Archive for category Travels

Part 2: Sagarmatha Lets Me In

First sighting of the Himalaya tops through the plane window

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.

Runway in Lukla airport

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.

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Part 1: The Airport

Passengers stranded in Kathmandu airport

The last thing that occurred to me as I imagined my blog entries on my trip to Nepal was that the first title I would use would be The Airport. But airport is all the experience I’ve been getting so far, and after 4 days of leaving Cairo.

On Thursday night, November 11, 2010, I kissed my cat goodbye and walked out of the door with my backpack and duffle and headed to Alexandria. My flight to Kathmandu, Nepal, was to start from Alexandria, stop for 6 hours in Sharjah, UAE, then fly to Kathmandu. I was supposed to get there by the afternoon of Friday, November 12.

I met Amr and Caroline, two of the seven trekkers headed on the same trip, at the entrance to the Alexandria airport. There we were stopped outside the airport and told to wait until, well, until some time. They stopped us because there wasn’t yet room for us inside the airport. Other flights had to finish their check-in and boarding first for us to be able to go inside and take their places in the check-in and boarding cues.

The airport was a ground floor only facility in a building of four or five stories. The actual area designated for travelers is an averaged sized hall with compartments for specific areas. There was one waiting room incubated by dirty glass in old, broken aluminum frames, one dusty shop carved into existence by the same fashion, and a single desk on the side with one security official to stamp all our passports. There were no officials in any of the little glass cubicles stamping any passports. That single man was doing it for everyone.

The waiting area was jammed with people. I found a seat next to a woman sitting with her two little girls. Both girls were restless and kept fighting and arguing, and when they grew tired of each other they began to brush themselves against me. I don’t recall hearing any official announcements about our flight, or any flight. Soon news began to spread – like rumors and gossip – that our flight was indefinitely delayed because of the thick fog that resided over Alexandria. Our plane had in fact turned around and landed in Cairo. It was 2 am and there was no hope of the plane showing up any time before the day broke. No official in the airport had any clear answer. We accepted our fate and waited.

Waiting makes me watch the people around me. I’m hardly the type that can get herself busy in a book when there’s so much to be looking at. I began to focus on those two girls and their mother. What a life of hardship for so many Egyptian families, the women have to drag their children in the middle of the night to catch a flight and go to the father in another Arab country where he’s probably underpaid, but surely better paid than he would be if he were to stay in Egypt.

Soon, however, my sympathy turned into utter horror as I noticed lice in both girls’ hair! I impulsively began to cringe each time either one of their heads brushed against my clothes. I desperately looked around for other seats but there were none. And sitting on the sticky, smelly, stained floor was not yet an option for me.

Alarmed by my behavior, Caroline looked inquisitively at me. “The girls have lice in their hair. Lots of it!” I explained. She impulsively pulled her own hair to the opposite side and responded: “Really??”

The waiting continued. Soon a person carrying a large plastic bag called out for passengers on the Sharjah flight to present their boarding passes. For each boarding pass you get a packet of biscuits and a small juice carton. If your boarding pass says you’re on another flight then no biscuits or juice for you. The seen was shameful, with juice and biscuits flying over people’s heads and going to others. The little child next to me was unfortunate enough to not be going to Sharjah. The minute the man showed up all I could hear was her wails. “I want juice! I want juice!”

There was no way I would get my juice and sip on it while she watched and wailed. I took the biscuits and juice from him and handed them to her automatically.

Soon a distant sound of ululation came from the entrance to the hall. A large crowd entered the airport and in the midst of it a large white figure appeared. A bride in her wedding dress and a groom, surrounded by their happy family, were making their way into the airport to join the flight to a new life in Sharjah, still oblivious to the long hours of waiting they were yet to endure.

As the hours passed I eventually had to give up my seat to go to the bathroom. As always expected in most public facility bathrooms in Egypt, there is never soap or toilet paper, but there is always a lady sitting somewhere inside willing to give you some of the toilet paper roll she has in her hands for a tip. Being personally equipped with my own toilet paper and hand sanitizer gel, I didn’t notice that there were no women sitting anywhere for this purpose. Soon after I got inside a couple of them appeared and a tense conversation began.

“You forgot to clean the second toilet.”

“Well I just cleaned off the kid’s puke! So spare me! You know I can handle anything but puke!”

“Who else is to clean it?”

“Why of course! You just hang around all day and when there’s something to be done it’s me, the one who wipes puke off floors, who has to do it. I do nothing here but wipe puke. I’m the puke cleaning person around here!”

Almost puking myself, I barged out of the toilet, rinsed my hands, and resorted to using my hand sanitizer.  I was not going to ask puke lady for any soap.

On my way out I discovered that outside the hall, only a few meters away across two junior policemen, there lay a haven of empty chairs waiting to be occupied, or so I thought. I flew, with as much speech as the crowd would allow me, to Amr and Caroline and told them about my discovery. We carried our backpacks and headed towards the chairs when we were stopped by a muscular official.

