23. marec 2008

The First Day - Tony

On a lovely morning on the 28th of February 2001 I got up early enough to leave Nisbet before dawn. My wife helped me to finish packing my rucksack, into which we put spare underwear, a digital camera, two half-litre plastic bottles filled with water, a few pieces of bread and a packet of biscuits. I didn't protest when Miriam also “planted” some mosquito repellent in my rucksack.

Although I was fully aware that such a modest rucksack would be useless in the case of an emergency, I was at the same time certain that nothing terrible could happen to me. A year before I had also set off early in the morning from the nearby hotel of Mount Nevis and climbed the wonderful Round Hill, which is about 300 metres high. I was misled by the fact that on that occasion I had found a well-worn path leading to the top of a significantly lower peak – I assumed I would also find a similar path leading towards the 970-metre-high Nevis Peak. I knew for sure that there was a path on the other side of the mountain, coming from the settlement of Golden Rock, which we had visited a few days earlier and where I had enquired about the climbing possibilities. Hence, my conclusion was the following: I will surely be able to find a path leading out of the only settlement on this side of the mountain. And where else should it go to if not towards the mountain peak – since the whole of the Nevis island is really just the slope of a dominating mountain of the same name; the only exception is the area of Round Hill, which is separated from Nevis Peak by a flat saddle. This time I will be climbing over it to the left side of the mountain, taking just the opposite direction from the one I took a year ago. Whatever happens, I will stop climbing at midday at the latest. If I don’t manage to reach the top by then, I will turn back and easily return to the hotel taking the same path. Alternatively, I can go down the other side of the mountain until I reach the road, which goes all the way round the island, and there I will hire a taxi to take me to Nisbet.

Just before leaving, my caring wife gave me a kiss and I assured her again: “Do not worry! I promise I will be back in good time, for the dinner at six, at the latest.” And then I joked: “If I’m not back by then, you can start the rescue operation.” Of course it never even crossed my mind that I could bring worry and uncertainty to my wife and children. I imagined their day in a completely different way: they will first have a lie in, then enjoy their big breakfast and later swim and sunbathe. In the afternoon they will wait impatiently for me to tell them all about my exciting experience and then we will all get ready for our daily ceremonial dinner.

Sunrise followed the daybreak at 6 am (the time interval between these two phenomena is much shorter in the Caribbean than it is in Europe), I was already happily on my way, dressed in short trousers, a tee-shirt and sports shoes. I took the gently rising Upper Round Road, leading towards the saddle between Nevis Peak and Round Hill. For a while I was still walking through the town and I smiled to myself when I heard occasional snoring coming through the glassless windows. My pace quickened once I reached the unpopulated area where a year before I had first seen some shy monkeys in the their natural environment. On this occasion, however, I didn’t see any. When I was passing through the last settlement, situated on the saddle, I noticed that almost everybody was still asleep. At this settlement, called Fountain, I turned left and optimistically went into the jungle.

Just like mountaineers and free-climbers who long for the most difficult and technically demanding climbing route, while at the same time eagerly using every foothold and every piton, I also hoped to find a path or at least a narrow track in the jungle. I soon realised that walking was going to be very difficult and progress not as quick as I had imagined. The tropical jungle is very dense, it consists of various plants – from low, thick grass and ferns to very tall trees, palms, creepers, cacti and other prickly plants. In addition to all these living plants, there are also a lot of remnants of dead plants around. This is because man doesn’t interfere with the workings of the jungle.

You make very slow progress on such terrain, and face a lot of difficulties, especially when you walk without protective clothes (long trousers and long sleeves) and without the necessary machete. Initially, I could still find a few signs of a cutout trail where I could walk much faster. I even came across some bits of an old trail-marker that was made of coloured strings tied to tree branches that were already decaying. Such marks are psychologically very encouraging because they fill you with optimism: you believe yourself to be on the right path, seeing that somebody else had walked on it before you. My plan was to follow those signs, because I thought that they would lead me towards the mountaintop and keep me safe. However, my expectations proved to be too optimistic. Readers who have ever walked on tidy, well-marked routes will recall that even there they could get lost very quickly. I used to be a mountain trail marker and whenever I drew the round, red-and-white signs, I had to be especially careful to place them at tricky turns where mountaineers could easily make a mistake and get lost. But in the jungle everything was overgrown and I found it very difficult to find those decaying strings. I gave up in the end, realising that my initial plan had come to nothing.

