If I were a Mountain…

Cholatse, on the way to Everest Base Camp in October 2009

Many things happened in February 2011: I successfully passed my GUE Tech 1 course in Puerto Galera, Philippines; I returned home and was forced to stay; on a bad, bad night I went climbing alone – in the morning I woke up at the hospital, somewhat broken and completely dispirited; then, I started this blog.

The sole possibility of February 2011 and the pain of the months that followed it repeating itself in 2012 is nothing less than horrifying to me. February is fast approaching, and I must find a way not to have ‘a February’ this year. Where better to hide and sit out a storm than in a tent on a mountain which your friends refer to as ‘The Devil Mountain’? I know, it makes perfect sense, right?

The mountain my team of Sherpas and I are going to climb this Febuary is called Cholatse. It grows out of the frozen ground of the Everest Region like an enormous claw. At just under 6500 metres, Cholatse is not the highest of peaks but it is considered to be one tough cookie. Due to its reputation as an ‘evil’ mountain, it is climbed much less often than the other prominent Khumbu peaks. Very few of the few ascents on Cholatse have been successfully completed in winter, which is when we are going to climb. Again, it all makes sense, non?

View of Cholatse from Gokyo Lake 3, December 2009

I expect the weather to be one of our most serious issues during this expedition. In February spring comes knocking on Nepal’s door, bringing with it strong winds, heavy clouds and snow. It is unlikely that we should have a good weather window to get to the summit, and climbing a peak as tough as Cholatse in less than perfect conditions is a ridiculous and hopeless undertaking. Other problems will include my favourite steep winter ice, vertical rock and… me: it is a problem when someone so depressed finds herself on a mountain that has killed or injured many with a healthier mindset; it is a problem because I’ve been seriously ill for the past month and, thus, will not have my usual physical strength going for me. And this, too, somehow makes sense.

How does it make sense, exactly? It makes sense to me because I know that in order to survive this February I must have an opponent who wants me not to: in order to win, I must be made to fight. I have always thought that if I were a mountain, I would be Cholatse and, therefore, there couldn’t be a more fitting adversary… or a better friend.

I am very excited about the upcoming expedition and hope to tell my readers all about it when I return to Kathmandu at the end of February. For now, take care of yourselves and keep your fingers crossed for me!

Love,

Mila

Bullfighting 101

It is summer 2000-something; I am, I think, 19. My love of learning is still alive and well, so I am spending the holidays in Malaga studying Spanish. Yes, actually studying and not lying at the beach all day and going out every night. I am enjoying the unfailingly sunny days and the proximity of the warm Mediterranean after a cold and stressful winter at university in the Netherlands. I love the taste of the new language in my mouth, the random conversations with the friendly locals and shopping for colourful things I don’t need.

We were talking about corridas de toros – bullfighting – the other day in class. Today, when I open the morning newspaper and spot an article about a bullfight in the town of Rincon de la Victoria, I am suddenly curious about experiencing the ancient, questionable tradition first-hand.  None of my Northern-European girlfriends want to join me, and it takes all my power of persuasion to finally convince a girl from Germany to come along. She is fair-skinned, shy and kind-hearted, and only agrees to go so as to ‘support’ me in this ‘terrible’ experience.

We take a bus to Rincon de la Victoria and arrive at the entrance of the small bullring about forty minutes later. The town is decorated generously for its annual feria and the streets are swarming with people in traditional dress. The environs of the plaza de toros are dusty, and smell of horses and cigar smoke. My friend and I get in line for the tickets and I buy the ‘best’ ones, Barrera Sombra – front row on the shady side of the ring, right behind the bullfighters’ main burladero. We still have an hour or so before the fight begins at 6 pm, so we go to the beach and walk in the warm waves. Little is said between us about what we are going to see, or about whether we ‘should’ see it. My unhealthy curiosity is the answer to all possible questions and doubts, and I take the liberty of answering for my friend, too.

The bullring is full: full of laughter, and fluttering fans, and bright lipstick, and of hoarse voices of seasoned aficionados. I see no foreigners except us, seated in the most conspicuous of spots and drawing quite a few stares and chuckles.

‘Te gustan los toros?’ Do you like bullfighting, my neighbour, a grey-haired senor with a thick cigar between his teeth asks me.

‘Pues, aun no lo se,’ I reply, I don’t know yet.

