It was a misty morning at the Marangu gate. The starting point of one of the five different trails that lead up Mt. Kilimanjaro. We choose a trail that had the highest percentage of success and longer than average length to assist with acclimatization-the Machame route. We met our gregarious guide Zawadi, his name meaning gift in Swahili, and started out.
The first day we walked through a rain forest. Scrambling up three-foot stair-like blocks carved into the mountain.
Group after group, hiker after hiker, passed us. Everyone seemed to think this was a breeze except… me. Zawadi setting a fast pace with me determined to stay on his heels. The mentality I use when doing anything hard-get it over with, grit your teeth and get it done as fast as you can. I am not a pacer, I am a sprinter, I am not a planner, I am a doer. I am impatient with delayed gratification. However the mountain was impervious to my impatience.
For two years Carolyn, a friend from college, and I talked about a trip to Africa. The idea percolated in my brain, “why not?” I thought. She wanted to go to Africa before she got married and I, well, I couldn’t say no to an “African Adventure”. Time marched on and we found reasons for delay after delay. Then finally we did it, we broke out of our own inertia, travel visas, shots, and an expensive non-refundable plane reservation.
Then Carolyn declared, “I want to climb Kilimanjaro.” She rushed to fill the silence left by my consternation on the other end of the phone line.
“I don’t really know why, a friend got it in my head and I think that I don’t want to go to Africa if I can’t climb Kili.” I knew I was scared to undertake this challenge, but to not go?! This was going to be My Life’s Adventure, I couldn’t NOT go. If I didn’t go now, I would be the most inoculated woman living in Sacramento. With a worried heart I agreed.
People from ages 12 to 87 have successfully walked up to “The House of God” as Kili is known by the Maasai. However, for every triumph there is a story of defeat. Only 40-50% of climbers are in that successful group. On average two to ten climbers each year pay the ultimate price during their trek, meaning the mountain takes their life.
So I prepared. Bored myself to tears on the elliptical. Spent hundreds on gear and dragged poor friends on grueling day hikes. Questions abounded. What size hydration pack? What form of water sanitation? I tested out power bars and energy gu, bought my first pair of real hiking boots.
The “Roof of Africa” as Mt. Kilimanjaro is called, can be seen 120 miles away. It is big enough to have its own weather systems and influences the climate of countries around it. Kilimanjaro dominates the horizon from anywhere inside Amboseli National Park. It is the largest free-standing mountain in the world at just over 19,000 feet.
To get to Kili all travelers must first arrive in Arusha, Tanzania. Your guide picks you up near dawn to drive you to the starting point of your trek. There’s a crowd and a bit of delay at a lengthy check-in process. Due to the dangers of altitude no one is allowed to hike the mountain alone without being a part of an approved expedition.
Over the course of seven days three of our group fell victim to altitude sickness and had to be evacuated out.
Day one ended in tears. I was spent. I had pushed it too hard, I didn’t want to do this for another six days. No way, no how. The tent was claustrophobic. I was sweaty, cold and dirty. The diamox or Gatorade or treated water or something was making me nauseous. I wanted OUT.
Back in the tent Carolyn was quiet, treading carefully around the thunder clouds of my bad mood, fearful that certain words or actions would provoke the storm. She had kept her pace consistent, slow and steady and had arrived at camp a bit tired but cheerful and excited, looking forward to what the week had in store. Feeling bad that she had dragged me into something that I did not want to do, she left me alone with my internal frustration.
As I sat there in my cold tent sanitizing more water, using wipies to clean my face, hands and not too many other body parts, I remembered how I got here. I started to realize all I can do is persevere. I am in Africa for God’s sake, I thought and started to realize how lucky I was to be in such an amazing place at a young age.
Day two dawned cold. We set off however this time I asked Carolyn to lead. The day before she had kept a slow steady pace that conserved her energy almost naturally. It was against my very nature to slow down, conserve energy, lengthen something “unpleasant” for a better chance of success at the end. One foot in front of the other, walking poles in front, just behind Carolyn.
A Dutch couple passed us during the day, we had rushed by them the day before in my attempt to “just get it over with”. They stopped to chat and encouraged our new slow pace. Breathe thru your nose, rest often, avoid a sore throat and cough from the cold mountain air.
They said, “a few days from now you will hear many people in camp coughing. Don’t wear yourself out. Stop, rest, enjoy. It’s not a race.”
