NOTE: This article was written a long time ago. So, words like "fiancée" don't actually apply now.

Winter changes everything when you go mountain climbing.

I. Indoctrination

IMG_1222My fiancée Karina and I bought nearly $1,000 in new equipment, and about 40% of it was lost, damaged, or broken during the trip. We did not have or use any ropes, but we used a lot of carabineers to connect our equipment to our clothing and backpacks. We climbed two mountains: one was called Cui Hua Shan, and another was called Bai Hua Shan, in China.

Bai Hua Shan is directly connected to its smaller sister, so once you climb Cui Hua, you can go to Bai Hua via a highland trail. Once you reach the peek, you are at cloud level at about 4,000 meters in the sky, about half the size of Mount Everest (which is around 8,000 meters high).

IMG_1323I indoctrinated Karina in what it's like to go mountain climbing with me. Truly, it was my first time camping with someone else who was a civilian, so, I followed what I knew from the military, what I learned from the villagers that I had encountered during my previous visit, forming my own unique style of party leadership, which turned out to be extremely effective for our safety.

Every time I said "Sound check!" we would drop to one knee, and focus on the sounds and sights of the nearby vicinity; broken branches, moving shadows, abnormal silence, certain kinds of animal tracks, and many other clues were what we used to tell if we were being hunted, or if there was danger in the immediate proximity. If I thought that there was a threat, I would say "Weapons at the ready!" and that would be the command for Karina to grab her knife and spear the way that I taught her to hold it. We would drop to one knee because that was the best way to anchor ourselves in a full spear thrust of any wild animal charging down the hill at us, expending minimal amounts of our physical energy.

IMG_1336I explained to her what "taking point" means, in that the person who "takes point" is the person who stays a certain distance ahead of the group in order to be the first person to be shot, step on a mine, etc. so that one person would be damaged or killed, instead of the entire team. Of course, it was just she and me, but there were several times where I just wanted to use quick terminology for the sake of her easy understanding that I wanted her to slow her pace so that I could move ahead because I thought that the path was potentially dangerous.

Because I had serious breathing problems from tumors in my nasal cavity that I had checked out by a doctor and was overdue for surgery to remove them, on top of the difficulty being in the high altitude, I didn't want to have to explain to her in long intricate sentences what I wanted her to do. Some of the commands I used were not what I was actually taught in the military, but I changed some aspects of them to relieve myself of having to explain so much. To merely say "Taking point!" is a lot easier to convey my meaning than having to explain this entire paragraph (that I'm writing now) to her every single time.

Taking point came wonderfully in handy when we were traversing heavy ice downhill or trudging stomach-deep in snow, and we couldn't see holes or rocks in the ground; this allowed me to absorb about 90% of the damage from falling, getting cut, bruised, twisted ankles, etc. in that she could just follow my footsteps in the snow for safe traveling.

IMG_1294Every time I held up my left hand above my shoulder in a fist, the party came to a stop; every time I beckoned forward with my two fingers or said "Eigosu!" {"Let's go!", or "Let's rock!" in Japanese}, we carried onward. I would call every notable object that came into view as I saw it and moved closer to it, because I knew that my body obstructed her view. So, as I led, I would say "Ice!" to pre-warn her or "Red card!" to signify a sign that we were on the right trail, among many other things.

I also made sure that we took iron and zinc supplements every day in order to help naturally regulate our body temperature. We used lemons in order to alkalize our blood, making it easier to move when our muscles tightened, allowing us to dare such vast distances in short amounts of time.

II. The Others

IMG_1408We were the only ones to go as far as climbing both entire mountains in a single go, but we weren't the only ones to enter the mountain. Part of the reservation offered a small ski resort that attracts tourists. About ten of these tourists were a bunch of very thin, posh, Middle Eastern guys. I thought that they may have been Pakistani because of what they looked like, sounded like, and my general knowledge of the population of the city, Xi'an. There are many Pakistani students studying at Jiao Da, and they looked like students. Karina also added in that (since she spent time in India) that they weren't speaking this country's languages, and she recognized one of their names as a Muslim one from the dialect they were using. So we concluded that they were most likely Pakistani from that evidence.

