Archive for September, 2010

Day 6: Zero Hour, Sub-Zero Journey

Minutes before the ascent. Left to right: Baraka, Ian, Corey, Coucla, Sarah, myself, and Nora

As the hour got closer, Nora and I put on our basic layers and tried to sleep in them. We had to move at 10:45 pm sharp. They were going to wake us up at 10, enough time for us to put on the extra layers and head to the dining tent for a snack or coffee.

Getting dressed for that night was easy. It was simply about wearing everything you had which you knew would keep you warm. I put on both my wool liner pants, both my wool tops, hiking pants, shell pants to break the wind, fleece jacket, down jacket, liner gloves, mittens, and a balaclava for head, neck, and breath warmth.

Looking like astronauts headed for Mars, Nora, Lubna, Coucla, Nehal, Sarah, Corey, Ian, and myself said our prayers and set out to the summit behind Baraka’s careful, patient steps.

The silence overwhelmed the place and filled our hearts with humility. All I could hear was the crushing sound of the pebbles under our boots, Baraka’s walkie talkie, and our heavy breathing. We could not see anything beyond our flashlights, except for the glaciers at the top of our destination. The fear, the excitement, and the freezing temperature put us all in a state of extreme focus. Each one of us was living their own, private experience with the mountain. Each one was silently hoping and praying to make it to the top. It was a surreal experience.

This was the first time for all of us to make it to such a high altitude. None of us had ever been higher before. We also hadn’t acclimatized to this altitude yet. So I tried to cut all fearful thoughts out of my head by focusing on Baraka’s slow, small, and monotonous steps. They were to me an acknowledgment of man’s smallness. They were a sign of respect to the might of the mountain, a recognition of the tough journey ahead, and a symbol of the perseverance required to reach a goal. I knew they were the steps I needed to get me to the top.

Going slowly was also helpful in that our breaks were as short and as few as possible to avoid the cold. The minute we stopped, quite literally the minute we stopped, my toes began to freeze despite the thick socks and liners I was wearing under the boots. There was also a high probability that our muscles would almost instantly begin to cool down, which would make it very painful for us to get them going again.

Worth it, isn't it?

Those breaks, as few and as short as they were, were still life-savers to me, because no matter how slowly I was going, I felt extreme exertion all over my body and mind. I kept drinking water as often as I could. We were advised by Adel, our trip organizer, to blow the water back each time we drank through the hose and into the reservoir to protect it from freezing. I did as he told us, but the higher up we went the more difficult it became to sip. It began to freeze slowly.

Soon the terrain gave in to a series of rocks on a cliff. At this point I had parted from Baraka because some in the group requested another stop that I could not afford. So I walked on with Lubna and Godfrey, her guide. Godfrey was a big man with long strides, no matter how slow he tried to go, he remained three or 4 meters away from me. That was enough to make me panic, because that took him out of my flashlight zone and I had to look up to find which way he was going. That automatically meant lack of focus on footsteps and more sighting of horrendous cliff and enormous distance that still laid ahead. I found myself calling out to him, “You’re too fast. Too fast!” And the poor man didn’t know what to do to get slower than he already was. So I decided to stop and wait for Baraka again.

By then I had started to feel dizzy again. My eyes were beginning to close and my entire system wanted to shut down. That’s when I remembered Nadia’s comment: “GO gels saved my life!” I quickly reached into my pocket for my power gel and began to suck on it for dear life. I continued to drink water as I waited for Baraka to catch up.

Climbers were passing me by, and I saw a guide holding on to poles and bending down. A blind man was holding on firmly to his back and he was leading him up to the summit. I immediately remembered the one-legged man. My friends later told me that they did see him on his way back from the summit. He made it there before us.

I was then too tired to contemplate on anything.

The minute I saw Baraka’s red and black gaiters I felt my life coming back to me. I was back into my comfort zone. I looked at him with tears in my eyes and said the most ridiculous thing I believe I ever said to anyone: “Baraka where are you?? I can’t do it without you!”

He pointed to his back and said, “Follow me.” What a pathetic creature, he probably thought.

Yep. Worth it.

There was a lot of scrambling involved. My weakness would sometimes give in to the weight of my backpack and I felt my backpack pulling me down and again sweeping me off balance. Some cliffs were less than a meter away from me, but I simply did not care anymore. This was such an extreme situation to me that all my fears seemed like an imaginary monster in the closet. This pulling force of my backpack was a wake up call. I did everything I could to rest my weight on the correct foot before I took each step up. This was the only way I could stop Baraka’s persistent offers to carry my backpack. I wanted to see how far I could go.

