by Mohammad Alsanea
It was not as dramatic as a movie scene but it was real. I was trying hard to hold onto my axe digging my boots into as much as I could find of the glaciers below my feet, attached only by a rope to a man half my size, and which I hoped to be twice my strength. I felt just like a lizard stuck somewhere along the Cotopaxi volcano (OK, this metaphor is wrong in so many ways but it’s as close as what I imagined I would look like on Google Earth that very moment).
For the few moments that followed I asked my guide to stop yelling at me and allow me just those few seconds of silence (which I truly believed at the time to be my last) and for the first time that I could remember I was able to listen. I listened to the sound of ice as the wind blows, sounding like shattered pieces of glass. I listened to myself, my inner voice, to my hopes and my dreams. I listened for the first time in a while to my own faith. It was such an experience to listen to myself detached from all the voices in my world and being able to see clearly my choices, my mistakes and my past experiences. It was a very strange feeling of calmness that came upon me in that time of fear.
Fernando’s voice slowly began to pierce into the silence as he shouted at me to keep moving. And although I don’t remember how exactly, but thanks to my genetics, I was able to stretch my legs and dig my crampons into my next step. I am not an adventurous person by nature or nurture. But in recent years I developed a habit of challenging myself. Sometimes it becomes a mistake (a nerve wrecking night walk on the dark streets of Puno) and sometimes it’s a triumph but almost always it’s a lesson and a wonderful story to tell.
Cotopaxi is one of the highest volcanoes in South America standing tall at 5,897m in Ecuador. I spent around five days in the Andean region trekking surrounding mountains, reading Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, and listening to stories of those who lost their lives attempting Cotopaxi and its surroundings. Very encouraging I must say!
At 4,800m I was enjoying my hot chocolate inside the refugio; a refuge along the trail where trekkers spend a night to acclimatize, rest and gear up for their midnight climb to the peak of the volcano. I had an unsettling feeling in my stomach as I started to get my climbing gear on and clipping the harness to my waist (a valuable piece of advice: make sure to gear up after carrying out your call of nature duties). Trekking on snow and ice is very different from what I had experienced before. I had to keep up my speed to avoid snow crashing beneath my feet and dodge dangerous crevasses while navigating for the best route against the sloping and ever shifting snow. I was also attached to my guide, which meant that I was putting his life at risk and I was barely coping with the pressure of my own life here to be able to handle another.
After almost four hours and about half way to the summit my body was aching and running out of breath. I tried to keep up, although in my mind I knew that Cotopaxi had triumphed and that I gave up hours before as I crossed the glaciers. After reaching our resting spot I asked Fernando, just as a mere confirmation to my hurting ego, if he thinks that we can make it in time before the sun comes up melting the snow below and his exact cryptic reply to me was “my job is not to get you to the peak but to get you back alive.” A few hours later two avalanches struck the area and all the trekkers had to descend leaving Cotopaxi to claim its victory.
After I left my job I noticed that people constantly gave me advice on what I should do or should have done, where to work and what not to do. And while much of the advice was well intended and few of them may be wise, I found myself in a state of static confusion. There are those who want to keep you grounded and others who want to push you off the cliff. But in the midst of this confusion I lost sight of my own self and it was in those moments that I fell back on the valuable lessons I learned from previous experiences. We have two voices: an outer voice and an inner voice. The outer voice is that voice shaped by our family, society, culture and religion. It is the voice which is logical and wise most of the time. The latter voice, however, is that voice that will let you know the truth about yourself.
Maybe sometimes we need to be pushed off a cliff, to step away from comfort, take a leap of faith, maybe dive deep into an ocean, jump off a plane or hang to the side of a volcano in order to listen to that inner voice within to know the truth about ourselves.