“Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory.” -Ed Viesturs
We had reached the top of Gros Piton. Despite my aching muscles and throbbing knees it was only sheer determination that willed me to the top of that rocky mass. Exhausted but exhilarated, I perched myself on the top rocks. I didn’t have the energy to climb down to the outlook that offered a breathtaking view of the ocean.
(Pictured from left to right: Margaret, Damascus, additional guide and exhausted, sweaty me)
I drank in the cooler air and was grateful for the gentle breeze. Unfortunately our two-hour climb to the top was poorly timed for we weren’t there for more than five minutes when misty rain clouds moved in and completely blocked our prize. At first the rain felt good, cooling our skin and washing away the sweat. But it did not take us long to realize that this refreshing rain shower was actually the mountain’s way of laughing at our triumph.
Of course on the way up the mountain I had considered that the trek down would not be easy, but I was not prepared for what that meant with rain added to the equation. The already slippery roots were now slick as ice and the rocks offered no traction. The make-shift hand rails were slimy with sap and mud.
Our highly skilled guides noted which rocks to avoid and which trees to hold on to as they flitted from rock to root (while holding umbrellas I might add). Sometimes I had no choice but to scoot down a rock on my butt, reaching out for another rock to steady myself and scoot again. Every once in a while you would hear the terrifying sound of traction-less gym shoes sliding on slippery rock and the splintering sound of breaking roots. Cries of reassurance let me know everyone was okay. Sometimes a foot would lodge between two wet rocks leaving behind bits of scraped skin and badly bruised ankles. My hands were beginning to blister from hanging on to the rough, volcanic rock.
My already aching knees, weary from the climb up, were now shaking violently. I felt nauseous and woozy and choked back tears. The rain continued to toy with us even under the heavy canopy of the trees, starting and stopping; at times light and other times heavy enough to blur my sight. I didn’t want to keep going. I wanted a helicopter to come and whisk me away. But like the quote says, climbing the mountain is optional, coming down is not. I had willed myself to the top of this monster, but it was blood, sweat and tears that got me down.
At one point where the path leveled out I had the surreal feeling that my legs would not let me stop. That even though my whole body was shaking and cramping from dehydration, my legs moved with a mind of their own, not allowing me to give up. Again waves of nausea hit me, my eyes welled up with tears and I prayed that we would get to the “welcome” kiosk soon.
Finally I could hear voices all gathered together talking. The teenagers had of course reached the bottom first and were waiting on the parental folk to reach the bottom. We had reached the little shack that sold snacks and souvenirs. I was breathless and grateful. No broken bones. No having to be airlifted or carried off the mountain. Just scraped chins, bruised ankles and blistered hands.
We still had a bit of a walk to get to our van and again my legs carried me without my will. As we all piled into the van for the trip back I wondered if these kids realized what they had actually accomplished that day. Sure, most of them were athletes and this “nature trail” had simply been the avenue to a view for awesome instagram photos. For me, however, it was a lesson in physical and mental perseverance; in digging deep to find the strength to not only conquer Gros Piton, but my own self-doubts and fears. I had just expanded my comfort zone 2500 ft.
“I found my heart upon a mountain I did not know I could climb, and I wonder how many other pieces of myself are secreted away in places I judge I cannot go.” Laurel Bleadon Maffei