At first, I didn't pay them any mind, but then they allegedly started disrespecting Karina; according to her, during a brief moment when we had separated, they had started deliberately blocking her path and doing other disrespectful things to her while I wasn't around. I asked for details because I didn't want to stereotype them wrongfully simply because of their appearance; as a black man, that shit happens enough to me here in China, and I didn't want to commit the same trespass against them…because ultimately, we knew nothing about these guys. She said that Middle-Eastern men stereotypically disrespect women, and she admitted that she modestly provoked action from them by being too close to them. At that, I became very alert and pulled out my knife-axe. I told her "I'll fight any battle for you, even if it's a losing one, but understand that you're not alone anymore and your actions directly affect my wellbeing as well. If it comes down to a fight with these guys, regardless of whether or not you started it, I'll fight it for you, I'll defend you...but please don't start anything if there needn't be out of your biased desire to express your disdain for how you think they may treat women."

From that point forward, I told Karina to stay in front while I stayed in the rear, acting as a bodyguard in between her and the Middle-Eastern guys. They came up on us rather quickly again as we happened upon a wonderful scene for Karina to take a picture. Karina didn't want to take a picture because she was afraid they might start disrespecting her again. I told her to take her time and to enjoy herself, to not let fear ruin her experience of the trip, to take the picture and to not rush. As they approached, they did nothing, but I saw that a couple of them took note of what I was holding openly in my hand. I didn't make eye contact with any of them, but I did notice that they noticed that I was nonverbally projecting a signal of "Don't fuck with me or her. Yeah there might be ten of you, but do you really want to go against a muscular black guy, twice your size, who is dual-wielding an axe and a combat knife? Even if you guys win, at least four of you is getting fucked up permanently. Which one of you wants to be first?"

After that, they completely left us alone, thankfully, after they realized that she was with me.

III. Peter

Peter and I

Peter and I

Before we truly set out on our journey, during the last bathroom breaks in civilized buildings, from out of the blinding sun flare came a deep voice that called my name. "Michael? Are you Michael?" asked the voice.

"Yeah, it's me," I said.

Then, the man appeared closer to my eye: it was the same man who offered me a mountaineering job the last time I had come. He had remembered my name. We spoke for a little while. He was so happy to see me. He had an admiring look in his eyes that really touched me.

"The last time I saw you, it was last October, yes? I think it was last October."

"Yeah, I think so."

"I remember you gave me a promise that you would return. You did. Thank you so much for returning. When I see you, I say, no Chinese man is that tall and would be out here this time of year. Out of all of China, only one man I know could be out here right now in this weather."

"Wow..." what a compliment, I thought.

"I see you in October, you were black! Your hair was short and your skin was dark. But now I see you, your hair is long and your skin is white!"

I started rolling with laughter. My skin has never been white, but in what English he could use, I believe he was trying to say that I was a lot lighter in the winter than I was in the summer. I didn't take offense to it.

Our conversation bounced between Chinese and English; whatever I couldn’t express in English, I used Chinese for, and vice-versa. We were both advanced speakers of the other’s native languages, but certain terminologies, idioms, etc. were difficult for us to get across.

He asked me about my stay here, and about my girlfriend (who is now my wife). On the first guess, he said that she was Russian. I smiled, "Yeah, she is. Well, she descends from there." Latvians typically get very angry if you call them Russians, even though they were one in the same country a couple generations ago.

"When I first see you," Peter said. "I see you are a black man, but how you are dressed and your mannerisms told me that you were very different."

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A villager and I. He didn't want my help.

I was a little offended by what he said at that point, but I didn't let it show. I knew he didn't mean to. My race comes up in almost every conversation with Chinese people here; they're usually either fascinated or appalled by my interracial genetics--either one of the two extremes. I'm usually either considered a freak of nature, impossible, a liar, or... an anomaly that's considered really cool in the eyes of those who have been raised in homogeneous societies. I don’t usually like to even speak about race; it comes up in almost every conversation with the locals here, because the vast amount have never interacted with a black person before, so they usually have plenty of questions.

I simply gave a small bow and said, "Thank you very much. That is truly an honor."

"No," he said. "It is you who has impressed me most. The honor is mine."

We then talked about the villagers in the mountains for a while, before we said our goodbyes and Karina and I set off.

