Waking up was impossible.
I had no strength and everything hurt.
But I had to use the toilet. By the time I found my way into the toilet tent I was greeted by an overused toilet full to the brim. I had to go, there was no choice in the matter. And so I walked down from the tents about 100 feet and found a boulder to lean against. It was disgusting and horrible.
I washed up and attempted to eat some breakfast, even though I was nauseous I knew I had to eat. I got down about a bite of pancake before running out of the tent to throw up again.
This was bad, very bad.
I went back to the tent to pack my stuff up, but as soon as I laid down on my sleeping bag I couldn’t move. My body was giving up on me. What dumb luck was this?!? Why was I sick?!? I was in great shape the day before!!
Dixon came over to my tent.
“Kris, what is wrong?”
“I’m not well, I’ve been throwing up, I can’t eat. I feel weak.”
“You are very sick,” he said stating the obvious. “Do you want to stop?”
He looked me in the eyes without saying anything more, and for a moment we silently looked at each other.
“The only way I’m coming down this mountain before getting to the top is on a stretcher. I can make it. I promise.”
“I understand, but if you are sick you will only get worse. I have to make sure that everyone is safe.”
“I’ll be fine, I promise to tell you if I am not,” I lied and finished packing up. It took me forever and then some. By the time I had finished the group had already left with Ramallah to start climbing the Barranco Wall. I walked out of my tent and saw only Claire and Emily. The girls waited for me alongside Dixon, and truthfully I owe them for a big piece of my success. Emily was now sick and Claire was just recovering. I felt exponentially worse than I had on any part of the trip thus far. In fact I can’t remember another time in my life when I felt worse. If I had been at home I would have been covered in a duvet watching trashy daytime television while eating chicken noodle soup and groaning with every movement on the couch. Instead, I was walking up a ridiculous trail, on a ridiculous mountain in the middle of Tanzania more than a days walk from anything that even remotely resembled civilization.
Although the sky was clear, the shadow of the mountain hung over us. And in that shadow it was freezing. I had not dressed for the temperature, so I was freezing. I don’t think things could have gotten much worse.Looking up at the wall with a bone-chilling breeze blowing straight through me I seriously began to doubt my chances…and my decision to continue.
This was the moment I came closest to quitting.
I stood still for a minute, trying to think rationally through the dense fog that shrouded my mind. Every step up would be another step further from help if I needed it. This realization unsettled me. By continuing I was putting my life at risk…was this really worth it?? Every book, every blog, every article I had read said no. I battled. And then I continued. For me this was not simply about saying I made it to the top of Kilimanjaro. This was not a vain exercise to notch off another extreme accomplishment. This was about following through with one of the biggest goals of my life. This was about proving that I would not bend against adversity. This was about proving to myself that I was a better, much improved person than I had been four years prior. I would go until the next step was an impossibility. And with that I took the next step.
And the step was big, as were most of the steps on this portion of the trail. Gaining so much elevation in such a condensed distance of time translates into infinite switchbacks complimented by Shaq-sized steps. Every switchback consumed so much energy. I had to stop every other switchback to catch my breath and build my momentum for another push. Meanwhile, the porters were darting past us carrying their ungodly weight with a fraction of the effort.
“Kris, give me your pack,” Dixon said to me.
“No, no. I got it, I’ll carry it,” I said. In truth I wanted nothing more than to offload it, but my pride had to put up one last defense.
“Kris, you must give me your pack, you are too weak to carry it. I have already sent for a porter, they will carry my pack and I will carry yours.” Dixon said again, this time grabbing my pack to settle the argument. “No wonder, this pack is as heavy as my pack. You carry rocks, no?”
I’m pretty sure he was exaggerating to save my pride a bit, but the pack was heavy. I never thought of my pack as heavy, it just was the weight it was. I’m so accustomed to hiking with my camera gear that it’s become normal. When we started walking again my steps came easier, the loss of weight had given me a momentary boost. It would last all of ten minutes before I was dragging again. The last of the other climbing groups passed us, I was humiliated to have no pack. It was a constant assault on my masculinity. Looking back I find it remarkable in how vanity rears its head in even the most ridiculous of situations. Even so, it was fleeting. I couldn’t really bother with these feelings if I wanted to get to the top of the mountain. We were falling further behind the rest of the group. I looked back at camp to mark our progress. Another poor decision, camp didn’t look that far back.
As I lost energy, Claire seemed to be getting hers back. There was a noticeable bounce in her step, that wonderful feeling one gets after recovering from sickness.
“Scissor sisters!” she said pointing to her earbuds. “Come on now guys, lets perk up.”
She had become the de facto cheerleader for both Emily and I. And it was absolutely necessary. “Now a bit of Bon Jovi, it’s my life!”
