On Jan 1st, 2011, I made it to the top of Africa, exhausted, ill, somewhat hallucinating, and struggling with the high altitude, Our group started with 23 and only 13 of us made it to the summit. This was by far the most challenging thing I have ever done. To me this was a much greater struggle than Everest for several reasons - We ascended to a higher altitude much quicker so we had less time to acclimatize, I was not feeling well at all, and we were sleeping on a cold hard ground - but with a huge challenge comes many lessons. This trek has been much less about reaching the top as it had been with my Everest trek. I knew I would get to the summit, perhaps because I am too stubborn to give up (even when I have good reason to do so). In fact, I had a number of team members tell me that they were surprised and inspired to see me continue on despite the challenges I faced to make it. As a result, this adventure has been more about the journey and the insights I had along the way and about those people that inspired me. So here is how it went ...
Day 1 was one of the hardest days of my life. A nasty bug had been passing through our group on safari consisting of fever, vomiting, and diarrhea. It hit me on this 1st day. As we began our 7 hour hike this day I was feeling the fever and the other symptoms began a couple of hours later. Just as I was feeling the worst I ever felt, the torrential rain started - apparently it was the most rain our guide had ever seen in over 200 treks up the mountain! For the next 4 hours I got drenched ... water sloshing in my boots, pants, jacket, everything soaked through. My feverish, sick body was just a shivering mess and I could barely walk. Someone put a hat on me, pressed gloves onto my freezing fingers, someone else took my pack and I was being hugged for warmth. I seriously don't know how I continued on like this for hours, but somehow I mustered everything I had to make it to camp, where I collapsed. That day I learned that I really don't give up easily, which is a good thing as some things certainly get better. There were definite times that day that I thought maybe the universe didn't want me to go up that mountain - maybe this and all the flight delays were a sign telling me to turn back. After this first day 3 others decided they had had enough. I could have, too, but somehow hung in there.
Warning signs at the entry gate ... it seems there were a few more reasons I should have turned back!
Day 2 went by in a blur ... I was still not feeling great but when someone asked how I was, I focused all my positive energy to reply I was "great" or, at least "getting better every moment." After this day we lost a further 6 team members.
By Day 3 I was back to my usual happy and optimistic self despite exhaustion and a sore body from sleeping on a cold hard ground. It was a long 10 hour day through fog and sleet but as we reached our camp, the sun began shining and the Burranco Wall and Mt. Kilimanjaro were an amazing site.
Trail on Day 3
Day 3 trail ... beginning to look barren, a bit like Mars with flourescent algae on the rocks
Approaching Camp on Day 3 - This scene appeared after a long day of fog ... quite alien looking but the Scenecio trees were amazing
Day 3 Camp
Sun Setting over the Barronco Wall
Day 4 saw us scrambling up the imposing Burranco Wall which was a really fun day.
Werner and I on the Barronco Wall
Climbing the Barronco Wall 1
Climbing the Barronco Wall 2
Sun Setting at camp on Day 4
Kilimanjaro on Day 4
Day 5 was a short 3 hour hike as that night was summit night. We got to camp, napped, had lunch, napped, dinner, napped, then woke up to start our summit attempt. The slower group began at 11pm and my "faster" group began at midnight for the 7 hour steep hike up to 5800+ meters.
Me above the clouds - Beginning Day 5
The trail up to the ridge where we camp and begin our summit hike
I was feeling pretty good, except for a pesky cough that seemed to be getting worse every day. I later discovered it was a high altitude cough and that it would continue to worsen as I got higher since my body would not be able to heal itself at that elevation due to lack of oxygen.
About 2 hours into the night I was beginning to feel very uncomfortable and had to tell my group to continue on as I needed to break to catch my breath. You see, the cough was getting so bad that each time I coughed I ran out of breath and could not replenish, which was critical at 5000+ meters. I had a small panic attack as I was unable to breath which is why I told my group to go on ahead.
The next 5 hours were pretty excruciating. I had a guide with me the whole time who was wonderful, except that I was kind of hallucinating most of the way up and I thought he was someone else. Maybe I should have turned back, I don't know.
