“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
It is 4a.m. on summit day. We have been climbing at a 45 degree incline for 3 hours and 45 minutes and the end is nowhere in site. Our guide has just finished complaining that we’re too slow when the three Brits catch up to us. They are 19, 19 and 21. While our guide is congratulating them on their speed (they left two hours after us and still caught up), I catch the last guy saying “Absolute hell” as he overtakes me. I assure you, it was worse.
SIX DAYS EARLIER
Casey and Sarah could not have chosen a better time to join us on our travels. A combination of leaving India and some sad news from Toronto had left me desperately homesick. They brought home to us.
Some big bear hugs, a comment on how much darker I’ve become and last minute shopping for essentials (such as sunglasses) at the only store at the domestic airport and we were on the plane to Arusha, chatting non-stop.
After a sumptuous dinner at Ahadi Lodge, we headed to our rooms to sort out the things we were leaving behind and things we needed to take.
I started my day with an extra long shower – it was going to have to last for five days. I was nervous the next morning but over breakfast, Sarah calculated that we were only walking 8.2 km; almost the same distance from her house to work. Surely, the four of us could manage that.
The description of the climb on the first day said that we would be making our way through a heavily rooted forest area parallel to a flowing stream. I interpreted this to mean it would be relatively flat. I was wrong. It was steep. Our bodies were not used to such physical exertion. We weren’t mentally prepared for the climb. Only Trevor seemed to be coasting along.
After lunch, it started to pour – this made Trevor join the grumpy club, but only temporarily. When we arrived at camp six hours later, I just needed to lie down. I had a blister on the both of my heels (serves me right for keeping my hiking boots in pristine condition at the bottom of my bag) and my back was killing me. My saving grace was the smell of popcorn wafting through the campsite – delicious!
It would be a great disservice to our experience not to describe the bathrooms at the camp. Someone took a hoe and dug a hole and called it a bathroom. The size of the hole depended on the laziness of the worker. Although, I must admit that this person was always kind enough to add a door. Squatting was painful after six hours of climbing uphill. I have never appreciated hand sanitizer more.
DAY 2 (Our first day without a shower)
Our guides (Julius and Holson) had told us that our climb would be shorter (not by much) but much steeper. They didn’t mince words.
This time, I was mentally prepared for the challenge. The climb the previous day had taught me a lot. This time, I was almost managing to keep up with Trevor – of course it helped that he stopped every once in a while and waited for me to catch up. I was also grateful that one of the porters – Samuel – assumed temporary guide duty. He told me numerous times that he was sure I would be able to summit and I believed him.
Unfortunately, Sarah wasn’t feeling well. She hadn’t been feeling well since we met because of something she ate in Zanzibar. Julius told her that it would be easier to return to civilization from the next campsite, where a car could pick her up, rather than backtrack. So she persevered. That evening she was feeling better – well enough that she was talking about continuing our uphill, torturous trek. By this time, the three of us (Trevor excluded) had asked each other and ourselves “why are we doing this?” at least a million times.
DAY 3 (Day 2 without a shower)
After breakfast, we said goodbye to Sarah and headed in the opposite direction. I was sad to see her leave but a nosebleed coupled with not being able to keep her dinner down for the second night in a row made us all agree that this was probably the best decision.
The guides had told us that it was going to be a long day but not a steep climb. This information along with the success of my climb the day before led me to believe I was unstoppable.
At first, the three of us stuck together and the climb was manageable. Eventually, the altitude started to take it’s toll and I was exhausted. It took all my willpower not to sit on the next rock ahead of me and not move anymore. Many times I wondered why I hadn’t descended with Sarah.
Casey was on a roll. He was so far ahead that the only way for us to keep track of him was to look for bright yellow – it was the rain cover on his backpack that was like a ray of sunshine in the distance. We knew he was doing well because he made Trevor seem like a slow climber – an achievement I would not be able to claim on this journey.
At the fork in the trail, Casey and Trevor went up to Lava Rock and I took the “easy way” back to camp. My alternate route still involved more uphill climbing, a steep decline and two and a half more hours to get to camp. My crowning achievement was that I arrived at camp 30 minutes before the boys. It was irrelevant that they reached a higher altitude and took the longer route.
DAY 4 (3 days without a shower)
Since we arrived, I had asked every guide and every porter who would listen how hard this day would be. We were going to be scaling the Barranco Wall – the most challenging of them all. This time the boys decided that they wanted to move at Sakshi speed and let me lead. At one point, Trevor commented that moving at my speed was relaxing. I was aghast at his suggestion.
By no means was scaling the wall easy, but it wasn’t difficult either. I think this was partly because of my expectations and partly because there was so much scrambling to do to get to the top. I was too distracted to feel the pain.
It is at the top of the wall that we first meet the infamous Brits. When we ask them if they trained they are quick to reply in the negative. It seems to us that they are finding this adventure more than manageable, and dare I suggest, easy.
DAY 5: MORNING (Day 4 – No Shower)
It is a short ascent – only four hours long. Our guides assure us that it’s fairly easy. I’m thankful because our climb to the summit begins in approximately 16 hours.
We find out that it’s only easy by Kilimanjaro standards and involves a lot of ascending, then descending just to ascend again.
It’s the last descent that I find the most frustrating. We have just passed (what looks like) Pride Rock and we know that we’re close to camp because we can see it. The problem: To get to the other side, we have a difficult descent followed by a choice of two equally unappealing trails leading up to camp. One is shorter but steeper; the other is less steep but longer. (Why couldn’t the park build a bridge, I mutter to myself.)
