Ordinarily, I’m not one for bragging since I think it errors on the side of pathetic. But I must be in the lower percentile of people who have managed what I did yesterday, so brag I will: I was carried (technically, pushed and bounced) down Mt. Kilimanjaro on a stretcher with my own rescue crew. Pop quiz: How many Tanzanian men does it take to bring one little girl down a mountain? Answer: Five!
Of course, I wanted my mountain taxi men to be called escorts but I found out this was a rescue mission and not an escort service late in my nine hour descent. I peered out from sleeping bag atop a stretcher made of steel into the glaring, god-awful sunlight that I would’ve sold my first born to not have sucking the liquids out of my soul. I was looking up at one of the guys who asked me if I was ok. I managed to squeak out just these words: “Are you a guide?” because they told me they were sending one of our guides down with me. Then these words…
“No, I am the rescue team leader. My name is Goodluck.”
So this was a rescue mission. And if I ever forgot it, one of my five-man crew did well to remind me (albeit, lovingly and gently; I can’t be too sure since the whole thing was in Swahili but I told myself they only said nice things about me). And Goodluck, where was he on day four?!
My demise started on day four. What happened was that day three of the climb was just too good to me. I was high on life, living above the clouds with a couple of Olympians and my own comedy show en route to 19,340 ft/5895 m. A little bit of white sand, some Grey’s Anatomy, and a G and T and I could’ve fooled myself into thinking I actually like this.
On day four we were at some 14,000 ft/4,200 m, higher than Mt. Cook and Mt. Rainier. It was a rest day; daytime “fun” hike optional. Naturally, I opted out of that and slept instead. Lunch wasn’t too appealing to my stomach – a first sign of non-happiness headed my way. Dinner, same-same. We got up early the next morning to start a 5-hour walk to Kibo Hut which is just 7-hours vertically south of the summit.
Honestly, everyone was walking so fast. Somewhere between rest day and now our pace had doubled and these short-nub legs could barely keep up. Reality check: We weren’t going faster, I was going slower (story of my life). Sickness had been prowling on me all yesterday, and here I was… slow enough for it to eat me alive.
Things that increase rapidly with altitude: your heart rate, your headache, the outside temperature, any symptoms of sickness, also all symptoms of mental instability.
So after going #2 behind a giant rock (oh, yeah… this is a tell-all story), I slugged (the most accurate word in this entire post) my way the rest of a kilometre or so to Kibo Hut. For fun, I think they make the last 30 feet a higher gradient of a slope so after inching my way to the top I spewed big – three times Twix bar and breakfast porridge, which is only slightly better than throwing up pad thai.
Like a good friend, my compadre Laura put me down for a good nap. Long story short: I drank nothing, was forced up for dinner, and barely managed two fork-fulls of plain spaghetti noodles before ready to vomit again. Back to bed.
10:30 pm: Everyone was woken back up to start the midnight ascent to the summit. By this time I could barely move. Someone helped me to the toilet and watched me a cry for a little while. I was brought back to our tent where I only managed to set on the edge because I didn’t have the energy to move up towards the head of the tent. I keeled over on Laura’s sleeping bag and our clothes. Sitting partially upright in this way kept me from choking on my own imaginary death in the night, I presume.
A lovely parade of people came by our tent to say their goodbyes. First, Moses (our amazing team leader from World Vision East Africa who has been up Kili 24 times) who told me the responsible thing was for me to stay here and hydrate – Mountain: 1, Me: 0. Then my CEO Chris who was as pleasant and encouraging as ever. Laura, who hid her head-flashlight in my backpack so I gifted her mine for the climb, a parting gift. And one of our crew brought me a hot water bottle to keep me warm.
After that it seemed like I waited all night for someone to walk by my tent so I could ask for more water. I was dehydrated from the day before, now sick from the altitude. In the last 24 hours I threw up everything in my stomach and had no more than ½ cup of tea. I just kept saying over and over in my head I love you, Colin, I love you, Colin. When I finally heard footsteps in the gravel outside in the morning I groaned out literally “is someone out there?” I felt like Rose when she was on that stupid doorframe devastated having let go of Jack (Laura was my Jack in this case) in the night.