IMG_1283IV. The Abandoned Village

We climbed just under 2,000 meters during the first day and made camp in the village where I had first met the gypsies. The village was abandoned, but strangely, they had left booby-trap alarms. This forced me to do a thorough CQC-style search and room-clearing of every open hut and every room in the entire village, and I had to do it fast before the sunset. They had probably left for the Chinese New Year, but my guess was: who and why would they need to make these makeshift alarms for way up here at this altitude? It wasn’t for me; I was personal friends with them, because of how often I visit. Suddenly, I became aware of the possibility that there may be other groups of people in the mountains that I hadn't been introduced to yet, dangerous people.

Later on, I found out that it was true, and that Karina and I were in potential danger, at that point. Even though it was highly unlikely that we were actually going to be attacked by human beings where we were, I spared no precautions, and stayed awake the entire night for Karina's safety. I scouted every possible direction that we could be attacked from, and set guerilla style booby traps of my own that blended in with the environment, including my own simple trip device out of twigs, to alert me of anyone or anything approaching, be they animal or human. Out of red Birchwood bark, I made a tri-pronged spear that I used my knife to splinter; I deliberately carved it so that if you were to stab something with it, it would break off into whatever you stabbed into another sharp end that you could use to stab and break off again, and stab and break off again...three times. Each prong had splinters that would make the wood harder and more damaging to pull out, exactly like an arrow. Karina made one of her own, but she didn't splinter or multi-prong it.

IMG_1275Even though we had gathered a bunch of firewood, I thought it best not to start a fire that night, in order to prevent making ourselves a target. I also knew that the light of a fire would ruin our organic night-vision. So, I used a small portable propane tank in order to cook our dinner in pitch black; I switched my headlamp on to dim red light in order to prevent burning myself.

I stayed on a roving watch for the first few hours, never staying more than thirty paces from the tent, until a wind storm began to pick up and the wind chill forced me to settle on a stationary watch from inside the tent, relying primarily on my ears and the booby traps that I set. Before she went to sleep, I taught Karina about how to handle herself during the night, how to keep invisible by staying low to the ground and how to move without making noise with her clothes. I taught her about the different kinds of guard-watches (roving, stationary, overwatch, etc.) and why they were effective depending upon how many people were in the group and what weapons they had in the forest (like my bow and arrows). I also taught her how to fight with the knife, the two ways of holding it (inverted and regular style), as well as how to master leaving the knife unsheathed while she slept and being able to grab it in the dark without making any noise or accidentally cutting herself.

IMG_1261I admit that I drifted off twice, while my knives were still in my hands, and both times I fell into a nightmare. One was of me stopping myself from killing one of my dogs (named Ayame), and another was of something that I couldn't remember. Each time was only for a few moments, but I admit shame in that I drifted at all. I snapped awake at the slightest sound of a branch bending too far. Karina was very jumpy as well, but slept better knowing that I was there. She asked if I really thought that there was danger out there, I said: "Well, we're in the mountains. I made sure that the way we packed wouldn't emit any scents that would attract wild animals unnecessarily, but I don't like how the villagers completely disappeared with having left alarms and booby traps. Why are they not here anymore, and what were they trying to protect themselves from? It may be nothing, and I don't want to overreact, because they may have just left for the New Year’s holiday or something, but I don't want to leave any room for regret should something happen. I have to treat this situation like a professional and make sure I cover every possible thing that I can think of. The fact that I'm thorough like this is the reason why I was offered a job protecting people out here to begin with.

So, yes ...I think there's danger out there. It could be absolutely nothing, but I'd rather not bet on that chance if it isn't. Safety is of the utmost priority."

Karina woke up at sunrise, freezing.

Thankfully, the rain cover of the tent blocked much of the wind chill, but we were both still freezing. Temperatures during the winter, and at that altitude, had dropped below freezing throughout the night. There was snow all over the ground and in the distance. I figured by that point it was safe to light a fire, so I did, by dismantling my booby traps (so they wouldn't hurt other innocent campers or animals who'd come to this spot, after us) and used them as firewood. Karina and I instantly warmed up, for it only took me a few seconds to start a fire with what I had.

And with that, we were on our way.

