By Tricia Povah
Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
“As wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun, was the square top of Kilimanjaro.” Hemingway, The Snows of Kilimanjaro
It begins at the Marangu Hotel at the base of Kilimanjaro where I was to meet the group I would be traveling with, camping with, and hiking with for the next 6 days. I had no idea what to expect by way of a group – I was hoping for the Australian Men’s Olympic Water Polo Team, and fearing the Jehovah’s Witness Revival Retreat Group. As it turns out, I joined a band of 7 rowdy Irish, self-described as “scruffy, but lovable.” I wondered if their canteens would be full of Guiness rather than water. I couldn’t have asked for a more easy going, fun and adventurous group and I felt so lucky that they let me join their traveling band. Scruffy, but lovable indeed.
The evening before our ascent was to begin, one of the hotel staff came to my room to inspect my gear, and make sure I would not freeze to death (or make a fool of myself) on the mountain. After receiving the “all clear,” she instructed me to put my gear into a potato sack type bag. “But how will the porter carry it?” I asked. “On his head,” was the astonishing reply. As it turns out, trekking in Kilimanjaro is not something you can exactly do on your own. You have to travel w/at least one guide, and are not allowed to carry your own gear, besides a day pack. So instead of our simple group of 8, we were instead 7 Irish, 1 American, 24 porters carrying all our gear and food, and 5 guides. So much for simplicity.
A 2 hour truck ride w/ our “small” group piled in ledus to the trailhead of the Machame Route – the 6 day, 40 mile trek up the mountain. We started off for our 7 hour hike that day, and were quickly overtaken by all of the porters who flew past us with massive loads on their backs and heads (up to 55 pounds each). I couldn’t believe the appalling condition of their clothes and shoes – they all looked like they had just walked out of a second hand store, w/ holes in everything. I have never had anyone carry my gear before, especially dressed like that. It was something I struggled with the entire trip, but that is the way things are done here. That said, they were all wonderful, and it was kind of nice arriving at camp with the tent already set up and dinner ready. Still I think I prefer to pull my own weight.
The next 4 days, we hiked at a snail’s pace to acclimatise, slowly making our way up the massive mountain before us. Occassionally, I actually take people’s advice and do as I’m told – and I decided climbing this mountain would be one of those times when I should heed the words wisdom of those who know
more than I. I therefore decided it was in my best interest to drink the recommended 4 to 5 liters of water every day, and walk, sometimes painfully, slow to avoid altitude sickness. The vistas were stunning, the weather good (though sometimes cloudy), and I often had to pinch myself as a reminder that I was actually making my way, so far successfully, up the highest mountain in Africa.
By the end of the fourth day, we reached base camp at over 15,000 feet. (By the way, I think it’s AWESOME that I am telling a story involving a place called “base camp.” At that point, I was feeling incredibly confident (overly so, I now realize). I had no shortness of breath, and besides a few mild headaches, I wasn’t feeling any of the effects of altitude sickness we had been warned about. I thought summitting would be no problem, or at least within reach.
That night, we were awakened at midnight by our guides to begin our long ascent to the summit at 19,340 feet. At nearly 1:00 a.m., after some tea and beautiful singing under a starlit African sky by the 5 guides who would lead us upward, we slowly started to make our final climb. It started off well – I was a little cold (no surprise, as it was only about 20 degrees), but was at the head of the pack, and feeling strong.
I kept concentrating on just staring at the boots of the guide in front of me – every time I looked up, all I saw in the darkness was the “S” of headlamps making their way up the mountain – all of them seemed impossibly high and I couldn’t bear to think of how far we still had to go.
The morning trudged on, 4:00 a.m., 5:00, 6:00, 16,000 feet, 16,500, 17,000. All of a sudden, at what must have been a little over 17,500 feet, the altitude hit me like a ton of bricks. It wasn’t my breathing, but I suddenly felt exhaustion like I had never felt before. Putting one foot in front of the other was the hardest thing I had ever done in my life. I was leaning on my hiking poles as if they were crutches. I heard my brother’s voice (the mountaineer) before my trip asking me “Tricia, do you have ANY idea how high 19,000 feet is?” and my all-too-cavalier response of “I know exactly how high it is!” Ah, the arrogance of the inexperienced climber!!! I now realized he was (irritatingly) right – I had NO idea what 19,000 feet felt like, until now.
We watched the sunrise over the mountains, but all wanted to do was curl up on the trail and take a long nap. Looking down, I noticed we were well above the cloud layer and I realized the only time I had looked down on clouds like that was from an airplane. I coaxed myself further by singing songs to myself – nursery rhymes, old sorority songs, anything I could remember the words to (which at that point wasn’t much). I kept myself entertained for at least 1,000 feet by trying to remember the 14 subjects on the Bar – usually I would get to 8, forget what I had already listed, and start over. I never did get past 11.
In the end, only 5 of our group of 8 reached the summit, and I am happy to report that I was one ofthose 5. I am also happy to report I was the only one not taking any medicine (prescription or otherwise) for altitude sickness – I think I gained a certain respect from the Irish, becoming known as the only “drug-free” member of the group. It was 9:30 when we reached the peak – 8 1/2 hours of hiking. I have
ever been so exhausted in my life. The Irish had brought flasks of Brandy (they ARE Irish, after all…) which they offered to everyone at the top, but I couldn’t even drink my water. Unfortunately, despite being on top of the world and the astonishingly beautiful views, all I could think about was “someone call the chopper, and get me the hell off this mountain.” But there was no chopper, and in terms of miles, we were less than half way done with our trekking that day.
It was 1:00 in the afternoon by the time we got back to base camp. I collapsed in my tent for a while before lunch. But our day was still not over – another 3 1/2 hours to the next camp for night #5. I thought my knees would buckle at any moment and I honestly didn’t know if I could make it another step. We were still hiking, once again in the dark, at 7:00 that night. Finally, we reached camp, and the most physically challenging day of my entire life (including every triathlon I have ever done combined) came to an excrutiating end. We were all too exhausted to celebrate our successful ascent and had just finished 24 hours of hiking in a 36 hour period.
I don’t know why we humans insist on entertaining these masochistic tendencies. For a good story in the pub later? A sense of accomplishment? Completing the near impossible challenge? I tried to tell myself up the mountain that I wasn’t attached to the idea of summitting. But the truth is, I was. And at a certain point, it was no longer a question of physical strength but rather of will. Mind over matter – in such a way as I have never experienced.
And now that it’s over, well – I guess it is still slowly sinking in. I don’t think it has fully hit me yet. It was an incredibly emotional experienced. 15 minutes from the summit, I burst into tears and couldn’t stop until we reached the sign that said we had reached the peak. Bit by bit, the thrill o summitting is sinking in, and I have to keep looking at my pictures to remind myself that it wasn’t a dream. Rather, it was one of the most exhausting, exhilarating, and unbelievable experiences of my life.