Posts Tagged trekking
It took me two hours of shivering with everything on to get my body warm enough to sleep last night. I began to feel that this was no longer an enjoyable experience. Either it was colder than my capacity or I was way weaker than I used to be. At times there is an unspoken joy in the suffering, one that lies in knowing that it is all for the sake of the place and the experience, but last night my continuous panting, coughing, and nose blowing felt like pointless torture. I missed my home, my bed, my mom, my cat. All I wanted was to be go back home. And to top it all, I had reached a part in Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air book where he began to explain in detail the suffering some of his climbing partners went through minutes before they died. “Get me out of this place!” I shrieked, and I miserably cried myself to sleep.
I woke up at 5 am and jumped quickly out of bed in panic; it was 30 minutes past the time I had set on my alarm and I had to get ready to the biggest day so far. We were going to summit Kala Patthar, which rises to 5545m above sea level. Kala Patthar was our acclimatization attempt for Island Peak, and it was our closest point to Everest. The view of Everest, we were told, was actually better from the summit of Kala Patthar than from the Everest Base Camp. It was going to be a long day and there was no time for breakfast before our departure. I rushed out of my room and found everyone already on their feet waiting for me, so there was no chance for coffee. I tried to say good morning but no voice came out.
I went first in line on the trek. The day was already starting to break in and that gave me a renewed sense of energy. Our incline was so gradual that once again I was tempted to go faster than usual; I didn’t feel any need to slow down since the terrain almost felt flat, or perhaps I was subconsciously making up for coming out of my room later than everyone. As any experienced trekker would guess, however, I soon began to pant. We were gaining altitude and that meant that we were entering a domain where a small movement of getting up from a chair or walking briskly to a nearby table could leave a person short of breath. I discovered that the fast pace I began with was not a good idea. Soon that visual blur I had begun to feel in my left eye the night before was getting bigger. I started to feel as if a heavy force was pushing me back and down to the ground. Once again, my feet began to twist as I walked like a drunken and my hands felt heavy on the poles. I was pressing the poles noticeably, shaking them as they hit the ground. I felt like an old woman struggling to reach her bed for the last time in her life.
All I could think about at that moment was how each time I thought I was going through the misery day of the trip another day would prove me wrong. It was a misery phase and I wasn’t sure when it would end. I wasn’t suffering from altitude problems; it felt more like an altitude challenge that was shaking me on the inside. It felt as if my lack of confidence over my endurance this time was somehow read by an evil spirit that dwelled on these mountains. It smelled my weakness and began to hit me where it hurt the most. For the first time I began to grasp the true fear of the mountains: It was the fear of the known rather than the unknown. It was the natural, legitimate fear that any human, even the best of climbers, could have.
My fear generated anger at myself. I could no longer take Karma’s reassuring smiles at me. Everything was so blurry that I imagined him telling me “See the price your slacking makes you pay?” In my mind everything had a negative meaning.
Unlike Kilimanjaro’s Machame route, the trek along the Khumbu Valley in Nepal is two ways back and forth. Trekkers exchange greetings as they meet along the way. I loathed each trekker that seemed so relaxed and happy on his or her way back down, smiling and greeting me and expecting an equally cheerful reaction. I don’t believe any of them heard my breathless ‘hello’.
By the time we reached Gorakshep my eyes felt like they were going to explode. I was in no shape to engage in any conversation no matter how minimal. I dropped my backpack and my poles and sat down, rested my face on my palms and waited for breakfast. When Omar looked at me and asked how I was feeling I had already been fighting back my tears, but I lost the battle and couldn’t speak. I gestured with my hand that I was finished and my tears burst out. I was embarrassed and upset. He began to suggest alternatives. Hani was going to split with us from Gorakshep to go to Everest Base Camp while we were to continue to Kala Patthar, so Omar suggested I go with Hani to Everest BC instead. I immediately refused. To me, any reformulation of the route because of my mere weakness signaled defeat, and I wasn’t sure I could take that yet. “I just need to have my break-down moment,” I told him, and then it was time to eat.
Like magic, I began to feel life running through my veins again after I ate, and my determination to reach Kala Patthar and get as close as I could to Everest was renewed. We began our further push from 5100 to 5545m. Omar went first in line and I was immediately behind him. Because of his long legs, his steps were more like strides, which had kept him at a considerable distance from us most of the time, allowing him to stop many times to take pictures while he waited for us to catch up. I was focusing on his boots with my every step, expecting them to start disappearing, but after about an hour I was surprised to realize that I was still behind the same boots, and I wasn’t tired.
As silent and seemingly aloof to those who don’t know him, Omar was a doer more than a talker. His positive vibes still spread out to all of us and I could tell that he genuinely cared about his clients. His steps were as small and as slow as mine. He wanted me to get to the top and he was taking me there. It was almost like we all needed that pace so the order of the line did not change; we continued behind him like ducklings following their mother, making the same turns at the same angles.
Kala Patthar is strategically located in the middle of a valley, surrounded by enormous peaks. It is a thin slope that rises to a sharp cliff. On the last few meters we had to leave our backpacks and poles and crawl up to the cliff against a sweeping wind. I was holding on to each rock and I could feel my entire body being pushed around from all directions. At the final point the space was barely enough for the three of us, and we had to remain seated. I looked to my left and my jaw dropped. There was Everest, or Sagarmatha, standing magnificently next to its 8500m neighbor, Lhotse. The colorful Buddhist flags placed on Kala Patthar were ruffling strongly in the direction of the two magnificent peaks, sending out prayers and blessings to the Goddess of the Sky, which seemed to be barred from us by Lhotse, its guardian.
Trying to take as deep breaths as the altitude would allow me, I could not take my eyes off the mountain as the history I was reading about in my book spread before me, represented by mere names repeating themselves in my mind: Chomolungma, Deva-Dhunga, Sagarmatha… Seated at the border between Nepal and Tibet, Sagarmatha had always had two local names, one Tibetan, Chomolungma, meaning Mother of the World, and one Nepalese, Deva-Dhunga, meaning The Seat of God. Sagarmatha was the name attributed to the great mountain in 1960 during a border dispute between Nepal and Tibet. Each name sounded and felt stronger than the other, because they were names attributed to the mountain by its own people, who sensed the true spirit of the place and were one with it. Everest, on the other hand, was a name given to the mountain by the surveyor general of India, Sir Andrew Waugh, who gave it in honor of his predecessor Sir George Everest – despite the latter’s objection – when he was told that the highest peak in the world was discovered by a Bengali, Radhanath Sikhdar! This was in contradiction to the official policy back then to maintain the local names of the mountains.
