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.
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?
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.When I arrived at the airport in Kilimanjaro, I could not believe how absolutely easy immigration into Tanzania was, considering I needed to purchase my visa there. Visits to a U.S. post office are more time-consuming and painful than this experience of entering an East African country.
Upon leaving the airport after the simplest border control in recorded history, I found myself in the familiar position of standing with my bags on a cart, looking around for someone who had my name on a sign. And, no one did.
I pushed my cart against the wall so I was out of everyone’s way, and dug through my backpack to find my local contact’s information. When I called, she reassured me that the driver would materialize momentarily. So, I sat on my cart, turned away taxi driver after taxi driver, listened to my “Africa” playlist, and relaxed.
I watched as patches of Westerners walked through the doors, into the glare of the Tanzanian sun. Backpackers looking for cheap taxis, tour groups looking for shuttle buses, tourists looking for their prearranged drivers. A lot of them were resonating with a palpable stress I recognized. I am sure I looked like that in Bamako when my drivers failed to immediately materialize.
Here I was surprised to realize I was not worried at all. I shrugged, and continued to watch the parade of nations.
It was funny to see all the different nationalities, and how they were dressed and acting, given where we were. The Russians were obnoxious, in sequin tank tops, spike-heeled snakeskin boots, drinking vodka from canteens, loud, and over the top in every kind of way. The Brazilians were only a little less extreme than the Russians, and the Italians were only slightly better than the Brazilians.
The Brits were uptight and frumpy, complaining and looking hot and uncomfortable. The South Africans were only a little less extreme than the Brits, and the Americans were only a little better than the South Africans.
The French looked appropriately relaxed and on-vacation; they were dressed comfortably but sharply, and, especially by comparison to everyone else, presented an attractive package.
When I finally found my driver, he was terrific. We had a super rugged safari vehicle, and as he drove me the 45-minutes to my hotel, he told me about the local area.
I loved my driver’s accent. I loved his eyes. I love that he insisted I sit next to him in the front seat.
So, I already loved Tanzania. But, I don’t think my attraction to the driver can explain why I instantly felt so comfortable and at home at Rivertrees hotel. It is a gorgeous old farm estate on many acres converted into a charming hotel. I spent the afternoon sitting in the open-air restaurant drinking coffee (they freshly roasted and ground the beans for me).
I decided to go for a run through the grounds. I followed the river, and wound my way among the cabins and dense trees, with monkeys in them. While I was walking to cool down, I started to fantasize about living here. I felt like I am home.
After my shower, I looked in the mirror at my back, and was shocked at the giant red welts. I had just arrived from Ethiopia, and had been attacked by tse-tse flies yesterday. Under normal circumstances, I would be alarmed enough at what I was looking at, but I was even more freaked by the realization that I was about to set off on the Kili climb with some kind of allergic reaction.
I called reception.
“Does the hotel have a doctor?” I asked.
“Great, I have weird welts on my back I’d like someone to look at.”
“So, you want a doctor?”
“OK, I’ll send one over to your room.”
That was so easy. Ten minutes later, there was a knock at my door, and someone arrived with a power adapter.
“Ah, I don’t need an adapter, I want a doctor.”
“Ah, I don’t have one of those, maybe you can call reception?”
Eventually I stopped freaking out and adjusted to the fact that I just had some bug bites. So, I took Benadryl and quit my worrying. Mostly.
To distract myself I strolled over to the gift shop that had beautiful beaded jewelry. I started to pick out gifts, but my mind was aflutter with thoughts of The Climb — so I gave up and just browsed.
“Can I help you?” asked Gretchen, the resort manager, who was manning the register.
After chatting for a few minutes I decided to show her my back. “So, I’m sure it’s nothing, but I have these bites. Can you take a look?”
“Sure. OH MY GOD. I mean, ok, I see. They are tsetse fly bites. Yes, these are quite inflamed.”
“How many are there?” I asked.
“Ah. Well, let’s see. I can see at least sixteen distinct bites, maybe more. Some of these look quite large and could actually be two bites that are swollen together. You poor thing.”
“Should I be worried? I am going to start climbing Mount Kilimanjaro tomorrow, and have to wear my rucksack and all.”
“Really? Tomorrow? Ah. Well. No. No, not at all. You’ll be fine. I’m sure. Just fine. Just a few bug bites, right?”
I smiled nervously, both relieved and a little freaked out. I told her I’d be back after my trek to get some jewelry, and I headed to the restaurant for my pre-climb briefing.
The President of the hiking company soon arrived to deliver the pre-climb briefing, and introduced me to my head guide, Frank, who was all dimples and muscles. The President explained that while Frank and I were climbing, he would be monitoring us from town and arranging any emergency evacuations. First thing they told me is that I was the only one doing the climb. That meant all of the food, equipment and personnel were for me. I was so embarrassed to have a team of twelve men escorting me on just a week-long trek.
The briefing went something like…
“Make sure you eat a lot. Eat until you are full. Then keep eating.”
“Oh, ok,” I laughed. “I usually am a pretty good eater. That shouldn’t be a problem.”
