Saturday, April 17, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Thirty-Four

Today, about three-quarters of the way to the top of Mt. Taranaki (elevation at the peak: 2518 meters), I had a panic attack. We had been climbing steadily for three or four hours (I had no watch), and it had been hardover big piles of stone, up a never-ending, 50° concrete ramp aptly called The Puffer, up and up rock-strewn wooden stairs that some poor soul kindly builtbut I had been doing better than expected, and thought I might just make it to the top.

But then we hit the scree; the orange posts marking the trail disappeared, and I faced a vast expanse of volcanic pebbles, devoid of any firm foothold, devoid of any plant to grab at. As I felt the ground give way beneath each step, I leaned further and further down, until I was grabbing at the rocks with my fingers too, clawing for a grip. I scrambled up up up, almost running to pull my lagging feet away from the sliding rocks, and stopping to catch my breath whenever I found a trench firm enough to support me for a minute. I scrambled up about two-thirds of the way to the final push, where the scree gives way to sheer rock; I could see the snaggle-toothed peak right up above me, but right here was a tiny triangular perch, a 15-inch island in a tilted sea of scree. I sat there and cried. The wind whipped all around me; I saw the stone give way, below, to verdant clefts, to forest, to farm. I could see the roof of our camphouse glinting in the sun far below. Far below.

I couldn't go up. I couldn't go down. I cried. I cried hard, for a long time. I was dizzy. I was breathing fast. I thought I would die. I couldn't move from my perch. I thought they would need to send a helicopter. I couldn't get up. Aldo was speaking to me; he had stayed with me the whole way, was waiting with me, came and held me; he told me to get up, and gave me his hand, but I couldn't move. I cried.

Then I decided that I had to get down, off that mountain, immediately. Still, I couldn't stand, so I stayed sitting. Still sniffing, still breathing heavy, I scooted down off my perch into the scree, and with one leg stretched in front to break, and the other leg tucked in to push, pushing off with my hands as well, I slid down the mountain on my bottom, refusing to stand up again until the rocks were again the size of fists, and the incline too shallow for gravity's forward effect.

I will photograph my ruined dungarees for you before I wash them.

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