In 1999 my husband and I traveled to Africa to climb Kilimanjaro and see the Serengeti. With my house a disaster, I try to remind myself that I can accomplish difficult things if I put my mind to it and thus I share the following:
I knew where the top of the mountain was by the absence of stars. Kilimanjaro’s presence was as demanding and powerful at 1:00 am as it was in sunlight. We judged our distance to the summit by the stars. Where full blackness ended and the stars began, this was our destination.
This trip had been planned for almost a year. Now, in the cold and dark, five days without a shower and two more until I’d feel hot water again, it didn’t seem like such a good idea. Up to this point we hiked in daylight but we started for the summit just after midnight, with only a few hours rest behind us and a long trail ahead.
The heavens twinkled with stars unfamiliar to my north-of-the-equator eyes. The night was unmarred by streetlights or other light sources except for our headlamps that lit the trail before us.
I climbed slow and steady behind my husband who followed a pace or two behind our guide. The rest of our group was ahead of us, their headlamps shining on the trail above. I was the slow one, unofficially voted least likely to succeed. Always last. Still, I climbed, determined to make the summit.
The scree, a loose mixture of gravel and volcanic ash, was as slick underfoot as the mud on the trail the first day of our climb. Five days ago, monkeys had leaped from branch to branch in the rainforest canopy, marking our progress. We have been above tree line for three days, now. At 16,000 feet bushes and grass were also below us.
The steep pitch of the trail and the scree required us to use switchbacks. A few short steps. Turn. A few more steps. Turn. Slowly, we gained elevation. The summit was at 19,340 feet. The highest point on the African continent. Step. Step. Turn. Step. Step. Turn.
By 4:00 am we had hiked in the dark for 3 and had at least four hours to go. My body ached and my feet were sore. One member of our group lost the battle with altitude. He passed us, returning to base camp. I wanted to join him.
Our guide looked me in the eye and said, “Mama, you can do this. Keep going.” He turned and continued climbing. I followed.
Walking had become a mindless activity. Step. Step. Turn. Step. Step. Turn. I followed the lights of those who led. The landscape was hidden in the dark. I wanted to go back. I wanted to continue. Yesterday had been my birthday. I wanted to be able to go home and tell people that at 37 I had summited Kilimanjaro.
I raised my head to gauge our progress against the stars. They were close. Stars!
I stumbled on a rock. The trail demanded my attention. I raised my eyes again.
I stopped. The stars had moved. How could the stars have moved? Headlamps. I had not seen stars but the headlamps of people who were ahead of us. The void of the mountain still loomed over me. I turned my face back down to the trail.
Oxygen became scarce, my breathing labored. Mike’s was as well. Our guide continued his steady pace, unaffected by the altitude.
Yesterday the porters who carried our gear to the last base camp had raced ahead of us and then stopped for cigarette breaks along the trail. I gasped for breath as I passed them happily puffing away. I hated them.
The realization that I could make out bits and pieces of the landscape brought me back to the present. Morning was near. Looking up, I could see the saddle of the crater’s edge, Stellar Point. From there we would follow the rim to the top. Close, but not close enough.
Light slipped along the terrain. I could make out the tired features of my husband’s face, the bored look on our guide’s. The scree became a seen enemy, the trail harder because it was visible. Fatigue, lack of oxygen and the sight of the steep winding trail forced me to focus mentally and physically on the task at hand.
Looking behind us to the east, we saw the sky glow orange with the coming sun. An ocean of clouds surrounded the mountaintop, moving with its own tides. It made an island of a nearby peak. There was nothing below. The rest of the world was lost. There was no place to go but up.
We reached Stellar Point in full morning light. My husband took pictures while I lay in the scree. “Look,” he said. “It’s beautiful.” Then he panted at the effort it took to say those few words.
I lay on my back, looking at the sky, exhausted. I wanted to go down. Now.
Our guide sensed rebellion. He pulled me to my feet and turned me to face the crater. It looked deceptively shallow. Then I realized that the small line running near the edge was a trail. The people on it were not visible to the naked eye. The glacier on the other side of the rim was a mass of vertical lines of icy blues and grays.
“Look.” Our guide directed me to follow the line of the crater to a far edge. I could see the sign that marked Uhuru Peak. Freedom Peak. The summit. I could see the summit. If I could see it, I could get there.
We picked up our packs and started around the rim. At a lower altitude, the walk would have taken less than 20 minutes. With 50% less oxygen than we are used to, it took over 40.
I staggered slightly, feeling drunk. I couldn’t walk a straight line.
The trail cut through an ice field. Wind had turned the ice into sharp-pointed stakes. I was afraid that I would fall and impale myself. Blood on one of them let me know that this had happened to someone. The guide walked behind me, ready to right me if I tipped too far.
I expected to see the sign around each bend and was continually disappointed. I felt as if I would never catch my breath again.
“You are at Uhuru Peak, 5,895 meters. The tallest point on the African Continent. The largest free-standing mountain in the world.”
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