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 3 of a 3-part series on our journey to the top of Africa and a bittersweet goodbye four years in the making.
Kili Guide Alex was the only one left on the summit with me when I returned from the highest land "bathroom" I've ever used. He didn't want to risk anymore of my swerves and teeters on the shifty scree, so he grabbed my hand yet again and descended.
I was slow. I paused often to drink water. He grew impatient.
Pushing my hand toward a different direction, Alex led me square off the mountain face, straight down the slope. One footstep would push wheelbarrows full of little volcanic rocks down, obscuring the switchbacks like a toothpick through latte foam. In seconds, I was meters lower without much effort at all.
I was skiing! No... I was screeing!
David's face, as I flew past him, was one of worry. I exclaimed in passing, "I think he thinks I need to get down fast." Kili Guide Alex's explanations were cryptic and ended with, "Let's go," so I kept on screeing, pausing only to rest my seldom-exercised skiing muscles. In a fraction of the time it took to labor up the mountain in the full moonlight, I was back at the hut, pants and boots covered in the dust of an earth-changing eruption of another era.
Even though we made it back down to a lower altitude, the effects still wrecked our bodies and pushed us to keep going. Those of us who could stomach it scooped up the warm meal they had prepared for us at the hut–of all things, pot roast–and then retraced the path to our home amongst the clouds. It was here where we rejoined some of our fallen soldiers, who instantly recovered at the more pleasant elevation.
Morning greeted us with cups of warm tea and diminished headaches, our bodies no longer as exhausted as they were on summit day. We were invigorated enough to celebrate. A round of group photos, hugs, and giggles started us off on the final day of the descent, one that took us from God-like heights above the clouds through the moorlands and into the jungle. Blisters grew like sixth toes, but we didn't care. A little limping at greater speeds meant relief was that much closer.
Running through the jungle and using two walking sticks to pole-vault over tree roots, I found myself alone with my mind. This body enabled the adventure for me, and my mind held up in spite of the pill-popping and hostile environments. I managed to survive AND support, against quite strong though unspoken self-doubts.
A monkey squeaked in the trees. I gasped and stopped in my tracks. A couple minutes later, I spotted a woman in a clearing. I slowed down, blinked, and waved. It was difficult to accept being back in society all of a sudden, but her wave in response felt like victory.
Hanging up the boots
Freshly scrubbed and clothed like a lady, I sat on a porch at the Hotel Marangu writing postcards to the young adults with whom I had just shared a summit. A large bee swooped toward a flower at my side and nuzzled its stamen while still afloat. I watched it with full interest. It looked more like a small hummingbird than an insect. Murmurs from nearby conversations were muted by the sound of its buzz. Another huge insect darted to my left.
I only had eyes and ears for nature.
I think technology is great, even though I know that distance from it (and modern society) gives me super senses and less anxiety. Five days with nothing but a camera, fellow trekkers, and nature managed to scrub the grime off my windows to the world. Of course, I don't know to what extent exhaustion skewed my focus toward the little or the natural things. I was absolutely knackered, as the Kiwi says.
As were the kids. Our previous month was draining: a mountain trek, an overlanding adventure, an international flight, an emotionally-overwhelming graduation weekend, an Amazing Race through six cities in Japan, and of course, the culminating exams of their high school career. Imagine the packing involved. And the mental rigor. And the goodbyes.
I have spent more time with these fifteen students in the last three years than I have with my family and friends combined. Since my initial visit in 2011, together we have explored sixteen countries on five continents, sometimes sharing bucket list-worthy experiences but also enduring challenges far less exciting. I bawled throughout their graduation ceremony and felt utter joy throughout the reception.
To those seniors and their underclassmen, I have dedicated my lifestyle to their education. It was not easy to accept the parting of ways that capped our African adventure. I was distraught.
In the final moments of packing, the students approached my room as a class to give me an incredible gift. Along with some kind words that made my eyeballs explode, they gave me a signed t-shirt with our Kilimanjaro route on the back. This shirt is on display in my room today, though I feel inclined to both wear it daily as well as permanently enshrine it in a glass case a la the Hard Rock Café.
I work at THINK Global School, but I also feel at times like I go to THINK Global School, except I follow a different curriculum and that I don't leave until they ask me. I am challenged just as much by the locations and teachers as the students are, and I can feel myself being shaped by the lessons they are teaching me.
I'm in awe that my job not only presents me with opportunities like this with such great people, but my job is to share these opportunities creatively and effectively, so that we continue to marvel and realize and learn and change for the greater good.
If you're lucky, many of the stories you live through will feel so powerful that the task of retelling them feels too great. This story was one I couldn't detach myself from. I couldn't see the adventure through the students' eyes, because it was already too consuming through my own, too challenging and new, and I felt like a student myself.
We all left feeling a great sense of accomplishment, a knowledge of our limits, an awareness of our raw humanity, and a strengthened sense of ubuntu, to be quite specific. These lessons will inspire different steps for each of us toward new challenges–new charities opened, personal goals never before considered, physical feats previously considered just for those fit people or those from Colorado–and I'm really excited to see where those steps lead to in the years to come.