My friend and I are both feeling uncomfortable, and relief only comes when music, un pasodoble, announces the arrival of the trio of bullfighters. In their shimmering trajes de luces, ‘suits of lights’, they walk across the arena slowly, proudly and deliberately. I am amused by this display of outdated masculinity: by the tight satin suits with pink stockings, the Mickey-Mouse-like hats, the ballerina shoes, the too much gel in the black hair… I point out all these ‘funny’ little details to my friend, and we giggle, relieved, certain now that nothing too terrible could possibly happen.

The small plaza seems to shake when the gate opens and the first bull of the evening storms out into the ring. The bullfighter receives it with a less than smooth wave of his heavy magenta capote. Clouds of dust rise from the sand again and again, following the bull and the torero: a big cloud, a smaller cloud. I am unimpressed but the man, who, satisfied with his performance, hides behind the burladero above which we are seated.

Next, two horses dressed in floor-length leather armour appear in the ring carrying portly riders armed with lances – they are the picadores, I recall from the class. ‘Hey, toro, hey!’ one of them, closest to us, calls out. When the bull, lowering its muscular neck, attacks the horse, the picador drives his lance into the flesh above and between the bull’s shoulder blades, pushing and twisting until a pool of blood forms where the metal meets the flesh. It feels as if the same lance has been thrust into my eyes, drawing hot liquid from them. My eyes are wide with terror, then, anger, when I realize that the noise in my ears is applause and cheering. I look around the plaza and cannot for the life of me comprehend how one creature’s suffering could bring such joy to others.

When my gaze returns to the arena, I see the ‘tercio de banderillas’ unfold there: three men, the bullfighter’s assistants, each take a stab at the same spot in the animal’s neck with two colourful sticks, their tips – sharp metal hooks; they are called banderillas. Unlike the lance, the vara, banderillas stay inside the flesh, pulling on and stretching it. When they hit muscle, I hear it; I can all but smell the blood as I watch it gush out of the wound. We are too close to this; I can’t watch, and I can’t look away.

Again the bullfighter emerges, a red cape, muleta, in hand, his steps slow and calculated. The bull’s head is now hanging low on its broad neck. The man calls his adversary, who follows the voice and the muleta’s teasing movements: the muleta is the animal’s whole world, demented as it is by pain and rage. I feel them, and shame, too, such great shame.

When the beast begins to stumble, the ‘maestro’ changes his sword and manoeuvres the bull into position for the final blow – the estocada. He aims and, moving swiftly, drives the estoque into the flesh and through the aorta of his opponent. In a minute or so the enormous animal tumbles to the ground, dead, eliciting more applause for its killer.

With dry and itchy eyes I watch one of the ring workers cut off both of the dead animal’s ears and present them as a trophy to the bullfighter. With them in hand, the man, smiling, walks around the ring, basking in his strange triumph. He throws one ear, then, another, into the crowd: it is a great compliment, my neighbour’s hoarse voice explains, to be given one of the trophies. I turn to the voice and follow it back to the man’s old, leathery mouth. It is smiling.  

‘Let’s go,’ I tell my friend but she looks completely lost. I try to persuade her to leave but she just sits there. Finally, I get up and begin to pull gently on her arm, but I must stop when the plaza falls silent: the next matador is in the arena, ready for his challenge.

‘Sientate, guapa,’ my neighbour says and, pointing at the bullfighter straightening his capote in the ring, adds, ‘este es buen torero.’ I comply and sit back down – my emotional exhaustion is such that I can do no more. In the course of the next hour I witness the slaughter of five more toros de lidia – fighting bulls born and bred to die in the arena. My whole being is saturated with such suffering that my mind shuts down and I simply stare. When the corpse of the last bull is dragged away from the ring by two horses and the last of the applause die down, I am swept off my seat and out of the bullring by the crowd. Out the main plaza gate the three heroes of the night are being carried on their assistants’ shoulders to the sounds of more cheering…

‘Como te ha gustado?’ a familiar voice sounds behind my back – it’s my neighbour, again.

How did I like it? I nod and smile weakly in response and wave good-bye.

My friend seems to be in a worse state than I; complacently she follows me I don’t know where. It is getting dark as we approach the beach. The town feria continues on the promenade to the sounds of traditional music and smells of food and candy.

‘Shall we walk back?’ I ask my friend.

‘It’s a long way,’ she says, and then, ‘yes, let’s…’

We walk quietly for the first hour. The beach is now empty and quiet – we are far away from everything.

‘I’m sorry,’ I say.

‘No, I wanted to see it, too,’ she lies graciously, ‘it’s fine.’

