"You never know what's around the corner. It could be everything. Or it could be nothing.
You keep putting one foot in front of the other, and then one day you look back...
and you've climbed a mountain."
-- Tom Hiddleston
Day 5 was our hike from Karranga Camp to Base Camp. PJ described this as an easy day, which in TZ guide terms means "not as steep as yesterday." I was looking forward to hiking with him again when he came up to me with a secret: "I'm heading down with one of your friends today." The news hit me like a brick. I had come to value and trust him as a guide and friend - how could I ever do my summit without him? I somehow found the courage to smile, hugged him tightly, thanked him for everything, and insisted on a picture before he headed down. "Hakuna matata. Today is easy. You will get to that summit tomorrow. " His words echoed in my ears for hours that day, especially as I joined the big group for the hike to Kosovo Camp for the first time since Day 1.
We walked in and out of the clouds for the most part all day, with only a few breaks in the sun. I kept up with the group off and on throughout the day... when I slowed down, I'd end up catching up with them again when they'd take a break later on. I'll be honest, though - I didn't enjoy this day. The terrain was dusty, and the trail seemed to be never ending. I guess that's what 5 days of hiking will do to you though. So many girls seemed to also be feeling it as well - I heard quite a few comments that let me know that we weren't all joy and giggles that day. ("It's all fun and games until someone rolls an ankle!" "Um, when was this fun and games?" LOL).
Our arrival at Barafu Hut Camp was uneventful. The camp was crowded and smelly, and I was glad we were continuing on another 200 meters to have that much less to climb in the morning. And then we approached this! No, you're eyes aren't playing tricks on you and this isn't a fancy angle. Between Barafu Hut and Kosovo was this nearly sheer rock face that you had to climb to get between them. Keep in mind that the majority of hikers stay at Barafu Hut for their base camp, so they summit this at night. Also keep in mind that Barafu means ice (or glacier) in Swahili, so this rock face is typically covered with water and/or ice. Yikes! I hated this part of the hike - thank god for Langeni going up and Andrew going down. I would never have made it up or down this rock without them.
Kosovo was cold and all I wanted to do was sleep. Unfortunately, some tent changes and other issues made that an impossibility before lunch, so I hung out with my friends and some of my favorite guides in the mess tents instead. This later proved to be a huge mistake as I didn't get to nap after lunch either. The sun burst through the fog, and the tents became insufferably hot. I was a mess by dinner - I had lost all of my appetite, and was exhausted. I force-fed myself dinner (it was delicious, as always, but everything is gross when you're that tired), and tried to force myself to sleep. I got a full 3 hours before being awakened to hike early with the slow hiking crowd.
I have no pictures from summit night. We woke up at 11pm to begin starting at midnight, and I had neither the energy or enthusiasm to whip out my camera to document our ascent. About 6 other girls decided to get up early to hike with me that morning, most probably not needing it but I was happy for their company. Our lead guide Aboo introduced me to my summit porter before I even began - Teddy. He explained that Teddy would be carrying oxygen and my backpack for me to ensure I conserved my energy for the hike. I didn't see them take anyone else's pack so early, but I was again too tired to care.
Everyone warns you that summit night sucks... and it does. You are fighting exhaustion and extreme cold (below freezing) the entire time, while climbing a very steep trail made of scree and boulders. "Pole, pole" was more than a mantra here, and Marissa and I took that more seriously than most. After the first hour, our new slow hiking companions were taken away without us, leading to my first battle with giving up. If we were already going slow, and I couldn't keep up... how would I ever make it up before 8?
Somewhere around 17,000 feet (according to my guide, Nelson), I started having dizzy spells. Around the same time, Marissa asked if I was ok. I thought I was... until I realized I couldn't lift my left pole or leg. They had completely gone numb. I asked for a break, during which my summit porter tried to massage my arm back into life. Nelson took my backpack from Teddy at some point, and Teddy started becoming my left side as we made our way over even more boulders on the way up. At some point, the later hikers passed us too. I really wanted to give up. At least I had made it this far, right? Strangely, every time I wanted to give up on the mountain, Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up" started playing loudly in my head. Really? Of all songs? I'm seriously going to Rick Roll myself up this damn mountain?
