Climbing a mountain to nowhere

5 August 2013

Our summit attempt was to begin at 4am from 5,300m. I hardly slept it was so cold. I had thermals on, heat pads, an arctic-rated sleeping bag and still I was cold. And scared.

I had wanted this my whole life and I was terrified I was going to fail. Unable to sleep, I cried, small, quiet, icy sobs into my inflatable pillow. I was convinced failure was imminent and nothing my then-husband said to reassure me could change my mind. I cried as we dressed and didn’t eat the cold pancakes that were offered to me. My appetite had fled days ago anyway.

We set off in the darkness and there was no moon. The other campsites were quiet. Most clients would already be well up the mountain path, leaving their camps at midnight to attempt to reach the summit by dawn. Due to how sick we had been from the altitude a few days earlier, our guide had recommended we change route, getting us to base camp a day early. It would give us the option of a second summit attempt that evening should it prove necessary.

I could see lights in the distance, bobbing slowly up the path, switching back and forth across the face of Mt Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak. Other than that, all I could see was my boots in front of me, the ice underfoot glistening in the light of my headlamp like a million stars. My tears were frozen in my eyelashes. Our guide held my hand, leading me up and over the rocks, steadying my shaking legs.

Once we passed the rocks, we hit the trail proper and the next two hours was just one step after another. Pole, pole. Slowly, slowly. It was the mantra of the mountain. It was eerily quiet, the only sound was the crunch of our boots on the ice. If we spoke I can’t tell you what was said. After maybe an hour or two, we passed the first people heading back down. They had succumbed to altitude sickness or cold and looked terrible. They hadn’t made it to the top.

We took a break to watch the sun rise. The mountain fell away below us and we were above the clouds. Pink and orange and purple hues across the snow. We took some photos, our first for the day. But the light was also a curse. We could see how far there still was to go and the endless switchbacks continued.

Hours passed and soon the trekkers who had made the summit were now starting to come back down, celebrating their achievements as they passed us and sharing words of encouragement. I was grateful that I wasn’t yet feeling ill but in my head I was raging against the never-ending switchbacks. Climbing mountains is deceiving. What you think is the top never is. The mountain curves back and away from the line of sight. I tried to keep my head down to trick my mind in the same way I’d cover the clock on the treadmill. It was easier when you didn’t know how long there was to go.

When we finally hit Stella Point, the lip of the extinct volcano’s crater about 11am, I was elated. From here it was a very gentle walk of maybe 800m to the true summit at 5,895m. We took celebratory photos and shared some ginger biscuits. After a short break, I stood up to continue and collapsed almost immediately to the dirt. There wasn’t enough oxygen feeding my muscles and my legs had given out. I was breathing fine and was lucid and alert but my legs wouldn’t hold me. I could see that goddamn sign that told me I was almost there. I croaked my frustration, too exhausted to roar. My head said move but my body said no.

Our guide on one side and our assistant guide on the other, they supported me as I stumbled along. I’d manage maybe 20m before I needed to rest, collapsing onto a nearby boulder or straight onto the dirt. I was beyond filthy at this point; I hadn’t showered for six days. I didn’t care about the dust in my oily hair, caked to my scalp beneath my faded cap, nor the brown crescents of dirt under my fingernails. My teeth were furry, the skin on my neck a blotchy red where I’d reacted to the sun from the anti-malarials. I just wanted to get to that summit and stand under that sign that told me I’d made it.

The funny thing was, by the time that familiar sign came into view from behind the boulders that crested the crater, I felt nothing. My guides released me and I walked the final few metres on my own and approached the true summit. Aside from the sign that was replaced every few years due to the constant battering of wind and snow, there was only a few tattered strings of prayer flags, and an old metal ammunition box. In the box, trekkers placed photos and mementos of loved ones or those that hadn’t made it.

The glacier that was forecast to be melted away by 2020 was to my left and, somewhere inside me, I could appreciate its beauty. But my own emotions about what I had done were absent. I felt nothing at all. My ex-husband was hugging me, crying into my ear, whispering how proud he was of me. Our guides congratulated us and took the obligatory photos. Our guide tested my vitals while I gazed blankly at the barren landscape around me. My oxygen saturation was at 64%.

It was just after midday. I was standing in the spot I’d been dreaming and researching about for 16 years and I felt nothing. All I could think about was “what do I do now?”.

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