I was falling asleep on my feet. Falling asleep even faster when I sat. My muscles were starving for oxygen that neither my lungs nor the thin mountain air could provide. I couldn’t move more than the couple of inches required to shuffle up the incline, one foot drag and walking stick poke at a time. My frontal lobe was an infinitely dense mass of pain, weighing my head down and radiating jolts out through my temples to remind me that the rest of my brain existed too. My chest, precariously perched above a losing battle to hold onto last nights dinner, tightened a little more with every step. I couldn’t see anything besides the shoes of the person walking in front of me. Looking elsewhere meant my headlamp would stop illuminating the small circle of mountain in front of me that I would navigate next. Olivia was freezing. She couldn’t feel her feet anymore. Liselot was bent over her walking sticks. She wasn’t breathing right. Sarah had already thrown up twice. I was seeing bursts of light in my vision, wondering why sleep was so hard to say no to this time. It sounded silly, but I would later find out that I wasn’t the only one wondering:
“Is this what dying feels like?”
This was Day 4 of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Summit Day. Approximately 5:30 am. We had been walking in zigzags to scale an otherwise too steep incline made of loose sand and small rocks since midnight. This morning we were to reach Uhuru Peak, a 1,175 meter climb in elevation from our last base camp completed over 6km of trekking. Africa’s highest point at a total of 5895 meters (19,341ft) above sea level and the tip of the world’s highest free-standing mountain. They told us that guides always start the climb by midnight for two reasons:
1) This gives you enough time to reach the peak before watching the sun rise from above the clouds.
2) If you could actually see and understand how high and steep the summit climb was, chances are you wouldn’t make it.
But I am so glad we did.
Reaching the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, power sliding down a miniature rockslide for a kilometer to reach base-camp once more, then taking our victory march back down the mountain was amazing. None of the pictures are enough, and I don’t believe any other experience will recreate this particular cocktail of neuro-transmitters and endocrine juices. These five days were simply indescribable.
But I’ll try.
It was beautiful.
We hiked and climbed through a myriad of ecosystems. Emerald green fairy tale forests. Mist masked moorland. The paradoxical chill of wind racked, sun beaten alpine desert. The craggy rocks and majestic glaciers of the summit. By day two, we were sleeping above the clouds, watching city lights from as far as Kenya wink at the bounty of stars above, biblical in aesthetic, like a secret covenant between the heavens and the earth. I’ve never heard silence as pure as that contained in Kilimanjaro’s grasp.
It was challenging.
The first two days felt like normal, though long, hikes but by lunchtime of the third day things changed. The alpine desert and thin air offered no respite from the sun, and the altitude sickness slowly started to creep in. The headaches made it tough to sleep, the nausea made it tough to eat, and not wanting to leave the warmth of our sleeping bags at night deterred us all from drinking the necessary 3–5 liters of water each day. Olivia’s sleeping bag broke on the second day, leading to a flurry of 2am solutions including boiled water in a metal bottle as a make-shift heater, making her into a winter-coat mummy, and zipping together sleeping bags to share body-heat. We had to ignore five men we watched get rescued in one day (three of whom were professional rugby players), another man who experienced pulmonary edema while reaching base camp, and the many other climbers that turned around mere kilometers from the summit. Our bodies felt as though they were shutting down as we summited on the grueling 4th day before immediately climbing down two days’ worth of mountain (about 21 kilometers total) and then doing another 19 kilometers on our 5th and final day.
It was emotional.
Going through something like that with three old friends, and two new ones, our guides, is special. You push together. Laugh together. Cry together. Puke together. There was unimaginable beauty, even at the most painful points. Sometimes the girls had a hard time distinguishing if they were crying out of pain, awe, or joy.
I found that Sarah and I both reflected on the mountain and the crossroad in our life we were rapidly approaching. Things had been moving along rapidly in my life. Three years and a half ago I knew little about global health. By this summer I was helping put together suggestions for a steering committee at a Global Health Security Conference. Now I wanted to keep the momentum going. Mount any obstacle as quickly as possible. Race through graduate school. Get to the top. Start helping people.
On Kilimanjaro, our guides, Abel and Aggrey, constantly reminded us of the Tanzanian adage. “Pole Pole”, they crooned. “Slow Slow. Be Patient.”
I would have never made it to the top if I hadn’t listened. I think it’s about time I listened to the other guides in my life as well.