[This post is dedicated to my brother, the king of snot.]
It's freezing. When we retired for the evening I hastily covered myself with my sleeping bag instead of climbing into it, and now my few hours of attempted sleep are interrupted by irate toes and numb fingers; never mind that they are covered in layers of socks and gloves. My nap is fitful, but how are you supposed to sleep knowing that you are 1.5km shy of heaven?
At 11 p.m. footsteps crowd our already crowded room: our guides have come to wake us up. Slowly, lights are turned on, our day begins—in the dead of night—and it’s time to get dressed. I put on almost every article of clothing I have brought with me, as do Hamsa, Katana and our new friends. A Coloradan offers the Swiss woman pills for her headache; I share my cough drops with the group. We all met no more than 24 hours earlier, and 24 hours from now we will be going our separate ways, but for this window of time, we are smitten with the same love, feverish with the same excitement; we are summiting this mountain as family. As Saint-Exupery says about flying “you have reached an altitude where all loves are of the same stuff.”
My head lamp cuts through the thick blackness when I go outside to use the bathroom. Squatting over a hole to pee is tricky when I am so heavily bundled up! I return to the room of bunk beds to lather one more layer of Vaseline on my already burned, already peeling skin. I hope it lasts until I reach the top. I hope I last until the top. Conversation is limited; everyone is saving their energy and breath for the hike, but our eyes shine with anticipation. I tuck my camera battery into my bra to protect it from the cold and conserve its juice until we arrive at the summit. I’m wearing my brother’s fleece—a man’s jacket—and I gratuitously stuff the chest pockets with chocolate bars for energy and tissue for my leaky nose. It’s been dripping since dinnertime and I hope it doesn’t get too bad.
By the time we are fully dressed, we bulge with cloth—my toes can hardly wiggle, my forehead and ears are hot under my woolen cap and my camera battery is probably sweating. We trade last minute advice, encouragement, hair ties to hold broken head lamps in place. Pole pole, we remind ourselves. I remember the 2 Israeli men from Horombo Hut, who said it is not as difficult as it looks, and my nervousness is tinged with relief. The air is fresh, I am alert, I feel ready.
Twende! Let’s go!
Each group forms a queue behind their guide, and off we go, linear constellations of light underneath the scatters of stars above, blinking fiercely at our endeavor. Our first steps from the door of Kibo Hut are easy but I am already imagining the ground getting steeper. Someone calls out to look to the right, and we see the sun. It is unlike anything I have ever seen in the sky before, it is the best sneak preview to a sunrise I have ever witnessed. A burning red arch shimmers in mid air, as if contemplating which way to go next, up or down? Up, I hope; same as me. It goads me and tempts me and warns me—I am even more determined to follow its trajectory now, and make it to Gilman’s point, 5,685m high, before this maroon sun turns gold.
We can’t see anything in front of us. I look for the rock I spotted earlier that evening that marks with arrows the way to the summit, but every rock looks the same, and now that they stand between me and the summit I no longer feel as fond of them. I pace my breathing with my footsteps and my nerves settle. My mouth is clamped shut so I’m forced to breathe through my nose—to conserve energy—but my blocked nose protests with wheezes and whistles. I persist, adamantly tearing toilet paper out of my pocket to keep my nostrils open. This turns into a choreographed dance: I hold both poles under an armpit, take one of my gloves off, unzip a pocket, retrieve tissue, pinch-sniff-wipe furiously, stuff the soiled tissue into another pocket, zip the pocket closed, wipe my wet hand on my jacket (sorry bro), put my glove back on, grip both poles, and keep going, hoping I’ll last a few steps longer before I have to rinse, lather—well, blow—and repeat. After half an hour fighting with my snot, I concede defeat and let it take over my face, collecting and dripping. I’ll deal with it later, like when I reach the top, like if I reach the top.
We can’t see anything in front of us—this is now a good thing because I don’t want to know how much farther I have to walk. I walk directly behind Hosea, copying his every step, placing my feet where his just were, breathing like him, pacing like him, trying to think like him, the man who calls himself a mountain goat, who’s reached the summit hundreds of times. There’s not enough air for thinking and breathing and doing, I quickly realize, so I stop the first and focus on the breathing and doing parts—left, right, left, right, up, up we go.
At the sign marking 5,000 m I take a triumphant swig of water. I feel good. No, I feel great. No difficulty breathing, no lightheadedness. I have chocolate in my pocket and, having given up on my nose an hour ago, I am no longer bothered by the quasi-frozen snot plastered to my face. It’s too dark to notice, too cold to feel and I’m too high up to care. In fact, we’re pretty much done here, I have just 800m left to get to the top. How long can 2 laps of the track take, I mean really?
The euphoria doesn’t last long. It takes a slow and breathless 40 minutes to walk a measly 150 meters to reach Hans Myer Cave and I use the pit stop to catch my fleeting breath, down half a bottle of water and promptly pee half a bottle of water—peeing in the dark and on a slope, by the way, is as challenging and fun as it sound, you should try it some time. Twende, Hosea, let’s keep moving!