For that reason Everest, the name, to me means nothing.
It was as if I had reached the point of salvation as I sat at that peak and drew in deep breaths. The sound of the ruffling flags calmed me down and I felt like I was being abundantly rewarded by divine company. I went through a long, draining journey that began in a run-down Alexandria airport just to get to be that close to Sagarmatha, to take pictures of it, and with it. I was happy again. And I had the lungs of a horse! So I paced down afterwards and began to spread out my smiles at the trekkers who were yet to reach the top. I was, for the first time, the one who received all the loathing by breathless trekkers still struggling to reach the top.
It felt so damn good!
I think I know my acclimatization habits by now. Once I hit the 4000m mark altitude begins to play its mental tricks on me.
Last night my heartbeat woke me up at 3 am. I had my hand rested under my ear, and my pulse began to creep into my dreams. I saw construction workers and their machine rolling with a persistent sound, DUM… DUM… DUM… until I opened my eyes and discovered that the construction machine was my heart. I was amazed at the amount of work that little muscle was doing, even in my sleep, just to keep enough oxygen pumped to my brain.
I turned inside my sleeping bag and tried to fall back to sleep. I began to see faces of ordinary people I ran into the days before changing into demons. I was wide awake but I had no control over those visions. I remembered the hallucinations I got on Kilimanjaro on my first acclimatization trek above 4000m, and I immediately understood what that was. Still, none of that disturbed me. My body was warm again and that is all that mattered. I actually found those changing faces quite entertaining.
We started our trek in the morning with snow and frost surrounding our path. At this altitude vegetation had already started to change. There were no longer lush green trees on either side of our narrow trails. The blue river that came down from the glaciers was now half frozen. We could still hear it in the distance.
At the beginning of our trek some puppies were rolling on the ground and chasing each other. We stood and cuddled some of them and the mother fell in love with us instantly; she trekked with us all the way to Dughla. We were supposed to gain a further 700m in altitude so we went as slow as possible, breathing systematically to avoid headaches. The dog would run ahead of us, wait, and the minute we reached her she’d start stretching out and yawning: “What a slow bunch… You bore me!”
When it was time for the Dughla Wall she finally left us and went back to her puppies, and we began our steep ascent. By the time we got there I was already beginning to feel weak, and with the rocky path I saw ahead of me I decided to fold my poles, stuff them in my bag, put my hands in my pocket, and rely on my two feet. That created an illusion of being light, it helped me focus on two feet instead of four, and left my hands free in case I needed to pull myself up a rock or use it for support. It was also a good way of avoiding seeing my hands shake on the pole. I didn’t want to be reminded of my weakness, I already knew.
The wind was very strong and the weather was freezing. I was once again faced with the dilemma of needing to take in as deep breaths as possible but worsening my cough with the freezing air I inhaled. Wearing the balaclava under the burning sun rays was no option for me, and each time I breathed through it my breath ended up fogging my sunglasses. So I had to accept the coughing for as long as I could maintain a rhythmic breath.
Chortens built as memorials for climbers who lost their lives in their attempts to summit Mt. Everest were strategically placed at the top of the Dughla Wall. You arrive at a new altitude, struggling for breath, and you are faced with a stark reminder of the smallness of man–a humbling gesture that guards the human ego.
I walked with careful feet from one chorten to another. The place was silent except for the sound of the fluttering flags. Some were names I was already reading about in my book, some I hadn’t heard of before. Scott Eugene Fischer, who died in the 1996 disaster, Sean Egan, Hristo Prodanov… Known and loved by their friends and families, each one of them continues to inspire, each of their legacies continues on the mountains, surrounded by prayer flags fluttering in the cold wind.
Maybe I shouldn’t have been too convinced with my smallness, however. I was getting depressed as the walk to Lobuche, our destination for the night, felt like the worst trek I had ever been on. I could barely walk even though the ground was almost even. I got separated from the rest of the group for the first time. Karma stayed with me, carrying everything he needed on the full two weeks on his back, patiently eyeing me in case I needed to stop for rests. And I felt gravity pull me down further with each step. It dawned on me that not only do I make mistakes, I actually repeat them; my backpack was once again needlessly heavy. I had filled it with three liters of water, forgetting again and again that there are often places to stop and buy water along the trek.
There’s no stronger way of saying how freezing it is in Lobuche. I’m running out of words to describe it, and it keeps getting colder as we go higher up. Every bit of my limbs had been becoming almost motionless. The minute we arrived I took off my boots and went to sit by the heater. My feet were so cold I rested them immediately on the heater. They were just beginning to warm up when I began to see smoke coming out of them and I could smell something burning. I jerked my feet and there were two holes in my socks. Amr burst out laughing, and when Omar pulled up a chair and came to join us I told him what had happened. “That’s a very common thing,” he replied. I loved Omar’s cool, relaxed responses to my complaints. They were almost always “That’s normal” or “That’s common.” They made me feel alright. And now that I burned my socks, I felt like I’m officially a member of the mountaineering bunch; as if I got closer to experiencing the little losses of life on the mountains.
I’m sitting now in the dining room with minimum lighting at 4950m. I feel slightly nauseous, and I have a visual patch in my left eye that continues to cover everything I try to focus on. I had bent down earlier and got up fast when suddenly there were stars all over the place. Now the stars have all resided and left me with this fish-shaped patch I see each time I close my eyes. I see far away objects only by closing my left eye. Another little mountain life loss, I guess.
I woke up this morning with a miraculously warm body. We were supposed to wake up 30 minutes earlier than usual (in my case that translates to 1 hour and 15 minutes) to attend the morning ceremonial in the monastery. I looked out my window. Day was already breaking in and the sky was crystal clear. Out in the distance loomed Ama Dablam, a dramatically steep mountain that rises to 6856 m. It was deemed “unclimbable” until 1961, when it was successfully summited by four brave mountaineers from New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the US. It is now preserved for highly skilled climbers.
