Navigating By the Stars

Learning to Let Go of the Map

“Linds?”

I turned towards Matt’s voice, momentarily confused. I opened my eyes to pitch black and realized I was freezing cold. I pulled my hand out of the warm sleeping bag to touch my nose, feeling how icy it was. The tent flared into light as Matt turned on his headlamp. He unzipped the door and peered out, then turned back to look at me. “We have to go. Everyone is packing up.”

“What time is it?”

“About 12:30.” I looked at him blankly. Reading my mind, he said, “We slept about three hours.” I rolled over in the bag and drew my knees up to my chest. Matt was bouncing on his heels, energy and anticipation coming off of him in palpable waves.

“You go out and see what’s going on. I’ll get dressed.” I said from my fetal position. It was time for the summit. I lay there feeling my heart beat in my chest; for the first several days we had taken our resting pulse when we woke up and watched as altitude made our hearts beat faster and faster. Today I felt slightly out of breath just lying in my sleeping bag. The air was thin here. Without Matt’s headlamp I lay in the dark of the tent able to picture exactly where we were – clinging to the side of that mountain I’d seen so many pictures of – but at the same time further from anything I’d ever known. A childhood spent criss-crossing the ocean and hop-scotching around Europe had never brought me to sub-Saharan Africa, and certainly never almost 19,000 feet into the air. I had only known Matt three months when we planned this trip. It had occurred to me that it must mean something that I was following this man I barely knew to places so far off the carefully-marked map of my childhood that they appeared only around the edges.

We had been on Kilimanjaro for five days already, and tonight was our final ascent to the top. Our guides had timed it, as we had learned was the custom, so that we would reach the summit as the sun was coming up. Hence the middle of the night waking up.

Half an hour later, after choking down a dry roll and a hardboiled egg that was, disconcertingly, not entirely hardboiled we set off. It was Matt and me, two other friends, and two guides. We each had a walking stick, and we proceeded very slowly. The ascent was steep and the night was thick and black. We traversed the ice fields, going across at a slight upward angle and then turning around to go back the other way. With these long, slow switchbacks we trekked slowly up the icy mountain. That year, El Nino had brought uncharacteristic precipitation to Kilimanjaro and everything was covered in feet of ice and snow. Normally at this time of year, late June, we would have been walking on shale instead of the slippery sheet ice that had developed over a thick crust of snow. My disorientation was total: the sky above was black, the ground below was white and slick, and I could barely breathe because I was so far away from the world I lived in. I’d been slipping into this quasi-scary but quasi-liberating sense of separation from my real world for days now, as we made our way up Kilimanjaro’s side, wandering through different climates as we moved north. Knowing exactly where I was going was a defining characteristic of my life. Not just geographically but metaphorically, the map was crystal clear: aim for the next most impressive achievement and attain it. Repeat. Hopping through brass rings was something I did as second nature now, and it made figuring out what to do next simple. All I focused on was how quickly I could do it.

As I walked up the face of the mountain that morning, however, my cadence was almost comically slow: Step, step, pause, breathe. Step, step, pause, breathe. I could hear my own breathing in my ears and the crunching of snow under my feet. Every few minutes we stopped for a longer moment to try to catch our breath. Each time I leaned over with my hands cupped on the top of my walking stick and looked down at the circle of light cast from my headlamp on the snow underfoot.

During one such break I heard Matt whisper beside me, “Hey, Linds, look up.” I dragged my eyes from the ground to his face and he silently pointed up to the sky with his ski glove. I craned my head up and saw a black sky speckled with a few stars. My headlamp’s light was immediately swallowed by the blackness of the night around us. After we got home we discovered that many people planned their Kilimanjaro hike so that there would be a full moon on the last night. Not so the two of us. There was no moon at all. The sky was dense and dark but covered with scattered pinpricks of light.

I recognized the Big Dipper over on one edge of the sky, though it took me a moment to identify it. I frowned. The Big Dipper at home was much closer to the top of the sky, and here it was almost over at the horizon. Matt touched me gently on the shoulder and pointed to another constellation. I looked over at it, thinking back to the book about stars that Hilary and I had pored over as children. No, I didn’t recognize it. I looked at Matt. “What is that?”

“That’s the Southern Cross,” he said, and I turned to look at it again, CSNY playing instantly in my head. Our guide ambled over at this point, his boots making loud crunching sounds on the icy snowfield. He saw where we were looking.

“Yes, very unusual, you know,” he said in his lilting accent. “Very unusual to see Big Dipper and Southern Cross in sky at the same time.”

“Back up we go,” he said, after long moments of silence. “Jambo.” Sighing, I blinked a few times and turned away from the sky. We returned to our walking. Step, step, pause, breathe. My inhales felt ragged and my body felt like lead but I kept moving, seeing the flicker of Matt’s headlamp on the snow just behind me as I looked down, following close behind our guide.

Some time later – I have no idea whether it was ten minutes or two hours, so compressed is my sense of time in the memory of this dawn climb – our lead guide halted abruptly and our little line came to a stop. He and the guide who was taking up the rear spoke in Swahili, the urgency in their voices absolutely clear to me even if their actual words were not. I turned to look at Matt but I couldn’t see his eyes, only the bright beam of his headlamp. He shook his head at me, the light waving back and forth. He did not know what was happening either.

“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” the guide’s voice, melodic as ever, was entirely unreassuring. “We need to figure out where we are.”

“Looks different with all the snow,” the other guide offered and four headlamps swept the ice field as we all turned to look at him.

I noticed the lead guide was looking up at the sky. I pulled my fingers into a fist inside each mitten, balancing my walking stick between them. I thought of the long, cold chairlift rides at Waterville Valley when my sister and I would do that, trying to warm our frozen hands. Finally, impatient and nervous, I blurted out, “What are you doing?”

His gaze floated down to me. “I am looking at the stars. Need to figure out where we are.”

“Don’t you have, you know, a map?” My voice betrayed my anxiety, bordering now on fear. How can you climb this mountain, the tallest in Africa, without a freaking map? I thought I heard the second guide chuckle and I tensed one fist inside my mitten.

“We don’t need a map,” Our lead guide was still looking at me. How was it that his eyes, which I knew were as dark as the night sky, seemed to glow? “We have the stars.”

I felt tears prickle my eyes and tipped my head back to look at the sky. The hot tears ran down my cheeks into ears as I stood on the snowy side of Kilimanjaro, looking up at the darkness, my eyes flickering between the two constellations. I felt scared, suddenly, remembering the story of the hiker two weeks ago who has slipped on these ice fields and fallen to his death. I felt lost, unnerved that my guides did not have any kind of official map to rely on. I felt tired, wanting this climb to be over, the summit attained, this effort done.

And then I heard the guides getting ready to start walking again. One of them said brightly, “Almost at the crater rim!” and I heard the man I already loved deeply sigh “Oh, good,” next to me. I pushed my gloved fist through the loop of leather at the top of my walking stick and glanced up one more time at the stars, immutable and bright, above me. It occurred to me that there is so much information in the night sky that I cannot read, a language whose patterns and directions I cannot discern. But apparently one could steer one’s course as surely by looking up at the sky as one can by looking down at a map. Something unfurled inside of me as I imagined, for the first time, a life navigated by something less concrete than the map the world had presented me with. I did not understand the stars or how to read them, but these men who had safely guided hundreds of climbers to the peak of Kilimanjaro trusted their message. Maybe I needed to learn to do so too.

Lindsey blogs regularly at A Design So Vast. You can also find her on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.