Mountain Madness – Merida, Venezuela (January 2006)
The image is a common one in metaphorical literature. A long dark tunnel with a light at the end of it. Usually it symbolizes some type of death experience. If you are a monotheist and believe in the afterlife… Heaven or paradise awaits you after the torment and misery of this earthly existence… the metaphor is easily understandable. The darkness of the tunnel is the suffering we endure as we try to survive in the cold cruel world and the bright light at the end is the welcoming bosom of God. If, however, you are an atheist who believes in nothingness after death or a polytheist who believes in reincarnation, the metaphor is a bit more complicated. Nevertheless, the symbol or imagery can still be explained. The long dark tunnel is death… nothingness… the time of the in between… and the bright light at the end of it is birth or re-birth. In other words, the dark tunnel is the womb and birth canal and the bright light at the end is daylight or the fluorescent lights of the delivery room…
So what happens if you reverse the image? For the sake of dramatic presentation, let’s call it a vision… I am surrounded by bright white light… infinite, glorious, incredibly beautiful intense white light. Indeed, it seems very much like a glowing tunnel of heavenly light. But at the end of the tunnel of light there is darkness… the abyss… a deep black hole. And I unfortunately, am heading for that darkness. I am terrified but I must go forward. What does it mean? Why am I doing this? The fear is overwhelming. Am I, perhaps, descending into some kind of madness?
I awake in what seems like the middle of the night and go outside to relieve my bladder. The sky is full of stars and the air is fresh and clean. When I return to the tent, Gustavo is awake and looking at his watch. “It’s three o’clock, time to wake up. We leave in one hour,” he says. I climb back into my sleeping bag and sit up while Gustavo lights a candle. In a minute or two, he has the stove going and water is on to boil. I sit there thinking while Gustavo makes preparations… Am I really going to do this? Am I going to climb Humboldt Mountain? It’s not too late to chicken out. No way, I have the will and I’m going to do it.
In a little while, the coffee is ready. It is dark, thick, black, Colombian coffee. And we smoke a single joint to go with it, just to jumpstart the day. Then we go on to breakfast; grilled ham and cheese on an arepa…. warm and filling for the stomach. We need the calories and the energy for the long cold climb ahead of us. And then we have another cup of thick black super duper coffee. Fully charged with calories and caffeine and thc, we blow out the candle and exit the tent at 4:00 am. The sky is full of stars and there isn’t a cloud in sight. We have one backpack between us and Gustavo carries it to begin with. Most of our stuff we leave in the camp. The pack we bring only contains necessary climbing equipment, a few snacks and water. I have a side bag with just my camera and flashlight. But that is it. We want to carry as little weight as possible for the ordeal ahead.
We set out walking with our headlamps on and the trail is easy at first. For about twenty minutes, we walk along casually in the darkness. Gustavo leads the way and I follow close behind. Then, very suddenly, the trail takes a steep turn up and we start to climb. Our camp is at 4000 meters and the top of the mountain is at 4942 meters (approximately 16,000 feet) so we have a very long ways to go up. And that’s what we do. Up, up, up. It seems practically vertical. We climb up big rocks like ladders. There are long gravelly, sandy stretches where we slide back a step for every step we take forwards. And then there are more rocks, more ledges to ease across, more acrobatic maneuvers to perform in the darkness. I’m not lying or exaggerating. It is an extreme athletic event in the dark. It doesn’t resemble walking or hiking at all. Up, up, up we climb. Gustavo scrambles ahead of me with his head lamp and I follow close behind. The air is so thin that we can only go about twenty feet or so before we have to stop and catch our breath. Always, when we stop, we turn off the flashlights and sit there in the darkness. What a view! A sky full of stars surrounded by towering dark mountains. Way down below, I can barely make out Lago Verde. Then, the headlamps go on again and we start climbing some more and some more and some more. Every once in a while, Gustavo will shout out ; “Attention!” To let me know that some particularly precarious cliff or ledge is just ahead. He is always right on with his warnings. God knows it would be very easy to slip and fall and tumble down the cliff to my death… it is that steep. In fact, if it was not so dark, and we were not moving by flashlight and I could see how steep it really is, I might not be able to do it. But I do. I follow crazy Gustavo in the darkness. Up up up we go. And then we stop. Turn out the lights, catch our breath and absorb the view. The higher up we go, the further distance we can see. The moon starts to rise behind the mountains and it adds glow and color to the sky. Way off to the east, above the Los Llanos plateau, there are thick clouds and flashing lighting. We are above the storm though, looking down on it in the distance. I ask Gustavo about it and he says that it is no concern. The storm will never pass the mountains. The only thing we have to worry about is the cloudy mist that might spoil our view.
