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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Booksie Classic
A short personal account of climbing Africas highest mountain.

Submitted: March 25, 2008

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Submitted: March 25, 2008



Climbing Kilimanjaro.

It all started with a magazine article my husband was reading one rainy Sunday afternoon. I was lying on my bed engrossed in my gory
horror story, when he threw the article down next to me, for me to read. I read the story and I was captivated by the thought of climbing
the highest mountain in Africa. With this, I walked through to the sitting room, and said “okay” when we going?
Not having expected this reaction from his sedentary, chain smoking wife, he was thrown into a bit of a quandary. What now, must have
been his first thought. Both of us being very stubborn and sometimes stupid people, he never dreamt to say _ “Just Kidding”.
The ball was now in his court. First things first – neither of us had ever hiked in our lives before. Presumably we now have to get fit. So easy
to get unfit, but eeish its tuff to get fit. Where do we start? Join a gym – nope – tried that didn’t like it. Exercise bike – that’s great – creaking wheels in front of a TV screen with a cigarette hanging out the corner of my mouth. Mmmmmmm may work.
After a lot of debate and discussions, we in our wisdom, decided a Sunday hike through some “up and down terrain” will do the trick. Our tickets have been booked, our arrangements have been finalized and we leave in six months. Plenty time to get ourselves fit enough for a hike up a mountain.
The first Sunday I approached with trepidation, four kilometers, wow that sounds far, and there are hills and valleys to negotiate. Hmmm – should make it. Well all I can say, we started off bright and early, with big grins and bottles of water. My grin was replaced by a grimace on the first hill. Good heavens, I am only half way up, but my heart rate has tripled, and I’m going to die on this silly little hillock. Needless to say, we finished our first hike, and feeling very proud of ourselves, ate our sandwiches and headed for home. A great Sunday mornings work. That was the first of our many “get Fit” hikes.
I learned to count my steps, and not look ahead of me. In this manner the distances didn’t seem so bad. As the Sundays passed, we built up to the ten and seventeen kilometer routes. Each time, pushing ourselves, harder and harder. Not really enjoying the beautiful scenery, or pausing to look at the buck that roamed the area. We were a couple on a mission, a get fit mission.
The day of departure finally arrived. I am the queen of procrastination. My daughter was competing in a Karate tournament, and we had to be at the airport - I had not packed. Husband is in panic mode. Hustle bustle, into the car. Drop daughter off. Shoot home, pack bag and baggage. Back in the car and head for the airport. Arrive at the airport in time for a last cigarette( Yes we are both still smoking.) Start counting off on my fingers what has been forgotten.
Arriving in Tanzania we set off for our first night in a hotel, before making our way to the Kilimanjaro kick off point. All the intrepid hikers meet for the first time, to get a talk and explanation of the does and don’ts of climbing Kili. An introduction to our guides and porters. One thing that was very, very important - Poli Poli – slowly, slowly if we wanted to summit.
A dream is now a reality, and there is no going back, unless I want to waste all that energy and money, by quitting before I start. After all, nothing in life is set in concrete. We can change our minds as often as we like.
 The Tanzanian border had been closed for many years to South Africans, and this was the first year South Africans had been allowed to climb this beautiful mountain.
If you are expecting tips and advise on what to do forget it. I’m the last person to be able to tell any one what is right and what is wrong, on a trip like this. What I can tell you, for me, it was a mental climb. Both hubby and I, probably not fit enough, set off with a bounce in our step and a smile on our faces. 
The scenery, oh heavens, how can words describe the beauty of this place. It has to be seen to be believed. The first day was tropical forests with extremely muddy and slippery areas. Irregular steps formed themselves around the protruding roots of the surrounding vegetation. In keeping with my counting, I called this part of the trail Route 50. I had found fifty to be a good number. Fifty steps forward, fifty counts standing still. Fifty steps forward fifty counts standing still. It became a chant in my mind. To this day, I still count in various sequences of numbers, depending on what I am doing or thinking.
As the sun started setting over the mountains, the first days end was in sight. We could see our overnight huts, and a huge sigh of relief escaped me. Then Oh Good heavens, between me and the oblivion of sleep and rest are another steep valley to climb down, and the steepest hill of the day, before we could hit the huts and our sleeping bags.
The second day started bright and early. My feet and boots had dried out nicely overnight and I was raring to go. Our porters and guides racing around like busy little bees. Everyone getting in each others way, as they tried to sort out back packs and the day’s rations. I was oblivious to this human activity. All I could see ahead of me was a day of putting one foot in front of the other. My biggest fear was if I would have enough liquid to see me through the day, and of course my cigarette ration. Having spent the previous day with ‘strangers’ and shared some of our stories, it felt like we all knew each other.
