Climbing Kilimanjaro: My Mountain and Me
By Jessie Waack
There are those times in life when you lay a challenge before yourself with the unwavering belief that you will finish it. My journey started last year when I decided to climb Kilimanjaro – The Roof of Africa. There is nothing more daunting than to stand at base camp, look up at the snowcapped mountain thinking, “Seriously? I have four-and-a-half days to get UP that thing?
There must be a mistake and somehow I gain a day with crossing an international dateline OR SOMETHING!” Day one finally arrived, and I found myself surrounded by hundreds of porters scrambling about for food and supplies. Hiking with me were two Polish, two Swiss, one South African and one Japanese and approximately 30 porters/guides including a toilet man. Yes, he really did carry the toilet and a tent for it.
It was a miracle anyone ever knew what was going on with all the different languages flying around. We slowly started off peacefully climbing through the rainforest only to get drenched by rain after an hour in. The rest of that day’s hike was spent sloshing through Tanzanian mud. I was too warm to put on my Gore-Tex raincoat, so I sucked it up and just kept trudging ahead to camp.
Porters Flying Past
Everywhere around me were people speaking various languages. Porters were constantly flying past me. I grabbed my iPod and started bopping to music so I could stay focused and help the first four hours pass until I got to camp. People say at the end of the first day, you think to yourself, “This is easy! I’m totally going to finish!” At the end of the second day, you think to yourself, “Huh, that was a bit more challenging, but no worries.
I got this in the bag.” At the end of the third day, you swear you’re not going to make it. By the fourth day, you look at your guide seething with hatred and wonder if you can stab him with your hiking pole and get away with it.
Of course, then the assistant guide may end up with an unexpected promotion. Every evening I would give the waiter my empty liter bottles so he could boil water and refill them for the next day’s hike. Boiled stream water tastes like dirt, so I put quick use to all of the Crystal Light packets I had. Grape Crystal Light does not go well with this creation called porridge in Africa. Although healthy, it tasted more like sugary overcooked oatmeal. I found myself trying to mask the flavor with chili sauce.
The food was definitely not a highlight of the hike. Day two arrived, and I was woken by the waiter bringing me coffee on a silver tray. I look up, and yesterday’s wet clothes are now frozen stiff. I ask the waiter for black coffee, to which he responds, “Cream and sugar?” I say no, but it was lost in translation. Let me just say he only made that mistake once. Do not mess with my coffee, especially when I am shivering at the mere thought of putting back on frozen clothes.
The toilet porter was almost promoted to waiter. The hike was 800 meters, but it was mainly rock climbing.
There are no liability laws in Africa, so they don’t concern themselves with things like safety harnesses and helmets. So as I was hugging the rock about to pee myself from all the water consumption, I was secretly praying I wouldn’t sneeze and fall.
Forgot Her Contacts
Day three started as most other days. Unfortunately, I forgot to put my contacts in my sleeping bag at night, so they were a bit frozen. Once in my eyes, the onset of brain freeze snapped me wide awake and ready to take on the African porridge. After packing up camp, we climbed for five hours and then descended for two to stress our bodies. Two porters went down the mountain to get fresh food. Here these guys went all the way down, did all the shopping, picked up all the food, hiked to the camp where they helped set up tents and cooked all while I was exhausted hugging my inflatable pillow.
Day four was the most grueling day. We climbed from 8:00 a.m. until 4:30. The temperature dropped from about 50 degrees to almost 20 in minutes. If that wasn’t bad enough, it started to hail. Have you ever tried to rock climb at 18,000 feet groggily in a hail storm wearing sunglasses when it’s already pretty dark? It was everything I had to not lash out at someone or fall. Once we crested the ridge, we saw the camp up ahead.
The protection of the tents from the relentless hail was a glorious sight. And then it stopped hailing. I may have taught the guide some new English words as I as eloquently as possible described my feelings about the weather. We got into camp, and our blue Zana tents were nowhere to be seen. Then the guide said, “It’s better to put the tents higher for the climb tomorrow.” Really? I’m thinking the higher you put them, the more dangerous it is for you when I throw you off the mountain.
It took another half hour to reach our tents on the OTHER ridge. It’s really a good thing my guide was not fluent in English. Dinner was promptly at 5:00 so we could go right to sleep afterward in order to get up at 11:00 p.m. and head for the summit. Let’s see, a bunch of staggering, exhausted foreigners climbing on the side of an African mountain in the dark with nothing but headlamps to lead the way.
Apparently seeing the sunrise was more important than staying alive. With the temperature well below zero, I grabbed what I could for mismatched layers and started my final seven-hour ascent. The air was filled with lava ash, so I was forced to plug my nose with toilet paper to stave off a sinus infection while sniffling. With my capri jeans, tennis and broken hiking poles, I ever so slowly wobbled up the mountain one step at a time.
As the cold settled into my body and my unsteady feet tried to traverse the sinking sand, I stole a glimpse to my right and saw the purpose for my journey. There I stood on a mountain looking down at the bright orange African sunrise. I had just climbed about the horizon. After six grueling hours, I got to Stella Point. Now was the decision time to either continue to the summit or head back down.
The altitude sickness had hit everyone. A few were tossing cookies (literally because they gave us cookies to eat), while others were paralyzed with headaches. The South African was delirious to the point of being drunk. My mental fatigue was only second to the frostbite, and I had all I could do to pull my wits together. I had 45 more minutes to climb to the summit.
