Summit Day: 29 December, 2016
Part 1: The Ascent
For those of you who saw me in the weeks prior to the holidays know that I had a pretty bad cough, which was only getting worse. For those of you who knew my Holiday plans this was disconcerting to say the least, but for those of you who weren’t in the know I signed myself up to climb Mt Kilimanjaro- the tallest mountain in Africa standing at 19,341 ft. It’s also my first time climbing a serious mountain. Feeling unsettled yet? It’s alright that’s natural.
The date is 12/29/2016, it’s our 5th day of our 6 day trek, and it’s a date that I will be hard pressed to forget because today is summit day.
It started just like any other day with a light dusting of snow at our 15,000 ft base camp with 11:30 pm tea and cookies. No one in my group of 12 can eat because we are too nervous, and we are out the door walking toward nothingness at 12:15 am. Within 5 min of walking I turn around to see one of my teammates blowing chunks and dropping out of the summit push. I hurriedly turn back around and try to block it out, “positive thoughts Nathaniel, positive thoughts.”
For a bit of context:
Our team of 12 has a natural split into two clear groups- the fast group and the slow group. Naturally I am in the later group unless I take supplements to hide how out of shape I really am, which I do in copious amounts. The preffered ones for this trip is from a startup called Nootrobox. On 3 out of the 4 days up to this point these enabled me to keep up with the fast group, but on day 3, where we ascended from 13,000 ft to 15,000 ft only to descend back to 13,000 ft, I didn’t take them and ended up in the back walking through a cloud being pelted by freezing rain with 10 feet of visibility alone with our guide Hosea. This is how I chose to spend my much needed vacation, “you’re having fun Nathaniel,” was what I repeatedly told myself so many times I started to believe it until about 10 hours into our summit day when I regretted every decision I had made in my life to get to that point-that is until the piggy back rides started coming into play. Curious? Read on.
Back to the story:
Any day that starts at 11:30 pm the previous day is set to be a doozy so I take my two energy fairy god mothers to boost the odds, but it’s to no avail. It’s not even 12:45 am and I’m already in the back. First it was me Alice, Cynthia, Luke and Simone with guides in numbers to match, but in less than an hour Luke and Simone had peeled off and so too did Cynthia and Alice.
It’s probably 1 am now and it’s down to just me and my new best friend and guide Amadeus. In our first two hours we don’t get very far and everyone around us is dropping out like flies. The killer section is a series of switchbacks that extend up somewhere around 1,000 of the 4,000 vertical foot summit push and it is STEEP. Amadeus asks me how I’m doing and I explain to him that I have no other option but to summit because I don’t take quitting lightly, that I set this goal for myself, and we will achieve it together. He understands my crazy because all the guides and porters (ask me about these guys- total heroes) on our team are equally crazy so we push on.
Two more hours pass and we finally start to make a bit of progress. We’ve passed a few groups, we’ve set reasonable 40–50 min milestones and are moving up this mountain. I did a horrible job planning my snacks, but I do have cookies and chocolate so we start breaking those out with each milestone.
*Insert your own nice visual about sunrises* Summary is that it’s majestic, but I’ve been awake for 7 straight hours climbing a mountain so sunrises are the least of my concern.
Hopped up on sugar and stimulants we actually make it to Stella Point around 7:00 am. For reference, Stella Point is the top of the massive face we’ve been slogging up with very little grace and poise. On one side we are overlooking Arusha, and beautiful lush jungle, and grasslands, and cloud forests, and all the other shit we climbed through to get this far, and the other is the inside of the Kili crater. The important part here though is looking to my left way out along the ridge I finally get my first tangible feeling that I might finish because I can finally see the summit.
We break out the walk around the ridge into 3 sections and set out. I pass the fast group coming back down already because they’ve obviously already been there done that and their additional encouragement irritates me, because honestly we hate all those fast people anyway, the tortoise won that race in the end, right?
