By Memet Walker
Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
Kilimanjaro is a snow covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai ‘Nga’je Ngai,’ the House of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude. – Ernest Hemingway in the preamble to The Snows of Kilimanjaro.
At least the leopard, presumably, didn’t pay cash.
“You have to kill Kili before it kills you,” the driver says, near the entrance of the Machame gate.
Kill me? To be honest, the thought had occured previous times in my darker thoughts. In conversations with locals, roughly ten people die per year attempting to summit this great giant. The National Park, however, publishes a much nicer number, at around three. I’m an optomist; three already died this year, I was safe.
And I now I stood at the gate of judgement. One year of preparation; devoting my entire being to carefully studying other people exercising on television. It took one step uphill, however, to realize I would die young.
Nine idiots standing at the foot of this mountain. Ambassadors of stupidity from every corner of the world. Myself, from America, a man from the Phillipines, a woman from China, a French diving instructor, a student from Holland, a biologist from Switzerland, a German doctor, two Candian fishiologists (I’m miles away from google) and a partridge in a pear tree.
Rupyard Kipling could not have been far from this place when he wrote his more definitive work. Trees so large, entire villages could comftorably inhabit them deep inside the moss covered bark.
Wait. That was India. Note to self, I need to give up this allusion of being well-read.
I explained my brief confusion to our guide, Jamaica. “Pardon my ignorance, but there are no tigers here in Tanzania, right?”
“No,” chimed in another climber. “I’ll bet you’re thinking of the Indian Tiger.”
Jamaica is confused. “The tigers are Indians?”
“No, no. They are called Indian Tigers.”
“Indians eat tigers?”
And there it stood. The mountain. Even the most peripheral, perceptive visions cannot interpret and describe to the rest of the brain the image of this freakish geological tumor in just a glance, even from miles away.
Through thick jungle we walked all day. But at the end, camp was in my sights. But I’m wheezing like an ashmatic girl who just finished first in the New York marathon. This was bad.
It was also cold. Very cold. Dinner was outside. The inevitable first day small talk.
But enough of this. Our hot water is starting to frost. The cooking tent, about 15 meters away, had smoke coming from the top.
Inside was Jamaica, our guide, all twenty seven (yes, twenty-seven) porters and the French guy. But it was hot in there, so they would just have to scoot over.
I got there in the middle of a conversation between our guide, and the other climber.
“We call Americans V.I.P.s” he says.
I point out that I’m America. He’s a bit shocked. He tells me Americans never do the Machame route, because there are no lodges, and no American’s climb the mountain and camp. I’m not so sure.
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Day five. No Americans yet.
Going back, to the start of the second day. The jungle has cleared. We rise another one thousand meters, and it is harder than I ever thought possible. We weren’t even halfway through.
I lay down in my tent. Alright, I collapse into my tent. Second night, and I could not breath, even after an hour of lying motionless. My stomach felt worse than ever before, and death became a stronger reality than it ever has been. It was cold, I could not eat, I could not drink. I had to vomit. I slowly rose to leave the tent, and go outside, into the Arctic. The hut sat perhaps twenty feet from my tent. When I left it, I was disoriented. I was lost. My thoughts were so unclear, the simple task of choosing which tent was mine seemed impossible. For minutes I searched, becoming more sick and cold, until eventually finding my marbles again, to some small extent.
It was time to clear my mind; it was time to pray, and pray harder than ever before. But as I lay freezing, malnurished, and very short of breath, my mind was useless. Never mind now. I began to speak with the lord: “Dear God, thank you for this food and other blessings, too…”
No. That’s not the one. I’m starting to think maybe Moses on Mt. Sinai, was going just as crazy as I was. That’s high up, right? But suddenly, in my mind, a golden cow makes perfect sense.
At lunch the next day, the fog was so thick, I did not now what I was eating until it was in my mouth. Even then, it was a guess. From the boulder the group sat on, we heard the voice of a lost woman. She presumably had veered off the trail in the grey mistiness, and lost her guide. She called out to him, he was too far to hear. Her calls soon became screams. She was lost, alone in the bitter cold. Our guide’s voice came through the air, explaining there was nothing we could do. The woman’s leader called to her from what seemed like miles away. The suggestion was made that we continue on. The hero in me was in some warmer, more exotic holiday locale; I collected my walking sticks and began moving again, her screams getting quieter…
Camp again. The worst headache of my life. I meet a french woman here at camp, who explains she too had a headacher. Past tense. What did she do? Cocaine, she says. Does that really work? She offers me some.
