My Cheryl Strayed Wild Moment
Once upon a time I thought I could hike two volcanoes in two days and then I threw up in a bamboo forest, got a really high fever, and hallucinated a fox.
I’m just kidding, there is definitely more to that story.
I made the decision a couple weeks ago that I was going to try and tackle the Virungas, a group of old volcanos in the Kisoro District of Southwestern Uganda. I decided that on Friday I would try Muhabura, with just me and a guide, which summits at about 4127 meters (13,540 ft) over the course of a 6 kilometer hike. And Saturday I would try Sabinyo, which has 3 peaks, a final summit at 3669 meters (12,037 ft) over the course of an 8 kilometer hike, and I would attempt it with a group of friends.
I knew it would be hard, that it was kind of stupid, but I wanted the challenge. Oh, and I was terrified.
Friday morning I woke up, packed my bag, and met my boda. He drove me in the dark to the base of the mountain which was seriously creepy, all you could see was the shadow of this huge volcano in the fog. I hiked briefly up to base camp, met my guide, grabbed my bamboo stick, and we were off. About 15 minutes in I immediately regretted this, my lungs felt like they were shredding, but I kept going. Somehow I made it to the first rest hut, ate my dried fruit and chapatti and continued knowing the hardest part of the hike was still ahead. The terrain had changed dramatically from a lush green, muddy forest to hard, steep volcanic rock. We climbed and climbed and although my body was fatigued I could surprising breathe just fine. The temperature dropped, the wind started to blow stronger and next thing I know I am about 10,000 ft up in the middle of a freezing rain storm. I had stopped climbing almost at the second rest hut, it was below freezing temperatures, I was wet and tears started to fall from my eyes. The guide looked up the mountain and saw the storm was still coming over the top and the summit would be even worse, hiking down would be very dangerous. So we turned around.
At first, I felt defeated. I didn’t summit so what was the whole purpose of this trek? I swore I had the word ‘FAILURE’ tattooed across my forehead. The guide had to hold my hand 75% of the climb down. I asked if he had to do this for anyone before and he assured me he has carried people down the mountain before. (Side Note: The guides are not your ordinary tourist guides. They wear camo, carry guns, hike the volcanoes 3x a week, and go through extensive paramilitary and wilderness training.) On the very long way down, a thought crossed my mind… exactly one year ago on that very day I was in an operating room getting my ankle fixed after I had shattered it. I had felt the same defeat then as I was feeling in that very moment. I was letting my ego and my very stubbornness get the best of me once again.
I made it back to town 8 hours later, ate a very large meal, and crashed in bed.
My friends were hiking Sabinyo the next day and I had my permit ready to go, so why not try?! I woke up feeling a little sore, a little tired, but I could manage right? (Hint: I was wrong) I got to the base of the mountain with the group and set off through the bamboo forest. Each step felt surprising taxing. Each step made me more and more nauseous and dizzy. A tourist from Ireland, Ben, who joined our hike with his buddy stayed behind me the whole time. He gave me his hiking stick, was really cool when I threw up and made me drink gross electrolytes. He even played the country alphabet game to get my mind off of feeling so horrible. (If anyone knows a country that starts with ‘W’ or ‘X’ please let me know.) I finally made it to the first rest hut and knew I had to go back. I really had no other choice as the tree stumps were turning into animals in my mind. (Yes, I was hallucinating.) I did see three, REAL golden monkeys, a few mountain buffalo and 2 really big earth worms.
I made it back to my hotel, took off my clothes and fell into bed shivering. I had a high fever, I was nauseous, and my head was pounding. Here, you take fevers very seriously so I went to the clinic and got tests. Everything was fine besides the fact that I was severely dehydrated and had altitude sickness. A day or so later I recovered, but realized how dumb attempting two volcanoes in two days really was.
So, what are the lessons? There are ALWAYS lessons:
- Ambition is good, but ambition + stubbornness = you may fall off the mountain.
- When someone offers help, TAKE IT. From the guide holding my hand for hours, to the tourist helping me up the mountain, to people offering to drive 3 hours to make sure I am okay… I have realized that putting up walls serves no purpose. Stay open, let people in, say yes to help. It may save your life, in ways you may not even notice.
- A healthy relationship with fear is good, but listen to your gut when it tells you to turn around.
- Stop and take a moment to appreciate where you are right now and how far you’ve come.
- Your breath is a very important and powerful tool. Train it just as hard as you train your body, as you train your mind. It will get you through high altitudes, high fevers, and just about everything in between.
- Life lessons will ALWAYS come back around; if you didn’t understand them the first time you may learn the second time (or third.. or fourth)
- Mother Nature takes no prisoners. She is powerful and fascinating and one of life’s biggest teachers.
Ever since then getting on my mat has been difficult. I crave a yoga class more than anything. My focus has been MIA. I am constantly thinking to the future, instead of what is right in front of my face. But that’s the practice, right? It is up and down. Sometimes it feels amazing and sometimes staying in child’s pose for 10 breaths seems like an eternity. But I am practicing, teaching, reading, breathing, all the things even in small doses.
I miss this time of year in Pittsburgh. Everything is always changing, fall is coming. I miss you all.
Until next time, from rainy season in Kabale town,
Below are pictures of me in the field, happy as a clam, not dying on a mountain...