Short Story About Hiking Up Table Mountain “The Climb”
October 17, 2020
By: Kevin Strong
I’m gonna do it.
I know it’s crazy, but I’m gonna climb that mountain.
It’s not a real “mountain” with glaciers and a tree line. I won’t need climbing gear or a Sherpa to reach the top, but it’s still a mountain. Even compared to the mountains that surround it, it seems more of a big hill, but it’s big enough for me. I come from the Canadian Prairies, where a garbage heap with grass growing on top is a mountain to us. I’ve flown south across the border on a business trip and I want a little adventure.
Yes, this is a mountain perfect for someone like me; someone who is middle-aged and out of shape.
Am I really middle-aged? Already?
I always thought middle-age started in your late-thirties and I’m closing in on 40.
I’m always trying to prove something to myself, but constantly overestimating my abilities and limitations.
Even finding the path entrance is difficult as I troll around in my rental car. I pull over to ask some skateboarding teenagers for directions and they tell me that I can probably find the trail up a nondescript residential street. Since they live here, I wonder why they don’t know for sure because this mountain is staring every resident in the face every day. They are kind of laughing as they tell me and I’m not sure if it’s because they think I’m stupid to climb the mountain at this time of day or at my age or in my physical condition. Maybe it’s because they are giving me the wrong directions on purpose.
I drive until I see the side of the mountain and I park my temporary white gas-guzzler on the side of the street close to a path into the bushes. I pause before getting out to consider whether I am really prepared for this or not. I’m wearing jeans, a sweatshirt and runners meant for fashion (not for running). I’m alone and I don’t really know what to expect. No one even knows I am here.
Who cares? What am I afraid of?
Just do it.
I stick my cell phone in my pocket just in case.
Table Mountain still looks cool, but it appears far more imposing up close. It has a round, flat top surrounded by sheer cliffs. It reminds me of a larger version of the hoodoos in Drumheller or the rocky pillars you see in movies set in New Mexico or Nevada deserts.
The blue sky is dotted with a few clouds. It’s late Autumn, so it is a bit chilly and the sparse bushes are dry and yellow like tumbleweeds. Actually, the bushes probably always look like that because this is a high elevation desert that gets almost no precipitation.
It’s around 4:30 PM, so it should get dark soon. A co-worker told me that the hike takes around 20-30 minutes each way so I convince myself that it should be okay. Again, I make a mental note that there is no one visible on the path or on the mountain. A dog in a nearby yard barks at me as if to tell me “stay away, you fool” or “beware”. I wonder if there are any wild animals up there. So many things could go wrong.
Who cares? Am I a big baby or a man?
Go for it!
The first steps are easy. I enter a 2-foot wide path made by thousands of feet before mine. The path is made from crushed dark red rock. A nearby sign tells me that the rock is from a volcano erupting millions of years ago.
Oh, shit. Are my expensive runners going to be ruined by the red dust?
I walk on. There is a slight upward gradient, but easy enough to manage.
As I walk, I wonder if the cell phone battery is very low. I can’t remember for sure, but I think I would have enough power to make one last phone call if needed to 911 or even another call to my family to say good-bye as I lay dying.
I’ve done crazy shit like this before. Like the time I went skiing down a double black diamond ski run at breakneck speed, while extremely fatigued, at the end of my first day ever skiing and could have broken my neck. Or the time I went hiking alone in the mountains near Kananaskis, Alberta in a deserted area where I could have been attacked by a cougar or eaten by a bear. I think we’ve all had that dream where we die from some totally avoidable situation and as we die we wonder “how stupid of me” and “what a waste.” I hope this journey doesn’t end that way.
Oh, well. I’ve started, so I may as well go on.
As I walk on, the slope gets steeper and the path crisscrosses horizontally across the mountain. The path gets narrower and at certain junctions I am not sure which way represents the safe beginner’s path. I see some obvious short cuts to save hundreds of meters of walking side to side, but my legs are starting to get tired and I don’t want to climb a steeper incline, so I stay on the widest path. Two roads diverged on a hill, and I – I took the one more traveled by (as usual).
