Posts Tagged mountain
It took me two hours of shivering with everything on to get my body warm enough to sleep last night. I began to get into grips with the feeling that this was no longer an enjoyable experience. Either it was colder than my capacity or I was way weaker than I used to be. At times there is an unspoken joy in the suffering, one that lies in knowing that it is all for the sake of the place and the experience, but last night my continuous panting, coughing, and nose blowing felt like pointless torture. I missed my home, my bed, my mom, my cat. All I wanted was to be go back home. And to top it all, I had reached a part in Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air book where he began to explain in detail the suffering some of his climbing partners went through minutes before they died. “Get me out of this place!” I shrieked, and I miserably cried myself to sleep.
I woke up at 5 am and jumped quickly out of bed in panic; it was 30 minutes past the time I had set on my alarm and I had to get ready to the biggest day so far. We were going to summit Kala Patthar, which rises to 5545m above sea level. Kala Patthar was our acclimatization attempt for Island Peak, and it was our closest point to Everest. The view of Everest, we were told, was actually better from the summit of Kala Patthar than from the Everest Base Camp. It was going to be a long day and there was no time for breakfast before our departure. I rushed out of my room and found everyone already on their feet waiting for me, so there was no chance for coffee. I tried to say good morning but no voice came out.
I went first in line on the trek. The day was already starting to break in and that gave me a renewed sense of energy. Our incline was so gradual that once again I was tempted to go faster than usual; I did not feel any need to slow down since the terrain almost felt flat, or perhaps I was subconsciously making up for coming out of my room later than everyone. As any experienced trekker would guess, however, I soon began to pant. We were gaining altitude and that meant that we were entering a domain where a small movement of getting up from a chair or walking briskly to a nearby table could leave a person short of breath. I discovered that the fast pace I began with was not a good idea. Soon that visual blur I had begun to feel in my left eye the night before was getting bigger. I started to feel as if a heavy force was pushing me back and down to the ground. Once again, my feet began to twist as I walked like a drunken and my hands felt heavy on the poles. I was pressing the poles noticeably, shaking them as they hit the ground. I felt like an old woman struggling to reach her bed for the last time in her life.
All I could think about at that moment was how each time I thought I was going through the misery day of the trip another day would prove me wrong. It was a misery phase and I wasn’t sure when it would end. I wasn’t suffering from altitude problems; it felt more like an altitude challenge that was shaking me on the inside. It felt as if my lack of confidence over my endurance this time was somehow read by an evil spirit that dwelled on these mountains. It smelled my weakness and began to hit me where it hurt the most. For the first time I began to grasp the true fear of the mountains: It was the fear of the known rather than the unknown. It was the natural, legitimate fear that any human, even the best of climbers, could have.
My fear generated anger at myself. I could no longer take Karma’s reassuring smiles at me. Everything was so blurry that I imagined him telling me “See the price your slacking makes you pay?” In my mind everything had a negative meaning.
Unlike Kilimanjaro’s Machame route, the trek along the Khumbu Valley in Nepal is two ways back and forth. Trekkers exchange greetings as they meet along the way. I loathed each trekker that seemed so relaxed and happy on his or her way back down, smiling and greeting me and expecting an equally cheerful reaction. I don’t believe any of them heard my breathless ‘hello’.
By the time we reached Gorakshep my eyes felt like they were going to explode. I was in no shape to engage in any conversation no matter how minimal. I dropped my backpack and my poles and sat down, rested my face on my palms and waited for breakfast. When Omar looked at me and asked how I was feeling I had already been fighting back my tears, but I lost the battle and couldn’t speak. I gestured with my hand that I was finished and my tears burst out. I was embarrassed and upset. He began to suggest alternatives. Hani was going to split with us from Gorakshep to go to Everest Base Camp while we were to continue to Kala Patthar, so Omar suggested I go with Hani to Everest BC instead. I immediately refused. To me, any reformulation of the route because of my mere weakness signaled defeat, and I wasn’t sure I could take that yet. “I just need to have my break-down moment,” I told him, and then it was time to eat.
Like magic, I began to feel life running through my veins again after I ate, and my determination to reach Kala Patthar and get as close as I could to Everest was renewed. We began our further push from 5100 to 5545m. Omar went first in line and I was immediately behind him. Because of his long legs, his steps were more like strides, which had kept him at a considerable distance from us most of the time, allowing him to stop many times to take pictures while he waited for us to catch up. I was focusing on his boots with my every step, expecting them to start disappearing, but after about an hour I was surprised to realize that I was still behind the same boots, and I wasn’t tired.
As silent and seemingly aloof to those who don’t know him, Omar was a doer more than a talker. His positive vibes still spread out to all of us and I could tell that he genuinely cared about his clients. His steps were as small and as slow as mine. He wanted me to get to the top and he was taking me there. It was almost like we all needed that pace so the order of the line did not change; we continued behind him like ducklings following their mother, making the same turns at the same angles.
Kala Patthar is strategically located in the middle of a valley, surrounded by enormous peaks. It is a thin slope that rises to a sharp cliff. On the last few meters we had to leave our backpacks and poles and crawl up to the cliff against a sweeping wind. I was holding on to each rock and I could feel my entire body being pushed around from all directions. At the final point the space was barely enough for the three of us, and we had to remain seated. I looked to my left and my jaw dropped. There was Everest, or Sagarmatha, standing magnificently next to its 8500m neighbor, Lhotse. The colorful Buddhist flags placed on Kala Patthar were ruffling strongly in the direction of the two magnificent peaks, sending out prayers and blessings to the Goddess of the Sky, which seemed to be barred from us by Lhotse, its guardian.
Trying to take as deep breaths as the altitude would allow me, I could not take my eyes off the mountain as the history I was reading about in my book spread before me, represented by mere names repeating themselves in my mind: Chomolungma, Deva-Dhunga, Sagarmatha… Seated at the border between Nepal and Tibet, Sagarmatha had always had two local names, one Tibetan, Chomolungma, meaning Mother of the World, and one Nepalese, Deva-Dhunga, meaning The Seat of God. Sagarmatha was the name attributed to the great mountain in 1960 during a border dispute between Nepal and Tibet. Each name sounded and felt stronger than the other, because they were names attributed to the mountain by its own people, who sensed the true spirit of the place and were one with it. Everest, on the other hand, was a name given to the mountain by the surveyor general of India, Sir Andrew Waugh, who gave it in honor of his predecessor Sir George Everest – despite the latter’s objection – when he was told that the highest peak in the world was discovered by a Bengali, Radhanath Sikhdar! This was in contradiction to the official policy back then to maintain the local names of the mountains.
For that reason Everest, the name, to me means nothing.
It was as if I had reached the point of salvation as I sat at that peak and drew in deep breaths. The sound of the ruffling flags calmed me down and I felt like I was being abundantly rewarded by divine company. I went through a long, draining journey that began in a run-down Alexandria airport just to get to be that close to Sagarmatha, to take pictures of it, and with it. I was happy again. And I had the lungs of a horse! So I paced down afterwards and began to spread out my smiles at the trekkers who were yet to reach the top. I was, for the first time, the one who received all the loathing by breathless trekkers still struggling to reach the top.
It felt so damn good!