Ian was the only one who seemed to be at relative ease. I guess his desire to film everything for the documentary he was making on our charity climb helped him focus.

Corey was extremely cold he couldn’t bear to stop for long. To keep himself warm he kept talking and moving each time we stopped. In one of the breaks he looked at Baraka and said, “How are you doing Baraka? Just another day in the office, huh?”

Nehal, Sarah, and Nora were mostly silent, they were concentrating on their breathing.

Nora’s crazy heartbeat made her slow down further and separate with another guide. There were times when she said she felt her heart was going to burst out of her chest.

Coucla began to lose coordination and doze off. That worried Baraka, so he kept her immediately behind him and spoke to her to keep her awake. He would interrupt the silence every now and then and call out to each of us by name to make sure that we were awake, drinking water, breathing, and able to carry out a conversation.

I have no clear idea of the temperature as we were climbing, but I know it was a kind of cold I had never witnessed in my life. I covered my mouth and nose with the balaclava to warm up the air that got into my lungs. The minute I would expose my mouth the coughing would begin like mad, so I tried to keep it covered as much as I could.

The incline to Stella Point, which sits at 5756 m, was the steepest incline possible for a climber using only his feet and trekking poles. The terrain was all pebbly and slippery. I placed most of my weight on the poles and it still did not seem to be enough. I had to go even slower with much smaller steps. I was almost crawling. At this point suffering was all I could think of, no matter how much I tried to focus on Baraka’s boots. It was an eternity. I started asking him “How far are we now?” repeatedly. This was the longest, steepest, and coldest phase on our summit climb.

Between Stella Point and Uhuru Peak. One of the many pictures Baraka insisted on taking before I reached the summit.

We were very lucky that the night was not windy. Yet the higher up we went the thinner the air became. We were now going way above the levels we had acclimatized our bodies to. My muscles began to feel weaker with the decreasing oxygen level. I began to lose grip over my mind. I had never pushed my body or my mind to this limit before. Throughout my training I had always endured what I thought was the maximum for me, but all along I was always in control of how far I pushed. I had the buttons. But in the middle of the mountain at 3 am and at an altitude of more than 5500 m I had no control over anything.

Mind over body my ***. My body was now seriously offended.

I did not have the energy to go back either even if I wanted to. My choices were to either push myself to the target or sit to die on the mountain–a rather inconvenient alternative for everyone.

I continued to say my prayers up the mountain, and Nadia’s voice came back to me: “If all else fails, forget the destination. Look at your own boots. Can you take this step? Now can you take the next step?” That mental trick became my last and only fuel; the water had started to freeze and was no longer accessible, and it was more difficult to reach into my pocket and pick up a snack with my mittens on and I did not want to stop for that. Now my brain was too busy focusing on each foot and ordering it to move. Maybe that was still mind over body, but right then it was too much of a luxury for me to conceptualize on what I was doing. I was just pushing that engine up.

To soothe us, Baraka kept pointing to the sky to show us the break of dawn. Each time I looked to see the color of the sky getting lighter I felt warmer and more hopeful. In this trip, sunshine always made hope run through my veins. And sunshine now meant Uhuru Peak was getting closer.

By the time we reached Stella Point daylight had filled us all with joy. Only 139 m further up now, Uhuru Peak began to show in the distance. The slope was now at a lesser incline, but soon those wooden blocks that marked the summit disappeared again, and the hike up to it was physically more challenging than I expected. Up to Stella Point I was struggling with small steps each at a time. Now each step was an enormous effort to me. I had to stop after each single step, rest my weight on my poles, and breathe heavily.

Baraka kept stopping me for pictures to allow me to acclimatize more and to give a chance to some of the others behind to catch up. I began to feel frustrated with these stops. I just wanted to get there and then worry about the pictures later.

And I finally reached the summit!

People keep asking me how I felt when I arrived at the summit. No words can properly describe how I felt, because I had never felt that way before. I simply have no words for it.

And I have no words for the beauty I saw up there. I was standing at the top of Africa, I could see the curvature of the earth, a beautiful line of pink colored the meeting point between the sky and the clouds below me, it was reflected in the white glaciers that surrounded me, and it was -18 ºC.