Why must I walk so far in the opposite direction from my ultimate destination? Am I even on the right path? Get real. What else would people climb up a mountain to see?
After 10 minutes, my breathing is getting heavy and I begin to sweat.
Already? I am in worse physical shape than I thought. Take deep breaths.
Maybe there is less oxygen in the thinner air at this elevation. I’m used to being 800 feet above sea level, but I am now more than a mile high.
My feet begin to drag and I trip over a few large rocks on the path. I am so lazy that I don’t even try to step over those rocks anymore; I just walk around them. I have to keep my eyes on the path now. I can’t even enjoy the surroundings anymore.
Soon, I’m really panting like a dog in the sun and I can feel my heart pounding as if it wants to leap out of my chest.
What if I have a heart attack? Will I have the strength to call 911 or will the next hiker find my corpse?
Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. They always tell you to consult a doctor before starting an exercise program and I haven’t been to a doctor in years.
I look back at the miniature model of the rental car. I am one-third of the way up and it already seems so far below. I see two people walking near the car and I hope that they are going to climb up after me. At least then, if I have a heart attack or slip and break my ankle or back, I can call out to them and they’ll find me quickly. That is all the reinforcement that my will needed. If they can do it, so can I.
I move forward; one foot after the other.
Keep on trucking.
This is way harder than a step machine or inclined treadmill at the gym, but at least I am breathing fresh air and there’s a breeze to cool me down. Well, the air is fresh except for the smell of malt in the air from the brewery below.
I’m almost halfway up and I see a small bench and a sign telling me that I am leaving the “open recreation area”. Now, I take a seat so that my shaking legs can rest while my speeding heart slows down. However, from this point forward it is clear that I am proceeding at my own risk.
It’s getting a bit colder and darker and I will have to hurry if I want to get to the top and down again safely. After a few heavenly minutes, I decide to move on.
I plod up the narrowing path and come to some areas that are slippery and hard to ascend because of the steeper angles combined with loose dust and rocks. I guess it’s time to get my hands dirty and climb like a gorilla on all fours.
I climb up some walls through a narrow crevasse and I am surprised at how easily I handle this tough part of my journey. I never was good at rock climbing on those rock climbing walls, maybe because the harness removes the risk and prevents the adrenaline and survival instinct from kicking in.
I finally reach the top only to find that I am still 700 meters away from the peak, so I walk on. There are many paths that seem to lead to the summit, so I scan them to find the one that seems to be the least distance and effort. My second wind has come and I march on at a nice pace.
Near the peak, someone has been nice enough to install concrete steps leading to the summit. The summit has a flat top and it looks like a giant helicopter pad.
As I am about to climb the steps, one of the other hikers jogs past me to the top with little effort and no sweat. I wish that I was in that kind of shape. Oh, well. At least I made it. His goals and expectations are a little higher than mine. I theorize that he may have taken a much easier route to get here up an access road on another side of the mountain, but it’s probably wishful thinking.
I make quick work of the steps too. At the top, there is nothing. No signs, benches, drink machines, or garbage cans. It looks like the inside of a volcano. All I see is dusty red sand. There are no plants and there are even a few mini-craters scattered around.
I wander dangerously close to the edge to peer down. A strong gust of wind blows hard enough to move my considerable mass, but thankfully it blows be back and not forward. My sanity returns and I crawl to the edge and lie on my stomach to look down the steep, high cliff. I realize that a fall would have been fatal (and still would be), so I back up five feet from the edge and survey the small, charming Golden town below. A few lights are on and the people in tiny cars are heading home from work for a nice dinner.
Unfortunately, there is not much of a sunset to view with all the mountains around getting in the way.
Hey, look at me.
I wave my arms wildly in the air in case anyone below is looking at the peak at this exact moment. I am certain that lots of people are looking because I have looked at the peak many times myself in the past few days and I have seen people at the top. I wanted to feel what they felt and now I am here. I feel tired. I feel proud, but lucky to be uninjured. I breathe deeply and look at the surrounding mountains. I finally allow myself to feel a tiny bit of exhilaration, but I quickly wonder how I am going to get back down.
