled deep inside the stomach. To our astonishment, the view we had was even better than the night before. Everything was covered in a fresh layer of crisp snow.
The party consisted of four guides, three gym instructors, five gym members (including me) and my friend and her brother. We started the ascent in pitch-black darkness. The only light coming from our headlamps. The only noise I could hear for a while was my breath coming in and out and the crunching gravel at our feet. My mind was concentrated on each step, the darkness helped with the blocking-out of everything else.
The mountain we were climbing was divided into five sections: the skirt, the feet, the knee, the glacier (or the belly) and the summit.
The group started to separate into two before we even hit the feet: the slow-paced crowd and the faster one. To my astonishment, I was with the faster ones. Suddenly we got a communication from the radio that one of the girls decided to turn around after getting sick and vomiting. We were one guide short. And we weren’t even at the feet yet.
The hardest part according to most of the people I asked was not the feet but the knee. The knee was where most people surrendered. But once we got to the feet another girl felt sick and went back to basecamp. That’s how we lost half of our guides before the hardest part even begun.
As soon as we got to the knee, two out of three of the gym instructors gave up, as well as another girl. It was crazy to realize that these really tough and utterly fit guys were defeated before I was. And don’t get me wrong, my mind had started struggling, but I kept pushing. Using the sight of the sun rising on the horizon as an alternative source of energy. They went back to base camp with the last remaining extra guide.
From now on, it was either we all reached the summit or we all came back down together. The regulations of the mountain specify that non-professional hikers most be accompanied by a certified guide.
The group was down to five; the guide, its dog, one gym instructor, two gym members (me included) and the last-minute add-ins (my friend and her brother).
By the end of the knee, I was feeling mountain sick. I begged the group to reach the summit without me, that I would just wait there until they came back. My eyelids got heavy, my head hurt. I just wanted to sleep. The guide warned me that I was suffering from lack of oxygenation in the brain; that sleeping was not safe. He tried giving me electrolytes and chocolate but nothing helped.
The whole part of the glacier is blurry to me. Partly because of my mental state at that moment and partly because I have never been more inside my head. My legs were moving but my mind was elsewhere. I just remember tears rolling down my cheeks; boiling hot against my icy cheeks.
My whole body was begging me to stop. Every single one of my muscles screamed silently in pain. I could feel every individual vascular connection on my head as my veins compressed with pressure.
The rest of the group didn’t let me quit. Don’t misunderstand me: I think they should have. I’m also grateful they didn’t. If there had been another guide to come down with me, I am positive that I wouldn’t have had reached the summit. But there wasn’t and I did. It was either I made it, or the rest of the group didn’t. And we were all just too close to give up.
For better or for worse, there I was, at the summit of a 5,230 meter-high mountain. Not nearly the highest in the world, but not a walk in the park either. Especially for a mountain rookie like me. Up until that day, I had never done well in heights. Always feeling dizzy on altitudes, elevated surfaces were always a challenge to me. But as I stood on that summit and stared at the sky everything shifted.
I was no longer the girl that couldn’t climb. I was no longer the girl who stayed behind. I was a conquerer, I was a champion.
The humility that the mountain teaches you is discreet yet unmistakable. There is a profound understanding that we are so insignificant yet so interconnected to Mother Earth. When you are facing a mountain you realize your life is at its mercy. Without precise weather conditions, your climb might be impossible to achieve. Yet, the mountains withhold a beauty that it is almost too difficult to express in words.
That was the first sincere moment I realized I was the Earth and the Earth was me. And feeling this oneness with nature is not a gift we should take for granted.
Another very important lesson I learned was the sense of community. I can never describe in words the bond I feel towards the people who were up on that summit beside me. They witnessed with me something so deep and powerful that they will always be connected to me.
I couldn’t quite see it then, but this specific group of people were meant to share that moment with me. What started as a completely casual congregation of people culminated in sacred companions. Path sharers. Witnesses.
Surprisingly to me, the most important lesson did not come from the ascent or the summit but rather from the descent. Because even if the “worst” part was over and the celebratory hugs had taken place, the summit was only half of the way. And I had already given all that I had getting to the top.
The descent conveys a whole new set of challenges. The body is tired. The brain is lacking oxygen. The legs are shaking and bending in all the wrong directions. The snacks are almost finished. The water is running low.
Here was were my spiritual strength kicked in. I had already exhausted my physical and mental fuel. I had nothing left to give. But as the fog was closing in and another storm threatened to worsen my already existing nightmare, another source of energy pushes through. This energy came from within me but did not belong to me. I don’t know how to explain it but it was as if I was running on borrowed batteries.
My brain played all kinds of tricks. Imagining scenarios where I got rescued by a helicopter. Imagining I never make it back to camp. But before you even realize it, this inner fuel has gotten you to the bottom, and when you raise your head you see the most beautiful sight you have seen in your life: a quesadilla stand waiting for you with Coca-Cola chairs and a big, ice-cold guayaba Boing.
I have eaten in the fanciest restaurants, tried the most exquisit cuts of meat but I can honestly tell you that nothing has ever tasted so irrevocably perfect as that quesadilla with salsa verde.
So that is why everyone should climb a relatively big mountain every once in a while. And if not, at least once in their lifetime.
And it has to be a mountain, because in a marathon you could just stop running. But in a mountain, you have to surrender to the will of nature and test your strength to the most extreme of its limits.
The spiritual awareness that you get at a mountain can only be encountered through a few other specific experiences.
So it’s either climb a mountain or do ayahuasca.