IMG_1299V. The Panther

There was a plethora of The Lord of the Rings jokes, most of them regarding Frodo and Sam (I was Sam, and she was Frodo, because she would've had the ring: the engagement ring), as we continued to meet our daily quota of 2,000 meters in altitude.

I heard a twig snap, very very faintly, in the distance, one that she completely was oblivious to. In an instant, I abruptly interrupted our laughable conversation with "Sound check!"

The bass of my voice scared off whatever was approaching, as well as shocked Karina out of a lack of expectation. Like a dog who hears something undeterminable, I lifted my beanie above my ears to hear more clearly and stuck my head acutely in the air.

"What is it!?" she whispered.

"Would you prefer a lie or the truth?" I smiled, giggling, stealing a line from V for Vendetta.

"The truth!"

"You can't handle the truth," I said, stealing another line from A Few Good Men.

But then, I got serious: "Sike, nah. We're being hunted. 11-o-clock, there. Look at the shadows."

Karina observed the movement and shape of the shadows herself, and began to lose her calm. "What IS that!?"

"Eh...not sure," I said nonchalantly. "It's probably a wolf or something like that. This is winter, and food is scarce."

I could see that Karina's attitude was beginning to worsen as I spoke. To lighten the mood, I said, "You see how it reacted when I yelled 'sound check'?"

"Yeah?"

"Realistically, it won't bother us if we're healthy and pose to be too big of a threat...unless there's a whole pack of them. I've come face-to-face with wild dogs out here before, the last time, during a landslide, right on the street. So long as you give them the right of way, don't show any fear, project that you're not to be fucked with, they'll typically leave you alone. Whatever that is up there, is probably just curious, because not many other living beings would be up here this time of year. A lot of campers go out into the mountains, get hunted, and they don't even realize it, either because they themselves are not hunters, or aren't trained or educated in war, or any other relevant aspect in any way. At that point, it's up to the animal to decide whether or not it's worth the risk of attacking. So, if I raise the BASS OF MY VOICE," I yelled in the direction of the shadow, "TO SOUND A LITTLE MORE AGGRESSIVE AND DANGEROUS..." there was a branch that broke as whatever it was scurried away, "...It'll think twice about attacking, because in truth, it's just as afraid of human beings as we are of it."

IMG_1224We kept hiking, but from that point forward, Karina learned from the experience to pay attention to every little detail that her brain could. She began to notice things that even I didn't, and actually became someone that I could relatively depend on for my blind-spots and sensory weaknesses. I explained to her that even though I'm very experienced with staying in the mountains, that I was still only human and capable of erring. That I didn't know everything, but I did know what I knew. I made sure that she understood that I was actually a ghetto/suburban boy who merely educated himself about wild animals, British SAS and United States Navy SEAL survival tactics (to make up for any lack of official training when I served in the military), and then applied the theory by actually going out there alone in order to gain real experience with the knowledge that I had gained, before I met her.

Of course, I've had actual SEAL mentors, but they taught me about how to break through my mental limits and pain thresholds, not about the intricacies of guerilla warfare and hunting--there hadn't been enough time.

There were a couple other sound checks when I deemed them necessary. But there was really nothing else she or me had seen until we'd stumbled upon peculiar tracks that I couldn’t really identify. She asked me what they were, and I answered, "Not really sure, looks like a wolf or some kind of cat creature. Notice the big prints adjacent to the little ones. I have no proof, but if I could make an educated guess, I'd say that we're in the territory of some mother and her cub or cubs. That's probably what's been following us this entire time. There's virtually no food around, and she needs to feed her young."

"Shit, so, we're up against two of these things!?"

"Three...actually."

"Three?"

"If there's a mother, and a baby...there's ultimately..."

"A father..."

IMG_1228"Yes. But whether or not they stay together as a unit, I'm not sure. I'm no expert on wild animals, I'm just good as fuck at survival and beating ridiculous odds against nature."

There was a point in our next 2,000 meter climb when we called a sound check and saw the tail of a cat-like creature. That was all we saw of an actual encounter with a panther. We only later found out that that's what it was because upon leaving the mountain two days later we would see a sign that stated information about the pathers, black bears, etc. and their estimated populations. As well as a sign saying that the area that we were in was forbidden because of the animal dangers.