We each had a set pace of walking, and we had been told to do things at our own pace. If we tried to go to fast or to slow, we would not summit. As my husband and I walked at different paces, we agreed to carry on and meet up later, either during the day or at the end of the day, depending on rest breaks.
This is the day we started meeting people coming down from the mountain. Exhaustion etched on many faces. Many too tired to mutter “Jumbo’ , but many others with the energy and frustration to say “If you know what’s good for you, turn back now, before its too late.” This was scary – what was ahead of us that could be so bad. What had we not been told about this mountain.
I started counting off on my fingers the warnings we had received. I could die – but those people were not the walking dead – so it can’t be that. I would feel the effects of the lack of oxygen – if that was all, I am sure if it gets too bad, I can turn back. Hell I’m a smoker, aren’t I? My lungs are well used to being deprived of oxygen. I turned and watched as these strangers stomped down the mountain with many questions in my heart. I had no intention of turning back. None at all. I did not get soaking wet and covered in mud, my first day, just to give up on the hearsay of disgruntled hikers. The aching muscles, the exhaustion were far outweighed by my surroundings and feelings of accomplishment.
The children of the mountain came past, singing the Kilimanjaro song with broad smiles on their precious faces and full of laughter and joy. Porters ran passed with cheerful waves, carrying heavy loads. Could it really be that bad? With one foot in front of another, to the count of my fifty beat, I moved upwards and onwards.
We had decided to do the climb in five days. This was to allow us an extra day to acclimatize. All of us in the group had agreed, that none of us would bath or wash, until we got back to the hotel. After all if we all smell, then we wouldn’t be able to smell each other. Luckily in this rarified air, with very little dust and the cold, the body odor is not as bad as if we had been pony trekking through a desert.
On our rest day, one other lady and I decided we were going to bath in a little stream, running at the bottom of the valley. A tiny waterfall tumbled across the smooth stones, and looked very inviting. A shower on Kili. On the with the shower cap, off with the layers and layers of clothes, out with the soap and shampoo and into the water. Its not often you hear me stumped for words, but the temperature of that stream froze every word before I could utter it. This little “shower” was fed from the glaziers, and if it hadn’t been flowing it would have been solid ice. With a quick rub of my towel and a lightening speed reversal of a strip show, I was invigorated, refreshed and ready to take on the world.
An early start had been planned for the next morning so an early supper and bed was the order of the day. At this point I must make mention of the rivalry between the porters and cooks, for the various teams of hikers. Each and every one of them, under the most difficult circumstances, tries to outdo the other in the food that was prepared, and the table décor. Everything has to be carried by these people and prepared in the most appalling conditions. If the hikers had seen what happened behind the scenes – I doubt if anyone would have eaten. Not knowing the poor state of hygiene that these cooks worked under, everyone tucked into the delicious meals with gusto, except for one. This lady refused to allow her husband to eat anything that had been prepared by the cooks. She insisted he had all sorts of allergies and special dietary requirements. I hid my laughter and smile with a great amount of difficulty, for the minute her back was turned, her hubby was tucking into the prepared food with relish. The dehydrated nuts and seed, replaced by boiling hot soups, pasta and veggies.
I had taken a walk the kitchen, if it can even be called a kitchen. All the cooking is done on wood fires, which in itself is very sad, as the forest was the obvious source of the supply of fuel. The little room was covered in soot, from ceiling to floor. Butter, peanut butter and other odds and sods for the meal, were pulled out of various pockets, shirts and whatever other convenient carrying place could be found. A bowl of spaghett1 was dropped on the floor and scooped up by hand, shaken and placed very artistically on the serving plates. Generously doused with some form of vegetable and tomato source, then proudly served to his waiting guests. This food was shoveled down waiting throats with much enjoyment and praise to their chef.
Knowing this particular person, was not our cook, I could smile at the thought of the people crunching their way through this spaghetti dinner. I am sure that this happens frequently, and who knows, I probably had extra carbohydrates in my food on more than one occasion. I think soot and coal can be called carbohydrates. No one suffered any ill effects from our three course meals on the magic mountain.
