He sat upon the Flatland,
A white crown on his head,
He rose up from the low sand,
From which he made his bed.
The tree line is his necklace,
His covering a star-blanket,
Flowers are his coat of lace,
A boulder, his rounded trinket-
The mountain sits high on his throne;
He’s King of Plain and Shore,
He rules the people; proud, alone-
There’s nothing he’s wanting for.
During my junior year of highschool, I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. The trip was one of many “interims” that students at could choose to take during their junior and senior year. Other interims include scuba diving, snorkeling, bike riding, Lamu Island, and others that I can’t recall. As a quick aside, during my senior year I went on the snorkeling interim, it was a blast.
Included in the group that elected to climb Kili was one of my closest friends, Amy. Amy and I had been good friends since we were in 5th grade. On Kili we spent literally every waking and sleeping moment at each others’ side, with occasional sneaks off into the foliage to pee :) … Amy remains one of my dearest friends to this day.
The trip up and down the mountain took around five days, if memory serves me. There are many different routes one can take. It was quite the experience, and we got to see so many new and bizarre creatures and plants. I wish I had taken more photographs. This was before smartphones were ubiquitous. The photos I took were on actual film, and were printed in the weeks following the trip.
The first couple days the ascent was gradual. It more resembled a walk rather than the beginnings of a conquest. But with each passing day we climbed higher, and as the temperature dropped, the amount of clothing layering our bodies grew. We took altitude-sickness pills to facilitate acclimation to the drastic changes in altitude. As I recall, side effects from the drugs included a metallic taste in the mouth and tingling fingers/toes.
The Final Ascent was the most difficult. We arrived at Kibo, the final checkpoint, in the early evening. We choked down a a light dinner of watery soup and crackers, recommended by the incredibly experienced guides. They told us that a high percentage of climbers experience nausea on the Final Ascent.
We were instructed by our guides to sleep for a few hours, and were awakened by them at about 11:00pm to begin the Ascent.
It was the blackest night I have ever experienced. Literal, actual, all-enveloping blackness.
The stars seemed so very close, and due to the absence of city/traffic lights, we saw an unbelievable number of shooting stars hurtle across the sky.
The dark seemed to press around us like a thick woolly mass, and this, coupled with below-freezing temperatures, made the air feel particularly mean-spirited.
There was little light around us, save the stars and our headlamps, the latter of which cast timid, wavering beams of light from our foreheads.
We marched single file up the trail, which zig-zagged every hundred feet or so.
It felt like we were going nowhere. Like mice stuck on a self-perpetuating wheel… up the steep incline, then across the incline, then switching directions and across again… hours ticking agonizingly slowly as we nudged one foot in front of the other.
Only the guides, their bodies and minds accustomed to the grueling Ascent, were able to converse with any semblance of normalcy. Their steps were springy, and they seemed totally unaffected by the inky darkness, thin air, and cruel cold. They chatted softly in Swahili to each other, even chuckling now and then in friendly banter. To my bundled up, numb ears their voices were distant and muffled.
It is said that the Final Ascent occurs during those specific hours (approx 11:00pm-6:00am) for two reasons. The first reason is that the incline is so steep and the peak so far in the distance, that if the climb were to be attempted during daylight, the sight alone would be an enormously discouraging hurdle to any would-be climber. The second reason is that given the six or so hours required to reach the top, the arrival time would coincide with the sun rising over Africa, one of the most spectacular sights to behold.
The incline was so steep that we were bent nearly double trying to scale it. My legs felt rubbery and heavy. I was sweating inside my thick clothing. Nausea came in waves. The water in my canteen froze.
The nausea, sleep deprivation and muscular fatigue caused me to become disoriented. Even though we were climbing in single file, I kept seeing movements to my side, from my peripheral vision, that looked like someone was walking beside me. I kept turning my head, wondering who was there.
Some hours into the Ascent, one of the guides noticed me struggling to remain upright and came to help. I spoke to him in English and he responded in Swahili.
We stopped halfway up to rest behind a huge boulder. It was large enough to shield us from the freezing wind that swept down the mountain. My hands, feet, and face were frozen. I was miserable.
As the water in my canteen was frozen into a solid block, drinking was out of the question. Even continuing to carry the canteen felt pointless.
Thankfully, Amy had kept her canteen inside her clothing, and her body warmth had prevented her water from freezing. She shared it with me. As I sipped, a thought occurred to me that I should probably go easy on the water… I might have to pee if I drank too much, and nothing sounded worse than baring my ass to this frozen, unforgiving world.
I honestly don’t remember the rest of the climb, except that I wept in exhaustion into the scarf which was wrapped around my neck, nose, and mouth. I also used the tail-ends of that scarf to blow my nose. I wonder what ever happened to that scarf… I may have lost it on the way down because I don’t think I ever saw it again.
I remember finally being at the top and looking down at the clouds which were now far below us. The sun, which was now illuminating everything as it rose, revealed enormous glaciers in valleys around us, as well as smaller glaciers nestled in crevices. We spent a couple hours up at the top.
It was beautiful. And a little scary. We all felt a mixture of fatigue and accomplishment.
Some of the guys in our group hit a couple golf ball off the top of the mountain. I don’t know whose idea it was to carry golf stuff all the way up, but it made for a few laughs and some good photos. Afterwards, when my brain had thawed, I found myself wishing that our group hadn’t left golf balls on the mountain… it seems terribly irresponsible of us to have left any sort of litter out there.
The descent was pure fun. The steepness of the incline which so battered us on the way up was now our greatest ally on the way down.
I almost… almost… forgave its previous cruelty.
I remember starting to descend at a walk, but inertia goaded us into a jog, and finally we succumbed to gravity and found ourselves sprinting down. Allowing momentum to hurtle us down the mountain actually required less energy than walking.
As we ran/fell precariously down the scree, we must have looked quite hilarious. There were plenty of falls, but with all our thick winter gear and the sandy nature of the scree, there were no injuries.
Nothing can compare to the feeling of moving so fast downhill that one feels a heady combination of elation and absolute dread. One false step or trip could result in a very long tumble down a very steep hill.
We did not stay another night at the Kibo checkpoint, for which I’m sure we were all relieved. The walk down the remainder of the mountain took less than half the time it took to ascend.
It was a phenomenal experience which I was fortunate to have. However I have to admit that I would not have elected to go on that particular interim had I been given a choice beforehand, but as it happens, my dad was quite insistent that each of his kids climb Kili. Looking back, I am glad that he was!