Another boring day in Kathmandu airport. This time I decided to explore boundaries and see outside the waiting hall. I followed a barely recognizable stairway and found myself in a small restaurant overlooking the hall through glass. There were couches, but not a single one of them was empty. I felt my joints tremble longingly each time I looked at them, so I decided to turn around, sit on the dining table and order some food.
Soon I found another mysterious stairway leading to an upper floor. On my way towards it I ran into a closed door with a sign that read “Information Public Announcement Office” with a small window. I peered through and there she was! Annoyingly loud and repetitive announcement lady who defeated the whole purpose of getting people’s attention by repeating each announcement 5 to 7 times, making us all resort to blocking our brains to the noise in defense of our sanity.
I was seeing her in action as she spoke, “Agni Air is pleased to announce the delay of flight number 102, 103, 104, 115, … heading to Lukla. Due to the bad weather in Lukla!” She seemed tired, she had her head rested on one hand while she gestured in midair with the other. I spoke to her in silence, “Lady, we are all tired. Why do you have to make it so hard on yourself by repeating it too many times? And why on this planet are you ‘pleased’ to announce the delay??” To those downstairs in the hall, her pleasure never seemed to cease. People would stick around for 6 or 7 hours listening to how pleased she was at the delay of their flights until they’d hear the verdict announcement: “Yara Air is pleased to announce the cancellation of flight number 113, 114, 115, 116, heading to Lukla. Due to the [&%$@] bad weather in Lukla!” How many of them would know she was just as tired as they were?
I turned around in despair and went up the stairs to the roof of the airport. I was so bored I began to suggest to Amr and Hany, the remaining trekkers in our group who still had hope they would go on the original trekking plan, to join me in a jumping game I was so passionate about when I was a kid.
“That’s a girls’ game, Arwa,” said Hany.
Oops! There goes my first girlish mistake in the pan-man company I was in. From the look on their faces I felt like I was asking them to wear tutus and dance with me.
Time went on on the roof. I was beginning to contemplate alternative options Omar had begun to suggest to us for the trip. My dream of going to Island Peak was withering away. I began to look forward to another lower peak where we could still learn about technical climbing. I had been lobbying for the idea and trying to convince Amr that he doesn’t have to go higher than Kilimanjaro specifically on this trip when suddenly Omar showed up and called for us to follow him. As we went back into the hall a miracle was unfolding before us. Most of the people were moving towards the gate and announcement lady was now pleased to announce the “departure” of our flight to Lukla!
Sagarmatha had finally approved of our entrance.
It took four days of waiting, thinking, inventing options and examining alternatives to be able to finally reach Lukla, which marks the beginning of the Khumbu route to Sagarmatha, or Mt. Everest. All I had wanted was to look at that mountain, to breathe in the air that surrounded it, to see its people, the Sherpa whose sharp features had been shaped by its majestic edges.
My mind was overwhelmed with awe at the Himalayas and everything that they stood for. It was like seeking permission to see an unreachable throne surrounded by a mighty fortress. My friends and I would always say that to summit a mountain you need permission from the mountain to climb it.
On that day I discovered that I needed permission from Mt. Everest just to see it.
We boarded a little noisy plane with one seat row on each side. I was looking out the window at an enormous landscape of mountains reaching up to the clouds. As we got higher I began to stare at the clouds and expect to see snowy summits penetrating them. Nothing was showing. I realized then that I was looking through the wrong angle.
Way in the distance, so many feet above the clouds, there were the sharp, aggressively beautiful high summits of the Himalaya with all their cliffs and edges. They appeared to be rising above every mountain there is, like royalty looming in the horizon with the most beautiful shades of white I had ever seen. I felt a wave of bliss run through my veins. I was approaching one of God’s most sacredly beautiful places. I was accepted. I was entering the Sagarmatha domain.
With around 100 m of space for our plane to land, we reached Lukla’s suicidal runway which sits on a mountainous cliff rising to 2860 m above sea level, and immediately began our trek to Phakding, our first stop for the night.
I could barely recognize myself on this trek. This was not the body or mind that climbed Kilimanjaro two months before. My body was slightly overweight with dormant muscles. My mind convinced me to carry a ridiculously heavy backpack and forget the poles, and I was faced with an almost continuously downhill, steep, and muddy trek–my ultimate nightmare.
Yet the further we went down the route the more excited I became for how different everything seemed to be from Kilimanjaro. I was really getting a brand new experience. There were villages everywhere we went, Sherpa going about their daily lives, yaks carrying loads and wearing bells to alert us to make way for them, and a continuous, soothing river that had a mysterious shade of light blue we never managed to fathom.
Hellos and namastes were in the air as we kept running into people coming from the opposite direction. Trekkers, guides, and villagers alike seemed to always be fresh and happy. I tried hard to focus on the atmosphere around and quiet the nervous, unconfident, and worried voice inside me that was already beginning to complain from aching knees and an uncomfortable back. I was in the footsteps of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay as they began their long journey up Sagarmatha, and that was all that should matter then.
That amazing sound of water coming from the river is right outside the window as I write. It feels like a constant attempt of nature to soothe me. But here is what I’m thinking: If there is any test to the mind over body theory, I think that this journey is it. I have no body to bet on this time. It’s all up in my head, and those tyrannically negative thoughts really need to stop.
Ok. Take 2. I have the duffle bag half open, I have my toothpaste and toothbrush lying next to it, it’s 11:30 PM and I’m a few pounds heavier. I am packing this time to go to the Himalayas. This is the journey to go meet the Big One. I will be climbing with a group of 7 people I don’t know to Everest base camp at 5300 m altitude, I will be greeting Mount Everest, and I will begin my first technical climb up Island Peak to 6180 m. In snow.
Let’s see … About a month ago I went on an Amazon shopping spree and I bought five mountaineering books ranging from guides to true stories of horrors and successes. The books arrived when I was on a trip to Dubai and when I came back the box remained unopened for three days. I have the books lying in front of me on the desk but I’m too hesitant to read any. I have not been doing any physical training for this trip. I have not looked up any information on Nepal except an hour ago to check out the weather.
I short, I’m freaking out. And when I freak out I go on denial.
My body weight and shape have definitely changed. I’m not sure how comfortable my clothes will be this time around. I’m not sure how my heavy backpack is going to feel on my back. I’m not sure if I can still carry the weight and continue to endure at a high altitude, let alone start my first climb in snow. My brain keeps telling me to drink a lot of coffee in the morning and eat a lot of junk at night. I stare at the TV for hours, hating, loathing the acting and the cheap plots. I have a jammed state of mind with loops endlessly swirling around my head.
I’m still moving on with the plan, though. If Kilimanjaro was about quieting my mind then hello?? I think my mind now needs to shut up!
There still is one thing different about me this time. I have learned my bitter lesson and got myself a lot of dry sacs to categorize my things. Now I have a sac for pants, a sac for tops, a sac for socks, etc. And I love the you-can’t-beat-and-drown-me-this-time feeling I have towards my things! I now look at my bag with command and superiority.
To be fair to myself, it hasn’t really been that long since Kilimanjaro. It’s been only two months. That’s not enough time for my muscles to completely fall out of tone. Maybe go to sleep a little, but not reverse. Muscle memory will hopefully make my body pick up where it stopped.