The next morning, a repeat of the hustle and bustle to get everyone motivated and on the move. I had woken extremely early and had been sitting outside, watching the sunrise. The morning sky was shrouded in mist. The yellow flowers that grew all over the area glistening like fairy lights dancing across the grass. A feeling a peace and calm descended over me and a feeling that can I never remember experiencing before. I cannot describe this feeling, but I should imagine it is how I would feel like if I lived in paradise. Perhaps my brain cells had been frozen from my cold shower and the morning Sun had thawed my feelings, and I was just experiencing a feeling of rejuvenation.
One foot in front of another, through the moorlands and into the Alpine Desert. The effects of the altitude now easily felt by all of us. No one had to tell us to walk slowly, we had no option. Even walking at normal pace, had us breathing like a racehorse, which had just run the Grand National. The little oasis of desert plants growing in the midst of the barren landscape amazed me. Why did they grow in that particular spot? On we trudged each lost in our own thoughts and emotions, barely talking. That’s only because we didn’t have enough oxygen to enable us to chat .
We were fast approaching the final stopover, before the attempted summit. I looked around me, and all of us looked like a bunch of geriatric old people, shuffling around an old age home. How on earth would any of us be able to go any higher? This did not stop me finding a convenient boulder, plunking my butt down, lighting up and taking a deep drag of toxic fumes into my oxygen deprived lungs.
The base camp was over crowded and finding a place to catch a quick nap, before setting off on our summit attempt at midnight, was proving difficult. My husband and I had met up on this last leg of our adventure (or so I thought.)
At this altitude, the effect on various people was frightening. I do not believe I have ever seen people so sick and miserable except in the intensive care unit of a hospital. Luckily, my husband and I, were not impacted at all, unless we tried to walk at normal pace. We very quickly learnt that putting one foot in front of another had to be done in slow motion. I had had a brief glimpse of my husband before finding a small place to catch some shut eye. I am not sure where he slept, but I knew we would meet up in the morning.
 Midnight, we all met outside, after putting on layers of clothing, as we had been warned that when the Sun came up, the wind would be bitter. Flashlight clutched in my grubby little paw, I set off behind my husband for the attempt at the summit. The reason we had been given for leaving at this ungodly hour, was that we would summit in time to see the sunrise. My personal belief is we left in the dark so that we could not see what lay ahead of us. If we saw what was ahead of us would have turned tail and headed for the hills.
The weather was perfect. The sky lit by millions of stars, twinkling and shining as bright as fireworks during a guy Fawkes display. Stumbling around boulders and rocks, weaving our way closer and closer to the hardest part of the hike. I had again lost sight of my husband. I was not concerned as I knew we would meet up at some stage.
The first mile stone was Gilman’s Point, this is the second highest peak of the mountain, and from there, to Uhuru Peak was a steep short walk. But, between us and Gilman’s was scree. Now, if you have ever tried to walk on rolling marbles you will have some idea what it is like to try and climb up an extremely steep hill that is covered in scree. Six steps forward, slip four steps backwards. It is impossible to walk up in a straight line, you have to zig zag up which triples the distance you have to walk. I, in my wisdom, had not taken my water bottle from my husband. This was a very, very serious oversight. My flash light had given up the ghost, and I was following the fading lights of the people ahead of me. My thoughts went back to the previous day, when we had passed a sign – Last Water Point. Shaking my head and knowing that if I dwelt on my lack of water, I might as well give up and go home. This was pure hell. Now I knew why the returning hikers had said what they’d said. I became very disorientated, and at one stage the mountain had turned upside down. Even though I was walking up, I could see Uhuru peak below me. Of course, this was a just an illusion caused by the impact of the altitude on my body. My guide and I were now totally alone. Without him, I would not have got up Kilimanjaro. Between the two of us, when one of us was lying flat on our back, the other would encourage, cajole, beg and plead until the downed person was back on their feet, and stumbling onwards and upwards. At some stage I found a cave in the rocks. I curled up in a comfy curving rock, shut my eyes, and let the world pass me by. I do remember various people saying “jumbo” and in a weak, cracked voice responding in kind. Who or what they thought I was doing, I will never know.
I can remember asking for water from some of the people who had given up and turned back. Reality had now fled, and I was walking in a world that was total fantasy. My thirst and craving for liquids was driving me insane. I was sitting on a boulder, debating the pros and cons of onwards and upwards, or giving up and going back down, without summiting. This thought was soon put aside. We had spent far too much money on this trip, and seeing as I was born with the brain of a mule and the tenacity of a bulldog I had no intention of admitting defeat. I was just to stubborn to think of giving up at this stage. Eventually I saw my husband walking towards me. He gave me a water bottle. This was ambrosia from the gods. I have never tasted anything so delicious in my entire life. With life rushing through my parched body, I realized we were in fact at Gilman’s Point.
