Posts Tagged Tanzania
By Nora Mortagui
“Technique and ability alone do not get you to the top — it is the will power that is the most important. This will power you cannot buy with money or be given by others — it rises from your heart.” Quote by the first woman Everest climber, Junko Tabei 
On September 17th at 11:20am, I stood at arms length to a wooden post that congratulated me on being at the peak of the highest free standing mountain in Africa. Congratulations to me indeed, but it was not a walk in the park getting there. In fact, it took me 12 trying hours instead of the designated 6 or 8. Whatever the duration was, I was slow, very slow. I will not recount the glorious 5 days preceding this point since there are more affluent writers who will portray expressed accounts of that in generous details. Instead, I will share my humble stream of consciousness solely on my 12-hour attempt to Uhuru peak.
Barafu Camp, the last camp before the summit on Machame route, is nestled at 4800m. I was placed amongst those set out to attempt the 5895m summit in the slowest paced group. The slowest group initiated the summit attempt in an almost zombie-like march a little after 11pm on September 16th. I was placed 3rd behind the guide. My placement left me content because the footsteps of the guide Baraka, and Arwa’s in front of me, comforted me and helped me focus. But ten minutes into the ascent my heart began to pound, no surprises there when my heart has been faster than a speeding bullet with a resting rate starting at 120bpm on average. Up to that point, I prided in the fact that I managed to avoid altitude sickness and took no painkillers since we started 5 days ago but I had no concept of the physical aftermath.
Earlier this day, I experienced the worst calve cramps I could have ever been subjected to. The pain in my calves could possibly resemble small pieces of sharp objects of various forms that have exploded, many times over, in my muscle fibers, leaving my basic lower body movements to near paralysis. So early into the ascent, with so much pain, I wasn’t confident on how I was going to cope with myself mentally and emotionally. Yet so untrue to my nature, I was still a little hopeful.
Somewhere an hour or a little more into ascending, I had to answer nature’s call. I stopped the group and headed to a nearby rock. I did my business and it was a messy one that left me hygienically violated to the point of de-motivation. I must have kept the group long and realized that I was leaving them in the cold which worried me. I haphazardly recollected myself to head back and hadn’t placed myself in the group line yet when the group had already begun to move. By the time I reached the trail, the group was already quite some meters away. Those meters felt like oceans between us. There was no way in hell I could have caught up with them by skipping or walking a little faster because the pain in my calves would make my heart race and that would ultimately make me weaker. I couldn’t afford that right then so I had to keep at my own safe pace and accept the reality that I cannot catch up. I finally succumbed to the cosmic irony behind all those months of physical training that I thought prepared me for this moment but in effect proved otherwise. I began to feel like a bead that was swinging last in a thread of beads. But this particular bead was heavy, so heavy that it started slowly slipping away, thinning the thread that kept itself connected with the rest, until the thread finally dissolved into nothingness and the bead rolled rhythmically backwards while the rest of the beads faded ahead into the distance and their glimmering lights could be spotted no more. I knew then and there that my ascent would be a solitary one. This was going to be a long night.
The scene was set. More than a couple of hours had passed and I was somewhere in the middle of the mountain with a guide I could barely recall his face from the previous days and had just learnt his name when we got stuck with each other because I separated completely from the group. We had no emotional bond or earlier conversations of informal introductions. I was concerned. I didn’t know his movements, his pace, he didn’t know about my heart issues or cramps or my pace, he didn’t know when I last ate or drank, he hasn’t seen me climb at all. But I had no choice. He was mine and I was his. I looked back down the mountain to determine where I was and where the 2nd group was. I saw a trail of headlights below, for a moment I felt like I was above the stars, it was a soothing sight but they were coming up fast and it made me slightly intimidated because of me being so slow. I turned around towards the mountain, dismissed these thoughts and put a foot in front of the other.
Shortly after, the group that I looked down on earlier was not the 2nd group. They shot right passed me with such ease and rhythm. I thought that I could join and follow that group just to be part of anything but I contained no vigor or truth for being any faster. I let them pass with the sadness of a lost puppy. Then another group passed, then another. But still no sign of the 2nd group yet. When I looked down the mountain again I could figure out 2 different groups from the collection of headlights. I thought that must be them. When finally Adel’s group arrived and there I was inching my way up while Adel’s group also shot passed me. Naturally I felt jealous, I wish I could have been faster but the pain didn’t permit me. The pain was my new best friend and forced me to do as it pleased. Then another group passed, then another. It must have been over 4 or 5 hours since we started, I had no idea of how much time passed but Omar’s group finally arrived to where I was. It was a relief to speak with Omar briefly as he told me I still had time when I complained to him about my slowness and cramps. Omar replenished my hope and he and his group went passed me. I looked behind me again and there weren’t many headlights left. I felt embarrassed being this single person going up the mountain like an old woman with silly cramps to complain of while close to 40 people of different sizes, shapes, heights, ages, share relatively the same pace. I gulped my state and watched as their headlights danced all along the top of the mountain way ahead of me. It was very challenging now to keep my levels of hope balanced. About an hour later I heard a very loud cheer of song and hoots. I figured Adel and Omar’s must have met, even though I wasn’t sure. Knowing the Egyptian charisma to be loud, cheerful and united, I understood it might be them up in the distance. My eyes welled with tears. I wanted to be part of that. I’d never felt lonelier.