So we walked, took pictures, chatted when we could. Again and again we were passed. One amazing English couple breezed by us wearing shorts. I shook my head as I hiked in double and triple layers. The family that came from Denver, they weren’t even winded. The cute Englishman who told us he was the first to arrive in camp, hours before the rest of us, bored to tears having already finished reading the book he brought. I cheerfully handed over mine knowing unlike him I would have no time to read. Day two was a success. We felt good, proud of what we had accomplished. I realized that the tortoise had a smart game plan all along. One step after another can get you far in life, and possibly even up a mountain-who knew?
Day 3: Its colder now, nausea is constant, possibly dehydration, it tends to be relieved when we start to hike. Still we plod. On this day we pass the clouds. Even they want to stay behind. They are now below us as we climb. 12,000..13,000, 14,000 feet. Many pass us, but our strategy is working, we make friends. Chat at times, at times quiet. My power bars aren’t sitting well on my half-adjusted-to-Africa-half-still-American stomach. We rest, we take pictures, and we walk up a mountain.
Suddenly we see a girl running crazily back down the trail. Her companion carrying both his backpack and hers. They were headed back to the last spot a jeep can reach. She is sick, comes the news trailing after her, altitude sickness, but she is lucky, only an hour or two hike and a jeep can pick her up to take her down. That is the last spot. After this it’s a helicopter rescue only and even that isn’t guaranteed.
Soon we run into a sick porter. I didn’t think anything could strike down these Olympians who carry my bags and theirs along with the food, the tents, the gear all on their heads as they navigate their way at 14,000 feet barely winded. This porter was new not adjusted yet to the climb. We plod on still to 15,000 ft.
Then Robert-the energetic Englishman- we are surprised that we catch up to him, but then we see he is sick too. Drawn and pinched, he will push on he says. Good luck we wave to him as we stop for lunch. We are at 15,000 ft. Other than nausea we are fine, we have passed the altitude test so far. The never-ending uphill has passed. Now its downhill to camp. The worst is over, what a day.
Or so I thought. The worst was not over, not by a long shot. As we emerge from the desolate volcanic rocks I see the trail, and camp was in sight! But to get there was a downhill of multiple miles. Downhill on slippery sliding, breath-catching, life pass before your eyes, I am going to slip one more time and tumble over the edge and die, terror inducing gravel. My poles help, but not enough. I see Carolyn walk merrily ahead, balanced and fine, using some sort of otherworldly traction trick that I cannot see nor can I seem to learn. After slipping and teetering for the tenth time in as many minutes my guide had had enough.
“Take my hand,” he says, “ you are making me nervous.” I am making HIM nervous?! Even thru my fear I could feel embarrassment burning in my gut and threatening to spill out my eyes in hot tears of frustration as he took my hand like a child and navigated our way down the rest of the trail.
Once in camp, making our way thru to our site I realize I learned yet another lesson. “the worst is never over until you are sitting in camp”. To my chagrin, this lesson would repeat itself again and again over the next three days.
In camp we hear more news. Robert has to head down. He is dangerously sick with altitude sickness, but he cannot go back we have come too far. He must go forward and walk down a different route. He has to walk the whole way down himself with the assistant guide. He doesn’t look up as he trudges past us, plodding this time.
Day four is a scramble up the steep rock and down again. It is a hard day. Even walking I am forced to breathe through my mouth to get more air to my lungs. I watch the porters carrying impossibly large loads of tents, food and water, my bag, on their heads and backs. They pass us easily. I don’t feel compassion today, just envy as I watch them climb with such ease. Zawadi asks to carry my pack.
“No I am fine”, I reply. He asks again.
“Nah, I got it”. I refuse to give up. Boredom from the desolate trail and pain from the hike, my shoulders ache from the strain of my backpack filled with liters of water I should be drinking.
“Let me help you Kate (pronounced in his way with two sing-song syllables Ka-tay) I am here to help”. I hand over my pack, I stomp along feeling very sorry for myself, very weak. My pride was hurt. So we plodded. My shoulders stopped aching, my arms felt lighter, the hills just a little less exhausting. It felt good. I could enjoy the sights of the hike again. The strange looking Lobelias, a tall cone like flower, and the beauty of the Karanga Valley. Then I realized that Zawadi had given me a gift. A little bit of help, and another lesson learned.
Day five we wake. It is getting colder it seems by the minute and its hard to figure out what to wear. In camp it’s so cold we wear layers and layers to keep warm. Hiking is hot work so its constant stopping and pulling off layers-off comes the backpack, take off the sweater, tie around waist, put backpack back on. A simple task yet seemed an interminable delay.
