On the journey home I was texting with CB.
Me: I can’t wait to see you when I get back.
CB: Me too. I wonder if you’ve changed (because of this trip).
As I type this, I still don’t have feeling completely back in 3 of my fingers and two of my toes. Two of my toenails are probably making a break for it in the next month. My ankle is still slightly swollen from a sprain I suffered from on the last day of the hike. I have been sick for 3 weeks straight. To top it all off I have this gnarly tooth pain that I will see a dentist about in 30 minutes.
And these were only the issues I came back with.
Looking back at Kilimanjaro just makes me LOL at the absurdity of how many physical discomforts I ran into. Could this almost be type 3 fun? Perhaps? Ok no, I enjoyed a lot of it except for summit night.
Type II Fun – Miserable while it’s happening, but fun in retrospect.
Type III Fun – Never fun while you’re doing it, you often feel your life is threatened, certain doom is usually at hand, and half the time it ends in a harrowing rescue. Afterward, you swear to never attempt anything similar ever again.
CB, what a profound question to posit in such a casual way while I sat in an airport lounge in Amsterdam trying to reflect on a good answer. I too wonder if I’ve changed, but first, let’s go back to the beginning.
Him: So why’d you decide to do Kilimanjaro?
Me: Honestly, I don’t know. Maybe because it was the next highest mountain, or because I wanted to check Africa off my continents list, or because I saw a friend do it last year and thought I could too, or maybe I just wanted to go somewhere for Christmas and New Years. To be perfectly honest I’m not really that sure.
Him: You’re not really sure? And you committed to this?
Him: You’re weird.
Me: I know.
It was Thanksgiving and instead of doing my normal escape from reality, I just wanted to stay home and organize my place. This marks the first time since 2012 that I have not disappeared for the week of Thanksgiving. It was glorious, I spent the week throwing out stuff and cooking dinner for the family. Because of this break from my wanderlust tradition, I really wanted to go somewhere for Christmas. Racking my brain, I did my usual investigation on the REI Adventures website when I see… Kilimanjaro has availability and falls right in line with the work holiday schedule. Ok, let’s do it!
Then I proceeded to do no regular training other than my normal workouts. Earlier in 2017, I ran the San Francisco Half Marathon while suffering from jetlag after coming back from Son Doong. My confidence in winging athletic pursuits was at an all-time high. I felt like I was in better shape that I had been in my twenties. I could now manage longer endurance runs and hikes with minimal to no soreness or recovery time.
Two weeks before the trip, I inadvertently completed (don’t ask long story) a 15 mile 2000 feet gain and loss hike in Muir Woods with no issues other than a couple blisters from forgetting to wear socks. Yet another feat to stoke the ego and make me feel more ready than I was.
Thus going into Kilimanjaro after a carbo-loaded two weeks, I felt ready to tackle any challenge. The one lingering concern I had in the back of my mind… I don’t sleep well get shortness of breath at altitude which I learned from Machu Picchu in 2016, and you know, the fear of getting high altitude pulmonary edema. No biggie.
Often times the more knowledge you have about how poorly you react in certain situations creates a certain level of fear, but recently I’ve learned that if you push through the fears, usually something wonderful awaits you on the other side.
Completed the usual gear checklist planning about 4 weeks out from the trip. After section hiking the PCT this year I learned a minimalist packing strategy and used this technique while prepping for the trip. This would be my ultimate downfall.
I’m going to skip a lot of the details and get to the final couple days. The earlier days were fun long walks with great conversations and some altitude gain, but a very smooth gradual trail on the Lemosho Route.
Barranco Wall. ~13800ft. Alex had mentioned this and she was reading the guidebook one day before each of our adventures. This morning she raved about the opportunity to do some scrambling. The wall itself is about 843ft to the top. The hand holds on the rock were nice large jugs and were easy to navigate. While previously I would have been afraid hanging out on the side of a mountain on smaller ledges, I spent a lot of summer 2017 outdoor rock climbing, so now I felt more at ease. Scrambling up the wall had to be my favorite of all the activities on the entire trip. It helped for mindfulness, was moderately paced because of all the foot traffic, and was a nice change from our daily hikes. Once at the top, the cloud cover came in and then I saw it.
