The Secret to Surviving the Hardest Hike of Your Life

A few weeks ago, the husband and I took a trip to the absolutely captivating Cape Town, South Africa. Normally the most anti-tourist person you’ll meet, this time I wanted to do all the things. All the food. All the beaches. All the scenery. It was a whirlwind of three days and I only wish it lasted longer. (another trip soon, darling? 🙂

We decided early on that we would climb Table Mountain. Intimidating in photos, it was overwhelmingly formidable in person. But I love hiking, so no sweat—I want to live in Utah or Colorado so I can tackle an epic hike every weekend. I’d be lying if I said the just-straight-up-ness of the hike didn’t make me hesitate, but we were there, we had cleared the morning for the trek, and I would be bettered by it so might as well. 

It took us about twice as long as we’d expected to get to the top (mostly due to my “just wait a second” breaks, requested through gasps for air). But man was it worth it. I’d certainly never been that high through my own exertion before.

Having neglected to eat breakfast consisting of anything more than a granola bar (after a 16 hour fast, mind you), I was really struggling the last few meters until the top. Running on empty was a tangible experience. Still, we made it, and the husband promised me an omelette at the top from the gloriously-located restaurant. 

After we made it, we found, however, that the cable car to the top was closed due to high winds, thus no cable car down. No restaurant. No shop. Nothing there except nature as it was. Alas, my aching stomach. We finished our strips of dried mango, rested nearly an hour, took our mandatory photos, and started heading down. It was possible the cable car would open again, but I wasn’t wanting to wait around for it. 

After only a few steps down, we were passed (again) by a group of 12-year-olds who we had seen several times in our way up. One of the girls looked at me with wide eyes, “Wait, are you just now getting to the top?” 

“No,” I responded. “We’re on our way down. We were at the top for awhile.”

“Oh, okay,” she laughed, “I was gonna say….”

Nothing like a 12-year-old to humble you. 

As we had hiked straight up, it had not been lost on me that we would also have to hike back straight down. I had prayed even then for the Lord to quell my fears. It was very easy to see a way to fall and to …just keep falling. 

About a quarter of the way down, we heard that the cable car was working again. I decided we should just keep going down, not wanting to hike all the way back up. Besides, I felt fine, it wasn’t that hard. It didn’t take more than 10 minutes for me to regret that decision. Still, we descended. Sometimes with large, lunge-like steps; other times scooting on our behinds. Even ripped a hole in my favorite workout pants from a stray wire. Hit my shin against a rock with the majority of my weight, resulting in a near instantaneous bruise and swelling to match. I was not having a good time. 

As we neared the halfway point, I was struggling with self-pity. I was starving. We’d run out of water. My shin hurt. My knees were aching from the jolting of descending. My thighs were starting to shake from all the lunges. The road didn’t look any closer. I thought the husband was mad at me for choosing to still go down instead of go back for the cable car (he wasn’t, but never mind letting the truth get in the way of my anxious feelings!). This was taking forever

I rounded a boulder, the husband a little bit ahead of me, and I saw that he was talking to a woman seated at the edge of the trail. Nothing strange about that — lots of people stopped to rest on the way up and down, and the husband was a social and kind person, so it would make sense that he’d talk to her. As I got closer, I realized he’d asked her if she was okay and she hadn’t given the predictable answer of “yeah, I’m fine, just resting.”

Instead, she was debilitatingly tired; couldn’t find the strength to take another step, even though the direction was down. She thought she was in better shape than she actually was, she shared, and she hadn’t brought enough food or water. She didn’t think she could make it. 

I offered to have her join us in our descent, promising to go only five steps at a time if that’s all she could handle. We would do it together. She gratefully but reluctantly agreed—she kept saying she was worried to be a burden. I assured her that I was already going slowly, so no harm in her joining our little caravan. And so, husband, M, and I descended. 

She and I talked about our careers, about our walks with Christ, about how we really wanted some ice cold orange juice and mango juice. As we got closer to the end, her pain increased and it was harder and harder to continue. A doctor noticed us, gave us an unopened, cold water, and some candy to get some calories in us. She offered to pay him, but he said it was his pleasure and continued on. 

Two men noticed our struggle and offered their shoulders. They quite literally carried her the last quarter-mile. A few ladies saw us and gave us their granola bars, their cold water, their almonds and raisins. 

We made it to the bottom with gratitude. So much gratitude. As we sat and said thank you to all those who helped, and as I unpacked all the gifted food from my various pockets, I suddenly realized something: I hadn’t noticed my pain since about halfway down the mountain. When I thought about it, yeah my legs and feet were aching, but how had I stopped noticing?

My attentions had been focused on helping M. Keeping the conversation going to keep her distracted from the pain. Encouraging her when she felt like she couldn’t continue. Reassuring her when she felt bad for our help. In all that time, I had quite literally forgotten my self-pity. 

A few nights later, safely back in our home in Nairobi, the husband and I shared how thankful we were for the opportunity to help M. His difficulty had been eased in helping me, and mine had been forgotten in helping her. What a backwards conclusion when compared with our natural inclination to focus on ourselves. 

The secret, then, to surviving the hardest hike of your life? Help someone else make the climb and the descent. In doing so, you’ll find only blessing.