We have now said what needed to be said and can continue on is silence. I don’t know how long we walk for in the hot, humid night. The sound of waves and their warm touch against my feet is beautifully relieving, but I still can’t chase out of my head the sound of metal hitting bone, mixed with the roar of applause. I don’t understand how two such sounds could have come together.

About two hours later I find myself in my room at the language school, sitting on the bed. My new dress smells of smoke, and dirty sand, of human and animal sweat. Of blood, too? Do I smell of the blood I have been drinking with my eyes? Could one tell by looking at me what I have seen: what I paid to see and stayed to see? Curiosity was what brought me to the ring but what was it that kept me in my seat? Am I – in my pretty dress, with my big tearful eyes – really the ‘nice’ person I think I am? What is it about me that up until this evening I have been continuously failing to acknowledge? Am I crying and hurting now because I should be or because I’m truly touched by what I’ve seen? Could there be a cruel, savage something in me that may have enjoyed the corrida? I spend the night torturing myself with such questions as I’d never had to ask before. I try to be brave and honest. Still, I don’t understand…

A year after the day of the corrida in Rincon de la Victoria I will return to Andalucia for answers to my questions and a ‘suit of lights’ of my own.

Beautiful

If only for a day

I had a woman’s beauty,

Not wisdom, love or courage

But a spellbinding face

/

Long limbs, thin frame,

And an entitlement to silence,

Which one is only given

By beauty’s tender hands;

/

I wonder what it’s like

To be admired

Not for a timely joke

Or for a kind embrace

/

But simply for one’s presence –

The presence of a candle

In a world lit

By pale glow of plain lamps

/

If only for a day

I knew this power

Which all the elements

Are willing to obey

/

Next day, I know

I’d have to be devoured

By the monstrosity

My mirror’s used to showing

100-Metre Club

Blue Hole, Gozo
Blue Hole, Gozo, Malta

Even after all the talk about Sensei and I doing an over-a-hundred-metre dive, it came to me as a surprise, when, after doing 75 metres in Ras Il Hobs, Gozo, on Esclavo’s Tec Trimix course, Sensei said we would be doing 100 metres in two days’ time. I must say, I didn’t take it too seriously – I’d heard the same thing promised me one too many times before. Granted, it was a bit different this time: four twinsets had gases with an MOD of 107 metres in them, ready to dive, and a couple of new stage regs have been purchased… From experience, however, I knew all too well that twinsets can be left for ‘another day’ or re-blended, or simply drained, and regs are always handy.

On our way back from Gozo I found out that my brand new dry suit was waiting for me at the office. I’d not dived in a dry suit for about two months and had never used one to such depths. Also, I’d never used a separate inflation system on a dry suit – which I would have to do on the 100-metre dive to avoid Helium-related problems (isobaric counterdiffusion). ‘That’s two pieces of equipment I’m not particularly familiar with,’ I thought to myself.

We came back from Gozo, where we’d been diving that day, rather late and agreed on making the plan and doing the rest of gas blending the next day. When I walked into the dive centre in the morning, I was told I would be teaching EFR. Thus, I spent most of the day with ‘Annie’ and a Divemaster candidate, doing chest compressions and bandaging limbs. Late in the afternoon Sensei suggested I go in the water and try my new suit before I take it diving the next day. The suit passed the test of a quick dive on the house reef but I still wasn’t convinced I wanted to use it to over a 100 metres. Should I dive in three wetsuits instead? I would, but I knew all too well that under the pressure of over 11 bar I would have no buoyancy in a wetsuit – or three wetsuits – and my wing is a single bladder. It would have to be the dry suit.

When the working day was over, the tech team got together in the large classroom to make and discuss the dive plan. The four bottom divers would use TMx 12/55, 19/30 and EANx 32 and 72 during the dive; TMx 19/30 would be used as a travel gas as well as for decompression. It would be a 72-minute dive to 105 metres for me and another tech instructor. Sensei and Esclavo would go with us but stop and wait at 90 metres (max depth for last dive of the Tec Trimix course) – they would run the same dive plan my team mate and I would. However, the two teams would use different dive computers – Suunto’s for the 90-metre team and VR’s for us. We would have two support divers meet us at 40 metres with extra gas and to relieve us of the 19/30 stages. They would ascend with us to six metres and, once clear, hop out of the water and wait for us on the shore.

Ras Il Hobs, Gozo
Blue Hole, Gozo, Malta

After leaving the dive centre that night I wasn’t feeling particularly calm. I was thinking about my busted eardrum, the new computer that had a very peculiar way of switching gases, the dry suit and what I would use to inflate it with and, of course, the three-digit depth I so wanted to reach. I went to sleep uncertain of what would happen, and if I would be able to deal with it.

