Africa, Destinations

I made the SUMMIT….barely

January 9, 2009 • By

Before I give you the nitty gritty of my climb, let me just start by saying I DID IT….I MADE IT TO THE UHURU SUMMIT, the highest point in Africa and one of the 7 summits of the world.  It was probably the most challenging thing I have ever done and I expect it will be the last time I attempt to be a mountaineer.

Now back to the beginning….I decided to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro on December 30 after months of going back and forth about my skills and my budget.  On New Year’s Eve, I found a fabulous mountain shop and purchased what I thought to be all the essentials of mountaineering.  I thought wrong.  My tour group picked me up at 8 am on January 2.  My two fellow climbers sized me up instantly….CLUELESS.  I explained to them that I wasn’t worried about my endurance as much as I was concerned about the altitude (a little foreshadowing for all of you).  We drove about 2 1/2 hours to the Marangu Gate to pay our park fees and to collect our equipment.  Let’s all remember I do not camp and I have no real sense of what it takes to make a climb of this magnitude.  (But I do now).

My fellow climber Jeri asked me if I had a therma mat or gaiters.  My first response, “um, what are gaiters and do I need a therma mat?”  She then asked if I had poles.  “You mean like ski poles?”  Nope, I don’t have those either.  I grabbed my guide and said I think I need to rent a few more things.  Down to the renters shack we go where I rented a down coat, a 2 liter water bottle, a therma mat, gaiters, long underwear, fleece pants and a thermal sleeping bag. 

Once all my belongings were collected, we drove another 4 1/2 hours to the other side of the mountain where we would take the Rongai Route to the summit.  We stopped for lunch in a small village where we enjoyed a box lunch with the locals.  It was a pretty rowdy scene and in my attempt to get back in the jeep some local grabbed my crotch and without thinking I turned around and punched him.  It was a scene with the cook jumping out of the car to scream at him in Swahili and me jumping in the vehicle for protection.  This community exists solely on it’s export of bananas to the local villages and the rest of the country.  There are not many jobs and people just get drunk and sort of walk around with nothing to do.  I happened to stumble across the one drunk-drugged out crazy guy.

Finally, we arrive at the start of our climb.  It was a bumpy ride and lots of dirt roads and dust but we made it by 2:30 pm.  Our 9 porters collected our belongings while we took our day packs, water and said our good-byes.  As I watched my fellow climbers Jeri and Troy load their day packs, I felt a bit apprehensive and cringed at the size of my bag.  I had a fanny pack and they had full on backpacks specifically loaded for the avid climbers.  I pushed it out of my mind for the moment anyway.

The first day was “easy” as we only walked a mild grade for about 3.5 hours.  When we reached the camp for the night, I already knew I was in trouble.  No bathrooms except a 2×2 shack that smelled so awful I chose to pee in the bushes and there were certainly no showers.  I was given a bowl about the size of two cereal bowls and a bar of soap and told to wash up.  I wasn’t entirely sure what I was supposed to wash so I settled on my hands.  My tent was already set up and I just had to arrange my belongings for the night.  The air had already turned crisp and I jumped into my sleeping bag and tried to get some sleep.  My theory, which Jeri later told me was maybe the biggest mistake ever, went like this….start with wearing as little clothes as possible so I can build up an endurance to the cold I would later be facing.  I think she put it a little more delicately than I would have but she basically said, “Kelly if it’s cold you put on whatever you need to stay warm.”  Ok so much for that idea.

Day 2 was rough for me.  I was experiencing some glute pain because I was carrying my little fanny pack a bit lower than I should have had it.  Jeri and Troy were armed with their water and snacks and here I was once again the misfit.  We stopped every half-hour for a water break and a snack to keep our bodies full of energy.  I would try to eavesdrop on Jeri and Troy to see what they were doing and follow their lead.  Without them, I would probably have been dead within the first hour.  Stopping and water and snacking not so much in my climbing routine to date.  We climbed 6 1/2 hours on the second day and I was definitely feeling it.  The camp we stayed at for the next 2 nights was called Third Cave.  We had a cook and waiter serving us constantly, 2 guides and again the 9 porters carrying our food, bags, tents and everything else we chose not to carry. 

