In October of 2013 I went to Tanzania for 23 days to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, go on Safari, and wander away the itch that is Africa. What follows is the second part from the trek up the mountain. You can find the first part here. Half of this is transcribed from the journal I kept on the trip, the other half edits and additions made after. Thanks for reading and enjoy!
I’m not the only one who gets sick. Everyone feels some sort of repercussion. Headache, nausea, coughing, anger. Often all four. Some feel better after throwing up. Others continue to suffer. I almost throw up at the feet of two girls from New York City. That night they tell me they had already been throwing up for hours.
But it’s the fourth day you feel like a mountaineer. You wake up that morning to deep breaths of thin air. Everyone sleeps. The pressure is gone, the illness faded. Smiles and banter greet one another at breakfast. We’ve had three nights together on the top of Africa. We’ve faced the mountain sickness we’d been warned about. We’ve acclimatized. Our boots are broken in. Our legs are strong. The low sun on the high slopes has reddened our faces and distilled any anxiety into a chill surfer’s calm. The high wall above our camp is called the Barranco Wall. We’re ready for it. We’re excited for it. Even if we’ve decided to forget what lies beyond.
“I can tell you I’ve never done anything like that in my life. Never. Maybe I’ll have a good stroll through the park or a nice run at the gym. But that. Everything here is a first.”
That’s Aaron. He’s sitting in our big tent for dinner eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (his first ever), marveling at the Barranco Wall. The wall is a steep climb up a narrow rocky path and requires the bare minimum of technical skills. If you could climb out of your crib as a baby you can do this. I prepared with a handful of class three rock scrambles in the local mountains near Los Angeles. The Barranco wall was no more difficult. The smile I give Aaron is like a pat on the back. Meanwhile, I’m stuffing my face with papayas and pasta.
“Look who’s back!” Dan, Aaron’s comrade from Essex, says. A good appetite is a good sign.
High spirits and chatter all around.
Haji comes in. He settles us down. He makes a few of the standard jokes that he makes each evening. “Welcome to Africa!” Then he makes his statement.
“So, the guys will come by your tent to wake you at 11 o’clock.”
11 o’clock. Eleven.
We knew all about the summit day. Departure at midnight. Midnight to sunrise. That was the hike. Midnight. We’d said the word so many times it had been accepted. And yet now we heard a different time.
It’s only one hour but the difference is staggering. Midnight is manageable. Midnight is tomorrow. Midnight is possible after a short night’s rest. 11 is tonight. After a nap. 11 is four and a half hours from now.
“Well that sure puts a damper on things, doesn’t it?” Aaron says.
Haji tells us it will be cold up there. To expect wind at around 2AM. Test your headlamps. Make sure you have on all your warm weather clothing. Wrap up your cameras. Keep your water pressed tight to your body so it doesn’t freeze.
Somebody asks him, “Are you expecting rain?”
“No,” he says. “If it rains the rain will be snow. So no rain is expected.”
“Minus ten to minus 20 celsius depending.”
That’s between 15 and -5 degrees, not accounting for wind.
“Will it be windy?”
“The wind will start at about 2AM. And go on till about 4.”
I’d been drinking close to seven liters of water a day but I don’t have anymore the rest of the night. I pee before bed but 20 minutes later I can feel the urge creep up on me again. Fours hours of sleep, I tell myself. Four hours of sleep and I can make it.
I get up to pee for real sometime later. I don’t check the time. I don’t want to know. But I’m tipped off by what I see up on the mountain.
A stream of them. Snaking up the mountain like a string of Christmas tree lights. The first climbers have left.
I drift off into something that resembles sleep. It’s more of a coma. Sleep does something for you. A recharge. A coma is a delay. A way to shut off your thoughts before you get to the damn thing. I manage a half hour of this before I’m woken up by Ali, one of the porters, with his traditional chipper, “Helloooooo.”
I open my eyes and stare up at the top of the tent. I don’t blink. I don’t doze in and out of sleep in a fit like it’s the first day of school and I don’t want to go. I’ve been dumped into a tub of cold water. A “kick” as they call it in that movie Inception. I slap myself twice. I sit up.
“Okay,” I say to myself. “Okay, okay, okay, okay.”
I’m the second to last one to arrive to the big tent for “breakfast.” I step inside, realize what we’re about to do, and something snaps. I can feel it right away. I’m no longer Chris. Just a body now. A body and instincts with residual flashes from my unconscious. And so the first thing I say to everyone is not hello, how are you, are we ready, is everyone feeling okay. None of that.
“Wake up, Hobbits, it’s a beautiful morning.”
It’s now 11:30PM.
Dan says it first. “Chris has lost his mind I think.”
to be continued…
© 2014 Christopher Dart