Putting Loved Ones in Danger

Usually when a person summits a mountain or a volcano, the lessons they learn are rooted in the journey to the peak. These lessons have to do with physical and mental strength. I have conquered many different mountains and volcanoes around the world and the experiences have always served as a reminder of what I am capable of. When I found out one of my best friends, Rocky, was visiting Mexico City, I decided it would be a cool idea to take her and my girlfriend, Britt, to the top of Nevado de Toluca. Just 1 and a half hours outside of the city, it stands as the 4th tallest volcano in the country. Considering that I have successfully hiked to the top of Nevado before, I never could have imagined the experience we were to have.

As an individual who is obsessed with details, I made sure that we were well prepared. I told Rocky what gear to pack and I took Britt shopping for her first experience hiking. We then went and bought food to keep us sustained during the journey. I was expecting it to be 4–5 hours in total. The morning of, we woke up at 4 am and drove to the volcano. We arrived just as the sun was peeking over the horizon. I was hoping it would warm us up quickly as it was very chilly. By 7 am, we were ready to begin the hike.

We joined hundreds of other people who visit the volcano to walk to the crater and see the lakes down below. Although you can feel the altitude, it is not a difficult walk. To your left, you see sweeping black volcanic rocks. To your right, the hills illuminated by the rising sun. The sky was perfectly blue and I was feeling good about what we were about to embark on. We reached the crater and took the view in. I pulled out my binoculars and scanned the breathtaking landscape. I saw some people hanging out by the lake and 2 groups of people attempting to summit the peak. I explained to Britt and Rocky the route we would be taking to go up and the route we would be taking to get down.

Most people only visit the crater. Even less go down to the lakes. An even smaller amount actually attempt to summit the peak. We knew what we came to do so we began to head down. The sun’s light was now extending across the many crevices and ridges of Nevado. Layers were starting to come off. We were all talking about hiking/climbing documentaries we had seen before. Some with triumphant endings. Some with tragic endings. When a person decides to hike, they obviously never expect it to end tragically. This is why you prepare. However, that does not mean it will not be dangerous.

Britt, Rocky, and I cruised past the gleaming lakes as we approached the true beginning of the journey. In my mind, this hike consists of 3 parts. The first part is a steep incline made up of loose gravel. If you have experience hiking, it is that frustrating part of volcanoes where it feels like you take 2 steps forward and slide 3 steps backwards. The second part involves some bouldering and the actual peak. From what I remember from my first time, the rocks were large, easy to grip, and mostly stable. There was also a bit of snow. The third part consists of the volcano ridge and the steep decline where you descend (or ascend if you are crazy).

I connected to my speaker, put on some tunes I like to listen to when I am hiking (Fleet Foxes), and we began part 1. I zigzagged up the steep incline trying to conserve energy and stopping periodically to make sure the girls were okay. It appeared as if they were struggling a bit with the altitude but otherwise they were doing well. We reached the top of the incline and decided to take a break. Although it’s just the beginning of the climb, you are rewarded with additional views of the surrounding park and Mexico. Other volcano peaks and tall green pine trees. We had caught up to one of the groups I saw with my binoculars. They too were taking a break.

We began part 2. I made sure to tell the girls what to expect and to feel the rocks with both their hands and feet. I love bouldering. It makes me feel like a kid on a playground again. Swinging from the monkey bars to ascending the rope ladder made you feel like a climbing expert. The difference is as a kid you beef up your climbing abilities in your mind and on Nevado there is no padded floor to cushion your fall. There is also some technicality to the climbing. I was leading the way and the girls were right behind me. Things seemed fine until suddenly they weren’t. Did I veer off path? The moment I realized things were not as they should have been was when Britt and Rocky started using words filled with doubt, such as can’t or I don’t know. This doubt ended up crippling their confidence and climbing capability. We were on a steep rock face, we had just reached the snow, and the clouds had rolled in earlier than usual, limiting our visibility.

The girls could no longer ascend without my help. They started breathing heavily and panicking. So the focus turned to telling them where to place each individual hand and foot. At times, I had to extend a hand and pull them across and over ledges. I helped Rocky past me first and she decided to keep pushing forward as she did not like where we were at on the volcano. I started to guide Britt. She shut her eyes trying to remain calm and block out all the negative thoughts. As I was helping her, Rocky shouted that she was stuck and could not go up or down. I told her I would get Britt to a safe place first and then come for her. I eventually got Britt to a flat rock where she could sit and decided to climb around to guide Rocky from above. I told her she had two choices: up or down. But she was frozen, both literally and figuratively. I then climbed all the way back around and decided to help her from below knowing full well that if she slipped and fell, she would take me out along the way. I looked to the right where Britt was to see if she was watching and she had her eyes closed and was taking deep breaths. How did we get here? Fortunately, I was able to get Rocky out of that spot and to where Britt was. We continued the journey.

Having to fight my own fears, feeling the doubt of the girls, and practically yanking both of them up the volcano on my own strength left me exhausted. It required intense focus and it felt as if time did not exist. It took us about 1 hour and a half to ascend 30 meters. But we overcame those obstacles and eventually reached the peak. We looked at each other in disbelief. Many negative thoughts came to my mind during part 2. Will we have to be airlifted? If someone slips and falls, what do we do? Should we turn around? As soon as these thoughts creeped into my mind I forced them out immediately. We had no choice but to continue and to be precise with our movements. And I could not show any type of doubt or weakness because I knew the girls needed something to trust in.

Part 3 did not feel as daunting because of what we had just experienced. Although the girls were a little traumatized, they were now able to move on their own again. The snow started to disappear and we were hopping and skipping along giant slabs of rock. But traversing along the ridge felt like a lifetime. I felt bad for the girls and sorry that I had put them through that. All we wanted to do was get off the volcano. In my opinion, going down is always the most difficult. Not because it is challenging from a climbing perspective but because you are already exhausted and ready for the experience to be over. The girls scooted down the volcano on their butts and we finally made it to the bottom. We could start to process that we made it out and that nothing had gone wrong.

In total, it took us 8 hours. To say we were running on fumes is an understatement. We drove home and planned dinner at an Italian restaurant. Truffle pasta. Sweet potato Gnocchi. Mushroom ravioli. One of the best meals we have ever had. I looked around feeling a bit strange that we were back in the city and that nobody around us had a clue what we had just experienced. It was something that bonded us together and made us realize lots of things.

There are two main things I take away from this experience. First, the craziest part of this journey was not the hike itself but realizing that I put my girlfriend and best friend in danger. So many things could have gone wrong. Although it was not my intention, I felt incredibly guilty. Since I was guiding the trip and they had never been, they were my full responsibility. I believe I took care of them and kept them as safe as I could, but we should not have been in that situation. I am thankful we were all okay. And I am grateful that they put their full trust into me.

This leads me to the second takeaway. Trust. It is a very powerful feeling and tool to bring people together. The only reason we walked away unharmed is because we all trusted each other. I trusted them to be able to make the necessary moves to keep ascending and they trusted me to pull them up and guide them through the experience. To have trust requires vulnerability and courage. And that is ultimately what carried us up and down the volcano.

I love you Britt and Rocky!

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