Baby´s First Hike

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¨But man is not made for defeat. A man can be destroyed, but not defeated.¨
-Ernest Hemingway

You may have heard this before, but for those who don´t know about my homeland, south Florida, I´ll say this: it´s flat. It sits at sea level, with nary a variance in the topography, unless you count the massive landfills. Florida is FLAT. Moreover, most of that flatness is paved. Highways, shopping centers, theme parks- we´ve made it as easy as possible to drive over the endless flatness, and as unappealing as possible to walk through it.

That´s not to say that Florida has a shortage of natural beauty. We have the Everglades, a river of grass unlike anything else in the world. I´ve walked around a bit in it- mostly, over the docks that lead to airboats- but I did try, once, on an eighth grade field trip, to hike in the Everglades. A few steps into the knee-high swamp, my friend and I climbed a tiny tree and clung to it, crying, until our teachers finally let us return to the comfort of our air-conditioned bus, where we felt much more at home. Still, I´ve always harbored a belief that deep inside this pathetic crybaby is someone born to climb mountains.

Volcan Cotopaxi

Or, this being Ecuador, volcanoes. That one is Cotopaxi, as seen from the front yard of my hostel, Secret Garden Cotopaxi. I arrived at The Secret Garden on Friday, May 28th, with the intention of making it to the glacier line of Cotopaxi on Sunday. What would I do Saturday, you ask? Climb another volcano, of course, to acclimatize and prepare for Cotopaxi.

Meet Señor Pasochoa:

The road to Pasochoa

That craggedy, mist-shrouded heap of rocks was formed about a hundred thousand years ago when the volcano exploded, showering the surrounding regions with ash and lava that made a fertile ground for the lush surrounding forest. Although Pasochoa stands higher than any European mountain, at 4200 meters, I didn´t think twice about attempting to summit it on my first real hike. After all, I´ve never climbed a European mountain, and meters are meaningless to me. From a distance, Pasochoa looked only slightly higher than our grandest landfills.

The hike begins...

The five of us- Jessica, Jan, Becky, and I, lead by Abraham a.k.a. The Young Magellan- set off from the hostel around 8:30 in the morning, o´er green fields, to the backdrop of a cool, gorgeous and relatively cloudless day.

We slipped into a misty forest, and began walking alongside a river. This was the point when I had to explain to my disbelieving self, ¨No, you are not on ride at Disneyworld. This is real. This is what they base those rides off of. This was here first.¨ I still can´t really believe it. Moss-covered branches! Cascading mountain streams! Rocks of every size, shape, and color- none of them made of flaking styrofoam!

Is this my life?

See how happy this made me? I look absolutely crazed with excitement. We all look pretty happy, standing at waterfall just before we climb up it. Remember this photo, because we won´t look so happy on the way back down, covered in mud in the gloomy gloaming. But for now: HAPPY! ECSTATIC!

The gang

For a first hike, scaling a slippery rock wall and climbing a waterfall like a ladder should have daunted me. Instead, in that old adage from the great advertiser Nike, I ¨just did it.¨ I was pretty proud of myself. I was hiking!!! Just to reiterate:

Ha! How fitting that I´m wearing a Mickey Mouse tee!

We made it through the forest and came out onto a steep path leading us to some fields where we saw spectacular panoramic views of the surrounding mountains. I watched Cotopaxi with a smug smile, thinking: This mountain-climbing business is a piece of cake. See you tomorrow, sucka.

As we started up the ridges of Pasochoa, I could feel the air thin and my energy weaken. The rest of the gang, experienced hikers all, carried on at what seemed to me like warp speed as I struggled to muster enough strength to place one foot in front of the other. The dogs from the hostel had come along, and were running circles around us- up the mountain, down the mountain, startling a probably endangered bird from his roost in the tall grass. Struggling to breathe, I sat down in the grass and tried to calm myself with the view.

My sister has a life philosophy (with a matching tattoo) called ¨Reel It In.¨ Basically you can keep the future at a distance, imagining what it will be like as you walk down a sometimes treacherous path towards it, or you can cast your line way out, hook that future you want, and reel it in.

