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 third part from the trek up the mountain. You can find the first part here and the second 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’ve got my headphones in for the first time since I was at Dulles a week earlier and though my podcasts are queued, I can’t for the life of me get over my misstep. How did I forget Lord of the Rings? Not the movies. Not even an audio version of the books. No, I’m talking about the BBC Radio adaptation of Lord of the Rings, produced a good 30 years back.
“Wake up, Hobbits, it’s a beautiful morning.”
And yet I didn’t bring it. 13 hours long. There and back again. I could be up the mountain and back…somewhere…before the production is even over.
I don’t know how many climbers there are. Maybe a thousand. Wrapped in our balaclavas and scarves and two layers of gloves and three layers of pants and six layers of shirts, we are astronauts, ready to trek this perilous landscape, unsure what is left up there for us.
In the darkness we pass another camp. Paired up people huddle around lanterns. The night closes in. My lasting image of a lifetime in the wild. During offroad rendezvous in the Mojave Desert, in the forest slopes of the San Gabriels, at the foot of high mountain lakes in the Southern Sierra. The image haunts me like a derelict vessel in the deep ocean. Lanterns lighting tents in darkness.
We are a string of headlamps. 14 in our group–10 hikers, four guides–probably another 30 or 40 behind us, untold ahead. The entire line breaks. Some go faster faster, or slower slower. Others branch off the trail and curl up with their guide, face in their hands, vomiting up whatever they have left.
A woman passes us and heads back down to base camp. I’ve run into her on occasion over the last few days. She’s from Los Angeles like me and even shops at the Trader Joe’s where I used to work in Santa Monica. She doesn’t look at me now though. She’s nearly unrecognizable. Her eyes are big and distant. She stares off into the darkness as if it were the canvas of some vast and empty battlefield through which she’d just fought. Her body is limp, her legs slack. Her feet pass over the rocky trail like she’s on roller skates. We pass a ragged white stretcher held up on a single tire.
“That’s what they take us down on if we get sick.”
And on we go.
I’ve got Bill Simmons and Bill Maher and Dan Savage talking in my ear, but all I can really hear, the only voice that seems to penetrate, is the distant imaginary voice of Douglas Livingstone, who plays Gimli in the Lord of the Rings radio drama. He’s chanting the Song of Durin and the final lines of the verse replay in my head. In the darkness on the mountain side this resonates. “In Moria, in Khazad Dum.” Strange and lonely travelers traversing a deep dark cave.
“In Moria, in Khazad Dum.”
Step step breathe. Step step breathe. Each step sideways, never farther than a foot and a half. Each breath as deep as I can take it. Step step breath. Silence. Silence but for some slight chatter from the guides or maybe a gasping treker ahead. Are they still there? Is anyone there? Or am I at last alone?
No breath this time. Step step mambo.
There’s no hesitation. “POA!!” Each and every guide in a 30 yard radius shouts it.
I smile and laugh. Step step laugh.
Two breaths wasted. I stop to catch myself. Then again: “Mombo?!”
It’s a shout. A war cry. Like we’re in fucking “Braveheart.” I can’t go any faster. Step step breath. Step step breath. The steps feel good. The laughing feels good. The voices feels good. “Gollum,” I say again. Madness. All around me. Not a depression. Not sadness or any sort of affliction for which your doctor could prescribe medicine. Unpasteurized madness. Raw.
“POA!” Each and every goddamn time.
My head doesn’t hurt. My eyes aren’t spinning. I don’t want to throw up. I took some painkillers just before we started and I can see now that it was a good idea. I have so much…so much…so much fucking ENERGY. The kind that makes you want to jump on things and go dancing.
Step step breathe.
I take a bigger breath but my chest clamps up. There’s no bigger breath to take. I’m close. Right on the edge. If I skipped ten yards I’d pass out from exhaustion…or worse.
But the darkness is a friend. It blinds all pain and concern. When the wind comes at 2:00AM we remain undaunted. It’s not a Chicago bluster. Not the Santa Anas of Southern California which knock out power and heave heavy palm trees onto the freeway. Just a bitter biting squall, a sea of pine needles.
We stop around 4:00 and Ali appears again. He passes out cups and fills them with hot water and chocolate and it tastes so good and I say out loud in this guttural yalp, “Holy fucking shit!! That’s so fucking good. So fucking good. Sorry. Sorry for cursing. But it’s so good.”
It IS so good. Everything is good. Step step breathe. Step step breathe. There’s no stopping me.
This goodness–and goodness is what I’m going to call it–continues for 90 minutes. 90 minutes of cool deliberate exhaustion. Each step manageable and steep against the cold and the wind.
The sun begins to rise.
We notice it collectively to the east where the stars have vanished and the black has faded into a light blue haze. Michael Crichton, in his book Travels, describes sunrise during his Kilimanjaro summit like this (he took the Marangu Route, we’re on the Machame, but his description is spot on):
Dawn is a beautiful prismatic band that throws the jagged peak of Mawenzi into relief. I tell myself I should pause for a moment to enjoy it. I can’t. I tell myself I should pause and take a picture of it, so I can enjoy the picture later. I can’t even take a picture. I have lost the ability to do anything that some animal part of my brain judges to be nonessential energetic movement. It is not necessary to take a picture. I don’t take one.
A few of us stop to look at it. Half of us are keeled over wheezing. The other half snap photos. My camera is in my pack. My iPhone in my pocket. It’s the most beautiful sun I’ve ever seen. The most beautiful by a long shot.
And I hate it.
I hate everything about it.
It lights up the path ahead to reveal this switch-backing steep cobra of a trail, invisible before, now staring at us, hissing, laughing–a taunting bully.
“You’ve come so far. But not far enough.”
