I was standing higher on Earth than I’d ever stood, alongside the sun peeking in and out of the clouds. But it felt as if I were higher than the sun at that moment while I held the view of endless peaks, so remote and silent.
This one-month expedition through the Austrian Central Alps had already become excruciatingly difficult as we traversed around crevasses while bounded by a rope around our waists, tread through fields, and scaled rocky peaks in rain or shine, but tonight was the ultimate test.
I pulled on my red dungarees to protect my clothes and tucked a couple of items, including food and water into a plastic sack. Then I glanced over my shoulder for one last time at the sun, before descending under the earth.
Every second person had a headlamp, but I was one of the unlucky without. In certain parts of the cave, we had to slither on our stomachs, from side to side, and squeeze through narrow tunnels.
Occasionally, the light in front of me flickered out and, in the mind-warping blackness fear tattooed my skin causing my heart to pound and breathing to get heavy. I tried to adjust my vision and steady my nerves, but 1,000 meters of rock above me was a claustrophobic feeling that couldn’t be shaken.
No one spoke. Only the heavy breathing and shuffle of canvas along rock and ice, like the scratching of sandpaper, flooded the damp and musty bottomless chasms.
When we reached the center of the cave, comprised of a large opening with a trickle of glacier water running down one side, our guide told us a horrifying story – the type you only listen to huddled around a crackling campfire under the white flecks of stars.
“Three or more days alone in this (cave) could cause madness and eventually death,” echoed his hoarse voice. He likened the cave to a Biblical passage on hell, but I zoned out trying to see my hand in front of my face while feeling light and airy.
Our guide, a man accustomed to the untamed wilderness, moved on his feet with the precision of a cat around the confinement. Then he stopped and everything went silent. Chattering voices inside my head began to cloud common sense and I clasped my hands together for comfort and courage.
Nobody moved in the darkness that went deeper than physical until the headlamps were flicked on after 10-minutes. But every minute felt like an hour, as we cocooned ourselves into sleeping bags and waited till morning to leave.
The following morning, we emerged from the cave with relief and respect rather than celebration. The welcoming warmth of the sun peeked through the cracks in the rock and all the problems of the world below were forgotten at that moment.
Bleary-eyed and covered in soot from head to toe, every feeling was amplified. We had just spent the night in hell and now, here we were standing in the heavens.
It was an awakening I will never forget. Challenges littered our paths in the mountains and existed to test our strength and faith – like the challenges we are faced with in everyday life – and I realized that it’s only in our darkest of moments that our light can truly shine.