Monday, September 24, 2012

On Top of the Free-Standing World

Many many many years ago I developed an itch to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. Why? Because it’s an adventure and a challenge and those are two of my favorite things. Plus it’s a mountain, and I’m obsessed with those :).  I’d asked a handful of people over the years to join me, but most didn’t have the vacation time, the money, or mostly had no desire ;).  In hindsight, I think it worked out perfectly, that I got to do it on my own, the literal pinnacle of my Self-exploration/ Find-yourself/ Know yourself 2012 Journey. I knew it was the highest mountain in Africa. What I didn’t know, which makes it soooo much cooler, is that it is also the tallest Free-standing mountain in the entire World. Free-Standing: “not relying on or linked to anything else; independent.” Ahhh... this must be my perfect mountain :). It there's one thing I am, it's independent. At times even a lil' too much ;).  This climb gave me many reminders that being independent doesn't mean you have to be alone nor that you can't receive help, of which here I got plenty of both :).

Just a few weeks ago, when starting to schedule, my fancy was to do it totally alone. That idea was shot down over and over, it's not even allowed:(. I figured I might as well save $ then, and joined a group with an ill conceived notion that I would still be able to walk alone. The first day (of 6) was grand, hiking through the greeny, mossy, damp rainforest. I clearly had a need for some me time, seeing that within 2 minutes of departure I was off from the group, trekking solo. It was perfect. The sounds and smells of the forest, the freedom of pace, the joy of solitude. 

About 2 hours in I stopped for lunch. Just as I was finishing the group arrived, and that’s where my total solitude ended. One of the guides (we had 6) insisted I couldn’t be alone.  Uggh. Shortly thereafter (and for the remainder of the trek), I see it’s impossible to be entirely alone during the climbs on this mountain, being that there are 2-3 porters/cooks/guides for any one tourist. Our group alone was over 50, and there were probably 10 groups. Each camping night looking almost like a mini Woodstock festival. Each day was a constant stream of bodies, foot to foot hiking. At first I was cranky about it, but I gave myself an attitude adjustment. Why am I so obsessing about being alone?  I can still do my own thing, which I did :).  If there was an alternate path, I took it, and when possible, I made my own trail :) I loved day three, it was my “rock hopping” day. Almost like a 5 year old at a hotel who pretends if you fall off the beds you fall into the lava... that was me if I fell off a rock :). Once I shook my anti-socialism, I got chummy with 3 Australians and an English guy, and they were hilarious.  I'm actually getting the best of both worlds!   It’s wonderful to have nice company, and then wonderful to wonder off and take in the scenes and silence any chance I got. I feel so balanced, just doing whatever I want, despite social dogmas. And, it appears people still like me!  Case in point: Just be yourself :). 

Traffic Jam hiking 

Camping on the clouds!

Planking Kilimanjaro! Uhuru Peak is the one just to the right of my arm :) 

Sweet view of Mt. Meru w/ the English speakers :)

Carrying all my own supplies would have been satisfying, but ohhh it was so nice not too! The staff guys were quite fun and suuuuper appreciated. When it's freezing cold out, it's the best thing ever to have your tent already made and hot food waiting for you!  I joined them often in their “kitchen” tent (the warmest place) daily. They sang lots. They flirted lots. I suppose I flirted back;). They taught me some good Swahili phrases. All day long you pass and are passed by people, and everyone says “Jambo” (hello) or more often “Mambo” (what’s up). The correct response is “Poa” (cool).  They taught me to respond “Poa kichizi kama ndizi” Which means ”Cool like a banana”. Lots of big smiles from that one :).

Singing all the way home :) 

The hikes were long and rigorous. The land became desolate. Barely anything grows that high up. Lots of rocks though, and I love rocks :). And of course the views were just amazing. Sometimes though, when the clouds were low and ominous, it was like walking for hours in like a barren gravel pit. These times were yet another reminder of why it's nice to have the option of company :). I love the hard, hand-required climbing parts. Not so much the simple trail on a huge incline kill-your-achilles parts. Either way though, I love the challenge. One day I got to side trail to the top of a 200 meter rock in about 5 minutes. We ate lunch up there and looked down on the ant-sized others. Sweet. The fourth day we passed a waterfall and a whole valley of these really neat plant/bush/palm type trees. I love green :).  The sunrises and sunsets make me stop and just stare everyday.  We’re so high, and being that this is a solo mountain, the views are just the tops of clouds and sometimes a peak thru. It’s like being in a plane, except not cramped and uncomfy. Rad :). 

I love this

Walking on Cloud 9 ;) 

Every sunrise and sunset was awesome... and freezing ;) 

Most of the trip was very dusty, and there were no showers. I prob wouldn’t have used them if there were. 0 degrees? No thank you. I’m just going to admit to myself that I loath cold showers. Even after a hard sweaty workout, about 2 seconds of cold is all I want and then hot please :). That’s one thing I'm looking forward to stateside! A few times I did a baby wipe bath, but often it was way too cold to even be bothered. One evening I snuck some of the hot water for tea back to my tent and spend 30+ minutes cleaning out my nasty fingernails, only to have them totally skanky within the first hour the next morning. Eww. Dirty fingernails = biggest turn off. To aid altitude sickness, I drank 4-5 liters of water a day, and subsequently peed 10-12 times a day. Behind a rock, behind a tree, or, in the middle of the night, right next to my tent. I really really dislike being cold ;).

