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!