The morning of the dive was rather nervy. My team mate, a safety diver and I were the first ones to arrive and analyze all our gases. I set my computer, packed my dry suit along with other bits and pieces and was ready to go. The rest of the divers arrived soon, together we loaded the van and headed for the ferry in Cirkewwa. A diving accident resulting, as we later found out, in a British diver’s death had just taken place there. The sound of rushing ambulances did not add to my sense of comfort that morning. The team, however, seemed cool and composed as ever, and it was looking at them that eventually made me feel better about the dive ahead of us.

Once in Ras Il Hobs, everything happened very quickly – as it would before, during and after any ‘normal’ dive. We got kitted up, walked into the slightly choppy water, had our stages clipped onto our rigs by the two safety divers and swam out towards the pinnacle. Next, the four of us did the checks, put our travel gas regulators in our mouths and headed down. At 40 metres we all switched to our back gas but then the two teams separated temporarily: the 90 metre divers had a bit more time to get down than us – my team mate and I had to kick fast to get to 100 metres on time. We hit 100 about 11 minutes into the dive, and, our computers showing 102 metres, we shook hands and signalled up, relieved. Our 90-metre friends were waiting for us to ascend to their depth so they could join us on the way up. Our first switch at 70 metres went smoothly. The second one, however, turned out to be more interesting. For some inexplicable reason I decided to switch to EANx 32% at 49 instead of 39 metres. I followed the procedure for switching, failing to spot the elephant, and only realised I was in trouble when I already had the new reg in my mouth. I looked at the depth on my computer – 49m, not 39, you IDIOT! – and spat the regulator out returning to the previous gas. My team mate looked terribly worried. I remember him reaching for me to pull the wrong reg out of my mouth but I didn’t give him a chance: if I was going to keep my life after all, I wanted to keep my teeth as well. The switch at 39m and the next one at 12m both went fine. Our safety divers, too, did a great job of helping us get rid of the floaty stages we no longer needed. The over-twenty-minute hang at 6 metres was fun with Sensei getting his wet notes out and congratulating my team mate and me on joining the 100-metre club. I also received the ‘Wanker Award’ – an ‘award’ for the biggest mess-up underwater – for nearly killing myself during the gas switch.

Gozo, Malta
Blue Hole, Gozo, Malta

We were back on the surface and it was all over. I felt exhausted and stupid: my dry suit had done well, the computer worked fine, too – there had been no life-threatening equipment problems; what could have killed me was my lack of focus and my complacency. I distrust everything and everyone around me, yet I trust myself blindly and, obviously, it is wrong to do so.

Does it feel ‘special’ in any way to dive to 100 metres? I wouldn’t know. In the 72 minutes I spent underwater I didn’t have a moment to spare to really ‘feel’ anything. It is slightly disappointing that all I can say about going to 100 metres is that it’s stressful, difficult and tiring. Judging by how I felt after the dive physically, it’s not the healthiest pastime in the world, either. It is, however, a wonderful challenge and a test for those aware of the implications of failure. Would I do it again? Yes, I certainly would – I’m dying to go deeper.

P.S.: This story was written right after the dive, at the end of 2010. It will be the first of the series titled ‘One Day’ which I plan to write and post here. The stories will be accounts of some of the most memorable, exciting and the craziest days of my life so far. Should be fun!

Count me out

Count me out – I’m not coming: I can’t muster the strength

To exhale: I am drowning, and don’t want to be saved

/

I don’t want to be dragged up this thin shot-line to noise

I’m at home here – it’s quiet, but for my mind’s own voice:

/

It says I’ve got a mother; I reply: ‘but she knows…’

It says I’ve got a sister yet, she recalls me not

/

It says I love the mountains, and to read, and to smile;

I reply: ‘there is nothing that I love – you are lying,’

/

It insists I’ve a chance still to undo all my wrongs

But beyond good and evil there is no one I owe;

/

It begs that I forgive those who have hurt me to death

But I couldn’t, I’m sorry: I’m not as good as this

/

Then, it whispers a prayer to a god in some tongue

And I give it a moment till its voice is all gone

/

Gone’s the line I was holding, gone my breath, gone all hope;

The screams of pain from my chest let me know I’ve reached home

/

Count me out – I’m not coming: I can’t muster the strength

To keep myself from leaving shallow waters for depth