The Summit

Photo by Alain Bonnardeaux on Unsplash

The darkness was absolute. I felt the sharpness of the coarse volcanic sand under my legs as I sat on the sloped edge of the extinct volcano.

“Can I have some water?” my daughter asked.

I found the water easily, but locating her hand, even though she was just a few feet away, was difficult.

“Sure,” I said, “Take your time. We’re in no rush.”

We had awoken at 4:00 a.m. to summit the volcano from base camp. So far, we had only walked one-third of the hike. Every step had been difficult. First, it was the darkness that wrapped around us like a cold blanket. It felt suffocating to only see a few feet on each side of the trail, especially when a dangerous precipice could be hiding anywhere.

Second, it was the terrain. Tiny volcanic flakes formed the substrate that we attempted to traverse. Every step forward resulted in a slight backward slide. This hindered our progress substantially, and frustrated our attitudes.

But what had made us stop at this point was the elevation. My daughter was fine the previous day on the hike to base camp. She walked and talked and ate well. Her spirits were high and, even though she was nervous about the ascent, she was determined.

“I need to stop,” she had said with a sigh. “I don’t think I can go any further.”

“Take your time,” I had replied. “We’re in no hurry.”

Suddenly the adjacent volcano, an active one, tore a hole in the darkness. A fountain of red lava was thrust into the sky and showered down its slopes. Seconds later came the explosive sound which pounded our ears yet made us smile. We had seen the adjacent volcano erupt multiple times the night before, but it still captivated our attention and awe.

An eerie red glow remained for a while, like a halo above the volcano. Then it vanished, and we were again in darkness.

“Do we have any suckers?” my daughter asked me.

“Let me check,” I replied and then turned on my headlamp to rummage through my backpack.

As a parent, I need to be careful with encouragement. I don’t want to be a drill sergeant, beating orders into her head until she feels miserable for not doing something or not doing it right. But I also don’t want to see her give in to her doubts and fears. I have to balance empathy, understanding, and motivational encouragement.

“Yes, we do!” I let her know. I handed her a small red sucker. I turned off my headlamp and could hear her unwrapping the plastic wrap. The candy clicked on her teeth.

I needed to motivate her to at least give the climb one more shot, but I wasn’t sure why. Perhaps I wanted to summit, and I was cross with her for taking that away. But I settled on wanting to do this for her. I wanted her to overcome this wall she had suddenly hit. I wanted her to see that she could push through the wall. This reminded me of a story.

“I summited a mountain once. In Peru,” I began cautiously. “I was with a guide and three other people. Once we completed the ice climb and got onto the snow, we tied ourselves together in case one of us fell into a snow cavern. The altitude really got to me then. I remember that it took all of my effort to take a step. Then struggled to take another. Then another. I wanted to stop. I didn’t think I could go on. But there was nowhere to go. I was tied to my fellow climber, and he was going up.”

I paused my story. I didn’t know how to proceed. I didn’t want to compare myself to her. That wasn’t fair. But I wanted to show what perseverance looked like.

“Did you make it up?” she asked, interrupting my thoughts.

“I dug deep inside myself. I pulled energy from wherever I could find it. I cleared my head and concentrated on nothing more than putting one foot forward and then the other. I pushed through my panting breath and continued on to the summit.”

I paused again, this time for effect.

“It was the most beautiful sunrise I have ever seen,” I told her. “Not only because we were above the clouds and the skyline was infinite, but because I had mastered my fear, my hesitation, my doubt. I triumphed.”

We sat in darkness again. The only sound was the clinking of the sucker in her mouth. I took a sip of water. The rocky volcanic bits were getting uncomfortable, and I started to get cold. I wanted to move.

“Are you ready to go?” I asked her. “We’ll get cold if we stay here too long. We can head back down to camp.”

“I’m ready,” she said, “but let’s keep going up.”

Fifty minutes later, we were on the summit. My daughter had a glow in her eyes and was quick with a smile. She held me close as we took a picture in front of the neighboring volcano.

Our eyes met, and she whispered to me, “I triumphed.”

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Alex Porter

Alex Porter

I continually search for meaning in the mundane, pathways in coincidence, mindfulness in nature, and humor embedded in tragedy.