It was only around 2 in the afternoon, but I was exhausted. The three of us had been awake since five in the morning, up before the sun, when we had started our ascent. We hadn’t realized it would take this long. We had planned to be back down by now, back at our campsite, relaxing at the base of the mountain and maybe enjoying a couple beers.
But the mountain had different plans for us. We had missed the trail, the easy route up, and had ended up hiking ass-backwards, hitting every false summit along the way. Our trail had gone from a smooth path to hauling ourselves over boulders, struggling across rubble and trying not to slide on scree. The wind had picked up, pelting us with sand and grit.
We were nearly to the top now. I could see it – the last summit. No more false illusions for us. Only a couple hundred feet ahead.
But this high up, above the tree line, in the clouds and the snow, the air was thin and faint. I could feel the weariness deep in my muscles, and no matter how long I sat and tried to catch my breath, it wouldn’t recede.
I was down to short little dashes, little bursts of energy between the exhaustion. Struggle to my feet, fighting against the wind. Duck around the boulder into the open air, head down, sucking in breath as I struggle up another six or eight feet, and then slump back down to rest again. The climb had become a battle of inches.
Finally, I clambered to my feet, ran around the boulder, stepped up, stepped up – and stopped. There was nowhere else to go. All around me, every direction was down.
I was at the top.
Glancing down, I saw my two friends, a dozen feet still left in their ascent. Up on the summit, the wind was unfettered by any shields and blew hard and fast across the rock. I found a crevice between two boulders where I could hunker down.
Squatting between the rocks, at the top of the world, I gazed around. The clouds of the morning had been swept away by the wind, and the snow all around us reflected back the color of the sky. The world was inside a robin’s egg, the light blinding and brilliant.
A few minutes later, my friends joined me. We shook each other’s hands, took pictures, made small talk. But the conversation was hushed, and we would lapse off mid-sentence as we gazed around.
We were on top of the world, in the sky. We had a long, tough descent still ahead of us. It would be a race against the setting sun. But before that moment, the sky never looked so…