The morning of my second day in the DR I woke in a beautiful, spacious and brightly-orange coloured mountain house to the smell of eggs, plantain and salami drifting into my significantly sleep-deprived nostrils. My phone showed that the hour involved numbers less than 5 and, despite every bone in my body protesting ascension from the sleeping bag, I appeared in the kitchen to find Mateo cooking up a storm with coffee already on the brew. Champion.
Though I was in good company in the bleary-eyed department, anticipation was high amongst the nine of us for an epic day of adventure ahead. Excited chatter slowly picked up as we made our way through a loose-gravelled, yet majestic valley road filled with all the glorious morning colours of a sunrise. This was going to be a memorable day.
Upon arrival in the National Park for the beginning of our trek we were introduced to our compulsory guide and ambulance mule provider, as well as an extra companion in Oliver, a young Dane who was prepped to hike the summit on his own but appeared to be very grateful for our company.
We donned our gear with myself dressed almost entirely in Mateo's clothes, thanks to my suitcase deciding to brave it solo in Ecuador, and a pair of borrowed hiking boots that were perfect, albeit a size too small.
And then we were walking - 4.8km of slightly inclined, fascinatingly lush jungle, featuring rackety wooden bridges covering stunning mountain streams - it was going to be a beautiful hike; and easy. Conversation flowed and we were all psyched.
Then came the next section - significantly steeper and more involved. The banter started to disappear, as heavy breathing covered the troop. But determination was strong, we were going to conquer this peak in record time. Dustin's brothers Brady and Aaron stayed strong up front with him, Simeon and I, while Mateo hung back with Wix, Mike and Jody to trade out on the mule and take it on with a more relaxed pace.
Then came the next section - 800m. 300m of that was straight up, sure, but that would breeze past before the really hard section, right? Wrong. Two hours of steep incline can do a lot to a man's psyche, even while surrounded by a group of focused friends. The emergency mule became transportation relief for some, while others fought through the pain and tears and pressed onward, questioning their manliness and love for Dustin, our fearless leader for whom we were each there and for whom this climb seemed like nothing but a walk in the park. He had done this before. He knew what we were in for, and yet still, he forced each one of us, his close friends, into this? THIS?!?
Then...THEN! The section known as 'Repentance' bore down on us. How could it possibly be worse than what we had just accomplished? I'll tell you how - by existing as three hours of practically vertical climb in intense heat and humidity, that's how!!! Some also call this section 'Purgatory' and it is not hard to understand why. We were each questioning our existence with every forward step that pressed boot against the loose rock that held the track from becoming pure mud when the afternoon storms rolled through.
Thankfully the clouds did arrive to bring us relief and mercifully decided to spare us the heavy rain for the sake of a refreshing mist. The landscape had been changing dramatically with each new section but, as we became swamped in the dark grey fog of the clouds, the mountains took on an entirely different form and left us feeling like we'd stepped into another world.
By the time we finally reached base camp - twelve whole hours after beginning - our jellied legs and aching backs let themselves shout for joy as we cleaned our soiled bodies in the freezing cold fresh spring water and gathered around a healthy camp fire for an evening of story.
Eventually we ended up on our half-mattresses on the hard wood floor, far from comfortable but incredibly grateful to be horizontal and strangely excited for a pre-4am wake-up call to hit the summit by sunrise...