I think that hiking is a tangible and visceral way of practicing the art of ¨reeling it in.¨ The first time I went to Ecuador, in 2008, I was blown away by the mountains we passed on our drive from Quito to the Amazon. I spent most of the car ride with my face pressed to the window, barely suppressing an urge to bolt out into the open and run up those mountains to stand beneath the waterfalls I could see trickling down. This time, I vowed, I will GET THERE. I will be inside those places. I will make them real.

I soon realized that running up the sides of a 4000+ meter mountain is physically impossible for someone like me. Did I mention I´ve spent my whole life at sea level? Despite the rising panic at my inability to breathe, and feeling like a jerk for slowing everyone down, I got through the brief moment where I considered quitting and decided that I´d cast my line this far. I could feel my hook scraping the summit of Pasochoa. And by Zeus, I was going to reel that future in!


I DID IT! I summitted my first ever mountain, and I was suddenly filled with so much energy I thought I might do a backflip. Instead, I followed Basil´s lead, and rested a bit as I took in the surreal plant life and otherworldly mist.

Basil at rest on the summit of Pasochoa

A word about Basil: if I was Santiago, engaged in my most epic struggle yet, then Basil was The Boy, not always present, but always in the back of my mind, bringing me strength. When I was panicking, Basil was at my side, or actually, climbing onto my lap, offering me the scraps of his endless energy. Please Basil, I said silently, my head buried in his fur. Please give me some of your energy. And he did.

Summit of Pasochoa

Up there, things were fantastically vivid. The future was even more glorious than I had imagined!


And then the clouds cleared, and we could see all that was below.


The descent story is not so pretty, but now that I´m remembering how wonderful it was to reach the summit, I feel less like telling that disgraceful tale. Basically, Young Magellan had only been on the hike once before, and we got lost. It was a dizzying and maddening hour of tracing and retracing our steps, making a zigzag over the mountain that exhausted me physically and mentally. I was tired, I was angry, I was hungry, and I didn´t trust our guide, the poor thing.

Our misstep did lead us, however, to a band of wild horses.

WILD horses: Stand-off!

WILD horses

WILD horses

The local legend has it that those horses are so wild, they cannot be tamed. See that road the horses are standing on? That´s the road we were supposed to stroll leisurely down, back to the hostel. But Magellan didn´t know which way we were supposed to go. So, when he told us we would be going back the way we came- down waterfalls, down steep rocky cliffs, all under the threat of a thunderstorm- I actually thought that taming one of the horses and riding it back to the hostel sounded easier.

What followed was a slow and arduous descent during which I was mostly crying and hyperventillating. I kept moving, but just barely. Magellan, trying valiantly to calm me and show me the way, slipped from a rock wall and landed neck-deep in the river below, only narrowly avoiding jagged rocks. It was a horrible time for all. We had now missed lunch and afternoon snack, being about four hours overdue at the hostel. We knew the others would be worrying, and rightfully so, I thought. It was getting dark and every path we took through the forest seemed to end in an impassable gorge. We decided to wade through the river, which was freezing of course. Man, it was terrible.

When we finally reached the clearing, we all shouted in victory and our spirits lifted immediately. We stumbled out onto a hill, and we could see the valley below, where our hostel was.

What we saw then was magnificent, so fleeting that I didn´t have the chance to take a photo, and almost impossible to describe. We´d reached the valley at the last possible moment of sunset. On the fields, soft golden pools of light fell in patches. It didn´t look like light falling on fields, however. It looked like the curtains on windows in the ground had parted. It´s sort of how I picture the windows of English homes as seen by Dickensian street urchins, watching from the darkened street, awed by the warm glow of a happy family milling about in the firelight. In the most primitive, the most basic, and the most moving sense, the word for what I saw for those few precious seconds in the burning fields must be: home.

And there we were, greeted in the driveway by the owner of the hostel and a volunteer, who nodded serenely, accepting our continued existence. We sat by the fire and warmed our aching bodies as everyone asked about the trek. I spoke openly and apologetically of my cowardice and near-defeat on my first hike. And someone asked, ¨So, do you think you´ll ever go hiking again?¨

The answer is: HELL YES! I didn´t make it to Cotopaxi (see you later, sucka) but I see now what the hype is about. I saw that mountain, macro focus, and I brought it into micro focus. I reeled it in. And now, if you will, I´m hooked.


Written by Sam Kelly

June 9, 2010 at 1:45 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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