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.