Kilimanjaro Part III: Mission Accomplished!

Trip Start Sep 02, 2010
Trip End Jun 13, 2011

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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

On one of those cold, blustery nights on the mountain, I went outside the tent to brush my teeth and then paused just long enough to admire the view. Kili looked radiant, and the stars were even brighter. Suddenly, a luminous speck caught my eye and then streaked across the sky. It arched over the peak, moving from west to east, and then fizzled out. I was in awe. Maybe we'd had a tough first day on the mountain--the rain and the mud and the broken-down Land Rover seemed to mark inauspicious beginnings--but as this star traced our own easterly (moving east) path around the mountain, it signified all the luck in the world.

We needed that luck on the sixth day, when it was time for the final push. We climbed a couple thousand feet in the morning and reached base camp, at 15,321 feet, by noon. The plan was to rest and then have an early dinner so we could nap before our midnight wake-up call. At some point during the day, my dad remarked how odd it was that Bruce was nowhere to be seen. And Wilson seemed to be avoiding us as well. Where were they to answer all our last-minute questions? At some point, one of us laughed about how maybe they were purposely avoiding us. We had been asking lots of questions in the previous days (everything from "Wilson, what are you wearing?" to "Bruce, should I take more Pepto?"), so maybe they were a tad done with our Type A personalities. They could probably sense that all our questions just made us more nervous, so in an effort to calm our nerves, they took a chance on an ironic remedy: to disappear. The plan worked. Sort of.

Just before midnight, we awoke. We put on all of our layers (I had on four pairs of pants and at least that many shirts; plus a fleece, a down jacket, and two windbreakers), laced up our boots, strapped on our headlamps, and pretended to ease our nerves with some biscuits and tea. Then when it was time to go, we got the signal from Freddy and Wilson, who finally appeared. They didn't say much, but they picked up our packs off the ground, hoisted them onto our backs, and patted our heads. Freddy even looked me square in the face for the first time and then pointed off in some direction which looked like more of the same pitch black space that I was standing in. "There," he said. "You walk there." At the time, I was shivering and cloudy-headed. In retrospect, I realize what a cute little scene this was, like he was sending us all off to Kindergarten for the first time. So "there" we marched, following in Wilson's footsteps. Bruce was still nowhere to be seen.

We walked for six and half hours, from 15,321 to 19,341 feet. And the experience was magical. Maybe the best way to imagine this last push to the summit would be to watch the three film clips Dan took on our camera. The first one is quite dark, and it begins without much audio. Hang in there, and you'll hear what kept us going and going and going up to the summit. At around 18,000 feet (after we'd been walking for maybe four hours), we must've looked like a real raggedy bunch beneath the glare of our headlamps. Whatever brief conversations we'd had earlier in the evening had finished long ago, and even our occasional requests for Advil or Shot Bloks or water had become more occasional. Finally Adam, one of the porters who's been accompanying us in the dark, started hooting and hollering and chanting the Kilimanjaro porters' song. The other porter, Joseph, rallied as well, and soon even stoic Wilson joined in. Bruce eventually caught up wtih us (I think we had the right theory about his absence), and he too whooped and shook his butt while singing the chorus: "Hakuna matata." After a few rounds of the chorus, we realized this was a call-and-repeat affair, and these guys weren't about to stop singing until we joined in. We weren't really in the mood, but even at 18,000 feet we were lucid enough to understand that this song wasn't just meant to cheer us up. It was meant to make sure we were still alive, still breathing enough that we could echo their "hakuna matatas" with our own little squeaks. No worries; we're still here. Still on this earth, moving forward.

Once the porters heard we were still alive, they kept pushing us along. I don't remember a whole lot about the last couple thousand meters except this: the sky was clear, with no wind, and the stars looked so close that you could touch them, even hang on them. At one point, Dan gushed that they looked like the ones we used to stick on our bedroom ceilings; they looked huge and actually star-shaped! I also remember hearing thunder and seeing lightning off in the distance. You'd think that seeing an electrical storm when you're 18,000 feet in the air might be terrifying, but we were quite calm. The air around us was quiet. I was aware that I couldn't think straight--I couldn't seem to keep a thought or memory in my mind--but I knew I could sing to myself. Florence and the Machine's "Between Two Lungs" and "You've Got the Love," both of which seemed appropriate, got me up that mountain. Well, those and the Kili "Hakuna Matata" line that I repeated aloud to prove the workings of my own two lungs.

Until that morning, my vision of "dawn" had always been the sun shining pink on the horizon. I'd never been so far above the horizon to watch dawn break in the sky. (Well, except, I guess, in an airplane, but such fast movement makes dawn seem either continual or nonexistant.) So when I saw dawn on this day, I was surprised to see it as a burst of rose-colored sunlight that seemed to pop up high in the sky, not on any horizon line. We saw this rosey dawn just as we were edging our way up onto the crater, which seemed appropriate at this almost-there marker: the peak was now only about 500 feet above us, on a gradual slope. We could do it!

We inched our way around the crater as the dawn brightened the sky, illuminating the crater to our right and the glaciers to our left. The clouds were a deep purple and pink, and we felt like we were on top of the world. I was filled with so much love for my trekking companions, for the view around me, and for our whole adventure. I was thrilled as we trekked the last little bit to the peak, and I had to be reminded not to move too quickly. "Pole pole!" Wilson reminded me when I stepped off the path to move more quickly ahead. We couldn't let our adrenalin get the best of us, like it had for some of the other climbers around us. We saw several men and women literally being dragged, wheezing, up this last slope.

Shortly before I arrived at the peak with Dad, Dan, Summar, and Ellie, we passed an elated Pat on his way down. A little ways back he'd decided, with the porters' counsel, to skip our occasional breaks and just keep going for the summit, ahead of the rest of our party. And he made it! He later noted that had he had the chance to sit and rest, he probably would've talked himself out of continuing, and he applauded the porters for being able to read his mind and motivations while he could barely even think himself. So we paused to congratulate him on summiting, and then a few minutes later, just as the sunlight struck the famous sign, we too made it to the top of Kilimanjaro.

Hugging and laughing and gasping for air, I thought of Dad's favorite expression, the one he always used to say when I was little: "It don't get any better than this, babe."
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barb on

Even though I'd heard the stories and seen many wonderful pictures, these last two entries brought tears to my eyes. I'm so proud of all of you, and wish I had been there just for the camaraderie Dad described with you and your wonderful friends (not for the creeping across the rock face, thanks...). Congratulations all!!!

Dad on

Kate, these Kili postings are all a fabulous keepsake for Ellie, Patrick, Summar, Dan and me. You have captured the essence of the bonding experience between us, us and the mountain, and us and our guides and porters. Thank you so much, cupcake! So what's next on our list of things to do together................!?!

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