We are standing 5,500m above sea level on Africa’s highest mountain, Kilimanjaro. It has taken me five nights of sleeping alone in my tent, 70km of hiking, mind numbing headaches, and now frigid temperatures to get to this point. “Can you understand me?” Wilson, our main guide asks me. “Yeah,” I grunt.
I feel at the brink of death, having attempted to reach the summit earlier in the evening and failed. I am suffering from altitude sickness. The thought of reaching the summit was my only comfort. My walk at altitudes of 5km and higher gave me the worst headache of my life. With half my normal oxygen intake, I was walking uphill in the middle of the night, in the freezing cold, for 14km. Add crippling diarrhea and a lack of toilet paper. I grow weaker with each step.
Josef, our assistant guide, is helping me ascend, when we see Wilson and Lisa. Wilson is the main guide and Lisa is an Australian woman who was, like me, sick as a dog but determined to reach the summit. My mind and body have shut down at this point and Wilson says the one thing I never thought I would ever hear.
However, I am getting ahead of myself. This moment on the mountain happened on one of the final days of my 23-day vagabondage in South and East Africa.
Foresight failed me. Instead of putting this extreme physical undertaking at the beginning of my trip, when my body was fresh, I reserved it for my last week I was in Africa, when my body was worn and tired. Instead, a friend and I conquered Cape Town, tasting its world class wines and connecting with its outgoing locals, whose accent is a mix of Brit and Aussie. I then skimped on airfare and rode two domestic flights up the African East Coast, landing outside Kenya’s Capital, Nairobi.
The reason for my stop in Kenya and ultimately the entire trip was a girl. I was chasing a girl to Kenya. This stage of the trip passes quickly. Kenya had a relaxing feel in comparison with Cape Town and the coming Kilimanjaro.
I board the Riverside shuttle and settle in for the rough, dusty 12-hour ride across Kenya into Tanzania. Eventually, we arrive in the town of Moshi and the imposing figure of Kilimanjaro. The bus is full of tourists from around the world who intend to tackle the 19,000 plus feet of the mountain. As I mingle with the dusty bus crew, I discover that there are many ways to climb Kilimanjaro. Apparently my student discount landed me on Machame, the second hardest route! I decided to carry all my own gear, excluding food and tent, for the entire hike. A guide from another company warned against it, but being stubborn I did not change my plans.
Arriving at our hotel, The Springlands, we meet the 35-degree heat. It feels like we are baking alive but our spirits are not dampened as the night sky frames Kilimanjaro. Lying in bed, I relive my 16 days in Africa and feel a sense of relaxation. I fall into a deep sleep as the fan cools my sweating body. The morning passes quickly. My bag as it comes in just under 50 lbs. A short bus ride lands us at our departure point and I race ahead to be one of the first people to set foot on the path to Kilimanjaro.
The first three days pass by easily and my confidence grows as I conquer more and more of Kilimanjaro. The nights are lonely as half of each day is spent alone in my tent reflecting on my past and what direction to take next.
We enter day five.
The headache is debilitating, the pack too heavy, and I am wondering why am on this hell on earth. Our guide says “Pole, Pole” (slowly, slowly) and tells me I should have taken it easier the first three days. This only reinforces my desire to get to camp and prove him wrong, so when I arrive at the bottom of the mountain I can say “Kufunga, Kufunga!” (fast, fast). I never take physical tasks slowly or with caution, I remind myself, so why should Kilimanjaro be different!
Well, I realize it is different and physical fitness has next to zero to do with a person’s ability to reach the summit.
I push on and reach the final base camp 18km farther on. Standing at the Barafu base camp, I feel disconnected from reality, as if observing myself from a distance. I eat and socialize, but nothing feels fully real. I try to savour the moment, but also to sleep because I will be hiking 30 more kilometres to the summit and then back down to a lower base camp, on that final stage.
I have my head down as our group begins the ascent to over 19,300 feet. It is 11 pm, pitch black, and the temperature is 20 below. The wind howls. After two hours I am lying on my side, immobilized by the pain in my stomach. After a debate with Josef, I concede and walk back down to Barafu base camp with him. I lie in my tent severely disappointed with myself. I try to comfort myself by looking at the pictures I had taken on my trip but it only strengthens my desire to conquer Kilimanjaro. I rip open the frozen zipper of my tent. I tell Josef, “I gotta try this one more time.”
There are only two of us now, with one headlamp and one dim flashlight. We trudge on through the darkness, passing 5km in altitude. My body moves only because I will not concede. I am dehydrated on this final leg but we continue on. I run ideas through my head to take my mind off the task at hand. I tell myself, “I will not fail, I will not fail!” I sit on a rock and instantly fall asleep, physically finished but not mentally broken. Dawn breaks and I am temporally re-invigorated as I finally see the beauty and harshness of nearing Kilimanjaro’s summit.
Unfortunately, we run into Wilson and Lisa. This is not good. I look worse than I feel. Wilson seems to know this. After some questions that I answer poorly, Wilson says the one thing I thought I would never hear: “Mitch, I have been doing these climbs for 15 years. You have to come back down with us.” I beg to go a little further, to push the envelope a little more, but that is not on the agenda. I take a short video, which haunts me to this day, and we start down the mountain. I eventually accept the defeat and relish that I will begin to feel better as we descend the mountain that gave me a lesson in humility.
Why would anyone ever choose to do this? My answer is simple: To succeed in life you must push yourself to find your limits, both mentally and physically. To go to that limit and come back is an experience that must be felt and cannot be described in words.
I leave you with a quote from Leonardo Da Vinci: “For once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return.”