The Barranco Wall is menacing, a flat wall rising about a thousand feet. Switchbacks scar the face. Unlike other sections of the hike, it’s not simply one foot ahead of the next. It’s scrambling. Climbing with hands and feet. Balance. I was too tired for balance. I only needed one scramble section to find myself sapped of energy. I could see in Emily’s face that she felt every bit as awful as I. It wasn’t that I was winded as much as I simply had no fuel. My muscles couldn’t produce the sustained force necessary to move me uphill for more than a few moments at a time. Every bit of scrambling brought me closer to total defeat.
Everybody was passing us. It was humiliating. We were falling further and further behind the rest of the group.
My hands were numb and my body was freezing. Chills from the illness radiated down my lower back. I was hitting another breaking point just as the sun appeared over the lip of the wall. Suddenly, I felt solar powered. The energy of the direct sunshine motivated me and instantly warmed me up.
(CERTAINLY BY NOW YOU’RE NOTICING A LACK OF PICTURES AND VIDEO…SORRY, I WASN’T FEELING THAT GREAT)
My pace perked up, but it still felt as though we were moving in super slow motion. Porters were hopping around us like frogs leaping up a tree. I just wanted to vampirically steal a tenth of their energy. The switchbacks were unrelenting. I had thoughts that maybe I had died in my sleep, and this was my purgatory, my island of quite literal Sysiphean fate. Emily was looking as fragile as I felt, but Claire just kept cheering us onward.
“Come on, not much longer we get to the top,” Dixon said every time I tried to sit. But on Kilimanjaro “not much longer” is a very long time.
Now I was sweating. Just a few minutes out of the shade, and I was sweating. It was like a scene from a science fiction movie when the dark side of the moon passes into the direct sunlight.
Every ridge brought the promise of an end to this dreaded wall, and every promise was broken. I tried to temper my spirits, but after being denied the accomplishment of defeating this wall a few dozen times it was becoming demoralizing. I started counting my steps. It was the only way I could shut out the pain, and the discomfort and the letdown of another ridge’s promise. 1,743 steps later the wall surrendered.
A ridge broke to a long flat plain. There were hundreds of flat table-faced rocks begging for me to lie flat. And lie I did. I starfished on the first rock I could find, soaking in the warmth of the sun. This was a victory, I was determined to savor it.
I drank some water and tried to get some energy goo down my throat. It was no use, I was beyond nauseous. The idea of food made me wretch, and as I tried my first meager bites I felt the muscles in my stomach push against the swallowing muscles of my throat. I wasn’t going to force it, not yet.
In the distance we could see the rest of our group walking along the trail etched into the side of the massive plateau on which we now stood. It didn’t seem as though we were that far behind, but distances on this mountain are impercievable.
After about ten minutes of rest we stood and started walking again. Claire and I trailed back a bit from Emily and Dixon. As we walked we told each other horrible stories of heartbreak and embarrassment. It passed the time, and for a few minutes I was unaware of being sick, tired and walking. The clouds yielded to the sun, heating everything up. As we walked down the trail into a hidden valley my mind again started with its tricks. The surrounding scene could well have been Arizona. The searing sun, the beige and black rocks, the absence of plantlife. I was in the middle of the desert at 15000 feet.
As we walked through this valley things turned fuzzy again. I ducked behind a rock and vomited. I have no idea how I vomited, there’s no possible way anything could have been left in my stomach.
The rest of the morning is lost in a haze, everything melds together in my memory a cacophonous collage of steps, and rocks and clouds and sun. Even trying to revisit the memory makes me nauseous. From the valley of rocks and sun we worked our way back onto the ridgeline and into the clouds. The temperature sank again as the gray soup blocked the sun. Coming around a bend Dixon pointed down the trail.
“That is where we are stopping for lunch, not so far?” He said.
I felt a bit of excitement well up within me. I wasn’t hungry in the least, but I knew that the lunch camp represented an accomplishment. It was a chance to rest, and maybe try to eat. And there it was, so close.
Except for the ravine in between us.
I looked down at the steep descent ahead, followed quite naturally by a steep ascent, and I sat down shaking my head. They call it the Karanga Valley, “they” of course being liars as there is nothing remotely valleyesque about this scene. Canyon, maybe. Valley, definitely not.
“You’re kidding, right? That’s a joke, right? There’s an invisible bridge like the one in Indiana Jones, or a helicopter waiting to pick us up…because I don’t think I can go any further,” I said to Dixon.
“No, it is not a joke. It is not so far, you can do this. Just take your time, we will make it,” Dixon said again in his eternally optimistic tone.
I sat in silence for a minute before cursing and standing up. We found ourselves alongside a private group with only three members. They seemed to be in pretty rough shape too.
The descent was slick and steep and painful. I slipped half a dozen times. At one point the trail hugged the mountainside, which just happened to be spewing gallons of water per second down at us. Just another ridiculous obstacle.
When we finally reached the bottom I was convinced that I was dead and in hell. Everything hurt. The surroundings took on a certain Mount Doomesque appeal. And there was no place to go but up.