And that beautiful piece of nature that dominates the scenery throughout the route to Everest was right outside my window. “What kind of a lucky bitch am I”? I thought with a smile.
Soon there was a knock on my door. I went to open the door thinking it was probably Karma reminding me of the ceremonial, but I found Omar. “I want to show you something,” he said.
“Yes! Ama Dablam!”
I led him into the room and, to my embarrassment, he had to find his way around the pile of used tissues that lay near my bed. He cleared the mist off my window and pointed out. Just to the left of Ama Dablam there were two magnificent summits that stood facing each other. There stood Sagarmatha, the Goddess of the Sky, and Lhotse, an 8500 m mountain that reaches up to the sky with a sharp edge, as if performing a ritual of supplication.
I fell silent. I had made it far enough to be finally granted the chance to see Sagarmatha with my bare eyes. The strong wind was blowing snow off its summit like a bridal veil, or a “long silk scarf” as Jon Krakauer had put it in his Into Thin Air book, which lay on my bedside table.
Outside my window was a view worth a lifetime of coughing, panting, and shivering. At that moment everything fell in the right place. I knew I was doing the right thing.
At 7 am sharp we were in the monastery, sitting on the floor on one side of the temple, silently watching the ceremonial. Four monks sat opposite each other, wrapped in thick cloaks and reciting Tibetan prayers, stopping briefly for quick sips of warm tea. Their soft voices and synchronized, soothing chants were in perfect harmony with the place. I understood nothing, but I felt peace and calm in my mind and soul. There is something about Buddhist chants that transcends meaning; the sounds and the melodies in themselves work like a hypnotizing wave of calm that spreads through the air. I felt captivated — at least long enough until the cold floor worsened my cough and my toes began to freeze.
We began our trek afterwards and for the first time I felt grateful that it started with a long descent. I normally hate going down on treks but I had just had breakfast and did not want to exert myself so immediately afterwards. I had also developed a new strategy of going down fast and trusting my instincts on where to place my feet. This helped pull a lot of strain off my knees.
As with all my treks, the pride didn’t last for long. Soon we began to go up again to gain further altitude. We were heading to Dingboche at 4260 m. My breathing became labored and I began to secretly long for a break. I was granted one as we reached a spot where a number of trekkers had stood taking pictures of a mountain goat that stood nearby. Mountain goats in the Himalaya are known to be incredibly fit animals that can go up and down the mountain with impressive speed. It stood there near a large rock staring at space, as if it was posing for the enchanted photographers that were gathering before it.
A female mountain goat is what my name means in Arabic. The male mountain goat is teis, a funny sounding word that eventually ended up being used by people to ridicule each other. So I pretty much prefer to use “mountain gazelle” whenever someone asked me what my name meant, which happened often; it’s an old Arab name that is least common in Egypt. As I expected, when I first met Hany and Amr they both asked me what Arwa meant, and I said: “Mountain gazelle,” hoping to preserve the graceful effect the sound of my name had. “Wow!” They responded with amazement. Feeling rather guilty, I continued, “which is a pretty way of saying ‘female mountain goat’!” And they burst out laughing.
The higher up we went the harder it became for me, the female mountain goat, to maintain my earlier pace. Everyone within a few feet away from me could hear me breathing with much difficulty. It began to dawn on me that I was not only physically ill-trained, but mentally as well. I began to seriously dread Island Peak. The wind was very strong, we were trekking barely above 4000 m, and I was no longer able to take steady firm steps–I was walking like a drunkard. ‘How are you going to pull yourself up with a rope at 6000 m in the wind when you can barely hold on to your trekking pole right now?’ asked the evil sound in my head.
A mental exercise is not just about believing you can do it, or merely focusing on each step one at a time; it takes a complete mental readjustment to harsh conditions. It is a true challenge to a person’s ego. You have to find a way to survive without any of the luxury details you often take for granted, while being so faraway from home and from loved ones. It is about forgetting that such things – or people – exist. I believe this is an art well-mastered by serious climbers who take up challenges such as Everest, Ama Dablam, or K2. But a little bit of it can also come in handy to those who trek in the same environment.
I arrived in Dingboche with a renewed sense of insecurity. I was tempted several times to ask Omar or Karma whether they thought I really could make it up Island Peak. It would not have been a question as much as it would have been a call out for reassurance. The only answer I would have wanted to hear was “Yes of course you can!” so that I would feel good about myself again. But it’s not something for others to decide for me. And I know that if I don’t change my train of thought and make the evil sound in my head disappear with some magic wand then I sure won’t be able to summit Island Peak. I had to work this out somehow. Alone.
I sat in the dining room sipping my favorite hot lemon drink, staring at the Sherpa who sat engrossed in a book across the room. I could no longer resist the urge, so I turned to Karma and asked him. As I expected, Karma had no answer. He smiled at me and said “We will try.”
So I will try.
Last night I was cold. Cold. I wore two thick layers, a down jacket, and sat inside the dining room in front of the heater. I looked at Omar and complained, “I’m cold,” as if it were somehow his fault and that he should fix it. “With your down jacket on?” He was surprised. “With my down jacket on,” I confirmed.
My brain would not stop spinning around. A mild headache was slowly finding its way into my head, my eyes felt bloated, and I was only half-way through the altitude scheme. Our target was to reach 6189 m.
“Not you miserable creature,” my mind snapped. “That’s for them!”
Shrinking to the evil sound in my head, I went to sleep with a sad sense of insecurity. And I ended up waking every two hours with trouble breathing. “This is ridiculous!” I said to the opposite empty bed at 2 am, and started a new nose blowing session.
With a night like that for a rest, I found today’s trek to be challenging. It took my muscles a while to realize what I was trying to get them to do, but things went fine from then on. Our journey today was to Tengboche, which sits at 3867 m. The breathtaking Himalayan grey and white peaks began to loom in more closely, offering a silent picture of the trials, tribulations and successes of men long gone, giving me a glimpse of the passion and madness that drives man to these sacred ends. I was trekking in a world of trees, exotic bird sounds, and peacocks. Enduring the coldness of the wind I felt creeping through my lungs.