Our guide, Julius, suggests it might be good practice for things to come to take the steeper route but I refuse to put my body through any more than I absolutely have to.
Trevor, who is continuing to enjoy the “relaxed” pace, chooses the steeper route. Casey and I huff and puff up the other way. When I’m completely exhausted, I turn the bend and there Trevor is, leisurely relaxing on a giant rock with a big grin across his face. It’s as if he flew up the hill – even the guide admitted that he was having trouble keeping up with my husband.
I walk past him at my usual snail’s pace (slightly grumpy) and head to our tent. Truth be told, I’m happy because we’ll be summiting soon and that means I’m that much closer to going back to my luxurious lifestyle of showers and sleeping on beds.
DAY 5: 10:00 P.M.
I wake up with a horrible stomach ache. 30 minutes later I am standing behind a rock, throwing up my dinner. I look up to briefly admire the stars before I’m forced to look down again.
DAY 6: 12:15 A.M.
We leave camp. What we don’t know is that it will take us 10 hours of almost continuous movement to get back to this campsite.
When I tell Julius that I had a rough night, he suggests that I go back to bed. But even though I’m not feeling my usual 100%, I’m determined. I didn’t go through the physical and mental exertion over the past few days to give up now. And somewhere deep inside myself I hear a voice that assures me I’m going to be just fine.
It’s a good thing that we left in darkness. If I could’ve seen our path, I would’ve given up close to the beginning. It is nothing like what we’ve climbed so far – so much so that I’m convinced nothing can really prepare you for that final ascent.
It’s steep. Casey and I were making lots of stops. And then when we were too exhausted to think, the Brits overtake us. At some point soon after that, I realize that if I keep stopping I’m not going to make it to Stella Point. And organically, the three of us end up splitting up with one guide each.
At some point, Julius changes his mind about me. I’ve managed to prove him wrong – he later admitted that he was convinced I wouldn’t make it. He becomes encouraging and supportive. He keeps repeating how impressed he is by my determination. He starts talking about how he’s sure I can make it to Uhuru Peak and I must do it. And he encourages me to grab onto his bag so he can help me by partly pulling me up the mountain.
As we start to be able to make out Stella Point in the distance, the light starts to change. Julius points out the beginning of best sunrise I will probably ever see. It starts off as a single line on the horizon, slightly curved with the bend of the Earth. This line gently begins to expand. With every 20 steps, I turn around to get another look but I know in my heart that I’m too tired to fully enjoy it. I know that if I stop, I may not make it. So I keep going.
Somehow I make it to Stella Point and collapse in front of the sign. By this point, we have been climbing for seven hours and I am exhausted. I have decided that I’m not going any further but a combination of Julius’ encouragement and the fact that we can see Uhuru Peak and it doesn’t look very far convinces me to keep going.
Even Trevor is exhausted during this one hour journey – the first glimpse I get that he doesn’t possess superhuman powers.
We get a close view of these massive, phenomenal glaciers. We pass by the crater of Kilimanjaro’s volcanic past. And at one point, I summon up just enough energy to kick a piece of the glacier like a ball. The glacier is sitting right beside our trail.
I don’t know how I made it. I think I even managed to surprise myself. We were at Uhuru Peak for a grand total of 10 minutes. Eight hours of ascending for 10 minutes of glory, with just some photographs to prove it.
The mood was lighter and I was happier during the two hour descent. When I saw what we had climbed, I was shocked. There was so much scree that Casey saw the Brits use their walking poles to ski down the mountain. He himself ran down.
We arrived at camp to all our guides and porters clapping and singing the Kilimanjaro song. Watching the the video Casey took of our arrival, I can see how proud and happy I am despite having swollen fingers, a split lip and a peeling nose.
Unfortunately, we were only given a measly two hours to eat and rest before we spent another four hours descending to our last campsite. On our way, I ask if a car can pick us up from our final campsite. Julius replies: “You don’t want to do that. You want to complete what you started.” Frankly, I just wanted to shower. Julius and Holson form a human chair three times and carry me down sections of Kilimanjaro. It was the most fun I had on the entire journey. My thighs ached more with each step. That evening, I eat popcorn for dinner before falling into a deep sleep.
DAY 7 (6 days later: I smell!)
There were three highlights during our final descent. Seeing black and white monkeys in the trees. Seeing a cow on the trail – Trevor asked Casey if he was hallucinating but since they both could see it they figured they were okay. But the best part of our descent was when Holson told me that all the guides and porters thought only Trevor would be able to summit but I had forced them to think twice about their judgements on who would make it.
My shower was as amazing as I thought it would be. As we were being briefed by our next guide Muba about our safari, (right after we arrived back to civilization but before we were presentable enough to re-enter that world) I realized I could smell myself and I stank.
For the next few days, Casey and I hobbled about – it was hard to walk. We wholeheartedly agreed that after our physical feat, there would be no hiking or camping for the rest of 2012.
A few times on our journey, Trevor reminded us that after we successfully completed this journey, we were one seventh of the way to climbing the highest summits on each of the world’s continents. I firmly replied: “You’re on your own.”
Casey said the more time that passes between the climb and the present, the more we would appreciate it. He was right. Now after more than a month, the memories of the bathrooms are starting to fade and my memories of the sunrise have started to become enhanced. I cherish the uninterrupted hours we had with Casey and Sarah – the long, wide-ranging conversations and the countless Race games we played. And I’m just as proud of myself now as I was when in Casey’s video. So in retrospect, it was worth it.