We keep walking and I am quite literally breaking down with each step. At this point I look more like a character from the Walking Dead than myself and Amadeus has one of my poles in his right hand and a hand over my shoulder and we are crawling to the end together arm in arm. We are determined.
We’re 500 ft out now. It’s flat finally, but I’m losing this race fast. Amadeus realizes this so we pick up speed as we close in on the end. We walk right past the groups taking pictures, I high five the summit sign, sit down and immediately start to weep. This is a new experience for me, but it’s apparently what grown men do when they summit a mountain. Frankly I was completely overcome with emotion that I couldn’t say anything or move. I put all of my mental and physical energy to get to this point and nothing, not altitude, not my physical conditioning, nor my walking pneumonia was going to prevent me from achieving it. Once I regained my composure I took my picture at the sign at 8:24 am. I successfully summited Kilimanajaro after eight hours and 17 ish minutes.
This was not an easy journey and anyone who tells you otherwise probably lied to you.
*Insert something nice about the scenery*. The whole time this is happening, as with many parts of this story, I am so singularly focused on the end goal that I completely ignore my surroundings, which is pretty much spectacular. In this example it’s towering pristine glaciers, but trying not to die is hard and is taking much of my focus.
Part 2: The Descent
That whole trying not to die thing is still something I work on in my life back in California (for e.g. I have 1 year anniversary of a motorcycle accident next week), but I really needed that skill set right about now as I was so intensely focused on achieving my goal of summiting I didn’t think about what I would need to do afterwards.
It’s 9:30 am or so and I’m 1,000–1,500 ft past Stella Point on the decent and my life is in pure shambles as my legs decide to stop communicating with my brain. My body is literally shutting down on me and we are in the middle of a no longer beautiful snowy mountainside but a dusty rocky gravel scree minefield.
Amadeaus tries luring me down with chocolate but my legs will not even wake up for that so again he has a pole in his right hand and a hand on my shoulder and we start going down together. Remember this legend has been with me for 10 straight hours summiting a mountain so he is equally as tired as I am. Naturally, he is too tired to drag my ass down the slope alone so he enlists another guide from a different group to help out. I forget his name because I’m in-and-out at this point so we’ll call him Amadeus #2. So now we’ve got Amadeus #1 and #2 trying to get me off this mountain but that’s not working either so we get the heavy guns- the porters.
The porters are basically Kili’s version of sherpas. These guys are godsends. They carry your entire life up the side of the mountain save for your day pack. They carry things you didn’t even know you needed like a jar of emergency peanut butter.
It’s approaching 10:30 am now and after another 1000 ft or so suffering along with Amadeus #1 and #2, we see the porters and hail them over. Within less than a minute they are at my side and it’s a now become a race because the two porters they send, Ide and Usman, are pure lighting rods.
With Ide on my left, Usman on my right, and the real Amadeus 10 ft behind me we slingshot down the next 1,500 ft or so, and by we I mean them running at full speed down the side of the mountain with my feet literally not contributing at all. The speed they are going at makes me dizzy so we have to take breaks pretty regularly. During these breaks I continue to slip in-and-out of consciousness as the real Amadeus stuffs chocolate in my face, “this is fun Nathaniel, you are having FUN.”
It’s 11:30 am, and by this point we can actually see camp. We are off the scree, and I am totally wiped. Ide and Usman let me try to find my legs again, which was a tough sight to watch for all of us. The real Amadeus had to rush ahead to get more water for himself because he was also hurting (remember he’s still been with me this entire time). As we close in on camp I try to fill in this pitiful sight with my best dirty jokes and comparing notes. Their English is only okay, but laughter and gratitude are universal so it doesn’t matter.
It’s now 12:17 pm and our lead guide Frank meets us at the entrance to camp and his first question is “How’s it hanging”, to which he adds “to the left, to the right, or in the sock”. The first morning on the mountain I explained that joke to Frank over breakfast so at this trying time he gave me exactly what I needed. Unfortunately, it was hard to explain to him that they told me I had to leave it on the mountain.