As the slope became steeper I began to get tired and thirsty. The first bottle of water was nearly empty. I began to suspect that I would run out of water, but I hoped that I would already be on my way back when this happened and I would be able to comfort myself with the thought of a cold beer waiting for me in the first settlement at the foot of the mountain. However, it was getting increasingly clear to me that this trip wasn’t going to be as trouble-free as the one I had made a year ago when I climbed Round Hill. My lightweight sports shoes were anything but appropriate; I could have twisted my ankle at any turn. Once I even fell into some sort of hole, which must have been a result of the decaying roots of a large tree. I grabbed hold of the ground at shoulder level, but my legs dangled into emptiness. Then I realised for the first time that a serious accident could happen and that I would find it difficult to get out of it on my own. It was already after ten o’clock and I knew that I probably wouldn’t reach the top of Nevis Peak from this side of the mountain. But I wished to climb at least to the level where the forest thinned out and where I could have some view of the coast.

The name Nevis has its origin in the Spanish word for snow: the mountain is, for most of the year surrounded by white clouds that spring up when the hot Atlantic air hits the mountain, cools down and begins to condense. These clouds often bring rain and this is the reason why the mountainous Caribbean islands are more overgrown and fertile than the flatter ones. The top of Nevis Peak is almost always covered with a white hat and photos of the mountain without its white top are very rare. I knew that what looks like a cloud from a distance turns into fog when you approach it. Hence, I never expected to have a good view from the top of the mountain.

At about 11am the wild forest began to thin out and I slowly began to get a view of the mountaintop. I found myself standing on a crest that reminded me of Little Triglav (the lowest of the three peaks of Triglav, Slovenia’s highest mountain), which meant that I was on the peak next to the main Nevis Peak. My plan now was to go down a bit and then climb the bare slope until I got to the top, which was right at the edge of the clouds. But I was mistaken in my assessment of this bare slope because I was thinking about it in a European way. My conclusion went like this: if the slope is green, but without trees or bushes, then it can only be grass. And it should be easy to climb a grassy slope. But already after a few steps I found out that a green surface can be a lot more than just grass, bushes or trees. This was some sort of “quick grass”: a very thick greenery, strongly interwoven and on average up to a metre and a half tall. I was sort of swimming on it, which was very tiring. I first had to pull my leg out of the greenery, lift it as high as possible, push it about a metre forward, throw forward my whole body and then pull the other leg towards me. I also had to supplement all these gestures with hand movements similar to swimming. The distance of a few hundred metres that separated me from the cloud and the mountaintop was also very steep, so that I was making very slow progress. To make matters worse, I also got several nasty scratches.

As the time was getting closer to midday I knew that I wouldn’t get to the top. I still thought I could do it in an hour, but that wouldn’t be keeping to my initial plan to stop climbing at 12 o’clock. I wanted to stand by what I said. So, I thought, let’s go back.

However, I didn’t like the path that I was on and because I remembered from the map that on the other side of the crest the beach was closer to the mountain, I decided to make my adventure more interesting by going down that side. In this way I was going to get further from the hotel and wouldn’t be able to walk back to it, but that shouldn’t be a problem: on every Nevis road you can find a taxi or at least a friendly local driver. I thought: Surely somebody will take me back to Nisbet and then…. First I will take a shower. No, first I will go to the beach and get into the sea to disinfect my scratches. No, first I will have a large beer, or maybe I’d rather have one of those delicious Caribbean cocktails? And then off to dinner with my family…

There is really something masochistic about mountaineering, especially Alpine climbing: we try to climb a mountain in the most difficult way possible and end up exhausting ourselves. But at the same time we are happy to find a shortcut, level ground, an easy descent and, above all, a mountain hut where we can find shelter and rest.