I promised Nelson that I would never ask how much longer til the summit. His request made sense as "how long" greatly depended on our pace more than distance. That said, I would often ask how high we had climbed. He would look at his watch and tell me, and it seemed like we would never reach the summit. At sunrise, Nelson had us take a water break to enjoy the sunrise over the mountain. It was beautiful, although I couldn't lift my arm to pull out my camera to take a picture. (You'll just have to trust me here). Once the sun was up, I never considered giving up again. I fought through the blackouts and the numbness, and finally reached Stella Point a little after 7:30.
My guide and summit porter were excited that we made it up. They congratulated me and Marissa on our climbs. I wish I could have shared in their excitement - I felt like a failure. You can see Uhuru's sign from this point, but my guide advised me that it was about another hour and 300 feet away. As much as I wanted to do it, I couldn't. My left side still felt numb, I was very, very dizzy, and I had other private symptoms that were concerning. Marissa said she wanted to give it a try, and asked our other guide Rojas if he thought she could make it. He said she definitely could, and they took off with Teddy to give it a go. (Marissa made it to Uhuru! I am so proud of her as I know how hard it was for her to do that day - below is a pic of her making that final push to the top).
My guide Nelson asked me again if I thought I could do it, but I heard my mother's voice in my head: "Don't be stubborn, Rebecca. Go down if you need to go down. Don't risk your life for a picture." I cried and said I needed to get down, and he nodded and asked for my camera. He ran up the crater to take a couple of pictures, took a picture of the sign, and then took a picture of me sitting down. I looked at the pictures, and asked how far the glaciers were. He said they were just a few feet higher, so I went up to see them for myself. I had to at least see the infamous glaciers if I wasn't going to make it to the top! Nelson told me congrats for making it to 5,800 meters with my baby climb - just 300 feet short of the summit. Ugh - just saying that still makes me sad to have not made it to the top. :(
While I started to regain movement in my arms, my heart was still racing and I still felt really faint. We started making our steep descent back down the scree trail, and I immediately fell. Nelson picked me up and tried to move me more quickly down the mountain, but being the terrible patient that I am, I fell again and insisted on just going at my own pace. It took me FOR-EV-ER to get off that friggin' mountain. Most of my hiking companions passed me along the way. About 30 minutes from camp, several of our waiters and chefs rushed up to me to congratulate me with pineapple juice. My eyes welled up with tears and I started to explain I only made it to Stella. "Not 'Only' Stella, momma. But Stella! That's great!" It was so comforting to hear that.
After a quick hour nap and an equally quick lunch, I was back on the trail to head to Millennium Camp for the night. While I started right behind the group, that damn rock face slowed me down and I ended up hiking alone for a bit. Another guide, Andrew, caught up to me and ended up being my companion guide for the 7 km walk to camp. Andrew was a fascinating hiking partner, but he kept our pace very slow. I later learned he did that out of concern for my health after hearing of both my asthma issues on Day 1 and my summit issues earlier that day. We walked by several hand-carried and rolling stretchers on the way, and I joked that I'm glad I didn't end up in one. "Yet," Andrew warned. "We still have a long way to go." He wasn't joking. Night was quickly falling, and another guide warned that if we didn't hurry, they'd have to get someone to take me down. I immediately retorted that we could go faster, and we made it with an hour to spare. Whew!
Millenium Camp was steep and rocky, and I didn't appreciate its beauty until the next morning. Day 7 was going to be a steep decent of over 8,000 feet, but we began our day with a tipping ceremony and dance party before we started on our way. I asked if I could thank the summit porters. True to form, I cried during my speech and my GAL ended up having to translate for me. I also hugged the wrong summit porter! Through my tears, I saw a guy in a grey coat and yellow scarf, and made the assumption it was Teddy. It was only after my friend, Ingrid, pointed out my mistake that I saw that Teddy had taken off his coat, and I quickly apologized and hugged him too! Ugh - can we say hot mess?! Thankfully, I got to dance with my luggage porter and summit porter during our dance party, so that was a lot of fun. Who knew I'd like Swahili folk songs so much? :)
My left side for summit night, Teddy
While I wasn't afraid of the Day 7 descent at first, two early falls on the gravel taught me to respect how steep this actually was. My legs were still quite weak from the day before, so Geoffrey (the other lead guide) reminded me to go "pole, pole," and said he'd help me make my way down.