The steps up were just as steep as the steps down. I counted again, but lost count somewhere around 3,000. It was left foot, right foot, left foot marching through the apocolypse in search of Twinkies. And an hour later we reached the top.
We walked straight to the mess tent. As soon as the flap opened to the smiling faces of our group the smell of curry flooded my nostrils triggering a wave of nausea that sent me running for the nearest boulder. That breaks my personal record for the most boulders vomited on in a 24-hour period. It was becoming a sport, I expected to be judged on form, consistency and distance.
I spent the rest of the lunch break trying to eat one piece of white bread. Needless to say, it was near impossible to peel myself off the rock I was laying on. Once the group started moving again, they seemed to be doing so at warp speed. Every step I took was worth three of theirs.
This next section was to be the easiest portion of the hike, a slow steady ascent to Barafu Camp. We asked how long this hike would take, the answer: two hours. The answer was always two hours. This was to be the longest two hours of my life.
The trail was only visible a few hundred yards in front of us, disappearing into the thick gray clouds hugging the mountain. The scene had been robbed of color, apart from the apparel of my fellow hikers. The trail again resembled pictures beamed back by the Mars Rover, big black volcanic rocks scattered among the deep brown soil. The atmosphere seemed thick, in spite of its thinness. Breathing was difficult, and talking was pointless as sounds seemed to be immediately muffled by the clouds. This is what nuclear winter must feel like.
I tried counting my steps again, but this trick was getting old and it only lasted up to 4 or 500. I felt worse than I’d felt all day, and now walking with the group I felt the additional pressure of keeping the general pace.
The most psychologically distressing part of this scene was the invisible immensity of the landscape. The clouds hid most, but what they revealed seemed only to be the same thing we saw before. It was like the repeating landscape in Rad Racer, that every so many minutes the mountain would run out of landscape and just repeat.
As we hiked higher and higher in the cloud the sun would tempt us with quick, warm flashes of brilliance. But only momentarily.
We crested a ridge a dropped into a valley (a valley without steep ascents and descents…therefore a valley) and followed the trail as it wound around the base of a massive rock wall. There was nothing here. This stretch has been burned into my memory as one of the most desolate places I’ve ever seen.
Everytime I sat I wanted to sleep, and every time I stood my muscles screamed in protest. My mind played horrible, horrible tricks on me. I’d feel better for a minute, only to be met with another wave of nausea and pain. I started thinking about how just 24 hours earlier I was reviling in the grasp of certain victory, and now I could only contemplate failure. I wanted to quit, and if I wasn’t in the middle of this desolate valley I probably would have. But at this point, Barafu camp was just as close and Karangu…at least I thought so.
Tents finally came into view. They were perched in between boulders on a ridge ahead. I could feel sleep, I could feel the cocoon of warmth and happiness otherwise known as my North Face sleeping bag snuggling me to sleep.
As the adage goes, the last bit was the hardest. Every step took more energy than I had. And I was due another visit to the toilet. At this point, I was a bit over squatting against a rock to shit, so I decided to hold out until I could destroy one of the camp’s toilet tents.
These factors came together to make the last little bit of walking torture. As we walked among the first set of tents I could feel my brain and body simultaneously give up. I started to collapse.
“No we are not there yet, almost.” Ramallah said.
“F&%# you I f&%#ing hate you,” I didn’t say it, but I definitely thought it.
We walked through the first camp, then up a switchback, through another set of tents and along a trail following the ridge’s crest. Gale winds snarled through the camps blowing dust and just generally making things a bit more miserable. I started looking for a stick that I could shank Ramallah with, and then something funny happened. The sun came out. And it started snowing.
I was convinced that I had just jumped onto the express train to crazytown.
“Claire, is it snowing?”
The scene was surreal, as the setting equatorial sun beamed across Kibo through snowflakes falling from an invisible cloud. It took my mind away long enough to push me through to the check-in tent. I signed my name and went straight for my tent. The two hour hike had been over four hours. I threw my bag in and headed downhill to the toilet tent, where horrible, horrible things happened.
The only consolation on the day was that my nausea and chills were starting to subside. Barely a half hour after we made it to camp we had to report to the dining tent for a brief on summit night and dinner. Summit night of course being later the very same evening.
I managed to swallow down a few pieces of watermelon as Dixon briefed us on the part of the trip everyone had been waiting for.
“Pack everything before you sleep, but do not sleep in all you hike in. Otherwise your body will get colder faster. You must have layers, and gloves and a hat. It will be very cold. We will be waking you up at 11 and there will be a quick snack before we go, but you will not have very much time,” Dixon went on with a laundry list of do’s and don’ts and I started to fall asleep.
I went back to the tent and got everything organized for later that evening, no small task considering how amazingly comfortable my cocoon of warmth looked. After organizing everything I zipped in and was asleep instantly.