Hence, I found it quite normal that Nevis Peak presented me with so much hardship and inconvenience, but I really enjoyed only the first hour of my walk, that was before I entered the thick jungle – but that’s what mountaineering is all about. And now I only had one goal in mind: to return to the valley as soon as possible and be back in the luxurious hotel complex of Nisbet.

So is it strange that I soon found myself in a dry riverbed? Once per year, in the rainy season, heavy storms rush towards Nevis, as well as to the other Caribbean islands, and pour enormous amounts of rain on the ground below. The water first runs in streams; these streams later flow into the canyons and here water begins to demolish everything that is in its way. This is why the canyons are the only places without any long-lasting plants. After the rainy season, only moss, grass, tall ferns and other annual plants begin to grow among the large and small stones of the riverbed. This means that walking along such riverbeds is relatively easy: you don’t have to waste your energy in moving away the branches and creepers or avoiding fallen trees.

In the beginning I thought that the riverbed would make my descent into the valley really easy as well as saving me from a lot of effort and scratches. However, it turned out that my conclusions were wrong – and I feel I should share this knowledge with the readers of this book.

As you follow the canyons they tend to become increasingly deep and steep. Small waterfalls are replaced by big ones; small pools change into huge basins where, in times of high water, huge rocks and trunks of fallen trees are tossed about. At the beginning of the canyon I was still able to jump easily over the rocks, but later I often had to bend down and use my hands. I had to start climbing again.

I became thirsty and hungry so I had the last drink of water from my second (and last) bottle and ate a few pieces of bread. I reckoned I would reach the valley in an hour or so and could keep going without water and food until then….

But then I took a step that changed my life forever. When I noticed another hollow about five metres down from me, I realised that I was standing on a spot that is the top of a medium-sized waterfall during the rainy season. The rock below the water is always the smoothest right at the top of the waterfall, and in my case it was also covered with moss. When I tried to approach the edge of the hollow to assess how I could descend to bypass this barrier, I suddenly slipped on the moss and plummeted into the hollow. As I fell I felt several serious pains, especially in my right leg, then I found myself at the bottom, lying among big rocks and decaying trunks. The wound on my thigh was about 15-cm long and bleeding. Blood was also coming from both my elbows, and I had acquired a few more scratches.

The fall was a big shock to me. My first thought was whether my bones were broken. Hence, I immediately, though with some difficulty, got up and thanked God that my bones were still intact. However, my whole body was shaking and I understood that I was in very bad shape. Before the fall I was already very tired, thirsty and hungry – and now all of that was compounded by serious shock. The wound on my leg became very swollen and I was afraid it would become septic because my whole body was very dirty, sweaty as well as being covered with mud, bits of grass and moss. I had no water left with which to clean the wound, so I comforted myself with the thought that the bleeding would soon stop since no large vein was damaged. However, it wasn’t an innocent wound because it later took a very long time to heal; and if I touch the spot now, while writing these lines three months after the accident, it still hurts.

What could I do then? The situation definitely demanded a clear and rational analysis. Hence, I sat down again and said an Our Father, the Hail Mary and a Glory be (these three prayers also helped me on all the following days) which calmed me down a great deal. Then I reasoned like this: my Creator is apparently still kind to me because I could easily have been killed during a fall like this one, simply by hitting the hard rocks at a slightly different angle. I hope this was a warning only; maybe a warning against my further pride at having such a good life? However, I accept the warning and will, later, rethink the ways of my life. But now I need to know how to get out of this mess.

Let’s see: above me is a five-metre wall from whose top I have just fallen down and I have no intention to go back to it. So, what else is there? In spite of the pain in my leg I walked across the bottom of the hollow, the size of two sitting rooms, and to my horror I found out that at one end it continued into another hollow, at least three times deeper and completely impassable. The side walls of my hollow were in some parts thickly overgrown with plants and 20 to 30 metres high. One wall was completely vertical, the other was even sloping inwardly. My conclusion went like this: I can never get out of this place on my own. I can see I won’t be back in Nisbet by 6 pm. Poor Miriam, she will be sick with worry. I’m really ashamed because she will now have to ask the rescuers to go and find me. But this is the only solution. At least for today. It is after 5 pm now, at 6 pm it gets dark and in these tropical places the night comes very quickly. So I will have to camp here.

