A strange thing happens to your mind when you push your physical and emotional endurance past its usual barriers. With me, an argument begins innocently enough with one side telling the other that perhaps it's time to reconsider. The other side then tells you that you would be weak to even ponder such an idea. This is normal enough at first, but it begins to get more and more intense and confrontational the further you push past the barriers. The two sides vying for your attention in this argument begin to employ clever tactics in an effort to sway your ever-weakening judgment and before you know it, there is a war raging in your mind.
As I climbed the second peak the two sides made what must have been hundreds of suggestions, threats, and ultimatums. "Maybe you should turn back now, just to be on the safe side. You can always come back and try again." "Sure quit now, go ahead, you always quit when things get tough." "You wouldn't be a quitter! It takes strength to be able to walk away." "You set your mind to do this and you're going to do it!" Back and forth this went on, incessantly. I kept my legs pumping, my hair soaked, sweat had saturating my clothes so that everything clung to me as if to keep from drowning. I could feel my pulse in both my neck and my head. I knew my face and chest would be bright red.
The second peak was rough, because I was already tired from climbing the first one and this one appeared to be steeper and higher. I knew how many kilometers the hike was according to the book but had not anticipated it to be such a series of extremes by way of ascent and descent. "This one is going to be enough, you've got to turn back after this! The third one is going to be the toughest of all and you're already too far behind to make the last cable car." "Just think of that feeling when you reach the top of the highest mountain around this region. How many people can say they've done that?" "What if you get stuck up here?" The battle raged on within me as I was getting more tired than usual because of the rapid pace I had been forced to adopt.
My legs were starting to get sluggish. They were now heavy and starting to ache. I now lacked the quickness and power that I had possessed only an hour earlier. My posture was starting to show tell tale signs of fatigue, I was leaning forward a little further now occasionally resting my hands on my hips as I struggled to maintain a consistent pace. My legs pumping up and down, endlessly pushing the mountain below me. I had hiked enough years to know the varying levels of fatigue. On a level of one to ten, ten being the highest I would have to say I was at about six at that point. Plenty of energy left to do any number of challenging hikes that I was familiar with already. Whether I had enough energy to finish this hike, I was not sure.
I made the decision as I neared the top of the second peak that I would turn around and go home when I reached it. I had hiked quite a ways already and I had to make the last cable car otherwise I would be stranded at the temple in the dark and Karen would be worried sick. I really wanted to do the right thing, the responsible thing. To admit defeat and turn back would be hard, it's not really in my makeup, both a strength and a weakness you could say. Agreeing to come back another time and take another crack at it soothed a part of me but also made another more passionate part furious.
I reached the top of the second peak, a plateau with high golden grass surrounded by trees with some benches and signs. One sign warned to watch for wild boars and the other pointed in the direction of Kumotori. I struggled with myself as I sat on one of the old wooden benches. I was out of breath, dripping with sweat, and my legs were weak. I removed my pack, struggled to open it, grabbed my water bottle, took a drink and ate a few dried prunes and sat in a daze, feeling defeated.
I looked at the sign pointing to Kumotori. It was too tempting, too close, I couldn't quit now. I gritted my teeth with exaggerated determination, threw on my pack and headed toward the cloud catching mountain, the direction my pride had been pushing me all along. I was aware at this point that I was taking a risk by trying to finish the journey. There was still a part of me that thought there was a possibility that I could still make the cable car, a part that wanted to believe but knew better. Waiting for me to come back safe and on time was my wife, a woman who knew me better than anybody. She knew that I would have to finish the hike, which is why she would worry so much. She knew that I was always willing to risk more than I should in order to attain my goals. Part of me was happy that I was strong enough to carry on, and part of me was disappointed that I was too weak to stop. Much more than making the final cable car home, was the empty feeling that Karen would be alone, watching the clock waiting for me to return safely.
I descended the second mountain quickly, knowing that I had to make time where I could. My legs were sore and weak and I was risking injury by hurrying but going down hill was an advantage that I had to make the most of. I went as fast as I could, stepping around rocks and over branches hurling myself down the mountain. It was exhilarating. I was relieved when I got the bottom of the valley as it wasn't as deep as the one before it. Now I was at the base of Kumotori. It was steeper than the other two mountains before it and the terrain much more challenging.
I put everything I had into keeping a quick pace. I was sure that I would be able to reach the top in time to make it close to my goal now. Along the way there was a mountain lodge. There was some activity inside and out. I could see through one of the windows that some people were putting sleeping bags on their beds for the night and another couple was outside taking a stroll. I remembered reading about this place before I came, it was like a mountain hotel for hikers who were doing the two day journey. This is the place everyone thought I would be staying before I corrected them by saying I was going to be back today. I could still see their surprised faces. I smiled to myself, my pride was encouraging me. I knew I was close now, I was right, everyone had made more out of this hike than it actually required. I couldn't wait to see their faces when I showed up at the village happily wiping the sweat from my brow.
As I made my way past the lodge a man heavily burdened with photography equipment was making his way down the mountain. Another good sign I thought, he was probably just at the summit taking pictures. I estimated he was a man in his fifties or sixties who didn't seem to be too tired so naturally I assumed the top of Kumotori was only moments away.
Half an hour later I was still hiking. My hands were resting heavily on my thighs as I slowly pushed on. My posture was now that of an old man with a terribly bad back. I felt nauseous and weak. I wasn't sure if it was something I ate or just fatigue but I wasn't in good shape. However, I was determined. I had long since passed the point of no return and there was no way that I was going to turn back now, sick or not. The air was cold now and the trees beyond ten feet were shrouded in fog. I tried figuring out over and over in my head how long it was going to take me to get back home. I thought maybe I would have to stay over night at the lodge but had to keep telling myself that I had to make it back home because Karen was waiting for me. We didn't have a phone and if I didn't show up when I said I would there was no way of her knowing where I was. I was sure she had begun to worry the moment I left that morning.
I was in a bind now. I was only moments from reaching the top of the mountain, I was hours away from the cable car, and I was dizzy and nauseous. I finally reached the summit of Kumotori. I had done what I had set out to do. I remember a friend of mine telling me of his trip to Tibet years ago. He visited Everest base camp with its heaps of garbage and people out to conquer the highest peak. I remember how troubling he found it that these people felt it so necessary to risk their lives to prove they could climb this mountain. He looked at me with a puzzled look and said sarcastically, "what have they done?" Standing atop the cold grey peak of Kumotori I found myself wondering, "what have I done?"
(to be continued)