We pass some people sitting on rocks, catching their breath, struggling to open chocolate wrappers with gloved hands, weakly drinking water, clutching their stomachs. Others walk strongly by, singing songs, calling out jokes to their climbing group. Everyone does what they can to maintain composure. I sing every single song I know in my head, grateful to my cousin Abhishek for the many mixed CD’s he’s made me. (Star Star Star was my summit soundtrack, dude!)
It feels like forever before we stop for a breather and a drink again. I don’t want to waste breath on words but I ask Hosea anyway, how far have we walked? He gives me a look. “About 100 m,” he says. That’s it?! That’s all we’ve managed?
We continue zigzagging up the mountain, lunging, stretching, reaching over rocks, the incline has become very steep, it’s very cold and the air is very thin. I resist the urge to stop for as long as I can, telling myself that each step I take is one step closer to the top when I can finally stop and sit down, goddamit, and I convince myself that Hosea will stop us when it’s appropriate to take rest. But we’re stopped again before I know it, and Hosea watches me patiently as I breathe deeply, though my nose, calming my heart. “How far have we gone?” I ask, even though I know the answer won’t be good.
“We’re almost at 5,200 m,” he says.
Oh man. All that effort and not even another 100 m. And I need to get to 5,800 m.
T..w..e..n..d..e..let’s wait a few more minutes before we go.
At about 5,300 m, the slope becomes near vertical and we are pulling ourselves over the rocks to climb up. It’s no longer just our legs that are moving but our entire bodies, and each time I haul myself up my entire body resists, and that’s a lot of resistance. I want to stop but I know that if I sit down I may not get up.
Once in a way Hosea, one rock higher than me, reaches down and pulls me up; one less step for me to take on my own; one less moment wasted while the countdown to sunrise ticks away. We turn off our headlamps as the sky’s brightness creeps up on us from all sides—there are no clouds, trees or buildings to block it—and Hosea suggests that I take a picture as bands of fire stretch out before us. “No,” I snap. By the time I dig my camera battery out of my bra, put it in my camera and take a picture, I will be out of breath and motivation. “We’ll take a picture at the top, let’s get there first.”
Hosea and I have picked up the pace in the latter part of the climb up to Gilman’s Point, which is the rim of the crater and 2oo m shorter than Uhuru Peak, the highest point of the mountain, and in all of Africa. When we pass other climbers I whisper words of encouragement; when they pass me a few minutes later they echo it back, and we volley the few words we can spare back and forth. I stop when I can hear the voices of encouragement from Gilman’s Point, the final destination for some, the almost-final destination for those of us aiming for Uhuru Peak. Let those voices carry us, mine’s not getting enough oxygen anymore!
Somehow, in a blur of stumbles and lunges and heave-hos and heavy breathing, I reach Gilman's Point by sunrise. I’m overlooking an ex-glacier filled volcano crater on one side, my back to the unforgiving slope of Kibo Peak. I’m actually here! Hosea is very proud and promises me that the hardest part is over, now it’s flat land to Uhuru Peak. It's a blatant lie since we have to go 200 m UP, but I eat it up with joy. I remember that my unattended nose has strewn snot all over my peeling face and I attempt, foggily, to clean my face before I face Hosea and the rest of the group at Gilman’s Point; the sun is up and everything is visible now! “Don’t cry,” another friendly guide says to me, and instead of wasting breath correcting him, I wipe my snotty face instead.
“Twende?” Hosea asks me with a grin.
“Twende,” I manage.
We start the slow stagger to Uhuru Peak. At first, I proudly highfive the climbers on their way back from the top. “Great job,” I say, squandering my oxygen and energy, amidst gasps of joy, exhaustion, almost-tears. One charming British man, elated at his success, gushes back: “Thanks, sweetness, and don’t worry, you’re almost there. The hardest part is over!”
LIES, I tell you, all lies! More than fatigue or pain, I am seized by an overwhelming desire to sleep, to stop walking and curl up in a ball on the side of the path, to fall asleep standing up, to close my eyes and give up. All I want to do is sleep, and Hosea reminds me that we can’t quite do that, ultimately slipping his arm through mine and walking me some distance. The way is light uphills and downhills and some flat bits, and I dread each step downhill for the uphill it means I have to make afterward. We stop to breathe every 30 seconds—or so it feels—and cover 200 m in 2 hours, I think.
We reach the very, very top where a team of English climbers are cheerfully taking pictures at the wooden post marking their triumph. I sit down for the first time in seven hours, fish out a juice carton and chug it for dear life. When Hosea suggests I take some pictures I glare at him, territorial in my fatigue, so he takes my camera and wanders off, blithely taking photos of the chunks of glacier left, the walls of ice staring impassively at us, blinding us through our sunglasses. I refuse to move for a solid ten minutes, and then consent to taking pictures at the flag. Uhuru means freedom and I know there hasn’t been a place or time more freeing in my life than this moment on this mountain top.
But as Saint-Exupery says, “you cannot convey things to people by piling up adjectives,” so I’m going to shut up and take a moment.
(Now if only I can grab a nap before we have to start heading down…)