**EDITORS NOTE: just in case you’re starting the story from here…at this point of the climb I’d been severely ill with gastroenteritis type symptoms, which goes a certain point to explaining the horrible thing that’s about to happen…sorry. That’s also why there’s a lack of photos and video.
I drempt of wonderful things.
My girlfriend, the Florida Keys, sitting on my couch, unicorns and rainbows. For three hours on this February day, I was happy. And then the tent started shaking. It was apparently my third wake up call, I’d slept fast through the other two.
Glenn came back in the tent.
“Time to go buddy.”
“That was literally the deepest sleep I’ve ever experienced in my life,” I said, without a hint of exaggeration. It was the best sleep, minute for minute, that I’ve ever had. It’s as though a million little sleep nanos crawled into my brain and started fixing all the horrible things that had happened earlier in the day. I still felt ill, but nowhere near as bad as I had felt the day before. I wish I could say the same for Glenn.
“Well I think I finally got what you guys got. I feel like shit.”
I felt horrible for him. I knew what was in store for him…but with even worse conditions.
“Are you gonna go?” I asked.
“There’s no way I’m not!” and with that he zipped out of the tent and started towards the group.
I dawdled as usual, trying to get dressed, my mind just wasn’t keeping up with the pace of the moment. As I finished stuffing away the last few things into my pack the group started their hike, conveniently walking right past my tent. I zipped up my pack, folded the balaclava over my forehead and put on my goggles before leaving the tent and hopping in line.
All around hikers walked, their headlamps bouncing with each step, towards the trail funneling into a single-file line. It was as though I was watching an army amass before attacking a mighty bulwark. There were cheers and yells and slaps on the back.
I was still in the dream state, my brain reeling to catch up to the reality of consciousness. A condition exacerbated by my attire. It felt as though I was wearing a space suit. I had spent a lot of money on gear, and this was the time for it to shine. And shine it did, amongst this cold darkness I felt insulated and powerful. The wind was blowing beyond the gale of earlier, but I felt nothing. I had created a playlist for this last push, song after song of gargantuan motivation. The sorts of songs that can make you feel as though…well…you can climb mountains.
The nausea and general soreness were still with me, but the adrenaline of the moment pushed me into line on the trail. Dixon pulled me aside.
“Kris, Martin will be with you all night tonight to make sure you are fine. I will be behind you,” Dixon said grabbing my pack and slinging it into Martin’ hands.
Martin slapped me on the back, and gave me a smile. And with that we started the march. I was already among the last hikers before the hike had started. That was fine with me. I didn’t want to be holding anyone up, and I had read that the trail would be single track and steep. As Martin and I started walking we passed Emily. She was sitting on the ground crying, trying to take her coat off. I tried to walk over to her, but Martin just pushed me on. She had been assigned to another of the assistant guides. I felt horrible, I thought that I should be there to help, but I also recognized I was in no condition to help. I wouldn’t see Emily for the rest of the night.
As we walked, the steepness of the trail increased quickly. I took my time with every step. I didn’t care who was trying to pass, I knew I needed to take my time. About an hour into the hike the muscles in my lower abdomen started convulsing again. I grabbed my bag and started digging for the toilet paper. I knew I had packed two rolls, or I thought I knew…I mean I’ve been in crazytown for the last 36 hours. Martin just looked at me as I furiously pulled my pack to pieces the way the Hulk tears at his clothes mid-metamorphosis. No toilet paper.
“Martin, do you have any toilet paper?” he just stared blankly back at me. “Martin, do you speak English?”
“Not good English.”
I stared back at him in the darkness, trying to figure out how to communicate the need for toilet paper.
“Toilet paper!!!” I motioned furiously with my hands, unrolling and wadding and wiping. I squatted simulating defecation with my hand from my ass.
“Ahh, yes.” He smiled and unzipped his jacket to reveal four rolls of toilet paper. I would have laughed out loud if the situation wasn’t so dire. I grabbed a roll and ran off the trail, well not quite ran, but I moved as quickly as the current atmosphere would allow.
In the darkness I tried to find a rock to squat against. I scooted around a car-sized boulder and started to unzip layer number one of four pants when it happened. I let my concentration lapse for just a moment allowing my muscles to relax enough to stop holding back the inevitable.
I just shit myself…as in for real.
I ripped the rest of the layers down and finished what some heinous micro-organism had started. I stared back at the trail as a group of hikers started passing Martin on the trail, each one of them taking the time to look over at me. My middle finger meeting each one of the their headlamp beams. I was humiliated enough. I didn’t need a spotlight.