“You can do this, Nora, you can do this. One step at a time, one step at a time. Will power, will power.” I tried vaguely to remember the quote by the first woman that ascended Everest and all I could bring out from the quote was “will power” and something about how nothing or no one else mattered. “I will make it, I will make it.” Pole stomped in the ground, one foot follows, other pole stomped in the ground, other foot follows, all in languid slow motion. “I will make it, I will make it.” I was obsessed in my inner dialogue and repeated those phrases in numbers to infinity. I never perceived in my entire life that I could discipline myself to a particular set of movements and a single mindset for so damn long. God knows how many hours had passed in just that state. In the crux of these intense emotions, images circulated manically in my head; random, thoughtless images, the Indonesian flag in my backpack, the summit picture on my phone, The Right to Climb, my mother cooking in her restaurant; I cannot fail her, I cannot fail all those people that had faith in me; 44 sessions at Anna Louise’s, my Egyptian family, my Indonesian family, I cannot fail myself; the silent poundings of my heart reached my ears. “I can do this, I can do this, I’m not sick, just tired, I’m not sick, God, my muscles hurt and yet I can barely feel them, but I can do this, God is Great, God is Great, thank you, Arwa for telling me about that, it’s ok that I’m so slow, my own pace, my own pace, no one else matters, my own pace, it’s not that bad. I will make it.”
The sun woke up and people continued to pass by me. Someone told me we’re almost there and that I should just keep going. I gained some much needed encouragement. I had no idea where I was until the guide finally mentioned, after hours of silence between us, that we were close to Stella Point. With the sun coming up, my sense of hope doubled. I was pleased because it meant my body will soak in some warmth from the sun and my numb fingertips will experience life again. I must have been about 20meters away from Stella Point. I was absolutely, miserably, pathetically exhausted. My only gratitude was that there was no sign of altitude sickness. I joked with myself, “I have been between 5000m and 5700m for so long, I should damn well be super acclimatized!” I thanked my lucky stars for that indeed, but certainly not for the persistent pain. It was around 8am and I had asked the guide whether he thought the group summited. He opened his walkie talkie, which I discovered was closed all along, that yes the group probably summited. Suddenly he suggests I just make it to Stella Point and go back since I can still get a certificate for Stella Point. I was offended and with an expressionless face I answered “No, I want to make it to Uhuru, you have to help me make it to Uhuru.” I understood that I subjected the guide to myself as a slow-moving burden but I never expected he’d suggest I give up altogether in spite of my lack of sickness but obvious pain. I supposed he suggested that out of good intentions and quickly I managed to disallow his suggestion to deter my determination to make it to Uhuru and continued to inch my way up the merciless scree and sharp incline a little before Stella Point.
The sun was rising high and people were beginning to come back down. I was possibly 10meters away from Stella Point and I met Lubna, the first one to descend. I was refreshed to see a friendly familiar face and had asked her how much was left for me and how easy or difficult it was. She reassured me that it’s not long anymore and the scree part is almost over. Finally I met Omar who also reassured me of the remaining part to go and I learnt from him that it was around 9am. They had summited 2 hours ago! The realization of how slow I was began to sting me personally but that was a fact I just had to stomach. I finally met every single climber of our group and was encouraged and cheered to go on. I was touched. I needed that. I was also anxiously waiting for Arwa. I couldn’t stop thinking about her and was hoping she’d wait for me at the summit for us to take a picture together but calculated the feasibility of that was non-existent. As everyone kept going down, I was eyeing out for her. I was so proud of her and proud of our friendship. I really wanted to just see her and cry and congratulate her on making it to the summit. I wished dearly we were together but understood we had to part ways from early on. Finally, we met, she was one of the last that descended and I just felt all the grace and comfort of heaven falling upon me. Seeing her was a major boost to continue and when I asked her to hand me her camera, since I didn’t have one for my summit picture, it felt like she was passing a baton of success. I tucked it in my side pocket and hoped for the best. I was on my own from now, quite literally.
Everyone from my group descended while I paced on. The guide also brought 2 porters to accompany us. The terrain after Stella Point was a lot more forgiving. But at that point, my muscles were failing pretty badly. Challenging another incline no matter how easy it looked was sheer agony. I was confined now to experience pure human misery and physical feats completely alien to me. The early bouts of mental and emotional breakdowns were slowly, but surely, creeping in. I finally saw the summit, sitting patiently at the top of a curving elevated land that looked like a jetty sticking out of the mountain. God it felt so far. But there is no stopping now. “I will make it, I will make it.” But then at one of the inclines, I just fell on my knees and started crying in front of the guide and porters. “I’m so tired, I’m so tired,” I exclaimed with child-like sobs. Out of desperation, I thought that maybe I should tackle this incline by crawling. So I started crawling on all fours, sobbing, and the guide immediately patted me on the back and said that I can’t do that. Seconds later, he pulled me up to my feet. At last we began to bond and I surrendered myself to him completely. We were so close to the summit now but I was extremely physically futile. I hung on to him like a crippled child. I was exchanged then with the two porters to help me up those nasty inclines. The glaciers slowly began to unravel themselves, I saw some ice on the ground, the summit was getting closer, I could hardly believe myself, I was dumbfounded but I was so alert. “I’m going to make it. I’m going to make it.”