And it’s correct. We have so much farther to go.
“Gollum,” I say to the trail.
“Gollum,” I say to the sun.
I march on, glancing back at the sun every few steps to catch it and make sure it’s real.
It is not necessary to take a picture. I don’t take one.
The light hits me and my head fills with thunder. It takes two breaths to breathe. Step step breathe. I try for a “Mombo!” but I can’t mutter a “gollum.” The sun has revealed me. The sun has brought up the curtain.
I’m no mad man at all.
This is real.
The height. The thin air. All of it at once. There’s no breaths to take. The podcasts have ended. I don’t queue up another. Step step breathe. Each one worse. Each one deeper. Where to take my thoughts? What’s going to get me through this now? Me, this real person with a job I tolerate, friends I’ve stretched and dreams I’ve never reached. What am I supposed to do now, atop this mountain on another part of the world? I’m all alone and it terrifies me.
My thoughts drift and wander and skate the edge of reason. They settle on three people. My mom, my dad, my brother. The three of them.
My brother standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon scared like I’ve never seen him. Breath, breath, breath, no steps. He can’t do it. He doesn’t even want to start. He’ll stay at the Hotel and watch America’s Next Top Model until we get back. And days later, on a rickety bridge over the Colorado River, a smile on his face, he says, “Look at me now!”
My mom on the ground, her pack at her side, halfway up a trail in the Sierras on her way to Thousand Island Lake. Her face is red, her breathing is out of sorts. She can’t do it. She can’t go on. Stupid of her to try and push herself so hard. I take her pack and lift her up and she walks ahead of me. When she crosses a ridge and sees Thousand Island Lake four days later she cries.
My dad is the last in line. The first to get up but always the last to get there. He’s not going to make it either. Too old, too out of shape, too burdened with a family out of step with his dreams. Step step breathe. Over and over and over. His own pace until he’s at the lake with my mom, both of them together, washing their feet in the ice cold water.
I look back at the sun. They’ll never see it. Not like this. I’m stepping someplace thousands before have and thousands after will continue to do. But they never will.
The guides might be close, my group might be right on my ass, but I’m all alone now. It’s just me and those thoughts. Just me. Just me. Just like it’s always been. All alone. The way I came in. The way I’ll leave. Death. I don’t fear the finality of it. I fear the solitude of those last breaths.
Step step breathe.
Step step breathe.
Mom, Dad, Robert.
Step step breathe.
Step step stop.
The trail plateaus. A cluster of climbers huddle around a big sign that reads, STELLA POINT.
Beyond that point to the west is a great caldera, an empty valley where the volcano last spewed. I stumble over to the rim. I sit down and throw off my pack and stare at it. Tears fall across my face. Big streams of them. Even if I minded there’s nothing I could do. They seem to come from someplace else, from a catalog I’ve never opened.
I stand up, still crying. Modi, one of our soft spoken guides, steps to me. He looks me in the eyes, sees what is happening and he hugs me. I hug him back. He punches me in the chest with his fist.
“You strong man. Very strong.”
Stella Point is not the summit. We’ve only tricked ourselves into believing it. the real summit is another couple hundred meters up, along a gentle sloping ridge that rises above the great glaciers of the mountain. Many stop here. For many Stella Point is enough.
“Twende.” That’s Haji, our guide. Time to go. It hasn’t been five minutes. He knows we can’t stay at this elevation for very long. Modi picks up my backpack. We start walking.
“Wait,” I say. “Give me my pack.”
“I want my pack. I want to do it. I want to take it to the top.”
I pound my chest with my closed fist. This is as macho as I get. He says okay.
Step step breathe is no more. Step breathe over and over for one minute, followed by 15 seconds of hunched over heavy breathing. Helena passes me. Phi passes me. Everyone passes me but Aaron. We’ve fallen into the same exhausted rhythm. Every few minutes we turn around and look at it: the whole world, curving from end to end, the proof of our place in the stars.
“It never gets old, does it?” Aaron says.
“Every fucking day.” I don’t apologize for cursing.
The accomplished skip down the slopes past us. Save for one family who sucks back artificial oxygen everyone is smiling.
“Congratulations, you’ve made it, you’re almost there.”
I can’t smile back. 300 yards away. 200. I don’t think I can do it. I see three faces I recognize. A pretty blonde girl with dreads. A roundish guy with a round head. And a guy beside him you couldn’t describe as anything other than English.
The round man and I recognize each other at once. We hug.
“Unless you trip over your shoe laces,” he says, “you’re almost there.”
He reminds his friends that I’m the American bloke from the airplane. You’ve never seen a bigger smile on my face. He shakes my hand. The dreaded blonde girl smiles at me and nods. They move on and I never see them again.
Someone takes my hand. Someone takes Aaron’s. It’s Haji.
“Twende,” he says.
Another 100 meters to go and he has us both by the hand, taking us just a bit faster. No more breaks. Nothing but the end. Nothing but the summit.
We make it.
Aaron and I hug. He manages a joke about Haji taking our hands. We touch the board, snap some photos, I’ve never felt so exhausted my entire life.
And that’s when I see them.
Elin and Geir.
On their knees. Each face buried in the other’s shoulder. Embracing, weeping.
And I cry all over again. This time for them. I’d given up on Elin. Just like I’d given up on the Englishman. Just like I had given up on myself so many times throughout my life. Given up on trips, given up on dreams, given up on relationships. A life of sacrifices. But not now. Geir never gave up on Elin. She never gave up on herself. They made it together. Not alone. Linked.
And I know exactly what I want out of my life. Right there on top of the world it hits me. Not a better job or more money. Not a garden to grow ferns and cucumbers. Nothing so complex.
© 2014 Christopher Dart