Kilimanjaro is the tallest free-standing mountain in the world. Yet I did not see the giant mountain upon landing late that night at the Kilimanjaro International Airport, nor did I see it the next day either. It was only after our long drive to the National Park that I gained a clear view of the mountain. Its size is impressive and is likely even more striking as it stands alone, not being part of any mountain range. I think everyone in the Land Cruiser that morning was taken aback upon seeing Mount Kilimanjaro looming large against the Tanzanian sky.
Our Kili “Family”
All our planning, preparation and training had led to Summit Day. The joys and trials that each of us faced to get there paled in comparison to what we needed to do to make it all come together that one day. I was impressed by the people on my Tusker team. The team consisted of a long-time mountaineer, an Ironman competitor, an extensive world traveler and an assortment of professionals ranging from accountant, lawyer, and doctor to bright aspiring students. As it turned out, it was also a “family” team of sorts making me the oddball in so many ways – the lone Canadian among an all-American crew and a solo traveler. The team gelled well very quickly and I was pleased to be part of the “family”. In fact, while the Tanzanian guides called the other female team member “dada” meaning “sister”, I became “mama” which requires no translation (actually it means “lady.”)
Stats and Pacing
Summit Day began uneventfully, apart from the fact that our usual wake-up time advanced from 6:30 a.m. to 3:30 a.m. Like everyone else, I was awake even earlier. As usual, we went through our medical checks after a quick hot breakfast. My O2 stats seemed a bit low but still within normal range. The mountaineer on our team reassuringly noted that he’d known seasoned climbers with lower stats. “It’s how you feel that counts.” I was told there are three keys to a successful climb – the right physiological, physical and mental states – and a minimum of two is required to make a successful summit.
We set out that morning in similar formation that we’d established through our previous days’ climbs, aligned mainly by age from youngest to oldest. This had worked well with the lead guide holding back the younger climbers from bursting out of the gate and setting a pace that the rest of us could not maintain.
An hour or so into the climb, I noticed I was breathing hard. Not the rhythmic breathing you’d expect given the exertion to acquire more altitude, but more labored. Fortunately, the guide stopped at various points to remind us to drink some water and that allowed me some opportunity to stand and catch my breath. Eventually, though, I could not keep up with the boots just ahead of me. We had been a close group and, for the most part, continued to stay in one pack throughout our previous climbing days. While I wanted desperately to keep up with my team, I told our guide I needed to hang back from the team and go at my own pace. No one else appeared to be having problems and there was no point in holding back the team. It was also getting colder as we ascended and they needed to keep moving. It was hard watching them move ahead.
I was falling further behind. A couple times I caught up with the team when they had stopped to eat energy bars. However, they’d just be packing up again to leave as I arrived. I had a guide and a porter with me at all times so I was never alone on the mountain but the climb had become a solitary effort nonetheless. It had become silent and serious without the usual chit-chat of the team. I realized that in the short period of time that we had all been together, I enjoyed being part of the larger “family” environment but now was back to being the solo traveler. In the end, Kili is a personal challenge and that’s what I had set out to accomplish. It was surprising to me, though, how much I’d bonded with these people during this shared experience with a common goal.
Eventually all Kili climbers reach a lengthy section of “scree” (described as gravel and loose rocks). Walking on a steep angle on this shifting surface, your foot can slip back a few inches with each step. Progress is slow and labored. This rock pile seemed endless. I suspect this is where many attempts to summit Kili fail. I started asking the guide for clues as to how much longer, how much further. I cannot remember what was said but I do know that whatever answer I received, it did not reassure me that I would soon be celebrating with my team (which was nowhere in sight). My energy was waning but I carried on.
Alone with my thoughts as I struggled up the scree, I reflected on a primary incentive for this climb, my mother Shirley Mae’s own struggle with COPD and her daily challenge to breathe. I told myself, “Come on, girl, pull it together. This is a piece of cake compared to what Shirley did each and every day.”
I played mental games with myself. If I could walk 10 steps, I could walk 20, then possibly even 25. Each time I carefully counted out each step to myself. Soon my 20 became 12, and my 10 became 6. Each time I stopped to catch my breath it was harder to get going again. But somehow I reached Stella Point at 18,880 feet, completely drained.
I was told later that my team gave me a standing ovation as they witnessed my slow progress through the scree during their brief stop for lunch. I don’t remember that. As they set out for the summit, someone said “Just another hour to the summit.” An hour!!! Really? How was I going to do that? I’d already dug so deep…. so I sat down on a rock and contemplated the next steps and tried to pull together my resolve. A 60 minute steady upward climb but thankfully no more scree, then a descent back to Stella Point and just another hour to get to Crater Camp for the night. “Come on, girl, do it for Shirley.”
I picked at a box lunch that I’d been given. I had no interest in eating but knew I needed the fuel. I was getting chilled as I tried to eat a little grilled kuku (chicken) and knew I had to get moving soon. I needed help to get my pack ready, gloves on, walking sticks positioned, and jacket zipped. I remembered my husband, Jim, talking about painfully dressing his daughters as young children before going out in an Ottawa winter. At that moment, I felt like a kid in a snowsuit, immobilized by too much weight and padding. Yet I was determined to get to the summit. No one could do that for me.
Visualizing “The Sign”
The Uhuru sign is not visible enroute to the summit, but I knew it could not be too far off. The snow had melted and hardened under the blazing sun and strong winds. In Nunavut, I would have my strap-on grips to trudge through the ice and snow. Here, I relied on my walking poles, as my trusty hiking boots now provided little in the way of sure-footing.
I met my team descending from the summit, giddy with their accomplishment and wishing me well…. but once again, my progress was much slower than expected. I was now counting out 5 steps, resting, and another 5. Finally, I put my head down, willed myself to keep walking no matter WHAT, until I ran headlong into the Uhuru sign. Even more fitting in this life experience challenge is that Uhuru means “freedom” in Swahili and relates to Tanzania’s independence that took place the same year I was born – 1961.
After the endless hours of the grinding, step-by-step ascent, there it was—that majestic sign I’ve seen in so many summit pictures, the one I dreamed of being close enough to touch. Uhuru Peak, Mt. Kilimanjaro, 19,340 feet. Far above the familiarity of sea level where I split my time between Iqaluit, NU and Gabriola Island, BC.
At the summit, was there celebration, elation, and a short dance to the song “I’m sitting on the top of Kilimanjaro?” No, the wind was increasing and there was little time to celebrate apart from a couple quick photos to record “my” moment on the top of Africa. Yet, I told myself and my mother, Shirley, I did it, I made it! But, little did I realize that my biggest challenge still lay ahead in the descent back down to Camp.
For more about Robbin’s Tusker experience and the Kili Climb for Life initiative, please visit: www.kiliclimbforlife.com