Recently I took a trip up to the north of the country to hike Fiji's highest peak, the formerly named Mt. Victoria, now known as Mt. Tomanivi, a much deserved upgrade from the original colonial British name. I was excited to do the hike- hell, I'm excited to do anything that might result in mud smeared on my face and a chance to run around in Fiji's more junglii regions. The desk job just kills me some time.
The lead up to the trip was pleasant- I took a day off from work and rode a bus up to Nausori town where I met up with two other PCV's. I rode the bus up through Rakiraki town before getting off in in this little place whose name escapes me where we cached our packs in a park and snoozed in the shade waiting to meet up with the other PCV's that were coming in from different places. Stocking up on water [Fiji is in the middle of a drought emergency in several areas]- we boarded a transport carrier [the same type of vehicle mentioned in the last post] and rode the dirt road and it's many switchbacks up to the cabin where we spent the night. The weather was noticeably cooler and wet and reminded me of Pennsylvania in the fall. I was glad that I had my rain shell with me.
The next morning was the climb. Prior to climbing we had to perform a sevusevu ceremony in the village at the foot of the peak. The sevusevu [pronounced SAY-voo SAY-voo] ceremony is all about asking permission. Boiled down by an ethnocentric cook [me] it works like this: We enter the village bearing a gift, normally a brown bag of yanqona or some cash to buy yanqona. We meet with the chief of the village and the Mata ni Vanua [Maata-NEE-Voo-ah] who is the chief's spokesman. We tell him we're here to climb the mountain [which we must also pay for, in addition to "guides", or village youth]. He says a bunch of things that sound like gibberish [thanks for coming and thanks for the yanqona, God bless] and then we are free to pay our fees and head out on our hike. The chief was cool- he had obviously been through this process plenty of times and the sevusevu went smoothly. We were invited back for grog after our hike.
Our guides, two possibly three village youth, set out with our crew of roughly ten people to start the hike. Once we had gotten out of eye sight of the village, the ladies in our group took off their sulu's to reveal more appropriate hiking pants and shorts and some of the dudes went sleeveless. Modesty, always a crowd favorite in the villages, isn't necessarily the best attire for hiking. Walking up towards the summit was nice- we passed cows and soaked our pants with morning dew not yet burned off by the rising sun.
At this point, the hike was going along fine. Before setting off I went through what amounts to my normal OCD ritual of packing, evaluating, and re-packing my stuff. I'm getting very comfortable with the realization that others will always view me as an obsessive micro-manager with my kit. Actually, I'm not an obsessive micro manger- I have just sat through a a fifty hour wilderness EMT class and understand how easy it is for people to die in the woods. I don't share that part with people when I first meet them though- instead I take their comments in stride while I debate bits of gear and make mental notes of who will likely die first and be consumed when the situation gets tough.
I had done a brief internet check of the weather and for stories of the hike, with one guy saying it took one hour fifty minutes to summit with another 1 hr 45 minutes for the down climb. Ok- sounds reasonable. The crew of PCV's who had hiked it the year before made these claims, boasts really, about how they "swam" up to the summit because they had climbed in a "hurricane." They claimed that everyone had only been wearing sandals and that they had done it without incident. I was suspicious.
Packing my kit at the cabin, I sacrificed extra food for water- carrying two full nalgene bottles, my first aid kit, breakfast crackers and nutella, my rain shell, a spare shirt, a poncho, SAM splint, 30' of webbing, two locking 'biners, some prusicks, and a Miox purifier. I figured that stories of summiting the mountain in a hurricane while wearing only sandals was an exaggeration but I still wasn't keen on wearing my Teva sandals. Oops! I also realized that I had left my compass in the top drawer back in Suva...