But my lips were caught in a continuous grin that possibly stayed until I was halfway back down.

I don’t recall how many people I hugged when I arrived at Uhuru Peak. I threw myself in every open arm that came my way. Hug first, find out who later.

I took every picture I could near those wooden blocks. After all the months I had their picture on my phone screen, I could not believe that I was finally holding on to them. Like Nora said, “We held on to them because we still couldn’t believe ourselves, and of course to prove that we’re actually there and that it’s not Photoshop!”

So many of us kept asking on our way up why the summit hike was particularly at night? Why couldn’t we start in the morning and be there at noon? Going back down in the light of day I could see why. The guides spared us despair if we were to see just how steep that slope was. Night limited our vision. We could not see the steepness, and we could not see how far up we still had to go. We just had to worry about our boots.

The journey to the summit took 5 days and it climaxed in the early hours of the 6th. I was learning something new about the mountain, about God, and about myself every hour. No person can truly believe what they are capable of until they are on the edge of survival.

By the time I reached the top I did not feel triumphant. I did not feel that I conquered the mountain. I wasn’t battling with it. I wasn’t challenging it. I was battling with and challenging myself, and the mountain was telling me how to win. I felt blessed to have come this close to Kilimanjaro, to have been allowed to climb it, and to have it teach me a new lesson about myself.

“This climb taught us about our weakness, fragility, and about our strength all at the same time.” I could not have put it better than Nora.

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Day 5: Mind Over Body

At the top of the Barranco Wall. He was a source of inspiration to all of us.

Last night was funny, almost like each night. The tent was on an incline and it was so very cold I kept coughing and spitting so loudly I pitied the rest of the camp, especially in this thin air where sound travels so fast. I decided that the best thing to do to manage the incline was to place my duffle bag at my feet. I kept waking up in the middle of the night trying to find extra layers to put on. Each time I would wake up and look at Nora her head would be in the middle of the tent with lots of space behind her. I tried to look for things inside my bag and felt agitated at the crowded mess that is my things. Why am I so close to the bag? Why is everything all over me? When I looked behind me there was the rest of the empty tent. We kept sliding all night.

Today was a rather short hike compared to all previous times. 3 hours. It was still steep, though. I was breathing quite heavily I almost freaked out the people in front of me, but it was probably because of my continuous cough. This time we all moved as one group and arrived together at Barafu camp – the base camp for the summit – at 4800 m altitude. Now we’re almost completely acclimatized to this altitude. We feel fine.

Barafu camp sits on a very rocky cliff. I went with Nora and Lubna to do our rock formation on a spot we decided would be best because it was a bit isolated and relatively high. It was still foggy and the temperature, although in day time, was probably below zero because of the wind. By the time we struggled with the incline and the temperature and reached our chosen spot I discovered that right underneath us was a bottomless rocky cliff covered in clouds and mist. There was no telling how far down it went. I hesitated for a moment. Standing at the edge of a cliff was always one of my biggest fears. When I stand in a balcony I make sure that I have something high to hold on to for support. Otherwise I feel dizzy, as if some force was pulling me down.

But Nadia and Omar’s voices were still in my head: “What you can’t do is something you can’t do because your mind tells you that you can’t. You have to believe you can.”

I have seen a one legged man at the top of the Barranco wall, and today he is with us in the base camp. I have seen an old woman over 70 laughing and cheering with her peers in this camp and she’s two tents away from mine.

Leaving our rock formation. I can't believe I stood there. PS: My toes were freezing.

I came thus far despite the illness I felt. My body has come to a fine state after struggling with the altitude. In fact, it was doing much better than the ointment tube I borrowed from Marwa. When she gave me the tube I was surprised by how bloated it was. The minute I opened the cap the ointment burst out! That was one so unacclimatized tube.

I’ve seen other cliffs, so why is this one particularly scary? I am on a mountain, aren’t I? And cliffs are what makes a mountain beautifully intimidating.

I don’t know how all these thought processes flipped around my head in less than a minute. I just walked on to the spot we chose and we started picking up the rocks to make our own little tower.

It’s time for me to try to get some rest before dinner. Tonight is the big night. There’s no sleeping after dinner. We will begin our ascent in three groups. I will be with the first group, the slow one, and we will be moving around 10:45 pm. The middle group will follow at 12 am. And the third fast group will start at 1:30 am. We’re hoping that this way all of us can make it to the summit at sunrise.

