Most of us exist for most of the time in worlds which are humanly arranged, themed, and controlled. One forgets that there are environments which do not respond to the flick of a switch or the twist of a dial, and which have their own rhythms and orders of existence. Mountains correct this amnesia. By speaking of greater forces than we can possible invoke, and by confronting us with greater spans of time than we can possibly envisage, mountains refute our excessive trust in the man-made. The pose profound questions about our durability and the importance of our schemes, They induce, I suppose, a modesty in us.Robert MacFarlane, Mountains of the Mind: Adventures in Reaching the Summit.
So there I was… In Africa… Inching my way through an aggressive headwind to the summit of a 19,000ft extinct volcano. Sounds glorious doesn’t it? I wish it was. With each raging gust, I could feel dust and wind-kicked dirt plastering itself to my face and driving up under my contact lenses. The mouthpiece of my Camel-Back had frozen shut around 3AM. Even if it hadn’t, it too was caked in prehistoric dirt. I can’t overstate this, I was positively miserable and negatively existing. I had had enough. I wanted to let my legs go, collapse, curl into a ball, and fall asleep. I didn’t want to quit, but I wanted to stop. I’ve questioned my resolve in training and races for almost three decades, and I know the difference between hurting and being in distress. I was beyond hurting, well into suffering, and approaching distress. That hour between 4AM and 5Am was the most difficult one I’ve ever endured. It took all my energy to force the next step. I focused on watching for Hilary’s boot print in the shifting sand and stepping on it the moment after she vacated the space. When she stepped again, I planted my foot exactly where she had.
There were several times I wanted to signal to Kevin on the switchback when he would be sure to see me. After one particularly hard straight, I started to but as the moment came, I had the briefest moment of clarity… I can’t ruin this for her. There is nowhere to stop here. And if I decide to descend I would split the party, and if she or the guides were even as remotely as miserable as I was, I knew we would all turn back. Our story would be the same as the majority of hikers who failed to summit. So over the last hour I didn’t find motivation in thinking about the money spent, or the time, or the personal commitment to the endeavor. I only cared about not being the reason that Hilary didn’t get to to the summit. It never ceases to amaze me what we become capable of when we act in the service of others. I’ve seen it time and again in athletics. Those who focus on the success of others find physical and emotional reserves that are un-accessible compared to working for oneself.
So it would be a bit of a laugh later to learn that she too was suffering in extreme and was only maintaining her phenomenal pace because she was terrified of slowing me down and preventing me from reaching the summit. Six days before she didn’t exist to me, just one of the other 7.5 billion faces in the world. And now after a few shared conversations, cups of Kenyan tea, and kilometers walking together, we were choosing to suffer to see each other’s dream actualized. Stranger things. Literally.
Just after 5AM we left the scree field behind and found a bit of shelter between a series of jagged boulders. I could hear Kevin yelling up ahead when Naom grabbed my arm and put his hooded head to mine and joined Kevin singing:
Jambo, jambo Bwana (Hello, hello Sir)
Habari gani (How are you?)
Mzuri sana (Very fine)
Wageni, mwakaribishwa (Foreigners, you’re welcome)
Kilimanjaro, hakuna matata (Kilimanjaro, there is no problem)
They would repeat this several times with growing intensity as if challenging the wind to drown them out. Confused, my headlamp traced up trail and there in front of us was 12 foot battered wooden sign with yellow lettering. Congratulations. Gilman’s Point. Kevin hugged Hilary and then me, and then all of us, like castaways on some extraterrestrial island planet who have spotted a rescue ship, embraced and danced like idiots in the pre-dawn light. I snapped a photo and in the 20 seconds that my hand was exposed to the cold and wind it began to throb with pain. On the discomfort continuum, it skipped cold and numb altogether and went straight to god-forsaken, ice-in-the-veins, danger-level pain. Kevin and Hilary were trying to hide from the wind further up the trail, and they turned to beckon us. I was confused. In my head I was shouting. We made it! Shouldn’t we be going back down now?! Why are we going on?! I can’t feel my hand, you guys!!! Behind layers of Gortex, Naum read my panicked expression, and a few steps later in the shelter of a rock face he took me by the arm again, leaned in, and in his best English shouted “Where you want to go, it’s further than you think.” The wind whipped his words up to the top of the the troposphere. I knew what he meant, but I also heard the truth he spoke (either intentionally or unintentionally). We were going to Uhuru Peak. We were not settling for most of the way.