We stopped for a brief break on an edge near a large chorten that was placed as a memorial for Tenzing Norgay – the first Sherpa to reach the summit of Mt. Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary – and all the Sherpas that followed in his footsteps. The sky was grey and overcast, the summits surrounding us were now at 6, 7 and 8 thousand meter heights. The size of each mountain was so large it was hard to fathom how far away it still was; it was as if their summits stood halfway to the sky.
Karma stood on the edge and began to explain to us the names of the mountains we were looking at. Each mountain had its own climbing story, each knew certain climbers and expedition leaders who either made it up to the summits or perished in their attempts. You could come to Nepal’s Himalayas 10 times over and still have more mountains waiting for you to try. It’s a climber’s Disneyland!
The wind began to blow harder and I could feel it blowing right through my throat. I didn’t want to stop and fetch a new layer, so I continued in the hope that it would soon slow down. It didn’t, and I began to cough again.
We arrived in Tengboche a little after 3:30 pm. The lodge we are staying at is owned by an old monastery that was rebuilt with the help of Sir Hillary. The place is like a large square of landscape with the lodge, the monastery, a German bakery on each side of it, and a lazy old dog that only ran and played when the children approached him. On other times he would only move from one tourist to another seeking more love, and getting it.
The minute we arrived we walked in the thick fog to the bakery. As Omar related its story to us, the bakery was established by a German woman who was struck by the spell of the place. She remained in Tengboche and opened her own bakery and taught the Sherpa all about German baking. She is now back home and the Sherpa are running the place, giving us a delicious treat of cakes and good coffee–an indulgence every trekker and climber could sure use, especially in this kind of weather.
I dove into my chocolate and icing cake, ignoring the lazy dog that sat near me eyeing my fork. I did it long enough until I felt my blood warm again and handed him a small bite. I was fine with that, I was the one who’d been going up and downhill for hours while he hung around and got cuddled by everyone. No guilt attached.
In my room now, I’m wearing my down jacket, I’m stuffed into my sleeping bag and sitting with it on the bed with the bed cover on top (Sleeping barely on the beds in these lodges is impossible. The air is cold and damp and so are the beds). I keep stopping and watching my vapor breath as I think of the next sentence to write. I can’t help but smile with pride whenever my coughs allow me. I think I’m quickly adjusting to unconventional situations here. I went into a public toilet by mistake today and handled myself perfectly on one of the filthiest toilets I had ever been to, I have now mastered the art of squatting flawlessly whenever there is need (I even took the time to explain it to my all male teammates, for some of them were not up to squatting at all), and I brushed my teeth and spat on a urinal under a sign that read “For those who stand.”
Not bad. Not bad at all.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The last thing that occurred to me as I imagined my blog entries on my trip to Nepal was that the first title I would use would be The Airport. But airport is all the experience I’ve been getting so far, and after 4 days of leaving Cairo.
On Thursday night, November 11, 2010, I kissed my cat goodbye and walked out of the door with my backpack and duffle and headed to Alexandria. My flight to Kathmandu, Nepal, was to start from Alexandria, stop for 6 hours in Sharjah, UAE, then fly to Kathmandu. I was supposed to get there by the afternoon of Friday, November 12.
I met Amr and Caroline, two of the seven trekkers headed on the same trip, at the entrance to the Alexandria airport. There we were stopped outside the airport and told to wait until, well, until some time. They stopped us because there wasn’t yet room for us inside the airport. Other flights had to finish their check-in and boarding first for us to be able to go inside and take their places in the check-in and boarding cues.
The airport was a ground floor only facility in a building of four or five stories. The actual area designated for travelers is an averaged sized hall with compartments for specific areas. There was one waiting room incubated by dirty glass in old, broken aluminum frames, one dusty shop carved into existence by the same fashion, and a single desk on the side with one security official to stamp all our passports. There were no officials in any of the little glass cubicles stamping any passports. That single man was doing it for everyone.
The waiting area was jammed with people. I found a seat next to a woman sitting with her two little girls. Both girls were restless and kept fighting and arguing, and when they grew tired of each other they began to brush themselves against me. I don’t recall hearing any official announcements about our flight, or any flight. Soon news began to spread – like rumors and gossip – that our flight was indefinitely delayed because of the thick fog that resided over Alexandria. Our plane had in fact turned around and landed in Cairo. It was 2 am and there was no hope of the plane showing up any time before the day broke. No official in the airport had any clear answer. We accepted our fate and waited.
Waiting makes me watch the people around me. I’m hardly the type that can get herself busy in a book when there’s so much to be looking at. I began to focus on those two girls and their mother. What a life of hardship for so many Egyptian families, the women have to drag their children in the middle of the night to catch a flight and go to the father in another Arab country where he’s probably underpaid, but surely better paid than he would be if he were to stay in Egypt.
Soon, however, my sympathy turned into utter horror as I noticed lice in both girls’ hair! I impulsively began to cringe each time either one of their heads brushed against my clothes. I desperately looked around for other seats but there were none. And sitting on the sticky, smelly, stained floor was not yet an option for me.
Alarmed by my behavior, Caroline looked inquisitively at me. “The girls have lice in their hair. Lots of it!” I explained. She impulsively pulled her own hair to the opposite side and responded: “Really??”
The waiting continued. Soon a person carrying a large plastic bag called out for passengers on the Sharjah flight to present their boarding passes. For each boarding pass you get a packet of biscuits and a small juice carton. If your boarding pass says you’re on another flight then no biscuits or juice for you. The seen was shameful, with juice and biscuits flying over people’s heads and going to others. The little child next to me was unfortunate enough to not be going to Sharjah. The minute the man showed up all I could hear was her wails. “I want juice! I want juice!”
There was no way I would get my juice and sip on it while she watched and wailed. I took the biscuits and juice from him and handed them to her automatically.
Soon a distant sound of ululation came from the entrance to the hall. A large crowd entered the airport and in the midst of it a large white figure appeared. A bride in her wedding dress and a groom, surrounded by their happy family, were making their way into the airport to join the flight to a new life in Sharjah, still oblivious to the long hours of waiting they were yet to endure.