7:30 am: They woke up. Someone changed my dirty socks. Two more lifted me out of my tent and walked me to the eating tent where I thought vomiting some more would be a good idea. Not that it matters one bit, but the man holding me (had he known) was clutching my left boob the whole time I was spewing up leftover saliva. As I was dry heaving I decided not to care about this since I doubt anything could truly be felt up over six layers of clothing.
I ate ½ a broken plain cookie before I was carried back and strapped to a stretcher in my sleeping bag. Finally I was getting off this bloody mountain. I was just delirious to not understand what I had before me: nine hours and a solid couple thousand of concussion-worthy potholes. The stretcher has a giant wheel in the middle so it’s more like a wheelbarrow stretcher they push you down the mountain on. And pushed they did.
At least 12 times I thought I might throw up again from the mind-numbing bumps. Once I asked them how much longer and they told me 18 kilometers. The second time I asked how much longer (after six hours) and they told me, “not long, probably three more hours.” I tried to count the number of potholes we hit during a 20-minute period. I fell asleep after 366, probably still shy of another 10 minutes to go in my test.
If you ever thought someone didn’t care about you, Mt. Kilimanjaro is a lot like that. That %!#*@ doesn’t give a $#!& about anybody. And who am I? Easy prey for a mother that big.
I did find entertainment in only one thing. Every time we passed by hikers on their day one and two on the climb, I’d lay on my stretcher and either moan a little in agony or pretend dead. Behind my sunglasses I saw their horrified faces. One lady said, “Oh my God!” and I heard another say, “Is she ok?!”
The silver lining here is that by nightfall I was in a real bed with real pillows, skin burnt not from wind or sun but because I enjoyed a scolding hot shower. The other 13 of my team were going to bed sweaty and exhausted in tents on a lonely hill. And I was already feeling much better. Hydration finally caught up with me in the evening, and nearly back at sea level I felt almost ready to Zumba.
Today I slept ‘til 11:45 am and took another 40 minute-long shower. I ate macaroni and cheese for lunch with people I met here from Atlanta and D.C. who are leaving for their hike tomorrow morning. Then I played with the Darby kids, texted the hus, and shoved my stuff in the corner of our room so Laura would have a walkway when she got here.
Everyone wandered into base camp here at the hotel just after 4:00 pm. I ordered rounds of hot chips and Kilimanjaro beer for all. At 6:30 our 36-person crew (guides, cooks and porters) came and met us in the lawn for a traditional Kilimanjaro ceremony. We were sang to and thanked. I had forgotten that everyone who summits receives a certificate at this ceremony. I’m the only one who didn’t so it’s a good thing I don’t care much about fancy notoriety on cardstock.
Kerre, Mahe, Boh, Chris, Laura, Jess, Juliette, Rhys, Rob, Tim… all received their certificates and American-like hurrah from our crew and the rest of the team. Then they called my name – GREAT! Public shame, I’m so stoked. But once you come down a mountain on the edge of Tanzania with five men, none of whom really speak English, you feel open to anything life puts before you so out I walked. It was a concert really. The whole crew started singing hakuna matata, a few got up and danced that awesome irreplicable African jig they do, and you know what they presented me with?! A map! I got a map of Mt. Kilimanjaro! Our main guide Geofrey told me they thought I could mark on it where I went. Hey hey hey, I actually really wanted one of these maps so it saved me a run to the gift shop later.
A few beers and victorious (for the others) dinner later… it’s a wrap. That’s Team World Vision for Micro and Kilimanjaro 🙂
Did I give in to the sickness? I wouldn’t say so. No one raises their hand for vomiting up your Twix bar in front of celebrities and your CEO while “on the job.” But I have learned a few vital life lessons in this mountain madness: 1) Six days on a mountain is long enough, 2) once a sufferer of altitude sickness, always a sufferer, and 2) hakuna matata – it means no worries.
xxFrom Tanzania, promise to write more of our sub-zero nights on Kilimanjaro soon. Pictures still coming.
PS: My kids will never hike. There is no need.
You can see my footsteps to Kibo Hut on our online tracker – after Kibo you’re following Laura to Gillman’s Point. Love her so much, she brought me back a rock from the top.