Courage, sacrifice, determination, commitment, toughness, heart, talent, guts. That’s what little girls are made of; the heck with sugar and spice.
– Bethany Hamilton
When Dempsey and I sat down to plan our time in Cape Town together, I suggested we hike Table Mountain. Dempsey said something like, “Given that I’m not really a hiker, that doesn’t really excite me. But if it’s not anything vigorous, I’d be open to it.”
Trust, I’m no hiker either. But I found solace in exploring the different mountainous parts of Hong Kong while I was there a couple of years ago. When I set out to explore Dragon’s Back on Hong Kong Island, I was equally surprised by how difficult the terrain was as well as my ability to keep up. I figured if I could conquer Dragon’s Back, Table Mountain would be a cinch.
Everything I’d read made me think it was totally doable, so Alex and I carved out a morning for a trek up the mountain followed by a massage in a swanky spa overlooking the ocean.
The sun was out, the air was crisp, and we were ready to do this. I’d done some reading about the various trails, and Platteklip Gorge (described as the “safest” and most “popular”), seemed like a good choice. It was recommended to hike up the mountain and use the cable car to go down. I was surprised at how much I missed the physical activity that was built into my everyday at Na’ankuse. The aspect of moving my body was exciting, and I was ready to go.
The hotel arranged a ride to the entry point. They also gave us a few bottles of water, which we loaded into Alex’s backpack that held a change of clothes for each and a few other things. The driver warned us about the wind as we wound up the mountain.
“If it gets too windy,” he said, “they will shut down the cable car.”
“Yeah, I heard that,” I said, more out of politeness than actual acknowledgement.
“It’s closed,” the driver announced after we passed the drop-off point for the cable car.
As we pulled up to the start of the trail, I think Alex and I had a brief discussion about whether or not we should go. The driver expressed concern, and I did what I always do when someone is worried: I downplayed it.
“It’ll be okay,” I said. And maybe even something stupid like, “We’re from New York.”
The first part was fairly flat. It was also nice and shady. We agreed we would take turns carrying the backpack, and Alex was took the first shift. There were others coming down as we went up. A few were even barefoot, so how bad could it really be?
According to the description, getting to the top could take a little as an hour if you’re “fit.” I checked my phone and noted the time as we continued upward. About 20 minutes in, we came to a crossroads of sorts. To the right was where the cable car started and ended. Straight ahead was up. I’d had some time to think about our decision to do this and wondered if it was the right choice. What if it sucked? What if it turned out to be too hard? I knew Dempsey could take or leave an afternoon on Table Mountain, and I didn’t want to force her.
“Do you think we should really do this?” I asked. “I think this is kind of it after we pass this point.”
We gave it a good debate and then decided we’d be mad at ourselves for giving up.
Onward and upward!
The first thing I noticed as continued upward was the lack of things one would normally find on a hike, like guardrails, cleared pathways, etc. The trail itself felt more like an exercise in weaving around large rocks, ducking past sharp edges of rock formation all while making sure our footing was solid so we didn’t fall off the mountain. I didn’t mind it at first. But that’s because I figured it wouldn’t be like that the whole way up. Boy, was I wrong.
The higher we got, the harder it was. Pathways became steep and wound around the mountain abruptly, which forced us to do more climbing than hiking. Dempsey was in front of me and definitely struggling. She’d still had the backpack and was trying to keep her balance while ascending. I could barely concentrate, because all I thought about was how she was going to get hurt, and it’d be my fault.
We switched, and I took the lead along with the backpack. The wind starting kicking up at some point, and I’m not talking about a refreshing breeze. If I had to guess, I’d say the gusts clocked in close to 25mph. This took the degree of difficulty to a whole new level. Add in a heavy back strapped to my shoulders, and you’ve got me on a mountain trying really hard not to fall or get blown off by angry winds.
I liked having Dempsey behind me. A) I didn’t have to watch and worry with every step she took and B) I felt like I could alert her to any danger that lie ahead. We continued upward, and I tried really hard to keep my eyes on what was in front of me, taking the same approach I do when the subway escalator breaks, and I have to tackle a million stairs.