“There it is,” I muttered in breathless whispers as I internally sobbed with my head rested on the side of the porter’s shoulder. Under 5 meters towards the summit, I freed myself from the porters and told them I had to get there myself. And so I did, in my graceful slowness, digging my poles in the ground and dragging my useless legs like an old lady. There I was absolutely solitary on the summit, the guide and the porters seemed to vanish in the background while I stood for a moment in respect towards the wooden post and was shaken into realizing that I had the roof of Africa all to myself. There wasn’t another soul in sight. My dream finally materialized into reality and I was not comfortable in bed flipping through pictures on the internet and fantasizing a great success at the summit. I was there! I was miserable, exhausted, confused, and worn down, absolutely defeated by my physical self yet wholly elated and triumphant all at the same time!
This ascent taught me a few things. It was an ascent to my own soul, my own inner summit. It taught me weakness and strength, sadness and happiness, failure and success, hate and love, compassion towards the frail human condition and the power “between your ears.” Probably what resonated in me the most is the sheer irrelevance of the scheme of things because we human beings are eventually lonely creatures. My ascent was in essence a lonely one, with no group hugs, or group photos, a cheer, a song, a guide who knew me well nor I him, or a personal exchange of memorable words and smiles. But how could I be lonely now when I was so much closer to the heavens and to myself and that I made my parents proud?
There is a fine line between loneliness and solitude. And this mountain, as it has stood freely for all these centuries in all of its vast glory, finally taught me that solitude is a not such a bad thing after all, solitude is freedom.
By Salma Beshr and Lamia Ayman
Thanks for the great words!
My worst days are behind me.
My darkest hour is gone.
All I have ever dreamed of
Right here, so close to the sun.
Long months of anticipation.
Then, finally, the uphill climb:
One deep breath to begin with
And one small step at a time.
Eager, expectant, restless.
My step turns into stride:
My heart beats in time to the rhythm
Of far-away drums as my guide.
The whole world enveloped in darkness.
As, weary, the day becomes night:
The body discovers its weakness.
The soul, relentless, its might.
Rocks and frost and nose-bleeds
Cannot shake my determination
To arrive exhausted, breathless
At the summit of exhilaration.
I have conquered the indomitable wilderness.
All the demons within and without.
And am not afraid of tomorrow.
For I have been and always will be
At the top of Kilimanjaro
Kilimanjaro wasn’t the first hike for me, but it was definitely the first time I do outdoor living and climbing to an altitude of more than 3000 m. So I consider myself a first timer, and maybe that is why I think I should share my discoveries, as graphic as they are. Veteran climbers might forget the little details they’ve learned to take for granted.
1. Expect dusty nails, toes, and skin.
That is something you start getting on your first day on Kilimanjaro. The first time you see your nails you’ll think that it’s just the aftermath of the hike and that it will all go away once you wash your hands. Wrong. The tip of your nails will turn grey and black and stay that way throughout the week. You will eventually get used to the look of your hand while you hold your food or pass a piece of bread to a friend. Don’t worry, they’ll get used to that too and take it from you with gratitude.
My skin also became very dry and developed a brownish tone to it. It wasn’t suntan; just a pure layer of dust. So if you are at all concerned about your skin (which I doubt you will be at this phase) make sure you have a moisturizer.
The very fine dust that comprises an overwhelming part of Kilimanjaro’s terrain also ends up flying in the air once you or your climbing buddies step on it. So get yourself a nice buff and make sure you wrap it around your face to cover your nose and mouth. It should filter the air that gets into your lungs. I personally could not do it because it was too suffocating for me, but others did. I just lived with the dust and the coughing.
2. Bring ginger tea bags to drink.
I went to Kilimanjaro with a very stubborn cough that started with me the day I decided to cool my sweaty self in front of an AC after a harsh workout. I coughed with each sentence I spoke, and I coughed myself to sleep every night, probably annoying the entire camp. The unimaginable fluctuation of the temperature on the mountain is very likely to give you a cough if you don’t have one. Nothing would soothe me before I went to sleep except hot ginger. I would borrow hot water from the porters before I went to my tent and sip on it to my heart’s delight. Sip, cough, spit, until my throat was clear enough to allow me to breathe again and hence fall asleep.
3. Expect black and bloody substance to come out of your nose.
Substance is in fact an understatement. You might as well expect objects. Given that I already had the remains of a cold, the snot used to gather all the dust in the air. And since private access to running water is impossible on the mountain, you rely heavily on nose blowing with tissues. Tissue after tissue until your skin starts to chap and you decide not to blow each time you feel something in your nose. So it gets clogged. Add to that the possibility of getting nose bleeds because of the altitude. I personally did not get actual nose bleeds, but yes, sometimes I ended up blowing blood along with black snot.
