07 May 2015

Heaven + Hell

Hallgrímskirkja -- one of many churches in the heart of Iceland's capital -- was similar to les pitons of Saint Lucia because both commanded one's attention.  There was no turning away from them, no pretending they didn't exist.  They made a cameo on every postcard and dominated the heavens for miles.  12.4 miles to be exact. From highway 41, Hallgrímskirkja superseded all the buildings; from Tjörnin a.k.a. The Pond its chiseled tip broke up the skyline.  Wherever in Reykjavík I was, I caught glimpses of its stoic, honeycombed steeple rising 243 feet a.k.a. 75 meters.
At the end of Skólavörðúr [street], Hallgrímskirkja stood alone, resembling a rocketship poised to blast off with stone flames fanning out on each side.  The worn, Ash Gray rock made the flat lawn look greener. The hour markers glistened in the muted daylight.  Welcoming guests at the head was a striking statue of Leif Eriksson. The church was internally pedantic but externally a regal homage to the country's most famous poet.

* * *
"She never wanted anything she could have. She always wanted what lay beyond her possession, that she'd desire; that she'd allow to cut away at her thoughts; her persistent wonderings of just how it could elude her. For that was what challenged her and she thrived on the thrill. She'd stun a room with her entrance turning every head but one, yet it'd be only that reluctant pair of eyes that she would seek."
-- Shakieb Orgunwall

Why Petit Piton a.k.a. Little Peak?  Because the highlighted text in a guidebook deemed it "illegal" but only because there was no definable trail.  Because she was there. Because the rumors on Trip Advisor claimed she was impenetrable. Because she only required one more hour than the already strenuous Gros Piton a.k.a. Big Peak at 2,579 feet.  Because she laid in wait, taunting me during dinner. My interest was piqued the moment I read the blurb about Petit Piton in the guidebook.
Having completed the onerous Norwegian hike to Preikestolen a year ago, I already knew besting Petit Piton would be considerably more challenging since the trek was taller vertically [at 2,425 feet] with less lateral distance.   In chatting with a local, I learned less than 2% of visitors to set foot on the verdant island of St. Lucia made an attempt.  Even less was the percentage of people that could wield the title of breaking her (like a sexy Mazarati or brave ocean-liner, Petit Piton must be female). 

Acknowledging I was sorely unprepared for the task at hand, I trained.  I spent more & more time on the elliptical's "Hill Climbing" program at my gym. I made healthier choices at home.  I upped my rock climbing regiment until I was cruising up 50 foot walls.  However, when I finally cast my eyes on les pitons a.k.a the peaks during my plane's final approach, I felt bilious.  Les pitons didn’t blend in with the island's already hilly landscape.  Protruding from the turquoise sea, they were pointier and indubitably taller.

My entire, week-long stay only heightened the anxiety of hiking Petit Piton (pronounced “Peh-tee Pee-toh”).  Each day I lost muscle I had previously toned.  Each day I shoveled cocktails & plantains down my throat, adding more weight to haul up the mountain. Each time I drove into the former French capital of Soufriere a.k.a. Sulphur in the air, I cringed at her toothy presence.  While night snorkeling, the half moon’s light illuminated les pitons' black silhouette. One or both of them would creep into frame during a leisurely drive. They selfishly blocked watercolor sunsets. I couldn’t escape them even when I wasn’t in the Soufriere vicinity for Saint Lucia’s flag donned stylized pitons and the national beer was emblazoned with them.  But even on the bière a.k.a. beer bottle, shorter Petit Piton captured your eye.

My second day in the West Indies, I was surprised with a helicopter tour of the island that only confirmed the death-defying heights les pitons reached.  Oh, that tree that’s a speck on the mountainside?  Yes, that’s a tree six times taller than you, so let that scale sink in.  Whilst snorkeling Superman’s Flight – a flourishing site at Petit’s base – I surfaced for a moment to adjust my mask. I had been engrossed in the creatures under the sea, and missed the imposing fortress of rock ahead of me. She was so lofty that I couldn't view her summit regardless of how much I craned my neck toward the blinding sun.
(fast forward to 06:40)
For landmarks as in-your-face as les pitons, finding a qualified leader proved tricky.  Due to Petit's exposure, non-existent path, unrealistic steepness, and Saint Lucia’s frequent pop-up thunderstorms, you did not want to be caught upon her without an expert.  Indeed, it seemed everyone on the island knew “someone” – by seven degrees of separation, often -- who could lead the hike: a dive instructor’s cousin; the server’s roommate; that scrawny boy over there, yeah, his brother.  But when I listened to their résumé (“Yeah man, I’ve been to the top four times”) I made a mental note to never call that villager. 

Since day 1 in Saint Lucia I asked any local who heckled me (& there was a multitude!) about hiring a guide, but here it was day 5 of 8 and there still wasn’t even the prospect of one!  I journal-ed that the prognosis was bleak, but God brought Meno & I together.  When Meno (pronounced “May-no”) overheard me questioning yet another native about Petit Piton, he proclaimed having climbed both pitons more than 500 times! I came on quite aggressive toward Meno: Give me your phone number. How soon can we go? Why don't I call you to confirm? Where do I sign the waiver?

