Guest post from Maria McEvoy, who climbed Kilimanjaro with Tusker in August 2015 as a fundraiser for Rett Syndrome Research.
Summit day began at 11pm. I woke up, dressed in my warmest layers, checked and re-checked my gear, made sure my headlamp worked, applied as many body/hand/toe warmers I possibly could, lined my pockets with more body warmers so my camera wouldn’t freeze, stuck another one on my water bladder so it wouldn’t freeze (epic fail, water froze), drank a quick coffee, ate a bar, drank water and grabbed the hiking poles. And then, like baby ducks we followed our guides away from the camp and up the trail. It was a moonless night, but crystal clear and the African sky was thick with bright and colorful stars. Beautiful but cold. The guides set the pace which is excruciatingly slow. It has to be that way because you’re climbing from 15,000 ft to 19,000 ft and as you go higher it becomes more difficult due to the lack of oxygen and fatigue. So imagine: Step…pause…step…pause…step.
Every so often I would look up and see the white line of other climbers’ headlamps illuminating the trail and they looked like luminescent ants. Other times I would see headlamps coming towards me of climbers that were being escorted down too sick to continue. It’s a monotonous, cold and dark climb and because all you see is what the headlamp illuminates, you don’t know how much time has passed or how much distance you’ve covered. That’s when I had to start playing games to disturb the monotony. If I didn’t occupy my mind with song lyrics, numbers, all names that begin with the letter A, my niece’s name, imaginary conversations, knock knock jokes, cake recipes, etc my evil twin would rear her ugly head and whisper to me “Are you flipping nuts? You can’t do this. You know all you want is a shower and a pedicure”. So I’d tell that voice to take a hike (ha!) and just put one foot in front of the other and remind myself that I have chosen to be here, that I can do this, that these hours before first light are as bad as it is going to get. I saw a bright orange crescent moon rising and that felt like a gift from the mountain saying “you got this”. Then magically a few hours later, the orange streak appeared at the horizon; sunrise above the clouds (the only time I’ve seen that is from an airplane) and I knew the toughest section was over.
We reached Stella Point (18,652 ft) around 6:30am and that was my first view of one of Kili’s glaciers. The blue, white, shiny, jagged, magnificent ice wall against the stark moonscape beauty of the mountain just made me weep. In the distance we could see Kilimanjaro’s summit and knowing we were just 90 minutes away felt surreal. We drank some hot water with honey for energy and continued up and up and up and up and finally at 8am, my sister in law Bridget and I summited Africa’s highest point crying and holding hands. Indescribable.
We enjoyed the summit (and a Snickers bar) for half an hour, taking photos, videos, sharing our joy with other climbers and turned around and began our very long descent. The next few hours my friends are hard to romanticize so I won’t. The descent SUCKED. It was long, slippery, dusty and felt endless. We descended 9000ft and arrived at our final camp around dinner time; nineteen hours later.
I forced myself to eat and fell into a deep delicious eleven hour sleep. The next day we descended an additional 5000ft to the gate, where we got picked up and driven back to the hotel for our first shower in 8 days. I’m not going to lie; it was better than sex. Then a few hours later after packing we went to the airport and headed home. I drank my share of champagne on that first leg (and the second and the third…)
Climbing Kilimanjaro was the hardest and most beautiful thing I’ve ever done without an epidural. It’s difficult to put into words what Kilimanjaro means to me and what it will continue to mean as time passes. I don’t work anymore, and I’m done having babies and my baby isn’t such a baby anymore, so it is really essential to continue setting goals for myself. To be able to accomplish things that are completely dependent on me and my determination and have nothing to do with being a wife/mother/daughter/sister are key to my self worth.
The entire experience: traveling alone for so many hours, sleeping in a tent for a week, the lack of running water, the cold, the altitude, the relentless dust, the dirty fingernails, and being pushed physically and having to dig deep to reach the summit, reminded me and taught me that I can accomplish goals that upon first reflection I thought I could not. I hope I can dip into that reservoir of self confidence for years to come.
Upon my return, I posted a short summit video on the Rett Syndrome Facebook page. To date that 12 second video has been viewed over 3600 times and shared countless numbers of times. I have received beautifully written notes from Rett families thanking me for the climb. During a FaceTime with my niece Emma and her family yesterday, I shared with them that because of YOU my fierce friends, we raised $33,500 for Rett Syndrome research. YOU HAVE MADE A DIFFERENCE and you should be very proud.