I couldn’t be happier with my slow pace, it’s what’s keeping me going on this mountain. Why would I be fast on a mountain? I have to savor each moment and take in as much of the experience and beauty that surrounds me as I can. If I want to go fast I’d do it on my treadmill. And besides, I was heading up to the summit with Baraka! What more could I ask for?

I could use some of Baraka’s soothing words of support. We will be climbing to an altitude of 5895 m in the dead of night at -15 ºC. Yikes!!

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Day 4: No Food, No Summit!

With Nora at the top of the Barranco Wall. A view worth all the trouble in the world!

I’m the opposite person today! I woke up feeling so refreshed and energetic, and looking so much forward to some real breakfast this time. I learned my lesson the hard way.

There is the breakfast that I’m supposed to have in order to lead a healthy lifestyle and maintain my shape in busy Cairo life, and there is definitely the breakfast a person is supposed to have in order to  hike up a mountain for 6-10 hours against all odds of weather and altitude. So the things I ate for breakfast on that day I would never have thought I would ever eat first thing in the morning. I had sausage, sausage, and lots of sausage. I had beef bacon. I had eggs and white toast with peanut butter and strawberry jam.

This time I took our cooks’ threat more seriously than ever. Everyday at dining time they would put huge portions in our plates and whenever we tried to object they would say “No food, no summit!”

I walked out of the breakfast tent feeling empowered. I had my weapons this time! I couldn’t be more ready for our second acclimatization hike. So I burst out of the camp and wanted to hit the road, but ever so wise Baraka would not let me continue on that pace. He insisted that I stay behind him and follow his slow, small steps. “What you’re feeling is very nice, but after 30 minutes you could crash again. Keep this pace to keep the feeling,” he said.

Our hike today was up the Barranco Wall, at 4600 m altitude. And yes it is a wall; you have to scramble your way up on the rocks. We were to then hike back down to Karanga Hut at 3930 m and spend the night. The altitude numbers are similar to those of yesterday, but this time at steeper terrain. It was an excellent way to acclimatize our bodies to the altitude with a variety of terrain over two days.

Baraka was exceptional with his detailed instructions. I was taking a full course on how to find the right spot in the rock to hold on to and where to place my feet. I was calculating my every step with care and making decisions with each step up.

Scrambling up the Barranco Wall. I slipped after that shot was taken, but never mind the price as long as I end up looking like an expert. I hope I did!

As we went higher each new rock became a bigger challenge. It was like solving puzzles that kept advancing as I progressed. That’s what I love the most about the mountains. They are a metaphor for life and its challenges as we grow older. Each new rock is a new bigger challenge you have to face. You have to get over it with careful consideration and calculation of your steps. Where you place your feet, when and where to rest your weight, and which part of the rock you choose as your support could mean either your road to the top or your painful, sometimes lethal, fall.

Scrambling is always my favorite part up any mountain. I gave my camera to Ian to take a picture of me and he decided to do it at the highest, most difficult rock thus far. Baraka tried to offer me his hand but I confidently refused. My picture was being taken. “I want to look like an expert!“ I said. After the shot my feet slipped and the weight of my backpack pulled me back so I almost lost balance. That’s what happens when you lose your focus. So I had to give in to Baraka’s hand. He rolled his eyes and said “Of course! You weren’t concentrating. All you were thinking of was that photo because you wanted to ‘look like an expert!’”

But he still sensed my special interest in the rocks, so he decided to take me on a more challenging route usually taken by the porters because it’s shorter. The rocks were so much bigger and more complicated. I listened obediently to his instructions this time and I was absolutely euphoric when I reached the top of the wall, and with my heavy backpack.

I’m feeling a mild lack of appetite now, which I hear is normal on altitudes. I should always force myself to eat. My problem at the dinner tonight was that I felt so full yet I couldn’t tell if it was the altitude or simply that I really was full! I just kept shoving the food down my throat as much as I could. The cooks were eyeing me and repeating their threats. “No food, no summit!” Yeah yeah… Keep chewing on those potatoes rolling in your mouth girl. You need to make it to the top, so take it from the experts!

Hoping for a nice relaxed day tomorrow. It will be our last before the summit hike.

