It’s not the Mountain We Conquer, But Ourselves

When we left off yesterday, we were busy drying everything we had, including our sleeping bags, by the campfire.

Eventually, and miraculously, the sleeping bags dried off, mostly.

Then we started drying everything else.

Meanwhile, the guides were in the main kitchen house-thing preparing traditional Dominican rice, beans and chicken.

We all huddled by the fire, trying to keep warm, while constantly flipping our toasting clothes, shoes and socks over.

Dinner came and we moved the fire inside into the chimney of the refuge house, where we laid out some of the dry sleeping bags below us as a giant long mattress sheet for 6, and covered ourselves with the remaining sleeping bags.

I barely slept. I woke up every half hour to 45 minutes to stoke the fire which was going out.

Wet wood mostly smokes and goes out quickly, there was no way for me to build a fire that would last more than 2 hours, no matter how hard I tried.

At one point I needed to go back outside to get more fire wood, and even though I was brutally cold, was greeted by these stars:

Which warmed my heart up a bit.

Let’s not forget now that we’re still not at the top, we’re at base camp. The plan is to sleep, wake up at 3 a.m., climb another two hours or so, and watch the sunrise from the top of the mountain.

When I finally fall asleep, it’s 1:30.

The alarm goes off at 3, and we start getting ready to go. To my dismay, my shoes are still soaking even though they’ve been by the fire all night.

I’m wearing Elena’s thin PJ pants, I have no dry socks, no dry underwear, and only a small little t-shirt.

One of the guides graciously lends me his michelin-man jacket, (yup, he’s come prepared) and Michael throws me a hat and I think I’m ready to go, shivering still, but ready to go.

I walk outside to overhear the end of a conversation between Gabriel and Pepo, where Pepo just finished telling him it’s much colder at the top.

“That’s it” I yelp “Sorry guys, sunrise at the top sounds good and all, but I don’t even have dry underwear, I can’t make it up there without getting hypothermia. Have fun without me.”

Off I go back into the refuge, and off they go into the distance, a dark curtain of pre-dawn sky engulfing their shadows.

Now back by the fire, I pile up all the sleeping bags, zip myself up in one, lie down on 4 and use the last as a blanket.

Finally I’m warm.

Two guides stay back to “mend the fire”

Yeah right, they’re snoring. I get up twice to collect wood and nurse a completely dead fire back to life from scratch.

But I sleep. I’m warm and cozy.

The hike is supposed to be 2 hours… that’s what the sign says.

They left at 4 am

Two hours up, two hours down, that should be 8 a.m.

The guides give them a half hour to take pictures and start making them breakfast at 8:30.

My plan is to wait for them to return, and my clothes to dry with the now breaking sun, and go back up alone.

9:00 am I wake up…. no one.

What’s going on?!?!

9:30…. no one.

What’s taking them so long?!?


Is it going to take me this long too?

10:00…. no one.

I’m not going to have time to go up….

I should have gone with them… Gabriel wasn’t wearing anything for crying out loud… mostly just the towel…

Are they alright?

Did someone get sick?

Elena doesn’t have a spleen……

I can’t be the only one to not go up this peak!!!

I couldn’t have gone up with wet clothes!!!!

Why did Gaby go without me!!!!!

Where are they?!

I get up, put on clothes, my dry(ish) boots, gear up, find the guides… “I’m going up”

“No, you can’t go up by yourself”

“Watch me”

“They’ll be back down, don’t worry, give them a little more time”

I go back to sulking, anxious, upset with myself for not going up, upset with everyone for stupidly going up in wet clothes and without me, minutes of confusing emotions feeling like hours….

I stoke the fire, but I’m not even cold anymore.. I’m doing it just to direct my anger at something.

I lace up my boots again.


“Really, I’m going now.”

“Look, there’s Voodoo! That means they’re right behind him”

I’ve never been so happy to see a dog in my life!

Lo and behold, down comes Eric with a “Are you even real?!?”

The next bit is a blur… I’m relieved they’re ok, but want to slap each and everyone of them in the face, especially Gabriel for leaving me alone and worried. Want to slap myself in the face for not having gone, and as usual, I’m upset that I’m upset…..

Eventually, after poorly communicating with Gaby for a while, (my fault, not his) I make more of an effort and explain how I feel… it starts with a completely out of context and confusing “They started making you guys breakfast at 8:30!!!” between sobs.


