Fall On Your Knees
At Moir Camp, on the 3rd night of my 9-day climb up Mt. Kilimanjaro, not even an IMAX movie in 3D could have prepared me for the beauty of the night sky. The clouds parted and I could see the deep blue shadow of the mountain looming above us. The summit appeared almost indigo against the inky, melanic sky. This was the first time I had actually seen Kilimanjaro and it didn’t matter that I had heard the name thousands of times.
The night sky appeared concave, and I was the center-point on the inward curvature, so that the stars seemed to be left, right, and below my line of site, rather than just “up” as it is with typical night skies. I was quite literally filled with grace. I am not sure how else to describe it. Tears began to stream down my cheeks, as I stood alone a small distance away from our camp, a dark silhouette. I noticed the mountain had a sound too – a hum, sometimes turning into a roar, like sleeping next to the sea. The whole night sky turned into a kaleidoscope and I had the sudden urge to fall on my knees in gratitude. But the ground was a bit hard and cold to go falling on my knees, so instead I whispered, over and over again – thank you, thank you, thank you.
I let go of home in that moment, let go of the office, of Tahoe, let go of my anxieties, let go of everything other than Kilimanjaro. I stood there with my face turned skywards, until my nightly dose of Diamox (a diuretic used to help climbers acclimatize) kicked in and I visited the toilet tent on my way back to our camp. Lala salama Kilimanjaro.
Today, I’m a 10
The transformation to this acute sensitivity took me 3 solid days. I spent the first couple of days (sheepishly) wishing I was back in Tahoe, missing Memorial Day weekend, the last opportunity to hit the slopes, my friends. I had pulled a similar stunt in high school when my parents took us on an “Around the World” trip. I had spent days in Athens longing for soccer practice; dawn on camelback in Morocco missing my boyfriend; rides in Indian rickshaws, wondering if anyone at home was thinking about me. But surely between 18 and 25 I had done enough pivotal growth to be present during this most amazing adventure.
I was climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro for work. I am a Trekking Coordinator for Tusker Trail and for the last year and a half, I have literally lived and breathed Kilimanjaro, 40-hrs a week at the office. I have received feedback from many climbers about their transformations on the climb, but I was worried that my familiarity with the climb would insulate me from the wonder of it. In the end, I would look back at this early concern of mine and laugh at my naiveté – when something is as momentous, as awe-inspiring as Kilimanjaro, no amount of familiarization will immunize you from the wonder. I should have known that from working for Eddie Frank – the man has climbed Kilimanjaro 45 times and still comes back from each climb with a refreshed sense of awe.
Even though it was a work trip, my father was able to join me on the climb. A grizzled veteran of the northern Alaska landscape, climbing Kilimanjaro had been on my dad’s bucket list since before I was born. As soon as he learned that I would be climbing, he had been lobbying, gently, to come along. With his 65th birthday happening this year, he was eager to push his physical limits. And he was also eager for time with me. The fact that we were doing the trip together was momentous for both of us.
On the third morning of our climb, when one of our porters, Benson, woke me with his soft incantation promising hot tea and coffee, I crawled out of my tent to find a full rainbow, start to finish, arching just beyond our camp. Small, utterly amazing miracles. I put my morning medical check number at a 10, and even though it started to rain about 30 minutes into our hike, I felt strong all day. I felt present.
That night was the first night that Benson sang to us. His voice was so soft, and his presentation so subtle, that once we realized he was singing us a song, we all stopped what we were doing and strained our ears. I was particularly struck with his second song, and asked him to please translate. Benson shyly switched to English, “It says: ‘What is eating you? Whatever it is, you will meet it at the top.”