This woman in another group that we’d be chatting with brought an entire box of Cheez-Its. Not the usual sized box either, but the largest box there is. As she pulled this from her pack I think I heard angels, or maybe it was just the delirium of having not enough oxygen. Nevertheless, a resounding “doh” sounded off in my head for not having thought to bring a box of these as well.
The rest of a day was kind of an awful slog. We scaled this mountain only to hike downhill and then finally the camp is another long uphill. Being that I loathe going uphill and love downhills, I asked a guide if I could go ahead in the downhills and slowly slog through the uphill until camp. You know that feeling at the end of a marathon where you just push yourself beyond what you think you can do? That was the end of that day, and we ended back up at 13000 feet.
From Katanga Camp to Kosovo Basecamp (~15980ft) is roughly at a 3000ft gain in altitude, with again a lot of ups and downs. Again since I’m awfully slow at uphills I asked to go ahead of the main group so that once we get to the steep gain part I can take my time and not feel rushed to stay with the group. Harold one of our guides easily passed me to keep a lookout and sat well ahead bored and on his cellphone. I harassed him, but then he mentioned he was talking to his mom since that day was his birthday. Oops.
We took a break waiting for him to finish his call, then Alex, myself and Paul finished first of the group. Normally Terrence would have crushed us, but he was taking it easy today walking with a HAPE effected Tyler. The night before Tyler had been coughing throughout the night, was red in the face, and when he breathed we could hear fluid in his lungs.
Once we stopped for lunch at Barafu Camp (15,239), Tyler agreed that he could no longer continue. As we began lunch it started to hail. Before we continued on to Katanga, I gave him a hug and hoped that he would recover quickly after the descent.
When we finally reached Kosovo and settled into our camps, Alex brought by a gift she had been carrying for all of us. 2018 silly glasses to wear for our summit photo. After she left, I cried in my tent for a bit.
Crap. I was losing it. I was already exhausted and it was the night before the summit. Thinking these negative thoughts, I cried once more and I absolutely loathe crying.
Tonight we wouldn’t have enough sleep. We’d have an earlier dinner and take off at midnight so that we could catch the sunrise at the summit. Every night we measured our blood/oxygen rate with a pulse-oximeter. Throughout the trip, I had hovered around 90%, and now I was coming in at 70%. A measurement of 60-65% meant that it was unsafe to continue. With this info, I started stressing out about the night to come.
From Kosovo Camp, it would be 5 hours to the top and roughly another 3000ft gain. I was so panicked about my pulse-ox that I slept about an hour, and drinking lots of water thinking that dehydration was the issue.
I wore 4 base layers, fleece, down and then a raincoat, and prepared my hands with two sets of gloves. At our first stop after an hour, my hands clutching my poles mindlessly were completely frozen over. A guide removed my gloves and helped rub my hands until they had feeling again. It felt like white-hot fire. Paul helped by giving me with two heat packs since we had trouble finding mine in my pack in the dark.
For our next stop an hour later I had to pee. I told one of our guides Charles, and he pointed in a direction and told me to turn off my headlamp. Terence wondered where I was going and wanted to come along, but I interjected: “Dude man, I got to pee.” It was exhausting to strip down layers and squat at altitude. Once I rejoined the group I wanted to pass out.
They tried to keep us all to the slowest common denominator, but it was making me more tired to try to keep to someone else’s pace. As we continued I became more and more hopeless in my thoughts.
“I’m not going to make it,” I repeated over and over in my head. At some point, a delirious me decided this messaging wasn’t helpful and then just started repeating “Left, Right”. When I’m really exhausted I get really quiet, and people tried starting conversations with me, but I wasn’t having it. I needed to conserve energy and each large step up a rocky area made me hyperventilate.
Eventually, I kept thinking “I want to turn around. It would be nice to be in bed. Well, no I don’t want to give up yet, so maybe if they offer to take my pack, I’ll let them help me that way.”