We debate whether or not I should go. I don’t want to do it alone, but I don’t want to NOT do it, and I don’t want Gabriel to go again, his ankles are shot.

I’m still upset…. I hear the guides asking if I’m going. Gabriel gives me a little “You should go, you’ll feel better”

Out of spite more than anything else I lace up my boots for the last time, wipe off the tears and get on Maria, the mule.

Pepo just went up and back down, but he’s going back with me… what a trooper.

This is by far the steepest part of the trail.

Maria and I take turns, I climb until I can’t breathe anymore (the air up here is thin) then I mount and go a few minutes until she can’t breathe anymore, meanwhile Pepo’s just trekking, Like it’s nothing. Seriously impressive.

It’s actually not that bad just him and I, we get chatting about the mules, and the walk, and how he’s been doing this since he was 7, how he stopped for a while to work on the highway, but the contract stopped, so he’s back at it.

I ask him which he likes better, he answers with “I think I’m going to go to school for engineering”

We joke and laugh between heavy breaths… at least the sun is keeping me warm now.

To my disbelief, we make it to Valle de Lilís in a little under two hours. Now I’m feeling good.

This is how the rest of the group saw the sign:


It’s beautiful up here…

I can see the clouds rise up the mountain peaks and stop dead in their tracks where they meet the hot dry air from the other flank of the mountain.

It’s magical.

Here is where Maria stops, the rest of the hike is by foot, the sign says an hour, but we do it in a half.

We get to the top and I’m above a sea of clouds, a bit like this:

But less orange, and with no mountains, only clouds!!!

But the clouds are moving fast, it’s about 2:30 now and all the mid day heat form the tropical sea surrounding the island is rising fast.

Rain is coming. We stay a little longer and the mist hides everything. I’m now on the edge of the cliff, it’s the edge of the world. It’s beautiful.

I’d insert a picture but, it would just be… well… white!! In no way could it do justice to the immense feeling of vertigo I felt standing on what I knew to be a very high rock surrounded by mist.

We come back down almost running, and I now understand those Swedes!! Coming down is soooooo much easier that going up!

The morning’s emotions seem light years away, now I’m starving, I just want to get back to the warm fire, food, and the rest of our company.

On the way down Pepo and I talk about what’s it’s like to be Dominican, driving motorcycles without helmets, how he made it all the way up and down Pico Duarte in one day… and a multitude of other small talk topics.

Maria almost escapes us during a pee break.

When we make it back a little under 4 hours later, we are met with disbelief, but I have photographic evidence!!!

I remind them all I had a mule all to myself, multiple extra hours of warm and comfortable sleep more than they did,  a belly full of food, and LIGHT!

Now I get why it took them so long.

This is what the rest of the crew saw:



When I get back down it’s even colder than the day before, but at least this time we have a lot more wood and dry clothes.

They share their trials and tribulations getting up and I share my “edge of the world” image.

We eat some food and spend another freezing night on the floor.


But the stars are just as gorgeous.

I still only sleep in spurts of two hours stoking the fire (I get cold fastest, so it’s my duty by default)

The next morning we pack up and head back up the first bit of steep hill, followed by almost 6 hours downhill.

These are some of our favorite shots of the trip.


Bit by bit, partially by mule, partially by foot, we make our way back down through all of the landmarks we so tediously passed on the way up, and slowly the landscape starts turning back into a lush tropical forrest.


The last stretch, the one we barely remembered even doing, takes the longest.

By the time we reach our starting point I now understand the words of Sir Edmund Hillary: “It’s not the Mountain we conquer, but ourselves.”

This mountain was here long before me and will stand strong long before I’ve left. It cares not if we make it to its summit. It just is.

The only thing we conquer by reaching its peak is our own physical and emotional barriers.


Well, that and witness its incredible beauty and be humbled by our incredible smallness.

We are so tiny indeed.

This mountain is nowhere close to the largest or most remote mountain on earth, and yet here we were, in the middle of a tropical island, kilometers away from civilization, the air a little thinner than we’re used to, face to face with the grandness of nature.

I can’t wait for the next challenge.


And for closing notes… some images of our photographer:


Gabriel the colorful caped super-hero.


Gabriel the sleepy and colorful mountain hobo.


Gabriel the photographer.


and, courtesy of Eric, Gabriel the Centaur.


Until the next bedtime story kiddies!!! Sleep tight in your warm beds tonight!



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