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Day 3: #WTF??!!@$%#

Uhuru Peak at night (Photo by Amr Marei)

I don’t normally use foul language, so please forgive me this time.

Today the altitude took its first toll on me. I can’t begin to explain how demotivating that can be, even though I know that all the symptoms I’m facing are still within normal range.

We were supposed to begin our acclimatization hikes today. Today’s hike was from Shira camp, 3800 m, to Lava Tower at 4600 m, where we were to have lunch, and then hike down to Barranco camp at 3950 m to spend the night. This was our first serious test of endurance in thin air. The only positive thing about it was that it was not steep and the terrain was not very challenging. It was our first entrance into the Alpine Desert.

I was aware of the challenge that lay ahead in that hike but I did not fully grasp what it would mean to me. It was like how we see people dying yet feel so distant from it, like it only happens to others. So on that morning I decided that I was a light person and hence had to begin the hike feeling light. I looked around at the breakfast table and I saw sausages, beef bacon, eggs… I thought to myself, “Oh my God! How can these people hike after eating all that fatty food? No way. I’m having my porridge.” So I took some porridge, added a bit of honey, and a single piece of bread just to fulfill my carb intake requirement. I felt so proud and satisfied with this breakfast and on I went to begin the climb.

I immediately put on the Pole Pole act. I began crawling out of the camp and intended to crawl all the way up to Lava Tower. But that wasn’t enough. As we progressed I began to feel lightheaded. I began to sense some pressure over my eyes that kept getting stronger. I felt as if my eyes were bulging and I expected them to pop out any minute. I kept taking as deep breaths as the altitude would allow me, but soon that lightheaded sensation gave way to dizziness and drowsiness.

Dead woman walking. With a smile.

I recalled all the tips I had taken from Nadia and Omar Samra, our expedition leader, about “quietening” my mind. So the minute it started threatening me with altitude fatality (yes, that’s how dramatic my mind can get) I decided that it must be the sun. We were going higher up under the sun’s burning UV rays, so that’s what was happening. I just needed to tighten my hat around my head a bit more and shed some layers.

It still didn’t work.

I was on the verge of a total crash so I had to shout out for a break. I was lucky to have Baraka and Joseph, two leader guides, with me. “How are you feeling?” asked me Joseph. “I feel dizzy and tired. It must be the strong sun.”

“I would say it’s the altitude,” he replied.

Thank you Joseph. That was very helpful.

I reached into my backpack and, to my miserable surprise, could not find any of the power gels I had brought with me. It was my travel-light-and-feel-light crap day.

I kept drinking water and chewing on some chocolate and resumed the hike.

Soon my dizziness turned into imagery. I started seeing people talking who weren’t even there. It was like a semi-conscious experience. So my body decided to put on a denial act and fall asleep. There were times when I didn’t know if it was my body or me, but I tried to grab the opportunity that the guides weren’t looking and close my eyes and pretend that I was in my bed in Cairo, fast asleep. It was the only technique that relieved some of the misery I was in.

And remember my theory that dry weather would relieve my cough? Not true. My cough became wilder than ever that Ian told me he could hear it almost a mile away. The spitting got more intense and much thicker that I simply decided not to use up all of my tissues on it. So I started spitting on the ground like an annoying cab driver in Cairo. Spit was, after all, organic material that could be left on the mountain. So sorry Kili, but it was a question of survival for me. I either spat on the ground, saved up tissue for my bathroom needs, and breathed my way up Kilimanjaro, or packed my things and went home to sip soup, watch TV and run away from it all. So I preferred the first option.

Yet as the hike continued to what seemed like an eternity my muscles started to feel weaker. I began to pant at the normal step so I had to break it down further.

Ian and Coucla in the mist. Only visible with the camera's flashlight.

Diamox began to realize that it had more work to do, so I was answering nature’s call almost behind every rock I ran into. I shamelessly announced it to my climbing buddies and threatened them not to come near my rock, all the while trying to deal with the mess I put myself in as an inexperienced outdoor pooper with diarrhea, while the guide patiently waited in the distance.

By the time we went down to Barranco camp at the end of the hike, I was greeted by a beautiful cloud of mist and, once again, trees. But I felt like all my defensors were shutting down. I went into my tent and tried to pick up some clothes from my bag, but my head was throbbing and my hand was too weak to reach into the bag. I was looking at the clothes unable to identify any of the items. All it took was for Joseph to come to my tent and ask me if I was alright. I broke down into hysterical sobs. It suddenly hit me that I might not actually make it to the summit. I reached out with my finger to him the way a 5 year-old shows his mother a finger cut and asked him to check my pulse and oxygen. My oxygen level was 95, still way above the dangerous 70 mark, and my heart rate was 85, still good at this altitude.