At the end of the journey I was the only one in the team who did not get a chance to take a shower before the flight back home. So in the airport, when I finally got to see running water from a tap, I could not hold myself much longer. I announced to other women in the bathroom that I would be grossing them out. A middle-aged woman smiled at me nervously and on I started with my symphony. Forget about privacy, I no longer had a sense of what it meant.
4. Dry sacs, ziplock bags, dry sacs, ziplock bags…
Keep repeating that to yourself once you know you’re headed to a mountain. Then you’ll find yourself packing all of your stuff inside dry sacs and ziplock bags, because this is the bible of outdoor traveling. I’m a messy traveler. I challenge order by scattering all of my little objects anywhere around the bag. If I stuff them in there they’d still arrive, wouldn’t they? Well, yes they would but that is if I’m flying from Cairo to London and unpacking once. But on Kilimanjaro you are packing and unpacking every single day.
Everyday we would wake up at 6 am, start packing our things, which include sleeping bag, foam mat, sleeping mat, plus all clothes, zip our duffle bags, then go out for breakfast and off to the climb. All of that needs to be done in very little time. And if you like to brush your teeth after your breakfast or if you forgot that specific item then prepare to go through the process all over again if you don’t have your things divided into little bags. I used to curse myself every single time I tried to find something. I would uselessly dig my hand in a pool of loose little items and end up emptying the whole bag to find that medicine or that buff.
Also, in most of the camps our tent was placed on an incline. Now imagine yourself with all your little objects scattered around you and sliding along with them to the tip of the tent. It’s a mess and a crowd.
So the sacs act like drawers. You divide your things and know exactly which bag to look for to pick up your stuff.
5. Never ever EVER wipe yourself clean while still squatting on the pile of dump you have just created.
The pile may be still warm and you will not feel it in the back of your hand. You will just suddenly find it there. You will be traumatized for eternity and wish you could chop your very hands off. I finished a whole bottle of sanitizer gel and half a pack of disinfectant wipes just to be able to forget what had just happened to me.
6. Bring strong flavored gum that cleans the teeth.
On many nights you will have left your toothbrush at the tent and you will be grateful for crawling into the tent immediately after dinner to get away from all the cold. It takes a lot of pondering and considering to decide to get out of the tent at night just to go to the bathroom tent. The temperature is way below zero and you will find frost all around your tent. You will have to put on layers and layers of clothes just to answer nature’s call. So, brushing your teeth might even become a lesser priority.
Your chewing gum can come in handy to at least give you a clean feeling if you just can’t get yourself to get out of the tent one more time before sleep.
7. Get cotton and ointment for burns.
Normally plasters are enough to protect your feet from blisters. But I burned myself with washing water. The porters gave a small bottle and thought they had cooled it down. I was so cold that I admired the feeling of warmth that came to me from the bottle. The minute I started using it I screamed my lungs out. No ice can be quickly available, unless you count your frozen fingers. I needed an ointment and cotton to cover the affected area in order to be able to continue with my hike the next day. That is something that might be rare, but it could happen. It’s good to be armed.
8. Again and again and again, drink water for as long as you remember what water is and force yourself to eat as long as you have food on your plate.
These are your best weapons against the altitude and the only things you need other than your Diamox. Also, being sleepy in the camp is always a good thing. Altitude sickness is supposed to make it hard for you to sleep and not the other way around.
As long as you’re in the camp, listen to your body. Once you’re in the hike, listen to your mind.
9. Make sure to rehabilitate yourself to non-mountain life before you head back.
While standing in the passport line at Cairo airport I got carried away with a friend comparing notes on our snot and whether or not we blew our noses properly that day, only to discover that we were conversing across a poor Egyptian who stood between us in bewilderment and disgust. “I’m still blowing blood.” “So am I! Today I blew the weirdest stuff out of my nose, and it was mostly black and very bloody!”
In the end, all the annoyances I’ve written about, as disgusting as they might sound, will be taken as a given once you’re up there. It feels different once you’re in the middle of it all. They also guarantee you an unforgettable cleansing experience for your mind and your soul. It’s good to let go of the little luxuries we sometimes take for granted. I came back to Cairo appreciating all the little things such as food of any kind, bed, shower, soap… And most importantly, I had peace of mind.
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.
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.
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!
As the hour got closer, Nora and I put on our basic layers and tried to sleep in them. We had to move at 10:45 pm sharp. They were going to wake us up at 10, enough time for us to put on the extra layers and head to the dining tent for a snack or coffee.
Getting dressed for that night was easy. It was simply about wearing everything you had which you knew would keep you warm. I put on both my wool liner pants, both my wool tops, hiking pants, shell pants to break the wind, fleece jacket, down jacket, liner gloves, mittens, and a balaclava for head, neck, and breath warmth.
Looking like astronauts headed for Mars, Nora, Lubna, Coucla, Nehal, Sarah, Corey, Ian, and myself said our prayers and set out to the summit behind Baraka’s careful, patient steps.
The silence overwhelmed the place and filled our hearts with humility. All I could hear was the crushing sound of the pebbles under our boots, Baraka’s walkie talkie, and our heavy breathing. We could not see anything beyond our flashlights, except for the glaciers at the top of our destination. The fear, the excitement, and the freezing temperature put us all in a state of extreme focus. Each one of us was living their own, private experience with the mountain. Each one was silently hoping and praying to make it to the top. It was a surreal experience.