As the hours passed I eventually had to give up my seat to go to the bathroom. As always expected in most public facility bathrooms in Egypt, there is never soap or toilet paper, but there is always a lady sitting somewhere inside willing to give you some of the toilet paper roll she has in her hands for a tip. Being personally equipped with my own toilet paper and hand sanitizer gel, I didn’t notice that there were no women sitting anywhere for this purpose. Soon after I got inside a couple of them appeared and a tense conversation began.
“You forgot to clean the second toilet.”
“Well I just cleaned off the kid’s puke! So spare me! You know I can handle anything but puke!”
“Who else is to clean it?”
“Why of course! You just hang around all day and when there’s something to be done it’s me, the one who wipes puke off floors, who has to do it. I do nothing here but wipe puke. I’m the puke cleaning person around here!”
Almost puking myself, I barged out of the toilet, rinsed my hands, and resorted to using my hand sanitizer. I was not going to ask puke lady for any soap.
On my way out I discovered that outside the hall, only a few meters away across two junior policemen, there lay a haven of empty chairs waiting to be occupied, or so I thought. I flew, with as much speech as the crowd would allow me, to Amr and Caroline and told them about my discovery. We carried our backpacks and headed towards the chairs when we were stopped by a muscular official.
“Sorry, madam. You cannot go there,” he said firmly. I tried hard to dissociate this moment from the long history I’ve had with unjustifiable forbiddens the government had always bestowed upon me everywhere in the streets. “There happens to be five meters away, and it is only three empty chairs for me and my friends to sit on. There is no room here for anyone.”
“You have already stamped your passport so you cannot go past this [imaginary] line.”
Shock overrode me. My eyes probably began to bulge out at him. “If we don’t walk those few extra steps to sit on those chairs we will end up on our feet for as long as it takes for this fog to lift and our plane to arrive from Cairo. Given that we’re human beings, we need to sit down.”
His face suddenly went red. “For the way you have spoken to me now, you will not go sit on those chairs!”
Another classical example of an official abusing the only sense of control he has over anything, or anyone.
I don’t recall what else I said after this climatic statement was barfed at me. What I do remember is that all three of us ended up going to sit on the chairs, which made the little staff that the airport had go find some extra chairs and place them inside the waiting hall for us. That way we could sit down and still be within safe passport stamping domain.
Not for long, however. Soon there were new passengers allowed into the hall, after hours of waiting in the street, who needed to check in. So we were once again asked to leave our chairs to make room for them to stand in the check in line.
I stole a man’s seat as he went to ask around for any news on the flight. I placed my backpack in front of me, rested my feet on it, and dozed off until day broke. Having given up on any decent response from any of the airport staff, Amr tried phoning the Cairo airport to inquire about the flight.
A lazy voice answered on the other end of the line. “No. Call us in the afternoon.”
The fog began to lift near 10 am in the morning, but we were only able to board our flight at 2 PM. When it became known that it was time to board the flight people flocked towards the gate and pushed each other frantically, sending a wave of panic among the airport staff. Little voices of wisdom began to call out for decency among the crowds to allow an old man, barely able to stand up, to cross till the beginning of the crowd to be allowed first out and into the bus. Then suddenly some women began to call out immediately after the old man had passed. “Make room for the bride!”
The bride! I had almost forgotten about her. I looked in her direction and there was the groom, all sweaty, his hair messed up, his tie undone, and his shirt all wrinkled, trying to escort an intact bride in the middle of the crowd, followed by the weary, faded smiles of their mothers. I felt sorry for the faded joy of the whole family, yet the bride’s make up and veil had miraculously stayed on her for the full 13 hours in this wondrous place of hygienic horrors. That either stood in testimony for the craftsmanship of our hairdressers, or the family’s superb ability to preserve their bride somewhere in midair.
I was glad to finally get out of the place and breathe some fresh air. 13 hours in this chamber of a terminal were further highlighted by the suffocating passivity I saw in many people’s faces, by the bored routine-scarred faces of the staff who endured the place everyday to make a living, and most importantly by the utter humiliation we all felt for being kept in the dark for such long hours.
We landed in Sharjah to a whole new culture. The airport was sparkling clean and and there was a lot of individual space. All three flights to Kathmandu on that day had already departed so we were given hotel rooms to stay in.
A young Asian man showed me and Caroline to the room. He smiled at me and said, “You’re catching your flight to Kathmandu?”
“Yes! It’s our first visit to Nepal!”
“I’m from Nepal, you know?”
Awesome! I was still not even close to Nepal and there I was standing face to face with my first Nepalese. With a close look at his sharp features, the first question that jumped to my mind was ‘Are you a Sherpa?’ But I didn’t want to be the typical dumb tourist. To him it might have sounded like “You’re Arab! Do you have a camel??”
“So what is the most famous thing about Nepal?” He asked me with a beaming smile. “Buddhism!” I responded confidently.
“Well, there is also Everest?”
“Why yes of course!!” How could I miss THAT? Why on earth was I on this trip to begin with?
“But Everest has its own native name, right? What do you call it?”
That fell more comfortably on my ears.
Now for the fourth day in Kathmandu, sitting in the same spot in the airport, staring at the same faces, Sagarmatha is all that my mind calls out to me in the midst of the noise that surrounds us. It gets stronger with each repetitive announcement of a delay or cancellation of all flights heading to Lukla, where the trek to see Sagarmatha should begin.
No flights till now due to the heavy fog. Sagarmatha is closed.
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.
By Salma Beshr
Kilimanjaro…what a beautiful mountain! Not that I’ve climbed it or gone anywhere near climbing it. Apparently I’ve seen it, or so my parents tell me, somewhere between the ages of 0 and 3, when we were living in Uganda, where I was born, but I can’t really say it’s etched in my memory or that I have any recollection of its majestic beauty. Maybe they tried to point it out to me: “Salma, look at the mountain!” “Where?” “That big big thing over there, see?” “Wheeere?” Or something like that.
