Unstable Possibilities

A minute too heavy or too beautiful has weighed on me for a long time.

Aime Cesaire, And the Dogs Were Silent

Every few years, usually when I least expect it, I experience a recurring nightmare. These aren’t exactly the same dream, but rather different versions of the same idea. I’m with friends or family on some adventure in the wilderness. We are enjoying the sunrise or camp fire and the feeling of being out there. Inevitably we find ourselves moving up above tree lines. The walk, hike, or run steadily climbs to the point where the steepness of the grade prevents me from going any further. In fact, I find that I can’t even get back down. I’m holding on to the tall thin grass patches or precarious boulders watching the others move on ahead or staring down at the incomprehensible distance to the valley below. I’m not on a cliff nor am I rock climbing and there are no ropes or harnesses. I’m simply leaning on to the side of a mountain hoping that its gravity will prevent me from tumbling back into oblivion. And this is where I stay, unable to catch up with the others, unable to slide back down to a more horizontal and stable ground. The dream ultimately ends with my white knuckles either letting go or the grass or rock giving way, and my body free falling off the mountain. Nice, yeah?

Now, I’m no psychoanalyst, but I don’t think you need to be in order to interpret the fears and desires here. Sometimes I can be a bit over-ambitious. I bite off more than I can chew, and then I chew like hell to prevent choking on my own aspirations.

Remember the time I thought I could handle being a dad and husband, a full-time teaching load, coaching, two graduate school classes, training for a marathon, and playing Baptista in Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew? Yeah, neither do I.

And while it helps that I have the All-Time Greatest spouse in my corner to save me from myself, it doesn’t nullify the anxiety I feel when something big is looming. It has become a bit of a running joke between us. A supervisor once told me that I can do three things, but I can only two of them well. I’ve spent the last 20 years trying to prove him wrong to no avail. We thought Africa might break this cycle, and for a while it did as we were focused on getting our bearings. But with the New Year came new dreams. Kenya. Ultra-Marathoning. Writing (and publishing) a book. Finishing the graduate degree (that just won’t die). Climbing Kilimanjaro. To complicate these intentions we combined them with her work and travel schedule, raising two boys, and being pregnant. What we have here is our best attempt yet at finding life’s tipping point to entropy.

So one month before our due date, I loaded a large waterproof duffel bag with outerwear, and made Erin promise not to have a baby before I returned. While there was confidence that the kid wouldn’t show up early, I left the full name on a piece of paper tucked in the drawer of my running gear (Erin decides when we have kids, I get decide what we call them). I felt scattered leaving this time, and it resulted in some interesting packing choices. I remembered books, four paperbacks to be exact (only one of which I finished, The Dream Peddler), but I forgot a water bottle. I packed snacks, but had to buy a headlamp at the airport. And I had running shoes (just in case), but left behind hiking gators. The airport and first flight went smoothly (by African standards), and I soon found myself in Nairobi boarding a small propeller plane to Arusha, Tanzania. I worry my kids will never know the pleasure of some of the finest ways to travel: the thrills of driving stick shift, being rocked to sleep on a sail boat, or the terrifying big drops that prop planes experience on the whim of mountain thermals. Nothing reminds you that you are alive quite like the feeling that you are about to die.

Kili is the best welcoming committee a hiker could wish for.

A driver from my climbing company (Team Kilimanjaro, highest possible recommendation) was waiting to take me to the the small but comfortable Zawadi House Lodge. The drive to Arusha was about 45 minutes of picturesque sunset over green pastures and farms. Tanzania is the fourth African country I’ve visited, and it was by far the cleanest. The government banned plastic bags and is making progress on recycling and reducing single use packaging. As we drove I couldn’t help but notice the difference from South Africa in this regard. Dinner the first night was a lonely bowl of chapati and vegetables at the hotel bar. It seemed that I might be the only guest staying there.

Of all of the adventures on the calendar this year, Kilimanjaro was the one I was most looking forward to, but maybe not for the reasons that you might think. In Kenya I sought a specific feeling, one from years ago, of the delight in exhaustion and of the body’s capability to adapt. I found it in the boundless world-class talent and camaraderie of the training group. In Paris with 20 other writers, I sought affirmation of my work and effort. But coming to Kilimanjaro solo during the low season was for something else. So eating alone in an empty bar was expected. In fact until only a month ago, I was set to hike alone too. This might sound sad to you, but actually it was the opposite. If there is any aspect of modern life that I would change, it would be America’s obsession with time. More specifically, that time is money and that time not spent being productive is money lost. I wanted to go somewhere that time (or maybe my age) couldn’t reach me. I love my wife and family more than life itself. But to be the best husband and father I can be, I also I need to hit the reset button on who I am every so often. There are better months than June to climb Kili. It’s the rainy season. It’s winter. The park, especially above 2500m, is mostly empty space. But what better place to allow thoughts to come and sit and stay awhile without rush or distraction or the omnipresent urge to connect and share? So I sat there at the bar alone, drinking a Kilimanjaro Lager and took in the last light of day and welcomed the freedom that night brought knowing that there was no place I had to go, there was nobody I had to be, and there was nothing I had to do.

