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Out of breath on top of Africa


The Sabrett Pretzel Man’s stand rested just over the brown rocks, perched delicately over a ridge overlooking a deep ravine emboldened by constant rain near Lava Tower Camp.  A metallic, asymmetric box with two wheels and a perfectly alternating yellow and blue umbrella, it’s sight quickened my pace in the moist cold air as the conditioned smell of a warm, soft pretzel (extra mustard, no salt) shot up my nose.  The vendor, visible for about half-a-mile, dressed in a Fedora hat and sitting down on plastic chair seemed oddly familiar with his dark brown skin, unshaven stubble and thick mustache which gave him the familiarity of a long-forgotten uncle. 

The clouds shifted, the rain paused and the Sabrett vendor died.

“Seeing things, yes, it’s common here.” Steve said, noting my surprise at the hallucination.  We were now hiking from Lava Tower to Barafo and the combination of elements and three sleepless nights were taking their toll.  It had been 48 hours since I’d changed clothes other than socks, the air and cold made these acts too exhausting or hypothermia-inducing.  The accumulated mileage of three days on my clothing produced an irritating feeling along my thighs and back with each step, part itch, part friction and part sticky humidity.  This made full appreciation of the view impossible as raindrops collected on my glasses, forcing me to shake like a wet dog every few minutes.

“Once this man, Austrailian,” Steve said. “Just turned left, toward the “beach.”   We had to grab him before he walked off the ridge,” he said, trying to console me in noting that others had worse hallucinations.  It didn’t make me feel better, just less lonely. 

You climb a mountain with 4 people, 2 guides and almost 20porters, and you would think you’d emerge with a familial bond, and unspoken fellowship that comes from sharing meals, tents and a lifestyle where not changing clothes for 48 hours is socially acceptable.  But despite miles of walking alongside this group, it was remarkable how lonely a Kilimanjaro climb is.  With nothing but the roar of rain on your hood filling your ears and lungs too deflated to sustain conversation, each day provided 10 hours of solitude.  We awoke this morning on another planet, our banana-yellow tent covered in a delicate lacy-shell of ice in a wind strong enough to freeze the snot from the night’s phlegm.  Several miles later we’ve descended slightly in altitude, but the exhaustion, dehydration, isolation, nasal congestion allows enough brain power to focus on one thing: KEEP STEPPING FORWARD. 

Slowly the mind wanders in the silence and that it settles on my funeral is not inspiring.  My parents are there, a gaggle of friends and, my wife, who oddly seems relieved.  My sister and mother feel guilty because they told me not to come here, which only strengthened my resolve to go.  My ashes are brought out (cremation is so in style these days) and there are scattered sobs.  It’s a clear day, sticky and humid like I like.  My Dad speaks, like he did at my wedding and unknowing children play in the gardens, innocent to the loss of life. 

They are about the scatter the ashes when my brain, unable to concentrate on 2 things, signals yet again I have to pee.  At that break, we hear it’s only another mile to camp.  It seems like I’ll survive another day without surrendering to the mountain’s defenses.  But with a heart rate of 110 and an oxygen saturation of 85%, it will be another night without sleep. 

Just keep looking up.  It was the only direction I could see.  We are at 18,000 feet now and the sun reflecting off the packed glacial ice is blinding.  We are ascending the 60 degree ice sheet from Glacier Camp tot eh summit.  The wind, now 40 mph has polished the ice smooth and we need ice axes to cut steps out of the glacier.

The entire hiking team groans because I have to pee, and waiting for me means we’re going to get cold.  I haven’t felt my feet in almost a day, and I begin to think the price for this foolhardiness will be one or more frostbitten toes.  My icy stump feet look for footing along the ice sheet.  No one is thinking about the past week, only the summit ahead and the next precarious step.  I’ve become immune to the dirt, itch and general discomfort of my now 7-day clothes as we reach the top of the slope. 

