I took a moment before moving forward. Braced by post 45, looked inwards towards the crater…
There was only one thing I wanted to find there. Among all the scattered images and confusions littering my mind, only one hope stood clear. It was the hope that other people would be at the summit. I imagined all the others who had passed me along the way, huddled up and protecting each other. They would see me and would be expecting me. They’d embrace me into their safety. We’d take care of each other and make sure we all made it safely through the night.
That was not the case. As I looked down into the crater, all I saw between the blasts of wind and rain was lifeless rock. The wind seemed to speak. Throughout my ascent it had begun to sound like voices, yells and whispers, calling out to me. By then, I knew the voices I heard were lies. Although everything in me hoped otherwise, I knew I was completely alone.
I descended into the volcanic crater, still only able to see a couple of metres ahead of me. The wind, which I thought might me more tame at the summit, was stronger than ever. It blasted from all directions free from any obstructions. It threw me down on the jagged volcanic rock that bunched up like biscuits under my feet from below. My knees were scabbed and bloodied.
My first objective was to find shelter from the wind and the rain. Only twenty metres from post 45, I came across a stone hut. It stood about one metre tall, one metre wide, and two metres long. I looked down at it, figured I could do better, and decided to follow the edge of the crater. After being thrown onto the sharp volcanic rocks three times over with almost every step I took, I retreated back to the stone hut. At first, I couldn’t see it through the haze and feared I wouldn’t find it again. Thankfully, I did.
I took off my pack and entered on my hands and knees. I saw that same brown bird that took interest in me the night before at the Casa. I said, “Olá pássaro.” It looked at me for a moment with the same curiosity as before. Then it hopped into a crack between the stones and flew out of the hut. I took the bird as a good omen and decided to stay there for the night.
I began to prepare. It was still daytime, but not for long. Once I had committed to this shelter, there was no turning back. I arranged some stones inside to make room so I could lay there and pass the night. I lifted a palm sized stone revealing a long, multi-legged insect. It scurried out of the hut, ”There is no place for you here.” I yelled at the fleeing insect.
The wind and rain blasted through the entrance. I decided to take the neon orange water cover that came with my pack and cover the entrance. The thing was worthless anyhow. Everything in my pack was soaked. I cut its elastics with a knife and, using two rocks, spread it across the entrance. With a third rock, I weighed it down. I was only able to cover the hole partially, but it did do something and would have to do. The door was triangular and there was an exclamation point printed on it. I tried to take a picture but my camera wouldn’t work. This drawing of the door is from my journal:
I pulled out my inflatable mattress, my sleeping bag, my food, my water, the wine, my head lamp, and a change of clothes. I changed my clothes, inflated the mattress, and laid out my semi-soaked sleeping bag. Water was dripping from between the stones overhead. I knew that soon, the bag would be completely soaked. I also knew I was better off in a soaked bag, somewhat protected from the winds and the rains, than outside of it. I did my best not to panic and think out my every move. It was not an easy thing to do.
I took off my shoes and laid them upside-down hoping they’d dry somewhat overnight. I emptied one water bottle into another making my latrine for the night. I laid out all my food and tools within arms reach. I crawled into my sleeping bag. I ate some canned tuna with my hands thinking I’d need the protein to repair my muscles for my eventual descent. I put my headlamp on, and covered my sleeping bag over my head, bread and cheese in hand.
I looked upwards and realized the size of the stones forming the roof above me. They were massive flat stones, much larger than I’d be able to lift alone. If they fell, say because of a relentless 100 km/h wind storm, I’d be crushed instantly. The hut’s walls were comprised of stones of all sizes and sorts. In places, only fist sized stones supported massive boulders above. The construction didn’t appear very reliable. I imagined myself getting crushed from overhead. I engulfed myself in my sleeping bag and waited out the night. I still had hope at this point.
The winds raged. The temperature dropped. I cursed myself for leaving the beautiful women in my life. I begged forgiveness for my arrogance and thankful for the beautiful life I had been given. I apologized to my mother for all the pain my danger seeking had caused her. I pictured my lover’s loving face and warm, innocent eyes. I felt gratitude for a, grateful like where every breath had been a gift and every moment a blessing. Why was I there? My only response was the raging wind. I asked myself why I had done this to myself. There was so much waiting for me back home. What the fuck was I thinking?
I prayed. I ate and drank often, but little at a time. The rain kept falling. Before long, my bag was completely soaked. I began to hear a whistling. My air mattress was punctured. The ground became harder. A constant, throbbing pain began to develop in my left knee and hip. I was sleeping in a puddle.
I began to shiver uncontrollably. I knew from experience that my body needed food energy to maintain core temperature. Every time I shivered I responded by eating a little bread and nibbling a little cheese. The shivering would stop for a bit, then restart. The cycle continued throughout the night.
When it settled and I began to calm down, the bottle of wine came to mind. I grabbed my hotel cup, the bottle, and the corkscrew. I drilled into the cork and tried to lift it. The tool broke, leaving the screw lodged inside. I tried several times to open the bottle with my shoe. After a couple failed attempts I gave up realizing it was probably not a good idea to get drunk considering the situation I was in.