This was the first time for all of us to make it to such a high altitude. None of us had ever been higher before. We also hadn’t acclimatized to this altitude yet. So I tried to cut all fearful thoughts out of my head by focusing on Baraka’s slow, small, and monotonous steps. They were to me an acknowledgment of man’s smallness. They were a sign of respect to the might of the mountain, a recognition of the tough journey ahead, and a symbol of the perseverance required to reach a goal. I knew they were the steps I needed to get me to the top.
Going slowly was also helpful in that our breaks were as short and as few as possible to avoid the cold. The minute we stopped, quite literally the minute we stopped, my toes began to freeze despite the thick socks and liners I was wearing under the boots. There was also a high probability that our muscles would almost instantly begin to cool down, which would make it very painful for us to get them going again.
Those breaks, as few and as short as they were, were still life-savers to me, because no matter how slowly I was going, I felt extreme exertion all over my body and mind. I kept drinking water as often as I could. We were advised by Adel, our trip organizer, to blow the water back each time we drank through the hose and into the reservoir to protect it from freezing. I did as he told us, but the higher up we went the more difficult it became to sip. It began to freeze slowly.
Soon the terrain gave in to a series of rocks on a cliff. At this point I had parted from Baraka because some in the group requested another stop that I could not afford. So I walked on with Lubna and Godfrey, her guide. Godfrey was a big man with long strides, no matter how slow he tried to go, he remained three or 4 meters away from me. That was enough to make me panic, because that took him out of my flashlight zone and I had to look up to find which way he was going. That automatically meant lack of focus on footsteps and more sighting of horrendous cliff and enormous distance that still laid ahead. I found myself calling out to him, “You’re too fast. Too fast!” And the poor man didn’t know what to do to get slower than he already was. So I decided to stop and wait for Baraka again.
By then I had started to feel dizzy again. My eyes were beginning to close and my entire system wanted to shut down. That’s when I remembered Nadia’s comment: “GO gels saved my life!” I quickly reached into my pocket for my power gel and began to suck on it for dear life. I continued to drink water as I waited for Baraka to catch up.
Climbers were passing me by, and I saw a guide holding on to poles and bending down. A blind man was holding on firmly to his back and he was leading him up to the summit. I immediately remembered the one-legged man. My friends later told me that they did see him on his way back from the summit. He made it there before us.
I was then too tired to contemplate on anything.
The minute I saw Baraka’s red and black gaiters I felt my life coming back to me. I was back into my comfort zone. I looked at him with tears in my eyes and said the most ridiculous thing I believe I ever said to anyone: “Baraka where are you?? I can’t do it without you!”
He pointed to his back and said, “Follow me.” What a pathetic creature, he probably thought.
There was a lot of scrambling involved. My weakness would sometimes give in to the weight of my backpack and I felt my backpack pulling me down and again sweeping me off balance. Some cliffs were less than a meter away from me, but I simply did not care anymore. This was such an extreme situation to me that all my fears seemed like an imaginary monster in the closet. This pulling force of my backpack was a wake up call. I did everything I could to rest my weight on the correct foot before I took each step up. This was the only way I could stop Baraka’s persistent offers to carry my backpack. I wanted to see how far I could go.
Ian was the only one who seemed to be at relative ease. I guess his desire to film everything for the documentary he was making on our charity climb helped him focus.
Corey was extremely cold he couldn’t bear to stop for long. To keep himself warm he kept talking and moving each time we stopped. In one of the breaks he looked at Baraka and said, “How are you doing Baraka? Just another day in the office, huh?”
Nehal, Sarah, and Nora were mostly silent, they were concentrating on their breathing.
Nora’s crazy heartbeat made her slow down further and separate with another guide. There were times when she said she felt her heart was going to burst out of her chest.
Coucla began to lose coordination and doze off. That worried Baraka, so he kept her immediately behind him and spoke to her to keep her awake. He would interrupt the silence every now and then and call out to each of us by name to make sure that we were awake, drinking water, breathing, and able to carry out a conversation.
I have no clear idea of the temperature as we were climbing, but I know it was a kind of cold I had never witnessed in my life. I covered my mouth and nose with the balaclava to warm up the air that got into my lungs. The minute I would expose my mouth the coughing would begin like mad, so I tried to keep it covered as much as I could.
The incline to Stella Point, which sits at 5756 m, was the steepest incline possible for a climber using only his feet and trekking poles. The terrain was all pebbly and slippery. I placed most of my weight on the poles and it still did not seem to be enough. I had to go even slower with much smaller steps. I was almost crawling. At this point suffering was all I could think of, no matter how much I tried to focus on Baraka’s boots. It was an eternity. I started asking him “How far are we now?” repeatedly. This was the longest, steepest, and coldest phase on our summit climb.
We were very lucky that the night was not windy. Yet the higher up we went the thinner the air became. We were now going way above the levels we had acclimatized our bodies to. My muscles began to feel weaker with the decreasing oxygen level. I began to lose grip over my mind. I had never pushed my body or my mind to this limit before. Throughout my training I had always endured what I thought was the maximum for me, but all along I was always in control of how far I pushed. I had the buttons. But in the middle of the mountain at 3 am and at an altitude of more than 5500 m I had no control over anything.
