Life in Laos through the lens of a diplomatic wife raising twin toddlers.
One of the significant singular events in my life was climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. It has been ten years since then but every June I think of it and celebrate my little personal anniversary. It’s only a personal celebration because I did it alone. Well, I was in a group with a couple I didn’t know, a guide, and a whole bunch of porters, but otherwise I was very much by myself. The climb is a popular and well documented one and it’s actually more of a hike since there really isn’t a section that requires technical climbing skills. But it’s a long hike with a very grueling steep summit mount starting at midnight. As easy as it appears to be, some people are held back by altitude sickness, which can adversely effect even the most fit athletes.
There really isn’t a way to prepare for altitude sickness or to predict how you will do on a climb – except for allowing yourself a lot of time for acclimatization.
This is the primary reason why I chose to take the longer western approach to the mountain called the “Londorossi/Lemosho” route and not the shorter “Cola Cola” route. In addition to spending more time on the mountain, another appealing reason to take the western route was the remoteness. We didn’t see other climbers for the first few days and even though it was less comfortable to be in tents the whole time, I really wanted to avoid the crowds at camps where huts were available.
I organized my climb with Tusker Trails & Safari because they were one of only a few outfits at the time that offered the longer route. They seemed experienced and professional. They were also the company that allowed me to join them on a 30-day exploratory trip into western Tanzania which I referred to in a previous post. I was very happy with the company and the climb. In fact, the team for the climb was incredibly attentive and helpful. After two nights on the mountain I started getting a severe headache, which is a sign of altitude sickness.
One of the porters offered to run down the mountain to one of the more populated base-camps to get anti-altitude sickness medicine and run back up so I can take the meds by nightfall!
What?! Run all the way down a mountain and back up the same elevation that will have taken us three days to gain, all in a day??? Just for my headache? Um, no. I’m really not that special, and the fact that the meds are not guaranteed to work, and the fact that the other porters would then have to take up his load. Again, I’m really not that special.
If my body can’t handle the altitude, then I’m not meant to summit and I was fine with that because being on the mountain, hiking through fascinating eco-zones, and sleeping under the stars in the lap of Africa’s highest mountain was amazing enough for me to experience without all that effort needed just to thwart my headache.
In the end, my headache went away in a day. Descending into the Barranco Valley for a night helped, I think, along with the incredibly slow “pole pole” pace our guide forced us to obey. The summit mount was super hard for me physically, made harder by having people turn back and pass me on their way down. It effected my confidence. If they can’t do it, how can I?! My body also decided to purge uncontrollably when the wind was cutting the coldest, forcing me to disrobed cumbersome layers (hey, you do what you gotta do even in pitch dark against wind gusts near the top of a mountain).
Our guide kept telling me that it’s only an hour more when in reality it was 4, nearly 5 hours until I made it to the top. Mentally, his trick worked because I focused on the thought, “I can do anything for an hour.”
After reaching the summit, the descent to camp that night was unexpectedly even more grueling still. I hadn’t anticipated the physical effort of coming off the summit. Thinking of it as a final goal obscured my mental preparation for what it would take to come down again.
A lot of life lessons can be discerned from many facets of this experience, don’t you think? I often do a mental check back on this time whenever I’m faced with everyday life situations that I don’t think I can handle and it has served me well.
Looking back, I’m glad I did the climb alone for all the reasons that were important to me back then but now I really want to do it again with my husband and children, to share such an incredible experience together. I guess I’d better start training our 2.5-year old twins now so that I won’t be too old by the time they can climb Kili, too!