That doesn’t mean I don’t feel a connection to it. I’ve seen pictures of it, of course, and heard stories about it over the years. I think, more than anything, the word Kilimanjaro was part of my vocabulary from an early age, so of course that special bond was created long long ago. It’s my mountain. I was born near it. I could say the word ‘Kilimanjaro’ at the age of 3, whereas other children couldn’t. So it’s MY mountain. I dare anyone out there to tell me it isn’t!
Having said all that, that doesn’t mean I’ve been thinking about it constantly or that a beautiful picture of it has long been the wallpaper on my screen or anything like that. Far from it. It lay way at the back of my memory until talk about it resurfaced a year or so ago when Nadia El Awady, back then only a close friend of Arwa’s to me, climbed to the top. I admit that when I first heard about her accomplishment, my initial reaction was: “but that’s my mountain!” Again it lay dormant for another year after this event, then it became a hot topic in our extended household when Arwa announced she was going to attempt the same feat herself. All the details of the preparation for it, the expedition itself, and her final triumphant return with 25 other climbers has given our often dull gatherings a much-needed boost.
Her pictures, her videos, but more than anything her vastly entertaining account of the arduous climb to the top, no detail spared (thank you very much) have succeeded in firing our imaginations and in leading us to believe that if she – this relatively normal member of our family who is addicted to pizza and crazy about her cat – could do it, then maybe we could too. Certainly, what inspired me the most was the romanticism of it all: you suffer, you have doubts, you think of quitting the whole thing, but eventually, out of sheer determination and will power, you make it to the summit and stand way above the clouds; literally on top of the world. So much so, I even wrote her a poem about it.
So much so, I let her talk me into a preliminary expedition, to test the grounds, so to speak and to discover if I truly had it in me, which she utterly believed everyone did. She was so convincing that I agreed to go with her to Sinai to climb Mount St. Catherine, the highest summit in Egypt which stands a mere 2624 meters high compared to Kilimanjaro’s 5895. A glorified molehill, a walk in the park, how could I not go?
And so much so, that my well-known fear of heights became a tiny, insignificant detail.
Over the years, my parents, then my husband and even my children have taken delight in regaling stories of me standing with quivering knees and eyes closed at the top of such buildings as the World Trade Center in New York (before 9/11), the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the top of St. Peter’s Cupola in Rome, and the bridge between the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur. The whole point of standing in a long queue and taking a speeding elevator or an endless flight of winding stairs to reach the top has been one and the same in all of these buildings: to enjoy the breathtaking view of the city from the top. In none of these buildings have I had the courage to face the view, let alone enjoy it. While other tourists, including my own children, would be oohing and aahing and taking shots with their cameras dangerously near the edge, I would be the one with my back to the view, my face firmly to the wall.
But mountains are different, I thought to myself. There isn’t the same steepness you have in a building or the fear that this tall, thin, man-made structure might snap into two. Mountains have been around for ages, they are huge and solid and slope gradually to the summit. And I was reassured that there is very little steepness in St. Catherine compared to other mountains.
So I agreed to go. When he heard of the scheme, Hussein, my 15-year-old son, decided to join in and so, together with Arwa herself, and Ali, our 21-year-old nephew who was in from the beginning, we took off. My decision to go was a very last-minute thing (in retrospect, I think if I had had more time to think about it, I would definitely have backed out) and, since we are not an outdoorsy sort of family (my husband hates camping) there was quite a lot of shopping involved–head torches, sleeping bags, hiking shoes, etc. as well as snacks for the climb, sanitizer gel and so on. We spent the day before the trip getting everything in order and declared ourselves ready to take on Mount St. Catherine.
A pang of guilt for my 19-year-old daughter who had wanted desperately to go on this trip, but who was detained by her heavy Thursday schedule at university, made me stay up all night to help her out and to keep her company as she embarked on one of her endless architectural projects. Her job is to design the model and decide on how best to construct it, my job involves cutting and pasting. Finally, at around 7 am, I left her and went to bed. I woke up at 10 to start getting ready before our scheduled departure time of 12 noon, and hoped I would be able to catch up on my sleep on the way to Sinai. We had already decided to go on our own by car rather than by bus with the rest of the group.
With Arwa at the steering wheel and Ali as her co-pilot, Hussein and I took turns leaning on each other in the back seat and trying to doze off, but I don’t think I slept more than 20 minutes tops. We arrived at the Bedouin Camp at the base of St. Catherine at around 7 pm and joined the rest of the group for what would be our last hot meal for the next 24 hours, as well as our last cup of tea. I knew no-one except Nadia, the organizer of the trip, but a look around gave me a lot of confidence: none of the others looked particularly like mountain-climbers; most were first-timers like me. We, on the other hand, were seen by the rest of the group as being in the company of an expert climber, not to mention a downright celebrity who was just back from her latest exploits on the Roof of Africa!
After that we used our last toilet, made our last phone calls, washed and prayed and got ready for our hike. Before embarking on our expedition, Arwa announced she was going to go through our backpacks and decide what was necessary and what was not, since a heavy load on our backs was not in our best interests. One by one we submitted to her close inspection and allowed her to confiscate items of clothing which were deemed unnecessary, wallets, keys, etc. Even the snacks were reduced, her determination to teach us the right way to climb a mountain reaching a point where we haggled over 2 triangles of cream cheese instead of 4, and where a heated argument with Ali took place over his toothbrush, which she lost. Three liters of water for each of us was established as the necessary amount, and having bought it from the local store, we set off with the others.
We started our hike at 8 pm. By then, it was completely dark, but this is where our head torches came in handy. I am not usually a night owl, but the excitement and possibly also the lack of sleep had given me a second wind and I was all energized and ready to go. As we made our way in the dark on a trail covered with rocks and pebbles, we were informed that we had not yet begun our ascent, that, in fact, we were not even close to the mountain; it would be some time before we reached it. How much? A vague response ensued. This was one of the main characteristics of this trip: no specific times for anything were given throughout the whole expedition, I think for fear of demotivating the climbers. So, for all intents and purposes we were in the dark, metaphorically-speaking as well as in reality.