I made the decision to fly to Nepal in one minute. I read the announcement about the trip and something inside me began to boil. My adrenalin started to pump in seconds. I knew I wouldn’t be alright if I stayed and slackened in Cairo for too long after Kilimanjaro. The longer I do that the worse my mood becomes. And if the motivation for working out is behind me I feel depressed. More and more of the TV mode I’m currently in is only further proof that I need to get on a mountain as soon as possible.
So I guess I took my decision back then to save myself from today. I’m glad I made that decision. I need to throw myself at another mountain. I need to count my steps and look at my boots. I need to wash my ears with the silence and my eyes with the whiteness of the snow. I need to feel and hear my every breath. I need to be free again.
By Salma Beshr
Kilimanjaro…what a beautiful mountain! Not that I’ve climbed it or gone anywhere near climbing it. Apparently I’ve seen it, or so my parents tell me, somewhere between the ages of 0 and 3, when we were living in Uganda, where I was born, but I can’t really say it’s etched in my memory or that I have any recollection of its majestic beauty. Maybe they tried to point it out to me: “Salma, look at the mountain!” “Where?” “That big big thing over there, see?” “Wheeere?” Or something like that.
That doesn’t mean I don’t feel a connection to it. I’ve seen pictures of it, of course, and heard stories about it over the years. I think, more than anything, the word Kilimanjaro was part of my vocabulary from an early age, so of course that special bond was created long long ago. It’s my mountain. I was born near it. I could say the word ‘Kilimanjaro’ at the age of 3, whereas other children couldn’t. So it’s MY mountain. I dare anyone out there to tell me it isn’t!
Having said all that, that doesn’t mean I’ve been thinking about it constantly or that a beautiful picture of it has long been the wallpaper on my screen or anything like that. Far from it. It lay way at the back of my memory until talk about it resurfaced a year or so ago when Nadia El Awady, back then only a close friend of Arwa’s to me, climbed to the top. I admit that when I first heard about her accomplishment, my initial reaction was: ”but that’s my mountain!” Again it lay dormant for another year after this event, then it became a hot topic in our extended household when Arwa announced she was going to attempt the same feat herself. All the details of the preparation for it, the expedition itself, and her final triumphant return with 25 other climbers has given our often dull gatherings a much-needed boost.
Her pictures, her videos, but more than anything her vastly entertaining account of the arduous climb to the top, no detail spared (thank you very much) have succeeded in firing our imaginations and in leading us to believe that if she – this relatively normal member of our family who is addicted to pizza and crazy about her cat - could do it, then maybe we could too. Certainly, what inspired me the most was the romanticism of it all: you suffer, you have doubts, you think of quitting the whole thing, but eventually, out of sheer determination and will power, you make it to the summit and stand way above the clouds; literally on top of the world. So much so, I even wrote her a poem about it.
So much so, I let her talk me into a preliminary expedition, to test the grounds, so to speak and to discover if I truly had it in me, which she utterly believed everyone did. She was so convincing that I agreed to go with her to Sinai to climb Mount St. Catherine, the highest summit in Egypt which stands a mere 2624 meters high compared to Kilimanjaro’s 5895. A glorified molehill, a walk in the park, how could I not go?
And so much so, that my well-known fear of heights became a tiny, insignificant detail.
Over the years, my parents, then my husband and even my children have taken delight in regaling stories of me standing with quivering knees and eyes closed at the top of such buildings as the World Trade Center in New York (before 9/11), the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the top of St. Peter’s Cupola in Rome, and the bridge between the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur. The whole point of standing in a long queue and taking a speeding elevator or an endless flight of winding stairs to reach the top has been one and the same in all of these buildings: to enjoy the breathtaking view of the city from the top. In none of these buildings have I had the courage to face the view, let alone enjoy it. While other tourists, including my own children, would be oohing and aahing and taking shots with their cameras dangerously near the edge, I would be the one with my back to the view, my face firmly to the wall.
But mountains are different, I thought to myself. There isn’t the same steepness you have in a building or the fear that this tall, thin, man-made structure might snap into two. Mountains have been around for ages, they are huge and solid and slope gradually to the summit. And I was reassured that there is very little steepness in St. Catherine compared to other mountains.
So I agreed to go. When he heard of the scheme, Hussein, my 15-year-old son, decided to join in and so, together with Arwa herself, and Ali, our 21-year-old nephew who was in from the beginning, we took off. My decision to go was a very last-minute thing (in retrospect, I think if I had had more time to think about it, I would definitely have backed out) and, since we are not an outdoorsy sort of family (my husband hates camping) there was quite a lot of shopping involved–head torches, sleeping bags, hiking shoes, etc. as well as snacks for the climb, sanitizer gel and so on. We spent the day before the trip getting everything in order and declared ourselves ready to take on Mount St. Catherine.
A pang of guilt for my 19-year-old daughter who had wanted desperately to go on this trip, but who was detained by her heavy Thursday schedule at university, made me stay up all night to help her out and to keep her company as she embarked on one of her endless architectural projects. Her job is to design the model and decide on how best to construct it, my job involves cutting and pasting. Finally, at around 7 am, I left her and went to bed. I woke up at 10 to start getting ready before our scheduled departure time of 12 noon, and hoped I would be able to catch up on my sleep on the way to Sinai. We had already decided to go on our own by car rather than by bus with the rest of the group.
With Arwa at the steering wheel and Ali as her co-pilot, Hussein and I took turns leaning on each other in the back seat and trying to doze off, but I don’t think I slept more than 20 minutes tops. We arrived at the Bedouin Camp at the base of St. Catherine at around 7 pm and joined the rest of the group for what would be our last hot meal for the next 24 hours, as well as our last cup of tea. I knew no-one except Nadia, the organizer of the trip, but a look around gave me a lot of confidence: none of the others looked particularly like mountain-climbers; most were first-timers like me. We, on the other hand, were seen by the rest of the group as being in the company of an expert climber, not to mention a downright celebrity who was just back from her latest exploits on the Roof of Africa!
After that we used our last toilet, made our last phone calls, washed and prayed and got ready for our hike. Before embarking on our expedition, Arwa announced she was going to go through our backpacks and decide what was necessary and what was not, since a heavy load on our backs was not in our best interests. One by one we submitted to her close inspection and allowed her to confiscate items of clothing which were deemed unnecessary, wallets, keys, etc. Even the snacks were reduced, her determination to teach us the right way to climb a mountain reaching a point where we haggled over 2 triangles of cream cheese instead of 4, and where a heated argument with Ali took place over his toothbrush, which she lost. Three liters of water for each of us was established as the necessary amount, and having bought it from the local store, we set off with the others.
We started our hike at 8 pm. By then, it was completely dark, but this is where our head torches came in handy. I am not usually a night owl, but the excitement and possibly also the lack of sleep had given me a second wind and I was all energized and ready to go. As we made our way in the dark on a trail covered with rocks and pebbles, we were informed that we had not yet begun our ascent, that, in fact, we were not even close to the mountain; it would be some time before we reached it. How much? A vague response ensued. This was one of the main characteristics of this trip: no specific times for anything were given throughout the whole expedition, I think for fear of demotivating the climbers. So, for all intents and purposes we were in the dark, metaphorically-speaking as well as in reality.