I didn’t need to check the contents of my rucksack because I knew how little I had taken with me. Only now I realised how careless it was of me not to take at least a knife, a torch, or a telephone. This must have been the so-called “guide’s syndrome”: guides will always tell everybody what necessary equipment to take into the mountains, but when they set off climbing themselves, they aren’t always so consistent. They believe that nothing bad will happen to them, or, in the event that an accident does happen, that they will somehow find a solution to get them out of the tricky situation.

I could guess that the night would be cold, so I immediately started preparing some sort of nest. I tore off several pieces of various plants and made my bed at the bottom of a wall, believing that it would provide me with some shelter. My underwear was very damp, so I took it off and put on my spare shorts and two spare tee shirts. I spread the damp white underwear over the dark rocks in the hope that the rescuers could see it from the air. I knew that I should try to attract their attention in some way. It is interesting to note that the underwear didn’t get dry for several days, so I left it there for the remainder of the time.

Then I focused on my biggest problem: a lack of water. I was already noticing significant signs of dehydration caused mainly by exhaustion, but also due to the wounds, pain and stress that I had just experienced. My mouth was completely dry and was getting very sticky; I could feel the pulsing of the vein in my neck and had pains in my heart. I looked around but couldn’t find anything to drink. Even though there was a centimetre-deep puddle of water at the bottom of the hollow, it was all covered with green slime and full of some sort of snails and other small creatures. My plastic bottle was empty; however, I was glad that I had kept at least one empty bottle – I had put the other one on a stick beside my previous path in order to encourage other climbers that would perhaps come this way, as I was encouraged by those coloured stings tied to the tree braches. I felt that without any liquid I wouldn’t be able to hold out for much longer. I remembered that in such cases one’s own urine could be useful. Although I wasn’t quite sure that I would really drink it, I peed into the bottle, closed it and put it away to cool down. I was able to postpone the first consumption of urine for a while because of a pleasant discovery: when I rummaged again through all the rucksack’s pockets, I found a miniature bottle of Jagermeister. Oh, how I enjoyed it! My mood improved a lot, probably also because of the alcohol in the drink.

My mood was soon to change again because, to my great horror, I discovered that I had lots of company in my hole: when I moved a decaying trunk a swarm of mosquitoes flew into the air. There were hundreds of them. The last thing I needed then was to be attacked by all those mosquitoes during the night. How grateful I was to my wife for “planting” that mosquito repellent in my rucksack during the last moment before my leaving. First I wanted to apply it on my arms, but that caused a smarting pain because my arms were already all scratched and cut. Instead, I decided to apply it only on my clothes, mainly on my brimmed hat, hoping that the smell would at least keep the mosquitoes away from my face. Later it turned out that they weren’t at all intrusive at night: they were flying around me, I could hear their buzzing, but only very rarely did one of them sting me.

As it grew dark I was forced to go “to bed” because it was becoming more difficult to find my way among the big rocks, gaps, and piled up trunks. (I wouldn’t want anybody to think that my hollow, apart from its size, had any other resemblance to a sitting room.) I also decided to sample my urine before it got too dark.

I didn’t fancy the prospect at all. On the contrary, I found it utterly repulsive and I was afraid that I would be sick immediately and unable to pour any more of the much-needed liquid into my mouth. I decided to use a psychological trick: I will try to imagine that I am in a lively pub somewhere in Scotland where beer flows like water, then quickly pour it into my mouth and imagine I am drinking the best beer on earth. This is roughly how I actually managed it. It was really good that the urine had cooled down in the mean time (and on subsequent occasions I practiced the same technique). I opened the half-litre bottle, which was almost full, focused on the fictional picture in my mind, brought the bottle to my mouth and, in one go, poured all of its content down my throat. Agghrr. Yuk. Yuk. Disgusting! But I didn’t throw up. And in just a few minutes I felt the beneficial effect of this desperately needed liquid.