A quick side note- an exhausting number of people have adamantly parroted the advertising rhetoric of various sandal companies; "Lucas, these are hiking sandals..." they say. I am interested in learning how many wilderness incidents are caused by people over-estimating the performance of this footwear. They claim that the benefits of being able to get their sandals wet more than makes up for their lack of tread and ankle support. I will never be convinced. Ever. These sandals: Teva's, Chacos, Keens, Merrils etc. are great for walks on relatively level ground, or semi-tech inclines that are dry but anything other than these optimized conditions, to me, makes them a liability. I would rather walk around the jungle with soggy kicks and poly-pro socks then mess around with zero ankle support and no tread. Looking at the group, I figured this issue would be the most likely use of the SAM splint. I threw the Tevas in my pack though- why not, and laced up my New Balance trail shoes, missing my leather hiking boots back in America [hopefully] sitting in a cool, dry, place; mold free.
A part of me felt silly carrying all of this shit, er, I mean, kit- and I neurotically fantasized about what a jagoff I would be if it was me who was seriously mangled during the hike [the accident report states that the victim fell tits-over-ass to his death due to his over-weight, top heavy backpack filled with pretentious medical/rescue gear combined with the sheer weight of his neuroticism and paranoia. Investigators say the load apparently shifted, causing him to lose his balance on the approach].
Back on the trail, the hike was great. The stack of PCV's were starting to spread out, the more gung-ho at the front with everyone else somewhere trailing behind. Our point-woman guide was not wasting any time, moving at a brisk clip that was apparently unaware of our slower members in back. Fortunately, the guide taking drag at the back was sticking with this group. We crossed a couple of streams, myself almost soaking my butt in addition to my shoes because of the weight of my self-righteous backpack.
About this time, the trail started to do something fun- It became more of a path, which in turn became a path needing bushwhacked. Of course, this soaked everyone's upper body, the grasses leading up to this point having already irrigated our lower body to saturation.
As the trail got steeper, we began to spread out even more. I moved towards the front of the pack to get a better view of the terrain change. The hike was getting steeper, the path surface turning into wet mud and larger rocks. Stopping at our first rest point, I sipped some water. At this point, we were about a quarter of the way. I asked different people how they were holding up- everyone was doing fine. Even the PCV who was doing the hike in completely smooth bottom "going out" shoes. Hmm. Out came my teva's [they at least had some tread], off came her shoes. Glad I brought those along!
The trail now turned into a semi-technical climb. What does this mean? It means that if I was there with the Search and Rescue team I volunteered with in Pittsburgh PA, the AMRG, and we were using a litter to carry someone out, we would have it on a belay line to make sure it didn't get away from us. In other words, the terrain was getting steeper. By this point, the group was all spread out. The slowest members were barely within eye shot from the middle group [where I had positioned myself], the lead group even further ahead. Everyone seemed happy though and the last group still had a guide with them so we pressed ahead.
The terrain got steeper still. The ground was wet and our path ceased to be. In many places our semi-tech approach turned into a vertical scramble up moss covered boulders, giant, muddy tree roots, and other obstacles. I was having a blast- but I was also aware that no one had expected this sort of terrain. It was also taking far longer than most of us had expected and many people were hiking [now climbing] in wet, unfamiliar conditions with sandals. I'm sorry- hiking sandals.
I had long since grabbed one volunteers bag to carry for her. She had been using one of those cloth grocery tote bags to carry her stuff and it was becoming a hindrance because she couldn't use her arms as effectively during the scrambles. The med-kit came out for the first time on a tiny precipice to improvise some blister protection from a volunteer whose ankle was getting chewed up from her footwear. Duct-tape. I used the break to call the group furthest behind and got no answer. Times like this are interesting to me because no one else ever seems concerned. I remained silent considering the situation; maybe I'm just over-reacting. Ok. Move on out. We kept climbing, vertical scrambling, walking along muddy ridge-lines, etc; the cost of straying more than a foot in some places could have resulted in a long, muddy cartwheel to the bottom of Mt. Tomanivi. Like I said, I was having a blast- but I was also getting concerned about the last group.