I leaned against the boulder for another minute, my exposed skin was freezing but I was still coming to terms with what happened. After a quick examination I determined that the damage was limited to my boxer briefs. I took off my boots, and the four layers of pants. I stuffed the boxers into a plastic waste bag, and resuited up. I’d be freeballing it for the rest of the hike.
As I walked back I had to smile, I just pooped myself near the top of the tallest mountain in Africa. This was exactly what I envisioned when I booked this trip.
Martin stood on the trail, kicking up the dirt in boredom as he waited. I handed him the toilet paper, which he stuffed back into his jacket. It was at this point I realized he was using it for extra insulation. As we started walking again I noticed that we were now at the end of the line. There were no headlamps behind us, at least none that I could see.
A wave of anxiety swept over me. If something happens, there’s no one else coming!! I took a minute to compose myself mentally and started forward again. At this point there was nowhere to move except forward. My steps were all deliberate and planned. I paced my breaths to my steps and my walking poles to my steps. I felt like an old broken down machine that just kept plugging along. I was that car that every teenager gets as an old hand-me-down that won’t break down regardless of what it goes through. That engine just keeps on keeping on.
Being at the end of the line gave me a unique vantage point to really observe what was happening. A centipede marched above me stretching a half-mile down the trail. Its body, sections of light bouncing and winding in zigzags up the switchbacks. The head of the centipede disappeared over one of the million or so false summits on this mountain. The scene was surreal, like some sort of solemn religious procession. Believers marching undaunted through the darkness carrying but a small light up to the summit.
I stopped to absorb the moment. The silhouette of the mountain was visible against a backdrop of more stars than I ever imagined existed. I lifted my head to really look at the night sky, and it brought of flood of tears to my eyes. It was the most beautiful sky I’ve seen in my life. The Milky Way swept across the sky in high-definition clarity, putting Hubble to shame. Billions of specks of light, except they were more than light. They had color, blues and reds and whites sprayed against a perfectly black background. Shooting stars zoomed across the scene on demand, and upon each one I wished to make it to the top without dying.
I turned to survey the whole scene, and I could see Martin looking bewildered as to why I had stopped.
“This is gorgeous!” I said pointing skyward.
“Yessss,” he said looking up and smiling. He didn’t need to understand English to understand what I was saying.
As I looked down on the sporadic lights of Moshi, so far below, I noticed flashes of lightning on the horizon. We were above the evening thunderstorms of equatorial Africa. The clouds were alive with electricity, flashing to brilliance ever thirty seconds or so.
I wished so dearly for a way to truly capture this scene. If I could bottle it up and sell it I’d have a the cure for depression and hopelessness. It is a scene that is indelibly marked in the permanent file of my brain. One day when I’m frail and senile, my mind will retreat to this moment, and people around me will wonder where I am…and they’ll worry, not realizing that I’ve just returned to happiness. This was one of the most amazing moments of my life…and the mountain had more to offer.
As I turned to continue the grand task at hand the tears started gushing. I started uncontrollably crying, deep sobbing epiphineous tears of joy and pain and love. I started walking, heel to toe. I’m doing this! Heel to toe. I’m doing this and nothing will stop me! Heel to toe. I’m doing this.
Poor Martin probably thought I was completely bat-shit crazy.
The emotions didn’t make the terrain any flatter. The switchbacks grew closer together, the steps became higher. My quads burned. And my fingers began to freeze. At some point I lost the warmers in my left glove. I didn’t notice that it had happened until my fingers turned to icicles. I had been so warm, and the rest of my body was still so warm, but the only thing that counted in my mind were my frozen fingers.
My exhaustion from the previous day hadn’t disappeared, it had only been displaced by emotion and adrenaline. About two hours into the hike the emotions leveled, and I crashed. I collapsed onto a rock. Martin tried to pick me back up. I made it quite clear that I wanted to rest for a minute. I leaned back against the boulder behind me, pulling my fingers against my palm to warm them up. And then I woke up.
I WOKE up.
This means I had been asleep. In all probability it was only a few seconds, but it scared the hell out of me. I stood up immediately and started walking again.
That would be the last time I’d sit down until the sun came up.
The trail was dark, the caterpillar kept crawling ahead of us. But every 30 or 45 minutes a section of the great caterpillar would stop, turn around and start going downhill. These isolated sections would slowly bounce down the trail toward Martin and I. The sections of light became people–tired people flanked by porters on both sides. They had given up, or succumbed to the elements or illness. The mountain had beaten them. It was discouraging. With this many people peeling away and retreating before the summit I had to start questioning my chances. These people had been in front of me, and therefore presumably healthier.