I sat down in my nest, put my feet into the rucksack, covered myself as best I could with big leaves and calmed down. I felt then that I really had a lot time for thinking. I can’t say whether I had ever done so much thinking before.

To begin with, I said the whole rosary (the Hail Mary, 50 times; and Our Father, 5 times). Again, I can’t say whether I had ever before said the whole rosary on my own (saying it in church, together with other believers, is a different matter). I knew: my life is in Your hands and it is Your will how this will end. At that time I didn’t yet think of death, of not getting rescued. My main concerns were not to cause Miriam too many problems and to get enough rest when back in Nisbet, before our flight to Orlando. And I also felt that my dear family was at that moment praying for me and my safe return: My guardian angel, be always with me…

The night then dragged in the same way as all the following ones. I got very little real sleep. Soon I was shaking with cold. The pains were becoming worse. I could feel every stone beneath my body as well as the damp soil. A child of Western civilisation, I didn’t feel comfortable any longer sleeping outdoors and I was sure that the dampness would cause me long-lasting rheumatism. But there was nothing I could do about it, at that moment I had no alternatives.
The night drags on and on. I’m cold, I’m shaking…

It is very dark and my movements are very limited. I can partly turn around, but only on those parts of my body that haven’t been wounded. I have to remain in my nest where I can still partly cover myself and keep my feet in the rucksack. If I wandered away, I could very quickly step into a gap, fall in and get injured again. But my bottle with its bright top is close to me so that I can feel for it and use it for a call of the nature.

The cold bites my bones and maybe only the shaking “warms me up” a bit. I wonder whether I could sleep better if it was warmer? As it is, I now have loads of time on my hands and I can’t help but fill it with a lot of thinking. My mind keeps wandering off to various times and places, but mainly it drills deep into my self. I often switch between the dialogue with myself and a monologue with Him, who is all around me. I have never in my life philosophised so much or seen life from such a completely different perspective.

What was, until yesterday, the most important thing in my life? If I had asked myself this question before, I would probably have started listing rather complex social issues like a good marriage, wonderful children and prosperity, which allows us to have such a lovely annual holiday. Well, I would have surely also added good health to the list. We usually say that these are the most important things in life. And I still believe it’s true. Nevertheless, my list of important things has changed today, it has got closer to the values that my ancestors had centuries ago.

Food is important! Water even more so! And protection against the cold: clothes and shelter. If I try to imagine the situations of other victims (which I now find easier than ever before), I find there is something even more important than water: the air that we breathe. I could, for example, live without water for many more hours, but buried miners or people caught under the water would be faced with an even bigger problem: a lack of oxygen. They could survive for only a few minutes.

These basic needs have been the driving force of any civilisation. However, due to different conditions in various parts of the world, the pace of the progress was also different. The people who wanted to survive in continental climates of harsh winters had to provide themselves with much more than those who were never cold and didn’t even need to wear clothes. Once the basic needs were satisfied – after man had eaten, drunk and rested – then he was able to start planning other things. As the questions “why” and “how” appear early in a child’s vocabulary, philosophy and religion appeared at the dawn of mankind. No society has ever survived without them.

Usually, we perceive the details of everyday life as ordinary and uninteresting, we rush past them without paying any attention to them. However, in a different situation the same details take on a new meaning and become much more important.

Take, for example, this five-metre wall, on which I slipped today and which prevents me from going back to my family. The law of gravity functions mercilessly and still threatens me, it might drag me down even further, which could be very painful or even fatal. If the wall was a few degrees less steep, I could easily climb out of this hole, leave the place, and forget it forever. As it is, the wall threateningly stretches above me and has a hugely important role in my life. If by tomorrow I don’t manage to get out of here, or the others do not rescue me, I will really be in big trouble. Then I would surely be prepared to exchange my Volvo for twenty metres of strong climbing rope.

Can the accident I have just experienced also be beneficial in some way? Yes, it must serve a purpose. If nothing else, I am in such close contact with nature, closer than I have been for a long time, and I doubt that this year I would otherwise be experiencing any such intensity of feelings. I do sometimes go to the woods with the children (though in Slovenia this has recently become less appealing because of the ticks), but that involves only walking; and it’s not even demanding walking because we usually just follow the well-worn paths. But here I explore every inch of the rocks, the decaying trunks and, above all, the small plants that, to me, are almost like living creatures.