In reality there was no waiver because – again – hiking Petit was totally aleatoric. There need be no fine print.  You were taking your life into your own hands & a moron with one eyeball and half a brain cell could comprehend that with a glance. No tour company nor cruise ship planned excursions to her, unlike Gros Piton. Whereas Gros resembled a placated mound -- plump and almost conical -- Petit was menacing with her jagged spine, sharp horn and sliced edges.  She exuded trouble.
My last day in Saint Lucia & the morning of my scheduled trek with Meno, the weather appeared promising. Half of my heart wished it was pouring so that I would have a veritable reason for not attempting Petit Piton.  I arrived early to our agreed upon meeting point, but as 06:00 passed, I secretly delighted that Meno would be a no-show.  That morning, queasy with nerves, I resigned -- no, I convinced -- myself of being perfectly content attempting Gros Piton... just not Petit.  Anything but Petit. I sought her out so diligently since my arrival & now, I was ready to instantly abandon my cause!

Much to my dismay, Meno found me. "Merde a.k.a. Shit!" I thought, "I really have to do this."  I already accepted that I -- more than likely -- would not make it to the top.

Anticipating a travail, I was outfitted in sturdy boots, a DriFit t-shirt, and compression pants. I loaded my Camelbak with fluids & snacks.  When I saw my veteran leader I wanted to burst into laughter, the kind that stems from utter disbelief. Meno was a scrawny man with intermittent gray hairs, and wore a mesh basketball outfit & tan, plastic sandals that I used to play dress-up in as a child.  The man was planning on hiking 2,425 feet in what he lovingly referred to as “duh jellays” a.k.a. the jellies! I gawked at his supplies... or lack thereof: an orange.  No liquids, no backpack, no workout attire!  Just an orange.
I drove us to the base of the mountain and parked the car in an entirely empty lot.  Not a soul was in sight. We were the only lunatics silly enough to think we could break Petit.  Within minutes of transgressing through the dense and clingy brush, I laid eyes upon the limitless stone tower that was Petit Piton. Stricken with absolute fear, Meno lead the way.  Up, straight up.
No exaggeration, within minutes I was winded, my heart pounding in protest. Within 15 minutes, I was drenched in sweat and sensed the lactic acid accumulating in my legs. With many furlongs & hours remaining in the journey, I was surprised & concerned at how swiftly I reverted to self-preservation mode. I rationed myself to just enough water to wet my mouth.  I purposefully zig-zagged and made smaller steps to conserve energy.  Above the villa rooftop where I ate dinner & studied Petit yesterday, the light-hearted conversation between Meno & I flowed and I was still chipper.  However, I knew it was too premature to determine whether I would make it to the top of Petit.
Meno's pace was steady... but so was Petit's invectiveness.  Her incline never faltered from a pain-staking 85º.  I frequently voiced that we pause so I could test my blood sugar.  It was wise and the truth, but also served another function: I needed and desired a break. I did not want to exert myself too much, too early. I dragged the testing process out as long as possible to voraciously savor my time resting, the way a prisoner would her last homemade supper, knowing that basic need would be snatched away too quickly.    Stretching my legs out or propping my feet up to relax was out of the question. Petit forced me to sit alone. My buttocks occupied a tiny slab of rock while my lower body dangled limply. 

Meno offered to tow my Camelbak but I declined.  Everything within it -- consumable & inedible -- related to my chronic condition.  They were my supplies & being Diabetic was my burden to bear.  Burdensome it was, but I refused to pawn the responsibilities off onto another person.