“Give me your walking poles” Zawadi says. I reluctantly hand them over. My little poles had been my savior on this trek more than once. Pulling me up the difficult hills, or bracing me on the slippery down hills. Tapping out a rhythm that would almost carry me into an hypnotic state breathe breathe tap tap walk walk breath breath. As I wonder why I realize that is because we now have to climb up the rocks. Sort of a mix between scrambling and bouldering we made it through.
The terrain was monotonous. A few plants poking up here and there. A small rodent. But mostly rock. Then volcanic rock. Only shale and volcanic rock and a small path in between winding its way as it snaked up the mountain. Reminding me of the Mountain of Doom the hobbits had to navigate in their quest.
My body was using too much energy, the shakes were starting. My walking was slowing and breaks were longer. I needed fuel. The chocolate I had saved from dinner the night before. The chocolate that sounded awful last night to my nauseous stomach was a godsend now. Instant energy. Walk walk bite bite, I could feel it working. Carolyn was constantly ducking behind volcanic boulders making an instant bathroom. Smart and staying hydrated she was forcing herself to drink all of her water. As we stopped for the third time that morning I welcomed the chance to take a quick break. I relished the rest, not envious of having to squat behind a boulder navigate thru layers of clothing using one square of TP. Then I realized I wasn’t going to the bathroom at all. The thought of water made me sick. I knew I had to be dehydrated. So I started a new rhythm. Step step breath breath sip sip.
As we walked into camp groups of exhausted climbers pass us heading in the opposite direction. They were coming back from the summit, exhausted, the looks on some of their faces frightened me more than the long drop toilets. We pass the weary group and headed into Barafu Camp. Set among a steep section of the mountain you think there can’t possibly be a camp HERE. One tent here one there we perched on the shale and rock for the night.
It is 34 degrees in the tent. Carolyn is napping to attempt the summit and Zawadi and I talk about a cold that has started to settle in my chest. He is willing to take me to the top, but wants me to think about my decision. After persevering through these days I didn’t want to give up but maybe I could learn an invaluable lesson from this. One that had alluded me for the past 28 yrs of my life. I learned, albeit the hard way, that you cannot live another person’s dream. That no one is going to tell me what “my life’s adventure” is going to be. Nor should I believe that if I borrow someone else’s adventure it will somehow turn into mine. I doubted myself and my ability to make that final push up the mountain to summit.
I thought: Look, you have never hiked more than four miles in your life, you have never camped for more than a weekend, and you have never been above 8,000 ft. I realized these things and decided to set a different goal for myself. My personal mountain was going to be Barafu camp.
I sit here and re-read my journal entry from that night: pretty good cold working, plus it’s just not my dream. These people are crazy and amazing too. I made it to my goal-Barafu camp. Two more days of nervous downhill, but then showerrrr! I am ready to be home, it’s been a great trip but a difficult one too. Good luck to all, here’s to the wusses! I admit I am a little disappointed, next time I will set my own challenges, and stick to them.
Carolyn successfully made the summit, Zawadi brought a small handful of rocks back and a confirmation that my decision to stay was the right one. A French woman who should have been escorted down by her guide hours earlier was found extremely incoherent with altitude sickness when Zawadi and Carolyn overtook them on the route. Together they had to assist them back down to camp. Zawadi said he was glad that we listened to what my body was telling me by staying in camp. (This was reconfirmed again a day later as Carolyn and I discussed options on getting me to a local hospital due to the cold that had intensified into severe bronchitis.)
The mountain can do some crazy things. I saw the most amazing sunrise that morning, almost like being in outer space or at least the edge of the world. I made a satellite phone call to family back home from a sleeping bag in a tent at Barafu camp 15,000 plus feet in the air. Every step down felt warmer and warmer, 10,000 ft was paradise.
During the two days it took to walk down hill on steep and muddy trails I pondered, “was this my life’s adventure? Or is it still to come? Will I have my version of a mountain I dream to conquer?” I don’t know, but I certainly will tell plenty of stories about this one. I can only move forward thru life “step step breathe breathe and sip sip” the fruits of my labor. Maybe then I will find what I seek.
Carolyn and I hobbled into our Arusha hotel, aching in places that I didn’t know existed. The employee at the desk spied us and instantly knew. “Kili?” she asked. Why yes. Kili. The mountain had left its mark.
Authors note: This was compiled from writings and journal entries from my trip July, 2005. I believe this trip to be a defining moment in my life that led me to who I am today. The lessons mentioned here were only a few of what I eventually gained over the ensuing seven years of growth and maturity. In 2005 Zawadi told me that in 20 years the glacier at the summit would be gone due to global warming. He said come back before that happens, he would guide me to the summit and I could finish what I started. Someday I hope to do so.