Arm-in-arm, Naum and I hiked a stride behind the others. The sky brightened ever so slightly, and brought with it hope. The wind was as relentless as ever, but being able to see beyond the reach of my headlamp somehow improved the experience. I wasn’t less miserable, but I could see a world that looked almost familiar. To our left, the top of the last of Kili’s legendary glaciers stood at attention. To our right the sky slowly bled an icy golden light. And an hour after celebrating at Gilman’s, we approached the highest point on the continent. It was a lonely monument weathered and waiting for the day’s first light and the pilgrims the it was sure to bring. I was both enthusiastic and exhausted as we posed for pictures. Behind Kevin and Naum, we could see a procession of headlamps making progress up to our desolate summit. I did my best to pry my frozen face into a smile. I wondered what day it was? Saturday. I was pretty sure. The first full day of winter. And somewhere down below, my family and the rest of Africa was stirring.
For over six hours we toiled in darkness, and for fewer than six minutes we stood to appreciate the beauty of that labor. That’s the way it is though, right? Eleven years spent teaching to what end? Tens of thousands of miles run, for maybe a few moments of fleeting joy and a bit of memory? Yes. In all it’s forms. We must continue to fulfill the human fate by challenging ourselves and conquering that which we struggle against. By touching that signpost 19,341 feet above the sea in an environment hostile to life, I bested a familiar enemy; myself.
As we strode down the scree and frozen rock, our faces reflecting the light of the rising sun and our euphoria. The wind continued to howl, but who cared now? We passed those who were on their way up, and we congratulated, and we encouraged, and we cheered, physically and emotionally buoyed by the ultimate form of contentment, the kind that is born from achievement. In 20 minutes we covered distances had taken over an hour. At Gilman’s we encountered a larger group just climbing over the rim. They were exhausted and hid from the wind behind the rock face just as we had earlier. On the other side we saw for the first time the height and length of our ascent. There at the foot of the mountain was Kebo Camp, 5km away and 1km down. In between boulders and in embrace of the strengthening sun we sat and enjoyed frozen candy bars and shared the only unfrozen water bottle. We laughed and sang and recalled the thoughts and moments which lingered with us.
By 9AM we were receiving a hero’s welcome in camp. Enthusiastic high-fives, hugs, and cheers in both English and Swahili made me wonder if the crew were doubting our chances as much as I was. We ate eggs and pancakes and changed into lighter clothing before continuing to our last camp at Horombo. Hilary and I laughed and sang the whole way. We enjoyed the pull of gravity, richer oxygen levels, and promise of a cell signal at our final camp. That night we savored our meal and recalled the long day’s events. We also celebrated the fact that Erin was still pregnant. I hadn’t missed it. The temporary amnesia produced by our sleep deprivation even allowed us to dream of an assault of Mont Blanc later this year. We were very tired, but I’m open-minded and optimistic about the chances.
Day 7 covered 20km (12 miles) from Horombo to the Marungu Park Gate. There we were greeted by tour buses and day-hikers from every corner of the earth. I felt a swell of pride at my grime covered face and dusty clothes even if the tourists turned in disgust. Hilary and I congratulated each other again, and while the joy of accomplishment was still firmly resting on my internal trophy shelf, I also found I was a bit sad to be leaving the experience and people behind. I want to believe I will be back, “but knowing how way leads on to way…”
As a child I spent a lot of time in the natural world. By the time I was the age of my eldest son, my friends and I were climbing trees, camping out on the 4th of July, building forts and fighting imaginary foes in the fields and woods behind our homes. From third grade on we walked together over a mile or so to the elementary and later the middle school through the same Maine forests and elements. In high school, cross country running and ski practice and racing took us on trails around the town, county, and state. And once we even successfully convinced our A.P. environmental science teacher to let us spend a school day in the town forest “surveying.” I genuinely enjoyed being outside shoveling snow or stacking fire wood or rigging up a makeshift zip line. But something happened in the 20 years since. While I still I enjoyed nature, I have had to bypass the anxious questioning part of my brain to get out there. How cold will it be? What happens if I get wet? Is it really worth it? I’d opt for treadmills and postponing outdoor activity if the weather or environment wasn’t conducive to optimal enjoyment. This wasn’t always the case. But at some point as I grew older I chose a human comfort level over an existential one. The security of the predictable outweighed the unstable possibilities of the world out there.
I still get out and run on trails from time to time, and I know how to enjoy a hike with my family, but these are the exceptions. This trip rekindled a long forgotten enjoyment of the mountains and being exposed to their elements. I’m humbled by the experience, and now I’m actively looking for my next adventure before this feeling wanes again. Mont Blanc anyone?
Be good and keep in touch.