This past weekend we finally did it: we finally hiked the glacier called Cayambe. Sitting at 5,790m at the peak, Cayambe had been our goal and our fear for the month and a half leading up to the actual summiting. It was me, three other Americans, a Brit, a French, and three guides – one of which spent a decent amount of time smoking at our base camp. We were crampon wearing adventurers with more layers of clothes than your average onion and visions of shooting stars falling like avalanches out of our eyes as we stood laughing into the foggy void the afternoon before the big hike.
Within an hour of arriving at the lake where we were camping, the sky opened up and so did my smile as ice began pouring from the sky and for the first time in my semester in Ecuador I began to feel that pale could too be beautiful. We rushed to set up our tent and I scooped handfuls of hail into my mouth, remembering what it was to be young and undamaged and content to shiver in a cave made of snow in the backyard. You do not have to be young to know that water tastes better frozen. As we piled into the tent, throwing sleeping bags and thermal rests all around, I realized that in less than a month, the people who make me laugh would be spread around the world and I will wonder if I made the right decision in choosing not to stay. Our jokes are inappropriate and immature but they are ours, and even if I am the butt of a lot of them, the people who make them make sure that they are the only ones who get to laugh at me. I think that looks a lot like love.
That night, as we lay in a row like sardines left in the freezer aisle, my friends on either sides of my wrapped their sleeping bag feet around mine and drifted into restless slumber. I, being me, found that the largeness of Cayambe and the insecurities of my heart did not permit me to sleep and I lay awake, my feet becoming numb but warm beneath the watchful gaze of my friends’, staring at the tent ceiling, wandering if any of the words I had prayed to that mountain earlier meant anything, wondering if these people I was with thought that I meant anything.
Eventually I rolled over and came face to face with Gabe and instead of hearing the babbling brook of his sleeping respiration that we all know so well, I heard him giggle and ask the question “Are you asleep?”
“No, you?” I replied.
“No.” He said.
We proceeded to fall into the kind of laughter and conversation that I thought died out in middle school when we all started trying to hide our weird and in that moment I was truly happy. We talked about the things we’ve climbed and the things we had to leave at the bottom to get to where we were. I told him about why I speak to the earth and he told me about why he wants to leave and neither of us felt ashamed for having fears. About an hour into our accidental slumber party, the earth beneath us cut our voices off as it groaned and shook itself awake. It was quick and it was subtle but it was seismic enough to make us stop and stare at one another, both wondering how fast it would take the glacier to break into pieces and preserve us in a tomb called earth forever. I was already shaking from fear of the hike but the fact that Cayambe might not want us there took it up a notch. Gabe has been around enough to know when my infrastructure is cracking so he pulled one hand out of his sleeping bag and gripped mine and I told him about what I had prayed to Cayambe that afternoon.
I have a habit, neither good nor bad, of believing that the spirits inside of this earth are not dormant or forgiving creatures. Before I hike or walk or swim, I make sure to reach out to whatever God had in mind when He placed each part of this sanctuary and speak to the skin of the earth that I stand upon. That afternoon, I went to go ask permission to summit Cayambe. It was slightly hailing and I sat on a rock ledge and closed my eyes and placed my hands on the ground. I whispered to both God and His creation in hopes that at least one or the other would hear me. I whispered to Cayambe and told him that I saw him and I respected him and I was a child of his maker. I told him that he was unconquerable and that everything we did was an attempt to witness the power of the mother earth, not to believe that we were greater than her and all her children. I told him that he was a king and that people find warmth in the freezing and that I understood what it meant for people to take weekend trips into my soul. I asked him for permission to summit, without any problems. I asked that he permit us to tread upon his body and that we make it out alive. And I asked him that if he didn’t want us there, that he would give us a sign before we even started so as not to risk injury. And I told God that His creation was beautiful and that I didn’t necessarily agree that creating man had been good and that I saw His fingerprints in the crags that we jumped across on our way up.
When that temblor rippled through our campsite, I thought it was Cayambe responding to my question. I thought it was him telling us to get out, to leave and never return, to let him grow beneath the subzero temperatures instead of shrinking beneath our harmful feet. I thought that this wrinkle on the skin of God’s weathered hands had had enough of our insatiable need to achieve new wonders, to demonstrate our dominion.
Eventually we fell asleep, probably sleeping less than two hours before Andy’s “midnight beach” alarm clock woke us up and we sat shivering with anticipation. And then we were off.