I hug my porters, and lock arms with Frank and we walk back into camp. Remember it’s only noon, this road to my personal hell is still being paved.
Part 3: The Descent 2.0
Being late to any meal this entire trek has lead to terrible outcomes, but being the last one in on summit day after lunch had already ended was, as you can imagine, a particularly distressing experience. Our “dining room table” was a mine field of half eaten sandwiches and spilled tea cups. At this point nothing offends me as they’re pushing me into a chair while people are rushing around camp finding me stale sandwiches, cold thin soup, and expired juice to eat and drink so I don’t pass out at the table. I pass out anyway so all’s well that ends well.
On the decent there are two camp options a 12,000 ft camp and a 10,000 ft camp. My teammates naturally decide on the 10,000 ft camp because it’s 3 hours further away than the 12,000 ft camp. However, the real reasons this is a good idea is because, in addition to being another 2,000 vertical feet lower, you’re hopped up on adrenaline already so the more work you can do today the shorter the final day is, which is very important when you think about how sore you’re going to be from the summit effort. What we didn’t account for was that for the first time in 5 days there were animals around, like spiders and mosquitos. If someone had told me that I would have just stayed at 12,000 ft!
Personally, I am not thrilled about the 10,000 ft decision because it’s not like we haven’t been awake since 11:30 pm the previous night (IT’S STILL ONLY 1 pm PEOPLE), and given my current status it’s obvious to me and everyone around me this is going to get ugly in a hurry. The guides know this so they let me sleep a little- 20 minutes. Never having felt so refreshed, Frank and I start walking down the rest of the mountain, “remember Nathaniel this is fun, you are still having FUN”.
Enter into the mix a new player, Thadei. Thadei is a summit porter which means his only job is to silently schlep our stuff up the side of the mountain with humility and grace right up until 11pm on 11/28. It’s at this point where he and the other summit porter rip off their capes and bring the pain. These two guys are the only other two on the mountain supporting our guides as they drag us up the summit face. But In this moment, he, Frank, and I are merrily hobbling down the Mweke trail.
The good news about walking this slowly is that I can finally enjoy the scenery. As usual, it is stunningly beautiful right up until it’s not and we are walking through a sideways freezing rainstorm at 13,500 ft for the better part of an hour. During this time we stumble upon a field of ‘stretchers’. It’s like the Elephant Graveyard from the Lion King met Sid’s Room from Toy Story. The scene looks pretty grim, but the engineering looks impressive. The stretchers are essentially lashed up wheelbarrows with mountain bike shocks. Perfect for wheeling overzealous climbers off mountains.
We are heading to the 12,000 ft camp as a test to see how improbable it is for me to make it to the 10,000 ft camp. We try everything to speed up this elephant walk, and we even get my two saviors Ide and Usman to come find us. Now that we are off the scree we try a different approach at their suggestion and they start sprinting with me on their backs for close to a kilometer while alternating every minute or so. It was hysterical for all parties involved and, not to worry, we have pictures.
Even with as much fun as we are having there is no 10,000 ft foot camp in the cards for me. Conversation begins about a stretcher and within minutes it’s organized. By the time I get to the 12,000 foot camp there is an entire team of 12 assembled that starts to hum when they see us getting close.
It’s 3 of our guides, Thadei, 8 porters and, of course, the overeager beaver (surprise, it’s me). They find a stretcher, a sleeping pad to cover the stretcher’s wide rope lashings, a backpack to put at my feet for support and a pillow for my head. They tie me down so I won’t go flying and we’re off. Its around 4:30 pm.
It’s one guy in front, 3 on each side, and 3 in the back. This is not a joke, keep your hands and arms inside the vehicle because these guys are on it.
