Saturday, November 07, 2015

On the rooftop of Africa

It's been a little over 10 weeks since my Kilimanjaro summit. I haven't had much time to reflect on the experience -- returning to the States, I hit the ground running with an annual work convention, canvass deployment, and then election season. But now that I'm suffering from the annual post-election cough and sniffles, I had the opportunity to go through all my Kili pics again and re-live the trip.

Like most vacations, I wish I could go back. I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.

I never did find out the name of the flower whose nighttime scent welcomed me to Africa. As I deboarded the plane in Tanzania and walked across the tarmac, and the aroma was spicy and pleasant in the dark.

Day 1: Shira I camp (3550m/11,686ft)
Our trekking group assembled at the lodge - two British girls, an Australian, a California mother/daughter duo, and me. All women again, which was nice! I had misread the weight limit for our packs as 15 lbs when in reality it was 15 kgs, so by accident I packed the lightest and most efficiently. Turns out I didn't need much else than the bare minimum. Unlike our Peru trip, the weather was very dry so I didn't sweat as much, and luckily my hair didn't get so greasy-dirty-nasty! Both Rainier and Peru also taught me that I didn't need to carry as much food as I would otherwise normally do.

Day 4: on our way to Lava Tower Camp
It was eight straight days of walking. Except for the final summit push, the trails were not actually that difficult; the distance and elevation gain were on par with regular hikes around the PNW. It's the altitude that made it tough: standing up from a camp chair or the toilet or just walking would reduce your breath to gasps and cause your heart to beat like a rabbit's. Small headaches, lack of hunger despite nonstop walking, breathlessness.... but we were all very good about staying hydrated!

Dust was everywhere. It was windy everywhere. Our noses ran and dried up and were raw, and we practically choked on dirt and sand. It was cold at night and in the early mornings, but once the sun came out it became rather toasty.

Each time we reached a new high altitude (a record we would break daily), I marveled that I was higher than the tallest peak in my state, higher than I'd ever hiked before on three continents, and that mountains around the world can be so vastly, beautifully different at the same elevations.

Everybody but me took Diamox. I tried it once on Day 4, but it made my vision blurry so I stopped. Three of us had emergency oxygen, which I tested during an acclimatization hike on Day 4 and used for about an hour on summit night until it broke. Maybe that was kismet after all: in the end, I underestimated my own lung capacity and adaptability because as long as I walked pole-pole and followed our head guide Mussa's advice  to "Walk at your own pace," I didn't need the backup oxygen. If it's possible to owe a debt of gratitude to a mountain, there's a part of me that thanks Kilimanjaro for teaching me not to cop out so easily or question my own abilities. I made it to the summit on my own, at my own pace.

Day 6: Barafu Camp (4600m/15,091ft),
less than 8 hours before summit push
We saw fellow climbers being escorted down all along the way to the summit; altitude sickness is still the leading reason why people don't make it to the top. (Another sober reminder occurred just weeks after our summit, that Kilimanjaro is still quite dangerous despite not being a "technical" mountaineering feat.)

I had enough layers on both my upper and lower body to keep me warm, but during the coldest wee hours of the morning I honestly thought I might lose my fingers and toes to frostbite. My godsend of a guide, Julian, kept saying "The sun is coming, don't worry. Keep going."

Day 7: sunrise at about 6:15am, after
7-8 hours of climbing in the dark
I'll never forget the sunrise, about 85% of the way to the top from the final high camp. After seven or eight hours of climbing in the dark, of slogging through the bitterest, freezing hours from 2 - 4am, we stopped for a tea break to watch the sunrise. The minute the sun peeked up from the eastern horizon, every climber on the mountain cheered. It was a wondrous sound: whoops and claps and cheers coming from above and below, from near and far, echoing down the valley.

Reaching the crater rim at the top was the first tangible milestone. Like Rainier's Muir Snowfield, it is seemingly close but a never-ending anguish; like St Helens above the tree line, it is nothing but ash and pumice boulders and a humbling testament to the Earth's geological forces.

Day 7: Uhuru Peak, the summit of 
Kilimanjaro (5895m/19,341ft)
Out of a mixture of exhaustion and altitude, I cried when reaching the crater rim, then again at the summit for simply making it and thankful to Julian for pushing me... aaand then again on the descent down the ashy slopes (though that last tearful bout was mainly due to frustration and dehydration).

Climbing Kilimanjaro and going on a safari (accomplished three days later in Kenya with close friends from college) have been on my bucket list since before I knew what a bucket list was.

Somewhere back in time, teenage me feels the eerie tug of a future unknown accomplishment. The intervening twenty years will teach her that, through 6 deaths and 7 births, anxiety and depression, love and loss, two lessons from the rooftop of Africa can reorient her.

The sun is coming. Just walk at your own pace.