In truth, I thought of this all as merely a good training exercise for both myself and Karina. We knew that the panther had been real because we saw the tail and the tracks (that we got pictures of), but I'd rather tell a story about how I intelligently prevented an attack from happening to begin with, because of good strategy, rather than how I courageously (and stupidly) defended against an actual panther attack.

If any wild animal feels comfortable enough to attack you, you're already doing something wrong, projecting signals of weakness and vulnerability that the animal feels that they can take advantage of. This is something that I taught Karina: the best method of conquering conflict is to prevent it altogether. The Art of War states that the best warriors are the ones who can win wars without fighting at all.

IMG_1423VI. The Windstorm

We reached the top of the mountain at the end of the second day. I was beginning to develop some breathing issues because of my nasal cavity versus the high altitude, but everything was fine. The windstorm picked up to the point where our tent would have flown off if we hadn't anchored it down with extra rocks and the weight of our bags, for the iron nails that were stomped into the crevices of the icy rock that we would lay upon were not enough to hold the tent down.

I scouted ahead to see if there were any viable water sources and hidden trails that we may explore. There were none. So, because we ran out of water, we melted snow by boiling it after scraping what we could of any dirt off of the top layer.

I had to get on my hands and knees in order to break the ice on the top of the mountain where we'd set our tent. I couldn't get it all because of its depth and how it was pretty much a part of the rock. We would have to sleep on the ice tonight, but I was happy that I got a lot of it out of the way and kicked it down the mountain.

IMG_1379

Even while dangling off of the side of a mountain, I can whip up some mean grub! 😉

I set up a perimeter of booby traps and alarms, just in case if there had been anything that would attack us during the night, we would have a heads up of about two to three seconds. I accidentally stabbed my left knee with a small but sharp shard of wood that I was trying to cut. My body was beginning to shut down because it had been 72 hours of mountain climbing without suitable sleep. So, we slept in 3-hour shifts. And I taught Karina how to sleep with her weapons open and in hand without cutting herself, to be ready at a moment’s notice, despite sleep deprivation, to defend herself. We slept with our spears by our sides, our knives open and attached to our vests/coats, and I had my ax ready and available by my thigh.

Earlier, I had banged the same knee that I had stabbed on both ice and rock (twice). I yelped out in pain.

The windchill had lowered Karina's body temperature to a dangerous point. I knew that she was trying to be tough, but I explained to her that there's a difference between being tough and obeying the scientific laws of what our bodies can and cannot handle. If she were to have gone hypothermic, that would've created a lot of problems that we were not truly equipped to handle. We were wet from traversing the snow, and it was around -10 degrees outside with about a -30 wind chill. I’ve been hypothermic before…it’s not cool.

She kept saying that she was fine, but I knew Karina. I pulled off a glove, touched her hand and knew instantly that she must be warmed up. I gave her my gloves, and then I pulled out my portable propane tank and set it on low. We kept a small controlled fire inside of the tent, warm enough to warm our extremities and, with the rain covering of the tent, enough to heat the entire tent for a short amount of time (long enough to ease her back into sleep).

VII. The Ice River

IMG_1377

My hair looks crazy, but understand how rough the journey was.

The next morning, we struggled to fold away the tent, because the wind was still extremely fierce. We had to be particularly careful because we were at the very top of the mountain; if our tent flew away at all we'd never see it again...but more importantly, it was about a two-day journey back to the civilization in sub-zero alpine weather. We would not survive if we did not have our tent. The only way we would survive is if we marched through the night, deliberately staying awake, but even then...our health would suffer greatly and we'd only be able to do that once...not twice...for the remainder of the journey. Also, the propane tank that I carried with me was running out of gas. I could easily build a fire without it, but that would take time that our bodies didn't have against the cold.

Anyhow, I lit a wood fire in the morning to help get us back to normal body temperature (so that we didn't waste what precious gas we had left). And carried on. We took 5-minute breaks for every twenty minutes of hiking at that point, because I was still having breathing problems.