I huddled into my cocoon. I began to notice my breathing running off uncontrollably. From past training I knew I was beginning to hyperventilate. Air wasn’t passing through the wet rayon and insulation of my plastic container. I continued to monitor my breathing and made sure to come up for air as needed. I knew the cold wasn’t going to be strong enough to kill me. Worst case scenario, I knew if I was smart and didn’t get crushed, I could hold out until a rescue team came for me. The weather report I had seen before leaving the Casa da Montanha said the system would last another two days.
I looked up between the stones above me and saw the sun had set. I wondered who had built this hut sheltering me. I stared at the massive stones above my face and prayed. As night fell, I knew I had no choice but to wait until morning.
I was utterly alone, 2300 metres above the Atlantic, on the highest point for thousands of miles. I thought about Moses and his ascent to his fire god. Was he a phoney? Did he write those words on those tablets? Was he just looking for an excuse to launch a war on an unsuspecting Canaanite population knowing the Egyptians would catch up with his little slave rebellion should he stick around. I thought about Mohammed in his mountain cave. Did Gabriel really tell him all those things or was he just power hungry? Did he just unite a well positioned raider town and send them on a murderous rampage pillaging caravans from Persia to Morocco. What about me? Should I come down from this mountain and tell a big lie for my own glory and ego? Should I renounce my faith because in a God just because he hadn’t acted in a manner of my choosing. No. That was ego. That was a lie. I had not come all that way to yell lies from the mountain top. I would receive what I was meant to be given, it anything at all. If there was nothing waiting for me, so be it. Every breath is a gift, every moment is a blessing. Oxalá!
I checked for the sun continuously. I had no watch and lost all conception of time. I felt like day would never arrive. Had I crossed over somewhere? Although the rains came in and out (more in than out), the winds never ceased. The pains in my legs and knees grew with time. My hands shriveled beyond anything I had seen before. I begged for sleep but was not SO lucky.
I had this idea that if I slept, I’d wake up and the sun would be there. Everything would be clear. The warmth would dry my clothes. I’d look out over the edge of the crater and watch the sun rise over the Azores. Everything I had been through would make sense and feel justified. I would happily descend the mountain with the sun on my back. I think that idea, like so many, came from too many books and movies.
My impatience grew. After what felt like an eternity, panic began to overwhelm me. I lost all control. I knew it was suicide to try and descend the mountain at night with the weather as it was, tired as I was, and with my pack heavier than ever. But fear, not reason, was in control. I packed my gear, left the wine, bread, and cheese, and tried to leave.
Only two steps from the hut, a violent gust threw me to the ground. Two steps later, I was thrown down harder than the first time. On my hands and knees I crawled back into the stone hut. I removed my sleeping bag from my pack and draped it over my head as I sat cross legged. I begged to survive and cursed my stupidity. I cried uncontrollably. I have never been more frightened.
I grabbed for the emergency satellite phone given to me at the Casa da Montanha. I tried the first number. It didn’t work. I tried the second number. It didn’t work. The third number was the 2000 Euro rescue line. I tried the first two numbers over and over again. The girl at the Casa told me that sometimes you need to walk to the crater’s edge for the phone to work. I ran out for post 45 and tried again. No luck. On my knees, and the crater’s edge, I struggled to stay upright. I begged that fucking piece of shit phone to dial. In retrospect, I likely wouldn’t have been able to hear it even if it had. I pressed the third number. They would have never come up there in those conditions. I knew that. I pressed the button anyway.
Unable to endure the wind and rain, I crawled back into the hut. I stretched out my cocoon and crawled back inside. I began to understand. The messages are around us constantly. The world is full and complete. Everything you need to know is in it, at every moment, and the things that aren’t, aren’t, so why bother with them. Every situation is unique in time and full. It’s the storylines write for ourselves that live in some other space. Fuck stories told from mountaintops. We’re all on our own. If we can’t find a good reason to make thing work, it isn’t going to. The world determines. We submit.
I thought about the only thing I wanted to find when I reached the crater. It was other people. I didn’t care who they were. I didn’t care what language they spoke, what country they came from, or who they prayed to. The immense solitude and despair of the mountain had crushed me. Nothing, not a single thing I had been through during my life could have prepared me for what true hopelessness felt like. We can’t afford to live on mountains anymore. We need to work together. We need to listen, then think, then speak. Speak last. Listen first. If we don’t, we’re fucked.
I prayed for survival unsure of whether or not it would be granted. I wanted every day, every moment that followed, to be a conscientious action. I wanted the opportunity to bear more weight, to endure greater sufferings. I begged for labour and hardship and struggles. I wanted the opportunity to bear the weight of all my failings yet still do my best to welcome everyone with love and good intent. It is heaviness that makes one float. So many people bear so many burdens. There is so much weight to carry.
A calm came over me in the darkness of my cocoon. A voice, my voice but not my own, asked, “Why did you come here?”
I started to reply, “To save…” but stopped myself. That was ego. That was a lie. I started to reply. “To know and learn…” but stopped myself. That was ego. That was a lie.
I decided to really listen and think and then, I spoke, “Because you asked me to.”
Calmly and peacefully, I faded into darkness…