To make things easier, we were divided into 2 groups according to pace, each group being assigned a guide. I started out thinking I could be with the faster group, but ended up being in the slower one, which was fine. Almost 2 hours after we had begun, we reached the mountain, which we could barely see, but the panting and sweating told us we had begun to climb. Now, for those who have never climbed a mountain before, you may think that 2624 meters is nothing, that’s like 3 laps around the track at the club. No sir, the trail keeps going from one end of the mountain to the other horizontally, zig-zagging its way until the summit, which means that the actual walking distance is 8 or 9 kilometers.
Add to that the elevation and the rocky trail and you have your work cut out for you.
The first hour or two of the actual climb passed by relatively easily. In spite of a wobbly left knee, which I have unfortunately passed on to my son, too, I enjoyed the exercise immensely. I could feel my muscles becoming hard and having just emerged from Ramadan, the month of eating rather than fasting, I looked forward to a substantial weight loss. I even joked with Nadia and Arwa that if I didn’t lose at least 5 kilos, there would be hell to pay!
Every now and then we would stop for a short break, drink some water or have a light snack like dates or juice. The interval between breaks became shorter as we proceeded, and each time it became more difficult to get up again and continue on our path. But Nadia kept telling us we needed to proceed if we were going to reach the summit and sleep for a couple of hours before sunrise. So we continued, undeterred by the fact that one of our fellow climbers had a mild panic attack which resulted in shortness of breath, and led to a unanimous decision that she should return to the camp immediately and not go on as planned. Nadia asked Feteih, the guide in charge of the slower group to take her down and the rest of us would carry on with one guide.
But where was this guide? No-one knew. He had vanished entirely; in fact, he had been so swift in disappearing that the majority of the climbers in his group hadn’t even had time to get to know his face or to make a connection with him. One or two of the faster climbers who had gone on ahead of the rest of us said that he had left them early on with the excuse that he had dropped his cell phone on the way and needed to look for it! Any word beginning with ‘B’ would be appropriate here!
So we were on our own without a guide, relying solely on Nadia’s expertise and our own intuition. “Is that the trail?” “Yes, that looks like it” or “No, no, around that big rock over there.” As long as we were all together, there was no cause for alarm. And anyway we were sure to meet the two fellows with the camels carrying our sleeping bags somewhere along the way.
At this stage of the climb, my adrenalin was still running high and although I was puffing and panting a bit, like the rest of us, I could not say that I was exhausted. I still had a reserve of energy and the snacks helped a lot. But people seemed to think I was tired and kept offering to carry my backpack: Ali, my sweet nephew, Arwa, and Nadia practically insisted on it. But I was determined to carry my own backpack, not only out of pride, but because I honestly felt it wasn’t weighing me down. In order to pacify them, I allowed myself to use Arwa’s trekking poles for support as I have small feet which invariably get stuck between rocks and cause me to lose my balance. Twice my dear son, walking behind me, prevented me from toppling over.
Another two hours of putting one foot in front of the other passed, sweating and panting, but concentrating only on the feet. By now my t-shirt was wet and although my body didn’t feel any cold, I could tell that temperatures were dropping so I fished into my backpack for a jumper and put it on. The head torch, which is secured around the cranium with an elastic band was bothering me and I kept removing it and drying the sweat from my face. My IQ must have been dropping too at that point, because I remember thinking: “What will I do tomorrow in the sunlight when I have the head torch and my sunglasses on at the same time?”
It was around then that I started losing hope of ever reaching the summit; we had been walking for 6 hours and still there was no end in sight. We were reassured that the end was near, but then we kept on walking, mechanically taking ever slower steps. Then, suddenly those who were ahead of us started turning back and, much to our horror, they told us that somewhere we had taken a wrong turn and that the summit could not be reached that way. So with knees now trembling, we had to make our way down again and take another path.
It may have been just an hour more at that point, but to me, at least, it felt like eternity. Nadia went on ahead, taking one of the other climbers with her and, asking the porters with the camels for directions, she made it to the summit herself to make sure we were on the right track, then joined us a little below the summit to give us the glad tidings. But by then we were all so exhausted that it was decided that rather than continue now and sleep in the little hut at the top, we would just unfold our sleeping bags and sleep then and there, then resume our journey just before sunrise.
Easier said than done. Looking around, I could see we had picked a perfect spot for camping out: there was hardly a flat piece of terrain. The ledge, although big enough to hold us and the camels, was extremely rocky and bumpy. Nothing to do but to make the best of it, so I unfolded my sleeping bag and tried to snuggle inside, wearing an extra 2 jackets and covering my head with 3 hoods and my feet with another pair of socks. I tried to ignore the sharp rock jutting into the small of my back and to concentrate on the beauty of the starlit sky, but every bone in my body was aching and every muscle was throbbing. Unable to sleep on my back, I tried to turn over on my side with little success, and eventually dozed off for 5 minutes. The whole camp was silent, except for Ali and Hussein who, too cold to sleep, had decided to have a little private party of tuna and cheese, giggling and talking to each other in loud whispers. Ah, the joy of being young and carefree!
When I woke up from my tiny nap, all the feelings of pain returned and I could do nothing but lie there, wondering how in the world I was ever going to walk again. Just then Nadia started to wake up those of us who were asleep and to remind us that we had very little time before sunrise if we wanted to watch it from the summit. So, with every ounce of will still left, I pulled myself into a sitting position, then crawled out of my sleeping bag and somehow managed to stand on my own two feet. The trek to the summit was short and relatively fast and the sky had begun to turn a pale yellow. Once at the top, people started pulling out their cameras and gasping at the beauty of the sun as it soared from behind the clouds. That had been the whole object of the climb and this was what we were here to watch. Well, everyone except me, that is.
Climbing in the dark was one thing, but being at the top and looking down at the valleys below and being able to see, actually see, what I had brought upon myself, well, that was another thing altogether. I sat crouching on a rock and tried to keep my eyes glued to the rising sun and not at the valley below, hardly daring to breathe. Every now and then someone would urge me to come and look at the view from this side or that side, but I ignored them all and sat with my heart pounding inside my chest, and all the blood draining from my face as I contemplated the options before me: a) I could stay here forever and become a sort of hermit living in the little hut and feeding on thyme or marjoram or whatever it was we smelt on the way up, or b) I could stay here forever. No question about going down whatsoever.
