There are three things in this world that I really can’t stand for. The first is animal abuse, the second is when people chew with their mouths open, and the third is hills. More specifically, having to climb them.
That being said, it is a profound head-scratcher that brought me to the Rongai entrance gate of Mount Kilimanjaro.
Aside from the sub-conscious tendency to torture myself with a regularity of masochistic ritual, I’m honestly not sure what compelled me to sign up.
Perhaps it was the opportunity, the journey, to say that I did it, or because I was already going to Africa so why not? But in blatant truth, I wasn’t sure if I could. I mean, I really don’t like hills. Every obstacle race I’ve ever done, I would stand for electrocution or the arctic plunge before volunteering to drag my sorry carcass up a hillside.
Yet there I was. There she was.
Oh, and she’s a beauty to behold, to be sure. At 5,895 metres, she is the tallest free-standing mountain in the world. Every time I laid my eyes upon her, whether from the cocky and cushioned seat in an airplane or even once the hike had commenced, she gave me chills.
She enchanted me; she dazzled me.
She scared the shit out of me, and I absolutely love her.
Her foothills are adorned with rainforest and pine plantations, and tickled with wildlife if you’re lucky enough to see it. As you slowly scale upwards, you discover the unique and hardy shrubs, scattered as haphazardly in the rock as the volcanic scree lain strewn a little further up.
Every step of the way was one I wouldn’t have traded for anything else, and even though I didn’t necessarily know what actually brought me there, there is no place I would have rather been.
I even camped above and within the clouds for the first time in my life, and it was positively euphoric. Of course, it could have been the altitude. It was probably the altitude.
I’m pretty sure we were drunk on altitude.
When we climbed Mawenzi for an acclimatization hike up into rolling mists and jagged peaks, it was like being in the presence of the gods and I had nothing to pay homage with except smelly hiking boots and ripped cargo shorts, and it was bliss.
I had the opportunity to meet and know a handful of people who had summited Kili on various routes with mixed reviews, but ultimately, we all agree on a few things:
The hikes, even though they are long, are actually quite simple as long as you trust your guide and remember pole pole (Swahili for ‘slowly, slowly’). It’s even pleasant enough that you can peel your eyes from the boots in front of you and enjoy the sights, too. Usually.
She is a beautiful mountain, and the experience is so rich for the soul, you can’t help but love every inch of her. Well, except the inches in the last 100 or so metres. I hated those ones.
Oh, did I ever.
During those rueful pre-dawn hours of our hike to the summit from base camp. I didn’t like her very much then. We were having our first “lovers’ spat”, you could say…
I’m not entirely convinced I can blame my, erm, “discomfort” solely on altitude. Unfortunately, my digestive system can be quite particular, and though I was fed very well and was never actually ill, per se, my dear little hungry stomach was not happy with me even after eating the specially-catered, gluten-free and delicious potato and rice dishes for five days. Regrettably, gluten-free crackers and cheese are hard to come by on the barren plateau and my tummy was wanting for these generally habitual fillers.
I tried to fill up on rice and veggies at base camp before we disembarked for the summit at midnight, but it’s an unusual blend of hunger and nausea that leaves you feeling more like you have the flu than the simple need of any old snack. I know it was not solely the altitude because I felt very much the same way after a week of eating improperly in Phalaborwa and wound up puking on the lawn.
Ah, the memories we create, but I digress.
It was also chilly. Now, I can boast of walking home from school as a child in winds that took the temperature into the minus 40s celsius, but what I failed to consider was how much I was likely to sweat.
After the first hour, despite my “sweat-wicking” base layer, I was saturated under my hodge-podge, mix-matched seven layers, and as much as I tried to deny it, I was cold. I would’ve been fine had I been able to keep moving, but with whatever delusory state my digestive system had put me in and thin air, I was having a hard time breathing, and occasionally walking.
(Again, symptoms I’d had after walking a mere 15 feet that day I puked in Phalaborwa, just amplified when above 5000metres altitude.)
I am so deeply grateful for the shared supplies and words of encouragement from my fellow trekkers, but I think it is mostly their patience that I appreciate.
With my hair and hat falling over my eyes and what I can only equate to the near-delirious mental state of one with low blood sugar, I could scarcely differentiate the faces of the guides who nearly had to force-feed me when I would sit down.
I was also probably the most unprepared climber of all climbers in the history of climbing Kilimanjaro… namely because I’d been backpacking for 2 months prior and I didn’t want to have to carry certain things that whole time. But I found an insulated vest (and rejoiced that the boys’ vest fit), and a touque.
I was also convinced that thick socks would be sufficient as mittens, and that was the case if I kept my hands in my jacket, but during one of my desperate attempts to catch my breath, I had them pulled off by a guide who appeared out of nowhere (my peripherals were obstructed by hat and hair, mind, so I was uprepared), and had a pair of insulated mittens shoved onto my paws in spite of my complaints and insistence that the socks were doing just fine, and whose mittens were they, anyway, and was their owner going to be warm enough.
He then wrestled a head lamp on me and tried to usher me along, but I wrestled free declaring I could do it.
I could. With effort, and very pole pole, but I could.
The mental struggle faced is even harder than the physical one. I have dragged myself through some gruelling challenges for both mind and body over the years, but this was by far the hardest.
There is also a very heavy reality that weighs on you as you go up: the further you go up, the further you have to come down.
(And I did have a brief flashback to the cross on the trail that marked where a climber had died just years before…)
I needed to catch my breath often, and it drove me mental that my lungs could dare to limit me. I wanted to push on so as not to slow my group, but I was so hungry, I was dizzy and wobbly and felt like I was going to puke.
But I made it, eventually, and without puking.
When I came over the edge at Gilman’s Point, I could’ve just stayed there for a bit then rolled back down, but I had never not finished before and I had come too far to give up.
Part of me wanted to curl up in a fetal position and let destiny decide my fate (it wouldn’t have been very glamourous), but I did manage to stagger my gasping, hyper-ventilating, decrepit body along the rim, passed Shira’s Point and finally Uhuru Peak.
There was much rejoicing, and even a marriage proposal and a “yes” and champagne to celebrate our summit, and throughout most of that I was dumbly trying to find a spot to sit down so I could concentrate on breathing.
I did kiss the sign though. Damn it felt good to make it, even if I was partially incoherent.
I think I almost cried a few times stumbling along the top, looking out from the top of Africa. It was overwhelming on so many levels, but I held myself together. Mostly. I had my pride to consider; it was bruised enough as it was after having chocolate bars and gel packs opened for me and shoved at my face. (I was later told that I was ridiculously and pitifully stubborn about accepting any help.)
But on the other hand, I did make it.
On my own two feet.
Sure, if left to my own devices I would have certainly frozen to death somewhere on the mountainside, but I did get there eventually (and back again, I’m happy to report) with company that kept me inspired even when my thoughts were just a muddle of highly inappropriate curse words I couldn’t have articulated into speech anyways. Thus being so, every step felt like an achievement – especially the ones where I was dragging my sorry carcass up a mountainside – the Hill of all Hills – and I can honestly say I wouldn’t have traded a moment of it.
And isn’t that what a grand adventure is all about? In fact, I kind of want to go again. Something about the Lemosho route intrigues me.
Perhaps it is ritualistic masochism.
But more importantly:
To my fellow trekkers and guides: ahsante sana, rafikis.