Two weeks ago, I sweated and panted my way through the last hundred metres of climbing up Gros Piton in St. Lucia. It’s a strenuous, steep hike, about 2000 ft of swift ascent. It was hot and the sun was out, but the trail was broken, slippery rock, and I scrambled far more than I walked. I finally broke through from the rainforest to the summit, and the island and the sea sprang forth in front of me.
There was a young male/female couple and their guide at the top, and my local guide Quentin and I offered to take their photo. We faffed about a bit, then I sat down to eat my cheese and cucumber sandwich, eyeing the darkening clouds.
A few minutes later, my resort guide, Marlon, came bursting up the trail, sweating and out of breath. “I could not catch you!” he laughed.
Marlon had driven me from the hotel, and connected me with the Piton park guide who was required for the hike. I was supposed to hike with them both, but Marlon took longer doing the paperwork at the trailhead, and said he’d catch up. He never did.
They’d told me to expect the climb to be about three hours, and we’d done it in an hour and twenty. I wasn’t racing — I was just focused. While walking, Quentin (who was from the small community at the base of the mountain, and was about 18), said “you are fit, and you are not worried.” He kept telling me we were making great time, but I was just … going.
Later, Marlon told me repeatedly that he hadn’t climbed that quickly with any guest in a while, not since he had the trail-running guest who was trying to race it. Even when I stumbled a few times going down, he said “you are soft on your feet — most people would fall like that.”
Here’s the thing: they had no reason to flatter me. I’d started out the morning quite cranky, as I wrote about last week, because the hotel had mis-booked my trek with Marlon, and I wasn’t about to get up at 6 am twice in a row on my holiday. (Much like the time the hospital never notified me of a change in date for my colonoscopy and I insisted I have it that day because I wasn’t going to do the awful prep twice). The drive from the hotel was more than an hour, and Marlon and I had had a good chat, and I knew that he fancied himself as a would-be endurance athlete, and had participated in an 88 mile walk around the island last year. (He made it something like 40, which was amazing with these hills).
I was preening inwardly in a weird way at the matter of fact way they acknowledged my fitness. When I reflected on that preening, I found some unexamined baggage about measuring up.
Flashback: hiking around a national park on the Bruce Peninsula in my 20s with a guided group and my then-partner, when I struggled to get up a particularly large boulder. (I’m very short and I was heavier than I am now). A snotty comment from another hiker, calculated so I’d hear the scorn: “they really should make sure people who do these hikes are capable.”
Flashback: climbing in the hills of Skye with a different partner in my early 40s. Those mountains were a lure from the first moments of our connection, when he said “come stand with me on the mountains that scare me.” We approached the dangerous, hard to find summit on Sgurr nan Gillian, one of the hardest peaks in the Cuillin, and he freaked out suddenly. “We have to go back! We have to go back!” Later, he sat across from me at dinner, thin-lipped, refusing to talk about it, his vulnerability our failure. A year later, he remembered that trip as his having summited hills that I had hung back on, despite a photo on his desk of us both on a peak.
Flashback: riding for a week in Vietnam, alone with a young male guide, who continually told me stories of the exalted fitness of other people (older men, mostly) he’d guided, while continually refusing to let me ride up the passes I wanted to ride because he didn’t want to ride them. When we finally rode the long hard Spring Pass, he left me behind to manage a dropped chain on my own. (He was a shitty guide). A year later, riding in Laos, having to get off my bike and order my guide to stop shadowing me 10 metres behind in the van because he didn’t want me to ride in the fog.
On top of Gros Piton, I still felt that 25 year old sting of the fellow hiker who dismissed me as a chunky irrelevance. I felt the bruising of those holidays in the hills of Skye, where my then-partner’s self-image continually erased my accomplishments. The frustration of cycling guides who see my age and bodyshape, not my capability, strength and desire to push myself.
Quentin and Marlon have no idea what they did, just matter of factly accepting my fitness. No false praise, just factual enjoyment. On the way back, we talked about Black Panther and the history or St Lucia, and Marlon laughed about how I beat him, said he had to train harder. He then asked if I wanted to go for coffee at a local place. “I don’t always offer this,” he said, “but I think you’ll like it.”
Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who blogs here the second Friday and third Saturday of every month, as well as other times when the mood strikes. She lives and works in Toronto, where she works in the space of creating socially accountable strategic change in healthcare and education.