After an hour or so of climbing like this, in the darkness, slowly, twenty feet at a time, we reach a comfortable flat ledge. Gustavo asks me to take over carrying the pack for a while and I agree. It is much heavier than I imagined and I am amazed at the agility with which Gustavo had moved up the mountain with it on his back. Strangely enough, for the next 45 minutes or so, when I am carrying the pack, the climb is not so difficult. It is still steep and arduous. But there are not the long drop offs and the unceasing climbs. It is more like leaping from giant boulder to giant boulder. But still, it is the same. The high altitude makes us stop every few minutes and catch our breath. Slowly, slowly, slowly, we make our way. Gustavo takes the pack back from me and the trail gets horribly steep again. How in the hell does he do it? He is just a little guy. But he moves like a god damn billy goat. I can barely keep up with him and he’s carrying the pack. Up up up we climb. The sky gets lighter. Part of the moon is now in view behind the mountain ahead of us and colors start to show in the rocks all around us. It is growing daylight. In a little while we won’t need the flashlights.
It is just about dawn when we reach the edge of the glacier…. now comes the hard part, now comes the scary part. We stop on the ledge beneath the glacier while Gustavo prepares the equipment. First the climbing harness…. I have never worn one of these before. But I slip it on over my legs and try to tighten the straps. Gustavo comes and helps me. He is an absolute perfectionist when it comes to the equipment. He pulls at knots, tightens straps, tests everything again and again and again. He has to make sure it is perfect. Then come the crampons. These are metal spikes that are attached to the bottom of the boots. Again, Gustavo is meticulous. He fiddles with every strap, tests every knot, pulls and tightens until it is absolutely perfect. And then I am ready. He hands me an ice axe and tells me to sit and wait. And that’s what I do. I wait while he puts on his own equipment. At this point, it seems like it might be light enough outside to take photos. So I take out my camera to take some shots of the spectacular sunrise on the mountains but the damn thing doesn’t work. The shutter won’t open. It keeps blinking on and off. Gustavo says that it is probably because of the cold. It is damn cold, about 0 degrees Farenheit, maybe colder, we definitely need our heavy jackets, hats, and gloves. One way or another, I can’t take any pictures of some of the most spectacular scenery I have ever seen.
When Gustavo is fully outfitted, it is time for my quick lesson in glacier climbing. “First,” he says, “always keep your feet spread comfortably apart. Then, use your ice axe as a third leg. Only move one leg at a time and always make sure at least two legs are firmly embedded in the ice when you move the other one. Move slowly but steadily. It’s more important to get the rhythm of climbing right than to try to go fast.”
“Okay,” I say, “I think I can handle it.” Then he attaches the climbing rope. It is about twenty feet long and he attaches one end by a ring to his climbing harness and the other end by a ring to my climbing harness.
And then he explains. “The rope is for safety. If one of us should slip and fall on the ice or perhaps fall through a crack in the glacier, the other one has to hit the glacier as hard as possible with his ice axe and hold on as tight as possible to try to stop the other one from sliding completely off the edge. Understand?”
“Yeah,” I say hesitantly, “I think I understand.” It is time to go. Up the glacier. I look out into the valley below and my heart beats loudly inside my chest. Am I really going to do this? I can chicken out now. Turn around and go back. Sure, Gustavo will laugh at me; call me a sissy trekker instead of a mountain climber. But so what, my life is more important than a little loss of self esteem. Do I really have to go through with this? What the hell am I trying to prove? Oh fuck it, I’m gonna try.
Gustavo goes first. He scrambles ten feet or so up the glacier so fast I don’t even get a chance to see him do it. How in the heck? Okay, just do it. Slowly, Slowly. Quite simply, it seems to me like I have to climb up a wall of ice. In reality, there is some angle to it. It isn’t quite 90 degrees straight up and down. But still, it seems like a wall of ice. I cram my foot into the ice as hard as I can and it sticks. I then cram the other foot in as hard as possible and it sticks. Then the ice axe. Slowly, I try to climb the glacier like a ladder. One step at a time. I always make sure that at least two “legs” are imbedded. But I can’t do it right. I can’t get the timing. I slip a little a few times. I start to get scared… or I should say more scared. I think I am going to slide off the glacier. Gustavo yells in Spanish “NO Patrick, Not like that. You are working too hard. Let the axe and the crampons do the work. Like this.” And then I watch him. He makes it look so damn easy. He’s like a little wizard crawling across the snow. His two legs and the ice axe move with perfect synchronicity. It is a miracle to watch; very impressive. How in the heck? I do my best to imitate him. It works better. I don’t stumble so much. I follow Gustavo. I do as he does. Don’t look around. Don’t look back. One foot into the ice, the axe into the ice, the other foot into the ice, up, up up… Don’t look back whatever you do. Behind me is straight down, forever and ever….. To fall from this glacier and slide off is certain death. It’s hundreds of feet down to solid rock. There is no way to survive such a fall. It just can’t happen. Keep moving. Imitate Gustavo. Do like he does… It is very weird really. The atmosphere is like from another planet. A misty cloud has descended upon the mountain top and the glacier snow is bright white. Without the sun goggles I would be totally blinded. As it is, all around me is white and all I can do is focus on the little figure of Gustavo moving in front of me. The one speck of color in this blurry world of pure whiteness….. How incredibly cool….