“So why are you crying?” he asked. I think I just needed a shoulder to cry on.

Right now I’m writing this at 11:45 PM. The thick fog that blurred vision in the camp has subsided, and Uhuru Peak, that beautiful monstrous summit of Kilimanjaro is looming before me with its glaciers. The stars are so low I can almost touch them, and the walls of the mountain are so high, so black, and they’re engulfing the camp like it was giving us a warm, rewarding hug after an unforgettable, curse-evoking 10 hour hike.

Despite all of the sickness I felt, I was consoled by the scenery. We were going higher above the clouds and slowly rising to Mount Meru’s summit level. I felt like I was going through a mind and body cleansing experience. I began to fall in love even more with the mountain. I loved every sensation of altitude that put me on the verge of a black out. I loved the unspoken conversation between me and the mountain as I began to feel tired yet so excited to reach my destination as it began to appear in the distance. I felt humbled by the difficulty I was facing and so touched when the weather starts turning in my favor. I loved Kilimanjaro, and something told me that as it watched me get sick and still want to make it, it began to love me too.

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Day 2: Your God is Mine

Getting into the portable bathroom tent. Sheer joy!

Our first stop was Machame camp, at 3000 m altitude. Upon arrival there I had already switched on my outdoor mode. I had been preparing myself to outdoor life and teaching myself mechanisms of coping with outdoor living. The minute I arrived in the camp I needed to go to the bathroom so I was ready to go find myself a nice tree somewhere. My friend Nadia had blogged about her own Kilimanjaro experience and said that the toilets were absolutely impossible. I looked around and there were tents everywhere. Puzzled, I decided to speak to the head guide and ask him, maybe he knew a popular spot. He was puzzled himself and pointed towards a little blue tent and said, “That’s your portable toilet!” I could not believe my happiness when I actually found a place I could zip myself into and enjoy a decent seating. These portable toilets became my best friends throughout the trip.

I shared my tent with my friend Nora. It was so cold when we arrived that we decided the best technique was to stick our sleeping bags together so we’d be using each other’s body warmth. The tents were very small but not too small for two people. There was no such thing as standing up in there, and no such thing as getting in or out on two feet no matter how much you bend. You had to go down on your knees and crawl in and out on all four. And to avoid dust getting into your hands on your way out, it was always best to get out backwards, a technique we called “The Butt Exit.”

The terrain was very dusty. Within one hour of our arrival dust and dirt had accumulated around our nails, my nose blowing and spitting became more intense, and the snotty tissues, which became a natural extension to my pockets, all had a blackish substance inside. My first lessons of harsh living were already beginning.

What a Night!

Inside the tent

Going by the book, altitude sickness was expected to start showing, if at all, at 3000 m altitude. I was especially conscious of my bodily functions. I was aware that my breathing was becoming more rapid, especially at night, and the cold began to kick in from all directions into the tent. I curled up further into my sleeping bag and zipped it as tightly as I could and managed to sleep a little until I woke up to loud screams and a scary sound of suffocation from a tent nearby. One of the climbers was throwing up violently and I could hear voices of people trying to soothe her and talk her into taking deep breaths. I immediately panicked and could just picture her being evacuated on a stretcher. I decided that that was how bad altitude can suddenly attack a person. I got quickly into my jacket and wrapped something around my head and barged out of the tent. I ran to her tent and found three of the men climbers standing outside and they told me to go in. On all four once again, I crawled inside but had to remain halfway out of the tent. Just then I realized that I was in my thermal underwear, but what the heck! I was saving someone’s life! I ended up doing nothing of course but repeating more of the same: take a deep breath, Lubna, you’ll be alright!

Lubna had food poisoning from the fish she ate the night before at the hotel. So the mountain had nothing to do with it. But right then I became so fearful of the adventure ahead. I went back to my tent and it took at least 2 hours for me to warm my body again and go back to sleep. All along I kept trying to soothe myself by trying to gather all the respect I ever gave to anyone and offer it to Kilimanjaro. I whispered to it softly in my mummy bag before I closed my eyes, “Your God is mine.”

