Saturday, July 21, 2012

Climbing Mt. Britton


On the Way up to Mt. Britton in El Yunque

Why do you climb a mountain? Some people say, "Because it is there." You wonder. They risk their lives because it is there. What is that supposed to mean? We have all heard of people rising triumphantly over
Mt. Everest and others falling in a crevass trying. Then we wonder. Were they seeking fame or are they trying to prove something to themselves and are willing to die trying? Are they in their right minds?

Yesterday, I did such a thing. Perhaps it wasn't on the grand scale as Mt. Everest, but to me who am quite a bit over weight with lots of silver hair it was a bit of a challenge. Okay the truth. It was a challenge. It took me and a friend two hours to climb the regularly 45 minute trail. If you are in good shape, that is what it takes. Yet though my friend and I are not in perfect shape we refused to shy away from this challenge and be denied the opportunity of climbing one of Puerto Rico's highest peaks.

We reminded ourselves this wasn't a race but a marathon. The important thing is that if you are not in top shape, you either go with people who respect your speed or lack of. I went with Victor.

Victor is a relative's husband who has been battling a lung condition most of his life. Then a couple of years back, Victor suffered from a deadly condition called Guillain-Barré Syndrome. It in fact, almost took his life. I am not at liberty to describe everything that happened to Victor, but as a result of the syndrome he temporarily lost
some of his vision, stability in his hands and feet, lost of balance and similar manifestations in other parts of his body. He remained in the hospital for over a week. After being released from the hospital he had to fight to regain his mobility and eye sight . He still has areas of weakness and his original lung condition has not gone away for which he has to have daily oxygen treatments, but he is driven to regain his life.

Whenever I am in Puerto Rico, Victor and I go to El Yunque. So when on our last visit driving through El Yunque, we took some nice photos of Mt. Britton way up on a distant hill, he asked if I had ever gone up to that tower. I really did not think anything of the question at the time. I could vaguely remember going up that trail and frankly it had been decades before. I was at least 30 pounds lighter and twenty years younger.

The trail then was a little different. The path was not a narrow cement path as it is now. It was mostly an uneven gravel pathway which though more unstable seemed wider. Wider is better when you are making an ascent that will take you up to three thousand eighty-eight feet with slippery drops on one side of the trail. These risks have to be considered.

This two feet wide path, proved to be a concern when other people were either coming down the trail or coming up behind you. Someone has to step off the trail to make it through. So the climbing has to be a matter of engaging with other people and negotiating the path. Once on the trail we encountered some younger hikers and most of the time, it was a no brainer, and they simply stepped off the path onto the gravel and went on their way. On our way down though, being a bit more cautious since it was raining and streams of water were intermittently flowing down the path, we encountered a multi-aged group. Among the group was a rather large boned lady coming up of the path. When she saw us, she decided that she would keep her feet on the path and lean on the edge of the mountain and jutting her rear end out and expected us to skirt around her. I sized up the situation rather quickly and realized that if we did that, we risked slipping and falling down the ravine. I declined her kindness and simply stepped off the path in a small gravel clearing before her and next to the mountain's side. I didn't need to say a word. She simply responded"Oh!" and I let them pass. In other words, use common sense. Always defer to the side of the trail that is safest, not to the side where you can break your neck!!!

But whether the trail was narrow or wide, made of cement or gravel, with three shelters or not, the climb was the same. It was steep, curvy, and wet. For people in top shape it takes 45 minutes. It took us two hours. When we reached the top, there it was. A small tower no larger than a turret but not well maintained. It really needs a good cleaning with a pressure washer. The steps down could be just as slippery as a soapy water and in some places there were no rails but slimy wet walls.  That is the truth. So ironically for me the summit proved most treacherous, but we made it!

At the top of the tower, it was windy with clouds swirling, lifting up our ponchos, and buffeting our faces. Occasionally clouds would thin out and we could see the Mt. Britton spur next to us about 700 yards away but that was the extent of the visibility. It is not called the Cloud Forest for nothing. So no majestic view for us today. That is a reality. The triumph is in the journey. If you get a view, it is a bonus.

Why did we do it? We did it because it was there and because we wanted to go. It took us a week to actually find a day that would work for us but I think, Victor had to think things through before taking the challenge. More was riding on this climb for him. I was more or less going for the ride. At least that was what I thought. It was as much of a challenge for me as for him.

As we climbed, I would tell him I was not in a hurry because I didn't want him to feel rushed but most importantly I could not be rushed. I found the climb was not as exhausting as I expected. It just took us more time. Providentially, it rained that day cooling the forest considerably and with the constant breeze and sometimes heavy rain and wind, keeping the temperature down especially under our ponchos. I realized that these wet conditions actually were what allowed me to go up this mountain. I am so grateful and encouraged to get into better shape and perhaps do this again in the near future. Perhaps another trail? Perhaps another mountain? Perhaps another challenge? Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps? Certainly!



Update:  Unfortunately, it will not be with Victor.  Victor, my Yunque friend, or as my niece says, my Yunque buddy, has gone up to another mountain, Mt. Heaven, where I believe he breathes deeply now and can climb any mountain he wants to climb.  Descanse en paz buen amigo.

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