I think about my life and how lucky I am to have a good job and a wonderful, loving family. I can’t wait to get home and see my beautiful wife and two precious, amazing kids. My business traveling is never easy on any of us.
I feel gratitude to my parents for helping me become the person I am and make a mental note to visit them when I get home. Sometimes life gets in the way of cherished relationships.
I ponder the symbolism of this climb and the steps along the way.
At what stage of this journey is my life? Am I just starting out, with little idea of what lies in front of me? Am I still climbing and striving and looking for ways to reach the summit of my career, my personal interests, my family and my marriage? Am I “over the hill”? What parts of my life have plateaued with nowhere to go but down? Once I peak in various aspects of my life, will the descent be slow and easy or hard, fast & painful? Do I always take what appears to be the easiest path? What risks would I take to reach a higher summit? Do I have the energy and ambition?
It is now much colder and windier. It is starting to get dark, so the treacherous parts of the path will be hard to see. In my fatigued state, I can easily misstep and go for a tumble.
I sit for a few minutes more and decide it is time to go. I wish I could leave a mark behind to prove that I was here. I don’t want to desecrate such a natural beauty by carving my initials in the rocks, so I go on my cell phone and update my facebook status to tell the world that I am at the top of a mountain. I casually notice that the battery is almost half full, which removes one of my worries. Then, I simply get up and walk down the stairs.
The second hiker is now arriving and both of them are at the top. It’s weird, but I thought they’d acknowledge me or say “hi”. I am sure that they do this simple climb every day for exercise, which I admire. I wonder if they feel exhilaration or gratitude for being unhurt as I did. Probably not.
I am a bit worried about my descent, so I walk close to the edge to try to find a shortcut down. Down is supposed to be easier than up, right? What goes up must come down and all that. I see several paths leading over the edge.
I explore one of them, the apparent lesser of several evils. I even climb down a small 10-foot cliff to a narrow ledge. I peek over the edge and see a sheer wall at least 30 feet high. I can’t imagine how anyone could climb up or down without proper rock-climbing gear. I am in a hurry and I foolishly think I can keep going down.
Why not? Others surely have done it. I’ve gone this far. Go down or go up? Down or up?
I shimmy down the ledge to try to find an easier way to climb back UP to where I started 10 feet above me. That tells you a bit about me. I am glad to see a few rocks to grab and use as footholds. I hug the rock close to my body and climb slowly and carefully because I worry that I don’t have the skill or strength to climb back up and I know that if I fall I will break something. In my mind, I constantly replay a movie clip of myself falling and breaking different parts of my body. It’s not like my whole life flashes in front of my eyes, but I have visions of my wife and kids during some good times back home. Motivation. My laziness and rush to get down has put me in real danger. After a few exacerbating slips, I get to the top. I feel happy, but also tired from the stress and exertion.
I walk a bit further and try another shortcut with similar results. I shake my head and laugh out loud at how stupid I am being. I am being too risky. I don’t have a harness to protect me.
How much time have I already wasted on these deadly dead ends? How much time in my life has been spent exploring dead ends and making and correcting wrong decisions?
I don’t exactly remember how I got up here in the first place. I follow the edge until I see a familiar crevasse. This terrain looks harder to descend than climb. I slip on some loose rocks and fall back on my keester, which is much better than rolling down the slope. The next time I slip and fall, I reach back to break my fall only to grab small cactus plants with both hands. Ouch! I take a few minutes to pluck out the needles, but I can’t get them all.
Going down is not as easy as I thought, so I slide most of the way on my ass. I know it is degrading and nothing to be proud of, but it is safer, especially now that it has rapidly become dark.
I get more confident with my footing as I get closer to the bottom and I actually jog down in places. I take many of the shortcuts down that I was too lazy to take on the way up.
The dog barks nearby as if to say “welcome home, you ignorant fool”.
Funny. I feel just as much exhilaration knowing I am safely at the bottom as I felt at the summit. There has got to be a guardian angel watching over me. The mini-mountain must have been in a good mood today.
I get in the car and drive away none the wiser.
I think I’ll have Mexican food with a nice green chili sauce for dinner.
* First published in the Write to Move Anthology by the Winnipeg Trails Association.
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