On a sunny day last May, 24 people embarked on the journey of a lifetime, to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. Of that 24, 21 made it to the top of the mountain. Our climbing group was supported with about 60 Tanzanian men that took care of us by guiding us, cooking for us, carrying and setting up our tents daily, carrying the majority of our gear, singing for us in Swahili when we became discouraged, pumping our gallons and gallons of drinking water through a purifier and walking with us every step of the way. I still get emotional when I think about those incredible eight days. Eight days that tested everything in my physical being.
Each evening when we would arrive at camp we would find our 2-man tents, a cooking tent, our mess tent that seated all 24 of us for each meal, and 3 beloved private toilet tents complete with a sit-down chemical flushing toilet! Our days: wake up to hot tea and breakfast, hike, stop for lunch, hike, eat dinner, go to bed, repeat. We hiked up steep ridges, among huge boulders, through the forest, interesting vegetation, hot sun, cold winds, drizzly rain, ominous fog/clouds and breathtaking views in every direction.
A favorite memory was waking up on Shira Plateau. I had hiked the longest hardest day the day before, coming in to camp long after everyone else had eaten and gone to their tents. It was hard to endure the beat down of being so much slower than everyone else on the team, it was dark, cold, every inch of my body hurt and I was not sure I could go on…just being honest. But, the next morning I woke up and there it was! Right outside my tent! My first full view of the beast! I had eaten, slept and God had renewed my strength and I was ready to carry on!! Isn’t it funny how EVERYTHING is ALWAYS better in the morning! We had a great team devotion and hiked on. It was going to be another long day up to the highest I have ever been in my life at Lava Tower at 15,190 ft. This was a huge accomplishment for me, especially since the doctors were not sure my lungs could sustain life above about 14,500 ft.
We went back down to a little over 13,000 ft. to sleep that night. The next day was possibly the most fun I had on the mountain. We had to climb Barranco Wall, an 800 ft. ascent straight up the side of a volcanic formation. We put our poles in our packs and scrambled hand and foot along an extremely narrow steep path! So FUN!! It was a hard climb but so enjoyable.
By day 6 the only thing left to do was try and summit. My legs felt incredibly heavy, the air was so thin I had to do everything painfully slow, exhaustion was overwhelming. As I walked up the last few yards into basecamp I began to weep. I couldn’t believe I was this close to the summit. I collapsed into a chair just outside the mess tent and kept thinking to myself, “I can’t believe I am here, I am here, I am here at 15,330 feet above the ocean! I am here” and after a good reflective cry session I stumbled my way in to dinner. Most of the rest of the team had been at camp for a few hours and had already eaten and were fast asleep as I forced down some soup and a grilled cheese sandwich to try to get some energy for the night ahead.
The simple action of taking off or putting on my boots required a minute of sitting still to recover, each step took every bit of energy I could muster. All motion was purposeful and as efficient as possible. We had been hiking for 6 days at this point and, for me, no chance to truly rest. I came in much later to camp every evening than any of the other members of the team so I always had to eat and go to bed. No time to sit and soak it all in, just pain, exhaustion and frustration that even the slightest motion took my breath away. That night I had to get up to use the restroom and even though I moved as slowly as possible, by the time I got back to my sleeping bag I could not lay down because I was so winded. I actually fell asleep sitting up in my tent while waiting for my heart and lungs to slow down enough to lie down comfortably. My muscles were uncooperative, I struggled to keep my head clear and the hardest part of my journey was still ahead.
I would begin my bid at 10:00pm. The guides woke me up about 9:30 to eat and bundle up to face the challenge. Three other climbers (of course Dr. Mark was one of them) would join me on the early group along with 2 guides while the rest of the group would start their bid at midnight. I layered up with all my gear, strapped on my gaiters, put hand warmers in every pocket and in my gloves, checked my snacks and water supply, tossed in an extra battery for my headlamp (just in case) located my poles and gave my guide the go ahead nod. The trail was immediately steep and difficult. It was no longer walking up inclines like most of the previous trial, I now had to take long hard steps up large rocks and uneven surfaces. Every step was calculated. I stayed focused on the back of the boots of my guide, Emanuel who dutifully walked in front of me listening to my breathing and always stopping for a breather or sip of water before I had to ask. We quietly trudged through the darkness. I would occasionally stop to attempt to catch my breath and use the opportunity to look around because it was impossible to look around without falling while walking in my hypoxic state. In my mind, I could almost hear Louis Armstrong singing about the wonderful world, bright blessed day and the dark sacred night…that is exactly what it was, a dark sacred night. I could see lights from the villages far below, stars like I have never seen them before and a perfect, bright, round moon. Sounds were muffled in the single digit temperatures and thin air, the mood was pleasant but encased in resolve to see the top of this mountain.
After about 2 hours of hiking we were at 16,000 ft. and I began to stumble a little. Dr. Mark decided to check my oxygen saturation levels with my portable monitor (the finger thing they use in the hospital). At sea level normal O2 levels are 99-100%, at 88% they put you on supplemental oxygen; mine was 61%. Mind you the rest of the team was in the low 70’s so I was not too far from them. After resting a minute I came up to about 69% so I was allowed to continue on. Climbing was hard, it felt like I weighed 5 times more than normal, every step a challenge. By this time other teams had left camp and we could see clusters of tiny sparkles from their headlamps as they made their way toward the summit. And slowly, we climbed on.
At the 4 hour mark, about 2:00am, I began to have even more trouble making my feet and legs do what my mind was commanding. I was veering off the trail and stumbling a little too much for the doctor, so we checked again…51%....not good. He made me sit down…I knew what was coming. The hard part was that I felt pretty good altitude wise. No headache, no nausea, and when I was still I almost felt normal, I could (or thought I could anyway, others disagree) talk fairly easy and normal. After resting for a couple minutes I could only get my O2 back up to 54%...my journey up was over, 55% is considered critical. Dr. Mark pulled me aside and asked my thoughts. I told him I wanted him to take the summit for the both of us and I would make my way back to basecamp with my guide. It was hard for him to think about leaving me but we both knew I would be fine as I went back down to more oxygen and I knew he well deserved to bag the peak.
The cool thing was that God’s timing is always perfect. Just as we were making the decision for me to turn back we got word that the team was almost to our location. So we sat for a few minutes to let them get to us and I was able to hug my nephew, Thomas, tell him how much I love him and how incredibly proud I was of him and give the rest of the team my blessing to continue on without me. It was an extremely emotional moment on the mountain but we all knew it was a possibility. So, there at 17,000 ft. my ascent was over, now all that was left was to cheer on the rest of the team and try to make it to basecamp before I succumbed to hypoxia.
On the way back down the mountain I stopped several times just to sit and enjoy the view and begin to process my feelings. It was just so beautiful. By now, there were many small clusters of headlamps strewn all along the mountain’s many trails as people from all over the world were coming together seeking the summit. The sun was fighting to break through the edge of the horizon and my fight was over. After a year of training, research, blisters, trail maps, muscle aches, planning, sweating, laughing and loving life on the journey I sat in the darkness. I sat in the dark savoring the victory to have survived in the non-profit world for 20 years and, more emotionally, enjoy my victory of life after cancer…a dark sacred night for which I will be forever grateful.