At the next stopping break, Sue decided she was done. She gave John a brief hug and made him promise that he would make it. A guide left to help her navigate down.
Shortly after Sue left they offered to take my pack. Following that, two hands began pushing me gradually from behind. A guide tried walking with me and dragging me along, but that felt so uncomfortable because our paces weren’t even.
A few more minutes later, John stops and exclaims that we’ve been walking for 2 hours. I snap at him, as I thought we had been on for 4 hours and he ruined the timeless mystique of it all. “You’re killing me, John.”
The rest of the journey to the top was a testament to how kind new acquaintances are, as I turned into a complete bitch. I cried twice as my hands and feet were freezing. I ignored people trying to talk to me. Kept stopping to hyperventilate, and then near the top, a familiar awful feeling started stirring. Oh yeah, that’s the feeling of altitude diarrhea.
At the top, I could feel a bit of hyperthermia coming on as the uncontrollable shivers started. Minimalist packing had failed me this time. Terence and Chris gave me concerned looks and pulled out their extra jackets for me to borrow as we were closing in on the infamous sign.
We just were ahead of the crowd in taking photos. I don’t remember much about the top, but the taking of a few photos and immediately starting to head down after a quick snack.
My guide buddy who had basically not let me quit and pushed me to the top I thanked, but now he wanted to rush me down and ended up dragging me at points which I wasn’t too thrilled about because I kept falling and injuring myself. At one point I just sat down and refused to move until he agreed not to do that anymore.
I also briefly thought about ending this whole journey by just jumping over the side of the mountain. These are the crazy things that flash through your mind when mentally and physically exhausted.
Once we got back to high camp the waves of altitude diarrhea really came to fruition and the cold I had was significantly worse. But now we’d only get a couple hours break before heading down to low camp which was another 6 miles. Dehydrated and low energy, I made an effort to rally as hiking downhill is my favorite part of any hike.
I asked if someone could help carry my bag, but this meant I didn’t have water at the ready. As we started our journey down it began to snow, I started eating the snow off the top of John’s rain cover to keep hydrated. I forget a lot of this day except the smooth looking lava rock with great friction. The guides would tell us to use a ballerina step to navigate around some slower hikers and it felt amazing.
After a rest at Millennium Camp, it was our last day! Another 8 miles. Wait, what? Gah. Terence took off with Charles early, he was done being on this mountain and annoyed with generally slow pacing. Chris and I first slow played it, but then asked if we could go ahead since the moderated pace going downhill was not my jam. In the shuffle to try to pass people however I fell and twisted my ankle. Oddly enough I didn’t notice since I was adrenalized from the fall, we continued on down with brief breaks of me disappearing into the woods for stomach issues. Jimmy caught up with us and joked that at least Mount Kilimanjaro had been a great bush toilet for me. *sigh* I just hoped I didn’t get any ticks on my butt.
Many hours later we were done. I drank a coke and beer in celebration and then realized my ankle was fatty. I could not have made it without the people on this journey, and I did eventually apologize for being a bitch.
The tooth pain ended up being a root canal infection, which then triggered a sinus infection, thereby causing a throbbing headache and my awful cold for the rest of the trip. The altitude induced diarrhea stopped once we were at 5000ft again. The frostnip, as examined by my doctor, is probably simple nerve damage. She said the feeling in my fingers and toes “might” come back eventually.
Yeah, I’m probably done adventuring, at least until my ankle is healed.
And yet… Denali and Antarctica are still on my mind.
CB, to answer your question about how I’ve changed… I did order new snow gloves, mid layers, gaiters, and a parka. No, that’s not really it.
It took me some time to think about it, but here’s how I’ve changed: Over the past couple years I felt like people have been discouraging me in pursuing things that I enjoy or that are difficult to achieve. What I was surprised to find on this trip was a group of people, who despite all my own bourgeoning self-doubt and negativity, absolutely believed that I could do this and pushed me to make it to the top.
And for this, I am extremely grateful.
P.S. I also learned that I possessed a new superpower on this trip. I have an uncanny ability to step in almost every singled fire ant trail there was in Tanzania.