With no moon to compete with, stars shone bright overhead as I broke through the treeline that led to the lookout point marking the end of my trail.
A darkened world met me as the percussion of the waterfall on the opposing mountain face assured me I was right where I was supposed to be. Moisture-rich air clung to the layer of sweat on my exposed skin, instantly cooling me as I let my pack slide from my shoulders to rest on the ground.
One hand reached for my canteen as the other reached behind me to pull my sweat-stuck shirt from my back and fan it out a bit. As the cool air did its work, I drank deeply and kept my eyes trained on the east.
Nothing happened for a minute—then two—as the waterfall’s thrum was broken up by the occasional early bird.
Then, she appeared.
In the dim of pre-dawn, Venus peeked up from between the twin peaks off to the east—first, just a crescent; then, a shimmering diamond in the sky.
“Ah, there you are,” I greeted, just as the outline of the mountains began to swallow the planet back behind the horizon again. “Good morning, and welcome back to the east.”
The morning star disappeared in reply. But she would be back—growing stronger, longer, higher, and brighter for months to come. For now, however, a dark void had replaced her as the world turned closer to morning.
In the tree-filled ravine below, more birds joined in tweeting that morning was nigh and day hunters would soon be afoot. It was breakfast time—time for those who had successfully found shelter for the night to start finding out who was savvy enough to survive the day.
In the game of surviving, Mother Nature was a brutal matriarch. Yes, she was the source of all life, but she was also a universal grave that never played favorites. There was a math in each moment that, if miscalculated, could lead to never seeing another sunrise.
This was one of the many reasons I liked to join the birds in a cheery song reminding all creation that it was time to start looking sharp.
I pulled my sring from my travel pack and took a seat at the edge of the precipice. The wooden flute had been given to me by a guest many years ago when I was still only a juvenile assistant.
Back then, our clientele had been such a mystery to me—with their different costumes, customs, and specific imaginings of what a successful life would look like. Everything about them had always seemed so staged to me.
One day, a man might arrive wearing robes and a turban, seeking to trade jewels for directions to the Fountain of Youth; the next day another man who could be his brother would arrive in shorts and a t-shirt whose only wish was to patent a multi-billion-dollar idea. Yet another guest might wish to win the heart of the one he loved, while the next sought inner peace by releasing all fear and attachments.
Our guests spoke dozens of languages and had beliefs that determined behavior and wardrobe requirements during their journey through the mountain—none of which made sense to me.
Nor did it need to.
My purpose was to tailor them appropriately upon arrival and departure, making everything custom. Different specialists handled all sorts of other things I couldn’t wrap my head around.
I just handled wardrobe.
Still, the comings and goings of Summit Peak had been so captivating that I’d made a hobby out of being a fly on the wall so I could take it all in.
The man who had given me my sring had been a Persian mapmaker, named Sinbad. We’d met when he stayed at the inn above my shop on his last night down the mountain. He had a moral code that forbade him from drinking alcohol so, while the rest of the guests had been getting rowdy in the tavern, Sinbad had stayed up in his room and played beautiful songs under the light of the moon.
I’d never heard music so bright yet haunting as the song that came from the small woodwind instrument as he played. The style and tone were so new to my ears that I’d gotten as close as I could to covertly listen in.
But Sinbad had sensed me hiding in a tree outside his window. If he had told on me, I would have been in deep trouble. Instead, he’d invited me to join him on his balcony and had given me my first lesson in how to play a sring. Then he’d gifted the instrument to me when it was time for him to retire for the evening.
I never saw Sinbad after that, which wasn’t unusual. Repeat guests at Summit Peak are very rare. The gatekeepers rarely let anyone through more than once. But if I could pick a few guests to meet again someday, Sinbad would be near the top of that list. After years of doing my best on my own, I was ready for another sring lesson. I still had a ways to go in becoming as good as I remembered Sinbad to be, but I was good enough to join the birds in a morning song to usher in the rising of the sun.
So I did.
When a halo of light started to glow behind the eastern horizon, my eyes were drawn to its highest peak and the myth-inspiring tree that crowned its top.
People from different places called the tree different names, but we locals called it Capella Nion.
The massive tree thrived atop the jagged mountain against all odds. It shouldn’t be there. Sharp winds should have shredded it; stark cold should have frozen it; lack of oxygen should have choked it; if nothing else, a bolt of lightning should have long since reduced it to char.