They are dragging me down the middle portion of the Mweke trail, and as anyone who has done the trek knows, there are some pretty serious sections between the two camps filled with large boulders and non trivial drop offs. I am intimately aware of how large and how many of the boulders and steps there are because every time we hit one the shock wave transferring right into my spine was a real joy of joys. With each impact the more disillusioned I became to the design I was so impressed with not two hours earlier.
I tried to take my mind off this by focusing on the beautiful primordial Moorland forest I’m being dragged through that overlooks an equally beautiful impenetrable rainforest that we would trek through the following day to formally end the adventure.
What could have been a peaceful nap was regularly interrupted by my truly amazing support team yelling at each other at full volume. Most of the time it was taking turns making fun of the tourist in the stretcher, which is good for all of us, but when their tone’s changed during a few of the exchanges- everyone started getting excited and bodies were moving. In these circumstances it meant we were on a slope large enough that, as much as they might have wanted to, they couldn’t roll me off the step. These features could be 10+ ft drops which would not have been too hard to navigate if you’re walking and are able to negotiate the rocks, but it becomes infinitely harder when you’re 3 abreast carrying a useless body dropping sarcasm bombs.
My last picture of the day is timestamped at 5:00 pm, and it’s a team photo of us where I am strapped to the stretcher with everyone huddled around me. We eventually got in to the 10,000 ft camp just before dinner which was usually at 6:00 pm so my estimate is that we ended our saga close to 5:45 pm or so. By this time I am totally fried. Not even our teammate’s birthday cake celebration in all it’s sugary goodness was enough to cure my pure exhaustion. I had to crash but I had a really hard time sleeping. I think jumping from 15,000 ft to 19,000 ft back to 15,000 ft and then down to 10,000 ft over 18 consecutive hours blew me out so I started to write this story so I could chronicle as much as I could. I eventually turned off around 9 pm, but that was a long day. 11 miles of travel to cover 13,000 vertical feet. What a day.
Part 4: Closing thoughts
We were worried about my potential performance the following day to close out the trek, but I was perfectly fine and pushed through to successfully make it down the home stretch. I really had just reached my physical limit in that moment on the summit day’s descent, and even then the net of it is that I was upright the entire time save for the section between the 12,000–10,000 ft camps. More importantly, I’m thankful to have a story like the one above to tell with all the juicy embarrassing details because that’s what makes us human.
“The Edge… there is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.” -Hunter S. Thompson
I’m very lucky to have found my personal Edge and am even luckier that I had people around me to help me recover from it. People often don’t get or give themselves the opportunity to let themselves get stretched that thin and although some might consider it irresponsible, I do not. As I’ve gone through my life I’ve continuously sought out those personal boundaries to learn as much as I can about myself. How can you be the best version of yourself if you don’t know how far you can push yourself, and how do you know if you’re being honest with yourself if you don’t regularly test those assumptions?
I’ve always associated this concept with one of my favorite writers Kurt Vonnegut. At 16, when I first read his book Siren’s of Titan his idea of the Universal Will to Become- that only you have the ability to will the things you want into existence- has served as a guiding principle for me ever since. It’s this concept that served me well through my numerous injuries, my undergraduate and graduate degrees, early stage startup life in go-to-product stage (2x), a really trying 2016, and, along with Amadeus, Frank, Hosea, Ide, Usman, Thadei, my climbing partners, and the rest of the team, a successful summit on Kilimanjaro.
I learned a lot about myself on Kili, and I believe I rediscovered a piece of myself that I lost after some pretty heavy experiences that extended back even to 2015. I’m extremely thankful for the people I’ve met, new friends I’ve made, my guardian angels, and all my supporters back home. I don’t know if I’m going to climb another 19.000+ ft peak again anytime soon but I can tell you for sure that I will continue to push myself in everything I do, and when I begin my next adventure I’m going be in the fast group.
Happy New Year and cheers to a better 2017.