A visit to the « house of God »- The Kilimanjaro project
This story is not mine… it is so much more my father’s who had the courage and the wisdom not to climb the « highest freestanding mountain of the world »… and for a person like my father, « daring » to decide not to go for the trek (for health reasons) was the hardest decision. Today, I must say, if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have reached the top…
It all started when my sister and her husband phoned me with the compelling news, « we are going to climb Mount Kili, are you in? ». I had not heard much about Mount « kili », I just merely knew that it was some big mountain that Hemingway once fell in love with, I did not even know it was in Africa…
The phone call, and the idea were enough for me to rush to the nearest mall searching for my copy of the « snows of Kilimanjaro ». I spent long nights surfing the hundreds of websites dedicated to the expedition, and the thousands of videos posted on « you tube » to glean snippets of information on how one actually feels going through this « self » expedition.
Because my story cannot be told on video, here it is in words.
It is common knowledge that Kilimanjaro does not require technical climbing skills… « Pretty much anyone can do it ». « You need not be an alpinist or be exceptionally fit to attempt the ascent ».
When I asked one of my friends from work, I was told: « if my girlfriend did it, then you can do it ». I was not sure what he meant then, probably that in general men having the advantage of the physical strength are able to take up the challenge more easily than women.
The first thing I actually learnt being on the mountain, is that I needed my mental strength much more than the physical one, and looking at my sister (2 years my junior), and all the intrepid women I met on my way up, I could tell that nothing is more wrong than thinking the climb would be easier for men.
Looking back, I can say today that it was mentally one of the hardest challenges I have ever undertaken.
Uhuru Peak (Peak of Freedom in Swahili) culminates at some 5,895 meters (19,341 feet) and is the highest point of Kili. Having been raised in Tunisia, I am more familiar with the imperial metric system, but the height measured in feet is so much more eloquent: 19,341 feet seemed to me like 19,341 steps lined up one after the other towards the sky. If we go by the famous leitmotiv on the mountain, the hike had to be done « pole, pole » (slowly, slowly) as if steps were to be made one foot after the other. The 19,341st footstep I would set on the peak was the one that obsessed me. And it really felt like I carried on my back not only my own body but also the sum of my fears 6 km into the sky.
Crazy challenge. After all, one should definitely be a lunatic for ditching the cozy comfort of a nice-little-expat-life-in-Dubai and risk everything for a mountain somewhere in the African jungle. I was definitely insane, but without this craziness I wouldn’t have challenged myself and pushed my limits, nor I would be here telling you this extraordinary adventure… And the unique set of values that are now part of me forever simply because I lived every one of them to the extreme.
My sister’s father in law had also decided to be part of the adventure and his 64 years of age have not dissuaded him, but like my father he took an important decision and one for which I salute him, a decision at Barafu Camp (4,600m, the last camp before summit) after 6 days of a long and tedious climb, just before the final ascent. He had « nothing to prove to the world » and he chose he was fine waiting for us under the tent.
Summit Day (Note: the use of italic font and the absence of paragraph is deliberate)
It is 23.30, dark and freezing (close to 0°C). Tiko, one of our 12 porters had come to wake us up as he did every morning, except that this time he was 7 hours early.
« Good morning Sir, It is time ». Yes it was about time. We had been waiting for this moment for 6 days, and 6 nights, living through an unbearable agony (dizziness, nausea, hypothermia, fever (or what is even worse than fever: hallucination of fever), headaches, disgust, lack of sleep, fatigue and lack of oxygen), in one word: altitude sickness.
It is not that he had to pull us out of a deep sleep; we were actually waiting for him to come and end the agony of having to go through the seconds one by one (… and when in pain, one second is like an eternity). On the mountain, you generally cannot expect to sleep more than 2 to 3 hours per night if you are lucky. Sleeping pills only improve this to 3 to 4 hours or at best 5. So question: what do you do when it is -5°C outside, and that you are stuck in a 1.5 square meter tent (that you share with another person and 2 large rucksacks of 20 Kg each), tucked in a tight sleeping bag, without a pillow and on a sloped surface… you simply suffer in silence and… wait.
When you close your eyes, the world turns upside down and the nausea increases tenfold. When you turn on your side (after a tremendous effort that makes you sweat), you realize your neck hurts for not having your « good old pillow » to which you are used. You then realize that you need to use the restrooms (rhetorical figure, the real name being “long drop toilets”) as you have been drinking 3 to 4 liters of boiled river water to help hydrate your body to keep up with altitude. You sweat even more trying to unzip the sleeping bag, sit, remove the hottie that was tucked in there to keep you warm, put on your pants, unzip the door, slide out of the tent, put on your shoes and stand up, making sure you do not make much noise (to avoid disturbing your neighbor) and without stepping with your shoes in the microscopic tent. All this without using your head torch, which leads you to experience the delights of myopia.
