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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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I felt invincible.  And reborn.

Climbing Kilimanjaro Part III: Peeing, Washing, Eating and Sleeping On The Mountain

The plan was to be picked up at 8:30am, dressed and ready to go.  Gulp.

The breakfast buffet at Rivertrees was scrumptious.  I couldn’t get enough of the passion fruit juice or the powder sugarcoated pancakes.  And hey, since I’d been instructed to eat as many carbs as I could pack in over the next few days, I kept at it until my ride came.

Butterflies do not begin to describe the anxiety I was experiencing.  Bats, maybe.

At the Macheme Gate, The Hottie Driver kept me company while Frank did the final gear checks and paperwork.  Then, it was go time.  For me, and my team of twelve.

I hoisted my daypack on my back, and we started out.

About an hour into the walk, I had to pee.  I tried to hold it, but it was hard.  The side effect of the altitude sickness meds was that it’s a diuretic, which didn’t pair well with all those liquids I was drinking.  Finally, when I was about to burst, I asked Frank where I should go.

He looked for a spot that was safe, that couldn’t be seen from the trail, and where my pee wouldn’t mix with water someone may use to drink.

“Umm,” I said, four minutes later when he was still looking.  “I don’t care about safe or visible any more.  I have to go NOW.”

He laughed and found me a spot.  When I climbed back onto the trail, he made me promise to always give him a ten-minute warning.

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Our crew set up a table right next to a waterfall for Frank and I to have lunch.  The rest of the gents were relaxing in the shade on the ground.  Frank explained that for the first day we had a cold lunch, but for the rest of the days we would have a properly cooked meal.  The lunch looked pretty proper to me, with sandwiches of ham, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and carrots.  Plus fruit and cookies.  PLUS a hot water-based beverage buffet of coffee, tea, and milo and hot chocolate.

After a few more hours of walking, we arrived at camp.  Frank showed me where my orange and grey tent was, and where the bright orange mess tent was.  My tent had a three-inch foam mattress, pillow, and fleece sheet.  And they’d already delivered my duffle and a sub-freezing sleeping bag.

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They also set up my own personal sky blue toilet tent that had a pump camping toilet.  Not too shabby – who knew trekking up one of the highest mountains on Earth would be so ritzy?

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After storing my daypack in my tent, I change into my camp outfit: fleece pants, hot pink waffle PJ top my sister gave me for Christmas, down parka, thermal hat, wool socks, and running shoes.  While changing (body part, by body part, by body part, because it is too cold to get naked), I used the bathing wipes I brought with me to clean up.  Then I reported to the mess tent for afternoon tea, which consisted of the hot drinks, plus a snack.  On this first day, the snack was popcorn.  But I learned it would vary on the other days and could be roasted cashews, roasted peanuts, cookies, and other yummy things packed with calories.  Frank checked my water supplies, and praised me for drinking most of the prescribed liters.

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When Frank and I returned from our post-tea hike, the camp manager, Andrea, brought me a bowl of hot water and a bar of soap so I could wash up in my tent.  They actually offered to compose some kind of shower for me, but the thought of being naked and wet in the cold temperatures was not the slightest bit tempting.

Dinner included a starter, soup, main dish, and a side.  The first day it was diced cucumber on bread with olive oil; then potato leek soup; followed by pepper steak with mashed potatoes and gravy.  And, of course, the drink buffet.  I couldn’t believe how much food there was, and how tasty it was!

“This isn’t even the best you’ll eat.  Weren’t you wondering how I can be a guide for this climbing and still have this?”, Frank asked, rubbing his belly.  I had been curious, but it all made sense to me now.  He eats like a king.

“The hot lunches all start with a soup, too.  Cream of chicken, French onion, carrot ginger, cream of tomato, potato leek, bacon chive.  And then there is a pasta with a different type of sauce each day.  And fruit for dessert.  But you only get dessert after you drink enough water and eat enough food,” he joked.

“What are the other dinners gonna be like?” I asked.  I was stuffed to the brim now.  I couldn’t possibly keep eating at this rate.  But Frank was with me at every meal, so I had no choice.  I was wondering what it was I’d be forcing into my belly.