The first part of our descent was still in the heath, opening to beautiful views while we were still above the clouds. After hitting Mweka Camp, however, it was all rainforest and mud for the last 5 miles. And SO - MANY - STAIRS. I knew about the stairs going up, but why didn't anyone warn me about the stairs going down? Haha. Geoffrey and I had fun chatting about our families and respective lives, but I felt bad that he felt bad about me slipping and sliding on the mud on the way down. "I will not let you fall again, Beck." Oh, Geoffrey... if you only knew how often I trip and fall on dry ground!
When I finally arrived at the gate, I was greeted warmly and kindly by the hikers, porters, and guides. My friends who had returned early were there too, and it was so good to be reunited with them here. I was given a Kilimanjaro beer, swooped in to the tourism desk to sign out (and certify my summit), and took so many pictures with my new friends and family.
PJ and me
Andrew (my descent guide) and Langeni (my birthday twin and frequent guide)
Nelson, my summit guide
Geoffrey, one of our lead guides and my rainforest descent buddy
As one of my Kilimanjaro climbing friends, Katie, said best - Kilimanjaro was never about the mountain. As much as I wanted to summit, the value of the experience far exceeded all other expectations and desires during these seven crazy days. I climbed one of the seven summits! I overcame my fear of heights and did some crazy rock climbing and scrambling! My body reached heights I didn't know it was capable of reaching! I hurt in places I didn't know could hurt before!
And I learned so much about Tanzania and it's people. Oh... the people. The men (and sometimes women) who guide the Mzungas like me to the summit are some of the most amazing people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. They work hard day and night to ensure my comfort over their own, and do it all with kind smiles and warm hearts. I am honored that so many of them shared their stories with me. I learned about their homes, their families, their dreams... They held my hand when I was scared, lifted my spirits when I was discouraged, and in one instance literally became my left side when my body failed me. I am humbled by the grace they showed me, and will forever keep them dearly in my heart.
And speaking of people... I have to say a little about that people I met on the trail too. Being separated from the group did have one perk, and that was that I got to speak to people from all over the world who were attempting to summit too! First there was Matt from Scotland, attempting his summit solo with a small crew of his own. After that, I met Natalie and her family from Switzerland (they were doing the 6 day route - I ran into them again after their summit on my way to Kosovo). On Barranco I met a family from Chicago... who I later ran into again at our hotel off the mountain in Moshi! Then there was the family from Germany, which included a 14 year old girl doing this to start her attempt at the 7 Summits. On my way down I met a pair of gentlemen from Spain, who gave me fist bumps and high fives when they heard I made it to Stella Point. ("Stella! That's the dream, amiga! Wish us the same fortune!") And then there was the group of doctors from New York, who stopped me for pictures and advice, also congratulating me on my climb.
Oh, and how I can forget the other girls hiking with me! These 29 amazing women from all over the globe welcomed me warmly and became some of my greatest friends on the mountain! There was the 18 year old who turned 19 on the mountain who was a daily burst of sunshine to all of us, the nurses who treated us and gave us medicine when we didn't come as prepared as we hoped, the ladies who made us laugh and sing, the one that kept me limber with yoga, and the others who shared their stories and listened to mine. You ladies are gems, and I'm so glad to have met you!
I know a lot of people make fun of me for my small town tendency to say hello (or Jambo!) to strangers when I hike. Others tease me about my habit of making small talk with anyone with talking distance. (I'm friendly, ok?) But I'm so glad I did this on this trip. These experiences - these encounters - are what I will remember more than the attempt at the summit.
What I will remember about Kilimanjaro will not be the tears I cried at the summit. It won't be the missed photo opportunities, the days I was last to camp, or the bruises on my knees that lasted for two weeks. It won't be how I must have smelled after 7 days without a shower, or how much I missed washing my hair. No... What I will remember about this experience is how big Kilimanjaro is once it appears above the clouds. I'll remember the smells of the volcanic dust, and viewing the clouds below my feet at various places along the trail. I'll remember the night sky filled with stars containing my favorite constellation (Orion!), and how bright the full moon appeared on summit night. And I'll remember the people - all the beautiful, wonderful people who made every day a good day on the mountain. It is this that makes Kilimanjaro so special in the end. And for that, I will always be grateful for Tanzania. <3
Until next time....