The middle group, my group, made the summit; the exact time I'm not really sure... The summit, a clearing in the trees with a sign and a pile of rubble to sit on was a sight to behold. Not really. The summit is often shrouded in clouds today was no different. The sun had not yet been successful in burning them off. I remember it being chilly up there too and I was glad I had my rain shell because of the temperature difference and periodic drizzles. I was also really hungry. I dove into my breakfast crackers and nutella- trading some for additional fruit and peanut butter. I'm not sure what I would have done [besides mooch] had I not packed food. I could feel how drained I was from the climb up and I needed sugar and carbs. I wish I had brought more food.
Fortunately, the final knot of people made the summit, much to my relief. We all sat there, eating our food, enjoying the warmth when the sun periodically broke through the clouds. Some of the group had neglected to pack food so we shared with them- others had not brought rain gear. Still another person was almost completely out of water. I'm glad I had brought both nalgenes.
I'm not knocking the folks who were unprepared. I get psyched when people want to do stuff like this and I want to encourage it. For many of them, this was their first serious hike and they had no previous context in which to consider and plan for. Of course it would have appeared crazy to some of them to go rolling in loaded with kit. I am starting to think that most people see preparation as outcome oriented as opposed to prevention oriented. In other words, why would someone need 30' of webbing and a riggers belt if they had no intention of rappelling down a cliff? Or, I'm just going for a day hike, I won't even go off the marked trail- why should I bring two large garbage bags and lighter if I have no intention of spending the night miserable and alone...but at least dry and warm. Those attitudes are human. I reflected back on times in the woods with my dad growing up, lessons I had learned from J-Rocc, my designated life tutor, and my time spent with AMRG. More than particular skills, that time reinforced how important having an awareness and context for actions are. At times it haunts me, manifesting itself in ways that appears to obsess over information and planning. People respond by saying "your planning is too intense, you have to be flexible." What I have a hard time articulating is that planning helps to define my flexibility because it increases the awareness I have for a particular subject. More awareness means more knowledge to act on when avoiding or dealing with the shit-storm. It seems like a no brainer but it took a couple of miserable nights out in the woods for it to sink into me. Planning, in many ways, isn't even the point- the increased awareness is. The plans don't even need to work right- or even be utilized- but that awareness will always help a person out.
We ate some more food, I pulled out the kit again to re-tape the volunteers blister dressing and we began the down climb. I made a request for everyone to stick together- that lasted for about three minutes and then everyone was split up again. The lead team raced ahead, I hung back with the slowest members- made slower because the path we took for the down climb, the same we had used to summit, was now a muddy, slick chute without ladders. This played havoc with several volunteers sandals. Unfortunately, when mud and water get between the foot and the sandal surface, the foot tends to slide around in the sandal bed, no matter how tight you lock down the straps. Several PCV's actually took them off believing they could get better purchase going barefoot. This also slowed progress. I personally slid most of the way down on my ass; better I thought, than my forehead.
We met up with the middle group near the bottom. They were finishing up a rest stop and waited with my knot of people. We waited quite some time for the final stragglers to catch up. The sun was out and in full force by now, drying up the mud and eliminating the dew. The clouds parted and as we returned to level ground, the blue sky and sun reflected on the plant life. At one point, the path moved through a clearing of wildflowers that I had missed when tramping up the soaking wet countryside that morning. It was nearly 4:00 when myself and two others returned to the village. There were still four people some twenty minutes behind us making it nearly 4:30pm before everyone was accounted for. Our hike had lasted at least 7 hours, possibly more, covering terrain that no one had anticipated.
Aside from being muddy, tired, and banged up everyone had made the summit and returned without incident [aside from some odds and ends lost during the frequent falls from slipping in the mud.] I spent that night at a PCV's home in Rakiraki. That night, we had a nice spaghetti meal before hitting the sack and I was on the bus bound for Suva the next day.
The hike had been just what I needed and I'm looking forward to doing it again- I will bring just as much kit with me, and I'm excited to see whether or not our "guides" will use the same approach. I'm thankful that no one was injured, and interested to see how what was learned and observed is applied to the next outing. Looking forward to it...