And What a Day!

Shira camp. My view as I write.

Right now I’m sitting under a tree in Shira camp at an altitude of 3800 m. I see the Mount Meru summit floating in from of me on a sea of clouds. I feel so blessed by the beauty that surrounds me. Today I made my way into the clouds and above them until I began to see nothing underneath but pure white. I came so closely to appreciate outdoor life and how it has the magical capacity to bring people together. We’re beginning to bond as a team and I can feel the bond getting stronger with time. In today’s hike the group was mostly together, all 26 climbers. We hiked on the steepest incline – so far – continuously for four hours, rested for lunch, and then resumed for another two hours. I was coughing and spitting my way throughout the hike, but I was entertained by the group singing Stand By Me almost throughout the climb.

I don’t know what excitement took me over when the song began to rise from all directions. I brought out my camera and decided to film the singing. That’s when Baraka, the guide, spoke to me firmly, “Concentrate!” I looked in front of my and there was a massive rock that required my hands as well.

Baraka was in my view the most professional guide in the team. Hiking behind him I did not feel like I was just being shown the way up the mountain. I was in fact taking a full course on how to make it through. He gave me detailed instructions on how to find my steps up rocks as if creating my own stairs to climb, how to feel the rock for the right spot to put my hands and rest my weight as I went up, and all the time insisting on a slow pace, no matter how energized I felt.

Because I followed Baraka’s instructions I was able to enjoy the hike to the fullest. I did not feel tired despite the fact that my backpack was considerably heavy, I did not get dizzy as I looked around and behind me to take in as much of the scenery as I could, and my breathing was quite deep and steady despite all the coughing.

I really enjoyed everything today. I’m coughing like mad right now and I have a pile of tissue full of dusty spit next to me, but the sunset behind the clouds that I’m looking at and the pretty birds on my left that are keeping me company tell me that it was and will continue to be all worth it.

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Day 1: Karibo Tanzania

On our first night in the hotel we were briefed on what to expect during the climb and we were given tips on dealing with altitude.

We were to spend our first night in Arusha to recover from the long flight and begin our climb the following morning. On that first night I began to take Diamox, a drug meant to decrease or prevent the symptoms of altitude sickness. It intensifies kidney functions and causes the heart to beat faster than normal, hence allowing more oxygen intake by the blood cells.

Diamox Says Hi

A natural result of such effects is frequent urination. Now that is not good news for someone like me who suffers from FPO (Fear of Peeing Outdoors) syndrome who was embarking on a week expedition on a mountain.

I had also chosen not to take the Malaria pills since there’s normally no mosquitos to worry about at high altitude. So with my recently intensified cough, I spent the first night in the hotel coughing, spitting, and going to the bathroom. My mind decided to unleash itself and began to wander off with intensifying speed. “Why did I take a full tablet? Maybe I should have taken only half and another half in the morning.” “Did I fully spray myself with the mosquito repellent?” ”I can’t breath with that darn repellent so close to my nose!” “Is the mosquito net covering all of my bed?” “Wait a minute! What is that cold feeling in my leg? Is my leg out of the mosquito net??” “Perfect. Just perfect. Now I have a week of climbing to do and the only decent chance for rest is slipping away from me. Now I’m going up that mountain tired, sick, and with a constantly full bladder.”

I’m not sure if it was excitement or the little chances I had to dose off every couple of hours that made me feel so energized the next morning. I packed my things again and off we went to the mountain.

It was especially hard to see the mountain near the end of our two-hour drive to Machame Gate, which sat on 1800 m altitude and marked the beginning of the Machame route. The sky was overcast and the clouds were very low. I could not wait to get above them because I knew that the drier the weather got the better my cough would get.

Machame to the Rescue

Remembering to drink water. Always.

Machame is one of the most popular routes up Kilimanjaro. It is one of the longest, and it allows for acclimatization of the body to the increasing altitude. Although it is normally classified as medium to difficult in terms of terrain intensity, it had a very welcoming start for us just past the gate. It was a nice stroll in the forest with flat ground and hardly any steepness. Compared to the terrain I’d previously had to endure in St. Katherine’s, the highest peak in Egypt with 2600 m altitude, Machame seemed to be a stroll in the park. The excitement made me take long strides and many times ignore what the guides were telling us about taking it slow. Pole pole.

