It is dark and cold. If you look to the horizon beside you, you can see where the sky meets the mountain ridge. Both are colored in shades of darkness. You follow the ridge with your eyes until you are straining your neck to look upwards and you lose your balance as you plod forward among the train of hikers. Ahead in the distance there is another train and behind there are several more. You can identify them only by the headlamps they wear and that is how you know how many are attempting this summit at the same time you are.
The air is cold so that it hurts in your lungs if you inhale through your mouth. So you make sure to inhale only through your nose. You do this for a few breaths until you find that your nose is so cold inside that it now hurts when you inhale as much as your lungs did when you breathed through your mouth. So you put your neck gaiter over your mouth and nose and breath the warm air as deeply as you can. But soon this becomes suffocating because the spoiled air you exhale does not entirely escape the gaiter before you inhale again and you need more oxygen. So you pull the neck gaiter down and draw several heaving gasps through your mouth, and then through your nose, and then you put your gaiter on again.
The wind comes slashing across the mountainside. If it strikes you in mid stride it might unsteady your balance and you might not have enough air in you to adjust or enough leg under you to stay up. So you might stumble or you might go down. If you go down, hopefully you will land softly and you will avoid boulders or sharp outcrops. The wind is strong when it rises and it carries a cold that goes through your jacket and deep into you.
‘Are you OK?’ the Tanzanian guide asks at the front of our train of six - two guides, an assistant guide, and we three tourists.
Maria and Sanne respond mutely, ‘Yes.’
‘My water is frozen. I have to stop to fix it,’ I say.
I feel bad to stop the group because rhythm and pace is everything and I hate to break it. But I am twenty or more minutes without a drink and I am getting very concerned about dehydration. The group stops. I take off my heavy gloves and un-shoulder my pack. The water in the tube is entirely frozen but inside the plastic sack of the Camel Pack it is still liquid. I drink deeply and I feel better. I work the frozen tube in my hands to break up the ice and I try to suck the water through. It begins to break up and I take in a squirt of liquid. I replace it in my pack and we begin to ascend.
Just over an hour earlier I lay awake warmly in my sleeping bag in my tent. I am half dressed and I am warm enough but I am nervous so I feel a cold shivering inside. My stomach aches and I feel a bloating. I lie awake worrying that this is from the altitude which could be a very bad sign. I tell myself that it is an upset from the food and now made worse by the worrying, but I cannot be convinced.
Damn it, I think angrily, pull yourself together. But my nerves are unravelling and that is making my heart pound faster and harder. This makes me more nervous, which makes my stomach ache more. You fucking priss, I think, where’s your sand? I continue to berate myself until I run out of foul words in English and Spanish. I am more nervous now that the berating has stopped because I am silent and so now I can hear the cold shivering in the core of my body.
I break. You can turn back whenever you need to, I tell myself. I feel small for saying, I feel weak but I notice that it makes me feel better so I begin to repeat it over and over. Each time I say it I grow calmer so I keep repeating it. Now I am laying quietly and when the pounding starts to come again, I repeat the cop-out phrase over and over until I am quieted. My alarm sounds, which means it is 23:30 and time to prepare for the midnight ascent to the summit. It is a bad omen that I am starting for the summit with shaken nerves but at least I am out of my sleeping bag now and there is activity to keep my mind off of the stomach ache and ill omen.
A few moments pass on the ascent and I notice how cold my fingers are even after I have replaced the heavy gloves. I work the fingertips of one hand over roughly in the palm of the other hand and then I alternate. I do this for several minutes while the numbness grows painfully across all my fingers and down from the tips. Finally, the numbness recedes and is replaced by a terrible burning. The burning is very bad but I know it is a good sign because it means that the feeling is coming back. So this must be frost nip.
Finally feeling is restored to my fingertips and I realize that I am thirsty from the walking and the concern over the numbness. I suck from the tube of the Camel Pack but it is frozen through again and no water will pass. Dehydration will be worse than the altitude, I think, and I cannot continue like this only drinking every thirty minutes at a rest stop. Also, my stomach is still bad from the nervousness of before and it is becoming clear that I must do something about it if I am to continue to ascend. I am very concerned now about how long I will be able to continue and there are many more hours until sunrise when we will reach the summit. I call for a halt.
‘My water is frozen again and I must drink. Also, my have to use the bathroom,’ I say to the Tanzanian guide at the front of our small group. ‘Maybe you continue without me and the assistant guide and I will catch up when I am ready.’