Small reward I must confess here: once out, you look up, and you literally admire the universe. The sky above your head is illuminated with millions of stars so clearly visible in the abyss of space that you stare for a while, dazzled by the panorama almost forgetting the pain that inhabits every millimeter of your body. Far away, so far away, your eyes are caught by the giant shadow of the mountain that suddenly appears so fragile and delicate yet so violent.
As Tiko wakes us up, on summit day at 11pm, we put on our seven layers of clothes, our woolen hat, and our head torch. We head out of the tent looking for our bottles filled with boiling water that the porters brought from the nearby river.
We then have a “forced” cup of tea and some biscuits and off we go, pole, pole, in the dark, one after the other, the only light, the distant « halo » of the moon and the dozens of weak lights (the headlamps of the other trekkers) climbing the mountain in a constant cadence and that seem to us like distant lightning.
If we stop for more than a minute, the cold invades us and we freeze, therefore we walk, in silence, like robots on the outside, but struggling against fatigue in the inside. Above our heads, the peak, darker than the night, motionless, irremovable, definitely unreachable.
Head down we walk for hours; in some places we have to cross massive rocks, in some others we walk along ridges with deep ravines on each side and the only image we see is our footsteps engraved in the footsteps of the trekker preceding us.
From time to time, exhausted by pounding headaches and dizziness, we almost faint, we look up, the peak is even darker than before, it stands at the exact same place as it did for the last 5 hours, untouchable, defying us.
The cold which forces us into wearing a balaclava and a scarf around our mouth, is more painful than the lack of oxygen, but we still struggle to breath through the wool of the balaclava, and if we attempt to remove the balaclava to get some air, the cold hits us so hard that we are forced to put back the stinking balaclava and agonize.
I thought to myself that I should stop looking at the summit. For example, I imagined it suddenly disappears, I tried ignoring it to focus on every step as if it was the last one, and I would start again the process while making the following step. The guides now sing to make us forget the pain, but their voice is like torture, every single sound, even a melody, echoes in our heads and turns into a scream.
We stop for a while, to rest and force our selves into drinking and eating a snack which we struggle to get a hold of as we have to take off our gloves and back pack (undoing all the belt clips that hold it tight to our back), open it and wear it back again. We are now like astronauts, prisoners of our diving bell, disgusted by the water we have to drink and which is now so cold that it burns our throats.
It feels like we have not progressed at all, and the view of the summit is the same, unchanged despite the hours of walking, it looks like we are still in the same spot, crawling blindly in circles around the mountain incapable of reaching its top but still trying like Sisyphus confronted with the absurdity of our actions.
Then comes the scree, steep hills of small stones, where every step goes deep making it a struggle to lift our legs and progress up. Like quicksand where every step instead of allowing us to climb made us retreat swallowed by the huge jaws of the mountain.
We loose track of time and one second seems like an eternity. Yet, in a desperate attempt to find the one single spark of motivation left in our eroded bodies, the guides kept on repeating: « we’re almost there », « come on », « one more hour to go »… « There, uphill you can now see the Stella Point »
That hour lasted a decade…and that « point » seemed like a black whole…
At this juncture, we had no more legs, no more feet, we were driven by our trekking poles on which our bodies were hanging like tightrope walkers, and this incredible feeling of dizziness, it felt like we were carrying the weight of the sky on our shoulders, yet without any energy to move, so we were swaying like pathetic ghosts or drunken shadows.
All of a sudden, the slope became gentler, and the light erupted behind the mountain turning the dark night into light blue. Far away we could distinguish huge white masses, the glaciers.
From that moment, everything went very fast, we could not feel our bodies, and could not walk without the help of our guides, who were almost carrying us (with our arms around their shoulders) as soldiers would carry their wounded fellows. The sun suddenly revealed the true surface we were walking on, it was not sand, it was thinner than sand, it was ash, just like black icing sugar.
Few hundred meters away was the famous Uhuru peak sign, congratulating us for having reached the roof of Africa. We were finally free…
Until we remembered that we had to descent and go through another 4 hours before reaching Barafu Camp (the camp of the glaciers), a free fall into the world.
