I stir in the dark. For a split second I rest in the relief of my dreams, not yet fully awake. But the moment is gone quicker that I can grasp it, and my reality comes hurtling towards me like a hundred tonne truck. Slam. Anxiety to start your day. You’re welcome! My alarm goes off and I feel around for my phone in the dark. When I feel it’s coldness in my hand, I bring it to my face, deeply violated by the force of its aggression. I really need to make that some kind of soothing water sound, I think, before switching it off and tossing it back into the darkness.
I unzip my swag and stumble out into the chill of the air, desperate for coffee. I am a mess of a thing I prefer not to think about. There is a mountain I am climbing today, and as I press down on my coffee plunger, it would not be the first time I would deeply question my ability to make a good decision. I can barely eat, barely sleep; my nervous system firing as though someone has hooked it up to a steady stream of live electricity. His blue eyes flash before me, ones that wipe my soul clean, and when they do, I feel an actual physical crack in my chest. I shut it out and take a mouthful of coffee.
Mount Barney. 1539 metres straight up. I recall the reviews about it I’d read a couple of days earlier:
We have labelled it Brokeback Barney.
We went up boys and came back men.
That last one had made me laugh when I read it, but then another flush of nausea hits me as I wonder what the hell it is I am doing here.
I drink my coffee, cocooned by the blackness of the sky, the silence of the open country. The stars are vast when I look up at them, and when I do, I know exactly why it is that Tommy Caldwell ran straight to El Capitan when he did and obsessively, for months and then years, worked out a way to scale the impossible Dawn Wall. Show me any extreme athlete and I will show you a demon they are trying to outrun.
We start our climb. I’m not well, though nobody knows it but me. The beginning is flat enough, a trail through mostly bush. We see the mountain loom up ahead of us and as we inch closer towards its base, the sheer size of it silences me with its power. The early morning light bounces of the rock face, glowing orange as if it’s alive somehow. I can’t help but be awed by the beauty of it. It would be the last time I’d feel any kind of lightness until we reached the top.
It’s an hour into the climb. I estimate another seven to go. When I look forward, all I see ahead of me is an almost vertical incline. My heart rate is so severe I feel the thudding of it inside my brain. I’m dizzy and desperate, I feel as though I could cry at any second. All I can think about is how horrible it is and how far I have to go, and when I do, it fills me with a very bad feeling. There is actually no way I can do this. Every step burns through my calves and I just can’t get a handle on staying positive. I stop every ten seconds or so, just to bring my heart rate down, and when we finally get to our first snack stop, I think I might collapse with overwhelm. I’m not well, I think, and I shouldn’t be here.
I unwrap a sandwich and force myself to eat it. Though I haven’t had an appetite for days and the thought of food makes me feel sick, I realise I’m hurling my body through war on nothing but a cup of coffee and a truckload of anxiety.
A friend stands by me. He is the kind of person who looks like he does this as a warm up, before breakfast, before he even starts his day. He’ll be able to help me, I think.
I turn to him. “How do you keep going?”, I ask. “What do you do with your mind?”
He laughs and I want to hide how close to death I am, so I laugh too. He takes a bite of his muesli bar. “I’m serious,” I say. He looks up at me. “Well,” he says, “You just have to get out of your head. Stop telling yourself how hard it is. Stop reminding yourself how far you still have to go and then feeling dread and misery because of it. Just focus on your breath, in then out, in then out, in then out.” I nod. “Get a rhythm going,” he says.
We finish eating. He gets up, starts walking away, but before he does, he turns to me and says,”Rach. Remember: It’s hard for all of us.” And it’s then I remember that it is not our suffering that is the problem, it’s our feeling of being alone in it.
I get up, grab my pack, fling it on my back. And whether it was the food in my system, or the words of my friend, I hike, step after step, breath after sharp breath, hour after hour, all the way to the top.
Nothing was waiting for me when I got there. No big epiphanies, no grand accolades of internal growth. The only thing that existed was the quiet thought that I had done something good. It would be months later that I would look back upon it and see that I was strong in ways I was not able to at the time, and this realisation reverberated around almost every other aspect of my life. It was only through trudging up that mountain that I understood the emotion, perhaps for the very first time, behind what Sir Edmund Hillary meant when he said, “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.”
The road is dark ahead of me. I flick my high beams on, even though I could close my eyes and drive it by heart. A long stretch of pine trees, a left turn, then right, more pine trees, right then left again. At the end would be a mountain. My favourite one. The first one I ever climbed, nine months earlier. It was symbolic, being here, spending the last night of the year honouring the one thing that sustained me the most during an otherwise gruelling twelve months. On top of these mountains I had found space to breathe. I’d found a way to both escape my life and cement me more deeply to it. And I had found a way to accept things as they were, not as I wished them to be.
When I get to the carpark, I will think of him, like I always do. I will tie my laces and grab my pack, like I’d done so many times before. And when I get out of my car, I will tip my head up to the stars, letting my hair topple over my shoulders. I will close my eyes and pause before joining my friends, feeling from a very deep part of myself, that despite all of life’s heartache — despite all of the things I wished I could go back and change, it was a just such a magnificent adventure, simply to be alive.