Up is Better Than Down
“Tell the truth…” Kurt asked me, as we stood atop Table Mountain, looking down over the Atlantic Ocean and toward the Chapman’s Peak drive we would take later, “When did you want to quit?”
I just smiled and turned back toward the view. It was a perfectly clear day.
“Okay, I’ll go first.” He said, in response to my silence. He turned to face me, grinning. “When she said we were about a quarter of the way up, all I could think was how much I wanted to turn around and go back down.”
I kept staring at the view, partly because I wanted to memorize it, and partly because I was too exhausted to do much other than stand and stare. Even talking was effort at this point.
I could see out of the corner of my eye that he was waiting, expectantly, for my answer. I had been pretty stoic (for me) on the climb, trying to distract from the effort by pointing out flowers and asking questions of our guide, Binny.
I had tried to make light of how much I struggled, pausing to ask Kurt if he was enjoying the view of my bum. I knew he was bringing up the rear (literally) because he was afraid I might topple back down the mountain. He had also volunteered to carry the camera back-pack and was taking photos of flowers and scenery and anything he thought I might want to use for a blog. He could tell early on that I would not be able to both climb and take photos. I could barely handle the weight of the locket around my neck, let alone a camera.
Around the halfway point I stopped mid-climb, bum in the air, and looked over my shoulder. “You better be taking pictures of my butt in your face, too!” I turned back around to start climbing again. He knew I was serious, but he was reluctant.
I was wearing the only Pittsburgh Steelers shirt I brought to South Africa.
It was a goal of mine to fit into the shirt, and although it was still too small, we had a plan to do a video for my brother at the top, and Steelers’ attire was a must.So there I was in a bright yellow shirt two sizes too small, in undignified poses as I climbed the high steps on my hands and knees.
We both knew the photos would be unflattering. But I didn’t care. I still don’t. I’m pretty demanding that photos should be candid, flattering or not. I believe my readers appreciate raw, often humorous photos of me rather than made-up or posed shots anyway. So I insisted, and he fired away. (You’re welcome.)
A late night arrival the night before had us push back our climb time, and we didn’t begin until mid-morning. Despite packing like twelve-year-olds and only bringing a half bottle of water between us (thankfully our guide had several bottles) and me forgetting my hat (another thank you to our guide for lending me one), I was pretty excited to be checking this climb off my South Africa bucket list.
After a couple hours of stair climbing, the noon gun boomed in Cape Town, which now seemed so far below us. It echoed around us and we watched as the distant smoke rose into the air. I marveled and felt proud of how high we were.
Until I looked up to see how much more we had to go.
I tried not to think about how suddenly defeated I felt, about how the sun was now scorching my bare shoulders, or how few flat portions remained compared to the endless stairs upward.
“Up – relentlessly up!” This is how Platteklip Gorge hike is described on the official SanParks website; a website I did not consult before our climb. Not that it would have mattered. My new Brazilian friend, Andrea, told me “Whatever you do, don’t take the route that starts near the lower cable station. I can’t remember the name, but it’s just steps. All steps. High, steep steps. It’s a very, very hard climb.”
She was right. But I am a stubborn woman.
Facing the hike I knew I wasn’t fit for, I decided the only way to get through it was to pretend. Could I really “fake it til I make it” with a 3km hike up a steep path of rock steps higher than my knee could lift me?
“Just pretend.” I told myself. “Pretend you are six again. Pretend you can do anything.”
I pretended I was tougher than what I felt on the hike; I pretended it when I first looked up and saw the steps; I pretended it when the steps didn’t seem to have an end; I pretended not to hear the joggers we met on their way down, who kept telling us that the hardest part was yet to come; and I pretended when I finally reached just 50% that I didn’t want to just sit down and cry—too overwhelmed to finish climbing up, but knowing climbing back down would be worse.
On top of the mountain, Kurt was still watching me expectantly, waiting for my answer
Finally I turned to face him, saying: “I just kept thinking ‘Up is better than down,’ so I just kept climbing.”
He waited for me to say more, but I didn’t.
He nudged my shoulder with his and we looked at the expanse of water, of mountain peaks and blue sky. “But when, Pookie Bear? When did you want to quit?”
I wanted to lean against him but we were both still a pile of sweat.
“After the first flight of stairs…” I paused, watching for his reaction, “I wanted to quit after about 100 yards.”
We stared at each other for a few seconds, then both started laughing. My gut hurt, my knees hurt, my arms and shoulders hurt and the laugh felt like it might break my body apart. But it felt good. It felt better than any gym workout or casual walk and infinitely better than any act of drive-by tourism.
We had just climbed Table Mountain.
And we’ll do it again.
Happy Over-the-Hump Day, friends!
Stay tuned for tomorrow’s installment, when I will talk about what it’s like to hire a guide, the company we chose and why I think everyone would find value in a guided Table Mountain hike.
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