When, four hours ago, at the bottom of a dormant cinder cone, our guide had casually mentioned the possibility of a cloud of poison gas wafting over us from the active cone, we’d all laughed. Standing atop the dormant cone, hearing Jorge’s alarm blaring over the deep, resonant rumbling of an erupting cone, a bright spewing cacophony of white-hot rock infused with a poisonous miasma, I found myself laughing again; only that time, it was a hollow laugh, full of fear.
“Okay!” Jorge yelled, his thick accent masking his excellent grasp of the English language. “Let’s get the fuck out of here!”
Thumbing off his alarm, Jorge and the two other guides huddled at the head of the trail, a twisting and winding scar crossing the face of the cone we’d finished climbing only fifteen minutes earlier. They stood calmly, talking in quick bursts, heads low, hands gesturing at spots along the rim of the crater, deciding how were going to live or die.
“Listen up!” Jorge yelled again, pointing to a spot a hundred feet from the trail head, “We take the express route to the bottom. We go now. No argue.”
All twenty of us gathered at the spot that Jorge had indicated. We took in the view as we waited for our instructions; a lush jungle spreading out far below us, ancient Mayan ruins in the distance, a steep slope of black and gray volcanic cinder and ash falling away from the high rim; no life, no trail, nowhere to stop a rapid descent.
“This is express route. You go that way, very fast,” he said pointing straight down the side of the mountain. “If you don’t fall, you will be at the bottom in ten minutes. If you fall, it will hurt. Get up and keep running until you are at the bottom.”
I looked over the faces of my fellow climbers, all wearing the same expression; jaws slack, eyes wide, hands clenched or wrapped tightly around shoulder straps. As climbers begin stowing cameras, adjusting packs, and tightening shoes, Scott stepped to the precipice, testing the cinder’s ability to hold his weight. He slid a few inches, sending fist-sized rocks of pockmarked lava rolling down the hill, his boots sinking to the laces. Stepping back to the top of the rim, he cinched his pack tightly to his shoulders.
“Shit, man. I can barely stand up,” he said quietly. Then, louder to Jorge, “How do we stand up without falling down?”
“One foot, then one foot; don’t stop,” he said mimicking running feet with his hands. “If you stop, you sink and it’s hard to get going again.”
Hacking coughs, quick and sharp, spread through the group in moments. The air became stifling, retched, each breath painful, as if the air had shattered. The poison air filled our lungs.
“Go now!” Jorge screamed between coughs.
Over the edge I went, little thought given to the consequences as I fled for my life, the first steps tentative, short, quick; sliding, my feet searching for steady purchase, I tried to slow my descent, stabbing each foot into the porous unstable earth, swathes of the hillside giving way. Gathering speed, each step growing into a leap, we bounded down the mountain as though we were a heard of gazelles fleeing an attacking lion, desperate to escape the maw of death. The steep slope leveling, the steady rhythm of flight repeating over and over – sliding, leaping, landing – we came to the bottom of the cinder mountain, reaching safety once again.
A few of us fell, gouging knees and gashing elbows, everyone making it to the bottom in less than ten minutes. The adrenaline of the chase, running faster than we’d ever run before, escaping a terrifying cloud of poison gas, we had discovered a wondrous gift: the white-hot joy of a life snatched from the black void of death.
From Wild, From Lost To Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
By Cheryl Strayed
Pp. 50-51, Knopf 2012