The evening before we were scheduled to climb Rysy – the tallest mountain in Poland – I contemplated NOT making the hike. Over fried cheese, beer and shots of vodka (this was our typical supper every evening) I thought about my Aunt Lynda who has had two metal knees. I thought about my countless friends who have had knee surgeries only to go on and run marathons.
The next morning I woke up in our lodge that smelled like dirty socks and teenaged boys. I had decided not to hike to the top of Rysy. But I went ahead and strapped on my boots – the same boots that took me to Everest Base Camp and to the top of Kala Patthar. I had a sad breakfast of stale bread and sugary jam followed by a few anti-inflammatories.
I figured I would hike half way up and then turn around. The plan was to summit Rysy from the Slovakia side and trek down the Poland side to our next lodge. But it turns out a boulder was blocking the path down – so we’d have to back track down and take a bus to our next destination. It was my out – and it may have been divine intervention.
But before I knew it I was ascending the trail and scrambling up chains – which was the funnest part of the climb. Then we were at a little hut near the summit. With clear skies and only an hour to the top I decided to go for it. You see – stepping up didn’t seem to bother my knees at all. If only I had known what would be in for me coming down…
We spent a solid 30 minutes at the top of Rysy. We were literally straddling the line between Slovakia and Poland as we snapped shots of our accomplishment. We watched the clouds roll in as we ate our lunch (which for us vegetarians was a pepper) and began to think about heading down. And with each step down I realized that I had made a huge mistake on ever going up.
There was a family from England trekking with us – Alaric, his wife Judith, and their grown daughter, Georgia, who works as a doctor. Alaric and I spent many hours on the path talking politics and entrepreneurship. He loved to be contrary and stir some shit but he was genuine and had a great point-of-view. Georgia and I spent days talking about feminism and universal health care. Judith was a kind mom to Georgia and loving wife to Alaric – but I could tell there was something fierce and strong behind her proper English veneer. During the days we trek and chat – in the evenings we’d share pints of Polish beer. So as I was having a difficult time coming down the mountain Judith let me borrow her hiking sticks to take some weight off my knees – she offered up a tremendous amount of physical relief but the unobliged emotional support she lent me on the way down lifted me up too. At one point I took a step down on my right leg and heard a crunch in the side of my knee. It felt as if an ice pick had been shoved straight through the thick of my joint. And I cried.
I felt helpless, weak, embarrassed, and disappointed.
One careful step at a time, Jeremy, Judith, and I made it back to the lodge about an hour or two after everyone else. From there we walked about another hour (3 miles) along a flat asphalt road to a bus stop for our transfer to our next lodge in Poland. We arrived at Morskie Oko and walked another hour to our cabin. We arrived around 8PM – I took a shower and proceeded to numb my pain and hurt feelings with beers and vodka.
I was chasing this experience I had in Nepal, at the base of Mount Everest, into Eastern Europe. And I couldn’t find it. I couldn’t find my stride. I couldn’t find my breath. I couldn’t find my rhythm. I tried to find the lesson in it all, but I was blinded by pain and couldn’t find the meaning of it all.
That evening Jeremy and I crawled into a twin size bunk together. And as we wrapped our bruised bodies around each other on a tiny mattress on the other side of the world I at least found home.