To make things easier, we were divided into 2 groups according to pace, each group being assigned a guide. I started out thinking I could be with the faster group, but ended up being in the slower one, which was fine. Almost 2 hours after we had begun, we reached the mountain, which we could barely see, but the panting and sweating told us we had begun to climb. Now, for those who have never climbed a mountain before, you may think that 2624 meters is nothing, that’s like 3 laps around the track at the club. No sir, the trail keeps going from one end of the mountain to the other horizontally, zig-zagging its way until the summit, which means that the actual walking distance is 8 or 9 kilometers.
Add to that the elevation and the rocky trail and you have your work cut out for you.
The first hour or two of the actual climb passed by relatively easily. In spite of a wobbly left knee, which I have unfortunately passed on to my son, too, I enjoyed the exercise immensely. I could feel my muscles becoming hard and having just emerged from Ramadan, the month of eating rather than fasting, I looked forward to a substantial weight loss. I even joked with Nadia and Arwa that if I didn’t lose at least 5 kilos, there would be hell to pay!
Every now and then we would stop for a short break, drink some water or have a light snack like dates or juice. The interval between breaks became shorter as we proceeded, and each time it became more difficult to get up again and continue on our path. But Nadia kept telling us we needed to proceed if we were going to reach the summit and sleep for a couple of hours before sunrise. So we continued, undeterred by the fact that one of our fellow climbers had a mild panic attack which resulted in shortness of breath, and led to a unanimous decision that she should return to the camp immediately and not go on as planned. Nadia asked Feteih, the guide in charge of the slower group to take her down and the rest of us would carry on with one guide.
But where was this guide? No-one knew. He had vanished entirely; in fact, he had been so swift in disappearing that the majority of the climbers in his group hadn’t even had time to get to know his face or to make a connection with him. One or two of the faster climbers who had gone on ahead of the rest of us said that he had left them early on with the excuse that he had dropped his cell phone on the way and needed to look for it! Any word beginning with ‘B’ would be appropriate here!
So we were on our own without a guide, relying solely on Nadia’s expertise and our own intuition. “Is that the trail?” “Yes, that looks like it” or “No, no, around that big rock over there.” As long as we were all together, there was no cause for alarm. And anyway we were sure to meet the two fellows with the camels carrying our sleeping bags somewhere along the way.
At this stage of the climb, my adrenalin was still running high and although I was puffing and panting a bit, like the rest of us, I could not say that I was exhausted. I still had a reserve of energy and the snacks helped a lot. But people seemed to think I was tired and kept offering to carry my backpack: Ali, my sweet nephew, Arwa, and Nadia practically insisted on it. But I was determined to carry my own backpack, not only out of pride, but because I honestly felt it wasn’t weighing me down. In order to pacify them, I allowed myself to use Arwa’s trekking poles for support as I have small feet which invariably get stuck between rocks and cause me to lose my balance. Twice my dear son, walking behind me, prevented me from toppling over.
Another two hours of putting one foot in front of the other passed, sweating and panting, but concentrating only on the feet. By now my t-shirt was wet and although my body didn’t feel any cold, I could tell that temperatures were dropping so I fished into my backpack for a jumper and put it on. The head torch, which is secured around the cranium with an elastic band was bothering me and I kept removing it and drying the sweat from my face. My IQ must have been dropping too at that point, because I remember thinking: “What will I do tomorrow in the sunlight when I have the head torch and my sunglasses on at the same time?”
It was around then that I started losing hope of ever reaching the summit; we had been walking for 6 hours and still there was no end in sight. We were reassured that the end was near, but then we kept on walking, mechanically taking ever slower steps. Then, suddenly those who were ahead of us started turning back and, much to our horror, they told us that somewhere we had taken a wrong turn and that the summit could not be reached that way. So with knees now trembling, we had to make our way down again and take another path.
It may have been just an hour more at that point, but to me, at least, it felt like eternity. Nadia went on ahead, taking one of the other climbers with her and, asking the porters with the camels for directions, she made it to the summit herself to make sure we were on the right track, then joined us a little below the summit to give us the glad tidings. But by then we were all so exhausted that it was decided that rather than continue now and sleep in the little hut at the top, we would just unfold our sleeping bags and sleep then and there, then resume our journey just before sunrise.
Easier said than done. Looking around, I could see we had picked a perfect spot for camping out: there was hardly a flat piece of terrain. The ledge, although big enough to hold us and the camels, was extremely rocky and bumpy. Nothing to do but to make the best of it, so I unfolded my sleeping bag and tried to snuggle inside, wearing an extra 2 jackets and covering my head with 3 hoods and my feet with another pair of socks. I tried to ignore the sharp rock jutting into the small of my back and to concentrate on the beauty of the starlit sky, but every bone in my body was aching and every muscle was throbbing. Unable to sleep on my back, I tried to turn over on my side with little success, and eventually dozed off for 5 minutes. The whole camp was silent, except for Ali and Hussein who, too cold to sleep, had decided to have a little private party of tuna and cheese, giggling and talking to each other in loud whispers. Ah, the joy of being young and carefree!
When I woke up from my tiny nap, all the feelings of pain returned and I could do nothing but lie there, wondering how in the world I was ever going to walk again. Just then Nadia started to wake up those of us who were asleep and to remind us that we had very little time before sunrise if we wanted to watch it from the summit. So, with every ounce of will still left, I pulled myself into a sitting position, then crawled out of my sleeping bag and somehow managed to stand on my own two feet. The trek to the summit was short and relatively fast and the sky had begun to turn a pale yellow. Once at the top, people started pulling out their cameras and gasping at the beauty of the sun as it soared from behind the clouds. That had been the whole object of the climb and this was what we were here to watch. Well, everyone except me, that is.
Climbing in the dark was one thing, but being at the top and looking down at the valleys below and being able to see, actually see, what I had brought upon myself, well, that was another thing altogether. I sat crouching on a rock and tried to keep my eyes glued to the rising sun and not at the valley below, hardly daring to breathe. Every now and then someone would urge me to come and look at the view from this side or that side, but I ignored them all and sat with my heart pounding inside my chest, and all the blood draining from my face as I contemplated the options before me: a) I could stay here forever and become a sort of hermit living in the little hut and feeding on thyme or marjoram or whatever it was we smelt on the way up, or b) I could stay here forever. No question about going down whatsoever.
I must have been a pathetic sight, because Yosri Fouda, the eminent journalist who happened to be in our group, took a look at my white, anguished face and said: “I think I’ll write an article about you, maybe call it ‘The Martyr of St. Catherine’!”
A few more minutes of this torture, and it was time to start the journey down. Only the thought of my poor mother, worried sick about us and waiting for us back home with my husband and daughter made me stir and attempt to make that arduous trek in broad daylight. Words cannot express the panic that had taken hold of me and while others were admiring the views, I was keeping my eyes on my own two feet, determined to see as little as I possibly could.
Suffice it to say that the climb up, as exhausting as it was, had been a breeze compared to the journey down. All my courage and bravado had gone out of the window, and all that was left was an old woman, a tiny shell of an old woman, in fact, holding onto her poles, or crutches, rather, for dear life’s sake. Where before I had stepped lightly and confidently, now I dragged my feet, slower than a turtle, clutching at rocks and depending entirely on my two brave boys: one to lead the way and the other to catch me when I fell. The first of three falls resulted in a twisted ankle, which was all I needed, but with no spare legs in my backpack, I had to do with what I had.