Back to the grind, Soufriere sunk and I recorded "almost halfway I was feeling okay." I focused solely on foot placement because the journey was so strenuous.  I tried to talk motivation into myself by comparing this to stair-stepping at the gym... but who was I kidding?  That was a stark understatement.  Thank God for the plethora of tree roots and sturdy rocks.  Without them, I knew with certainty that ascending Petit would be impossible. One fall and you'd be a goner, into the blue sea forever.
Meno & I pressed on, although at the time I did not  know I was three-quarters of the way up Petit.  At this point I wrote I was optimistic that "I could push through [to the end] if I had to."  I gauged the trek was gradually becoming more hazardous because ropes started to appear.  Two created a makeshift barrier between myself & Petit's sheer drop-offs.  In fact, they continued for the duration of the hike upward, but don't be fooled, they did nothing to abate the labor involved.  It was in this last quarter I realized one does not "hike" Petit Piton.  One undisputedly climbs her.
At another obstacle, a rope steadied me as I awkwardly straddled up a large boulder.  It was frayed and coarse against my sweaty hands, but I did not dare loosen my grip considering I was hanging with my feet serving as the only body parts touching solid earth.  Extinguished, I concentrated so much on not plummeting to my death, that getting to the top of Petit Piton never crossed my mind. For me, the journey was no longer about the end result.  It was only about this obstacle ahead of & above me.
Petit's enervation was unyielding. It seemed she knew we were nearing her summit and in her final attempt to thwart the ants that crawled all over her, she gave me hell.  À propos a.k.a. On that subject I had to shed my backpack at Limbo Hole -- two boulders pressed together, pinching a serrated rock in between.  Meno gracefully slinked through, admonishing tricky spots.  I entered Limbo Hole head first & contorted myself sideways, supporting my weight with a locked left arm.  My butt met resistance against the calloused rock and I scraped most of my right forearm as I tried to squeeze it through the tight hole already occupied by my body.  With both arms through, I pushed & birthed myself into a chamber surrounded by stone on every side.  The floor was a charcoal, fine sand, surely the erosion of the enclosing boulders.  I was trapped.  Although Meno coached me from above, I already knew my next move because I'm a rock climber.  From the top of my head, I had another 5 feet to go.  I spread my arms & legs, assured I had solid feet, then pushed outward with the tenacity of The Hulk.  Precisely shuffling feet and hands (and once, elbows) upward, I was able to suspend myself & topped out.
Soon after, the ground turned slick & muddy, the trees & colossal rocks cleared, and I summited Petit Piton!
Atop Petit the sun beat down & I sucked in hot air so I sat & leaned into a bush for a morsel of shade.   Up here -- in what resembled the stratosphere -- there were 360º views of western Saint Lucia.  The view extended to St. Lucia's southernmost location where I recognized the tiny island near Hewanorra International Airport.  Petit dwarfed Soufriere & in the distance was the current British capital, Castries.  From a speckled, gray rock overhang I welcomed a Caribbean breeze & was finally level with Gros Piton & the [active] volcano that blew its top.  There weren't even birds at this altitude.  Only Mount Gimie looked formidably taller.

In 2.5 hours I had broken Petit Piton, but I did not expect her to seek retribution for my accomplishment. I assumed the climb up had been the climax & the end of my physical trials, but I was ineffably wrong!

Again, due to Petit's steep angle, Meno & I literally had to back down the entire top segment.  Soreness was setting into my lower limbs and it felt more stable (& comfortable) to continue trekking backwards.  I had transformed into a semi-truck, cautiously navigating each step in reverse. The only thing missing was the blaring beeps to alerted others of my unsteady rear end.

I crossed into -- what I refer to as -- the 2nd Circle of Hell a.k.a. the realm of the lustful.  Here "sinners are blown around endlessly by the unforgiving winds... as punishment for your appetite for pleasure."  I asked myself why I had to mess with Petit Piton?  Why couldn't I admire her from afar like others?  Why couldn't I be pleased with my bird's eye view from the helicopter tour?  However, the descent made me appreciate the strain of the ascent.

My quadriceps were so indescribably wasted I could not endure the impact of facing forward/stepping down, so I side-stepped in an effort to utilize less tired muscles. The downclimb was taking eons because finding secure footing was imperative and dually due to my abjectness.   

Further along the anfractuous mountainside, & soon after losing all strength in my quads, my knees weakened.  I was being frittered to death by Petit, as she induced her torture onto more and more of my body.  With my knees shot, I was only capable of sitting on my bum & (with my upper body) lowering myself to the next ledge.  To conserve what little energy I retained, I would wrap my arms tightly around a skinny tree (whose roots earlier aided me) and let gravity handle the rest: my body whipped around from the centrifugal force, and came to a swinging stop at another earthen platform below me.  The process wrenched my shoulders but salvaged my lower body which was clinging to life. 

Petit continued to scourge me with all her fury & the only thing I could do was bear it.  I had officially been forced into the 5th Circle of Hell a.k.a. the realm of the wrathful + gloomy: "...slothful and sullen, withdrawn from the world. Their lamentations bubble to the surface as they try to repeat a doleful hymn..."  I wanted to burst into tears but couldn't even muster the energy for that!  No helicopter could land here to rescue me. If I could have begged or bribed Meno to carry me, I definitely would have, but the way was too vertical; that would probably kill us both.  By now, Meno did not chat with me, probably in an act of succor, sensing my overexertion & absolute anathema for Petit Piton.  The return was silent because I could only drown in my own agony.

Eventually the aforementioned methods lost their effectiveness too.  Calves: shot; knees: finished; quads: long gone; mind: disintegrated. This was total, gross motor failure.  I prayed for the willpower, strength, motivation, determination, whatever, to alight Petit Piton and threw a Hail Mary to Heaven.  I scooted on my ass, downward through the dirt without care for how foolish I looked or filthy I became.  I only needed to make it to the bottom, in one, unhurt piece.

The scenery was all the same: jungle & a steep slope.  By God's grace, I descended into the overgrowth at Petit's base.  Only then could I actually walk, but I wobbled around like a newborn giraffe.  The next day I flew home to the U.S.A. and cried trying to dismount the airport shuttle; it felt like I had torn every ligament from my back to toes.  Anything but standing completely still rendered staggering pain.  Aided by just two people, I am proud to say that I alone was responsible for summiting Petit Piton -- my hardest physical challenge to date -- but there is no amount of money that could persuade me to climb her again or be subjected to that torture.

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