The Sun was rising, and the clouds stretched as far as the eye could see, but not above me, below me. I was not at the summit, but I cannot believe the sunrise was anymore spectacular higher up, than it was from where my husband and I were sitting. Talk about having the world at your feet.
 At this stage my husband decided that he was going to head back to base camp. He gave me his water bottle as well as mine, and off I set with my guide. I was a little concerned about him not having any liquid for his descent, but I also realized withouth this liquid gold I would not make it to the top of the mountain.
We hadn’t gone very far, when I realized my guide was suffering extremely badly from altitude sickness. Even though he was feeling so poorly, he had taken the extra time and trouble to lead me off the beaten track,, to show me special places he knew about, from his previous climbs. I will always respect and have fond memories of this special person. Not wanting his death on my conscience, I sent him back down the mountain, with the promise I would catch up with my friends walking about 200 meters ahead of me. He was extremely concerned as he knew I could easily get myself lost. Eventually I managed to convince him that I would soon catch up with “my friends” up ahead, and he had no cause for concern. Needless to say, I didn’t have a clue who these people were, and I fully intended carrying on, on my own. I had no intention of catching up with anyone. I was incapable of it, even if I had tried. All I wanted, was to keep them in sight, so that I wouldn’t get lost, as they were walking with a guide. It didn’t take long for me to lose sight of them. I was now on my own.
With not having someone with me who knew the mountain, I probably saw some parts of the mountain, that I would not have seen with a guide. Each time I took a wrong turn, a new beauty was shown to me. Be it just the erosion of the rocks, or patterns eaten into the ice by winds and time, it was a revelation. Kilimanjaro is very close to the equator but because of the high altitude, there is always ice above a certain level. I was enjoying this solitude. I could take my time and listen to the silence and not worry about anything or anyone.
I eventually came to the conclusion, I had passed through hell to enter paradise. Castles sculptured out of ice, hidden by rocks and stones, waiting to be found by people on their way to the summit. The glacier huge and intimidating, as it glistened in the morning Sun, disappearing into the distance, like a river of solidified silver, tinged with gold. Then I rubbed my eyes, the untouched beauty marred by a lone figure, running helter skelter down the glacier. This is impossible. I have been more badly impacted by the altitude than I realized. I blinked, yes, he was still running. I shook my head and tried to get rid of this strange image. I turned around, then turned back to have another look. This shadowy moving figure was almost out of sight. With another shake of my head, I started off and counted my fifty steps, stop, counted my fifty steps lifted my head and was totally awed. I was at the summit.
Kilimanjaro is known as God’s Mountain. The emotion, adrenalin and the feeling of utter contentment I felt,  was inexplicable. I started shedding clothes. Even though I was standing at the highest point in Africa and surrounded by ice, I was not cold. I was filled with so much warmth and goodwill, I didn’t need any jackets or jerseys to warm my body or soul. Being the perverse person I am, I tried to light a cigarette, but there was not enough oxygen for the match to burn. I eventually found a lighter and sat on the top of the world, lost in thought puffing away. I could have stayed there for hours, but the weather was turning, so sadly I stood up and started my homeward journey.
Alone with my thoughts and dreams, the descent was a time for my mind to absorb as much beauty and memories as it could. This of course is not a good idea. The down can be more treacherous than the up, if you don’t concentrate on what you are doing. I found this out the hard way. Not knowing exactly what was happening, I realized I was no longer on my feet, but turning head over heels, going down the mountain far faster than I had intended. My only concern was my camera. Eventually I came to a stop, with my leg twisted up behind me  and my foot doing a very good imitation of an Indian feather sticking up above my head. Shaken but, with myself and my camera unharmed, I decided the easiest way to travel, was to slide down on my butt. I looked around to make sure no one could see me, after all, this is not the most elegant way of descending a mountain.
Once I hit the rocks and boulders, close to camp, I stopped my butt-surfing, and walked into camp. Another vision appeared. A porter with the most delicious orange colored drink. This was real. I downed this gift from the gods with more enjoyment than you could ever  imagine. My husband met me with a smile, a huge hug and a kiss. Together we walked into base camp.
