A short overview of the trip that took me to the highest point in Africa
Thoughts don’t often complete themselves up there. Sentences don’t usually finish and even if they did no one, including myself, would understand them. But despite mental and complete physical exhaustion, I managed to focus on one question during our last eight hour climb to the summit: Why?! Why did I have to do this?
Over a year before I remember sitting in class and, choosing to ignore the lecture, began researching ways I could force myself out of my element. Out of my typical American routine that had become far too monotonous in only 21 years of life. And, I decided on Africa for my graduation present. Not only Africa, but the highest point in it, the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.
My stepdad, having guided trips in that area, agreed to go with me. We decided on the Machame route. Several trails exist to get hikers to the summit, but Machame is known for its incredible views and extensive display of the five climate zones the mountain offers. The summit can be reached in six days from this route.
The first camp is called Machame, stationed at about 10,000 feet. We spent the first day hiking there through the rainforest. Kilimanjaro National Park is so large that it creates its own weather system and even has some of its very own plants such as the impatiens kilimanjari. Elephants and some species of monkeys live in the rainforest near the Machame route, but the heavy amounts of traffic in the area make siting them a rare occasion. Just as we hiked above the rainforest, we had arrived at camp for the night.
Day two brought us 2,000 feet closer to the summit, ending at Shira Camp (12,300 feet) where even smaller shrubs grew and trees were non-existent. We arrived by 12:30, giving us the rest of the day to adjust to the new height and enjoy the natural surroundings. Everything felt more intense. The sun was brighter, the air thinner, the wind stronger, and our breaths deeper.
The next day we hiked on to my favorite of the camps: Barranco. Nestled in a valley at 13,000 feet where clean glacier water flows and large, almost cactus-like, plants called groundsels grow. A clear view of the summit was visible in one direction and the town of Moshi in another. We were greeted at camp with excitement and mirth from the porters who danced and sung numerous songs in Swahili for our arrival. In one direction, we could see our path for the coming day: a large escarpment called the Barranco Wall that we would have to scramble up to continue on to the fourth camp. The natural beauty of the entire landscape had shocked me up to this point. I knew it would be scenic, but the changes in climate zones everyday was unlike anything I had ever experienced.
The beauty of Barranco made up for the barren surroundings of the final camp: Barafu. Residing on a rather slim edge at roughly 15,200 feet, Barafu shows the clearest view of the summit and brings with it the most anxiety.
The smallest comforts meant the most up there. I was overcome with joy when I slipped on a pair of warm socks or drank a cup of tea. But nothing settled correctly, from the food we attempted to digest to the sleep patterns we tried a to achieve. We were awakened at 11:30 p.m. and started the last part of the ascent at midnight, the full moon dimly lighting the last 4,000 feet.
A word we heard from the beginning of our hike to the final day of climbing was “pole.” This means “slow” in Swahili. We heard it numerous times from the porters as they passed us. Our guides repeated it as we gazed impatiently at them when we practically hobbled across a flat piece of land. No matter the gradient, we were slow. We did this because a decreased pace allows for easier acclimation to the altitude. So we followed the repetitious words from the seasoned hikers on the mountain. But above 17,000 feet, our guides no longer needed to tell us to go slowly…we were doing that all on our own.
Around 17,500 feet, I began to feel like I was breathing through a straw. I was sure the collar on my jacket was choking me. Everything began hurting and all I desired was to have a good, long vomit (I was able to get some relief around 18,000 feet). I kept going, asking the same question again and again in my head. But I didn’t turn around. I continued, placing one foot in front of the other, pole pole, wondering why I had to do this.
The answer didn’t come to me when I watched the sunrise, or when I got a glimpse of the receding glacier field near the top. I still didn’t find the solution when I could view Kenya and Tanzania simultaneously while posing for a photo at the summit sign. I descended from the highest point in Africa in a large amount of pain desiring my sleeping bag and a long nap more than anything else in the world.
I finished the day at a camp around 12,000 feet, still asking the same question. Was the final, eight-hour ascent to the summit worth the pain? The answer did not come to me until days later. Yes, it was worth it. Not for the bragging rights or to feel tougher or stronger than nature in some way. For me, the worth lied in seeing and feeling something so much bigger than myself, so much bigger than any human. Letting the mountain and the heights humble me and lower me to a level of despair I had never been to; and then knowing that I was able to accept that feeling and continue in spite of it. That’s where my reward lies.