Posts Tagged hiking

Part 3: Prayers, Sherpas, Bliss!

Many of the Sherpa porters and guides were women.

Today’s trek was a true treat of what Nepal’s Himalayas have to offer. It’s more than just a mountain experience; it’s an enchanting blend of nature and culture that dragged me out of my past, present and future and left me hanging somewhere in mid-world. It was so easy to forget who I was or why I was there. I was just there.

Despite the pain yesterday’s descending trek gave me, it was a little warm up for my legs to get ready for today’s ascent of a further 800m. It took about 8 hours for us to reach Namche Bazaar, one of the most beautiful stops along the Khumbu route.

Namche sits at approximately 3400m altitude. Standing almost vertically on the mountain, it is one of the largest villages we stopped by along the route. Numerous restaurants, shops, and lodges owned by the villagers are beautifully clustered together, leaving a large semi-flat area for the Tibet market, where Tibetans cross borders and settle to sell some of their products.

I fell in love with the place the minute I stepped foot in it and began to walk in its bumpy alleys. But by the time we arrived I was too tired to take any further walks uphill or downhill. I settled in the lodge dining room by the fire and began to write.

Unlike Kilimanjaro, the climb up the Khumbu route is a combination of uphill and downhill treks. I liked the idea of being forced to gain altitude as slowly as possible and hence be better acclimatized. To cross from one mountain to another we’ve had to go downhill to the river, take a metal bridge, and then go back up. I admired those bridges. They would bounced up and down with trekkers’ steps like a fun shock absorber ride. I’m sure Sir Hillary’s trek wasn’t as fun without those bridges, but at least he probably didn’t have the aching joints I had, so a bridge like that wouldn’t have meant that much.

The minute I would step onto one of those bridges I would feel that I’d been lifted off the ground and was now flying over the river, barely touching the water with my feet. The wind would be at its strongest, blowing through the colorful prayer flags that had been placed alongside the rails. I would hold up my poles with one hand and let the other caress the flags as I moved along.

Sometimes a single downhill to a bridge would take no less than an hour, but the trekker, Sherpa, and yak company were most of the time a nice distraction. In the steeper parts I began to breathe loudly and struggle with each step, but I knew it was a small price for having slacked the previous couple of months. I don’t recall ever feeling older than the moment when young school children were gliding past me with exceptional ease, laughing and chasing each other with their school bags. Some were carrying their little sisters or brothers on their backs, while I struggled with my poles and counted my every step.

Namaste kid! I could hear this little boy's repeated namastes to a line of trekkers. I took his picture when it was my turn.

I learned so much about the Sherpa just by looking at their children. The minute I saw those kids and their energetic sprints up and down the mountain I understood the special physiological make up with which a Sherpa had been blessed. Yet they are also not without their simple pursuits of fun, feeling awe at everything they deem different. A few minutes ago as I was writing the TV was on showing an Indian movie with a woman screaming her lungs out as she hung by a single hand from a cliff, then suddenly dropping meters down to a river and getting shoved from rock to another, when suddenly a muscular man with a torn shirt shows up to her rescue. Some trekkers were staring at the screen with a blank expression from sheer exhaustion, but the Sherpa waitress sitting across me at the table was staring with full intensity, oohing and aahing each time the woman hit a rock, then finally sighing with relief as the handsome man rescued her with a single hand.

Kind, shy, quiet, and with superb physical abilities, the Sherpa make the perfect representatives of mountain people. I could see humility and respect behind the strong jawlines and the sharp features with which they smiled back at me. Spirituality runs in their veins and takes over the air they breathe. I could hear Buddhist chants coming out of shops as I passed by. I saw prayers engraved or painted on stones, some dating back hundreds of years. I saw women stopping in the middle of their errands and making an effort to keep prayer wheels spinning, spreading bliss among the hills.

The Sherpa are strong, stout-hearted people who haven’t lost their sense of smallness as mortals. Perhaps this is precisely because they are of the mountains, they understand the mountains in all their ways and all their changes. They have experienced both their blessing and wrath first hand.

This time I don’t only feel the company of great mountains, I’m indulging in the hospitality of some of the world’s most amazing people. And for that I feel grateful, and truly humbled.

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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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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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Guest Post: The Martyr of St. Catherine

By Salma Beshr

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.

Hussein (L) and Ali in one of their face making fits at the summit

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.

Ali celebrates his triumph.

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!

The camels that carried our sleeping bags spent the night a few meters away from us.

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.

We had to scatter with our sleeping bags on this terrain.

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.

The view from the summit

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’.

During our rocky descent

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!

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An Ode to Kilimanjaro

By Salma Beshr and Lamia Ayman

Thanks for the great words!

Baraka, the mountain's gift to me

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

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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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