When two men arm wrestle, they do so to prove themselves to a woman. When a man does pull-ups, he does them to prove himself to another man. I travel solo to prove myself to myself.
Despite the “are you SURE you want to do this?!” questions from family and friends, I’d been brought to Moshi, one of two towns at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro, encouraged along by Michael Crichton’s autobiography “Travels.” The descent into Kilimanjaro International Airport ended with the sight of the equatorial snow-capped mountain I’d read so much about and that stunned stomach feeling: Will I stand up there? Can I do this? I was sick of talking about it; the prep, the planning, the hype. I was ready to do it. My backpack was a confusing mix of my North Face jacket and wool socks at the bottom, with t-shirts, shorts, and sunscreen at the top to prepare for the mixture of climates on Kilimanjaro.
Zara Tours’ warm hospitality got me from the airport to the hotel, and I’d arrived at the briefing that afternoon. Our guide talked us through the six-day trek. I’d been introduced to Meghan, the American I’d been partnered up with for the hike – a fortuitous meeting given our similar interests of health policy and public health in developing countries. Going up Kilimanjaro alone has its risks, and going up with a partner allows for splitting the guides’, porters’, and cooks’ tips. My pairing with Meghan proved in many ways that God was surely driving. The staff kept telling me I would meet “him” and that “he” would be at the briefing, but sure enough Meghan’s gender was simply lost in translation – she was a she. Our guide went by many names, but his buddies called him Sikuu. With his broken English yet calm demeanor he confidently talked us through our plan for the next five days, assuring us of his Kilimanjaro experience.
That night, Meghan and I became acquainted over dinner and our conversation attracted a Dutch gentleman, just off the mountain. He handed off his left-over Paracetamol (Tylenol) to be used as needed for pain. “You can do it!,” he encouraged us.
I slept well, awoke with excitement, and took pictures of the white peak from the bottom from the last time. We ate a big breakfast and I gathered my rented pants and gear – in true med student fashion, I’d arrived with only scrub pants. We then made several stops - grabbing one-liter bottled waters and chocolate, both trek essentials - along the way to the entrance gate.
Our arrival at the front gate was pretty unimpressive to the hired crew. We had Sikuu (our guide), his assistant guide, six porters, and two cooks - all for the two of us. They set off ahead of us carrying stacks of plastic chairs, tents, and other heavy gear. Their shoes were torn; some went without socks. “Pole sana.” Or “I’m sorry for your work,” we’d mumble as they took off ahead of us. We stuck with Sikuu. “Pole, pole.” Slowly, slowly. “Acclimatize,” Sikuu would say, explaining our slow steady pace.
At the end of Day 1, we set up camp with about 40 others. Even though we had told Sikuu that we’d be willing to share a tent, the crew brought us each our own. I suited up with my cold weather gear - hat, coat, gloves. The father-son duo from Colorado who passed the football around in shorts and t-shirts had a hell of a laugh at this. It was only night one, and I was preparing for hibernation. Sikuu brought us boiled drinking water, and the dining tent was prepared for dinner. Every night included tea and chocolate to mix with our boiled drinking water and options ranging from chicken (usually) to some form of boiled egg or fruit, and bread with jam. The Nestle hot chocolate mix was my dessert.
Days 2 - 4 took us from dirt terrain to a more lush, green, and humid environment. We were under large trees, mysterious giant plants, as we walked over rocky terrain and across trickling streams pulled downhill. Sikuu kept our pace steady, stopping only for him to smoke and for us to pee. Michael Crichton summited when he was smoking a half-pack per day, so surely Sikuu could handle it! The higher altitudes have lower partial pressure of oxygen and the body’s increased respiratory rate requires increased hydration. The combination of the necessary 4 – 5 liters of drinking water per day plus the acetazolamide diuretic that we took to prevent altitude sickness contributed to our frequent bathroom stops.
Each night I took flak for my added winter warmth. On Night #3 however the analysis was from a crew of four girls my age from Seattle. One was a vet and they were all entertaining at every stop. Our socializing was interrupted that particular evening by the sight of guards who were armed with semiautomatic weapons supposedly in place to fend off any large animals that walked around at this altitude. Soon, we would be too high up for any animal life.
On Night #4, we arrived at base camp - Barafu Huts – about 15,000 feet above sea level. We signed in, just as we had each evening at camp, but this time, excitement filled the air. Exiting the sign-in hut, we looked out at the blue sky above the clouds. This was our last stop before the attempted summit.
