"Dial 3 for rescue-related emergencies, such as fire or ocean rescues."
"You've reached Vodacom Emergency Services. This is Janice. What can I help you with?"
"HI! I'm currently lost and stuck up the side of Table Mountain and I don't know my way up or how to get down and I think I need help."
"Ma'am, I can't understand you. Can you speak properly please."
Just repeat yourself in a British accent. She'll get it. "I am currently lost and stuck up the side of Table Mountain and I don't know my way up or how to get down and I think I need help. Can you help me?"
"And what do you want me to do?"
"Well, you're emergency services right?!"
"Ma'am, whose number is this?"
"THIS IS MY CELL PHONE I AM CURRENTLY STUCK ON A MOUNTAIN, CAN YOU PLEASE GET HELP???"
"I'm blocking it."
I don't remember Janice's real name. But I do remember bursting into tears after that conversation and thinking, "Janice is the worst. Maybe worse than Vodacom. And that's saying something. But if Vodacom hired Janice, then Vodacom is definitely still worse than Janice."
A few weeks ago, I hopped on a plane from Nairobi, Kenya to Cape Town, South Africa for an 11-day solo adventure. As my time there unfolded, it was undeniable that this was the Best Worst Week of My Life. I should have seen the warning signs when the ticketing agent at Jomo Kenyatta Airport told me I couldn't board my flight unless I had my yellow fever immunization documents. Considering Kamulu was 45 minutes away and it was 4 AM, the likelihood of my papers getting to me on time were zero to none. After a series of sketchy hints and underhanded directions, I ended up at a little office of the airport with a sleeping nurse who let me write my own immunization papers because I reminded her of her daughter. More on that later, maybe.
So 6 days later, there I was. Unfamiliar panic had set in. Fog was rolling in from all sides like a draft of calm, white, foreboding yet beautiful Dementors. Yes, the ones from Harry Potter. How did I get myself stranded up the side of one of the New7Wonders of Nature?
I would LOVE if I had some heroic tale to answer that question, but the honest answer was this: I can be a real idiot sometimes.
Here is what everyone tells you about climbing Table Mountain:
Never climb alone. Always with a guide or someone who knows the mountain and is from Cape Town. Yeah, right. Don't they KNOW this is #safsolotrip2015? Duh.
Wear proper hiking shoes. Oh, you mean, like, no shoes, right? To be fair, I truly do hike most comfortably barefoot, was planning on taking the Aerial Cableway Down, and brought flip-flops just in case.
And bring waterproof clothing. You never know when the fog will get thick or you'll get lost. So my super-cute FP leggings, matching boho shawl, lace halter, and trendy grey shirt should suffice, huh? "Appropriate hiking clothes" is always tough because if I come upon a killer photo location, I use myself as a test model. I can't pass up the light or scenery or something else that totally matters a lot. Because art. And Instagram.
Bring water and food. But I just had lunch at the Waterfront Market on the Wharf! Chill.
Please try and leave your expensive photography gear at home, especially if you're a foreigner. $4000 in gear on my back? Check check check.
In the event of an emergency, please at least have these emergency phone numbers for Search & Rescue. Too late to go back to the mall for airtime. Vodacom is just the worst!
So if you're me, this is what happens:
You show up, positively jaunty, at the base of Platteklip Gorge Hike at 3:45 PM, beginning right under the Aerial Cableway. The internet calls it steep, always up, and easy to follow. You let Baba Yetu blast into your eardrums as you soak in the mountainside sunshine and live-update Jon from home just to be a jerk about the fact that you're in Cape Town. You pridefully tie your shirt into a halter and wave up at aerial passerbys because, to them, you know you are The Queen of Table Mountain Hiking Chic.
That goes for you too, men.
There's a divergence in the path. You take the more obvious route because it's obvious, only to backtrack after 15 minutes because someone on the internet called your route "RELENTLESSLY UP." So you take the vertical, convinced that it's a switchback shortcut. You cross a path, but don't know whether to go right or left; there's not a soul in sight. "RELENTLESSLY UP," you tell yourself, and trail-blaze onward. Worse comes to worse you'll just end up at the top, right?
Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. You'll end up at this wall in the gorge. The area you've hiked is too steep and loose to safely climb back down. You've done your fair share of climbing– you even have your carabiner and ATC on you, but that's truly no good without a rope, now is it? But those handholds look solid.
The only way is up. And you make it. You're coaching yourself through breathing, thanking God more sincerely than you can last remember, and let yourself be still to soak it in because, my goodness, is it beautiful. And you're SO overjoyed because a path cannot be far ahead now!
Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. There is no longer even a semblance of a path. Only boulders, bushes, and a tantalizing view of the top. 30 more minutes of scrambling has to get you somewhere. You can HEAR the lucky, safe, innocent-selfie-taking people at the top. You wish you were one of them. But it's 6:30 PM, the sun is fully set at 7:30 PM, and the last cable car goes down at 8:00 PM. And you KNOW, of all the rules you didn't follow, hiking in the dark would be scary. You're not lost until you no longer know the direction you came from, and while the light was still out, you can see the road below, and it is comforting.