Summit Stepping – May 29th, 2011
The morning of our summit day, Benson woke us before sunrise. My dad wasn’t doing well – he had been battling a chest cold for the last 2 days – and I immediately went to find him. I found him in the mess tent under the astute eye of Francis and Liberate, our two medically trained Tusker guides. They had the pulse oximeter hooked up to his index finger and they were conversing in hushed tones. My dad turned to look at me as I ducked into the tent and smiled. “Happy summit day honey,” he said. But his tired eyes belied his fatigue. We were all feeling tired. The lack of sleep, combined with his chest cold, was not boding well for my dad’s summit attempt. My eyes welled with tears as I kissed the top of his head, while Francis and Liberate continued to watch his blood oxygen levels. “74” Francis said. In Moshi our blood-oxygen levels had been at 98. To see such a drastic drop in my dad’s levels was alarming.
Liberate and Francis agreed that my dad could begin hiking but that he would need to be monitored closely. And so we set off in the rose-tinted chill of sunrise, up the rocky escarpment of the final 4,000 feet of Kilimanjaro. We hiked in silence, and I positioned myself behind my pops, focusing on the rising sun. About an hour and a half into the hike, Francis called a halt. He asked that my dad sit down while he placed the pulse oximeter back on his finger. His oxygen level was 70.
The decision was made without much fanfare that he would need to return to Barafu where they could administer more oxygen and monitor his vitals. Ever the parent, my dad concealed whatever disappointment he was feeling to wish me well and part on a positive note. While the other climbers in our group continued walking, my father and I hugged for several minutes. It is impossible to describe the emotional undertones of that moment. He was passing the torch, and we both felt it. He had always been the one showing me the way, helping me to push my limits, to try new challenges. He had always been the one that kept my sister and me safe, protected us from harm, and looked out for us. And now here we were, at 16,000 ft. on Africa’s tallest peak, and I was going to press on without him. It felt impossible.
As I watched Liberate and my dad begin their slow and careful descent, I turned my head and gave my shoulder a kiss. “You’ve got this girl. You’re doing OK Mar. You can do this,” I murmured under my breath, lest Francis see me talking to myself and think that I too had gone hypoxic. I put on my headphones and turned my music up. It was time to stop thinking, time to get in the zone. For the next 3 hours, I could not think about my dad or Tusker or Tahoe. It was time to dig into this mountain. For now, it was just me and Kilimanjaro, and I was determined to make it to the damn top.
The last two thousand feet were undoubtedly the toughest physical hours of my life. No one feels amazing at 18,000 ft. and I was certainly no exception. My oxygen levels were good, but it was impossible to keep the spring in my step. Keeping my head down, I walked watching my feet, nearly missing the Rebmann Glacier, as we crested the caldera at Stella Point.
From Stella Point to Uhuru Peak it was a victory march. I had done it. I kissed the sign, I kissed the glacier, I cried and recorded the 360 panorama for my dad. The mountain was giving me yet another amazing moment and all I had to do was absorb and be present. I felt like I could handle anything in that moment. I was smiling so big my face hurt. I felt like laughing. I felt grace.
Out of Africa
By the time we walked out the National Park on May 31st, I was transformed. And I don’t use that word lightly, I really don’t. But that is exactly what happened to me on Kilimanjaro. I walked off that mountain with confidence, with humility, with pride. I walked off that mountain with an insane, bottomless well of love for the world, for travel, for myself. And I have brought the tradition of kissing my shoulder back home with me.
Kilimanjaro reminded me of the size of the world and it put my life in Lake Tahoe into the most wonderful perspective. No matter what seems hard or wrong in life, be it big or small, Kilimanjaro is still there and once upon a time, I stood there too in the midst of its immensity and grace, and I will always, always have that to hold onto to.
Over a month after being home, I receive a package in the mail from my dad. He has written down his favorite moments from the climb and not just the fun ones either. He has documented his personal growth and the many moments in-between that occurred during our 9-day climb of Kilimanjaro.
He has also sent me a packet of the sugar-sprinkled tea biscuits that were the mountain equivalent of New York strawberry cheesecake – we devoured them gleefully at every opportunity. Back in the Tusker office, I smile at the packet of biscuits sitting on my desk – a world away but at home in my heart.