I do not know where I went to get myself up that mountain. I don’t remember what I was thinking. When I go back now, I have brief memories of songs cascading through my brain and words being repeated over and over and over. It was so much a mental battle as it was physical. It was crunchy step after crunchy step, forcibly lifting and planting our feet onto the sloping hills of frozen tears beneath us. I know that I focused on the pattern of my feet and ice axe for a very long time. Right, Axe…Left. Right, Axe…Left. Right, Axe…Left. My left foot dragged behind, my muscles begging me to sit down and stop. We had no time, we had no direction, our guides knew where we were going but us kids? It was all just a uniform shuffle into the eternity of the milky way, hoping that sooner or later we would see the sun. When we stopped, the cold began to eat at our bones, and though I shook like the rest of them, my eyes were glazed over as I thought of the self-created memories of my ancestors building homes out of the fjords of Norway. I want to believe that they would have been proud, that they wouldn’t have blacked me out of the family registry.
About 45 minutes from the top there came a fissure, a fissure not as wide as I remember but certainly the most looming part of the hike. My guide stood twenty feet in front of me with the rope pulled tight and I stood staring down the crack seeing tragic headlines from back home with my name and the words “crushed between glacier walls almost as cold as her dead, icy heart”. I realized then that the bad spirits I so often hike to leave behind, had been clawing at my ankles all the way up that mountain. My breath was stuck and tears welled and I pointed my headlight down as far as I could see knowing that if I jumped across this fissure, I would certainly die, dragging the rest of my team with me. I called out to my guide and he responded with “you have to keep moving” a phrase, had it come from Jakobo or Gabe would have gotten me across, but from this stranger seemed to paralyze me even more. I began counting down in my head from three, hoping that sooner or later, getting to one one would push me over instead of getting caught in my throat. And then I heard the sweet voice of Clementina from behind me calling “it’s okay, Hannah, you can do anything in the world” and I got to one and I jumped.
Okay I more of flopped.
I swung my axe out and into the ground as hard as possible and jammed my crampons into the ice. And I did not fall in the crack or down the mountain. When we reached a resting place completely exposed to the elements about twenty minutes after, we were almost to the top. I still had not found my breath but the near complete lack of oxygen made it so everyone else was also gasping and nobody had to know that there was a little blue monster with red wings and completely black eyes clinging onto my back with his hands around my neck. We sat and shivered for what seemed forever and Gabe told us he was going to take a nap. I thought that if I fell asleep right now, I would never wake up again.
They said we had to keep moving and left the answer to “or what else?” floating unspoken in the thin air between us. We were about 20 minutes from the top but the second I stood up I was taken back to the hospital two weeks earlier when the world had faded away from me and the floor had fallen out from under my feet. I gasped and I tried to move forward, my feet tripping over themselves and I told our guide that something was wrong. He said we were so close and Gabe told me we were so close and I kept moving even though I felt as if someone was pulling my own soul right out from between my frost bitten fingertips. I kept moving, so slowly, probably pissing of the fiercesome Clementina behind me, but I kept moving.
And then we made it to the top.
We were the tallest things we could see. There was nowhere else to go. As someone who has made herself smaller for years in order to accommodate for others’ comfort, I have never felt that big in my life and I wonder if I ever will again. I was so close to crying but I had to convince myself not to in order to not glue my own eyes shut. Gabe and his eyes that do not see himself grabbed me and kissed me on the forehead, a gesture filled with pride and protectiveness and understanding. Clementina and I high fived, knowing that we held the lead on the front for more than half the climb, knowing that the only difference between all girls teams and all boys teams is that the girls look better no matter what they do. Julia and I hugged, sharing a silent moment of “thought we would die but glad we didn’t”. Jakobo and I hugged and I felt the strength of his unbending positive spirit flood into mine and chase that blue skinned beast off my back. Andy and I hugged, tight, and I marveled at how he trusted my friendship enough to let himself be put in dangerous situation after dangerous situation and still come back at the end of the day. And when I saw the way their eyes refused to blink in case they missed it all, I forgot about every second of the hike up.
We took some photos and I stood gazing around and I knew that this was the only fix I would ever need. I would risk my life to court the spirit called Nature any day of my life.
Letting myself love these people will surely leave me flatlined on the bathroom floor when I return home. Letting myself love these people will surely leave me wanting. Letting myself love these people will surely leave me with regret and confusion and eyes that are looking continents away. These people I have fallen for will leave me.
I don’t know how I am to go home and peer outside and see the flat plains of the Midwest and convince myself that they were ever enough. I will not have Gabe’s hand to hold next time. I will not have Andy there to laugh at our inside jokes. I will not have Clementina to remind me it is good to be photographed. I will not have Jakobo to make sure I am in the right place at the right time with a smile on my face. I will not have Julia to gossip with of the throes of mankind.
Perhaps this loss will ricochet through my ribcage and stop my heart from beating, but chances are I will only feel as if it is but still will remain alive. Because loving these things – the stars, the mountains, the ice, the people, the laughter, the tears, the solidarity – in the end it will not kill us, it only leaves us wishing that it had.