One foot, the other foot, rocks, rocks, rocks and more rocks. Big rocks, medium rocks, small rocks. Tiny rocks like pebbles, slippery like soap. It was an eternity before we reached the Arbaein Valley. Arwa tried to point out the multi-colored rocks in hues of pink, blue and lilac, but by now I couldn’t care less. “They’re still rocks, aren’t they?!” I shouted in my mind, but without actually saying anything because that would have been too exhausting. I knew for sure I never wanted to see another rock in my life!
Now and then we would come to a steep cliff where the trail was very narrow. With shaking knees I would reluctantly let go of my poles and hold on to the wall of the mountain, not daring to turn my eyes to the sheer drop below us. Then once more, right foot, left foot, rocks, rocks, rocks. Oh God, please help me, please let this be over soon!
This is where Moses spoke to God and received the ten commandments. Well, not exactly here on this mountain, but in the same area. I have hiking shoes, sunblock on my face for the scorching sun, Nike dri-fit clothes and the poles. How did he make it up, I wonder, with only sandals on his feet and whatever sort of robe they wore in those days? Well, not entirely true, he had a staff on which he leaned, the one common thing between us. But he was known to be a hefty man, he killed another man with his bare hands. He probably did this a lot, going up and down mountains. And of course he was on a mission to spread the word of God, whereas I’m only here because I was unbelievably stupid!
Needless to say, because of my turtle pace, we were the last people in the group. Everyone else had gone on ahead except for Nadia who made sure she was the last one behind. She is an amazing woman, Nadia. She is like a shepherdess, watching over her flock of sheep, making sure none of us go astray. At one point she notices that my shoelace is undone and bends down to tie it for me. I cannot begin to explain how tired and weak I must have been to let her do that instead of doing it myself. Two sleepless nights in a row had taken their toll on me and all I could manage was an inaudible ‘thank you’.
We had started out at 8 am that morning, and it was now nearly noon. Just when I have completely lost hope, we meet two groups on their way up. It is all I can do to keep from saying: “Go back! Don’t even think of going up! Are you crazy?” But they look so excited and eager that I force myself to shut up.
By now, another two hours have passed and we are on the trail from the mountain to the place where the bus is expected to meet us to take us back to the Bedouin Camp. I feel I am like one of those people you see in the movies, who find themselves alone in the desert, with a handkerchief tied around their heads, their legs twisting around each other, and their lips chapped and dry as they croak: “Water, waaater!”
There are only a few more meters to go, or so they keep telling me, but whatever reservoir of energy I had is now completely empty and I am dragging my feet on a battery that is about to run out. Someone has released me of my backpack, I think it was Hussein, and I have no energy to argue. I have lost all control. Arwa takes matters into her hands, and seeing that I’m about to die, makes use of the newly-found signal on her cell phone and orders someone somewhere to send a camel for me. “I don’t like camels,” I manage to tell her. “There’s no other option,” she says, firmly, ”you can’t go on like this.” Again, I don’t argue.
Eventually, the camel arrives and somehow I get up on it, dreading the moment when, first his hind legs, then his front legs, go up and I am swaying to and fro on this great, unstable beast of burden that is supposed to carry me and relieve me of my exhaustion and weakness. The sloping path, though far less steep, is still rocky, and the combination of that and me sitting on the hump of a towering camel is the equivalent of a roller coaster. NOT my favorite ride at the amusement park. All I will venture to say about this part of the expedition is that for years to come, my son will have endless fun at my expense, telling everyone he meets about my shouting and screaming, imploring the camel to go slowly and bursting into tears at the end.
What can I say? It was entirely my decision to go and I bear full responsibility. Sure, we had our fair share of bad luck, what with the guide disappearing and causing us to lose our way, and being forced to sleep outdoors. He re-appeared at the very end, by the way, and both Nadia and Arwa took it upon themselves to let him know exactly what kind of vermin they thought he was.
Words cannot describe the relief and joy of sitting on the upholstered seat of a car after a 14-hour hike on my own two legs and a death-ride on the back of a camel. I wasn’t meant for this kind of thing, I conclude.
Would I do it again? Absolutely not. What about Kilimanjaro? Yeah right.
What I can safely say is that were it not for my incredible companions on this trip, things would have been far worse for me. And the fact is, that the more exertion and suffering you put into a project, the greater the reward is sure to be. And in this case the reward was the knowledge that I have raised a man and that in later years, if God so wills, I will have him to lean on. Not just him, but Ali as well and all those young men out there who have learnt the meaning of responsibility and who bring pride and joy to their mothers by being who they are, may God bless each and everyone of them.
So for the time being, no more mountains or camels for me, no more adventures. I will be forever satisfied to be on solid ground and to recall from my memory files this incredible experience. For better or worse, St. Catherine is now my mountain while Kilimanjaro belongs to Nadia and Arwa and the 25 other climbers who made it to its summit on September 17th. Well done to all of you, I now have an even greater respect for your accomplishment!
Today I started browsing Amazon.com for mountaineering books. Yes. I just fell in love with mountains so much that I’m actually optimistic that one day I will be able to climb mountains in the technical, freezing, windy, snowy and slippery sense of mountain climbing. I would like to entertain the thought.
And what do I run into as the best selling books? Personal accounts of disaster strikes and miraculous survivals, possibly after losing toes or legs. Perfect. Just about the right kind of material for someone looking forward to the sport, especially when trying hard to cut out that negativity sponge inside me.
I need one motivational book about mountains that is not a guide book. One.
Maybe I’m new to the field. Maybe there are such books out there and I just need to dig hard enough, or better yet, ask specialists. But wait a minute! Why do I want positive books so bad? Mountains are tough and they’re known to be tough. I acknowledged this about them from the very beginning. In fact, I fell in love with mountains specifically for that reason. That’s what makes them so special, isn’t it?
On a second thought, maybe I should read such books. If I need to understand mountains then I sure need to read everything there is about them, be it good or bad. What I think I can do is read these books from a mountain’s perspective. I will try to read between the lines to get an idea of what basic, raw, human-mountain interaction can be like. What kinds of attitudes do such people carry to the mountains? Why do they want to climb these mountains? How do they view these mountains?
Some quotes hypnotized me. Read this one from Craig Conally:
“Backpackers venture into the wilderness to see a little farther, but mountaineers describe their adventures as means of looking more closely into their own selves–to see a little deeper. Climbing mountains compels introspection because every detail–from the smallest to the most ominous–must be constantly attended to. That’s both exhausting and exhilarating. Exhilarating, because the criteria for success are absolute and absolutely objective–they are chosen by the mountain, not by the mountaineer, and every person is equal when judged by mountains. Success requires mountaineers to appraise their own physical and mental capacities and to know, or discover, the extent of their reserves of competence, commitment, and courage. Mountaineering does not build character so much as it reveals it.”
“Every person is equal when judged by mountains.” Amen to that! To me, this is very, very encouraging. Yes, to a mountain you’re just another climber. You could be wearing all your sophisticated gear and heading towards it, but you’d still be completely oblivious to what awaits you no matter how hard you believe you have prepared yourself.