He agreed to this. I had spent most of the previous days far ahead of the group with the assistant guide so we had the experience of going off on our own. I took another long drink while the group prepared to continue the ascent. Once they were off, I gave the Camel Pack to the assistant guide to hold so that the water did not spill while the screw top was off and I placed the tube under my shirt against my skin to warm it up. Then I took the toilet paper and walked 10 meters or so off the trail to where there were a few boulders. I was listening to a book about the recent war in Iraq. It was an odd choice for the circumstances but it was all that I had left after six days of book listening throughout the ascent. More importantly it was compelling, which helped to take my mind off of what I was doing. I watched the headlights of the trekkers that had been further behind and I saw that a few saw me because their headlamps struck me straight on. But I did not care and probably they did not care either. It was too dark and too cold and there was too little oxygen and too much struggle for caring. For each of us there was only ourself and the mountain that mattered. And, if you thought more about it, maybe there was not even the mountain, only the part of you that strives against the part of you that does not.
When I am done, I feel very good. I return to the trail where the assistant guide waits.
‘I am good now,’ I say.
I take back the Camel Pack and I screw the tube on. My stomach is very cold from where it was pressed against my skin but its heat has gone to break up the ice. I take a long drink and now again I can suck through a stream of water. I feel better with the dehydration pushed back for awhile and I am lighter and a little stronger and a little less worried. I heave my pack onto my shoulders and we resume.
Hours pass of slow, steady, painful trudging. Mostly I look straight ahead only calculating my next footstep. The night is too dark to see far beyond that. Occasionally I look up and I can see only the line of the next ridge ahead. When we reach that ridge there is another beyond it. Always there is a another ridge but I know that eventually after one of them will be the summit. I am cold but I am keeping a better pace and I do not have the cold shivers from the nerves anymore.
But the worries are not all gone. Each footstep is a huge exertion and my chest is pounding, the heart and the lungs. There are pains that may be from exertion or may be from something worse but I cannot know because I have never felt these pains before. But now it is not like it was earlier that night when I was alone in my sleeping bag in my tent. ‘You will go until you finish or until you collapse. If you are going down before the summit, it will be on a stretcher.’
I repeat this to myself over and over and I believe it. I know as I say it that it is a terribly extraordinary statement but isn’t that why you came here to do this? I repeat it and it settles my worries. The pains do not go away but the worries about them do. The worries are about what the pains might signal, but right now there is only now and there is nothing after this if I do not get through it. Another extraordinary statement but the top of a continent is the right place for extraordinary statements.
I take one footstep and then another. I am not listening to the book anymore, so I remove the headphones. I remember a conversation from many years before.
‘The reason to do the right thing is because it is hard and that it is hard is how you know it’s the right thing,’ I had said.
‘It’s circular reasoning,’ I was told.
‘Well, is good and right ever easy?’ I replied.
I think about that now and I think about all the hard things I have done in my life and I decide that it is still true even if it is a logical fallacy.
We continue plodding on. Right in the head now but feeling exhausted and dehydrated, I slip into a sort of a trance. My mind is clear but each thought is stretched out so that I cannot get to the end of it to conclude it but only keep stretching it inconclusively further on with what seems to be no elastic limit. Like a sound that fades but never quite disappears. Outside of this there is only enough rational thought to carry on the mechanical grind of the footsteps and the periodic sip from the Camel Pack.
I had not noticed that the sky has begun to lighten until a long slice of red begins to seep from a point over the horizon. In a few minutes I have reached Stella Point at 5,739m where there is an amazing eastward view of a sunset beyond mountaintops with a sky of clouds above and a sea of clouds below. I stay to watch this a short time. Many stop here and go no further maybe because once their rhythm is broken so is their resistance or maybe because it represents an achievement and so they have gotten what they came for.
The assistant guide urges me on but I need no urging, only another moment of rest. It is another 45 minutes along a series of undulating ridges to Uhuru Peak where the true summit is. I resume the plodding, chest and lungs and head pounding but muscles strong and stubborn. It is a very long 45 minutes but soon I am within view of the summit - a small, sloped clearing where a handful of hikers have thrown down their packs and are posing for photos beside the plaque. When I see the summit and my mind begins to understand what it means, a powerful emotion comes over me. My eyes begin to tear and then my heart rate increases so that I have to calm myself because my pulse is already as high as it should go. I continue walking until I arrive. I am greeted by several who have arrived before me and I nod in return but I am not ready to say anything. At 5,895m I throw down my pack and I stand breathing deeply, feeling the warm sweat growing cold now and my breathing calming and all my sense growing focused as I look out.
You will find no great revelations at the summit of a mountain and this can be very disappointing. Maybe it is like a sort of postpartum depression because you have done a very powerful thing for a period of time and now it is over. It is over and, as hard as it was, you miss the thing that you were doing because it was everything to you while you were doing it. Now you feel empty. You do not yet realize that your life will be a little different or maybe a lot different from now on and, because of what you have done and because of who you are, you will soon find there is a next thing to become everything to you the way this was.