Mind over body my ***. My body was now seriously offended.
I did not have the energy to go back either even if I wanted to. My choices were to either push myself to the target or sit to die on the mountain–a rather inconvenient alternative for everyone.
I continued to say my prayers up the mountain, and Nadia’s voice came back to me: “If all else fails, forget the destination. Look at your own boots. Can you take this step? Now can you take the next step?” That mental trick became my last and only fuel; the water had started to freeze and was no longer accessible, and it was more difficult to reach into my pocket and pick up a snack with my mittens on and I did not want to stop for that. Now my brain was too busy focusing on each foot and ordering it to move. Maybe that was still mind over body, but right then it was too much of a luxury for me to conceptualize on what I was doing. I was just pushing that engine up.
To soothe us, Baraka kept pointing to the sky to show us the break of dawn. Each time I looked to see the color of the sky getting lighter I felt warmer and more hopeful. In this trip, sunshine always made hope run through my veins. And sunshine now meant Uhuru Peak was getting closer.
By the time we reached Stella Point daylight had filled us all with joy. Only 139 m further up now, Uhuru Peak began to show in the distance. The slope was now at a lesser incline, but soon those wooden blocks that marked the summit disappeared again, and the hike up to it was physically more challenging than I expected. Up to Stella Point I was struggling with small steps each at a time. Now each step was an enormous effort to me. I had to stop after each single step, rest my weight on my poles, and breathe heavily.
Baraka kept stopping me for pictures to allow me to acclimatize more and to give a chance to some of the others behind to catch up. I began to feel frustrated with these stops. I just wanted to get there and then worry about the pictures later.
People keep asking me how I felt when I arrived at the summit. No words can properly describe how I felt, because I had never felt that way before. I simply have no words for it.
And I have no words for the beauty I saw up there. I was standing at the top of Africa, I could see the curvature of the earth, a beautiful line of pink colored the meeting point between the sky and the clouds below me, it was reflected in the white glaciers that surrounded me, and it was -18 ºC.
But my lips were caught in a continuous grin that possibly stayed until I was halfway back down.
I don’t recall how many people I hugged when I arrived at Uhuru Peak. I threw myself in every open arm that came my way. Hug first, find out who later.
I took every picture I could near those wooden blocks. After all the months I had their picture on my phone screen, I could not believe that I was finally holding on to them. Like Nora said, “We held on to them because we still couldn’t believe ourselves, and of course to prove that we’re actually there and that it’s not Photoshop!”
So many of us kept asking on our way up why the summit hike was particularly at night? Why couldn’t we start in the morning and be there at noon? Going back down in the light of day I could see why. The guides spared us despair if we were to see just how steep that slope was. Night limited our vision. We could not see the steepness, and we could not see how far up we still had to go. We just had to worry about our boots.
The journey to the summit took 5 days and it climaxed in the early hours of the 6th. I was learning something new about the mountain, about God, and about myself every hour. No person can truly believe what they are capable of until they are on the edge of survival.
By the time I reached the top I did not feel triumphant. I did not feel that I conquered the mountain. I wasn’t battling with it. I wasn’t challenging it. I was battling with and challenging myself, and the mountain was telling me how to win. I felt blessed to have come this close to Kilimanjaro, to have been allowed to climb it, and to have it teach me a new lesson about myself.
“This climb taught us about our weakness, fragility, and about our strength all at the same time.” I could not have put it better than Nora.
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.
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!!
I don’t normally use foul language, so please forgive me this time.
Today the altitude took its first toll on me. I can’t begin to explain how demotivating that can be, even though I know that all the symptoms I’m facing are still within normal range.
We were supposed to begin our acclimatization hikes today. Today’s hike was from Shira camp, 3800 m, to Lava Tower at 4600 m, where we were to have lunch, and then hike down to Barranco camp at 3950 m to spend the night. This was our first serious test of endurance in thin air. The only positive thing about it was that it was not steep and the terrain was not very challenging. It was our first entrance into the Alpine Desert.
I was aware of the challenge that lay ahead in that hike but I did not fully grasp what it would mean to me. It was like how we see people dying yet feel so distant from it, like it only happens to others. So on that morning I decided that I was a light person and hence had to begin the hike feeling light. I looked around at the breakfast table and I saw sausages, beef bacon, eggs… I thought to myself, “Oh my God! How can these people hike after eating all that fatty food? No way. I’m having my porridge.” So I took some porridge, added a bit of honey, and a single piece of bread just to fulfill my carb intake requirement. I felt so proud and satisfied with this breakfast and on I went to begin the climb.
I immediately put on the Pole Pole act. I began crawling out of the camp and intended to crawl all the way up to Lava Tower. But that wasn’t enough. As we progressed I began to feel lightheaded. I began to sense some pressure over my eyes that kept getting stronger. I felt as if my eyes were bulging and I expected them to pop out any minute. I kept taking as deep breaths as the altitude would allow me, but soon that lightheaded sensation gave way to dizziness and drowsiness.
