One Rock At A Time

When reflecting on the summer of 2012 I often think of the line from Charles Dickens’ A Tale Of Two Cities, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” This post falls into the former. For the months of July and August I was fortunate enough to backpack throughout Southeast Asia with two of my tallest friends, Kaleb and Dayna. This is the tale of one of our Indonesian adventures. Climbing Mount Merapi, an active stratovolcano.

It was the middle of the afternoon before our overnight hike up the volcano. Kaleb, Dayna and I were relaxing in our hostel room in Yogyakarta when we heard a screeching from outside. It took awhile for us all to notice but there was definitely something just beyond our room. We opened the door and walked out into the hall together. I don’t think any of us expected what we were about to witness…

About ten feet away there was a cat, it was raping another cat.

I can’t recall many moments in my life that made me feel more uncomfortable than this. Despite the squealing and walking of the smaller cat, the larger one would not dismount. We didn’t think there was anything we could do without putting ourselves in danger. What would you have done? We looked on for a few more minutes then returned to our room and hoped for the cries to subside.

The next logical thing to do would probably be to have a nap before our 10 pm departure. However, I decided watching a movie would be a better use of my time.

“What movie would best prepare me for climbing a mountain?” I asked myself.

Perhaps Vertical Limit? K2? The Mountain? – I ended up choosing Piranha 3DD. Kaleb napped while Dayna and I watched it. I thoroughly enjoyed it, I can’t speak for her though. I would provide some of my favourite one liners but no one seems to find them funny outside the context of the movie.

“Titanium mother fuckers. Eat this!” Sorry, couldn’t resist.

We have a little over an hour to kill now. Perfect time for a nap. Instead we decided upon snacking. Fuel up, good idea. We head down to the restaurant in our hostel. I order a fruit bowl. (Note: If you’ve never been to Southeast Asia, the fruit is something else compared to it’s North American counterparts). When the bowl arrives it is covered in a pinky/orangy sauce.

I think to myself “Hmm… fruit and a sugar sauce might not be the best thing before an all night hike…”

Oh well. I pop a heaping spoonful into my mouth.

I gag.

“What the fuck is this!?” I say to Kaleb and Dayna in between choking.

Kaleb takes a bite and swallows.

“Uhh… I think it’s Thousand Islands dressing.”

Kaleb ended up eating the rest of the bowl. If you take only one lesson away from this post, let it be to never slather fresh fruit with Thousand Islands dressing. Afterwards we quickly head back to the room and change. I’m wearing socks, pants, and a t-shirt over top of an Under Armour base layer. We return to the lobby. At 10 pm our van arrives. It’s go time.

We drive along a tightly winding road. My body had gotten use to the zig-zag driving early in the trip as this is how most of the roads are. I listen to Glen Hansard, The Thelonious Monk Quartet, and Punchline while we drive. I drift off in and out of sleep. We arrive at a small house around 11:40 pm, about twenty minutes ahead of schedule. Inside the walls were pink and decorated with a variety of masks and animals. Our breath was visible when we exited the van and entered the house. There was no heat being generated inside. We would spend the next hour sitting in uncomfortable chairs and trying to keep warm.

From where we sat we could hear 90’s boy band music videos playing from the television in the the other room (Note: if you think there are no more boy bands to add to your music collection, travel to Asia, you’ll be amazed!). The television was visible in the reflection of a nearby aquarium.

“Backstreet Boys. I Want It That Way.” I pipe up before the music starts playing. I knew the song from the start of the music video. My old baby-sitter would be proud. Kaleb and Dayna compliment me on my intelligence by laughing at and making fun of me. We keep waiting. At 12:55 am the 20 something of us that were there gathered outside. It’s go time… Again.

The climb is difficult. From the onset we are faced with steep hills. It is rare that the angle of the slope became less than 45 degrees. An hour in we had to put on surgical masks to prevent volcanic ash from getting into our lungs. This made breathing much more difficult for me (Note: I’m asthmatic). I carried on. We stayed near the front of the pack and would break every 20 minutes or so for the others to catch up. Some would decide they couldn’t complete the hike and were guided back.

Around 2:30 am, more than half way up the volcano, I witnessed one of the nicest views possible while taking a pee. The village below appeared like it was in a dome. The sky was majestic. I couldn’t count the number of shooting stars I saw.

As we got higher, the path we were walking on began to narrow to a few feet wide. It was was a combination of grass and dirt but if you were to slip on the edge it is a steep fall into trees and brush. I’m not sure how they’d recover you. As we are walking I hear some of the ground crumbling behind us. I look back to see Dayna half off the side with another hiker’s arm holding onto her. He pulls her back up. Close call.

We take a 20 minute break just after 3:30 am before the final leg of our ascent. We don’t want to reach the peak too early. The moon was amazing. It was a quarter moon that night but since we were in the southern hemisphere the bottom of the it was visible instead of the side. The guides started a bonfire (it took a few attempts). I started getting cold again. For the remainder of our break we huddled around the fire trying to keep warm.

Shortly after we began climbing again we were above the clouds. The landscape was lunar. I actually felt like I was walking on the moon. The final push to the peak of the volcano proved most difficult. It was steep and covered in shale. The large, solid-looking rock sometimes crumble at the touch. When to my estimation we were nearing the top of the mountain I made a crucial mistake. I looked down.

I’ve never had a problem with heights but in that moment I was petrified, entirely consumed by fear.

“What if the rock I’m standing on gives way? Or the next one does?” We were all a single misfortune or mistake away from serious injury or death. How long would my family going on thinking I was alive if I die? Would they be able to cope? Would they carry my corpse down or just drag and roll me? My mind was panicking. I couldn’t look at Kaleb or Dayna because I just imagined them falling too. I imagined how terrified I would be to have my family climbing with me knowing they would be in the same perilous situation. I still don’t know in the moment how I overcame this fear. I just know eventually I locked my eyes in front of me, and one rock at a time, I forced myself onward. I instinctively began ignoring everything around me except the next rock that I would grab until finally, I had reached the peak.

When I stood up I felt the fear wash out of me and be replaced by ecstasy. It’s a sensation I had never quite felt felt before or since. Even with the most vivid description words can’t accurately describe it. It has to be experienced. We watched the sun rise above the clouds. It was beautiful. Breathtaking. We celebrated, walked around, looked into the volcano, and took a few pictures. Ok, maybe a lot of pictures. Of the 20 or so of us that began, more than half had turned back sometime along the way. We didn’t. Above the clouds, at an elevation of nearly 3000 m, we were on top of the world.

The climb down was almost as difficult. I lost track of how many times I fell on my ass. I was covered in dirt and ash, exhausted, and my whole body ached. We got back to the homestead shortly after 8 am. Our total hike duration was just under 7 1/2 hours.

We did it. The three of us climbed an active volcano. It was one of the most physically and mentally punishing experiences of my life. It was also one of the most rewarding. I had overcame paralyzing fear.

Don’t let fear cripple you. Not facing it only allows it to further manifest itself within you. Push against it and keep pushing. Our worst fears are rarely realized, and when they are, it often isn’t as bad as we thought it would be. Overcoming fear is a rush like no other. For me it was a feeling of calmness and absolute joy that gave me confidence to conquer more. You are the one who feeds your fear. You empower it and give it meaning. Stop. Come up with a plan or make one up as you go. Use your energy to fight it, not feed it.

What volcano are you climbing today? What’s crippling you from getting what you want from life? Keep moving forward. The sweat, the tears, and anxiety will all be worth it. You too can reach the peek.

One rock at a time.

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