As they continued past us into the darkness below we plunged ahead. There was no way to know what time it was, and in a way that was good. I didn’t need to know. I just needed to keep pressing ahead until the sun started to break the horizon, and by that time I should be at Stella Point.
We walked in silence, my iPod was doing unbelievably psychic things choosing the perfect tunes from a catalogue of 17,000 songs. It had infiltrated my brain and created its own perfect playlist. I stared at my feet. Heel to toe, heel to toe, heel to toe. I focused on controlling my breathing, and pacing my pole plants. I started counting the switchbacks, I quit after fifty.
Periodically, I’d gaze back upon the heavens looking for a distraction or motivation. Those gazes were always kept short, as they inevitably led to my tripping over a rock. Tripping over rocks is not advisable on pitch black trails flanked by massive dropoffs in the middle of Africa. If only I could have looked up at the sky the entire night, the climb would have been exponentially easier. Instead I was sentenced to staring at my formerly brown and black boots.
Another hour later and Martin started to act a bit crazy. He started to slow down and stagger and stumble. Rounding switchbacks he would stop walking and sway back and forth in place. It seemed almost as though he was falling asleep while standing up.
“Martin! Martin!” I yelled through my balaclava while whacking him in the leg with one of my poles. “You all right? Do you feel OK?”
He nodded. “Sit.” He said while sitting down. He leaned against the rock behind him, and I leaned on my poles planted into the ground.
This was not a good development. Martin was going crazy. He wasn’t as well equipped as he should be, his gloves were simple liners and his hat was a hand-me-down. His fluorescent pink pants surely didn’t provide warmth commensurate with the hotness of the color.
I looked directly at him, my headlamp illuminating his face. He was young, but right now he looked old and worn. There was an emptiness behind his eyes. My concern was quickly transforming to panic. He seemed to be symptomatic of acute mountain sickness, or at least he was getting there. I’m no doctor, but I can tell when a dude is in rough shape.
I didn’t know what to do.
I looked back down the trail, and there was still nothing but darkness. Ahead on the trail the tail of the caterpillar was still about the same distance away a few switchbacks up. If we picked up our pace just a bit we might be able to catch up, and there might be someone there.
“Come on Martin, let’s go.”
Nothing, he just shook his head. I leaned over and grabbed his arm.
“Martin, you have to get up. We have to keep going!” I shouted pointing up. I knew he probably didn’t really understand me, I let the tone of my voice say it all. As I helped him up, he slowly nodded his head.
“Are you OK?” he nodded again. “OK then, pole, pole!”
“Yes, pole pole.” A little smirk lit up his face. I think he realized there was a bit of role reversal going on here.
As we continued, I picked up the pace, just a tiny little bit. I stayed close on Martin’s heels, when he started to stagger I whacked him with my pole. When he stopped in the middle of the trail I gave him a polite nudge forward. When he tried to sit down I held him up. For close to an hour my aches and pains faded into the background. I was more focused on Martin, and getting him to someone who could help.
Then again this entire drama could have only lasted 15 minutes. Time had ceased to exist.
All I know, is the caterpillar was getting closer. If only we could catch up to that tail. This was my immediate goal, and it made me think of how I once trained for a marathon. As my runs got longer and longer, I started to focus on immediate victories throughout the run. Beating split times, or conquering a hill or making it to the next landmark. Focusing on these little victories helped to compartmentalize the broader event. It gave me the temporary exhilaration of momentary success to catapult me onto the next goal.
That training had apparently rubbed off more than I thought. And my most immediate goal would be to making it to the end of that caterpillar. It was my sole focus. And soon enough we were only a few switchbacks behind. And then that section of the caterpillar stopped. They were sitting down, and someone was turning around.
We caught up. It was the Italians. One of them was giving up.
There was a lot of crying and hugging and back patting. The scene should have been touching to me, but instead I couldn’t help to feel a bit of vindication. This group had terrorized the trail, bullying other groups out of their way while they kept an unsustainable pace. And here they were reaping the penalty of that behavior. I felt bad for these thoughts, but nonetheless they were there.
We walked just past the farewell ceremony, there was another group in rough shape taking a break on a rock. As we got closer I saw it was Glenn, Mike, his wife Juliana and Dixon. Mike was in rough shape, Juliana was trying to pull him back to his feet. I pushed Martin towards Dixon.
