Sunday, June 5, 2011

To Climb a Mountain

Outdoor sports are not my forte. There. I said it. I've always had a rather tenuous relationship with nature and the idea of exposing my vulnerable, sweaty self to it's angry bugs and biting rocks strikes me as rather unappetizing. So it was with great reluctance that I agreed to  follow my sitemates up the mountain just outside of town for one last camping trip before everyone left for summer or forever. The mountain they set their sites on isn't just any mountain. It's name is Red Goat and we have a relationship. At the beginning of the year, we hiked up Red Goat and camped on top. That trip, however, was not fun for me at all. It was nice to be with friends and the little bit of sunset we caught on the way up was beautiful to be sure. However, the three hour trudge to the top was more like a cruel and sandy reenactment of  the Bataan Death March than the lovely jaunt in the sun that it was sold to me as. I had never really done an overnight camping trip that involves hiking and backpacking to the site as opposed to driving with coolers full of beer and a bikini. As a consequence, I had no idea how to pack. Furthermore, once we got to the mountain, I had absolutely no idea how to tackle the beast. There were no hiking trails and the landscape in Western Mongolia lends itself to disguising mountains as really tall landslides of pebbles and prickly bushes. And up this distasteful terrain I had to drag both my ass and provisions for my ass. Most of my sitemates lithely hopped from rock to rock, happily creating their own switchback trails invisible to me as I struggled and lagged behind. This compounded itself with my rather frustrating weight gain amassed in the Peace Corps and years of shit given to me for being a little chunkier than my peers in school, resulting in a rather tortuous ascent. So, you understand, I received the news with frustration and sadness when my sitemates decided to return to my rocky nimisis for a voluntary round two, especially when they knew I had recently injured my ankle.

I really didn't want to go. Really. The thought of having to once again watch my friends disappear over the top of the mountain while taunting voices from my youth echoed from somewhere behind my hulking backpack made me want to either cry, take a nap or both. But I was lucky, I have Sam. The reason I didn't punk out of this whole expedition is because of him. We have been together for a few months now and he adores the wilderness in ways I cannot even begin to understand. And when, with knitted brows and pleading eyes, I told him I really didn't want to climb that mountain he looked absolutely crestfallen and promises to carry everything I needed spilled out of his mouth in his sweet Swiss-German accent. I considered taking him up on his bargain; Sam is used to this sort of thing. His family does baffling things for fun, such as hiking up a huge, snow-covered mountains with skis and all the supplies; they dump their skis half way, hike to the top, hike down and then ski the last fourth of the trip. What, pray tell, would ever posses someone to do this? But apparently it's fun. That's just how they  roll, I guess. He assured me we could go up an easier route he found, he also climbs Red Goat and times himself for fun, just the two of us. And he'd take care of my ankle. I couldn't possibly say no.

The day finally arrived. I actually found it fun packing for the adventure, thinking about what we would need in the great outdoors, tossing Swiss Army Knives, frisbees and trail mix about the apartment. In the end,  poor Sam's backpack felt about as heavy as a pregnant elephant while mine looked like something Beaver Clever might take to a half day of school. But he insisted it was a normal weight for his outdoor exploits and I trusted him. So away we went. Not to be a whiner, but actually getting to the mountain sucked. To be fair, my very athletically inclined sitemate agreed that this was the suckiest part. Red Goat is surrounded by scorching sand dunes littered with bones and broken vodka bottles; if Satan had a sandbox as a child, you can bet it looked a lot like this. Once you finally arrive at the foot of the mountain, you've spent all your energy walking though ankle deep sand and wondering what sort of animal could possibly yield a skull that strange. But Sam was optimistic and hopeful, so we marched onwards and upwards.

Delightfully, this trip was a easier than the first time. Perhaps because of my über light bag, maybe because I'm in better shape, possibly because after two Mongolian winters I'm well seasoned at sticking things out. Also, it might have something to do with my cheerleader-Sherpa who patiently acquiesced to as many water and vista appreciation breaks as my rapidly beating heart desired. It was still tough though. My pink fingernails and my soft, white forearms looked comical against the hard, brown landscape as I pulled myself up the rocks. I was cheered a little when Sam finally admitted "this route is miserable;" at least it wasn't just me. I persevered, channeling a group of recently returned veterans featured in Outside magazine who had made it to the top of one of the world's highest peaks. If a blind dude and someone with one leg could climb a peak in the Himalayas, then I could tackle this paltry hill, right? To keep my spirits up during the long hours I employed a skill I finely tuned while undulating in particularly tough Pilates classes: listing things I am good at. It might sound egotistic and narcissistic, but try it sometime when you're doing something that makes you want to throw yourself under a rapidly approaching Metro. It does wonders for the morale. I geared it towards the past two years; I figured that if I were not in Mongolia in the first place, I also would not be on that effing mountain.

I cannot: climb mountains good. While we're at it, my spelling is not so hot either.

I can: juggle naked, recognize the smell of an animal being butchered, live alone without going crazy, live with a man without going crazy, make a pie from scratch in 30 minutes, rock other culinary hardships like being creative with only root vegetables and whipping up excellent dinner parties with a serious lack of resources, handle awkward silences and power outages like a pro, fix a broken bike with roadside metal scraps and bones, make a palatable shandy out of Korean beer and Christal Lite, survive on less than $160 a month, squat pee like it's my job....

Not bad, no? Anyhoo, this little game fueled me along the rocks and between my list and Sam,  always ready to rest on a rock and hold my hand, I actually made it. The camping part was fun, as promised. We scrambled around on windy ledges, watched the sunset and ate s'mores around a fire. I even enjoyed my first night sleeping out under the stars. I was thrilled to discover that I had gotten a fair bit of sun, too. Finally it was time for our descent. I don't know if it was my readiness to get the heck off that pile of rocks or my shapely thighs working in pitch-perfect unison with gravity, but I very quickly and gracefully hauled ass down that mountain. I did pretty well, actually- better than maybe half of the group, a really great feeling. Granted I was pretty sore for days but I left that mountain feeling pretty good.

They say what doesn't kill you builds you. Whoever thinks that clearly has not talked to some of those aforementioned vets with PTSD. And while the first climb up Red Goat didn't kill me, it certainly didn't make me a better or happier person; in fact it made my self-esteem plummet and my arm pits smell raucous. But the second time was not so bad and I really do think it built me. I'm glad I don't have to do it again but I consider that last climb something akin to triumph. I went my own pace with someone who cared to support me (indeed, finding such a person is a victory in itself), reached within, girded my loins and made it to the top. Though I will still try to mold my future more after Kofi Annan than Sir Edmond Hillary, I might slowly reconsider my stance on outdoor sports. Maybe.



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