Lets cut to the Goodies: the summit climb.  It was absolutely the hardest physical thing I’ve ever done. Harder than any exercise, event, training, competition, triathlon, and even harder than my marathon. I actually cried from sheer exhaustion when we hit the first peak (it’s a dormant volcano, so we had reached the lower part of the rim). 
Here’s how it went: 

Day 4: 7:30am hike starting at 3900m altitude. Hike up to 4600m altitude, hike back down to 3900m altitude (ouch knees). Hike back up to another 4600m altitude (equivalent of climbing the empire state building 4 times today!), arrival at 3:30pm. It’s freezing cold. Rest. Dinner at 6pm, eaten with my gloves on.  Then “try” to sleep. I got about two and 1/2 hours in. Woken at 11:30pm. Tea and biscuits served. Bundle up in every single layer of clothing owned. Set off at 12pm midnight.

Day 5:  “Pole Pole”, Swahili for “slowly slowly.” They keep saying it as if you could even imagine going fast ;).  We’re in the altitude danger zone now, and oxygen is minimal.  You want to stop and rest often, but every break (only 5-6 minutes every 45 mins or so), takes your fingers and toes back to frozen, so we trek on. There’s a line of headlamps in both directions but that’s all you can see besides your feet (this is a good thing because if we’d been able to see how far and how steep, I bet most people would quit). My camelback’s water hose has frozen, my water bottle straw has frozen, and at about 3am, we’re all starving, so I share my two clif bars, which are also frozen so it’s like eating a rock.  One of the guides, Amos has taken me under his wing. He fixes/adjusts my headlight for me, he opens my water bottles for me, he takes pictures for me, he helps snap and unsnap my bag at each break (recall I have giant gloves on and fingers still feel frozen).  I could do all these things...but wow, it's oh so wonderful to have help!!!! At about 4 am, I’m going so slow and looking so apparently pitiful, he actually insists on taking my bag for me.  All of this he is doing of his own accord. Thank the Lord, it’s so nice being a woman!   On we go. This is seriously hard and dismal shit.On the other hand, it’s an amazing test of your willpower and attitude, plus as an added bonus there are more stars than I ever could have imagined. 23 million bajillion of them. They twinkle not just above but completely down to the horizon, only stopping where the land must start (you have to logically guess, because there is no line, it’s all just pitch black). About 5am, the most amazing thing happens. A sliver of red begins on the horizon. It slowly grows to red and orange and yellow. The beginning of the sunrise in a completely black scene. There’s a smaller mountain in view now, silhouetted against this rainbow streak in the sky: Mountain art. AHHHHHH, this is awesome. FUCCCKKK, I’m miserable. Haahah. I’m taking about one step (more like ‘shuffle’) every 3 second. and every 5th step I pause to lean on my walking sticks. Holy balls, are we there yet?? hahah.  The sun makes its majestic entrance. I’m in Love. 10 minutes later a dude in front of me (from another group) faints and a ruckus to rouse him ensues. Whoa, that’s a bit scary. I think I’ll slow my shuffles to one every 5 seconds :).  The last hour is a brutal 50+ degree incline on the most difficult gravel type soil. I’m using every single bit of my willpower. I have got almost nothing left. We reach the first crest, I crumble onto a rock, Im smiling but the tears just fall. I can’t even help myself... I am the picture perfect example of pure exhaustion. 

Looking hot
How awesome is that? AWESOME!!

Here comes the sun, do do do do

Are we there yet??

We’re not done yet. It’s about an hour from there to the actual peak. Luckily it’s a very slight incline, and also luckily I’m a finish line type girl. I get a little extra boost in my step, especially once we can see it. I’m yelling to the group, but mostly to myself, “We can do thissssss!”. We do. At 7:20am, September 16, 2012, we are standing on the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, 5,895 meters above sea level. It feels phenomenal. I even do a one handed handstand against the sign (not the best idea for altitude headache). I take my gloves off but that was also stupid. A few minutes later my fingers feel like they might snap off. The sun is out and shining bright, but there are still glaciers all around us.  At 19,340 ft (that’s my new record), on top of Africa, an independent girl on a free standing mountain, with nothing but the tops of clouds all around you in every direction, and endless gratitude for all the people that made it possible.  Flipping awesome :).

Amos carrying my bag, and me amplifying my headache ;)
Infinity glacier to clouds!

Exhausted trekkers...
But it was so worth it :) 

So what now? Now I’ve come back down. Now I continue on life’s awesome ride of highs and lows. Ups and downs. Mountain peaks and River valleys.  And... I love all of it.  I love that when things are hard, It just means the eventual success will be that much sweeter. I love that having help and company can make life easier, better, and more pleasant if you want it to, and it doesn't have to take away from the achievement :). I love that everything is a lesson. I love that obstacles are simply opportunities to test your abilities, your power, your courage, your adaptability, your flexibility, you attitude. If the world were without mountains and roller coasters and valleys and ups and downs and we were all flawless, that would be waaaay too humdrum. :). 

LIfe is like this fun game of turning every single thing that happens into something good, something beneficial, something positive. I'll be back in the states in THREE days!!!! I don't know what is in store for me, but nothing can make me betray my plan for happiness ;).  What's my next challenge, life? Ohhhh I can't wait to see!! It's like a good book you can't put down because you just have to know what's coming next! Whatever the next chapter brings, I know I can deal with it.  Forget being physically fit, this crazy awesome horrid mountain was a 99% mental feat, and if I can get thru that positively, I can get thru anything, single-handedly or not, whichever way makes it the most pleasant :). 


  1. Wow! What an experience! Sure looking forward to being able to talk to you. Love, Mom with a heart

  2. Increible!!!Dios te siga bendiciendo!!

  3. Poa kichizi kama ndizi”