“Sorry, madam. You cannot go there,” he said firmly. I tried hard to dissociate this moment from the long history I’ve had with unjustifiable forbiddens the government had always bestowed upon me everywhere in the streets. “There happens to be five meters away, and it is only three empty chairs for me and my friends to sit on. There is no room here for anyone.”

“You have already stamped your passport so you cannot go past this [imaginary] line.”

Shock overrode me. My eyes probably began to bulge out at him. “If we don’t walk those few extra steps to sit on those chairs we will end up on our feet for as long as it takes for this fog to lift and our plane to arrive from Cairo. Given that we’re human beings, we need to sit down.”

His face suddenly went red. “For the way you have spoken to me now, you will not go sit on those chairs!”

Another classical example of an official abusing the only sense of control he has over anything, or anyone.

I don’t recall what else I said after this climatic statement was barfed at me. What I do remember is that all three of us ended up going to sit on the chairs, which made the little staff that the airport had go find some extra chairs and place them inside the waiting hall for us. That way we could sit down and still be within safe passport stamping domain.

Not for long, however. Soon there were new passengers allowed into the hall, after hours of waiting in the street, who needed to check in. So we were once again asked to leave our chairs to make room for them to stand in the check in line.

I stole a man’s seat as he went to ask around for any news on the flight. I placed my backpack in front of me, rested my feet on it, and dozed off until day broke. Having given up on any decent response from any of the airport staff, Amr tried phoning the Cairo airport to inquire about the flight.

A lazy voice answered on the other end of the line. “No. Call us in the afternoon.”

The fog began to lift near 10 am in the morning, but we were only able to board our flight at 2 PM. When it became known that it was time to board the flight people flocked towards the gate and pushed each other frantically, sending a wave of panic among the airport staff. Little voices of wisdom began to call out for decency among the crowds to allow an old man, barely able to stand up, to cross till the beginning of the crowd to be allowed first out and into the bus. Then suddenly some women began to call out immediately after the old man had passed. “Make room for the bride!”

The bride! I had almost forgotten about her. I looked in her direction and there was the groom, all sweaty, his hair messed up, his tie undone, and his shirt all wrinkled, trying to escort an intact bride in the middle of the crowd, followed by the weary, faded smiles of their mothers. I felt sorry for the faded joy of the whole family, yet the bride’s make up and veil had miraculously stayed on her for the full 13 hours in this wondrous place of hygienic horrors. That either stood in testimony for the craftsmanship of our hairdressers, or the family’s superb ability to preserve their bride somewhere in midair.

I was glad to finally get out of the place and breathe some fresh air. 13 hours in this chamber of a terminal were further highlighted by the suffocating passivity I saw in many people’s faces, by the bored routine-scarred faces of the staff who endured the place everyday to make a living, and most importantly by the utter humiliation we all felt for being kept in the dark for such long hours.

We landed in Sharjah to a whole new culture. The airport was sparkling clean and and there was a lot of individual space. All three flights to Kathmandu on that day had already departed so we were given hotel rooms to stay in.

A young Asian man showed me and Caroline to the room. He smiled at me and said, “You’re catching your flight to Kathmandu?”

“Yes! It’s our first visit to Nepal!”

“I’m from Nepal, you know?”

Awesome! I was still not even close to Nepal and there I was standing face to face with my first Nepalese. With a close look at his sharp features, the first question that jumped to my mind was ‘Are you a Sherpa?’ But I didn’t want to be the typical dumb tourist. To him it might have sounded like “You’re Arab! Do you have a camel??”

“So what is the most famous thing about Nepal?” He asked me with a beaming smile. “Buddhism!” I responded confidently.

“Well, there is also Everest?”

“Why yes of course!!” How could I miss THAT? Why on earth was I on this trip to begin with?

“But Everest has its own native name, right? What do you call it?”

“Sagarmatha.”

That fell more comfortably on my ears.

Now for the fourth day in Kathmandu, sitting in the same spot in the airport, staring at the same faces, Sagarmatha is all that my mind calls out to me in the midst of the noise that surrounds us. It gets stronger with each repetitive announcement of a delay or cancellation of all flights heading to Lukla, where the trek to see Sagarmatha should begin.

No flights till now due to the heavy fog. Sagarmatha is closed.

 

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One, Two, Freak Out!

Island Peak (Yikes!) photo by Emil Friis from Everestnews.com

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.

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Epilogue: Kilimanjaro Wisdom for a First Timer

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.

My Kilimanjaro skin and nails

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.

My tent ginger routine every night

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…

During my morning packing routine

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.

I had to dress like this to go to the bathroom at night, and I still shivered.

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!”

Not good.

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.

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Day 7: Down to the Clouds

Mweka route. Getting closer to the clouds as we went down.

My diary ended with day 6. I hesitated so much before writing another blog entry here. I feared it would be more of an anti-climax. After all the exhilaration we felt for making it to the top, going down any mountain is usually the boring part. We are tired and we want to rest, we have no new destination to reach, it’s more painful for the knees, and it almost always feels like an eternity.

But on a second thought, not with Kilimanjaro. That majestic mountain never runs out of surprises. It always has something new to teach and something amazing to show.