After the first day, it became clear to our guides Adronis and God Bless (yes the names are bizarre here—more foreshadowing) that this chick had no clue how to climb.  They were jumping to my aide all the time carrying my water, extra clothes and anything else I seemed to be struggling to carry.  Let me also point out that Jeri who is my mother’s age was carrying a 35 pound day pack and no one offered to assist her.  Again, I believe in the blond hair damsel in distress theory here.  My favorite quote from my guide Adronis, “Do you want me to carry?  Really I don’t mind.”  I didn’t hesitate for a second, “Ok, then really if you don’t mind here is my water and my extra clothes I seriously cannot carry.  Oh and the gaiters, I cannot figure out how to use them, so please help me with putting those on too?”

Day 3 consisted of our acclimatization day.  We walked to a higher altitude for about 3 1/2 hours and then back down to Third Cave for rest.  It is very important to walk slowly on these climbs or your body will not adjust to the altitude.  Our guides were constantly saying, “pole pole,” which means slowly slowly.  It became my favorite thing.  Pole Pole!!!!!

By now, the nights were getting quite cold.  We would see the sunshine from about 6:30 am to 1 pm at which point we would experience several of the elements I don’t find particularly warm and fuzzy.  We trekked through rain, snow, hail and heat.  Some mornings we would start in short sleeves and by 1 pm we would have on 4 layers, gloves and hats.  It was pretty insane.  Of course for me, the worst part was the night as I was beginning to feel pretty grungy sleeping in my tent.  I also learned the importance of body heat since I was solo and would often have the chills for an hour or two before finally warming. 

Day 4 we climbed about 4 1/2 hours to Kibo Hut…..the site we would start our climb to the summit.  I was pretty miserable on this climb.  It started out warm and sunny, then hailed then snowed and we had made a decision not to stop to put on clothes since the camp was in our sight.  (Actually that was my idea since adding clothes was so hard for me.)  I also had not gone to the bathroom in 6 days and was having some huge stomach issues.  In a few attempts to try the “out houses” I would vomit.  I am sure making it even more pleasurable for the guest to follow me.  Eventually, I decided to fore go the bathroom thing and just concentrate on my summit climb. 

We napped all afternoon in preparation for our midnight climb to the top.  I was very nervous and settled on listening to my 187 Ipod songs from the 70s and 80s.  Don’t worry I had my favorites: Bon Jovi’s, Living on a Prayer and Irene Cara’s, Fame.  Our waiter woke us up at 11 am and we were served a porridge meal and biscuit cookies before we returned to our tents to put the remaining layers on our bodies.  Armed with my head torch, hat, down coat, pink fleece, pink underlying windbreaker, long sleeve shirt, short sleeve shirt, full job bra, long johns, black yoga pants, fleece pants, gortex and 2 layers of gloves and boots, we began the journey at about 12:15.  We were a bit later than the rest so pretty early on we witnessed several people experiencing mountain sickness (altitude) and already retreating.  

My feet were pretty much cold for the first 6 hours.  I tried warming them with some fancy kickboxing moves and clicking my boots against the rocks.  It was never easy for me.  I began to experience altitude sickness within the first 2 hours.  It was a struggle.  I felt I had worked so hard to get to this point….for me a true sacrifice not to shower and to camp —-to be in Africa alone and to have taken a chance in quitting my job and everything else that I gave up.  I just didn’t want to turn back.  I kept singing the song, “What a Feeling,” from the movie Flashdance and I continued to talk to my grandparents (who are definitely in Heaven). 

About an hour from the top, Jeri, Troy and our two guides were barely speaking.  I was belching and farting like there was no tomorrow —all natural as the body tries to adjust to the altitude.  My mind wasn’t even matching my body anymore as I was unable to even say excuse me.  When we were about 20 minutes from Gilman’s Point, the sun made an appearance.  I can vividly picture being even with the sun as it crossed the horizon full of extreme colors of red and orange. 