And that’s how it went. Climb, balance, climb. There was no reprieve—at all. I began to wonder just how much longer it was to the top. We were both struggling at this point, thanks to the wind whipping us around in random fits and starts. Alex was not happy and mumbled something about an Uber helicopter at one point. I wasn’t thrilled either, but I couldn’t let on to that. This was all my idea—I had to keep it positive.
At one point some older dude passed us and simply said, “You’re not far. You got this.” Later, Dempsey and I would talk about how his words gave us an injection of hope and some newfound stamina.
My nose was running like crazy, because the higher we got, the cooler the air and stronger the winds. It was annoying for sure. And it’s not like I was going to stop and whip out a tissue while on a tiny little trail with no protective railings. So I walked and sniffed, climbed and snorted—it was very attractive.
As time passed, I was beginning to lose my resolve. The winds were unpredictable and getting stronger. This made it harder to navigate you never knew when a gust would push you off balance. I was scared. Walking through the woods in Namibia on the lookout for snakes was scary. But this was terrifying. Looking back, I don’t think I’d been that scared since running for what I thought was my life on September 11th.
The higher we got, the more I realized it was a dumb idea to do this. A chorus of hecklers had started in my head yelling things like, “What were you thinking!” “You know you’re going to die up here, right?” The worst was, “What are you going to tell Alex’s dad when she gets blown off the mountain.”
With my concentration otherwise occupied, it was no surprise that I fell – HARD. My foot slipped as I was trying to get up and around a big rock. I didn’t fall far, but I did land on my knee. The pain was like when you hit your elbow on something – deep and sharp. I tried to stand up, but it hurt to put pressure on my leg.
And that’s when I lost it. I knew I had to get up and keep going. I knew I’d made the wrong decision to do this. I was certain my knee would be permanently damaged. I dug deep into myself, like all those times at Na’ankuse. I could do this. But the deeper I dug, the emptier the well. I had nothing left – not for something like this. And that scared me even more.
Everything I’d held in and pushed down the entire trip came tumbling out. I could not stop. But I didn’t want Dempsey to know, so I continued upward, sobbing quietly. My knee ached, my eyes burned, and yeah, my nose-running was next-level, but I had to keep going. What other choice was there?
Getting to the top evoked mixed feelings. On the one hand, we freakin’ did it, right? High-fives and hugs all around! On the other, we still had to go back down. And that was daunting. I know Dempsey felt the same way, but after my fall, she’d assumed the role of optimistic leader. The views were spectacular for sure. And, despite the harrowing ascent, we both acknowledged the accomplishment of making it all the way up.
When it was time to head back down, I suggested an alternate route that looked easier. DUMB. How could it be possible to avoid the steep inclines we endured going up the mountain by way of a “flatter” terrain that showed on the map? But we were so desperate not to have to go through hours of more hell, we practically fled in said “easier” direction.
Epic fail on my part. – along with an hour and a half of wasted walking time. Yep. We traversed across the top of the mountain to basically nowhere. Dempsey was pissed. I was embarrassed. And we still had hours ahead of us.
Let me tell you how hard it is to climb down a mountain. You’d think it wouldn’t be, right? Hell, I didn't. “At least we’re not climbing anymore,” I’d said as we started our descent.
Yeah, well, steep inclines (with no railings), crowds of people on our heels and growing exhaustion made for a supremely hellacious trek downward. The further down we went, the shakier my legs got. While climbing up is strenuous, making sure your feet don’t slip with every single step is mentally tedious and way more stressful.
We were so tired that we both took to sliding down the rocks (on our butts) at several points. Dempsey hit her limit, and we reversed roles again. I owned the meltdown going up, and she assumed the position on our way back.
Three hours later (not including our little “detour”), we stood on the street resisting the urge to kiss the pavement. Actually, I think Alex may have.
I tell people that Table Mountain broke me. And it did – wide open. I didn’t see it as a positive until I was safely back on solid ground, of course. I think I left a piece of myself up there. When you have to dig deep beyond what you think is your limit, something shifts. There was no way after that day, I could go back to who I was before. I’d pushed myself to a new limit, and I was curious to see how it would impact my life on a larger scale.
I asked Dempsey what her takeaways were as I readied this blog for posting. Here’s what she said:
I will always be proud of what we did that day. It’s a good reminder for when things get tough. Endurance is a choice. It’s not even a little easy, but it’s most definitely possible.
In case you were wondering...