Fifteen years ago, I wanted to climb Kilimanjaro in Tanzania as research for my novel GREAT SKY WOMAN. Due to other factors, Nicki and I did a nature safari instead. But the urge always remained. The last year or so, I decided to organize my time and energy to take another whack at it. The question I had was: could I handle it physically? Mentally?
And…why did I want to do it? There was a sense of pilgrimage. Tanzania felt…odd. Like a homecoming. I don’t think it was as much a matter of it being a black country, as it was the experience of going to Oldevai Gorge, site of the excavation of some of the very earliest human remains. The sense, in other words, of being in the cradle of humanity. Returning to the United States felt like returning home after a day at the beach…I could feel the tide pulling at my bones.
So…the problem was that I needed to test my fitness. Fifteen years ago, I was confident in my ability to do it. The measure was: if you can climb 3000 feet in three hours, you are fit enough. There are factors of acclimatization, but you really won’t know until you get on the mountain. If the 3000 feet felt right, I was prepared to accept the risk.
Which brings me to Dog Mountain in the Columbia Gorge. That was what we used to climb to prepare ourselves, test ourselves. I’d never climbed it since going to Tanzania, and it seemed my best touchstone.
So…when I was asked to speak at the “Write on the River” conference in Wenatchee, I saw that as an opportunity. Flew into Portland a day early, drove into the Gorge last Friday morning, and started hiking.
It was tough. REALLY tough. Steeper than I imagined, and just a constant grind. Up and up the mountain, the first time I’d ever climbed it alone, allowing the exertion to drive me deeper into my mind. Paying attention to the rhythm of step and push and breath. Where was my attention focused? On the effort? The splendor of the gorge as I traversed the switchbacks and rose higher and higher?
How about watching the other people, many of whom raced past me as I struggled? What about the monologue in my head judging myself and my efforts?
I noticed something interesting. At the bottom of the mountain, there were lots of people hitting the trail. They were friendly, but preoccupied and distant. In the middle, it got sort of lonely. Not many people around, nothing but my own head and my doubts and struggles. And then as I traversed the last few hundred feet, it got oddly crowded again. And…the attitude of the people changed. More deep smiles. Nods. The people coming back down were warm, welcoming. “you’re almost there! Doing great! Keep going!”
Why? Because everyone there had paid the same price. Experienced the same thing. We all had similar values, far moreso than the people in the tiny cars we could see streaming along the road below. And by the time I reached the very top, and sat looking out over the river, there was a peacefulness I’d forgotten about. I was the only one there by himself. It was all families and couples. Mostly quiet and still. A sense of deep, deep satisfaction. I loved it.
And then I started back down. And immediately, I knew something was wrong. I could barely walk. My balance was trashed. And walking over piles of naked rock, an annoyance on the way up, became a nightmare on the way down. They jabbed through my inadequate shoes, tried to twist my ankles, fatigued my calves. Balance was trashed. I’d never felt anything like that, as if the muscles in my lower legs were dead, leaving me balancing on my bones.
It took me longer to get down than it took to go up. Every step torture. Literally taking ten tiny steps, and having to rest. Every time the ground leveled out I started to recover, but downhill was murderous. And worse…THE GROUND NEVER GOT ANY CLOSER. That’s how it seemed. No matter how long I walked, it felt as if nothing changed. For the first time in my life I understood how people get lost and die in the woods, exhausted and frightened, crushed by terror-induced tunnel vision and unable to see options.
After almost four hours, I got close enough to the ground that I could see cars in the parking lot. In every other previous instance, this had given me a burst of energy and I’d almost RUN down the rest of the hill. Nope. In fact, the fatigue hit even harder. Tiny steps. Tiny little steps. And then…I was finally down.
Driving four hours to Wenatchee was a little “crampy” but not that bad. Dragging my luggage up the stairs to my room…not horrible. Did a little yoga, and went to bed.
I knew it would take feeling my body in the morning to know that my experience meant in terms of Kilimanjaro. I could get fitter (in fact, I’d prepared for the climb with nothing more than the Zero Net Time program. I could push MUCH harder), could have better equipment, food, more water, etc.
But the question was: would I wake up in the morning with my body saying “please sir, may I have another!”
Ummm…no, it didn’t. What my body told me was that I could push harder, smarter, work with experts, and without a doubt if someone put a gun to Jason’s head and said “climb!” I could do it.
But…I just didn’t see a way that I could have FUN doing it. Nope. Five days of torture, a half hour of celebration at the top, and an entire day (or much more!) of disbelief in my own asininity coming back down. What would that feel like if I got a blister? Let alone a badly twisted ankle?
Why had I wanted to climb Kili? For pilgrimage, adventure, joy. Did that sound like a joyous experience? No.
Then…why do it? Because my ego didn’t want to let it go? Because I was afraid of the implications of giving up (ah! You’re getting old!) Afraid of what others might think?
Just couldn’t think of reasons strong enough to motivate me to do something I knew in advance would be an incredibly painful and unpleasant experience. No. Sigh. My window of opportunity for that adventure has closed, dammit.
So…I’ll have to find others. Physical challenges, sure…but nothing where, if I reach my limit, I’m four days away from safety. Mental challenges, absolutely. And emotional. And spiritual. But my Hero’s Journey hit that Dark Night of the Soul place, and my leap of Faith was that I had not just the right, but the responsibility to ask myself what my real values were. Did Rick lose in Casablanca because he put Ilsa on the plane with her husband?
No, in fact he won his soul, by accepting that our actions have to be motivated by our emotions and values, that every action changes us, and that it is foolishness to cling to a notion after you have new and contradictory information.
I’m still sore, but am really, really glad I climbed Dog Mountain last Friday. It was one of those painful lessons which prevent even more painful mistakes.
And now…I wonder what challenge I’ll choose next? It will be fun to find out.