Just before sunrise I reached Stella Point, which is pretty much the top. I was in a world of pain and I burst into tears - as I heard many others did as well from all the built up emotions of making it up. I was so exhausted that I could have slept right there ... except my guide and group (who arrived only 10 minutes ahead of me) began the 45 minute hike to Uhuru, the highest point on the mountain. At this point I was feeling very ill from the altitude - exhausted, but unable to eat anything to get my energy back - the juice I had came straight up. I remember snapping a few photos before making my way down about 30 minutes later. As I came down, I finally began feeling better.
At Stella Point - Hurray! I'm not sure who took this photo or when with my own camera - I was in so much pain ... but somehow I'm smiling!
Sun Rising over the clouds on top of Kilimanjaro
Sun rising over the mountains at the top
At the top ... with the glacier behind me
View from the top 1
View from the top 2
View from the top 3
I later heard that many people really struggled that night. In fact, Werner said this was his 2nd hardest night ever on a climb ... this is a man who climbed all 7 summits - including Everest, McKinley, and Kilimanjaro twice before! He said his legs just wouldn't work - it goes to show that you can never really tell with altitude. We also heard that a porter died from pulmonary edema that night due to altitude. Scary stuff. I count my blessings to have reached the summit and returned and am now happy and healthy ... and really unsure if I would do it all over again ... except as time passes, my memories of that night seem less and less painful.
So, what could I have possibly learned from such an experience? As I mentioned, this really was about the journey. I truly feel that first day and the hard summit night were a blessing in disguise for a number of reasons. I now know how others felt on the Everest trek when I was on top of the world there. Of course, I learned a lot about myself and that I don't turn back easily - even when I have a good reason. This is is good as things always tend to work out for the best. I was glad to hear from some that because of this, I was an inspiration to them to keep going. Funny, because I felt my team was such a blessing to me - during this trek I realized how amazing and generous my team members were. The help and giving I experienced on Day 1 from others was just amazing. In fact, the entire trip felt that everyone had each other's back. I heard one team member ask another at one point, "What can I do for you?" I made a commitment to myself to use this more often with others when I get home and be of service to those around me. I heard others saying they have never been on such a trip where everyone was truly concerned for each other. I truly believe that this is because we are all with the same company and have each devoted time to our own personal growth and of being of service to others. It makes me proud to be part of such a group.
There are many other lessons I have learned along the way and I think they need a few days to process in my mind as my oxygen levels return to normal. I will post pictures and some more comments in several days when I get home.
UPDATED JAN. 12th
Many of you asked what happened to the wedding that was meant to take place on top of Kilimanjaro? Well, unfortunately Werner had to send his bride-to-be back down on the third day as it was just pushing the limits too much. As it turned out, a wedding on top of Kili may not have worked out as smoothly as first thought anyways! So the day we got back from the trek, an unsuspecting Werner was told his wedding would take place in about 3 hours - Heshie had organized the staff at the hotel and invited people she had met over the past few days to attend. It was a beautiful ending to our trip to see these two amazing people joined – and my first Jewish wedding, too!
Jewish Wedding in Moshi
Me with the Bride and Groom
The following day (no time to rest at all!) 7 of us went to a hospital about 2 hours away where we were to meet the group of orphans. For those who don’t know, our group pulled together to take over a great deal of clothing and supplies for this particular orphanage. Personally, I would like to extend a huge thank you for those of you in Vancouver who helped fill the 50 pound suitcase that I was able to take over - and with such short notice! We went to the orphanage to help distribute some of the items. It was a little chaotic with so many children but every child left that day smiling, with a new item in hand. Afterwards, I was surrounded by a playful group of children who adored my camera – they were taking photos of themselves, of me, of each other, and bursting into laughter as they saw each photo … it was difficult to leave after this point - I was laughing too hard with them.
When we first arrived we walked into a large room where 150 children began singing for us – It was difficult to hold back tears as the words they were singing really got to me - “We are happy, mister, we are happy…” Reflecting on that day, I wondered how some people in our country can complain or be so negative when these children, whose lives are so much more difficult, can laugh and sing? It really puts everything into perspective.
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