Our first hike was bound to Machame Hut at 3000 m altitude. As 26 climbers, we ended up with more than 20 guides and around 80 porters. We were an army moving up the mountain, but the atmosphere was very welcoming. Everyone seemed to get along quite well with everyone else, and the guides introduced themselves to us one by one with warm smiles and kind eyes beaming with hospitality. Whenever the group would split because of a difference in pace there would always be at least one guide with each group. No one was left alone on the mountain. Ever. I was constantly treated into words of encouragement and support. “Find your pace and keep it,” they would say. “Are you drinking enough water?” And of course, “Pole pole!”

Almost each porter that would pass us by, whether or not he’s in our group, he would always greet us with the famous “Jambo!” of East Africa. Many times it was even followed with “Karibo Tanzania,” which I assumed meant “Welcome to Tanzania.”

Coming from ever so concrete Cairo, this hike was a delicious treat to my senses. My eyes were no longer looking at incoherent blocks of cement that always gave me a sense of claustrophobia. I was looking at endless fields of green, smelling the fresh mist that carried the scent of the trees, and listening to an overwhelming variety sounds of birds that were busy conversing along the way.

It must have been the relaxing atmosphere that allowed me to answer the call of nature with so much ease! I went with three of my co-climbers into the woods and found myself passing on to them all the instructions I got from my expert friend Nadia on how to avoid sprinkling as much as you can. I found the right spot for the job and I was even surprised at my own fluency in the act that I began to feel more optimistic about the coming week. When you gotta go you gotta go no matter where or how. So you end up dealing with it. And what would be better than to do it in the middle of a forest to the tune of singing birds?

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A Beautiful Monster

Kilimanjaro summit from the plane window. The full mass of what appeared from the mountain was impossible to see through just one window.

The flight to Nairobi was a long one so rich with Egyptian stewardess’ “hosbitality”: “Would dju like tchea?”, “I am sorry za blankets are finished.” My excitement still overrode everything because all I could ever think of was the fact that it was finally happening. All those months of anticipation and training are about to be put to the test.

After a long wait in Nairobi airport waiting for the connecting flight to Arusha, the sun was already out as we began to board the little Precision Air plane. I didn’t know then that sunrise would continue to be my sign of hope throughout the week. It meant I was getting closer to my target.

The plane was so small and almost everyone on it seemed to be set to climb Kilimanjaro. My backpack was so wide because of the foaming mat and the inflating mat that I had to walk sideways along the aisle. I definitely did not look like someone traveling light. I ended up seeking help from a cool looking British climber who himself had great trouble putting my bag in the compartment at the top of the seat. I immediately began to feel self-conscious.

But as the plane took off I sat with so much excitement looking out the window with my bag sitting on the ground in front of the empty seat next to me. I could not hide my ongoing grin as I kept looking out the window. A thick condense layer of clouds was underneath us, but I knew I would still be able to see the top of Kilimanjaro. It did end above the clouds, didn’t it? It was a high mountain.

Soon a nice majestic dark summit began to appear piercing the clouds. I stared at it but quickly decided that it was probably too pointed to be Kilimanjaro’s summit. It was rather short above those clouds too. Then soon a much larger one appeared. I almost jumped with excitement and I really wanted to ask everyone on the plane if that was Kilimanjaro, but I hesitated because I didn’t want to ruin all the composure I tried to build after the backpack scene. I had to look like a cool climber so familiar with the mountain and was just going there for the 6th time for fun. But the minute the flight attendant showed up I had to stop him and ask him if that was Kilimanjaro. “No madam. Kilimanjaro is going to be on the other side,” he decently replied.

Soon after that I discovered that none of the climbers around me required all the composure I was trying to hold on to. Everyone suddenly shifted like mad to the windows on the other side and kept staring out there with disbelief.

There it was.

It took me a few minutes of staring out the window with a blank mind for me to realize that my mouth was actually wide open. I could not take my eyes off it. It was a monster. So high with its glaciers it seemed to be all on top of the clouds, floating with such ease. The clouds were like loyal servants surrounding it and caressing its edges. This was a mountain I could not take lightly. It was the most beautiful monster I had ever seen.

I was humbled. I felt so small. So weak. And I was in so much awe and love I immediately felt hooked to Kilimanjaro for life. I was finally there face to face with one of the seven summits and the highest free standing mountain in the world.

I was scared.

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