I believe there is so much I can learn from any person who has been on a mountain, and I believe that all those who wrote such books are – obviously – mountain lovers, or freaks, which I aspire to be.
So here’s the list of books I have actually purchased, and I hope when they arrive no one tells them I’m in Artificial Consumerist Dubai for a week:
The Mountaineering Handbook: Modern Tools and Techniques That Will Take You to the Top by Craig Conally
I love the idea of this book. It’s a guide book alright, but it’s written by an engineer who has put his own discipline into practice by figuring out the best climbing techniques on a mountain. This book is for beginners to intermediates. Just right.
Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, 50th Anniversary by Ronald C. Eng
This book is known to be a classic and a must have for any mountaineer, or aspiring mountaineer. So ok, add to my cart of course. I must have it too! And it has the key delicious words that always make my eyes glow: “Mountaineering” and “freedom”!
Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer
First one in my disaster series. What attracted me to the book, apart, of course, from the fact that it’s a bestseller and clearly making its way to the classics list, was its careful account of human relationships on the mountain and how much weight they can really have in making an expedition win or fail. I felt the spark of the group I was with when I was on Mt Kilimanjaro, and I feel grateful for it, despite the fact that it was a large group.
Touching the Void: The True Story of One Man’s Miraculous Survival by Joe Simpson
I first saw this book with a passenger sitting next to me on the flight back from Arusha to Nairobi. I couldn’t take my eyes off the cover. I hesitated so much before asking him to show it to me. There was no chance, actually, he was either napping or directly shooting into the pages the minute his eyes were open.
K2: Life and Death on the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain by Ed Viesturs and David Roberts
Ok… I don’t plan on climbing K2, so don’t get any funny ideas. But something draws me to at least reading about it. I keep googling its pictures and staring at it for so long. It’s the world’s second highest mountain and it’s certified as its most vicious, unforgiving one. I must meet that guy! Maybe read about it first and then hopefully see it from afar?
So it’s two guide books and three disaster ones. I’m fine with all. I am known to be a horror junkie, but not that kind of real, serious horror. I’m buying these books to learn about the mountains. Because believe it or not, I think I will still walk out of each of these books with a smile. I will find the beauty in there. I know I will.
By Nora Mortagui
“Technique and ability alone do not get you to the top — it is the will power that is the most important. This will power you cannot buy with money or be given by others — it rises from your heart.” Quote by the first woman Everest climber, Junko Tabei 
On September 17th at 11:20am, I stood at arms length to a wooden post that congratulated me on being at the peak of the highest free standing mountain in Africa. Congratulations to me indeed, but it was not a walk in the park getting there. In fact, it took me 12 trying hours instead of the designated 6 or 8. Whatever the duration was, I was slow, very slow. I will not recount the glorious 5 days preceding this point since there are more affluent writers who will portray expressed accounts of that in generous details. Instead, I will share my humble stream of consciousness solely on my 12-hour attempt to Uhuru peak.
Barafu Camp, the last camp before the summit on Machame route, is nestled at 4800m. I was placed amongst those set out to attempt the 5895m summit in the slowest paced group. The slowest group initiated the summit attempt in an almost zombie-like march a little after 11pm on September 16th. I was placed 3rd behind the guide. My placement left me content because the footsteps of the guide Baraka, and Arwa’s in front of me, comforted me and helped me focus. But ten minutes into the ascent my heart began to pound, no surprises there when my heart has been faster than a speeding bullet with a resting rate starting at 120bpm on average. Up to that point, I prided in the fact that I managed to avoid altitude sickness and took no painkillers since we started 5 days ago but I had no concept of the physical aftermath.
Earlier this day, I experienced the worst calve cramps I could have ever been subjected to. The pain in my calves could possibly resemble small pieces of sharp objects of various forms that have exploded, many times over, in my muscle fibers, leaving my basic lower body movements to near paralysis. So early into the ascent, with so much pain, I wasn’t confident on how I was going to cope with myself mentally and emotionally. Yet so untrue to my nature, I was still a little hopeful.
Somewhere an hour or a little more into ascending, I had to answer nature’s call. I stopped the group and headed to a nearby rock. I did my business and it was a messy one that left me hygienically violated to the point of de-motivation. I must have kept the group long and realized that I was leaving them in the cold which worried me. I haphazardly recollected myself to head back and hadn’t placed myself in the group line yet when the group had already begun to move. By the time I reached the trail, the group was already quite some meters away. Those meters felt like oceans between us. There was no way in hell I could have caught up with them by skipping or walking a little faster because the pain in my calves would make my heart race and that would ultimately make me weaker. I couldn’t afford that right then so I had to keep at my own safe pace and accept the reality that I cannot catch up. I finally succumbed to the cosmic irony behind all those months of physical training that I thought prepared me for this moment but in effect proved otherwise. I began to feel like a bead that was swinging last in a thread of beads. But this particular bead was heavy, so heavy that it started slowly slipping away, thinning the thread that kept itself connected with the rest, until the thread finally dissolved into nothingness and the bead rolled rhythmically backwards while the rest of the beads faded ahead into the distance and their glimmering lights could be spotted no more. I knew then and there that my ascent would be a solitary one. This was going to be a long night.
The scene was set. More than a couple of hours had passed and I was somewhere in the middle of the mountain with a guide I could barely recall his face from the previous days and had just learnt his name when we got stuck with each other because I separated completely from the group. We had no emotional bond or earlier conversations of informal introductions. I was concerned. I didn’t know his movements, his pace, he didn’t know about my heart issues or cramps or my pace, he didn’t know when I last ate or drank, he hasn’t seen me climb at all. But I had no choice. He was mine and I was his. I looked back down the mountain to determine where I was and where the 2nd group was. I saw a trail of headlights below, for a moment I felt like I was above the stars, it was a soothing sight but they were coming up fast and it made me slightly intimidated because of me being so slow. I turned around towards the mountain, dismissed these thoughts and put a foot in front of the other.
Shortly after, the group that I looked down on earlier was not the 2nd group. They shot right passed me with such ease and rhythm. I thought that I could join and follow that group just to be part of anything but I contained no vigor or truth for being any faster. I let them pass with the sadness of a lost puppy. Then another group passed, then another. But still no sign of the 2nd group yet. When I looked down the mountain again I could figure out 2 different groups from the collection of headlights. I thought that must be them. When finally Adel’s group arrived and there I was inching my way up while Adel’s group also shot passed me. Naturally I felt jealous, I wish I could have been faster but the pain didn’t permit me. The pain was my new best friend and forced me to do as it pleased. Then another group passed, then another. It must have been over 4 or 5 hours since we started, I had no idea of how much time passed but Omar’s group finally arrived to where I was. It was a relief to speak with Omar briefly as he told me I still had time when I complained to him about my slowness and cramps. Omar replenished my hope and he and his group went passed me. I looked behind me again and there weren’t many headlights left. I felt embarrassed being this single person going up the mountain like an old woman with silly cramps to complain of while close to 40 people of different sizes, shapes, heights, ages, share relatively the same pace. I gulped my state and watched as their headlights danced all along the top of the mountain way ahead of me. It was very challenging now to keep my levels of hope balanced. About an hour later I heard a very loud cheer of song and hoots. I figured Adel and Omar’s must have met, even though I wasn’t sure. Knowing the Egyptian charisma to be loud, cheerful and united, I understood it might be them up in the distance. My eyes welled with tears. I wanted to be part of that. I’d never felt lonelier.