“Kris, you are still going! How are you?”
“I’m fine, but I think Martin’s hurting. He’s been staggering all over the trail. He keeps trying to sit down and fall asleep.”
Dixon walked over to Martin and started talking to him in Swahili while shining his headlamp in his face. He pulled a radio out of Martin’s pocket and fiddled with the knobs until sound could be heard coming out. He had a radio!! Of course, he had a radio!
While they continued talking, presumably about the dynamics of volume control for radios, I saw Glenn doubled over next to Mike.
“How are you feeling?”
“Not good, I think I have what you and Claire had.” His face was pale, and in spite of the sub-zero temperatures and wind there were beads of sweat on his forehead. He looked exactly how I felt the day before.
“We’re almost there buddy, let’s just keep going,” I said mustering up every inspirational cell in my body.
Dixon had left Martin’s side and walked over to Mike.
“Mike, do you want to keep going?”
Julianne didn’t give him a chance to answer.
“Yes, he wants to keep going! Mike get up, we must keep going!” Julianne shouted.
Calmly Dixon stood in between the two.
“Mike, do you want to keep going?”
He looked beaten. This was it, I was about to watch one of our people turn around and head back. I could feel the sadness well up.
“Yes, I will keep going.” He started to stand, helped up by Dixon and Julianne. It was clear that Dixon didn’t believe him. Dixon shouted to Martin in Swahili and he started walking.
“We must continue then, we cannot stop!”
I helped Glenn up and we started as our own little section of the now fragmented centipede. Martin was now in the lead, it was clear that he was feeling better…maybe Dixon had given him a motivational speech in Swahili. Glenn and I walked behind Martin as Dixon walked alongside Mike and Julianne. She seemed to be pushing Mike up the mountain.
I felt better, my anxiety melted away. Martin and I were no longer alone. I was among friends. I looked up the mountain to see the scrappy centipede, happy that I was now a part of this being crawling up the mountain. Shouts from those ahead were now audible, and there was general excitement that grew with every step up and forward.
It seemed that every ridge ahead was the ridge leading to Stella Point. I scanned the horizon for any sign of dawn, but everything was just pitch black. Every time we reached another of these false summits my heart sank a little. They were eternal. I felt trapped in an M.C. Escher painting, this mountain had no ending. Each switchback simply led to another set of switchbacks, which led to yet another set of switchbacks.
The general feeling of well-being from catching up with a portion of the group faded. We started stopping more frequently. As the others collapsed onto rocks I leaned on my poles and looked to the sky. The silhouette of the mountain looked exactly as it had some 1-6 hours ago when we started this midnight trek. My fingers in my left hand continued to freeze, and I balled them up at each stop for a little relief.
I sucked on my Camelback for some water, but nothing came out. I had forgotten to blow the water back into the resevoir the last time I drank it. The bladder was insulated and the water inside the bladder was still liquid, but the drinking tube was now one string of ice. I grabbed the backup bottle of water from the side of my bag. I opened it to see a block of ice. I had no water.
My breathing was now more than labored. There was a discernable wheeze within each of my inhalations. I did little things to test my mental acuity. I was started to get nervous that edema might be setting in. My natural neurosis was now enhancing my paranoia and anxiety.
I worked hard to ignore my problems breathing. I worked hard to ignore my freezing hand. I worked hard to ignore my sore hip, and my burning quad and my swollen feet and my chapped nose.
I tried to put myself into happy places: on the beaches of Puerto Rico, sitting by the fireplace with my girlfriend in a Maine cabin, standing atop Camelback mountain in Phoenix. The relief was momentary.
I would sneak glances at the eastern horizon with every step. More than anything I needed this sun to come up.
But mostly I stared at my feet, at the colorless dirt made more colorless by my headlamp. I watched the dust stir as though I was walking along the floor of the sea. With each shuffle of a step the dust would be momentarily suspended before being whisked away in the wind. It was as though my mind was interpreting everything in a state of retarded animation. Was it possible that my mind was so overwhelmed that my perception of time and events became realigned on a different scale of existence?
But shuffle on we did.
The shouts from above became more frequent and excited. We were close to Stella Point, we had to be. I looked out on the horizon, black was becoming the faintest of purples. We had to be close!
The purple started to mix with deep blues and heavy lavenders. The outline of Mawenzi peak became more concrete as the deep reds became orange and finally yellow. There was a continuous cascade of cheers from above and then Martin started singing in Swahili. There was genuine excitement in his voice, and as he sung Dixon started answering in song. The chorus was happy, it was victorious. Again my goggles were swamped with tears. It wasn’t a little cry, this was a heaving fire hydrant of emotion pouring from my tear ducts.