I still had no symptoms from the altitude (I got this!). Sikuu laid out the plan, and we tried to get some sleep before our nighttime summit. Each day brought about 5 hours of walking, and at the end of each day I would ask Sikuu: “Hey Sikuu?” “Ndiyo Bwana?” (Yes, my friend?) “Was today harder than the Summit Day?” “Not,” he would reply. I’d heard plenty about the summit day; soon it would be go time. I dozed off early, comforted by the hum of the porters, relaxing and sharing stories during card games played by the dim light that emerged from the door-flaps of their tents.
We awoke about midnight and layered up - two t-shirts, two long-sleeve t-shirts, one wind/water-proof fleece, my thick North Face jacket, two pairs of wool socks, and one digital camera tucked inside a couple of layers in hopes it wouldn’t freeze before the peak shot. We began our assault, led only by our headlamps and Sikuu’s voice. After about an hour, Sikuu stopped off to vomit. Our assistant guide took over. Sikuu caught back up, announcing his return with a term we’d learned on the trek: “Puke and rally!” Meghan started to feel her head hurt and a little nausea, but we kept plugging. One foot in front of the other. Pole, pole. My weight was increasingly on my walking sticks, from my grip down to the ground, transferred away from my legs. I walked without thinking.
We reached Stella Point. We had walked 4 hours. The world was still pitch black, and the wind was whipping. I began to wonder if I could even accomplish this bathroom break with the multiple layers and temperatures surely approaching zero. Sikuu handed us each a Dairy Milk chocolate bar that hit the spot, and we pounded more water. We prolonged our break, as we were beating the sunrise.
We pressed upward. We had another hour of walking, but only 300 meters in altitude, left. My weight almost entirely landed on my arms and walking poles, my gait had turned to a slow methodical shuffle, brushing the ash ground with a slow rhythm. “Giant steps are what you take walking on the moon,” Sting and The Police began to sing in my head. We came across two headlamps, one seated, one standing. The trekker vomited, I think, and his guide comforted him. I think that if I had sat then, I wouldn’t have made it. We shuffled on, and a bit of light broke over the horizon to the left. The hill became slightly more steep and curved up to the right and I saw Sikuu bolt up a little faster. “Kuche Kuche! We don’t need no trouble! No more trouble!” He shouted. “Huh?!” I wasn’t thinking straight, but I knew what it meant: We were here. We did it. To compare my feeling to a hangover would glorify the day after drinking. The vice-grip headache affected me, but the emptiness of mind didn’t allow me to acknowledge the pain. A few tears rolled down my cheek. I’m not sure how, but Meghan and I withdrew our cameras and got solo and team shots in front of the sign at the summit. The sun illuminated our surroundings. A giant glacier reflected the entire color spectrum of the sunlight to our right. A giant canyon revealed to the left. A glacier! On the Equator!
Then the Seattle girls arrived. I had a brief burst of energy. “Hey Seattle! How’s it going?!” Blank stares all around. One may have cracked a smile. “Just another warm summer day in Seattle huh?!” No response. “Was it worth it?!” Their looks said it all. It was an unbelievable accomplishment on Day #5 of this adventure, and we had done it.
Meghan and I were trekkers number three and four to reach the summit, 19,340 feet above sea level, on December 19, 2007.
After about 20 minutes at the peak, we headed down. We walked past the seated trekker, still vomiting, and then slid down the scree as if on skis, racing past single-file lines of hikers still focused on the summit. Our arrival back at base camp was welcomed by my favorite porter: “Congratulation,” he said with a big hug. After a quick snack and change of clothes we packed up to head down the mountain. It was only 06:45 in the morning after all. The camp for the last night was just three hours from the bottom, and with showers calling our name, we made the decision to reach the bottom that night. On our final hour of walking, it began to pour down rain. And after a dry five days, and seven solid hours of pounding on my knees, rainwater had never felt better.
Twelve hours of sleep, one big dinner, and a full day of shopping in Moshi had us all ready the next evening for the celebration night out. Sikuu and our assistant guide joined the two of us for a night on the town. Our main drink for the night? Whiskey and Coca-Cola. We had, after all, conquered the Machame Route, dubbed the “Coca-Cola Route,” and we were now familiar with Kili.