“There’s chicken and tilapia, and steak, like tonight,” he answered.  I found myself rubbing my belly like Frank was.

When we finished for the night, I unzipped the mess tent flap to head back to my tent, only to be greeted with pitch black and a rush of freezing cold air.  When he realized I’d left my headlamp and my flashlight in my tent, Frank gave me a short lecture about always having them with me, and escorted me to my tent.

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Inside my tent it was cold and damp, but not freezing.  I took off my running shoes and parka, and slid into my sleeping bag.  Nirvana.  I wrote in my journal for a while.  As I turned off my headlamp, I realized that I was all alone in a tent on the side of the mountain.  I had never camped before, especially not alone.  This was a little scary.

Then, I had to pee. I donned my headlamp, put on my shoes and parka, unzipped my tent, and quickly zipped it back up.  Holy Cow it was cold!  And the thought of walking to my bathroom tent alone was even scarier, even with my flashlight.  I decided I could hold it until morning, and zipped myself back into my sleeping back.

Five minutes later, I realized holding it simply wasn’t an option.  The “middle-of-the-night pee process” on a Mount Kilimanjaro trek went something like…

Unzipped the bag, put on my shoes, parka and wool cap, headlamp on top of the cap; unzipped the tent; re-zipped the tent behind me so no critters found their way inside seeking warmth; scurried to the bathroom tent; unzipped the tent; zipped it closed behind me; peed; “flushed” the toilet by pumping it; unzipped the flap; re-zipped the flap; hurried back to my tent over rocks and branches; unzipped my flap; climbed in; re-zipped my flap; took off my shoes, headlamp, cap, parka; climbed into my bag and re-zipped it.

It was absolutely freezing on the mountain.  Below freezing.  Everything outside the tent was frozen.  Everything inside the tent was damp and very cold.  Everything in my sleeping bag was wonderfully warm.  That was the only place to be!

Two hours later when I woke up needing to pee again, I willed myself to hold it until morning.  And if for some reason my body disagreed, at least pee is warm..

Stay tuned to Part IV for the climb…

Climbing Kilimanjaro Part I: Getting Ready (…To Die!?)

 I don’t know if it was reading Hemingway’s book as a kid, but for as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.

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And a couple of years ago, I decided to finally do it.

It was during my final shopping trip to REI that I started to have doubts.  I was at the checkout counter with everything from waterproof mittens, a down jacket and hiking socks to antibacterial wet wipes, an in-rucksack platypus water carrier with insulated tubing that won’t freeze, and a headlamp with spare batteries…

“Where are you off to?” asks the woman ringing me up.

“Africa.  I’m going to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in a few weeks,” I answer.  I get a jolt of excitement, and nerves, every time I say that out loud.

“Oh, wow!  I did it in September.”

“And?  How was it?”

“Awesome.  Truly.  You’ll love it.  I have two pieces of advice.  First, buy a bunch of pens and bring them to give to the kids.  There are kids who have come to expect foreigners to give them candy or money.  Giving pens just felt better to me than handing out a bunch of bubble gum.”

“OK.  That’s a great tip.  What else?”

“Take the Diamox.  Do you have a prescription for it?”

“Yep.  I went to the doc last week, and I already picked it up.”

“OK.  Good.  Don’t mess around.  Take it.  Two people died when I was summiting.  Not in my group, but the same day I summited.  From altitude sickness.  It means you’ll have to pee all the time, but…I think that’s a small price to pay for, well, living.”

Holy. Shit!  I just stood there and looked at her.  I had thought the biggest risk was the embarrassment of having to admit I didn’t summit.  My sister’s friend had been carried down the mountain in a wheelbarrow when she got altitude sickness and couldn’t go on.  The thought of being rolled down a mountain was mortifying, but a risk I was willing to take.  Two people died?

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I left REI with shopping bags full of supplies, and a healthy new respect for all the potential (maybe probable?) risks in my upcoming adventure.