the phrase “i can’t believe how amazing the weather has been” was uttered at ten-minute intervals for the first five days of our seven-day hike. my friend erin and i were on our way to the summit of mount kilimanjaro… the world’s highest free-standing mountain at 5895m (or the more impressive sounding 19,341ft). everything that could go right was. for almost 5 days we were crushing it, and telling anyone who’d listen about how we had no altitude sickness, no headaches, no nausea. it seemed the minutes of training that we had both done in anticipation of the hike were serving us well!
|end of day one... feeling good!|
|standing on rocks = new hobby|
|day four acclimatisation hike to mawenzi peak = more rock standing opportunities|
i had been walking a little each day for the month before we left, and had made a dozen or so trips up mouth coolum on the sunshine coast by way of ‘altitude’ training when i was home in australia for christmas. mount coolum stretches an unimpressive 200m above sea-level… about 3% of kili’s altitude. consider me ready.
it was day five when it felt like someone threw a piano at my chest. i’d woken up that morning with a bit of a head-cold, and with about an hour left to hike to base camp, breathing became a function that my body decided was an optional extra. it was slow going, and i knew i was in for a rough night. we arrived at base camp after lunch and i crawled into my tent and tried to sleep the afternoon away… because we were due to depart for the summit at midnight. i don’t know whose stupid idea a midnight start time was, but everyone else seemed to be acting like it was the most normal thing in the world, so i pretended it was going to be great fun. it wasn’t.
both erin and i lost our appetites somewhere on day four. i figured that three pieces of carrot, a quarter of a bean and half a forkful of pasta was all i’d need to sustain me for a twelve-hour hike ascending over 1200m on no sleep at midnight in the snow. the piano was still sitting pretty heavily on my chest, but with the wise words of gary wallis echoing in my mind (“if there’s no bone poking through your skin, play on”) i put on every layer of clothing i owned, smiled for the camera, and set off for the summit.
fun facts about summit day on kili…
- at least a third of the summit hike is made of quicksand. one step forward, half a step back.
- someone tells you it will take about seven hours to get to the summit. it doesn’t. (well it does for all of the friends you’ve met… but not for you.)
- someone tells you you’ll see a spectacular sunrise as you summit… but after five days of boasting about how amazing the weather has been, the universe will decide to roll in some snow clouds that will dump all over you for your entire hike and rob you of any kind of sunrise experience.
- about two hours into the hike your brain will decide that it needs to do complex long division for three hours.
- you’ll start counting steps somewhere in the midst of the long division and nearly cry when your guide stops you for a break on 976 steps, because you had intended to stop counting at 1000 and now you’ll have to start all over again after the break.
- you’ll go mildly insane and start caring too much about long division and step-counting.
- your thoughts will fluctuate about every three seconds trying to decide if this is the best or worst thing you have ever done.
- you will wish you no longer had a brain in your head because the thoughts just never stop.
- you’ll sob and get snot all over your friend’s nice new jacket when you eventually make it to the summit.
- your friend will let you get snot all over her jacket because she is kind.
- you will take a photo and put it on facebook because that’s how you know you’ve really achieved something in life.
- you’ll be smiling in the photo even though you are mostly thinking this has been the worst day of your life.
- you’ll suddenly realise that you somehow have to get down from the summit and will be unable to smile for the foreseeable future.
|walking so slowly here i think i may have turned back time a little... almost at the summit|
|pretending to be excited that i made it... i wanted to die!|
i don’t know how i made it to the top, and i certainly have no idea how i got back down to base camp. i guess the old “i don’t care how out of shape this body is, i still believe i can do anything” wallis genes are made of strong stuff. at one point i remember having a guy on either side of me acting as hiking poles while my body sort of turned into a rag-doll and mostly fell down the side of the mountain. i don’t know if my man-shaped-hiking-poles volunteered for that job or i just grabbed them and forced them into it. i don’t know how i didn’t drown in the quicksand on the descent. i remember falling over many times and thinking it would have looked hilarious to any onlookers. i have absolutely no idea how… but somehow i made it up, and then made it back down again.
|these two unsuspecting guys were soon to become my man-shaped-hiking-poles|
i was still fairly aware of how important it would be for my facebook profile to have smiling photos on summit day. after all, we are pretty much nothing if we don’t do stuff that gets us lots of likes and comments right? so i gathered my troops for a fake, smiley photo back down at base camp. then i went to the toilet. then i tried to get back up the six steps from the toilet to walk 10m to my tent to get some rest before having to hike a further four hours that afternoon to get down to a lower altitude. then i realised i was breathing like an 87-year-old woman who had been smoking five packs of ciggies a day since the 50s. it took me ten minutes to cover about 20m of ground and roll into my tent. then more crying happened. erin instinctively pulled her sleeping bag up to save her jacket from more of my snot. then i knew i was finished.
|fake smiles back at base camp after my summit|
the combination of lack-of-sleep, lack of food, abundance of snow, and a pesky weight problem that prevented me from zipping up my snow jacket while wearing sixteen other layers of clothing, turned my somewhat normal head-cold into what felt like a chest infection… or i was experiencing pulmonary oedema. either way… i couldn’t breathe and had to be medically evacuated.
|my ride down the hill|
the next two hours are a blur of being strapped to a one-wheeled stretcher manned by six tanzanians, and getting run 9km down the mountain to an evacuation point. it was pouring with rain and the entire journey was accompanied by a celine dion soundtrack from someone’s phone right next to my head. i was stuffed in a sleeping bag and strapped down so tight i couldn’t move my arms. the combination of the rain, the celine, and my delusional, oxygen-deprived brain had me wondering if i was on the titanic. it went on and on and on.
i was picked up by a landcruiser and driven off the mountain and later that night was tucked up in a hotel room with a belly full of samosas and the ability to breathe again, wondering if the rest of the day had just been some kind of bizarre nightmare.
i don’t know if it was the hardest thing i’ve ever done in my life, but here’s what i do know.
i know that it wasn’t the most fun i’ve ever had.
i know that even though it wasn’t the most fun, there were moments where i was completely awestruck at the sight of the volcanic crater and glacier surrounding me at the top of kili.
i know that if i was able to see what i was undertaking (ie. we hadn’t started at midnight) i probably would not have made it.
i know that being 35 and single and not having anything that could be described as a career is ok… and that i don’t need to hike to the top of ridiculous mountains just so people think my life is interesting.
i know that i am now happily back in my house in zambia on the river and have no intentions of hiking any time soon.
the world’s biggest thank you goes out to all of the wonderful humans in my life who cheer me on as i pursue my crazy dreams. may your days be filled with mountain-top experiences that take your breath away (metaphorically only), and may they also be filled with the adventure of descending on a one-wheeled gurney to the delightful sounds of celine dion.
ps. erin hiked out by herself the next day and when she arrived at our hotel she cried and got her snot all over my last clean shirt. that’s what friends are for.