Climbing kilimanjaro is not climbing a mountain, it is climbing our fears, and reaching the pinnacle of faith, and in some cases, the struggle of deciding not go when every part of our mind tells us the contrary is actually reaching that pinnacle.
Undoubtedly, the most difficult times were at night, when the body is idle, and had to survive the dark, and go through every second of a long waiting agony. The symptoms of altitude sickness exacerbate the agony to a point that plunges us in uncertainty, loss of confidence, lack of motivation and despair, and doubt.
During the middle ages, a common torture practice was to put prisoners in tiny cells smaller than their bodies, where they could not move or stand up, my tent looked like these cells, I was like a prisoner of the volcano, locked in a minuscule sloped tent, where I was deprived of sleep, held hostage of my mind under the massive shadow of the quietly sleeping colossus.
About the bare necessities of life and living in a continuous state of discomfort and disgust which makes us have a different (and relative) understanding of comfort, happiness, thankfulness
Food and water
Eating and drinking is a passion for a gourmet like myself. While on the mountain, it is essential to give to the body all the energy that it needs to survive in a hostile environment. Sadly, one of the key features of altitude is the loss of appetite. Forcing myself to eat, when I did not feel an ounce of hunger or appetite, was worse than starvation.
Barak (our cook) was trying his best to prepare as varied meals as one could get at 3,500 meters above sea level. As we were sitting around the tiny diner table, on sloped stools, in the sloped kitchen tent (that was also used as the dorm for all 12 porters, wearing the only clothes that they have brought with them). In an attempt to make us eat, Tiko was standing right beside the table, imperturbable, awaiting that we finish our plates, and the only words he would pronounce, in the middle of the dark, with his weariless question « more? » and the incredible expression of joy that his face would take if any of us miraculously said « yes please !! ».
The same applies to water, keeping the body fully hydrated (i.e. approx. 4 to 5 liters of fluids per day) was key to coping with altitude and reducing mountain sickness. On the mountain, the only sources of water are the rivers, and the streams. Again, forcing myself to drink hot brown colored water (as it had to be boiled), when I did not feel an ounce of thirst, was worse than living days without having a single sip of water.
How many porters had to go sometimes in the dark after having carried all our rucksacks (most of the times full of useless stuff) up to the camp, with the obligation to walk faster than us to reach the said camp before us, unload all the equipment, set up our tents, and reach the nearest water source, fill up the 20 liters jerry cans to allow us have enough water to wash, cook and fill up our water bottles to spend the night and for the next day’s trek?
If all 4 of us needed 4 liters each, plus the 2 guides, how much of that water was left for the rest of the 12 porters? How many trips had the porters to make to the water source to get all the water needed for everyone? I do not know, but one thing I know, is that I would not have done it for myself even if I was dying of thirst…
Climbing Mt Kilimanjaro for a cause, or as a personal challenge is a rewarding experience and a major personal achievement. Climbing Mt Kilimanjaro when trekking and mountain climbing is a passion that procures an unparalleled joy is an unforgettable experience. Climbing Mt Kilimanjaro to earn a few bucks to feed your family and cater to their primary needs as do the porters is what taught me the most about caring for the others while on the mountain.
People say that you only learn things when you learn them the hard way, although I regretted every single second I was on the mountain, because I was so unprepared and sick (all of us resisted taking diamox, which most of the trekkers use to combat latitude sickness), but the moment I reached the top, all the fatigue and the hard times were washed away and all I was left with is this exceptional experience of solitude that taught me what no school and no teacher got even close to teaching me: the things that are important in life: the people that love you and that you love are the most valuable asset.
Climbing Kili is about suddenly loosing the equilibrium that one spends building in a lifetime, and this sudden loss, makes all the important things emerge. Money, career, and all the fake pleasures that we create and that we convince ourselves that they matter to us bleach, all this rolls like a big stone thrown from the top of the mountain, and what is left behind, levitating above the clouds, almost in a surreal flight, is your naked body wrapped in your mind suddenly so pure, so light, that you can embrace the universe.
After reaching the top, everything becomes so clear, so obvious. Life is just like climbing a mountain, walking across the days, the weeks, the years, with one goal, caring about the planet and all the living creatures that it hosts.
Today, what was once called the eternal snows of Kili, the massive glaciers that used to stand like stoic gladiators are broken, torn, disintegrated, they have massive wholes in their bodies, and who caused these wounds? We did.
The Masai and the Chagga, once the most prosper tribes of Africa, are now poor porters, condemned to lift heavy rucksacks of rich tourists up the mountain to earn just enough money to feed their families…