Day 6: Barafu Camp to Uhuru Peak to Mweka Camp
Hike: 10 miles
Altitude: 15, 331 feet to 19, 341 feet to 10,065 feet
Elias turns up at our tent. His usual “How you doing?” disrupts our brief power-slumber. It’s time.
Darkness overtakes my vision. Darryl snaps on a headlamp; I wince, Gremlin-style, and try to come to terms with the task at hand. I’m coughing again. The last few hours at 15,000 feet have wreaked new bronchial challenge. The wind howls, the high-speed flutter of the birds rip audibly by our tent. It’s near freezing. I want to tell Elias I’m not doing well. But I refrain: there’s orphaned children dancing in my head.
The stars are out and I take comfort in their steady company. Kili’s shocking white tip borders fluorescent against the night sky and she glows on my eye’s Tanzanian horizon. Stella Point is an arduous 8-hours in the distance, but she plays tricks on my powers of perception. If I leap really high, I can land squarely on her crest. Or so it seems. Six-layers piled on my frame and I’m ready. As ever.
In those first 25 steps, I know I’ve made a mistake. Switchbacks over broken rocks and scree are lit by a caravan of headlamps. I beg my footing to stay true which isn’t an easy feat. The trail winds toward the heavens—a line of determined, crazy souls out for an evening stroll. The depth of each step astounds me. I trip, repeatedly, triggering a chain reaction down the trail. Such action-reaction isn’t specific to me, and the trail attendants, outfitted like elementary school crossing guards, help to get us back on track.
With each step, I am becoming more and more reliant on my walking poles. Placement is key, especially in obscurity. How long have we been climbing, I wonder. It’s been an hour, I hear someone call out. Am I already so delirious that I questioned aloud? No, it seems we’re all just of one mind. I crave my music for sustenance, but our iPods have long since died – a combination of the cold’s affect on the battery and poor judgment on summit-night conservation.
I see my breath in shadows on the air. It’s labored and thick. Ninety minutes have passed when my chest begins to throb. My hand automatically moves to my sternum in press. Each inhalation pierces; each exhalation burns. Each cough is a gunshot ricocheting through my core, stinging in aftermath. I check the trail of slow-moving torches; I contemplate success. You can’t fail to summit, says a little Marie (white shirt) on my right shoulder. You are going to die six-days unshowered, says another similar little Marie (black shirt) on the left shoulder. At two hours, my coughs are becoming more frequent; it’s the fourth time I need to stop and catch my breath.
Richard is with me, per usual. He’s quiet in concentration. I believe he’s grown to care whether I make it or not. He will take personal pride in my summit’s successful resolution and I’m adding his approval into the decision now replacing the dancing children in my head. I hear a chorus of at-home “I told you so”s that grows loud with an inability to summit. It’s the naysayers who think I’m crazy for all the unconventionality I’ve added to my life. I hear my parents, and my very sensible sister, applauding a decision in favor of health. Gunshot.
Seven days, six nights, 17,000 feet on the world’s highest freestanding mountain has to count for something, no? A 17,000-foot altitude is higher than almost every naturally scalable mountain (besides the Himalayas range); can’t I be satisfied? No. I will go on. I must. Gunshot. I have to finish with Darryl, who I believe is light years ahead of me. This is our mission. We need the picture on top of the summit together. Gunshot. I stop again.
Richard tries to push me. How far are we? Still around 17,000 feet, he smiles patiently. Six more hours, peanuts. I place my poles into the earth. My fingers have frozen; my teeth are chattering; I’m incapable of moving forward. I have to surrender and make peace. Therein lies my Kilimanjaro lesson.
Day 7: Mweka Camp to Mweka Gate
Hike: 6 miles
Altitude: 10,065 feet to 5, 380 feet
I awake to a British voice in camp. Toby. Huh? It’s barely 8 AM. Everyone should just be hitting the Stella Point summit. I swore I would be awake and greet them on their return, not represent as the lazy bum who didn’t summit but overslept their valiant return. How the…? I admit that I’m momentarily excited by someone else’s inability to properly summit. I’d rather not be the only one. But Toby? Flying Kites’ founder? He was always ahead of the pack, regardless of consequence. No way.