On Sunday, I ventured into Arusha for some last minute items. The way to get around Arusha is on the back of motorbike which can be a bit intimidating at first, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll never want to ride by taxi again. At the top of my list was Diamox, a drug used to ease the symptoms of altitude sickness. South Africa prohibited it’s use for anything other than glacoma, but the pharmacy in town sold me ten tablets for $2.50. Deal. On the way to the pharmacy I had spotted the Cultural Heritage Center. Walking back to it was well worth the time and effort. I spent a couple of hours marveling at the fantastic works of art in their collection. Photographs of the Maasai, bronze sculptures of wildlife, hand-carved wooden furniture, and paintings with brilliant explosive colors. After a massive lunch portion of the Center’s amazing curry, I hopped onto another motorbike and headed for the Maasai Market. This is a bit of a racket and tourist trap, but you can bargain freely here, and I was channeling my inner Anthony Bourdain by this point. While the stalls are each fairly similar in product and the interactions with the merchants can feel a bit patronizing at times, one young man was able to coax me into overpaying for a painting for my kids. He was funny and personable and he earned it.

That night at the hotel, my guide joined me for a pre-hike gear check. His name was Harold, and he has stood on the summit of Kili over 400 times in the last 14 years. When I asked it if ever gets old, the smile lines around his eyes creased with energy. “Never. Never. It always feels like the first time.” This was my kind of guy.

Team picture before the journey begins. Yayha and Hilary on left, Harold and I on the right.

The next morning the bus arrived at 8AM, and I meet our assistant guide Kevin and our “stomach engineer,” Naom. Most of the porters speak very little English, but they are smiling and happy to shake hands and take a group picture. We climb on, and I look around. Twelve staff for two hikers. The old VW seats 20 or so but with our gear on the roof and in the back seats everyone is packed in for the four hour drive to the Rongai Gate. It’s at this point I meet my fellow climber. (Side Note: I can’t lie. I was a bit disappointed when I learned that another climber had signed up. I thought I wanted complete solitude on the mountain. I was wrong, but only because Hilary turned out to be such an outstanding human being.) We immediately hit it off, and our conversation ebbed and flowed naturally for much of the bus ride. She was an American and living overseas for work much like we were. This was her first trip to Africa, and while she is over a decade younger, she is an accomplished traveler, athlete, and academic so we had lots in common. Over the next seven days we would kindle a friendship that I’m certain will last through the years.

Day one on the Rongai Trail took us 7km (4.5 miles) from 2300m (7,500ft) up to the Simba Camp at 2700m (8,800ft). It was a gentle grade on a well maintained trail that my kids could have easily handled. Along the way we would meet one of only a few other hikers in the park. He was a German who worked in IT and was hiking solo on the much more arduous five day ascent. We exchanged a brief but pleasant conversation and went our own way. Simba Camp afforded a great view of both the summit and the Kenyan valley below. We were elated to finally be on our way, but as I went to sleep that night I felt anxious about the days ahead.

Day two took us 16km (10 miles) further into the park and another 1km higher to 3700m (11,800ft). The hike was long, but not difficult with a mid-day lunch break at Second Cave campsite. The air was noticeably cooler and dryer here than at any previous point. The camp was well above the clouds and afforded both a supremely enjoyable albeit cold sunset and sunrise. Our food was ample and surprisingly delicious for trail grub. Breakfasts included omelets or hard-boiled eggs, porridge, and coffee or tea. A couple of times we were treated to pancakes and jam, which was always a sure sign of a good day. Lunches started with soup (cucumber or leek or butternut) and always had noodles or rice and a hearty vegetable sauce. Dinners were often similar to lunches in that there was soup, but they also usually included a meat like chicken or sausage or tuna. All meals also included fresh fruit. I can’t overstate how impressed I was with Naum and his menu. In fact, I felt guilty eating as well as we did until I learned that the crew were eating the same meals we were. Living in South Africa (more so than at any other time in my life) I understand the inequities of the world in which we live. We earnestly wrestle with effective ways to act to remedy these inequalities around us. But on the mountainside, imagining the men outside the mess tent eating less or worse than we were was a stomach turning thought. When we asked Harold, he assured us again that as a guide his staff never went to bed without the nourishment they needed.

