I read the guide books, talked to so many people, and had months to mentally and physically prepare to climb that mountain yet, even still, there was nothing that could have prepared me for summit day....climbing Kilimanjaro, the tallest free-standing mountain in the world. People climb the mountain for a variety of reasons and there's a constant buzz in the air about getting the photo at the top but for me hiking Kili was many things. It was putting my body to the ultimate challenge, it was being out in nature - taking me to that sacred place that only nature and music know the way, it was setting my mind to something and accomplishing that goal, and yes...it was even getting that photo at the top.
January 15th, 2015 is when it all began, when a van full of porters, guides, and a cook came to pick us up from our hotel. I had my hiking boots laced tight, my sunscreen slathered on my freckled skin, my belly filled with delicious mangos, papayas, and bananas, and I was ready. I was overwhelmed by the amount of people there, knowing that they were all hired for me. I'm used to backpacking in the states, where it's my responsibility to carry my own weight - my tent, my clothes, my food, my everything. Being too proud and too stubborn, I had a hard time having such a large crew involved in taking me up this mountain...but by the end of the trip I was grateful they were with me, every step of the way. I jumped in the van, where my guide immediately handed me bottled water and encouraged my water intake as we drove to the entrance gate. We met other trekkers there, from all over the world, and at the time didn't realize the community we were going to create over the next seven days. We chatted at the campgrounds each night, we passed them along the trail, we encouraged each other to the summit, and shared stories of our success or sickness on our way down.
Each day we would wake to one of our porters, Amani, gently shaking our tent and unzipping it to offer us hot tea as we came out of our slumber. The mornings were cold and it was a great way to start the day, still snuggled in my 0 degree sleeping bag sipping hot tea and preparing for the day. Shortly after, he would bring large bowls of hot water for washing, and breakfast was followed after that. We always ate with one of our guides, and discussed the day's plan for the trek, while they checked in with our state of health. I decided to withhold from taking my altitude pills until absolutely necessary, wanting my body to adapt on its own. Even from the first day, however, the altitude gave me headaches and insomnia, so each morning we discussed the level of pain to determine when I may need to start taking the pills. Each day the trails were simple and our guides would insist on us going "pole pole" (slow) but certain days we even beat our porters to the campground! Each campground was beautiful and unique in its own way, gradually working our way higher and higher in elevation. My time on the mountain allowed me to reflect on life, friends, my career, and anything the intricate mind can touch upon. It was freeing. I thought of my friends at the String Cheese Incident shows that I was missing back home. Gosh, I wanted to be there, but how could I complain when I had such beauty all around me. Francis and Pasaat, our guides, were so sweet and shot candid photos all along the way. We talked about their culture, we made jokes about silly mzungus (white people), we learned some Swahili, and were introduced to the many plants and wildlife indigenous to the mountain. Nights were the hardest for me, with skull-shattering headaches, my mind wandering as I could not sleep. On the fourth night, I surrendered. I got up, and left my tent. I knew I wouldn't sleep....had tried for days, but the altitude kept me active. Although the air was chilling as I sat on a rock, my body hugged by the damp clouds lingering on land, I looked up into the beautiful African sky. The stars were mesmerizing and it took me back to a time I had in India, staring up at the same stars, knowing that being a part of this experience, I would be forever changed. On the fifth day, we made it to base camp (over 15,000 feet). I hadn't slept in days, my appetite started to diminish, and the headaches still present. Just as we did every night at dinner, we had meetings about the seriousness of this trek, the importance of water, the terrain for the upcoming day, and Francis checked our vitals ensuring we were still healthy and prepared for the summit.
It was 11pm when Amani unzipped our tent offering us tea. I hadn't slept a wink, but felt prepared for the long, strenuous hike to summit for sunrise. I layered my body with warm thermals, covered those with fleece, an insulating layer, and then a waterproof layer. I tied up my shoes, strapped my headlamp around my head, grabbed my trekking poles, and was ready to go. After eating a couple cookies, we started our trek shortly after midnight. The trail almost immediately diminished and we started scrambling up the rock face. The air was thin and cold and my breath was weak and couldn't satisfy my lungs. Already in the first half hour, it was more challenging than any of the hiking we had done in the previous five days and in that moment I came to the realization that the next several hours were going to be really fucking hard, so I turned the volume up on my IPOD to blast Phish a little louder and I took a couple layers of clothes off. Even in the bitter chill around me, my body heat from the strentuous climb felt enough to warm an entire household. My friend, Laurel, had given me a small notebook with the illustration of a woman on it. It said "FEARLESS" under her picture, and I used this image as my mantra to continue onward. By 2am, and probably about 16,500 feet, I was sure my skull was going to shatter. I had never experienced such a headache but was scared to tell my guides, as I was sure if they knew how badly I felt, they would make me turn around. I finally spoke up and he asked on a pain scale of one to ten, where I was at. My brain screamed 12!!!.....but I only told him 7. We decided it was time for me to take an altitude pill. The pills don't mask the pain but, more importantly, help prevent cerebral and pulmonary edema. I took the pill but as we continued our climb, I was in total misery. The exhaustion from not sleeping for six days had finally