After an hour of this, this bizarre climbing through this strange world of intense whiteness, we reach a place where the glacier flattens out. I relax a bit. I don’t feel like I might fall at any minute. But I am still worried about a crack opening up in the glacier. I notice how Gustavo in the lead prods carefully ahead of him with the ice axe, always testing for cracks. That’s the great danger in glacier climbing. Cracks open up suddenly and climbers fall through… and sometimes they can’t get out… But that doesn’t happen to us. There are no giant cracks waiting for us and we make our way across the top of the glacier. There, standing in the middle of the glacier is a towering rocky hill…. the very top. We make it to the rocks and take off our ice climbing equipment. Then it’s another twenty minute scramble over rocks to the very top of the mountain… We made it. I can’t believe it. We are sitting on top of a 5000 meter mountain (16,000 feet). How good does it feel? So good I can’t describe it. Better than anything…. the top of the goddamn world. There is no view unfortunately. The cloud has moved in and we are covered in damp wet mist. It’s cold and there is nothing to see. But it doesn’t matter. We made it. We eat some crackers and some oranges. Drink some water and try to smoke a joint in celebration. But there’s too much wind and it’s too damp, the joint is practically impossible. We only manage a few little hits. But it doesn’t matter. I am high from the climb. High as human can possibly be…. I feel like freakin’ superman…
Then, of course, we have to go down; which proves to be even scarier than the climb up. Sure, the first part is easy, across the flat part of the snowy glacier. But then, the steep part… we have to go straight down, holy shit, is it even possible? For some reason, Gustavo wants me to go first. He points the way. I look. I swear to God, Buddha, Allah and Ganesh, it looks like some kind of vision from a dream. A bright white tunnel with a black hole at the end of it. A long icy white slide with an infinite black abyss at the bottom. Quite frankly, it looks impossible. To steep and icy to possibly go down. Holy shit. I can’t do it. There must be another way. But there isn’t. I have to do it. They can’t send a helicopter up here to get me. I have to go down. And I have to go down this impossibly steep glacier that is ahead of me. I try to do it. But I just can’t. My legs are shaking with fear. I have never been so terrified in my entire life. I take a few steps. I cram my crampons and the ice axe into the glacier as hard as possible. I move very slowly… hardly at all. I keep trying to go sideways instead of going down in the direction I have to go. Gustavo keeps shouting at me…. “No, Patrick. Not that way. You have to go down. Don’t work so hard. Let equipment do the work.” I try to move but I just can’t. I am frozen solid by fear. The problem is my brain doesn’t believe it is possible. I’ve never done this before. On the way up, I followed Gustavo and therefore knew it was possible. But to go down… it doesn’t look possible. It looks like certain death… I can’t do it. I am terrified. Stuck. Unable to move. On top of a fucking mountain. Somehow, I have to manage to get off this god damn glacier….
Finally, Gustavo says, “Okay, I go first, you follow me.” And he does. And he makes it look so darn easy. Foot, ice axe, foot. He glides along. He barely stops at all. He moves like a little mountain magician, or a magic elf or something. To say this crazy little man is one with the mountains may sound a little silly or cliché’, but damn it, it sure is true. If I wasn’t so terrified, I might appreciate it even more. But to watch this man on a glacier is to watch a true master of a very special skill. I try to follow him. I do my clumsy, tall, lanky, imitation of his masterful performance. I sure don’t look pretty. But I don’t fall. Slowly, slowly, I try to imitate him as we move down the steep glacier. I refuse to look around at the surrounding infinite whiteness and I refuse to look ahead to the edge of the glacier where seemingly endless darkness is waiting to receive us if we fall. I just watch Gustavo. I just follow Gustavo. He is my guide through this terrifying ordeal.