This is the history of mountaineering though, isn’t it? Usually white affluent westerners hiring local men for dangerous expeditions and treating them as less than equals. We ate and hiked and slept separately from the porters, our only interactions were brief recognitions in camp or when they came flying up the trail overloaded with gear. I genuinely wanted to know them, to hear their stories. The divide felt like a bridge too far. In my life I’ve rarely, if ever, participated in an endeavor which felt so like a colonialist practice. Or maybe I have, it was just better hidden. Where were my running shoes made and by whom? How about that new phone in my pocket? The house I live in? The food on my table? I wasn’t climbing that mountain fueled by my own sheer resolve. Quite literally everything I needed was carried up there by someone making approximately $6 a day. Everything I ate was cooked by someone making much less daily than the average American fast food worker. While watching the last of the sun’s light race up the mountain behind us, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this wasn’t as much of an accomplishment as it was the accomplishment of privilege.

While day three would be a short hike in distance (4km, 2.5 miles), it would add another 600m in elevation gain over rougher terrain making it much more difficult than the previous day. The Mawenzi Tarn Hut was at 4315m (14,150ft), and Harold anticipated that we might have trouble sleeping as neither of us had ever been in that thin of an atmosphere. After arriving at camp, Harold and Kevin refilled our water and pressed us to continue to climb up Mawenzi for another 30 minutes. In the clouds and jagged peaks we sat and waited for our bodies to acclimatize as best they could. Hilary broke out a deck of cards, and there at 4580m (15,000ft) we played war with one cold had exposed and the other buried in our jacket for warmth. Descending back to camp we found the sun set painting the mountain walls and scree red and gold. That night I didn’t sleep well. The wind was violent at times and the cold air froze in my nostrils. Erin suggested that I pack a hot water bottle and to have the crew fill it with boiling water before bed. I think that was the only reason my toes didn’t freeze off that night. At some point in the early morning the wind died down, and I drifted off for an hour or two.

When I opened my eyes the tent betrayed the departure of night and arrival of the early morning hour. I put my boots and jacket on (I wore my pants, long underwear, shirts, and hat to bed) and stumbled to the outhouse. After a quick pit stop, I climbed up on the rocks to the east of the campsite. In the brutal still and quiet mountain air, a spark of a sun emerged in the east. I looked back at the camp in the shadows behind me and felt the first rays of sun awaken a feeling of gratitude and presence. In that moment I crossed some invisible line and found myself someplace I never thought I would be. I thought of the meandering trail of my life over the last 40 years. The decisions I thought would make or break me weren’t the ones that ultimately mattered. The ones I barely thought on were the ones of real consequence. I thought about the people and the work which defined me much more than the classes or degrees. I thought about Maine and West Virginia and Tennessee. I thought about Oxford, Bates, and Belmont. I thought about how the failures that I continue to carry with me are not academic or professional or monetary, but are what George Saunders calls “failures of kindness.” The failures to respond humanly to the person in front of me are much heavier and taxing than anyone told me at 10, 18, or 25. And I know I didn’t have to come to the mountains to arrive at such a place, but standing there watching the sun dawn, I felt like I had traveled from where and who I was both literally and figuratively.

I hadn’t really slept, my fingers had crossed from cold numb to cold painful, and I couldn’t take a deep breath, but the thought carried me to another place, to a vantage point where I could see my life accordion out behind me. The golden light of sunrise and reflection lasted two minutes, and then the moment was gone.

Walking back to camp I felt a like I had finished a book or another year teaching. I felt a little taller and bounded from rock to rock. Yayha, one of the porters, greeted me with a hot tea and an even warmer smile.

“Habari za asubuhi! It is a good morning.” He said with a heartfelt emphasis on “good.” We both looked to the east.

“Asante sana. Yes. It is a good day.” I replied. And I felt it. And I think he did too.

Within an hour we had broken camp and moved out across the Martian landscape on day four. The sun was warm, but a stubborn wind kept us from uncovering our skin. We moved west to the Third Cave campsite. Surprisingly, we were descending again to 3900m, and I think everyone was looking forward to sleeping better with more oxygen. Cave Three was at a crossroads where trails extended in cardinal directions. Here we met another hiker, an Aussie teacher who lived in Malawi. He would prove to be the last person we met before our decent from the summit.

After dinner, Hilary and I solved all of the problems facing American public education. The idea basically is that private companies should earn certification labels for participation (either directly or indirectly) in support of schools in much the same way that buildings and infrastructure projects earn LEED certification for environmental design and efficiency. I wish I could take credit for the idea, but it came around organically through the question and response portion of our dinner. She was feeling better after a bout with nausea and was proving to be the perfect hiking companion and a good friend. We completed crosswords, played cards, sang favorite songs, and enjoyed several really engaging conversations. I grew to appreciate having someone to learn about and to think deeply with.