Three of us started toward the summit. After 20 minutes, I realized it was only the guide and me. I was mentally and emotionally drained. I reached into my pants pocket, grabbed my iPod and played, “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey. By the third time the song was playing, I was dancing and singing the last 50 yards to the summit. In that moment, I forgot about my aching muscles and frozen body.
I was literally on top of the world. What was Newton’s law again? What goes up, must come down? I was at the summit over 40 minutes when I started seeing shooting stars. I knew that meant that I was developing altitude sickness, and it was time to go. I found out later when I was told, “You shouldn’t stay at the summit a long time,“ that meant I shouldn’t stay more than 10 minutes.
Just another one of those moments lost in translation. The climb down was like downhill skiing in beach sand with a precarious hidden boulder every once in a while just to spice things up a bit. I had to keep my weight behind me so I wouldn’t go somersaulting down the mountain. Bloody blisters formed on top of blisters until I couldn’t even define one from the other.
I had searing pain through my hips and knees. I started contemplating breaking my ankle and putting that travel insurance to good use with a helicopter airlift out of that place. At dinner that night over a couple bottles of wine, we discussed everyone’s experience. High altitude mixed with a couple glasses of wine and multiple language barriers had us all rolling with laughter. The South African talked about how she had a guide under each arm running her down the mountain as fast as they could only for her to vomit halfway down.
Summit and Back
We were lucky because we all made it to the summit and back safely. Two people from other groups were taken down in stretchers from altitude sickness and injuries. The final day was just another day to reflect on and laugh about. The waiter came to my tent all smiles with water for washing. I strained my neck to see, and I realized a small bowl wasn’t going to even put a dent in what I needed to get clean.
The water was not enticing enough to get me to move. Ten minutes later, he came back with coffee. Now that was worth moving for. I strained every muscle to open my tent without success. The waiter suddenly opened the zipper and set the coffee next to me with a knowing smile. A few sips, and I was able to drag myself off the ground and head to breakfast.
My back and shoulders were on fire from carrying my pack. My knees felt swollen and were making horrible noises every time I stepped. I looked at my hands urging them to grab the spoon but to no avail. I was over nasty porridge with weird sausages, and I hadn’t showered in days. Coffee was about as far out as I could focus, so when two liters of warm water showed up, I dumped in the remaining coffee grounds, shook it up and hugged my coffee in my arms with a death grip.
As we got ready to leave, I asked for the porter who carried my large pack. A six-foot man cautiously stepped forward with a bowed head believing he was in trouble. I took him by the hand over to my pack where I handed over my mattress. He looked up at me with tears in his eyes and a radiating smile. He enveloped my hands in his, put them to his forehead repeating the little English he knew, “Thank you.” His gratitude overwhelmed me. I will never forget that moment where a seemingly simple gesture on my part made two adults stand in tears.
Back in the Rainforest
I knew my aching body was going to take longer to finish the final descent, so I started earlier than the group. I was back in the rainforest, so I was confident in my abilities with the thin layer of mud. Three hours in, and I came to an abrupt halt. Before me was a road covered in five inches of solid mud as far as the eyes could see. It was the world’s largest slip and slide.
As I stepped into the mud, my tennis disappeared below the surface. I was in utter disbelief. Finally, two porters scooped me up under my arms, and now it was my turn to get run down the mountain. Upon returning to the hostel, I was informed there was a problem with the showers. Somehow the water was electrified and people were getting shocked when showering.
Reaching the summit
I just shook it off and headed for the bar. I grabbed a cold one and went to reception to call home. My mother and I are extremely close, and I wanted nothing more than to share with her everything I had done and that I was safe. With each ring of the phone, I became more and more excited to talk to her only to have her voice mail kick in.
Tears welled up in my eyes as I waited for the beep. I spent $4 leaving a message crying, laughing and screaming at her for not being glued to her phone. I slammed down the phone and stormed out of reception. The next morning, after an evening out on the town, I came down to check out. I slung my pack to the ground and looked up at the receptionist completely spent.
She reached through the window, put her hand on mine and said, “Your mother has been calling looking for you.” I never laughed so hard. Here I am a 34-year-old woman, and my mom is hounding a receptionist in Africa looking for me. And where was I? Out on the town with some people I met hiking. It goes to prove no matter where you are or how old you become, your mother will always know when you’re misbehaving.
I once made the comment, “Climbing Kilimanjaro is probably like childbirth. You spend months getting ready for it, but you are nowhere near prepared. You have a grueling, excruciating experience that you swear you will never put yourself through again. A few weeks, few months pass, and you think to yourself, ‘Huh. That wasn’t so bad. I could do it again.’”
I thought I was kidding when I said that. My lost toenails are a testament to the experience, but the exhilaration and sense of accomplishment I felt at that summit is something that has stayed with me every day. It has become a drug to me, and I can’t wait for my next success story to shorten my bucket list.
Reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro has taught me that no matter what I encounter on my path of life, I always know I can get through it if I just stay focused and keep trudging on. And when those days come and there is no path before me, sometimes I just have to make my own way. Someone has to be first, so it may as well be me.
Jessie Waack is a freelance court reporter in Milwaukee who writes a blog called YouCanOnlyDieOnce..
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