At Gilman’s Point, I sat on a rock talking to a girl from Poland who was not able to make it to the summit and wanted to go back down.  I looked across at the most magnificent glacier and I knew I needed to go down myself.  This girl said to me, “I can’t do it but I know  you can.”  I started to cry for my mother because I knew I was sick and shouldn’t go to the summit.  Jeri and Troy had not made it to Gilman’s Point just yet and I decided to keep going.  My guide, God Bless escorted me.  We were on the shaded side of the mountain with snow all around us.  I was cold, I was tired and I could feel my brain swelling.  It would not stop me.  We finally made it to Stella’s Point and I had just another 45 minutes to walk (it’s 2 hours from Gilman’s Point to the summit).  I sat down on the rocks and wanted to give up.  My body stopped moving.  My other guide, Adronis said I could make it and he was basically holding up my body.  I began to cry again for my mother and he said I could call her at the summit and that I had to stop crying because I was making him feel bad.  I stopped….briefly.  With my poles and Adronis holding me up we walked pole pole to the summit.  I wasn’t there long but I knew I had made it.  Adronis placed me underneath the sign and took photos.  I recall looking out at the magnitude of the glaciers and I have a vivid memory of my accomplishment. 

As I was sitting there, I wanted to call my mother so Adronis helped me find my blackberry.  Guess what?  In checking it the night before, I must have left it on and the battery cried SOS instead of GSM and there would be no phone call to Joyce.  It was probably a good thing because she would have thought I was dying.  As Adronis stayed behind to assist Jeri and Troy, God Bless helped me back down the mountain.  To clarify, my body was not functioning at this point.  I was still belching and farting and now I was nauseous and aware that I may have diarrhea soon.  God Bless got me to a rock that was about 2 feet from the edge and I leaned over and puked then took down my pants and did another duty.  I was a mess.  Again, remember I had on 4 layers of pants and I no longer had much hand eye coordination.  I was yelling for God Bless to help me as I pulled up my underwear and long johns but could not get the rest of my pants up.  Once we solved that problem, we were on our way.  God Bless was moving too fast for me.  I decided to sit down and not move because he was dragging me.  Adronis finally came along, told me I couldn’t sleep on the rocks and that he would help me down.  He essentially carried me another hour to Gilman’s Point.  More bathroom situations occurred and I now had a severe headache.  Adronis took my poles, locked my left arm and we started sliding through the lose rock down the side of Mt. Kili.  I continued to cry for my mother and at that point just wanted to be thrown over the mountain.  Adronis and I would slide a bit and then I would just lie down and he would give me a 2 minute warning.  Eventually, we got to a point where I could walk.  It takes about 4 1/2 hours to get down from the top.  It’s by no means easier to go down than up. 

Back at Kibo Hut, I passed out in my tent with the sun blaring and all my layers of clothing in tact.  Imagine the worst hangover you have ever had and then add exercise, sun and cold….not pretty.  I could feel I was dehydrated and very sick but I wanted to sleep. 

Jeri and Troy arrived back at camp and the waiter kept shaking my leg to wake up for lunch.  I crawled to the meal tent where I could barely speak to Jeri and Troy.  They jumped into action feeding me enzymes and electrolytes and other things to replenish my body.  Although I was only semi-aware they seemed very concerned about my health.  They tried to get me a stretcher so I would not have to walk another 4 1/2 hours to the last camp but another American had a more severe injury and needed it.  (Are you seeing a pattern of unprepared Americans????)

Adronis and God Bless carried me to the next camp on the Marangu Route.  Troy, Jeri and I had our last dinner and went to bed where I slept for the first time in that tent.  I woke up the next morning feeling like someone beat the shit out of me but otherwise in good spirits. 

On our last day, we made the final descent to Marangu Gate over beautiful walkways, through the rain forest, and out of the park and back to reality.  I do believe God works in mysterious ways and I was very blessed to have met Jeri and Troy.  They took care of me every step of the way.  Jeri who does not have children was more nurturing than most mothers.  She made sure I was dressed properly, that I was drinking water and gave me several pep talks along the way.  Troy who is an expert climber having done 7 summits and is set to do Everest in March set our pace, demanded water breaks and made the journey about having fun.  I would not have made it to the summit without their guidance and their support.  They were probably thinking what did we do to get stuck with her but regardless we started that climb as strangers and walked out the Marangu gate as friends….Friends who shared an incredible journey. 

I had one marriage proposal, a new nickname of Pinky from the porters (all my “camping gear” was pink), several aches and pains, more pasta than I’ve eaten in my life, at least 8 bathroom breaks a day in the bush, braved elements of sun and rain and sun blisters on my hands and nose to prove it and one torn ligament.  (More on that later)

More importantly, I accomplished a childhood dream and definitely something I never thought I could have done.  For all of you who don’t know my favorite song, please click on the link below.  It’s cheesy but so am I. 

I MADE IT TO THE SUMMIT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!