On day five I really struggled with the hike in a way that I hadn’t before. My legs were fine, my lungs were solid, but I had a headache behind my eyes that no amount of water or rest could shake. I asked Harold if I should start the Diamox that I bought back in Arusha, but he thought that I was doing really well and without other symptoms I shouldn’t add the upset stomach and risk dehydration this late. He was right, and my body adapted by lunch the at the School Hut Camp (4800m, 15,750ft). The wind had grown relentless, kicking dust up into our eyes and ears and shaking the tents with reckless abandon. The forecast was for the conditions to degrade further with temps plummeting and the gusts to strengthen. At our pre-summit meeting after dinner with Harold we reviewed the timetable and did a gear check. Tonight would drive temps deep into the winter side of freezing. I don’t know how Hilary was feeling, but I was anxious. I was also second guessing the Diamox decision, anticipating another headache on the way up in the morning. Back in my tent I stowed the clothes I would wear down into the bottom of my sleeping bag along with the hot water bottle. Warm clothes are infinitely easier to put on than cold ones. I tucked my contact lens solution, phone, and backup battery in the bag too. My Camelback res would have to fend for itself. As I slid down into the bag liner fully clothed, the cover image of The Mitten, a children’s picture book I once owned, popped into my head and made me smile as the wind continued to try and wrestle the tent away from under me.

Day six actually started at 11PM on day five. I slept about for an hour as the wind shook the tent with an anger that bordered on savagery. Dressing with the hot water bottled tucked in my shirt to glean the last of the warmth was easier than expected. I packed my mostly empty carry-all bag for the porters to take to rendevous at Kebo Camp. For the record, on top I had on a 250G merino Smartwool long sleeve, a Cloudveil Run Don’t Walk halfzip, a Polartec 300 heavyweight windpro fleece, a Rab Zero G down jacket, two Buffs, and an L.L. Bean Gore-Tex Guide jacket. On bottom I had Smartwool underwear, Nike running tights, Smartwool 250g baselayer pant, Craghopper pants, and Mountain Hardware windproof/waterproof full-zip pants. Along with Black Diamond mountain mittens, wool cap and socks, I was ready to go. At the mess tent I ate two bowls of porridge, an omelet, and a Snickers bar. We topped off our waters, and silently shuffled out into the dense night.

Kevin, our assistant guide, and Naom, the chef, would we accompanying us for the next nine or ten hours. We focused our headlamps to the six feet of shifting sand and scree ahead of us. With Kevin in front, Hilary and I followed step-by-step, and Naum stayed a few meters behind choosing his own footing. Under two hoods and behind my a face buff, I was alone with my thoughts, and I let them come and go as they pleased. Tom Waits crooned “Long Way Home.” I did the math to figure out which of my family and friends around the world were awake and which were asleep. I could hear my heartbeat almost in time with our six-inch steps. I wasn’t thirsty, but I took sips from the mouthpiece to prevent the water from freezing in it or the tube. Every few steps the warmth from my exhalation was snatched by a raging gust and whipped off into the vacuum of blackness. Above us the stars pierced the night sky, cold as knife points. For the first hour our climb was linear, progressing up and across a barren face of the extinct volcano. After meeting up with the trail from Kebo Camp, we started a kilometer of 200 switchbacks, each rising only a few meters above the previous. Below us I could see the headlamps of other climbers. Three or four groups seemed to gain and then recede. As far as I could tell, no one was ahead of us.

Minutes vanished. Then an hour. Then another. In between periods of zoning out, I would conduct a full body scan. What felt cold? Numb? Did I have a headache? Was that blood running from my nose or snot? The scree deadened my legs like no marathon I’ve ever run. Step up and slide back. Repeat. We rested briefly at the mouth of a small cave. On the right side I found the men’s room. A bit dusty, but you couldn’t beat the view. We pressed on past 3AM. The wind grew worse. It was no longer punching in gusts, but steadily leaning on you like an overdue obligation. When it ran up under my hood it carried prehistoric dust, and I had to tightly shut my eyes to keep them from the sandblasting. A dozen of these episodes had eroded my resolve. I wanted to be done. I wanted to be back in a tent. I wanted to sit down. I wanted something warm to eat. I wasn’t too cold or too uncomfortable. It wasn’t hard, but I was overtired and not thinking clearly. I focused on Hilary’s boots and following in her footsteps. If I could just follow her lead…

Only three more hours till sunrise.

To be continued…

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