At the top of a mountain everyone is in the happiest moment of their lives. I’ve never bonded with complete strangers faster than after summitting Roy’s Peak on the South Island, on a day so clear that the full magnificence of the Southern Alps flanking the banks of an alpine lake poured onto my corneas like the countless ephemeral waterfalls filling the reservoirs as winter finally turned the corner. The moment I rounded the top of the snowy crest and leaned against the cell tower that dominates the windswept peak, the energy permeating the thin oxygen was palpable, and I was met with a collective “Welcome to the top, mate!” The rapid 1000-meter ascent was one of the toughest hikes I’ve ever undergone, and many travelers never make it to the top, easily lured away by the viewing area on a faux summit about 2/3 of the way up. But for those who conquer the final (and most treacherous) portion of the trek, it’s hard to not feel heroic. You see, everyone is the hero of their own story, and in every great tale the protagonist has to climb a mountain. At the top, you’re invincible, and nothing matters but your own immortality.
Despite the wind and my ever-present timetable, I couldn’t help but spend over an hour on the summit, nursing my Nature Valley bar one oat at a time and making conversation with the other handful of humans that shared the small concrete platform. It’s beyond cliché to say that life is about the journey, but in that moment I was pretty appreciative of the destination, a destination that brought lifelong journeys from Belgium, Mexico, Christchurch, and California together on a Monday afternoon to share the top of the world, shortly before parting ways forever. In that moment, another cliché that perhaps resonated more was that such an experience “put life in perspective.” Seeing the town of Wanaka dwarfed by the raw power of the mountains reminded me that I too am insignificant, and as long as my body allows, I can always find myself a little pocket of the universe to sink into, where I can bury my human concerns in the snow, sink my feet into the earth, and reunite my carbon atoms with their ancestral home. I also recognize that such a sentiment is a luxury; reaching Nirvana means untying all your earthly connections, but some knots are harder to untangle than others. I’m lucky that the knots in my psyche aren’t much more than bunny ears.
Knots aside, I soon turned my focus to the descent, and gravity pulled my worn calves and shaky knees towards the valley like Superman in the meteor that brought him to Earth. I never really broke from my reverie, and it was glorious. I reflected on the other moments of my South Island campervan trip, like seeing the light of a full moon reflect off the rugged face of Mt. Cook, or overcoming the language barrier with a French grocer to describe what “fruit snacks” are (really, what are they?). I had some great epiphanies, such as how sheep are really just rearranged grass particles, or how my name rhymes with my two favorite outdoor activities (Mike likes to hike and bike). And to every winded hiker that passed me in the other direction, I gave a confident, all-knowing “hey,” subliminally answering their question of how much longer with “a lot.”
Eventually I made it to the parking lot and I realized I hadn’t checked the time in a while. My friends were waiting with the car, and greeted me with a “dude where were you we were supposed to meet at 3...” The knots were returning, but at least I could remember fondly what it was like to have them untied.