I recalled all the tips I had taken from Nadia and Omar Samra, our expedition leader, about “quietening” my mind. So the minute it started threatening me with altitude fatality (yes, that’s how dramatic my mind can get) I decided that it must be the sun. We were going higher up under the sun’s burning UV rays, so that’s what was happening. I just needed to tighten my hat around my head a bit more and shed some layers.
It still didn’t work.
I was on the verge of a total crash so I had to shout out for a break. I was lucky to have Baraka and Joseph, two leader guides, with me. “How are you feeling?” asked me Joseph. “I feel dizzy and tired. It must be the strong sun.”
“I would say it’s the altitude,” he replied.
Thank you Joseph. That was very helpful.
I reached into my backpack and, to my miserable surprise, could not find any of the power gels I had brought with me. It was my travel-light-and-feel-light crap day.
I kept drinking water and chewing on some chocolate and resumed the hike.
Soon my dizziness turned into imagery. I started seeing people talking who weren’t even there. It was like a semi-conscious experience. So my body decided to put on a denial act and fall asleep. There were times when I didn’t know if it was my body or me, but I tried to grab the opportunity that the guides weren’t looking and close my eyes and pretend that I was in my bed in Cairo, fast asleep. It was the only technique that relieved some of the misery I was in.
And remember my theory that dry weather would relieve my cough? Not true. My cough became wilder than ever that Ian told me he could hear it almost a mile away. The spitting got more intense and much thicker that I simply decided not to use up all of my tissues on it. So I started spitting on the ground like an annoying cab driver in Cairo. Spit was, after all, organic material that could be left on the mountain. So sorry Kili, but it was a question of survival for me. I either spat on the ground, saved up tissue for my bathroom needs, and breathed my way up Kilimanjaro, or packed my things and went home to sip soup, watch TV and run away from it all. So I preferred the first option.
Yet as the hike continued to what seemed like an eternity my muscles started to feel weaker. I began to pant at the normal step so I had to break it down further.
Diamox began to realize that it had more work to do, so I was answering nature’s call almost behind every rock I ran into. I shamelessly announced it to my climbing buddies and threatened them not to come near my rock, all the while trying to deal with the mess I put myself in as an inexperienced outdoor pooper with diarrhea, while the guide patiently waited in the distance.
By the time we went down to Barranco camp at the end of the hike, I was greeted by a beautiful cloud of mist and, once again, trees. But I felt like all my defensors were shutting down. I went into my tent and tried to pick up some clothes from my bag, but my head was throbbing and my hand was too weak to reach into the bag. I was looking at the clothes unable to identify any of the items. All it took was for Joseph to come to my tent and ask me if I was alright. I broke down into hysterical sobs. It suddenly hit me that I might not actually make it to the summit. I reached out with my finger to him the way a 5 year-old shows his mother a finger cut and asked him to check my pulse and oxygen. My oxygen level was 95, still way above the dangerous 70 mark, and my heart rate was 85, still good at this altitude.
“So why are you crying?” he asked. I think I just needed a shoulder to cry on.
Right now I’m writing this at 11:45 PM. The thick fog that blurred vision in the camp has subsided, and Uhuru Peak, that beautiful monstrous summit of Kilimanjaro is looming before me with its glaciers. The stars are so low I can almost touch them, and the walls of the mountain are so high, so black, and they’re engulfing the camp like it was giving us a warm, rewarding hug after an unforgettable, curse-evoking 10 hour hike.
Despite all of the sickness I felt, I was consoled by the scenery. We were going higher above the clouds and slowly rising to Mount Meru’s summit level. I felt like I was going through a mind and body cleansing experience. I began to fall in love even more with the mountain. I loved every sensation of altitude that put me on the verge of a black out. I loved the unspoken conversation between me and the mountain as I began to feel tired yet so excited to reach my destination as it began to appear in the distance. I felt humbled by the difficulty I was facing and so touched when the weather starts turning in my favor. I loved Kilimanjaro, and something told me that as it watched me get sick and still want to make it, it began to love me too.
We were to spend our first night in Arusha to recover from the long flight and begin our climb the following morning. On that first night I began to take Diamox, a drug meant to decrease or prevent the symptoms of altitude sickness. It intensifies kidney functions and causes the heart to beat faster than normal, hence allowing more oxygen intake by the blood cells.
Diamox Says Hi
A natural result of such effects is frequent urination. Now that is not good news for someone like me who suffers from FPO (Fear of Peeing Outdoors) syndrome who was embarking on a week expedition on a mountain.
I had also chosen not to take the Malaria pills since there’s normally no mosquitos to worry about at high altitude. So with my recently intensified cough, I spent the first night in the hotel coughing, spitting, and going to the bathroom. My mind decided to unleash itself and began to wander off with intensifying speed. “Why did I take a full tablet? Maybe I should have taken only half and another half in the morning.” “Did I fully spray myself with the mosquito repellent?” ”I can’t breath with that darn repellent so close to my nose!” “Is the mosquito net covering all of my bed?” “Wait a minute! What is that cold feeling in my leg? Is my leg out of the mosquito net??” “Perfect. Just perfect. Now I have a week of climbing to do and the only decent chance for rest is slipping away from me. Now I’m going up that mountain tired, sick, and with a constantly full bladder.”