Yet none of those things had happened, which meant Capella Nion stood high above the treeline with its nearest relative hundreds of feet below.
Its unlikely existence had made Capella Nion a legend and a siren call to adventurers looking to make their name. After all, it was a tree that shouldn’t be able to survive sitting atop on a peak no human had ever summited.
Once they heard that, they were like moths to a flame.
And Capella Nion never looked more striking than it did at sunrise—even to people like me who had seen it countless times. Which is why I kept my eyes trained on its silhouette as I joined the birds in song as light slowly began to touch the high points of the mountainscape.
From my perch on the cliff’s ledge, I now had a view of white-capped mountain peaks for as far as the eye could see. The rise and fall of land reminded me of the rolling waves I’d seen in pictures of the ocean where, rather than land, there was water in every direction. It seemed impossible there could be that much water in all the world. And a little terrifying. The idea that water could be like rolling mountains made me feel very grateful for the firm ground beneath me and the air in my lungs as daylight approached.
Overhead, stars dimmed as flooding light overtook dark. I caught glimpses of creatures starting the day through gaps in tree canopies and as they traveled across exposed rock faces.
Before long, the sun was climbing into sight and revealing the next leg of my journey. Hikers and sherpas below would take no less than a day to cover the distance I would soon cover in just a few minutes. I just needed to wait until I could see where I was going. The window between a safe landing and a tragic one using this particular shortcut was narrow and not to be attempted in anything less than full light.
So I played until the sun’s rays bathed the dropoff below me with daylight where pillars of smoke marked the campers getting an early start.
After cleaning the sring, I prepared for the next leg of my journey by stripping out of my clothes. I wrapped the instrument in my shirt before insulating them both into one of my boots, then placed everything inside my pack except my belt and the two trolleys designed for use on the steel cable that stretched across the expanse. I looped the straps on my bag through the carabiner on the first trolley and walked over to where an anchored, steel rope started an angled slope to the other side of the ravine.
After a stress test to make sure the pack was secure, I released the trolley, watching it race to the other side almost as fast as if it were falling.
I was next.
As my bag was swallowed into the trees across the way, I threaded my belt through the remaining trolley and washed my hands with sand. Then I secured the second trolley to the steel cable and tested my grip on the belt to make sure nothing slipped or pinched.
Everything felt good.
I closed my eyes, breathing into all the possibilities of what could happen next.
When everything felt right, I gripped either side of the belt in each hand and ran off the ledge—piking my legs up into an L-sit to maximize speed as I zipped across the line.
Wind whistled in my ears as I sped on a crash course into the treeline above the waterfall. Chill air surrounded me, filled with the aroma of cooking breakfasts. I inhaled deeply, glancing down at the tapestry of treetops far below until I reached the midpoint. Then I looked back up to the steel cable to spot for my landing.
The timing required to descend safely was both an approximate and exact math with things ending badly on both sides of calculating wrong. The exit window was tight no matter who you were, and had to be adjusted realtime. If the cable was wet or your form was off, you might release later than a day like today where everything was going like clockwork.
I zipped past the first white stripe on the line and held form — waiting until I passed the second mark to drop my legs to create some drag and prepare for my dismount. The waterfall roared at my approach, daring me to lose my courage or form and fail.
“One,” I counted off as I passed the third marker. “Two. Inhale.”
Then I swung my knees up into a tuck, releasing the belt as I flipped backward through the air and dropped. At first, there was nothing but ravine beneath me, but as I flipped and fell, my inertia carried me over the lip of the ledge and a wall of vegetation. It was then I released my tuck, punching my feet out as the rushing river came into view.
Then, splash. I was in it, cold water tempting me to tense up, push for the surface, and be dragged into the surge gushing over the fall.
I let my momentum carry me to the river’s floor, where the undertow still surged but water played by different rules. Then I found a boulder to anchor my forward progress as I took a moment to orient myself — letting the currents pull me this way and that — as I flowed from boulder to boulder, riding the undercurrents to Avalon’s side of the river.
I knew I was close to my exit when a warm trickle filtered into the flow and the river’s depth shallowed to waist-level. The water was warm as a bath when I broke surface next to the large bouldered-in hot spring on the river’s edge.
The hot springs were a favorite spot for Avalon locals to unwind, due to its stunning view.
I couldn’t stay long, but I was never one to turn down a warm bath. I’d spend a moment enjoying a perfect spot on a beautiful day, then I’d be on my way.