Never have I felt so lucky to have this traveling job than I did on our attempt to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, even in the face of extreme conditions and sudden danger. This is part 2 of a 3-part series on our journey to the top of Africa and a bittersweet goodbye four years in the making.
Reaching the third hut meant we arrived at our highest sleeping elevation. In the next handful of hours, we were expected to eat dinner, attempt to get some hours of (disorienting) sleep, and arise before midnight to brave the final stretch. The peak's looming presence was daunting to say the very least, and it was at this time, after dizzying bathroom stops and an early dinner, that many strong-willed students finally voiced the unspoken as of yet: they were scared.
My high altitude memory fails me when I try to remember if I shared my fears or whether I pretended to be absolutely thrilled for the adventure ahead, trying my best to be a support system. I believe I went with the latter, exaggerating my eagerness to the point of clear posing, and then immediately went to bed with some melatonin and an Inception-like dream that had me fake-waking up every 20 minutes with anxiety.
Lined up like a Goretex-covered centipede, fifteen students and six staff members assembled outside the hut to begin what was supposed to be a six-hour trek to the summit by sunset. Sixteen guides surrounded us like the stars on an Indiana flag, awaiting any visible signs of high altitude sickness. They loomed like protective superhumans, seemingly unaffected by the altitude or cold.
We were finally in the “extreme high altitude.” I saw our mental switches go from "I got this" to utter reverence of our planet.
Within five minutes, we stopped. Man down. Man recovered. A few minutes later, another fell out of line. Some felt dizzy. Others felt nauseous. All I could do was stare at Charis' backpack and hope that I had it in me to follow each footstep with another until the earth finally leveled. My dizziness felt mild enough to ignore, but it felt like a thick film around a functioning mind.
We were taking longer than was anticipated with all our stops and starts, so the group decided to split up into a "Steady" group and a "Pole, pole" group. I shuffled over to the slower group, since each pause in our ascent afforded me time to ward off the dizziness.
One student in the back of the line raised his hand for the "Steady" group and then proceeded to fall to the ground. A nearby headlamp illuminated his face to show unfocused eyes, and emergency oxygen quickly came into view.
The adventure became real. I watched my ego drop and roll down the volcanic scree.
Here, in the full moonlight on the roof of Africa, we were humans with the same unpredictable chances of falling ill from the pressures of this extreme environment. It was equal parts scary, surreal, beautiful, insane, and special. I suddenly craved pot roast.
The student and one staff member scrambled back down the mountain face with a couple guides before we could even wrap our heads around that reality. The TGS twenty-two became twenty.
After seeing one student descend, some in the "Pole, pole" group started to see that fate as their inevitable fate. With the distance downward ever-growing and the summit nowhere in sight, doubt became the predominant emotion, to which I responded with lies.
Guys, it's closer to the top now than it is to the bottom. If you summit, not only is it the shorter walk now, but you can go back down in the daylight, which will be faster and safer.
I looked at Pema, and she looked at me. Both of us knew this was a big ol’ lie. Not only did I have no authority with which to say such things, but clearly summiting at this point was the tougher route. Oddly enough, I don't think I would have gone any further from this point if I were just a regular climber, if I didn't have a role to fill.
With these white lies, it became clear to me that climbing Kilimanjaro is completely mental. My leg muscles didn’t burn the way I thought they would. Other than my head and belly, my body felt strong and fine. But an able body was not the most important asset for continuing up that huge, dark, daunting incline. I turned off my mind to simply put one foot in front of the other and to encourage others to do the same.
Before we even hit the halfway mark of the ascent, another student showed signs of high altitude sickness and descended the mountain with more guides and another staff member. Twenty became eighteen. Again, we had to drown the doubt mounting in others with positive thinking and a few more white lies. The tea break offered a chance to warm up and reboot, as well as a chance to learn we were capable of being so tired we could fall asleep sitting up and holding full teacups.
The snaking footpaths in the final hours seemed infinite, but it was here where we witnessed the sunrise – a muted, clouded light change that backlit MaLindsay. We paused... and then continued on shuffling.
The scree gave way many times under my feet, prompting one student behind me to push my insulated bum back up and our guide to pull up my grasping hand. Once I was back on my feet, Kili Guide Alex didn't let go.
With every switchback, we switched hands and tightened the grip that kept me upright and moving on the mountain face. At first, this assistance made me feel like a weakling, assistance I would have hissed at in my childhood for fear of being mocked by neighbor kids and my brother’s friends. But since my ego had left me at 5,000 meters, I turned back to Charis behind me and winked, pretending like this was a lovely excuse to hold a fella's hand.
My memory of the final switchbacks is fuzzy. Had I been mentally engaged and thinking about this experience, I would have face planted in the gravel at the start. I wasn’t truly there to feel the discomfort. The altitude wouldn’t let me truly be present to my own greatest physical feat.
I heard voices from above and craned my head to see the end of the "Steady" group. Without conscious effort, our two groups converged, clearly demonstrating to us that acclimatization was successful at one rate, and that wasn't a rate anyone could rush.
Kili Guide Alex, my knight in puffy red armor, released my hand only when both of my feet were firm and level at Gilman's Point, an access point to the crater rim. I heard the hoots and hollers of chilly, accomplished teens, but I couldn't see them. I had to hang lifelessly for five minutes on my walking stick before realizing how far we had come.
There were smiling selfies and high fives circling. There were bodies slumped on the rocks and on each other, bodies unable to fully express the emotions felt somewhere amidst the high altitude cloudiness.
I had to remind myself I was there to capture this moment, this surreal moment on top of Africa. It was hard to take a step back from the feeling of accomplishment I shared with them in order to snap a photograph, just like I would on an "ordinary" work day. Of course, this wasn't such a day, not even when compared with work days at the Taj Mahal or in the Amazon rainforest. I wanted to bottle our shared pride and pause the moment so that I could savor it at a later time that afforded more mental clarity.
It was all we could do to simply smile, pose, pee, and head back down the mountain without falling asleep on the dramatic slope. Dancing was twice as hard with half as much oxygen present (although thrice as hilarious to film).
And after no more than twenty minutes of “celebrating,” we grabbed our daypacks and carefully took the first steps downhill, an experience which proved to be an adventure of its own right. Before we knew it, we moved on from the destination in our dreams. Continue reading part 3.