“You can do this, Nora, you can do this. One step at a time, one step at a time. Will power, will power.” I tried vaguely to remember the quote by the first woman that ascended Everest and all I could bring out from the quote was “will power” and something about how nothing or no one else mattered. “I will make it, I will make it.” Pole stomped in the ground, one foot follows, other pole stomped in the ground, other foot follows, all in languid slow motion. “I will make it, I will make it.” I was obsessed in my inner dialogue and repeated those phrases in numbers to infinity. I never perceived in my entire life that I could discipline myself to a particular set of movements and a single mindset for so damn long. God knows how many hours had passed in just that state. In the crux of these intense emotions, images circulated manically in my head; random, thoughtless images, the Indonesian flag in my backpack, the summit picture on my phone, The Right to Climb, my mother cooking in her restaurant; I cannot fail her, I cannot fail all those people that had faith in me; 44 sessions at Anna Louise’s, my Egyptian family, my Indonesian family, I cannot fail myself; the silent poundings of my heart reached my ears. “I can do this, I can do this, I’m not sick, just tired, I’m not sick, God, my muscles hurt and yet I can barely feel them, but I can do this, God is Great, God is Great, thank you, Arwa for telling me about that, it’s ok that I’m so slow, my own pace, my own pace, no one else matters, my own pace, it’s not that bad. I will make it.”
The sun woke up and people continued to pass by me. Someone told me we’re almost there and that I should just keep going. I gained some much needed encouragement. I had no idea where I was until the guide finally mentioned, after hours of silence between us, that we were close to Stella Point. With the sun coming up, my sense of hope doubled. I was pleased because it meant my body will soak in some warmth from the sun and my numb fingertips will experience life again. I must have been about 20meters away from Stella Point. I was absolutely, miserably, pathetically exhausted. My only gratitude was that there was no sign of altitude sickness. I joked with myself, “I have been between 5000m and 5700m for so long, I should damn well be super acclimatized!” I thanked my lucky stars for that indeed, but certainly not for the persistent pain. It was around 8am and I had asked the guide whether he thought the group summited. He opened his walkie talkie, which I discovered was closed all along, that yes the group probably summited. Suddenly he suggests I just make it to Stella Point and go back since I can still get a certificate for Stella Point. I was offended and with an expressionless face I answered “No, I want to make it to Uhuru, you have to help me make it to Uhuru.” I understood that I subjected the guide to myself as a slow-moving burden but I never expected he’d suggest I give up altogether in spite of my lack of sickness but obvious pain. I supposed he suggested that out of good intentions and quickly I managed to disallow his suggestion to deter my determination to make it to Uhuru and continued to inch my way up the merciless scree and sharp incline a little before Stella Point.
The sun was rising high and people were beginning to come back down. I was possibly 10meters away from Stella Point and I met Lubna, the first one to descend. I was refreshed to see a friendly familiar face and had asked her how much was left for me and how easy or difficult it was. She reassured me that it’s not long anymore and the scree part is almost over. Finally I met Omar who also reassured me of the remaining part to go and I learnt from him that it was around 9am. They had summited 2 hours ago! The realization of how slow I was began to sting me personally but that was a fact I just had to stomach. I finally met every single climber of our group and was encouraged and cheered to go on. I was touched. I needed that. I was also anxiously waiting for Arwa. I couldn’t stop thinking about her and was hoping she’d wait for me at the summit for us to take a picture together but calculated the feasibility of that was non-existent. As everyone kept going down, I was eyeing out for her. I was so proud of her and proud of our friendship. I really wanted to just see her and cry and congratulate her on making it to the summit. I wished dearly we were together but understood we had to part ways from early on. Finally, we met, she was one of the last that descended and I just felt all the grace and comfort of heaven falling upon me. Seeing her was a major boost to continue and when I asked her to hand me her camera, since I didn’t have one for my summit picture, it felt like she was passing a baton of success. I tucked it in my side pocket and hoped for the best. I was on my own from now, quite literally.
Everyone from my group descended while I paced on. The guide also brought 2 porters to accompany us. The terrain after Stella Point was a lot more forgiving. But at that point, my muscles were failing pretty badly. Challenging another incline no matter how easy it looked was sheer agony. I was confined now to experience pure human misery and physical feats completely alien to me. The early bouts of mental and emotional breakdowns were slowly, but surely, creeping in. I finally saw the summit, sitting patiently at the top of a curving elevated land that looked like a jetty sticking out of the mountain. God it felt so far. But there is no stopping now. “I will make it, I will make it.” But then at one of the inclines, I just fell on my knees and started crying in front of the guide and porters. “I’m so tired, I’m so tired,” I exclaimed with child-like sobs. Out of desperation, I thought that maybe I should tackle this incline by crawling. So I started crawling on all fours, sobbing, and the guide immediately patted me on the back and said that I can’t do that. Seconds later, he pulled me up to my feet. At last we began to bond and I surrendered myself to him completely. We were so close to the summit now but I was extremely physically futile. I hung on to him like a crippled child. I was exchanged then with the two porters to help me up those nasty inclines. The glaciers slowly began to unravel themselves, I saw some ice on the ground, the summit was getting closer, I could hardly believe myself, I was dumbfounded but I was so alert. “I’m going to make it. I’m going to make it.”
“There it is,” I muttered in breathless whispers as I internally sobbed with my head rested on the side of the porter’s shoulder. Under 5 meters towards the summit, I freed myself from the porters and told them I had to get there myself. And so I did, in my graceful slowness, digging my poles in the ground and dragging my useless legs like an old lady. There I was absolutely solitary on the summit, the guide and the porters seemed to vanish in the background while I stood for a moment in respect towards the wooden post and was shaken into realizing that I had the roof of Africa all to myself. There wasn’t another soul in sight. My dream finally materialized into reality and I was not comfortable in bed flipping through pictures on the internet and fantasizing a great success at the summit. I was there! I was miserable, exhausted, confused, and worn down, absolutely defeated by my physical self yet wholly elated and triumphant all at the same time!
This ascent taught me a few things. It was an ascent to my own soul, my own inner summit. It taught me weakness and strength, sadness and happiness, failure and success, hate and love, compassion towards the frail human condition and the power “between your ears.” Probably what resonated in me the most is the sheer irrelevance of the scheme of things because we human beings are eventually lonely creatures. My ascent was in essence a lonely one, with no group hugs, or group photos, a cheer, a song, a guide who knew me well nor I him, or a personal exchange of memorable words and smiles. But how could I be lonely now when I was so much closer to the heavens and to myself and that I made my parents proud?
There is a fine line between loneliness and solitude. And this mountain, as it has stood freely for all these centuries in all of its vast glory, finally taught me that solitude is a not such a bad thing after all, solitude is freedom.
By Salma Beshr and Lamia Ayman
Thanks for the great words!
My worst days are behind me.
My darkest hour is gone.
All I have ever dreamed of
Right here, so close to the sun.