I was looking at the evolution of the most beautiful scene of my life so far. The star-studded night sky was retreating from the powers of the rising sun. But from this vantage point it wasn’t just another sunrise. It was a sunrise reimagined.
The earth sprawled out far beneath us, the horizon exchanged its sea-level linear qualities for a more parabolic effect. It looked like the pictures of sunrise from the space station. The sun burst forth with such terrific color and presence. I tried to take a picture. I failed.
We rested and watched this spectacle of nature. We were still well below Stella Point, but this was a remarkable view nonetheless.
The sun brought a new determination, much needed because my tank was empty. Each step was an excruciating labor. The last scramble to Stella Point took about thirty minutes, it seemed like three thousand. The path was covered in scree, loose pebbles and rocks. The footing was unstable and each step forward was met with a little backsliding.
Gargantuan glaciers rose to our left bathed in the deep orange glow of a new sun. The last ridge was in view, we turned the final switchback and one at a time found ourselves at the top of Stella Point.
I fell to my knees and cried the deepest cry yet. I MADE IT!!! Everything that had led to this moment started flashing through my brain.
Others were already headed back down from Uhuru Peak and as they passed us in the opposite direction they shouted words of encouragement. Aside from the invading Italians and Bono-impersonating Germans, everyone on the mountain was on the same team. Everyone wanted everyone to succeed.
As we rested atop Stella Point, Martin came up to me with a thermos and poured me a cup of hot water. He had carried this thermos all the way up for exactly this moment. It was a wonderful thing, hot water. I was beyond thirsty.
After slugging that down we had to make the final push to Uhuru Peak, the actual top of Kilimanjaro. After the emotional high of making it to Stella Point it seemed pretty anti-climactic to have to walk another 45 minutes. I knew it was going to happen, but I had assumed that my adrenaline would carry me through this last little bit. Quite the opposite. The trail snaked around the rim of the crater, a steady ascent. Starting from Stella Point the sign atop Uhuru is visible on the other side of the crater. And this is not a small crater. I started with a bit too much excitement, almost taking normal sea-level sized steps. A huge mistake. It wore me out immediately, and I would have collapsed if Martin wasn’t right there to hold me up.
Along the way other members of our group started to stream down in the opposite direction. First we saw the Canadians and then the Swedes and then I saw Claire and Emily. Somehow Emily had made it up. I was so happy to see them both, and a bit sad that I hadn’t been on the summit with them.
The crater loomed large off to the right, and glaciers shimmered to the left. The scene was so extraterrestrial. I felt like an astronaut walking on the surface of the moon. I looked back and there was no one behind me.
Martin and I struggled over the last little rocks on the trail until we reached the sign. Most everyone had already taken their pictures and left, there were only about a dozen people up there.
As far as I could tell I was the last person to summit this day, but I did. I let out the best scream my beleagured lungs would allow. Surprisingly, I didn’t break down into another fit of crying again. I’m pretty sure my body was out of tears anyway. I lifted my goggles to survey the scene with my eyes unobstructed. It was desolate and beautiful. There were no clouds below and I could see everything in every direction.
I sat on a rock and watched as people lined up to take their photo in front of the sign. I wanted just a few minutes to savor the victory. It was a hostile environment, the breathing was most difficult and the wind was whipping faster than at any time through the night.
Even so, this was my moment of victory. I soaked in the realization that this was the tangible reward of patience and perseverance. It was a powerful object lesson: sometimes it takes thousands of steady little steps to reach a goal rather than a few big leaps. This would be a lesson I would immediately internalize, this was the meaning of patience.
I dug my camera out and took a few more photos. I had dragged this heavy-ass DSLR all the way to the summit, and now I couldn’t even take proper photos. My brain was too scrambled to focus on anything. Dixon came up to me and grabbed the camera.
“Kris, I will take your picture. We must hurry.”
I jumped in front of the sign and took a few photos with t-shirts and hand signs and victory screams. Only one actually turned out, a fact I didn’t realize until I made it all the way back to the bottom of the mountain. Glenn and Mike and Julianne joined me and we took a few group photos. It all seemed very rushed. There was no time to just stand in front of the sign. Dixon knew that we were all in rough shape and needed to get down from the mountain as soon as possible.
We started back down. Back down. It was done. Everything from this point forward would quite literally be downhill.