I am also getting acquainted with my body in a new way. I had never before suffered such wounds. Neither had I ever before experienced dehydration. And how irrelevant the food seems to me just now! By nature I am more of a bon vivant than an ascetic, and I don’t remember when I last went to bed without my supper. I will find out tomorrow how noisily my stomach will be rumbling.

However, this event will surely leave more traces on my mind than on my body. I have always been fully aware of the transient nature of our lives; I felt very strongly about it on several occasions, but those feelings were more the results of my speculation about the issue than of an experience. However, here I had just experienced a brush with death (I can’t say whether it happened yesterday or today, because I can’t check the time in the darkness), and I’m sure that many more interesting, maybe even dangerous, things will again happen to me tomorrow.

Our lives are limited by time, a dimension that I will here become more familiar with. Within our civilisation, we constantly play with time and often try to trick it. We possess numerous objects and chemicals with which we attempt either to speed up or slow down the time. But here I have no such aids; no shortcuts are available. I will have to go through every second of this night and if sleep keeps avoiding me, it will be a very long one.

Didn’t I have occasional premonitions that something bad might happen to me? Like other happy people, I have often said to myself in the past few years: How wonderful life is! Will it last? Do I have the right to such happiness when so many people are unhappy? Maybe the time has come when the long period of a happy life is over.

Questions, questions. What if something really bad is in front of me? Will I be strong enough for it? What a silly question. Of course I will do the best I can to get out of this with the fewest possible consequences. However, there are, of course, only two options: either I will manage get out of here, or I won’t.

The worst thing about the latter option is the fact that I would then lose my beloved ones, not to mention, make them unhappy. Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems to me that I would accept death much more easily if I had no children, wife and mother. I remember an incident from Parliament when I uttered some words for which I was later mocked. I didn’t plan those words; they just came out of me spontaneously, while I was standing at the lectern during one of the tense and emotional discussions on the secession of Slovenia. At that time I said: “ I would even give my life for Slovenia!” Now I know that dying isn’t a matter that could be discussed like this, not even during the important historic moments like the ones I have just referred to. Instead of talking, action is needed; and this may sometimes also include the sacrifice of one’s life. Nevertheless, I should emphasize that I didn’t say those words casually: I was prepared to give my life so that my dear Slovenia could finally, after many centuries, become a free and equal member of the international, mainly European, community (then we were still threatened by communism and the Yugoslavian Army). When I analyse the background of that event, I also have to add one crucial fact: I wasn’t married then and had no children. Today, I wouldn’t be prepared to die for my country; and I believe that most other parents feel the same way. In my heart my children come first, my country comes second.

It is important how a man dies. Lying in this hollow, I have to think about all the possible outcomes of this situation – the worst of them is surely death. I’m afraid of the form that this dying might take. Will it last very long? Will I suffer a lot of pain? Will I be delirious or will my conscious remain intact? Will death come during my sleep so that I won’t be aware of it, or will I be watching myself passing away until the last breath? So far I have been lucky in my life: apart from a sore, twisted ankle, I have never had any severe and long-lasting pains. How will I survive the whole ordeal? Another silly question, isn’t it? Either I will survive it, or I won’t. I don’t want to scream with the pain, but if it gets too much I may not be able to resist it. I will leave it to my body to set the pain-threshold, and focus my mind only on crucial matters – those that can get me out of this situation.

Irrespective of what will follow, I already know now that our trip to Nevis has brought a new dimension into my life. This is, by any measure, a big experience (I don’t want to use the expression adventure). I will try to remember as many details as possible so that I can later pass on my experience to other people and, above all, so that I will keep it all in my memory. A lot is still in front of me, and maybe one day I will have to give an account of this.

My very thought takes me back to God. I believe that my fall hasn’t been accidental: You wanted to interrupt the flow of my life as it is now and send me a message. Will I be able to understand it? Will I be able to make use of what You are trying to tell me?

From my book: Second Place of Birth: Nevis

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