caught up to me...of course, on the most important day of the whole trip. I was exhausted, struggling to even keep my eyes open. I became dizzy, nauseous, and lost faith that I would even survive at this point. One of my guides, Francis, was walking in front of me. I kept my body no more than a couple of feet from his and held an intense stare at his feet, trying to mimic every step. Left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot. If I broke my stare from this, my entire world would spin and knowing that it was a steep and long fall down, I kept my focus, my brain pounding, and my mind in a trance. I looked for rocks for me to sit on to take a break, or larger rocks for me to crawl under and freeze to death. (This wasn't worth it! What the hell was I thinking?!) As I started to sway and stumble, Hannah and my guides knew I wasn't in any good shape. I pleaded for time to rest, falling onto a rock trying to rest my body. Pasaat started shaking my body with force, "Wake up! Wake up!", he would yell to give me the encouragement to keep going...and I did, needing to stop a couple times along the way to try to vomit. The problem was my lack of appetite for a couple days left me with nothing to throw up, my lack of sleep left me miserably exhausted, and the altitude made my head ache unlike anything I have ever experienced before. I was a mess, but too proud to turn around. I HAD to make it to the top. We reached Stella Point, 18,800ft, at 4:58am. I gasped for air, partially out of excitement, but mostly TRYING to feed my lungs with oxygen. I was emotional and wanting to cry. We had less than a thousand feet to the highest point in Africa. My body ill and overwhelmed with emotion, I sat on a rock, trying with everything I had to catch my breath and explaining to everyone my misery on the way. Pasaat and Francis had hot ginger tea and a plastic Tupperware full of snickers bars and vanilla cake. We celebrated and relaxed, knowing that we could only spend so much time at such a high elevation before we needed to descend. After a little sugar, we continued to Uhuru peak. It was a series of three more steep climbs and I had an extra boost of motivation, excited to reach that point. The temperatures dropped drastically, the winds started to blow stronger, and the snowfall became heavier. We finally reached Uhuru peak at 5:52am, just to see the sky start to fill with purple, orange, and pink hues and the four of us danced and sang in the heavens. After a short celebration, it was time to descend. It was cold, so incredibly cold, and I couldn't get our photos fast enough. My fingers were frozen and I knew I needed to start my climb downward. We were hoping to wait for the sun to rise for our photos but it was just too long of a wait. My fingers hurt and I was starting to get scared. The headache was gone, my breathing was relatively regular, but my fingers hurt. I shook my hands and squeezed my hands trying to bring them warmth. Francis realized the discomfort I was in and ran to catch up to me. He took my hands into his and vigorously rubbed them to diminish the pain. As we connected with Pasaat, Francis took off my gloves and I tried to hold back my tears seeing the black rim on my nail beds and seeing my swollen fingers with shades of black, blue, white, and purple. I was sure my massage carreer was over. Pasaat quickly unzipped his jacket, grabbing my hands, and placed them under his armpits. I paid no mind to the fact he hadn't showered in at least six days or that my ice cold hands were on this poor man's body. It was warm and eventually the pain dissipated and I started to get my feeling back. I was able to put my gloves back on and we all continued our way down the mountain. We passed people along the way, who looked in much worse shape than what I was in, and my heart poured for them. I understood their complete misery and wished them well travels the rest of their way to summit. We ran down the mountain, knowing that we needed to get to a lower elevation. I was still absolutely exhausted, my knees aching, and with no energy to continue. We descended the 4,000 feet to base camp where I immediately snuggled back into my tent and passed out hard for the hour and a half they allowed us to sleep. We still had a lot more elevation to lose to get us back to safety and they insisted we continue down. The trail down was rough, steep, and the rain and hail didn't ease the circumstance. Hours later, we arrived to our camp where we slept that night. We had descended around 11,000 feet from summit, and I waddled in pain, meeting up with the other travelers that I had met along the way. Most of them did not reach summit. Some, comfortable with not reaching their goal, others with strong hatred for the mountain and her beastly ways. A man I had befriended from Holland offered me a salve for my knees. As I pulled up my pant legs to apply to cream, I saw what shape I was in. My knees looked like large, purple apples and I showed my guide to try to persuade him to feel a little sorry for me and my discomfort....I got no pity. I slept harder that night than I have in months and when 6:30am rolled around for us to continue our trek to the entrance gate, I was not ready to keep hiking. We continued to fall another several thousand feet to have our car waiting for us at the gate. We signed out of the national park, used the first clean restroom we had seen in days, and celebrated with our guides, porters, and cook. We drank Kilimanjaro Beer and toasted with delicious champagne before we drove back into town.
Like I said, I couldn't have anticipated the alititude and even though it was a struggle, I think that was an essence of the journey that I was supposed to experience. It was a struggle but with a few mantras, a couple altitude pills, and a strong crew to help me along my way, I'm thrilled I made it to the top. It's an average 45% success rate for all trekkers doing all trails to make it to summit, so I shine at the accomplishment, and I possibly attained a bit more, much needed, self confidence.
The trek was hard and now Hannah and I sit in the warm breeze of Zanzibar, with fresh seafood to fill our bellies, delicious Mojitos to fill our spirits, and warm water oceans to releax our achy bones...
Until next time, thanks for following along. It's so fun for me to get to share. You're in my heart, always. Cheers!