Vol. 2: Mt. Kilimanjaro, Judgement Gets a New Job

June 21, 2010 | Springlands Hotel | Moshi, Tanzania

They’re cheering and hugging. High-fiving. Slaps of hands, skin against skin. Glasses clink, then echo. The sounds bounce outside my room, ricochet off the walls and land in me. More excitement than nerves, more power than fear, more ready that not. My climb starts in two days.

I’ve been training. Sand dune runs in Brazil. Desert hikes in Egypt and Jordan. Valley treks in Oman. The journey has been simultaneously amazing and painful. New York is now a distant memory with different sounds. From wonder through doubt, through despair, I’ve settled into the understanding of this trip. It’s clear. Sometimes you must give to something bigger than you and fall to it. And even if you don’t know where it’s going, the act of surrender means everything.

As I sit in the hotel room, I think of something my teacher said to me before I left. We were discussing judgement — the judge that exist in us all. I’ve been plagued by not-good-enoughness, which spawned perfectionism to prove a different story to the world. To keep the pursuit going, I’ve nominated a judge within me to point out every time I break from being perfect , which is literally all the time. So you can imagine the frequency of that voice in my head. The gavel slamming. The motion reached. Guilty. Imperfect. It happens too often. It’s imprisoning me. My teacher said to give the judge a new job. Huh, I thought to myself. Interesting. Give the judge a new job. What’s the judge good at? Observing, watching, and then reacting. I’m sure he’s useful in other ways than telling me that I look fat in a specific shirt or that I didn’t do something well.

Hmm, give the judge a new job. Think on this.

June 25, 2010 | Kibo Hut, Elevation 16,500 ft | Mt Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

I can barely breathe. The air is thin and frigid. Deep breaths don’t satisfy and short breaths are simply rhythmic airless noises. I’ve just arrived at Kibo Hut. The last camp before the eight hour push to the summit. Another 3,000 feet in elevation and we get to Uhuru Peak, the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro, the highest point on the continent of Africa. That’s something, I think. I’ve hiked for nearly four days now. It’s the quietest my mind has been in months. Maybe ever. It occurs to me that when once aspect of yourself is over-active, you must activate the other to balance it out. Got a busy mind? Fire up that body. A heavy heart can use a simple mental task. Remember that when we return, I think. I always refer to myself as “we” when I talk to myself. It’s a strange thing to do. Cause really who else is there? Is this the royal We? Or is it a subconscious understanding of the trinity that exists in me. The father, conscious self; the child, the subconscious self; the holy ghost, the divine self. In me. In us all. I understand Jesus a bit more.

It’s 2pm and and I know that I must sleep if I’m going to have any chance of making the summit. I’ve got about 10 hours to eat, shit, sleep, maybe eat again, maybe shit again and then go. But at this altitude and in this cold, I can barely get out of my sleeping bag. I walk to the latrine hut. Long slow steps, I tell myself. Take it easy. My heart beats in response to the thin air. She wants more oxygen, but I’ve barely got any to give her. I draw deep breaths, hoping just a few more molecules will satisfy. They don’t. The push to Uhuru Peak begins at midnight so you summit by sunrise. I want to be kissed by that sun. To win that affection. But there’s three thousand feet of loose scree, a steep incline, glacial ice flows and a volcanic crater between me and that moment. I lay back down. Trying not to think about any of that. My breaths are slow and thoughtful — trying to navigate between short quick breaths that don’t give me what I need, and long, slow articulate breaths which come closer. Ultimately, none fully satisfy and I make do with what I am given. Another life lesson. Remember that too. Accept what is.

Nine hours float by amid some transitory state that’s like floating in shallow water. I never fully go down. I never fully stand up. Enough, I think. It’s time to get dressed. I layer up. Armor against the below-freezing temperatures. It’s night now — nearly 11pm.

The process is slow. I ensure that each bottom layer meets each top layer, creating an impenetrable marriage. I hope. My guide, Solomon enters the hut. His white teeth gleaming against deep black skin. A smile as wide as his heart. I think of King Solomon, renowned for his wisdom, who solved the issue of two women laying claim to the same child by ordering it to be cut in half. When it was about to happen, one woman renounced her claim, giving up the child, proving her love. Solomon saw that sacrifice of true love and declared the woman the mother. He was wise. So is this Solomon. I trust him. I feel a bit better seeing him. He comes to check my pulse. I get nervous and hope that my nerves don’t make me fail the test. He’s checking for an even heart beat. If it’s too fast, it would indicate the beginnings of altitude sickness. He checks my eyes. Looking for overly dilated pupils. He asks how I’m feeling. His tone is flat, neutral. He knows how important it is to have an honest answer, uncolored by emotion. I’m fine I say. Ready. He’s done this a hundred times. Literally. He knows what I feel. He give me no emotions of his own. Mine are alone in the room. Feel what you feel.