Finally, we can see rocks on the other side of the glacier. The surreal world of surrounding whiteness with dark abyss straight ahead dims in its intensity and the form and shape of rocks can be made out. The last part is the steepest. But by now, I have more confidence. Slowly, but surely, we make it; down the ladder of snow; crampons, ice axe, and more crampons. When we finally step off the glacier onto solid rock, I let out a huge breath of air. I am so tensed up and so focused and so overloaded on adrenaline, I am just about completely insane. But when we reach the rocks, I can relax. With rocks, I am comfortable. With snow and ice and infinite falls to certain death, I am not.
We take off the climbing equipment and put it in the backpack. We give each other a few high fives and dance around in celebration. We climbed the mountain, we scaled the glacier, and we survived… The climb down on the rocks from the bottom of the glacier is arduous but does not seem so difficult. Sure, there are steep drop offs, and slim ledges, and potential plunges to certain death, but after the ordeal of the glacier, everything else seems easy. Now, as well, it is daylight and we can see where we are going. Also, shortly after we leave the glacier, we descend below the cloud cover and mist. The view is spectacular; the beautiful lake down below and the sunlight shimmering on the brightly colored rocks of the mountains. After the mountain, the whole world seems alive and intense. It’s a shame my camera is not working right. It really would be nice to shoot a few photos. Oh well, what can I do.
We make it back to camp about one in the afternoon. From four in the morning until one in the afternoon. That’s nine hours of intense, high octane, full on, adrenaline pumping exercising. Accordingly, we deserve to relax. First thing Gustavo does upon returning to camp is look up at the mountain, cross himself and say a little prayer. And then, he puts on the coffee to boil and lights up a joint….. It feels so good to have done it. I don’t know if I will ever do it again…. But it sure does feel great.
There are about nine hours of hiking ahead of us to get back to civilization and Gustavo says we can do it all the following day or split it up between this afternoon and the following morning. We decide to split it up. After our celebration of soup, sandwiches, Tang, coffee and marijuana, we pack up our camp and head back on down the trail. We hike for about three hours and camp out that night in a cave near a river… a nice spot. I listen to more of Gustavo’s stories about crazy tourists who don’t know how to climb. He congratulates me with all sincerity for my effort. He welcomes me to the group of the elite…. the group of mountain climbers. And tells me I should do it more. I don’t have the heart to tell him that I will probably not do it again. Maybe I will. But honestly, I was too darn scared. If I went through that kind of experience all the time, I’d be out of my mind… as a matter of fact, I’d probably be a bit like Gustavo…
“You know,” he says to me that night in the cave, “the only time I really feel alive, is when I’m on the side of a mountain with my pick in the ice and a wall of rock or ice is in front of me.” I think to myself…. Gustavo has it way better than most people. Most people never feel truly alive.
Gustavo also informs me that night in the cave that at least six people have died on Humboldt Mountain in recent years. He says he didn’t tell me that before because he didn’t want me to be afraid… I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before. But it seems obvious in retrospect. Of course people have died on that mountain…. it’s dangerous as hell.
We make it back to Merida the next day. And I must say that I don’t remember ever being so physically exhausted in my life. Every cell, every muscle, every bone, in my body is sore…. It was worth it though, and even the soreness feels great. Gustavo and I celebrate with reckless abandon upon our return. We drink beer for several hours at the Hotel Italia and then go out to a bar to see some live salsa music. It is weird though, Gustavo belongs in the mountains, not in the company of normal people. He spends a good part of the money I paid him for the climb on beer at the bar. He buys me beer after beer after beer. He is so proud of me that it is a little embarrassing. And then, after a while he is outrageously drunk. He runs around the bar; asks every woman to dance even if they already have dates, he tries to go up on stage and play in the band; he shouts out to everyone about how we just climbed the mountain… He is so crazy and out of control in fact that it is rather embarrassing to be with him. But I have so much to thank him for that I can’t possibly leave him there alone. Eventually, we get kicked out of the bar… Gustavo just laughs and laughs and laughs about it.
“Those people,” he says, “they just don’t understand. They can’t understand. They will never understand what it is we went through. What it is we did the last few days.”
He is right too. Most people can never understand. As a matter of fact, before my experience with Gustavo, I didn’t understand. What those crazy mountain climbers do. Every time they go out, they put their lives on the line just for fun and excitement. All it takes is once, one slip up and it’s over. Sure, Gustavo is one of the craziest people I have ever met in my life. But he’s also one of the most alive people I have ever met. And when he tied that rope between me and him on the glacier he created a bond between us that can never be broken. Think about it. It was a suicide pact. Either we make the mountain or we die together. He didn’t even know me yet he risked his life for me. And all I can say is thanks, from the bottom of my heart. He left this morning to take another group mountain climbing. He’s back at it again as I sit in my comfortable room and work on my silly little novel… Good luck Gustavo my friend… Your kind of madness is truly one of the great wonders of the world.