Part 3: “The Hardest Day of my Whole Life: Summit Day”
(Climbing A Mountain is All in Your Head: A Story in 3 Parts)
Well this is Mt. Kilimanjaro in all of its glory- and where did we left off in Christine’s story of climbing it? Oh yes! She was just starting to summit and as the title of this blog suggests, the summit was not a pleasant time.
As they were climbing, Christine had barely seen the peak of the mountain, with the fog hiding it. But today she could see they weren’t so far away anymore, the glaciers and snow at the top peak were growing closer. As she packed, she placed her clothes inside of her sleeping bag so they would absorb her body heat and stay warm in the freezing temperatures.
“One of the guides came to my tent with the news that Serifin would be guiding us on summit day, the only person I would want to. He warns me that the first hill will be the hardest but after that the rest will be easy. If it wasn’t true he gave me permission to throw rocks at him. It ended up not being true.”
With the stress of the summit looming over her head, Christine could not sleep. It was extremely windy that night that by the time one of the porters came to shake her tent and wake her up, Christine panicked, assuming the tent must be flipping over.
“I thought maybe I should talk to Serifin about my fears. But I already knew exactly what he would say, his response to everything, “Don’t think. Drink more water.” This calmed me down and eventually I fell asleep.”
Waking up the next morning and walking 8 hours to the rim of the volcano was all a blur. Inside the volcano was a ramp the group would have to climb to reach the top. Once everyone had made it over the dreaded first hill, the trail became a switchback, where members walked in a zigzag pattern instead of straight up the hill to make the climb less steep.
“My eyes soon met a sea of headlamps in front of me, climbers from other groups. The full moon and stars also helped to light up the path, calming me. The switchbacks in the dark were hypnotizing. Why? I don’t remember.”
“But the wind. The wind would take the breath out of you. I fixed my eyes on the green backpack in front of me and thought, “if he can keep walking so can I.” But that wind made me feel like an airplane during turbulence: unsettled. I kept telling myself it was just an inconvenience, not a problem. Unless Serifin says you can go down, you are going to keep climbing up.”
Christine had 3 options: stop and go back down (in the wind), stop and take a break on the side of the mountain (in the wind), or keep moving. She chose the lesser of the three evils, which would take her out of the wind sooner.
The group continued its climb in the pitch darkness. While walking switchbacks on the horizon line Christine looked to the stars for a an answer; were they beginning to fade? But the stars yielded no clues and the climb stretched on, no signs of morning in sight. And then she saw it…
“One single line of red as I turned the corner. Walking towards it I had this moment where I thought, I can’t believe this is the sunrise! I was overwhelmingly filled with joy, crying at its presence. I had made it! I had survived the night and morning was here.”
With each switchback more and more colors, oranges and yellows, start to appear. With each step the sky grew brighter and more of the crater was visible. Christine turned off her headlamp. This indescribable joy was as if she had just survived battle, a battle against the brutal wind.
The group finally reached Stella point, the first part of the crater. At this point Christine was feeling delirious as she dropped to her knees in exhaustion. She reached for her clif bar but it was frozen. She tried to pull out her water but that was frozen too.
“All the guides were high-fiving us and hugging us when Serifin came over to me.“Welcome to my office. What do you think?” I responded, telling him that it was beautiful. Then he confides in me, “So I have to tell my clients this mountain isn’t hard, I tell them that it’s a piece of cake; but it is hard! I do this so that you don’t think about it so much.”’
The guides kept the group moving. They had only one hour left until Uhuru peak, the top of the mountain. When they finally reached the peak, everyone was in high spirits, taking pictures in front of the sign. Uhuru peak translates to independence peak. Christine thought how perfect this was for a student traveler climbing a mountain all by herself. Pretty damn independent.
As the group hiked back down to Stella point, Christine realized she had never thought about what would happen after she reached the top of the mountain. The route down was a volcanic sand path composed of black sand and rocks. The way down? Sliding down the volcanic sand like you would a sand dune.
Christine started picking up speed, going faster and faster, when her head started to ache. Then came the dizziness and nausea. But she had to keep moving, in order to get rid of the altitude sickness she had to get down to a lower altitude.
“I remember Alexis and Lisa were stopped too and the other members of the group were bent over, vomiting. But most vividly I remember Alex throwing up off the side of the mountain, Serifin holding onto her backpack so she wouldn’t fall off. We still had a four hour walk back to camp and all I wanted was to get off this mountain! I wanted the Wi-Fi and I wanted to sleep.”
As the group stopped for an hour, Christine crawled into her tent, stripping herself of her many layers. Her skin was on fire while she wore all of her arctic layers in this new climate zone. She barely made it lunch before she was throwing up.
“Serifin did not care much for my whining. He told me to hurry up and drink my water faster, but I could only manage tiny sips at the time. I snapped, “I could think of a million things I would rather do than hike for four more hours!”’
The climb down was awful to say the least. When they reached the camp Christine fell asleep, only to throw up more the next morning. The group walked its final three hours and reached the last gate. Awaiting them was an area set up with lawn chairs, food, and certificates congratulating them on their accomplishment.
After all that the mountain had thrown at her, all the doubt and uncertainty, Christine was still alive. She walked away feeling that if she could handle Mt. Kilimanjaro, she could handle anything. And so she went onto Cape Town, where she is enjoying the wonderful adventures that Africa has to offer her there. I have never seen her so relaxed and carefree and I know the mountain is to thank.
As I prepare to visit Christine a month from now, I can’t help but feel worried about the trip. I will be traveling solo, across the ocean, to a completely foreign continent! And people have told me its crazy, that the idea is too dangerous. Well, hearing Christine’s story taught me something: we have to take risks in life in order to truly appreciate all that this world has to offer us. We could stay safe never leaving our homes, never trying anything new, but is that really living?
Why worry when life is going to do as it pleases anyways? The worrying won’t make anything stop, it will only make the journey harder on yourself.
There will never be an ideal time to travel. There will always be some sort of conflict going on in the world. We have got to stop playing things so safe. We need to get out and explore the world before we lose our chance to. Taking a step outside our comfort zones, in any way, is important to our mindset. The real struggles we face are often all in our minds and we need to stop getting in our own way! Always remember, “pole, pole,” you can do it.