Long months of anticipation.
Then, finally, the uphill climb:
One deep breath to begin with
And one small step at a time.
Eager, expectant, restless.
My step turns into stride:
My heart beats in time to the rhythm
Of far-away drums as my guide.
The whole world enveloped in darkness.
As, weary, the day becomes night:
The body discovers its weakness.
The soul, relentless, its might.
Rocks and frost and nose-bleeds
Cannot shake my determination
To arrive exhausted, breathless
At the summit of exhilaration.
I have conquered the indomitable wilderness.
All the demons within and without.
And am not afraid of tomorrow.
For I have been and always will be
At the top of Kilimanjaro
Kilimanjaro wasn’t the first hike for me, but it was definitely the first time I do outdoor living and climbing to an altitude of more than 3000 m. So I consider myself a first timer, and maybe that is why I think I should share my discoveries, as graphic as they are. Veteran climbers might forget the little details they’ve learned to take for granted.
1. Expect dusty nails, toes, and skin.
That is something you start getting on your first day on Kilimanjaro. The first time you see your nails you’ll think that it’s just the aftermath of the hike and that it will all go away once you wash your hands. Wrong. The tip of your nails will turn grey and black and stay that way throughout the week. You will eventually get used to the look of your hand while you hold your food or pass a piece of bread to a friend. Don’t worry, they’ll get used to that too and take it from you with gratitude.
My skin also became very dry and developed a brownish tone to it. It wasn’t suntan; just a pure layer of dust. So if you are at all concerned about your skin (which I doubt you will be at this phase) make sure you have a moisturizer.
The very fine dust that comprises an overwhelming part of Kilimanjaro’s terrain also ends up flying in the air once you or your climbing buddies step on it. So get yourself a nice buff and make sure you wrap it around your face to cover your nose and mouth. It should filter the air that gets into your lungs. I personally could not do it because it was too suffocating for me, but others did. I just lived with the dust and the coughing.
2. Bring ginger tea bags to drink.
I went to Kilimanjaro with a very stubborn cough that started with me the day I decided to cool my sweaty self in front of an AC after a harsh workout. I coughed with each sentence I spoke, and I coughed myself to sleep every night, probably annoying the entire camp. The unimaginable fluctuation of the temperature on the mountain is very likely to give you a cough if you don’t have one. Nothing would soothe me before I went to sleep except hot ginger. I would borrow hot water from the porters before I went to my tent and sip on it to my heart’s delight. Sip, cough, spit, until my throat was clear enough to allow me to breathe again and hence fall asleep.
3. Expect black and bloody substance to come out of your nose.
Substance is in fact an understatement. You might as well expect objects. Given that I already had the remains of a cold, the snot used to gather all the dust in the air. And since private access to running water is impossible on the mountain, you rely heavily on nose blowing with tissues. Tissue after tissue until your skin starts to chap and you decide not to blow each time you feel something in your nose. So it gets clogged. Add to that the possibility of getting nose bleeds because of the altitude. I personally did not get actual nose bleeds, but yes, sometimes I ended up blowing blood along with black snot.
At the end of the journey I was the only one in the team who did not get a chance to take a shower before the flight back home. So in the airport, when I finally got to see running water from a tap, I could not hold myself much longer. I announced to other women in the bathroom that I would be grossing them out. A middle-aged woman smiled at me nervously and on I started with my symphony. Forget about privacy, I no longer had a sense of what it meant.
4. Dry sacs, ziplock bags, dry sacs, ziplock bags…
Keep repeating that to yourself once you know you’re headed to a mountain. Then you’ll find yourself packing all of your stuff inside dry sacs and ziplock bags, because this is the bible of outdoor traveling. I’m a messy traveler. I challenge order by scattering all of my little objects anywhere around the bag. If I stuff them in there they’d still arrive, wouldn’t they? Well, yes they would but that is if I’m flying from Cairo to London and unpacking once. But on Kilimanjaro you are packing and unpacking every single day.
Everyday we would wake up at 6 am, start packing our things, which include sleeping bag, foam mat, sleeping mat, plus all clothes, zip our duffle bags, then go out for breakfast and off to the climb. All of that needs to be done in very little time. And if you like to brush your teeth after your breakfast or if you forgot that specific item then prepare to go through the process all over again if you don’t have your things divided into little bags. I used to curse myself every single time I tried to find something. I would uselessly dig my hand in a pool of loose little items and end up emptying the whole bag to find that medicine or that buff.
Also, in most of the camps our tent was placed on an incline. Now imagine yourself with all your little objects scattered around you and sliding along with them to the tip of the tent. It’s a mess and a crowd.
So the sacs act like drawers. You divide your things and know exactly which bag to look for to pick up your stuff.
5. Never ever EVER wipe yourself clean while still squatting on the pile of dump you have just created.
The pile may be still warm and you will not feel it in the back of your hand. You will just suddenly find it there. You will be traumatized for eternity and wish you could chop your very hands off. I finished a whole bottle of sanitizer gel and half a pack of disinfectant wipes just to be able to forget what had just happened to me.
6. Bring strong flavored gum that cleans the teeth.
On many nights you will have left your toothbrush at the tent and you will be grateful for crawling into the tent immediately after dinner to get away from all the cold. It takes a lot of pondering and considering to decide to get out of the tent at night just to go to the bathroom tent. The temperature is way below zero and you will find frost all around your tent. You will have to put on layers and layers of clothes just to answer nature’s call. So, brushing your teeth might even become a lesser priority.
Your chewing gum can come in handy to at least give you a clean feeling if you just can’t get yourself to get out of the tent one more time before sleep.
7. Get cotton and ointment for burns.
Normally plasters are enough to protect your feet from blisters. But I burned myself with washing water. The porters gave a small bottle and thought they had cooled it down. I was so cold that I admired the feeling of warmth that came to me from the bottle. The minute I started using it I screamed my lungs out. No ice can be quickly available, unless you count your frozen fingers. I needed an ointment and cotton to cover the affected area in order to be able to continue with my hike the next day. That is something that might be rare, but it could happen. It’s good to be armed.
8. Again and again and again, drink water for as long as you remember what water is and force yourself to eat as long as you have food on your plate.
These are your best weapons against the altitude and the only things you need other than your Diamox. Also, being sleepy in the camp is always a good thing. Altitude sickness is supposed to make it hard for you to sleep and not the other way around.
As long as you’re in the camp, listen to your body. Once you’re in the hike, listen to your mind.
9. Make sure to rehabilitate yourself to non-mountain life before you head back.
While standing in the passport line at Cairo airport I got carried away with a friend comparing notes on our snot and whether or not we blew our noses properly that day, only to discover that we were conversing across a poor Egyptian who stood between us in bewilderment and disgust. “I’m still blowing blood.” “So am I! Today I blew the weirdest stuff out of my nose, and it was mostly black and very bloody!”
In the end, all the annoyances I’ve written about, as disgusting as they might sound, will be taken as a given once you’re up there. It feels different once you’re in the middle of it all. They also guarantee you an unforgettable cleansing experience for your mind and your soul. It’s good to let go of the little luxuries we sometimes take for granted. I came back to Cairo appreciating all the little things such as food of any kind, bed, shower, soap… And most importantly, I had peace of mind.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.