Part 1 – Winging it
“Let’s just start walking and see what happens.”
“We’re all broke. We should try to spend as little money as possible.”
“How far is it to the Peak from here?”
“Who cares? This is our adventure.”
And so we walked from Bethel Gap to Ness Castle and waited for the fifth member of our party, a seventeen y/o Jamaican boy who is good friends with Sarah. He led us down a short cut that allowed us to by-pass forty-five minutes of road, and soon after we reached Hagley Gap.
With nothing but time on our hands, we waded through the river and sat by the bank on the other side, reapplying sunscreen, refilling our water bottles, catching our breath, and discussing the next part of our journey.
“The [Hagley Gap] Square isn’t too far from here. There is a shortcut, but it’s steep. Should we take it?”
“Nah. We should save our energy.”
“It’s only two o’clock, and we’re not hiking the peak until Eleven. We should use the road.”
“We’ll see if we can catch a ride to Penlyne at the square.”
We were able to find a ride, but it cost way too much for our tight budget. Besides, deep down, I think we all wanted to be able to say we walked the whole way. So we made the unanimous decision to hike the steep dirt road from Hagley Gap to Penlyne Castle, where we knew a lengthy and much needed rest awaited us.
Part 2 – We’re really cold
Approximately 3,300 ft in elevation, the wind blew around us and chilled our bones. But we had no idea what we were in for. Regardless, we hung out in a well-lit, out-of-use bus stop while we rested our legs and passed the time. Our goal was to resume our hike at 11pm, so we would reach the peak in time to see the sunrise. We acquired a sixth member; another good friend of Sarah’s who’d hiked the peak several times.
At around 10, we gave up our convictions and sought shelter in a shop to fend off the wind. For an hour, we hung out with a couple other locals, chatting over a variety of things to pass the time. We bought some snacks to keep us until morning, and finished off the sandwiches we’d packed with us. As promised, we set off again at Eleven.
Our next goal was to get to Portland Gap, which was 3.5 miles from Penlyne Castle, and exactly halfway to the top. We’ll take another break there, we decided. The nearly full moon lit our path for a mile, and then we switched to our headlamps.
Unfortunately, Portland Gap was not an appropriate place to rest. It was a small, open field, vulnerable to the fierce and icy wind. While icy might in fact be an exaggeration, I’d guess it was close to mid-forties up there. But in our defense, our clothes were soaked with our sweat and made of cotton, regardless. The grass had already collected a thick layer of dew, and so sitting was impossible as well.
We pressed on.
Part 3 – We must be crazy
At 6,500 ft, about a mile from the peak, I had my first asthma attack.
I am not asthmatic.
It was 2am and we’d been hiking since ten that morning. Exhaustion was setting in. Our muscles ached. We were freezing and victim to that cursed wind every time we stopped for a rest. It was around this point when we started questioning our sanity. We must have been crazy.
While we weren’t opposed to hiking the peak again, we all agreed that it would be done differently the next time around. Like spending the extra couple of bucks to catch a ride and not kill ourselves.
Up was the only way to go, and we’d been reassured by our unofficial trail guide that there was shelter at the summit. An hour and a half later, we finally made it.
Our shelter was the remains of a concrete house-like structure with a collapsed roof. We sat huddled on cinderblocks surrounding a pathetic excuse for a fire until sunrise. Miraculously, two members of our group found sleep, but I was not one of them.
With my hood drawn tightly around my head, my arms crossed over my chest, I rested my forehead on my knees and shivered my way through the next two hours.
The wind never stopped once.
Part 4 – Tired is an understatement
We didn’t get to see our sunrise. The wind had blown in a thick layer of cloud cover, and by 5am, the sky was growing lighter in gradients but we still couldn’t see anything. Eventually, we stretched our aching bodies and began to dance, if just to keep us awake and warm. Other hikers drifted in, shook their heads at us, and left. Only two girls from Europe stayed for a while to chat with us, and at Seven, we began our trek back down.
It was sunny and warming up when we reached Portland Gap, and this time, we were able to appreciate the view. A man with a donkey and a blanket sold apples, bananas, and Jamaican peaches, so we enjoyed a light breakfast while we thawed out.
And down we continued.
Before we returned to Penlyne Castle, our guide told us of a shortcut – a rocky dirt road – that would enable to bypass Penlyne entirely, and bring us back to Hagley Gap in two hours less time. So we did that.
With gravity against us, every step we took sent a shockwave of pain up our legs and into our bodies. The rocks were loose, and I slipped several times. Our previous reluctance to walk (and save money on a ride) had long ago been discarded, and we were now on the sharp lookout for a cab running on a Sunday.
We were not so lucky.
Part 5 – We’re badasses
Sarah’s friend, our trail guide, left us at Hagley Gap, but our perseverance had returned. We were so close to the end and it still seemed so early in the day. It just before noon.
At Hagley Gap River, we rinsed off and cooled down, taking another short break and filling our bottles once more. Now that we were back on a main road, maybe this time we’d catch a ride. Again, no luck.
The shortcut we’d taken the day before, the one that allowed to save forty-five minutes, was almost impossible now. It was a steep climb down the first time around, and coming up now, it nearly killed us. We reached Ness Castle and rested again at the school, trying to estimate when we’d reach home. I felt a twinge of guilt knowing that the ending point for me was five miles closer than for them. Bethel Gap marked the end of my hike, but Sarah, Jackie, Briana and Jamaican Schooler (I did not have permission to use his name) still had to return to their starting point.
One more painful incline later, we reached a shop at Ness Castle where we purchased bun & cheese for lunch and finally succeeded in finding a ride. I was dropped off in front of my house, and the others were carried down another mile or two.
Part 6 – Recovery
My host mother returned from church to find me sleeping on the loveseat on my veranda. We chatted for a few minutes before I slugged myself into the shower. Once cleaned, I collapsed into bed for an extended nap. I awoke at 7pm, spoke to my Dad for ten minutes, and then fell asleep again for another twelve hours.
On Monday, I was so sore it hurt to walk from my room to the kitchen.
Although it was rewarding to track our hike, count the miles, and take pride in our accomplishment, I still maintain that if I hike the peak again, I’m doing it differently.
Bethel Gap -> Penlyne Castle = 9.3miles
Penlyne Castle -> Blue Mountain Peak = 7miles
Distance hiked in one direction = 16.3miles
Total distance hiked = 32.3miles
Mad props to all of us, with a couple of extra points for Sarah, Jackie and Briana, whose ending point was five miles further than mine.
And many extra points for our Jamaican Schooler who hiked a grand total of 40 miles that weekend!