The Conquering

I nibble on a cookie, my eyes transfixed on the puffs of smoke emerging from the peak of the volcano. My lips catch my breath before it can escape into the cool air. An ominous rumble echoes from within the shadows, and we watch in awestruck wonder as glowing orange chunks spew into the sky, racing past one another and grasping at the stars. Just out of reach, the embers relinquish their dream and streak back to earth, tumbling down the steep embankment until the shadows devour their brilliance. I wish I could watch this forever. It's early, but I say goodnight and duck into the tent, pulling another sweater over my head before burrowing into my sleeping bag. The rumbling lulls my eyelids to a close and I drift into sleep. I first notice the cold tickling my nose, and then the ache that clamps down on my shoulder as I roll over and dig for the watch inside my backpack pocket. 3:00 a.m. My fingers fumble for the zipper and I wiggle out of my sleeping bag, stuffing it into its sack and then sitting on it until the last hiss has escaped. I cram my feet into my hiking boots as I stumble to the door, shuffling along the edge of the path as the sand threatens to pull me down the precarious slope. Grabbing an outstretched hand, I pull myself safely into the light of the crackling fire. My backpack sends up a cloud of dust as it hits the ground and I puff hot air into my hands before bending down to tie my laces. I grab a bowl of oatmeal and a spoon, squishing between two others on a rickety bench. As the bowl begins to thaw my stiff fingers, the oatmeal glides down my throat with ease and smolders in my stomach like the embers in the fire. I've only just scraped the last remnants of breakfast onto my spoon when the guide calls for our attention. “Time to get moving if we want to make that sunrise!” He gestures up the volcano, our path cloaked by a blanket of shadows. With my backpack snugly fitted against my shoulders, I slip into the line and I run my fingers over my headlamp, fumbling for the button. For a brief moment the light shines and I can see how caked with dust my boots are, but then it fades and dies. Quickening my pace, I follow closely at the heels of the person in front of me, scrounging for what leftover light I can put my feet in. As we walk, my boots slowly begin to materialize out of the darkness, and I turn and pause for a moment. A warm orange glow is beginning to stretch across the purple clouds that cascade like ocean waves, and the glistening lights strewn across the hillsides are growing dim. Running out of time. My breath and feet fall into a rhythm for the next hour or so as we trudge up the winding path. As I emerge from a cluster of trees, the wind strikes my cheeks with sharp lashes. The burning only intensifies as we continue to scramble up higher, finally catching a glimpse of the other side of the volcano. I try to scrunch my face, but my numb cheeks hang lifelessly. Clenching my hands around my poles sends pain shooting through my fingers, but I grimace and wiggle them more. “Let's wait here for the others to catch up,” the guide announces as we duck behind a large boulder. I struggle to unclip the strap from my waist and tug open the zipper with my mittens on, but taking them off isn't an option since they're the only thing keeping my fingers from falling off. I yank another sweater from my pack and pull it over my head. I suck in a breath but the icy texture makes me shudder and regret it. By the time the last person has snuck behind the rock, I am eager to get going again. “This is the last stretch,” the guide comments, motioning up the formidable, steep hill. The sand collapses beneath my feet and I plunge my poles in ahead of me, pulling myself on top of them. I pause for a moment until I feel steady again. Two steps forward, one step back. Repeat. My eyes track the person stumbling upwards in front of me. Just make it to where they are. Good, that's good. Now up a little farther. I coax my shaking body from one checkpoint to the next, and my feet cry out in relief when they hit solid dirt rather than sand. I did it...I can't believe I did it! As I try to take in the view, I meet my friend's eyes and my lips explode into a grin as we throw ourselves into each other's arms. I shuffle closer to the edge of the volcano and sit down on a boulder to watch the sky. At last, the sun finally peeks over the horizon and warmth begins to stretch across the sea of clouds, casting sparkles across the hills. I can't help but wonder if the sun waited for me to get to the top before unveiling itself. The bottom of the clouds are bathed in warm yellow, while the tops are drenched in a deep violet that bleeds into the sky like a waterlogged painting. This is more beautiful than I ever could have imagined. The frigid air now feels exhilarating in my lungs. As I sit and gaze at the glowing horizon, I realize—I didn't conquer the volcano, I conquered myself.

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