Climbing Kilimanjaro Part V: The Summit

When we reached the summit camp a day early, our team was impressed with how fit I was.  They actually asked Frank if I was some sort of athlete.  Porters and camp crews from other groups came by to meet me because my team was bragging about me.  They wanted to meet “the girl with all the power.”

summit 3

Most people start the summit at 11pm, and summit overnight.  That way they get to see the sunrise at the top – plus, it’s too dark to be intimidated by the long path ahead of them during the ascent.

Because we were on a slightly different schedule (and because Frank preferred it that way), we decided to summit during the day.  It was hard to argue with Frank’s reasoning: warmer, safer and less crowded.

So, we were up at 5am, ate breakfast at 5:30, and set off at 6am.  It was Frank, Andrea, and me.

It was a hard and grueling six hours up to the top.  Physically, mentally and emotionally challenging.  Most of the way was very, very steep with differing terrain, including rocks, very loose and slippery gravel, and dirt.  We kept passing groups on their way up, but no one passed us, which was encouraging.  However, that encouragement only helped a little.

I was pushing and pushing myself.  At different times, I wanted to cry, quit or die.  But, I promised my sister I wouldn’t die in Africa.  And that was the option that involved retaining the most pride.  I simply couldn’t break down and cry or throw the towel in, in front of Frank and Andrea after they had been bragging about me with such pride.

So, we slogged on.  And then people began passing us on their way down the mountain.  Most of them looked beaten up; only one woman took the time to say something encouraging to me.  Everyone I passed on my way up, I said something friendly and encouraging to.  And, later when I was on my way down, I was very friendly and encouraging.  I didn’t understand these other people.  But, Frank said as hard as my climb was, the people that summit overnight had it ten times worse because of the cold and exhaustion.

Somewhere along the way, I was getting extremely demoralized by the seemingly infinite distance I needed to climb.  So I created an alternate reality where I was on some kind of a quest, and there were ten checkpoints I needed to report to.  I asked different rocks if they were a checkpoint, and only certain ones said “yes”.  The rest were still very encouraging, and sometimes they even told me the next checkpoint was in 500 steps, or 1,000 steps.  I knew the rocks aren’t actually talking to me, but this mental scenario I created helped beyond belief.

That, and singing songs.  Somehow, I couldn’t remember the words to any single song except for “He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands”, “Amazing Grace” and “When The Saints Come Marching In”.  And, I didn’t know all the words to these, but I sang the chorus in my head for, I don’t know, an hour each.  Then I created a medley of them all.

The last 60 feet to Stella’s Point were pure grit.  It was a very steep grade of loose gravel, so it felt like we were losing ground with every step.  But, we could see the ridge.  Keep going, keep going, keep going.  My Achilles were burning like I’d never felt.  Push, push, push.

Then, we were there.  I gave Frank and Andrea the biggest hugs in the world.  And we stopped for a celebratory chocolate bar.

summit 4

Then it was another hour onto the summit — Stella’s Point isn’t the actual summit.  But, the walk to the summit wasn’t as bad as what we had just done, and it offered heart-stoppingly beautiful views of the glaciers.  It was dangerously slippery on the ice, but there were no thoughts of quitting or crying now.

And before long, we made it.  We were completely alone, on top of the world, sitting on the ice.

summit 5

I couldn’t get my (oxygen-deprived) head to accept the awesome beauty around me.  And, I couldn’t get my (racing) heart to accept what I had just accomplished.

I will forever remember Frank and Andrea.  They buffeted me through this.  And they experienced the sheer pain and joy with me.

But, for the most part, they left me alone.  Alone to soak it all in.

In a world where we are constantly bombarded by data, and calls, and texts, and meetings, and appointments, and HAVE TOs and SHOULD HAVEs, it was startling to be so alone.  It was one of the biggest moments of my life, made even more profound because it was only me there.

Tanzania17

After we all caught our breath, we headed back down.  It took two hours for the descent to the base camp.  And, while it was cardiovascularly no longer a challenge, physically I was tired.  And it was still hard work on my quads and abs to keep the control and not tumble down the mountain.  My hiking poles helped a ton.

After a very dusty descent, we were back at camp for lunch.  Then, we had to pack up, and hike downhill for another two hours to where we were camping for the night.

I did not want to continue on, but once we got going, it was actually not so bad.  Although at one point, for my pee break, Frank told me to go over a ledge.  For nearly the whole trek, whenever I had to pee, I told Frank, and he told me where to go.  So, when he told me to climb over the ledge, I just did as instructed.

“I need to pee.”

“OK.  Go over there.”

“Over there?’

“Yes.”

“OK.”

So I climbed over the ridge, and lowered myself down to the next ledge.  And peed.  Then I tried to climb back over the ridge.  I couldn’t do it.  I had no oomph left.  I felt defeated.  Demoralized.  I crouched down against the cliff wall, with my hands over my face.  And then shook my head, stood up, and was determined to scale the wall.  I gave it every single thing I had left.  I pulled with my arms.  I pushed with my legs.  And I was over.  Huffing and puffing, but over.

“Why are you out of breath?  Where did you go?”

“I went where you told me.”

I pointed and he laughed.  He had meant to go behind rocks by the ledge, which made a hell of a lot more sense!

Over dinner we agreed to skip the next night’s camp, and just to hike all the way off the mountain the next day.

One last breakfast, one last packing, one last use of my little toilet, and we are off.

When we make it to the parking lot, The Hottie Driver is there waiting with champagne from The President.  It is wonderful to get my certificate, then get in a car, and drive the hour back to Rivertrees.

Tanzania11

I felt invincible.  And reborn.

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