No thanks, lady. Finished high school, I have proof.
The food. For the first time in my life, I was eating for my life. Nothing appetizing about that nugget of thought. But what of the food? You would think that by the third night or so, soup runs thicker than your own blood through your veins. Soup. Well, some colorful variation of salt water. But the color it seems, was always wrong.
“Fresh pumpkin soup,” says the cook. One must assume, in Africa, pumpkins are green. And pray tell, where are we getting fresh pumpkins four thousand meters above town?
“Cucumber soup!” Orange.
“Carrot Soup!” Green again.
The next few days, it was more of the same. Wake up, feeling a little better. Start walking up again. God is cruel. Camp. I feel sick. “God, you knew I was kidding right? By the way, I have this stomachache.” Wake up. Feel Better. Start walking up again. God is cruel. Camp. I feel sick. “God, you knew I was kidding right?..” Wake up, wake up, wake up….
Despite it all, I make to to the last night. Slightly over four thousand meters now. At twelve o’clock am, we would have to wake up to hike the remaining one-thousand, eight-hundred and ninety-five meters.
It was midnight. Time now to test the strength of my anscestry. Not good. With the exception of one Korean War hero (a fluke perhaps, as we look nothing alike), this wasn’t looking so promising. We were present at every American conflict, we just weren’t much use. An interesting note for historians, my great great great grandfather, during the Revolution, first developed, tested, and proved what is now referred to as the “You go on, I’ll…cover you or something” theorem.
All nine of us are still here. For the love of God, will one of you turn around? You’re ruining my story.
We didn’t turn around, but a porter did. This is a serious point. Anyone who thinks this mountain is easy should ask this man. He does it for a living, but this particular time, he got sick enough to have to be escorted down.
Confidence stock is soaring.
At roughly 4500 meters, the moon itself was fed up, calling me a “damn fool,” and grovelling back down the path muttering about “freezing his balls off.”
The secret, I tell myself, is not to think of the walking. Think of anything but the walking. Anything.
First thing that comes to mind, I need to vomit.
Anything but the walking and the needing to vomit.
Christmas songs. That’s nice. I play some Dean Martin in my mind. Actually, at those oxygen levels, he’s giving me a private concert. And Elvis came. And Rosemary Clooney. I asked Elvis to leave.
My eyes have not seen, nor ears heard the wonders that awaited on Uhuru Peak, overlooking the whole of Africa at sunrise.
Wait, I’m here. I’m here! I’m at the top. All nine of us are. Prayers answered. It’s the only explanation. I just don’t think I could have done this alone. Thanks, Dino. The view is amazing. The sun is just coming up. This can’t be real.
The adrenaline doesn’t last long. My lungs are being filled with some grey matter, but it isn’t oxygen. And we’re getting sick.
I’m at the sign. “Congratultions, you’ve reached the highest point in Africa.” Neat. Take the picture. The Candian struggles with the camera. Five seconds, seems like five hours. I am really choking. But I have a picture. I am walking away…
Fine. Quickly. Good.
I am walking away….
Where’s your humanity man? French; it figures. But he’s close to the cliff. Just a little closer, and I could push him off.
The look on my face in that picture towards him, is probably grounds to lock me away for many years.
Again, it’s no joke that high above sea level. And problems begin.
One of the Canadians shirts has the long, red stain down his shirt from where his blood was pouring out blood.
The man from the Phillipines looks bad. He has turned grey, and can no longer see. The oxygen levels had an affect on his eye. What he shrugged off earlier as foggy glasses was not the glasses. He was going blind at this altitude and quickly. He’s rushed down ahead of us, and we’re all worried sick (He later recovered a day after being at a healthier altitude).
He’s gone, but I’m not, nor the seven others. And we really should be. Blame it on the oxygen, but for some reason, in my mind, I thought after reaching the peak, you’re magically, simply back down at the base in the blink of an eye.
The reality was quite different. Everyone is running down, but I’m too tired, too sick. I have to hobble.
When….why, tell me, did I inherit my grandmother’s knees all of the sudden?
Like the tortoise I slowly won my own race getting to the bottom (a bigger cause for celebration than getting to the top). I killed it. I killed this mountain.
Now, most importantly, where’s the nearest hotel with a television?