The previous night had not gone well.  After a full day of steep climbing to Stella Point – the crown of the Kilimanjaro ridge that leads to the top, we descended a few hundred feet into the bowl of the glacier, punching through calf-high snow for 2 miles longer than our bodies and minds were prepared to take us.  In the heartache of this emotional blow our group lost cohesion, spreading out over half-a-mile on the flat, pure white surface of the glacier, me in back, delayed by frequent pee breaks.

That night at roughly 18,000 feet, the temperature dove to -30 degree, causing us to huddle around the mess tent burner for heat.  Our drinking water had frozen.  We were sucking on ice to stay hydrated, loosing water constantly from having our lungs moisten the cold, dry air.  We filled the bottles with freshly boiled water, raced to our tents and packed them by our feet and crotches, anything to stay warm.  In the moonlit night, the outhouse tent was impossible to navigate in the cold, the seat seemed frozen and your body shivered so much that conventional methods for it’s use were impossible.  The sweat from my brow had frozen my metal glasses to my face.  My heart rate was now roughly 130 at rest and my oxygen level had plummeted to the 70s.  The constant nausea overwhelmed hunger and I didn’t eat enough to maintain my strength.  In all I would arrive back in the U.S. 15 lbs lighter than I’d left.  Outside the camp, I was an explorer of a frozen planet, above the clouds and partnered with glacial ice.  Resting after a few steps to catch my breath, I eyed the summit.  In less than six hours I’d be making my way there.

The top of the ice ridge is heart-breakingly deceptive.  Once you arrive, straddling the glacial expanse of the mountain on one side and the ravine you’d just climbed on the other, all protection is gone.  It’s sunny, but the wind is now 50-60mph, we know for sure because what appears to be the summit marker is actually a small weather station, a gesture I tools as a cosmic joke and a final test of my resolve.  Less than 15 minutes later, trudging low to the ice so as to be under the wind’s radar, the summit marker welcomed us to Uhuru Peak.

 “Africa’s highest point” and the “World’s highest free standing mountain.”

5895 meters straight up.

Graffiti-littered with stickers of previous climbers with an enigmatic tin box at the base, the summit marker seemed no different than I’d seen in photos.  It’s mildly disappointing, as your ego expects more fanfare to commemorate the event, something along the lines of fireworks and a bikini-clad girl jumping out of a cake.

Dancing bears would be nice, perhaps a phone call from the President. 

Photos were taken. Hugs exchanged. Guides smiled as tips would surely go up.

All of us made it.

We lost track of time in the dizzying mix of photos, sun and euphoria.  I lost my bearings took one step too close to the steep ridge for Simon’s comfort. 

“Time to go,” he proclaimed.  Our caravan of 7 continued along the ridge descending quickly off the ice and rock-bound mountain, through Alpine desert and down to lunch. 

Thirty-six hours later the trees would rise again on the path, telling us the rain forest had returned.
Eight hours later were receiving certificates and on our way home.

Climbing Kilimanjaro is at best a fool’s errand.  It was difficult, serene, monumental and lonely all at once, not everyone’s idea of a vacation.  I was not the first to achieve the summit, nor the 10,000th, nor the fastest.  I didn’t climb to the top-shelf of the atmosphere on New Year’s Day or Christmas or any monumental date – and I certainly won’t be the last climber.

Our world often asks us to act backwards.  Events occur first, thought and reaction follow.  But in a world where we dream liberally but act conservatively, I’m comforted knowing that for one week in an otherwise sheltered life, I indulged my delusions of grandeur.  Thoughtfully planning and proactively overcoming a mountain and rewarded by her with a continent to survey.  To challenge yourself constantly and even occasionally succeed fuels new dreams, allowing me to welcome an often obscured future.  I came to this conclusion on the plane home, almost 5 days after Uhuru Peak, but I think my body was already aware.

After all, on the summit, my tears froze, wind-burning my face.

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