So you sit down because you're dizzy from fear and constant vertical. You had told Jon that if he stopped hearing from you, to contact Table Mountain Search and Rescue and tell them essentially all the live updates you had been sending him. You contact your South African friends you had made less than 24 hours prior (who had even offered to hike with you!) and ask them, "If I'm theoretically currently lost on Table Mountain, what should I do?"
And then search and rescue goes into motion.
Janice from Vodacom's emergency number has failed you, but you have 35% of phone juice left and are dropping location pins left and right. You got a new SIM card and don't know your own number, and essentially every phone complication that could arise does. 20%. Table Mountain SAR has friended you on Facebook for direct communication because you're getting better data than call service. 10%. They've figured out your phone number and general location, and a team is on the way. It's dark and cold. They tell you, "I am flashing a light in the direction we think you are. Do you see it?" You don't. More low-key panic. You have to climb higher to get a better view. They see your phone light. You are much higher than they originally thought. 5% and 10 PM. There will be people dispatching soon. They tell you to shut your phone off and blow your emergency whistle every 5 minutes. Thank you, Osprey backpack with your built-in whistle, for being the only thing I did right on that hike.
A team of 3 is on the way, with another medical team of 3 following. It's a 2 or 3 hour hike but they will find you in an hour or so, but you don't know any of that. How will they find me? Will there be a helicopter? Do I want a helicopter? How will I get down otherwise? That hour is surreal. You entertain yourself with photography, until your fingers are too cold to work the camera functions. You even recorded yourself a 10-minute video explaining yourself that's far too embarrassing to include in any blog you might theoretically write. You watch the fog envelope everything around you, like the strongest vignette filter closing in on the city lights. It seems to echo the fog clouding your mind. Is that a boulder or a person? Should I try sleeping to forget that I'm cold? You drift.
Until your mind awakens to a distinct shrill pitch coming from the distance. You are ELATED. And they hear you! 3 piercing lights cut through the dark.
"STAAAAAAAYYYY PUUUUUTTT!!!! WE'RE COMING TO YOU!!!!!!"
You can already hear in your mind the reprimand you're going to receive when they come, but you don't care. They're coming, they're coming, and you recognize that your mind has been hopelessly dramatic for the past few hours but it doesn't matter. You'd rather know you were overreacting if it meant you'd be found.
It takes another 20 minutes to lose you and find you again. "We are with the patient," over radio have never served such comforting words. You've stayed relatively calm, with no tears since Janice. But the second they're with you, you crumple in gratitude.
"It's okay. It's okay. I'm sorry. We're here now. You're fine. You're okay."
Andrea might be an angel. She surrounds you with comfort that The Dementor Fog had temporarily robbed you of. She gives you her shoes and socks because you didn't even mention you didn't have your own. The others give you a banana, some water, a down jacket, and time to stop shaking. They will climb down at your pace. They thank you for giving them something interesting to do that night. They joke. They laugh. They make you joke and laugh. You know they're volunteers because of how totally unbothered they are by the fact that you interrupted evening wine after a long day leading hikes as a mountain guide.
It's almost midnight. At the bottom you find a few things:
- A newfound appreciation for flat ground.
- An emergency vehicle in which you're required to debrief and sign-off on your rescue. You're shown the whiteboard on which the coordinator tracked your location and the entire search and rescue process. The diagram shows a helicopter. You thank God you didn't need it.
- The reprimand, but it's not so bad. They ask that you pay your experience forward to keep others from getting into the same type of trouble as me, but with a less lucky outcome. And I am a lucky outcome, they tell me. Because the conditions were just right for them to search for me immediately. If they weren't, or the fog rolled in too fast too quick, they'd have to call the search off until the morning. I am a lucky outcome because evil people wait up on the mountains for hikers like me to get lost. They wait for night to fall and mug them.
- Amelia, Josh, and Josh. Three South Africans with absolutely 0 obligation to you, but a hunch in their hearts that they met you for a reason. And you know now what that reason might have been. They bring you chocolate milk and Amelia gives you her cat-printed socks. They drive you home because no one wants to Uber after being referred to as a traumatized patient.
I am not finished processing the event. I'm convinced that it was actually not nearly as bad as it seemed in my mind, but I think the impact matters more than the details of reality. I have never been so acutely shown how much I value life. I have never been so deeply reminded of how taking the safe route can actually be an act of faith. I have never been so humbled in my subconscious belief that I am slightly invincible. I learned something about courage. And I am sincerely so thankful for all of the elements that brought me to safety. That was not luck. Basically, God will take care of you, but don't be an idiot.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery says it best:
"I am not talking about living dangerously. Such words are meaningless to me. The toreador does not stir me to enthusiasm. It is not danger I love. I know what I love. It is life."