“I’m not kidding. You need to consciously stuff yourself at all meals. Your body will try to tell you it’s full. Ignore it. You need more calories than your body thinks you need. And more water. Your body will use up to three times as much water as normal.”
“OK. Got it. Eat and drink.”
“Yes, nonstop. At least six liters of water a day. In addition all the liquids we will serve you at meals.”
“OK. Check. Imbibe. Ingest. Got it.”
“The golden rule is ‘Pole Pole.’ That means ‘Slowly Slowly’ in Swahili.”
“It is like you are telling me to do all my favorite things. Eat and drink tons. Move as slowly as possible. This climb is up my alley for sure.”
The President didn’t laugh. “It is important that you keep your pace slow in order to avoid stressing out your body while it is trying to adjust to the altitude. Because, if you do get altitude sickness, you will be sent down. There are no second chances. We take safety very seriously.”
“Right, as do I.”
“OK. So you will be in charge of your day sack. You can put the rest of your gear in one duffle that the porters will carry. Any questions?”
“Actually, yes. So, I have these bites on my back. I’m sure they’re nothing. But I’m a little worried my day pack may rub them raw.”
“OK. Let’s take a look.” So, I turned around and lift up my shirt. “Oh My God! I mean, OK. If they are irritated by your pack, he’ll carry it,” he says, pointing to Frank.
“Thanks.” Frank and I looked uneasily at each other.
The President and Frank conducted a thorough kit check of my gear and I unsurprisingly passed with flying colors. I had already proven to myself that when it comes to adventure travel, I have the shopping part down pat. After arranging the pick up time in the morning, they left.
Holy cow. Now that it was about twelve hours away, I was starting to get a little nervous. And, I was definitely more nervous knowing that I would be doing this alone. What if I didn’t make it? That meant the whole crew would have done all this for nothing. But, I was more excited than nervous. I couldn’t believe I was finally going to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, a life-long dream. Literally.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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…
Andrea woke me up at 6am by tapping on my tent, “Good morning.”
“Good morning!” I unzipped my tent and he handed me the tray holding the hot water thermos and the containers of hot cocoa, tea, coffee, milo, powered milk, and anything else I’d need for an early-morning hot hydration beverage. He also handed me a bowl of hot water and a bar of soap. I noticed the bowl of water he gave me the night before that I’d left by my tent was a solid block of ice.
I had 30 minutes to get dressed, brush my hair and teeth, use the toilet tent, and pack my duffle and backpack. I left my packed duffle in my tent, brought my daypack with me to the mess tent, and had breakfast with Frank.
Breakfasts consisted of porridge AND bacon or sausage AND eggs AND toast AND pancakes or French toast AND fruit and juice. Plus, the ubiquitous hot water AND fixings for coffee, tea, milo, hot chocolate.
Then, after one more trip to the toilet tent, we were off for the day’s hike. Each day it varied from five to seven hours of hiking.
As we walked, our team of 11 broke down camp, and then passed us a couple hours later. It was shocking that these guys were carrying so much stuff, and whizzing by like they were walking on flat, even land. We were always being passed. By our crew and other camps’ crews. I loved the energy of it. I loved the sound and rhythm of Swahili; it made me feel like I was in “The Lion King”. Most of the porters were very friendly and happy to say hello on their way. “Jumbo, Jumbo.” (Which means, “Hi, Hi” in Swahili.)
It was anything but flat, even land. There were long uphill switchbacks, followed by some downhill bits. And, mixed in is some pretty scary rock scrambling.
The higher we got, the harder it was to breathe. But, I was doing so well on pacing myself that, on the third day when we arrived at our lunch spot three hours too early, we delayed lunch until we reached the camp and on we trekked, no problem.
After a particularly steep series of switchbacks, I was sucking wind trying to get some oxygen into my lungs. We stopped for a water break, and Frank pointed out the rock face ahead.
“That’s kissing rock.”
“Huh?” I asked, trying to slow my breathing and clear my head.
“Kissing rock. 100 yards ahead of us.”
I looked up. It looked like our trail ended abruptly at a rock face that jutted out from the side of the mountain. I closed my eyes and opened them, but it still didn’t make any sense to me.
“The only way to pass it is to kiss the rock,” Frank explained. As we got closer, I could see there was actually a tiny ledge that was the continuation of the trail. So we were supposed so inch our way along the ledge, facing the rock, praying we didn’t fall backward.
I was happier when I was suspicious that Frank was somehow trying to come onto me about some kind of tradition about kissing under a rock or something – the Tanzanian mistletoe, so to speak. This was worse. Way worse.
I should explain that I was terrified of heights. And, more specifically, terrified of falling from heights.
Frank wanted me to go first, but I couldn’t.
“You go first,” I said. I needed to see how it worked. I was stalling for time, praying for magical Kiwi helicopters (when I was hiking in New Zealand, we were chopped over an avalanche. That was just a few months before this climb, so the image of helicopters was fresh).
Frank opened his arms so that he was facing the rock and spread eagle. He maneuvered himself slowly along the ledge, and then disappeared from view.
“OK, your turn. Kiss the rock,” I heard him say.
I took a deep breath, and then kissed the rock. I shuffled along the ledge, and before I knew it, I was on the other side, safe and sound.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
I felt invincible. And reborn.