This month is a special anniversary. Five years ago, after a year of planning, eight of us made the journey to Tanzania to climb Kilimanjaro. I hadn’t expected the climb to be easy, but I had a reality check on the immensity of the undertaking our third day on the famous mountain.
At 19,340 feet above sea level, Kilimanjaro is the largest free standing mountain in the world. It is not a technical climb – there are no rock faces to scale with ropes or great chasms to cross with ladders – only a long upward trek through endless volcanic rock in a barren landscape as the air gets thinner and harder to breathe.
We began our climb on the Machame Trail in early March 2009 with a crew of thirty. Our crew included the guide leader, several assistants, a cook, and multiple porters who carried all our gear for the seven day hike. It would take five days to go up and two days to return. The slower climb was recommended to help with acclimatization to the thinning air since altitude sickness is the real challenge of Kilimanjaro and one for which there is really no adequate advance training. Who would be affected, and how badly, could not be predicted.
We were in high spirits for the first two days. My husband, Gilles, and I did not have any previous hiking experience, nor had I ever camped. Here I was, a woman in my fifties, experiencing for the first time sleeping on the ground in a tent. We had no access to water except for a small tray of warm water given to each couple, twice a day, to share for washing. Our water bottles were filled each morning by the crew for our climb that day. Food was basic – at best – and unappetizing. Sanitation was nonexistent.
The effects of altitude started to impact us as we ascended towards 13,000 feet. All movement became increasingly difficult and I had a vague awareness that I was no longer thinking clearly. I began to experience gaps in memory where I could no longer recall chunks of time and I was lagging far behind the rest of the team. They could no longer be seen or heard in the fog we had encountered that afternoon. I was grateful when Gilles came back to look for me. I felt lost.
That evening our camp was setup at the base of Barranco Wall – a rock face about 200 feet high – which would be the start of our climb the following morning. I looked at that wall, dizzy and nauseous from the day’s hike, and couldn’t begin to imagine how I was going to be able to continue.
At dinnertime, two of us talked to our guide about aborting our climb. For the first time – but not the last time before this hike would be over – our guide lied to us. We were told there was no route for evacuation and the only way out was by continuing forward. We knew he was lying. His job was to get us to the Summit and he was going to tell us whatever lies were needed to keep us going.
During the night, Gilles and I were both struck with what we called African Stomach. The combination of poor food, unsanitary conditions and the altitude had turned our insides to liquid. I stood in the cold darkness outside our tent, covered in my own excrement, looking at the glacier at the top of Kilimanjaro glowing in the light of the full moon. In that moment, I registered two thoughts – how completely surreal this moment felt and, why had I thought this would be a good idea? I was too sick for my brain to really acknowledge the simmering panic as anything more than a curiosity.
Ultimately, I went on to conquer Barranco Wall and eventually made the Summit, but during that third night on the mountain I had discovered an undeniable truth – we are capable of so much more than we think. I continued on in spite of the difficulty breathing, the nausea and an overwhelming desire to simply lay down and go to sleep forever. Big chunks of the climb were lost in the mental fog that permeated every hour we were above 13,000 feet – but I had kept on going.
Barranco Wall will always remind me that no matter how difficult a moment might be, I am stronger than I think and I can persevere. Reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro will always be a personal triumph. I had made it!