I emerge from my tent. The day is glorious, and the sun is shining. It’s as if after the trauma of the night, Kili has welcomed me back into her embrace. Mother Nature seems to approve of my decision to turn back at 17,000. Oddly, I feel really good about my decision, too. As does my body. Richard comes over to my tent with antibiotics. “Two. Three times a day,” he says, placing the pills in my hand. “You did very good, Marie.” He has no idea how much his accolades mean to me.
Turns out Toby hit Stella Point in record time. “Seven and a half,” he states as he continues to catch his breath. “There and back,” he adds with a wink. He’s completely knackered, his nose runs, his color isn’t exactly right; drinking the guide-supplied vitamin water looks like an effort. “You made the right decision, Marie. People are dropping up there,” he seems to drift off as he tells me this. “Darryl?” I ask. “She’s doing really well. Like a champ.” Of course she is.
Different than me, Toby had no choice. He had to summit; he couldn’t accept defeat. And I understand. Last night was the first time I made the humble decision, as opposed to the reckless one. For the first time, I feel wholly complacent in that choice. I’m excited, not envious, to see everyone return. I can’t wait to celebrate them. Celebrate Darryl. As if I wasn’t aware before—that girl’s got some serious soul. I couldn’t be more proud to have spent this week with her.
One by one, they return. Josh is rushed down first. He couldn’t adjust to the altitude after summit. What the brochures don’t tell you is there’s an additional hour hike to the infamous sign once you hit the 19,000. A big “fuck you” from Kili on arrival, if you will. Accompanied by Dennis, the rasta guide, Josh is milky white. He’s swollen, and he needs to lie down. I’m taken aback by Josh’s condition. This guy’s a bonafide camper. He’s spent months on end in the wild: a Boy Scout redefined. It just goes to show that Kili doesn’t discriminate. Darryl, Sara, Max, and Tom Mitchell come next. My girl! She’s had a few scares, but of everyone, she seems the most centered and contemplative without physical reaction. Then again, that might just be Darryl’s nature.
Jon and Julianna are next in a larger group supported by Jared and Caitlin. Both have been throwing up, both have facial edema. Julianna’s crying; Jon’s body has gone limp, he’s being physically supported on both sides and appears mentally incoherent. Thomas (Lewis/Clark) is at the back of the pack. He’s stretched and rested his way up and down and lived to tell. In those early moments, nobody would “ever” do it again. For a million dollars, goes the question. “Nope.” “Never.” “Absolutely not.” As swelling subsides, as the nausea wears off, I’m sure that will change. Real adventure is never easy.
Hours later, fueled and rested, we begin to descend this giant force of nature. Isn’t there an airlift or, at the very least, a transport van for the descent? No matter, we’ve all survived the uphill experience, what’s a little downward hike? Humbled by my physical self, by nature, by the strength and character of the people around me, I bound downhill. Alternatively pairing with Jared, Juli, Sara, Josh, and the fifty-somethings, Darryl and I know we’ve made friends for life. There’s a certain closeness that Kili fosters, a specific vulnerability that’s easily exchanged in those moments on the mountain. These people have seen me in ways that my lifelong friends have never been privy.
As a wise Jon (Shippee) once said, “a joke, a smile, sometimes a pill…we’ve all helped each other along.” Ain’t that the truth… A year ago, Kilimanjaro was something other people knew about. Now, I’m part of that club.
The wild dogs cry out in the night
As they grow restless longing for some solitary company
I know that I must do what's right
As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti
I seek to cure what's deep inside, frightened of this thing that I've become
It's gonna take a lot to take me away from you
There's nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do
I bless the rains down in Africa
Gonna take some time to do the things we never have