On the summit I was happy to find that I felt alright. I wanted to wait for Nora to catch up so we could have our picture together taken at the summit. But neither Omar, Joseph, nor Baraka seemed comfortable with the idea. They insisted that it would be too dangerous for me to stay much longer than I already had at this altitude, especially that my body was not properly acclimatized to it. So feeling good was not necessarily a sign that I was safe.

Not wanting to explore the possibility of me suddenly crashing on the summit no matter how romantic such an opportunity for fame would have been, I listened obediently and began my journey down.

Going down to Stella Point was like watching myself go up. I looked at the climbers still trying to make it to Uhuru and felt like I was having an out of body experience. I felt light and effortless and I could see them struggling with each step just like I did. One of the climbers actually stopped and bent down to rest his weight on his poles and began to breathe.  I tried to cheer him on with words of encouragement. He was already there. I knew that this would have been something I would want to hear when in a situation like this.

The shock came immediately after Stella Point. Now that it was daylight, Coucla and I could clearly see the steepness of the incline we had to endure for 2 or 3 hours until we reached Stella. It was a pebbly bottomless slide. Right at that moment the big guide secret was revealed. NO ONE is to go up to Uhuru Peak in daylight, because no one would make it if they saw this.

Impatiens Kilimanjari, that distinct flower only found on Kilimanjaro, is almost everywhere once you're back to the forest.

There was no way we could take any steps, so we just gave in to the slide and used our poles as if we were skiing. Big black birds, which had accompanied us throughout the climb continued to fly around us. Nora had joked that they were probably roaming around us waiting for us to die so they could feed. With the exhaustion we felt, the thought was rather freakish.

One of the climbers broke down and was dehydrated with the overexertion. He could not move anymore and it was impossible for him to reach out to take the chocolate the guide tried to give him. I made him open his mouth and forced it inside. He had to be dragged down as fast as possible. The lower down he went, the quicker the water would melt so he would drink again, and the better he would feel.

I was in a state of disbelief. I was going down Kilimanjaro after I reached its highest peak. What a beautiful mountain that was. I remembered how I felt when I first saw it through the plane window and I could not believe the size of the black mass that floated above the clouds. I was right there, standing on that mass, breathing normally again, looking at the clouds below me and making my way into them. My entire being was overwhelmed with gratitude. The fight against myself was over. My mind had nothing to do now but rest, enjoy the benefit of its struggle, look around and take the beauty and bliss all in.

We went back to the base camp and rested for a few hours, packed our things, and took off via the Mweka route to Mweka camp to spend the night.

Mweka camp was at 3000 m altitude. Now we were very close to the clouds it actually depressed us. As happy as we were with our accomplishments, Nora and I were already beginning to feel anxious about our separation with the mountain. We didn’t have much to say to each other or to the others. All we wanted to do was lie down and reflect on everything.

Imagine walking in this for two hours with aching feet!

On the following day we were to descend the remaining full 3000 m down to Mweka Gate. The road was rocky and very straining for our knees and soles. When we began to go back down into the forest the terrain turned muddy and slippery. And as usual, other climbers were passing me by with so much fluency. Going down is my not so good part. I get so much pain in the soles of my feet that no boot can really fix. It’s a kind of pain that starts at the bones and works its way out. I began to focus with myself a little more, watch their feet as they went down, and try to figure out my own strategy. I must be doing something wrong. Maybe with more practice I’ll start getting better.

And then the eternity phase began. The slippery terrain soon gave way to a deep, very deep, ocean of mud. I had never gotten so deep in mud until that day. Our boots sank into the mud and became heavier. We were lifting piles of mud as we went along.

And as much as I didn’t like my gaiters, they didn’t like me either. I forgot them in the camp before we moved. So I was going through all of this with no gaiters on. I didn’t know how I would get into the bus in this state. “Why this goodbye, Kili? Why?”

But Kilimanjaro has the ability to distract you throughout. We were entertained by an endless variety of bird sounds that are sure to wake the 5 year-old in anyone. I don’t know what struck me, but I started responding to them. “But we have to go! I’m coming back, I promise!” Or to another note, “I will miss you too! Thank you!”

To our sheer joy at Mweka Gate, some people ran a business of cleaning climbers’ boots when they arrive. I received my first indulgence right at the gate. I sat down and had a very kind woman sink my boots in water and brush all the mud away.

It was – and still is – very hard to believe how lucky we were up there. To me, I took up this journey to discover my limits, if any. I needed to know my potential. I wanted it to be the beginning of something new and exciting in my life. I had lost my mother less than two months before and felt the ground shake under my feet. Everything I ever took for granted in my life was suddenly gone one Friday morning. Making it up Kilimanjaro became more important to me than ever before. I felt so blessed that I made it to the top.

I felt nature twisting its laws to suit my abilities. I had everything on my side. And I can’t wait for the next mountain to climb!

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Day 6: Zero Hour, Sub-Zero Journey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worth it, isn't it?

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

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

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

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

I was then too tired to contemplate on anything.

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

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

Yep. Worth it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I finally reached the summit!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Day 5: Mind Over Body

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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