IMG_1329On the way down the mountain, beginning our 4,000-meter descent, we had lunch while hanging off the side of a steep trail that went down the side of the mountain. To fall most likely would mean death, but Karina's attitude was beginning to change; she was becoming braver, adopting the same humour-under-pressure attitude that I had, cracking jokes in what was actually very potentially dangerous situations. I spoke about how climbing mountains toughens one's character, and that it's good to find humor in situations that would scare the average person; she agreed. Humor was the reason why I was able to talk a kidnapper out of robbing a store once when I was stationed in Virginia; those who served with me on the Eisenhower surely remember that incident. The police thought I was crazy in my report, but maintaining your cool in life-or-death situations is often the key to getting out of them. It's when people freak out or lose hope that they cast their own doom upon themselves. I gave Karina lots of encouragement and praise for roughing it with me like that. She didn't complain; she never really whined. She just kept marching forward. I admired her strength; she admired mine. We told each other how much we admired the other.

IMG_1355

Need a hand?

I limped down the mountain as best as I could, still taking point as we trudged through the waist-high snow, ice, and ice water. I didn't want Karina to be hurt in any way, and me being the tank that absorbed the bulk of the damage was the entire point. From the very beginning, I expected to get damaged from always taking point. Thankfully, the windstorm died down, making for a much more comfortable hike. We had made our climb without using any ropes, a way of testing ourselves. I kept cracking Skyrim jokes, saying things like, "Karina, don't you know I envy your Nord blood!? Don't you know you have a 50% resistance to the cold!?"

She would laugh. "Yeah, but I prefer to be hot."

There was a point where the snow became so thick and flawless (no doubt after a recent small avalanche or snow slide, covering up everything in 3 to 5 feet of smooth trackless snow) that what we thought was the trail disappeared before our very eyes. I made the best judgment call that I could and chose a direction considering the clarity of the path...

IMG_1312

Rock on.

...but it was the wrong one. We winded up marching through about 5 feet of snow, snow that came up to my chest and would have been up to Karina's chin if not for me taking point. She stepped where I stepped, so she was not as exposed to the cold as I was. Still though, that didn't save her from all the trouble. Because we couldn't actually see where we were stepping (since we generally couldn't see our legs and feet), we fell through hollow snow on rocks that led us tumbling down what we figured out to be a frozen river. We stopped tumbling and started sliding. We laughed and giggled at the fun of it all, despite being hurt a little bit from the fall. Our overt interruption of the snow caused a small avalanche to occur, and we were chased by snow that fell faster than we did. I told Karina how to handle herself during an avalanche, should it occur: to treat an avalanche like water and to swim in the direction that it flowed while keeping your head above the surface, as if you were swimming downhill in a rapid river (also something that I’ve done before, while white-water rapid rafting in Turkey). The avalanche wasn't that bad though, thankfully. It truly just...lubricated and cushioned our slide down the mountain river as we fell about 500 meters.

My tri-pronged spear. Stab, break off. Stab, break off again. Stab, break off again.

My tri-pronged spear. Stab, break off. Stab, break off again. Stab, break off again.

In the chaos of it all, I lost my axe and she lost her spear and knife. She asked how I'd managed to hold on to my spear, and I told her in a stereotypically deep Japanese accent: "A samurai NEVER loses his katana...unless he loses his arm."

She laughed.

I came to the edge of a rock that stuck out of the frozen river that stopped my slide. Karina, however, slid into me, causing me to fall off of the rock...

...and to continue sliding. It was WONDROUS fun. Painful! But wondrous!

But wondrous!

Karina's slide came to stop when she slid into a rock wedge that snagged her ankle, almost ripping her foot out of her socket. I had to dig her out. She lacked the strength at this point to dig herself out; her muscles, from the rapid climb and the battering and bruising that we both received left her muscles at all but failure.

IMG_1318Once she was free, she limped behind me, and we were two beat up mountain warriors who loved our life.

Sadly, however, the fun had come to an abrupt end when we realized that we veered off course, that we had no recollection of the trail and worse: my body temperature was dropping...fast.

I lost all feeling in both feet, disabling me from walking properly. As a result, I too fell in a rock wedge the same way Karina did, twisting my left ankle in the same way. She had to dig me out.

She began to lose hope, but I kept a completely positive attitude. She said, "We shouldn't have made that turn..."

"Don't start saying your should'a, could'a, would'as...that's weak. All that matters is now. The moment. Zen. Keep calm. Keep a positive attitude. And let’s figure our way out of the situation."