Knowing we still had to get down to our over night stop, I quickly changed out of my warm clothes, and immediately set off for the overnight camp. The people who had made it up and down hours before me, were all catching up on lost sleep. Sleepy voices suggested I took a few hours to rest and relax. Even though this sounded sensible and reasonable, I knew I couldn’t afford to. Knowing if I stopped I wouldn’t be able to move I decided it would be safer to get cracking, without taking a break.  Totally exhausted, but with such a feeling of euphoria that the aching muscles and feet were forgotten as we headed for “home”. In the middle of the alpine desert was a wooden bench. Who carried this bench up, I have no idea, but it certainly looked like a good place to stop and rest. This would be out of the question, as If we had stopped we would probably still be sitting there today. We walked past, each lost in our own thoughts and kidding ourselves that the bench would have been uncomfortable to sit on. The scenery was unchanged from the ascent, but we had more time to admire and enjoy the changing landscapes, as the pressure to get to the top was gone from our minds. The flowers of the alpine desert were replaced by the grasslands and flowers of the moorland landscape. Ravines and little rivers painted pictures on the horizon. A world far removed from the concrete jungle, we live in.
We finally arrived at our overnight stop. I had been walking for seventeen and a half hours. Dumping my back pack and camera, I sat down to take my boots off. That was the last thing I remember, until the following morning, twelve solid hours later. I woke with one boot on and one boot off. I would have probably slept a lot longer, but the urge to rid my body of the previous days liquid intake, was impossible to ignore.
During the night the porters and various people had been playing poker and generally laughing and partying the night away. I heard and saw none of it. Having fallen asleep in the door way to the dormitory of the base camp, everyone had to step over me to get to their sleeping places. Dear hubby was so worried, he had a doctor, who happened to be doing the climb at the same time, check me out. There was a lot of concern that I was in a coma, and not just sleeping.
The final day dawned and we had a fairly short easy walk back to the reception area, where we would be fetched and taken back to our hotel. On every ones mind was the image and feel of a hot shower, a good meal and a warm bed. This was not to be.
I cannot for the life of me remember why, but there was no hot water. Tempers flared, and some very disgruntled people had a quick cold shower, while others tried to get transport to another hotel. Dressed in clean clothes, we headed to the dining room for supper. This is when I found out that my shadowy figure running down the glacier was not a figment of my imagination, but an ultra marathon runner, training for some marathon. Pheew this was a relief, as I thought my mind was going, and when I got back home I would be locked up in a padded cell. Soon the good food and a few beverages later, all the ill temper of not having hot water was gone and forgotten, as laughter and stories took over.
Next morning some of the group were heading to Zanzibar, to relax and enjoy the warm beaches and sea, but we and three others were heading off to various game reserves in Tanzania. We had booked our climb to coincide with the migration of the wildebeest through the Serengeti. We had informed the hotel we would be making an early start and asked if we could have breakfast at about 5h30. This appeared to be no problem for them. The next morning, the only people awake, was us. Not for love or money could we find anyone working for the hotel.
I managed to find my way to the kitchen, and cooked us all a good English breakfast. This caused a great deal of laughter, as only in Africa do you get to cook your own meal in a hotel. Feeling relaxed and well fed, we waited in anticipation, for our taxi to take us to Arusha for an overnight stop, before our next venture, into the game parks of Tanzania. – but that is another story –
To climb Kili – is to go through hell to get to paradise and if you should happen to ask – Will you do it again? – my reply would be – In a heartbeat.
( I would make sure I had enough liquid for the final ascent, though.)
Kilimanjaro deserves to be called God’s mountain. It makes you believe in God all over again.


Today I am climbing another mountain. The mountain I face, there is no preparation or books to advise me. There is no training to get me through the hurdles and pitfalls. This mountain is called death. Death of a child. Each day is a constant uphill battle to retain sanity and reality. For every advancement that I make, there is a Tsunami of grief waiting to knock me down, from the progress I’ve achieved.
 I have been tackling this mountain for three years, but I have barely left base camp. There is no beautiful scenery, only sad memories to guide me along this path. There is very little laughter. Just an endless trudge.
But there are many hands held out, to grasp mine, and pull me up. Hands that have passed the point I have reached. Hands that ache and hearts that grieve as sorely as mine does. A moment a second at a time. This is a mountain, no parent will summit and conquer, without the love and support of family and friends. This is a Mountain of breathe in, breathe out. This is a mountain of one moment at a time. And one step at a time. This is a mountain, I do not want to climb. This mountain has no end in sight. This is a mountain, where I have to turn and hold out my hand to help another, who has started their painful climb, to reality. This is a mountain no parent should ever have to face. This is a mountain that cannot be climbed alone. This mountain is the hardest, most difficult climb any person ever has to face.
To my friends and family who are climbing this mountain with me, together, we will see the sunrise. Together we are stronger than this mountain. We are survivors and we will be linked together, until we reach the summit, whether it be in this lifetime or the next.

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