I’m not sure if it was excitement or the little chances I had to dose off every couple of hours that made me feel so energized the next morning. I packed my things again and off we went to the mountain.
It was especially hard to see the mountain near the end of our two-hour drive to Machame Gate, which sat on 1800 m altitude and marked the beginning of the Machame route. The sky was overcast and the clouds were very low. I could not wait to get above them because I knew that the drier the weather got the better my cough would get.
Machame to the Rescue
Machame is one of the most popular routes up Kilimanjaro. It is one of the longest, and it allows for acclimatization of the body to the increasing altitude. Although it is normally classified as medium to difficult in terms of terrain intensity, it had a very welcoming start for us just past the gate. It was a nice stroll in the forest with flat ground and hardly any steepness. Compared to the terrain I’d previously had to endure in St. Katherine’s, the highest peak in Egypt with 2600 m altitude, Machame seemed to be a stroll in the park. The excitement made me take long strides and many times ignore what the guides were telling us about taking it slow. Pole pole.
Our first hike was bound to Machame Hut at 3000 m altitude. As 26 climbers, we ended up with more than 20 guides and around 80 porters. We were an army moving up the mountain, but the atmosphere was very welcoming. Everyone seemed to get along quite well with everyone else, and the guides introduced themselves to us one by one with warm smiles and kind eyes beaming with hospitality. Whenever the group would split because of a difference in pace there would always be at least one guide with each group. No one was left alone on the mountain. Ever. I was constantly treated into words of encouragement and support. “Find your pace and keep it,” they would say. “Are you drinking enough water?” And of course, “Pole pole!”
Almost each porter that would pass us by, whether or not he’s in our group, he would always greet us with the famous “Jambo!” of East Africa. Many times it was even followed with “Karibo Tanzania,” which I assumed meant “Welcome to Tanzania.”
Coming from ever so concrete Cairo, this hike was a delicious treat to my senses. My eyes were no longer looking at incoherent blocks of cement that always gave me a sense of claustrophobia. I was looking at endless fields of green, smelling the fresh mist that carried the scent of the trees, and listening to an overwhelming variety sounds of birds that were busy conversing along the way.
It must have been the relaxing atmosphere that allowed me to answer the call of nature with so much ease! I went with three of my co-climbers into the woods and found myself passing on to them all the instructions I got from my expert friend Nadia on how to avoid sprinkling as much as you can. I found the right spot for the job and I was even surprised at my own fluency in the act that I began to feel more optimistic about the coming week. When you gotta go you gotta go no matter where or how. So you end up dealing with it. And what would be better than to do it in the middle of a forest to the tune of singing birds?
The flight to Nairobi was a long one so rich with Egyptian stewardess’ “hosbitality”: “Would dju like tchea?”, “I am sorry za blankets are finished.” My excitement still overrode everything because all I could ever think of was the fact that it was finally happening. All those months of anticipation and training are about to be put to the test.
After a long wait in Nairobi airport waiting for the connecting flight to Arusha, the sun was already out as we began to board the little Precision Air plane. I didn’t know then that sunrise would continue to be my sign of hope throughout the week. It meant I was getting closer to my target.
The plane was so small and almost everyone on it seemed to be set to climb Kilimanjaro. My backpack was so wide because of the foaming mat and the inflating mat that I had to walk sideways along the aisle. I definitely did not look like someone traveling light. I ended up seeking help from a cool looking British climber who himself had great trouble putting my bag in the compartment at the top of the seat. I immediately began to feel self-conscious.
But as the plane took off I sat with so much excitement looking out the window with my bag sitting on the ground in front of the empty seat next to me. I could not hide my ongoing grin as I kept looking out the window. A thick condense layer of clouds was underneath us, but I knew I would still be able to see the top of Kilimanjaro. It did end above the clouds, didn’t it? It was a high mountain.
Soon a nice majestic dark summit began to appear piercing the clouds. I stared at it but quickly decided that it was probably too pointed to be Kilimanjaro’s summit. It was rather short above those clouds too. Then soon a much larger one appeared. I almost jumped with excitement and I really wanted to ask everyone on the plane if that was Kilimanjaro, but I hesitated because I didn’t want to ruin all the composure I tried to build after the backpack scene. I had to look like a cool climber so familiar with the mountain and was just going there for the 6th time for fun. But the minute the flight attendant showed up I had to stop him and ask him if that was Kilimanjaro. “No madam. Kilimanjaro is going to be on the other side,” he decently replied.
Soon after that I discovered that none of the climbers around me required all the composure I was trying to hold on to. Everyone suddenly shifted like mad to the windows on the other side and kept staring out there with disbelief.
There it was.
It took me a few minutes of staring out the window with a blank mind for me to realize that my mouth was actually wide open. I could not take my eyes off it. It was a monster. So high with its glaciers it seemed to be all on top of the clouds, floating with such ease. The clouds were like loyal servants surrounding it and caressing its edges. This was a mountain I could not take lightly. It was the most beautiful monster I had ever seen.
I was humbled. I felt so small. So weak. And I was in so much awe and love I immediately felt hooked to Kilimanjaro for life. I was finally there face to face with one of the seven summits and the highest free standing mountain in the world.
I was scared.