IMG_1438I pulled out my compass and map and started figuring out where we were and how we could get back on track. I couldn't use my feet, so I crawled my way back up the mountain for about 50 meters in the direction that I thought was correct (since Karina didn't have the strength to carry me. Like I said, her muscles were at failure), climbed up a hill by grabbing on to trees, and found suitable ground that I was able to stand on.

"Trash can!" I yelled. Signifying that we had found the path again. Karina was very pleased, and felt ashamed that she even had a moment of doubt in me.

We stopped not far from there, on a wooden bridge where I couldn't go any further. Karina started freaking out because she began to really think that we might die out there. I told her to calm down, that even if I had lost some toes in the process, no one was going to die--therefore, she shouldn't overreact.

My core body temperature was still fine, which meant that I wasn’t hypothermic, and so was hers. It wasn't that big of a deal. I changed the topic to something more positive, something we could look forward to, like what we were going to eat when we finally got back home. I told her that we were going to be home soon, and that not long after today, we'd be laughing about all of the things that we went through today.

IMG_1392I instructed her to pull out the propane gas tank. I pulled off my shoes and she held up my feet (since my muscles were also at failure and I couldn't hold them up myself) above the flame. It wasn't long before I could feel my toes again, but meanwhile, I was telling jokes and giving her encouragement, telling her how much I believed in her and how much I needed her. How much I was depending on her...and I really was.

If I couldn't get her to keep it together, then yes, we were indeed about to die; as long as I was able to keep her calm, she was a great help that made all the difference in whether or not we made it out of there. Even though I was the higher-leveled veteran, at that specific moment: I was still human and helpless, and could only speak to her as a mentor. If I had lost my cool, she would have lost hers...and we would have failed to return home, at least in one piece. Despite her lack of experience, she turned out to be the pivotal variable that determined us getting out of there safely. I would not have been able to do it on my own. She rung out the water in my socks and put them back on. Then took some plastic bags and tied them around my feet so that no more snow would touch my bare skin as I walked. Even though our boots were waterproof and specifically designed for the terrain that we were in, snow still got into the shoe through the top where my ankle fit in because of the height/depth of the snow that we traversed.

Not long after, about thirty minutes later, I sucked up the pain of my bone, flesh, and muscles thawing out, stood back up, and kept a move on…we had to get as far as possible before dark, because we wouldn’t have had suitable heat to keep us healthy.

IMG_1443

The bottom of the ice river.

VIII. The Ice Railing

Our bodies warmed up the harder we pushed through the snow. We acknowledged that if we could keep our heart rates up, the blood would pump through our extremities and keep us warm. We decided not to make camp again, and to march through the night if necessary in order to cover the distance we needed in order to make camp. It took us two days to ascend 4,000 meters...and it took us one full day to descend. However, I'd say that ascending was a lot safer than our descending.

The tourist trail came to a downhill slope of about 5,000 stone steps. Steps that went down the mountain as far as you could see, disappearing into the distance...and they were ALL covered in ice. One fall would mean certain death. We, without ropes, held on to each railing, and descended one step at a time. We slipped a few times, but thankfully we held on to the railing.

It took us about two hours to finish.

IX. The Hitchhike

Several hours and a sunset later, we marched, soaking wet, in the dark along a highway that led down the mountain. Besides the one wrong turn that we had recovered from, I had led us in completely the right direction, but we were out of daylight. Thankfully, we found a car that we hitchhiked and took us back to Xi'an. There was no public transportation readily available because of the time of day and the fact that it was Chinese New Year’s, but we made our way back home in time for the celebration by hitchhiking with a friendly samaritan.

IMG_1327Unfortunately, Karina was so tired that she missed new year's, oversleeping the sound of all the firecrackers that Yun (my half-wolf) and I stayed up for. The fireworks bounced off of the walls of the buildings; it was a glorious sight.

The next morning, when she awoke, I told her: "Not just a few hours ago, we were sliding down a river avalanche."

She smiled and laughed.

"And see?" I spoke further, "I told you we'd be laughing about it."

She laughed harder, for I was right.

We then watched a full The Lord of the Rings marathon to reminisce in the memory of our journey.

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