I am a different person, with a new prize in my bag. My physical appearance remains the same (besides a few more muscles in my legs), and one would probably not notice any difference simply by looking at me. My face has not changed, but if it were possible to peer in to my mind and travel to that one spot that took the brunt of the climb, one could see the beginning layer of a callous forming over the once soft-spot. A new page from my little brown book is full, which documents our hike up A’ Ghlas-bheinn, the friendly munro of the Kintail Mountains.
A’ Ghlas-bheinn is a rough one at first, but in the end she softens up and becomes a friend. It’s a tough-love kind of relationship. She doesn’t befriend just any one, only the ones who can make it over her rocky hills and up her snowy sides. Sometimes she’ll throw a curveball and hide a wide stream below her thick layer of fresh snow, shooting legs down and into the caves of her side. At times, her Creator added to our task, sending sharp headwinds and snow pushing against our climb. He listened to our cries and kept us safe, but she would not hear them, keeping us on our toes the whole time.
The six mountaineers began in the wee hours of the morning. Still dark, we could hear the stream by our bunkhouse, but could not see the mountains that lay ahead of us. We walked at a quick pace with our backpacks, which contained only our sustenance and absolute necessities for the day. Extra weight is not good, especially on the feet! As the walking progressed, each step began to feel more and more like walking on hard stone (the soles of my boots), while lifting heavy weights (my boots themselves). Despite this, my mind and body were still fresh, and I was thinking positive, exciting thoughts. The feeling was still so new, and I was excited to be so small staring up at the monsters surrounding me. The sights were beautiful and are now burned in my mind forever. These brown and rocky, massive giants were real and before me, ones that had only appeared in my dreams before. The morning was rather grey, and the mist covered the top of the snowy mountain tops in the distance.
I am conditioned for the flat-land walking from my home-state Louisiana, and about an hour into the hike, my body was understanding the stark contrast of terrains. The meaning of the word “uphill” took on a new meaning for me as my feet slugged along. I wouldn’t allow the discomfort to affect me, although I did have some thoughts of concern of what was to come. Curving up the hairpin turns into the lairs of A’ Ghlas-bheinn, we began to see signs of crispy snow on the ground. As I realize now, safe inside my flat, those thin layers of snow were minute signs of the blizzard that would surround us later on in the hike. Still enthusiastic and ready for anything, we began walking in thick snow. I began to fall behind the gang, but luckily, my trusty mountain buddy, Shinto, was at my side. He kept me laughing as we chanted words from a Robert Frost poem, “The woods are lovely dark and deep, but I have promises to keep.”
The snow under our feet began to thicken (at least to 10 inches), and the temperature began to drop. After adding a top layer of clothes on my body, my instincts told me the real hiking had begun. My legs were beginning to feel burning sensations, and my breathing was becoming short. I could feel pain on the inside, but I tried with all my might not to display it on my face. I knew that if I did, my feelings inside would only begin to feed off of my expressions on the outside. I am not sure which climb was the hardest, but I hoped the first snowy climb would be. It would not be, however, as I realized we had only covered the first of four half-summits (smaller mountains) that lie ahead. We made it to the top of the first and took pictures of the amazing view. It was breath-taking, and I was happy to be so tall staring out at mountains covered in snow. One slip, and I could be gone forever! After a short break, we were off again. The pros were trekking ahead of us, and the sight of four bodies and backpacks became a familiar sight for Shinto and me. Caroline, Jana, Orel and Joe displayed a comforting sight as they lead us, and I felt safe with them. However, my mind was starting to wander around my painful thoughts, but I kept steady. In a case where our voices could be heard over the loud winds, one may have heard from us prayers or yelling spouts of grief to one another. Even though it was tempting to think about the enormity of the mountain, I learned to concentrate on each step, one at a time. When even each step was too much to think about, I let myself cry a little to sooth the pain. Well, I say, “let myself.” What I should say is- “I couldn’t hold back my tears any longer!”
THE SUMMIT. My first summit! We were there, and we had arrived all in one piece. We had conquered the highest point: 918 meters! A’ Ghlas-bheinn crowned us mighty troopers at this point, but I still had the feeling that she did not consider us friends. After a short celebration and pictures (gritting my teeth in fake smiles), we put on our crampons (metal spikes that strap on boots for the icy declines). If not for Joe’s help, this would have been an impossible task for me because my hands were completely numb from the freezing wet gloves. With ice axes in hand, we dug our heels into the sides of the mountain for the decent.
I was thankful to be going down, this time with gravity on our side. Caroline taught us to dig the sides of our ice axes into the snow in case of a slip. Sometimes I felt like my backpack would cause me to topple over the side of the mountain, but I wasn’t scared. At this point, any thing was better than uphill! To change it up a little, Shinto and I would sit and slide some of the way down, making sure we were clear of any rocks poking out. We landed safely and after eating a short lunch, we were off again.
A question had come up, and I faced a crucial decision. We were to either take one path which led to the beautiful waterfall, or we could go the opposite direction which would lead us home. The Falls of Glomach, or home? The path to the waterfall would add at least two hours to the trip and would require us to hike down a hill and then all the way back up. It was critical to do this in a timely manner, as dark would fall soon. I thought out loud and was a little hesitant, but when Orel described the waterfall as “not the biggest waterfall, but the most impressive,” my mind was made up. I must say, looking back, I made the right choice by spending the extra two hours! However, I did experience my second cry of the day as I plopped down on a rock at the top. I was less conscious this time, and I didn’t care about hiding my tears. “This is the hardest day of my life,” I said aloud.
The rest of the way home consisted of a two-hour downward/easy-descending walk, filled with casual, sporatic chats among each other. The bunk house was so close, even though it seemed like a lifetime away. The day was darkening and we passed by the little white spots of sheep grazing on the side of the trail. I sometimes stopped and looked back at the mad mountains behind me. They appeared to be moving, almost resembling a liquid sloshing around in a glass. This was the first time I felt a calm gesture from A’ Ghlas-bheinn. She was saying good-bye, and she was my friend. She had been there with me the whole time as I struggled up her sides, and she was proud of me, an amateur hiker, for completing her challenging task.
HOME! Our little white bunkhouse was a gleaming sight for our sore eyes. We left our distant cries in the wild, and inside we dined on wine and spaghetti, next to a mighty fire in the hearth! I felt so loved by God, and I felt so thankful for everything. I loved life, and I loved my hot shower, and I loved my pajamas, and I loved my friends! The 13 mile hike was worth it.
A stronger girl, a journey long. Never giving up, a lesson learned.
Searching for the tallest mountain – Linden Ory Uter, February 11, 2011.