I must have been a pathetic sight, because Yosri Fouda, the eminent journalist who happened to be in our group, took a look at my white, anguished face and said: “I think I’ll write an article about you, maybe call it ‘The Martyr of St. Catherine’!”
A few more minutes of this torture, and it was time to start the journey down. Only the thought of my poor mother, worried sick about us and waiting for us back home with my husband and daughter made me stir and attempt to make that arduous trek in broad daylight. Words cannot express the panic that had taken hold of me and while others were admiring the views, I was keeping my eyes on my own two feet, determined to see as little as I possibly could.
Suffice it to say that the climb up, as exhausting as it was, had been a breeze compared to the journey down. All my courage and bravado had gone out of the window, and all that was left was an old woman, a tiny shell of an old woman, in fact, holding onto her poles, or crutches, rather, for dear life’s sake. Where before I had stepped lightly and confidently, now I dragged my feet, slower than a turtle, clutching at rocks and depending entirely on my two brave boys: one to lead the way and the other to catch me when I fell. The first of three falls resulted in a twisted ankle, which was all I needed, but with no spare legs in my backpack, I had to do with what I had.
One foot, the other foot, rocks, rocks, rocks and more rocks. Big rocks, medium rocks, small rocks. Tiny rocks like pebbles, slippery like soap. It was an eternity before we reached the Arbaein Valley. Arwa tried to point out the multi-colored rocks in hues of pink, blue and lilac, but by now I couldn’t care less. “They’re still rocks, aren’t they?!” I shouted in my mind, but without actually saying anything because that would have been too exhausting. I knew for sure I never wanted to see another rock in my life!
Now and then we would come to a steep cliff where the trail was very narrow. With shaking knees I would reluctantly let go of my poles and hold on to the wall of the mountain, not daring to turn my eyes to the sheer drop below us. Then once more, right foot, left foot, rocks, rocks, rocks. Oh God, please help me, please let this be over soon!
This is where Moses spoke to God and received the ten commandments. Well, not exactly here on this mountain, but in the same area. I have hiking shoes, sunblock on my face for the scorching sun, Nike dri-fit clothes and the poles. How did he make it up, I wonder, with only sandals on his feet and whatever sort of robe they wore in those days? Well, not entirely true, he had a staff on which he leaned, the one common thing between us. But he was known to be a hefty man, he killed another man with his bare hands. He probably did this a lot, going up and down mountains. And of course he was on a mission to spread the word of God, whereas I’m only here because I was unbelievably stupid!
Needless to say, because of my turtle pace, we were the last people in the group. Everyone else had gone on ahead except for Nadia who made sure she was the last one behind. She is an amazing woman, Nadia. She is like a shepherdess, watching over her flock of sheep, making sure none of us go astray. At one point she notices that my shoelace is undone and bends down to tie it for me. I cannot begin to explain how tired and weak I must have been to let her do that instead of doing it myself. Two sleepless nights in a row had taken their toll on me and all I could manage was an inaudible ‘thank you’.
We had started out at 8 am that morning, and it was now nearly noon. Just when I have completely lost hope, we meet two groups on their way up. It is all I can do to keep from saying: “Go back! Don’t even think of going up! Are you crazy?” But they look so excited and eager that I force myself to shut up.
By now, another two hours have passed and we are on the trail from the mountain to the place where the bus is expected to meet us to take us back to the Bedouin Camp. I feel I am like one of those people you see in the movies, who find themselves alone in the desert, with a handkerchief tied around their heads, their legs twisting around each other, and their lips chapped and dry as they croak: “Water, waaater!”
There are only a few more meters to go, or so they keep telling me, but whatever reservoir of energy I had is now completely empty and I am dragging my feet on a battery that is about to run out. Someone has released me of my backpack, I think it was Hussein, and I have no energy to argue. I have lost all control. Arwa takes matters into her hands, and seeing that I’m about to die, makes use of the newly-found signal on her cell phone and orders someone somewhere to send a camel for me. “I don’t like camels,” I manage to tell her. “There’s no other option,” she says, firmly, “you can’t go on like this.” Again, I don’t argue.
Eventually, the camel arrives and somehow I get up on it, dreading the moment when, first his hind legs, then his front legs, go up and I am swaying to and fro on this great, unstable beast of burden that is supposed to carry me and relieve me of my exhaustion and weakness. The sloping path, though far less steep, is still rocky, and the combination of that and me sitting on the hump of a towering camel is the equivalent of a roller coaster. NOT my favorite ride at the amusement park. All I will venture to say about this part of the expedition is that for years to come, my son will have endless fun at my expense, telling everyone he meets about my shouting and screaming, imploring the camel to go slowly and bursting into tears at the end.
What can I say? It was entirely my decision to go and I bear full responsibility. Sure, we had our fair share of bad luck, what with the guide disappearing and causing us to lose our way, and being forced to sleep outdoors. He re-appeared at the very end, by the way, and both Nadia and Arwa took it upon themselves to let him know exactly what kind of vermin they thought he was.
Words cannot describe the relief and joy of sitting on the upholstered seat of a car after a 14-hour hike on my own two legs and a death-ride on the back of a camel. I wasn’t meant for this kind of thing, I conclude.
Would I do it again? Absolutely not. What about Kilimanjaro? Yeah right.
What I can safely say is that were it not for my incredible companions on this trip, things would have been far worse for me. And the fact is, that the more exertion and suffering you put into a project, the greater the reward is sure to be. And in this case the reward was the knowledge that I have raised a man and that in later years, if God so wills, I will have him to lean on. Not just him, but Ali as well and all those young men out there who have learnt the meaning of responsibility and who bring pride and joy to their mothers by being who they are, may God bless each and everyone of them.
So for the time being, no more mountains or camels for me, no more adventures. I will be forever satisfied to be on solid ground and to recall from my memory files this incredible experience. For better or worse, St. Catherine is now my mountain while Kilimanjaro belongs to Nadia and Arwa and the 25 other climbers who made it to its summit on September 17th. Well done to all of you, I now have an even greater respect for your accomplishment!
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.