We begin.

Slowly, he says. Stay behind me in a line, he says. We exit the hut, single file. One guide, then one hiker. One more guide, one last hiker. I’m the last one. Four in total. It’s a full moon tonight. I’ve never seen it so big. But then I’ve never been so close. The alpine desert is bathed in cool moonlight, gusts of wind assault me, trying to break up the marriage of layers I created earlier. Tufts of cotton ball clouds float in and out. I’m above the cloud line so they hover beneath me, at my feet, like young children in a park. Playing, running this way and that. Heedless to the adults around them. I step where Solomon steps. In the footsteps of prophets, ascending the mountain. The parable isn’t lost on me. My steps are slow and deliberate, they match my breath, each one a triumph, a victory over the elements. None celebrated, but all appreciated.

The incline in very steep. We can’t make a straight line up, so we zigzag the face of the mountain. It’s below freezing. It’s past midnight. My mind wants to escape out of this scene. But my body won’t let it. I fight to stay present. Never looking up to where I’m going, never looking down to where I came from. I don’t want any bad news to creep in. There’s no room for that. I don’t want any disappointment for not going far enough nor excitement for getting too close. My body can’t handle any emotional extremes. Stay in the moment. Just this step. What time is it, you ask? It’s now and only now, my soul replies. There is no time but now. Another life lesson noted. Four hours later, we reach the halfway point. We stop in a cave. It feels good to sit. But it’s so damn cold. I eat a piece of chocolate. Toblerone. I survey my body. Legs hurt but I feel stronger. Head hurts but my resolve is clearer. Air is thin but my desire is thicker. We push on.

It’s 5:30am and we reach the top of the crater rim at Gilman’s point, 18,700 feet above sea level. It’s a small victory but I know this last push will take everything I have. My knees hurt. I can barely get any air into my lungs. One of the hikers starting throwing up because of altitude sickness, the other guide stays with him. Solomon and I continue. My head swirls and dizziness sets it. I’m not sure I can continue. It’s too hard. Every time the mountain asks for more, my body has responded. But she’s becoming greedy. Fear starts to invade me. I become aware of everything that hurts in me. Part of me wants to stop. To tumble back down this mountain into air that is thick and viscous, air that will hold me, love me and give me life. But I need reinforcements. I need someone to assess what’s happening on the inside and respond. I need someone to send strength to my knees. To send expansion into my lungs. To send oxygen to my head. Give the judge a new job, I hear. Holy shit! The Judge. He can do it. He watches, observes and responds. I rename him Captain. I command him into position. He stands at attention. I feel the inner survey. He’s watching, learning, observing. And he begins to respond. My knees strengthen. My lungs flood with air like sails. My head lifts up. My will buoys. We have a team now. The royal We.

The walk now lines the crater rim, sheer cliffs warn on either side — one down the outside of the mountain, the other deep into the crater floor, 900 feet down. None are inviting but both seem all too possible. I fight to hold my footing as I walk across glacial flows. My poles trying to break into the ice. Sometimes I win. Sometimes, my pole skids off and I lose footing. I see a huge glacier at the floor the of the crater rim. Another one to the left of the summit. The snows of Kilimanjaro are still there, waiting for me. My body screams at me. Pain envelops me. The captain responds. He knows his new job. He’s pumping the pistons. Firing the coal ovens. We will reach that peak. We can feel it.

By 7:00am, I see a lightening of the sky, shades of mild yellow and orange begin. Solomon looks back at me: We’re there! I look up. Having been fully present to each step, I haven’t paid attention to up and there it is. The summit. Uhuru peak. My heart cannot hold all that I feel and it erupts up out of me. A wooden marker in the distance — I’ve reached the roof of Africa at 19,454 feet. I jump with excitement. Right now there is no pain. There is no air. There is barely a body. I’m only emotions. I cry. I laugh. I hug the other climbers who join. Warmth seeps through every pore. I did it. We did it. And a new chapter begins. The sun rises higher, shades of bright orange kiss the glaciers, kiss my face. I don’t know where the sun begins and I end. I only know, amidst that snow, ice, rock, and sun, I found something new. And the judge got a new job.