5,895 meters, 19,341 feet. Kilimanjaro stands as the peak of Africa. Not even seen from Tanzania, it towers over the clouds, going from rainforest to temperate to grasslands and deserts to arctic scree. It is a test of the human capability. A little over a week ago, I attempted to climb it.
First, a little background check. I am by no means fit. In fact, other than dance, tripping over non-existing rocks are more common than 1 mile runs to me. Four years ago, I would never have thought about climbing any mountain, none-the-less Kilimanjaro. For training, I had done three weekly workouts, two of more than 1 hour long hiking and two short 30-minute circulation sessions. At that time, it was also IB exams, so of course, exams take president over training.
Honestly, heading off on the first day in the humid, hot rainforest, the first 3 hours felt like 20. In the first ten minutes, a joke had been circulating around. “Wouldn’t it be funny if someone had said, ‘I’m done,’ right now, 10 minutes into the hike?” That was a fear I had, of being the first one to quit. It was raining heavily, and the slightly nervous chatter gave way to a determined silence. Out of the heavily dense rainforest, came what loked like mist. But it wasn’t mist. It was cloud.
I don’t know what it was, but a sense of awe took over me. We were already high enough to literally walk among the clouds, the white fluff that had been the inspiration of art and the subject of airplane window ponderings. We were in it. And getting to Mandara Hut, which is the first stop, came soon after. Even though we had hiked only 3 hours, a small amount relative to the 14 hour days ahead of us, the sight of the stop had me almost crying with joy. We had finally gotten here, and all of us (the 12th grade class) survived this far! It might have been the altitude, but I had never felt so happy or proud of my peers.
The next days were a blur, with times when I was dozing off while walking, but one day particularly stood out. It was the day before the summit climb, and we were walking through desert now. It was a stretch of sand and rocks, which were organized into little murals and words (peace signs, encouraging words, etc.), and we could see our last hut, Kibo Hut, in the distance. However far we walked, the hut was still so tantalizingly far. It taunted us. I remember thinking that the wind was sapping at my will, the wind that was blowing ferociously from the side. For four hours, we walked with the hut right in front of us, but not getting any closer. There were moments when I had to struggle simply to stand, and not be blown away. It was the longest four hours of my life.
At Kibo hut, even going to the bathroom was a struggle, since it was in a little decline (meaning a mini-hike every time you had to go). At this point, I was struck with fear. This was it. The summit climb. This is what all the other days had simply been a lead up, a warm up to. This is where people have died, of altitude sickness. And so I lay for the four hours mostly awake, before we were woken out of our beds at 11 pm to start the climb. It was dark, but the moon lit up the sky almost as if it was the sun. We set out in a slow trudge, with the altitutde-sick in front. We had to stop numerous times due to altitude sickness, and we were already falling behind schedule. I heard talks of turning back, of us not making it to the top if we stop for every person who needed to throw up. We split up into two groups, the fast and slow, and I joined the slow.
Within the next hour and forty minutes, two people would be sent down.
About 3/4ths of the summit climb, I suddenly felt sick. The diamox (altitude sickness pills) had given me gas, which had manifested into a feeling of diarrhea and nausea at the same time, as well as lightheadedness. The medic stayed back, and I wanted to turn back. However, we were so close, so close, and so I picked up my stick, took one foot in front of the other, and started up the hardest part of the climb.
Scree is gravel that is 10 foot deep, and two hours of it was torturous. Every step of the way, I was salivating, the early stages of vomiting in my mouth with constipation and sheer exhaustion. I am so incredibly grateful to the assistant guide who helped me, named Good Luck, and the medic behind me who were so patient every time I had to sit and catch my breath. By the time we got to the rocks, which is the last of the climb, I didn’t have enough energy to scramble over rocks in my hands and knees. The porter had to help me up all the way through, until finally we got to the top.
It was around 8 am, we were finally at Gilman’s Point, and I was almost delirious. Too exhausted to celebrate, the porter had to hold me up the first couple seconds before plopping me down to regain my breath. However, rest can really make up for a lot, for five minutes later, the people who had made it and I were singing “Happy.” It was only until seven minutes later that my brain processed what had happened, and I was overcome by joy. I had done it. I had done something I had never, ever thought I could do, and almost had turned back. But more than pride, was humility. This truly was a great mountain, and this is truly an incredible world. And we are such a small part of it. Isn’t that beautiful?
And so now, if you are planning on climbing, here is a few advice:
Do what I didn’t. Climb stairs instead of taking the elevator, go to the gym, get cardio training.
2) What are you climbing for?
Have something you climb for, whether it be your family, your country, a cause you fight for, personal reasons. I personally climbed to prove my personal journey and growth throughout high school, from the shy girl who couldn’t get the ideas in her head out into the world to who I am now.
3) Have a manifesto to get you through those last few hours. It will be the hardest hours of your life, and you will feel like quitting.
4) Fear is in the mind. Fear is part of you, but don’t let it become you. And when fear is gone, you will remain.
5) Treat every little victory like it’s your last.
However much you train, the truth is that even the best of people get altitude sickness, and so you may not get to the top. You may not even get two-thirds to the top. So treat every little victory, like every day you accomplish in the climb, as though you may not reach the next.
6) Success is relative.
Although many may say that Gilman’s Point is technically not the top of Africa (that’s Uhuru Peak), for me, even getting there at all was an amazing success. Don’t let other’s version of success define you.
If you have any experiences, or any other advice, comment below!