Greetings from the middle of the world,
Rucu Pichincha is an active volcano to the west of Quito, with an elevation of 15,595 feet (4784 meters). To a tourist, it is perhaps best known as the mountain with the TeleferiQo on it. The TeleferiQo is a gondola built almost primarily as a tourist attraction from which, on a clear day, you can see the entire city—or at least until the southern end of it disappears beyond sight. My host sister took me up the TeleferiQo one morning during my second week here, and as soon as I stepped out of the gondola my head began to throb and my heart began to pound from the altitude; moving was harder and I stumbled frequently. The gondola only gets you up to 12,943 feet, so when I was invited to hike to the top of Rucu Pichincha, I knew it would be hard. I had no idea how hard.
Come hike a volcano, they said. It will be fun, they said.
Twenty-eight of us took the TeleferiQo to the start of our trail. Some of us were exchange students, and some locals. In the gondola, we met a middle-aged man who hiked the mountain every weekend. “I’m back in my apartment in three hours,” he said.
“Is it hard?” we asked him. He shrugged.
Our guide, a graduate of the university, had a similar relationship with the volcano. With what we considered enough enthusiasm to scale a 15,595-foot volcano, we began to hike at 9:00 am. It was hilly and steep and our legs and lungs burned, but most of us carried on unperturbed.
After a couple of hours, the guide stopped us. “This is the point of no return,” he said. “If you want to turn back, turn back now.” From here onward, he explained, the trail disappeared, and without him, we wouldn’t know where to go. “No problem! Bring it on!” said most of us, including yours truly. My one other dear Bard compatriot here in Ecuador was hiking with me. My understanding is that I’m not supposed to use real names for these sorts of things, even if I’m not planning on slandering anyone. So I’ll call her Natalie.
Almost immediately, the path narrowed; solid ground disappeared on our right side to give way to steep grasslands plummeting down into valleys and, far below that, a model-sized Quito.
Perched atop a rock upholstered with sedum, we met a man who I’m told was famous for climbing the world’s fourteen highest mountains without oxygen.
That really should have warned me.
We very quickly stopped hiking and started mountain climbing. You may recall that as a child I had a fear of heights crippling enough to keep me out of theater balconies. Thankfully, it has improved exponentially. Nonetheless, when I am using all four limbs to climb over wet rocks with nothing but my imagination below me, it comes swooping back like a bird of prey. The girl behind me had to lift my paralyzed feet into the right position, and the man in front had to direct my hands with his own. I had memories of doomed childhood hikes. What if I don’t get across? I thought. What if I don’t keep moving? What will they do with me?
I didn’t get to find out. Both of my feet made it to solid ground and I bounded after the rest of the group, which was quickly becoming acquainted with with the bonus challenge level.
Do this little mental exercise with me. Take a beach. Any beach, really. Preferably one with sand deep enough to sink your feet into and plenty of loose rocks lying about. Now turn that beach on its side so that it is essentially vertical. Now take a generous helping of fog and spread it over the surface. Now climb it.
In a rugged single-file, we dug our shoes into the sand and tested the integrity of the rocks around us. When one failed the test, the mountainside was filled with calls of “Cuidado, cuidado!” as stones tumbled by our heads to an unknown resting place. This went on for close to forty minutes, and all the while, the air kept getting thinner.
At last the sand gave way to rocks, which we picked our way through like the hobbits on the staircase of Cirith Ungol. “Just five more minutes!” our guide kept shouting from above, every five minutes.
“An Ecuadorian five minutes,” Natalie muttered.
But that last set of five minutes did eventually arrive, and I heaved myself onto the very top of Rucu Pichincha. It was a small place, narrow and rocky. It was cold. Fog had nested over everything. Beyond the mountain peak, the world did not exist. Twenty-one of us had made it.
We had a short blissful rest, during which we could pretend that the journey was over, that we did not have to go back down, exactly the way we had come. To get down, the first task was to climb feet-first down the steep rocks at the top. The surface was vertical. We couldn’t find the handholds. Below us was nothing. Natalie started out on all fours and drifted, like a tumbleweed, off to one side to a place where there was no way down. A few feet away, I was stuck too. The two of us were clinging to the mountain, over 15,000 feet in the air, latched on for dear life like starfish, and we did the only reasonable thing: began to laugh. We laughed so hysterically that our bodies were paralyzed and our heads were light. We laughed so as not to cry. “Okay, I have to get serious,” Natalie said.
She managed to crawl over to me, at which point I began stating simply, “No entiendo, no entiendo,” to the Ecuadorian boys coming down behind us, and she broke into laughter again.
One of the boys crawled down ahead of us and took one of our hands in each of his, and walked us down like toddlers, in a manner that was perhaps just the slightest bit condescending, but entirely necessary.
The sand wasn’t nearly as bad going down; it was a surreal kind of skiing. We strode and slid all the way down to more horizontal ground.
The same five feet of wet rocks, however, were just as bad going the other way. I ended up with one foot on either side gasping desperately for air. The same boy valiantly clambered across my back and essentially pulled me to the other side.
And from there? We were free! Yes, we had at least another hour’s walk and yes, it started raining and hailing just a little, but from that point on there would always be solid ground below us, and hardly an uphill climb to speak of. Once in a while the clouds would break open and show us Quito, bright like the White City of Gondor. The TeleferiQo was a beautiful sight. Ah, a machine to do the work for us!
The famous mountain climber said that his job now is to give motivational speeches about how climbing a mountain is the same as reaching a goal. I admit there is an impulse to connect life as a whole with the experience of being so high up in the air that there is nowhere else to go. I suppose I must indulge.
If I were to guess, I would assume our mountain man’s speech talks about endurance and obstinance and individuality. Those things are important, I suppose, in reaching any goal. But my moral is different. Mine is about learning to ask for help. It would not have been possible to climb Rucu Pichincha without twenty or thirty people. It would not have been possible without a man who climbed it every week. It would not have been possible without pleading, “No entiendo,” or “Ayúdame, por favor,” and letting people hold my hand. And then there is accepting the help that is offered: saying yes to the girl who asked, “Do you want me to place your feet for you?” There is no shame in it. There is no shame in falling into the grasp of a lifelong fear and then stumbling out of it, and then into it, all the way up and all the way down the mountain. It is not a sign of weakness or immaturity. I was not perfectly calm for ever second of the six-hour hike because I am not a perfect person, but I at least stopped whimpering long enough to get to the next hard place.
I have had to learn to solicit and accept help every day here. I am used to living on a college campus, or in a trailer in the woods where all of my cooking and cleaning is up to me, and if I am sick I figure out a remedy or move on with it. But here, my food is prepared for me, my laundry is done for me, and if I am the least bit cold or confused, a household full of women rush to my side, full of worries and (sometimes unsolicited) advice. At the beginning, I wanted to reject this. I wanted to find a way to insert what I love to think of as my American individualism into an Ecuadorian homestay. And it didn’t work. We are lonely sometimes—for some of us, a lot of the time—but not all the time, and if we consider the resources available to us, not as often as we think. We cannot do everything by ourselves and be complete, or at least I cannot. It is valuable, I think, to be strong within ourselves. It is necessary. But I am coming to believe that learning to ask for help is a kind of strength too.
What’s the moral of your motivational volcano speech? I want to hear it. Post it below.
Thinking of you always,