I had been lucky with the altitude. No headaches, and other than a slight loss of appetite my stomach remained strong. Even the breathlessness wasn’t terrible and could be managed. I just had to move slowly and sometimes stop to catch my breath.
But I could not escape the cold.
Despite having Andy in the tent with me and wearing 2 layers of thick wool socks, thermal tights, hiking pants, 2 shirts, a fleece, a down jacket, and my winter cap inside a thermal down sleeping bag with a liner, I lay shivering for the 3.5 hours until it was time to get ready for the summit push. I could feel the frigid surface beneath me and had to keep turning over to avoid stiffening up. My toes were slowly turning to icicles and I could feel the cloud of each breath escaping me and taking my last ounces of warmth with it.
It was like my pilot light had gone out.
As I lay shivering, I could hear Andy falling quietly asleep. However, Andy’s sleep was not at all restful. The altitude was affecting his breathing and he would awake gasping for air. Then, after a couple of gasps and a few deep breaths, he would return to sleep.
At 11.30p the porters started to make the rounds and told us that tea and biscuits were ready in the mess tent. I reluctantly unzipped my sleeping bag to put on my outer-shell pants and jacket, my balaclava, my gloves and my boots. Luckily, I had stashed the clothing inside the sleeping bag with me so it was not as cold as it might have been, but still provided little extra warmth. So I dashed straight to the mess tent to try to warm up with some tea. However, my stomach was feeling delicate and I could only manage to ingest half a cup before it was time to go.
At midnight we set off. Other groups were getting ready and throughout camp various tents were lit up like oriental lanterns. The trail ahead was already illuminated by the speckled line of other trekkers’ headlamps who had gone before us and up above, the myriad array of stars decorated the night sky. All around there was a brilliance of sparkling lights. But once again I had to put my head down and follow Andy’s boots.
It did not seem long on the trail before we hit a section of large sheer faced rock. Since our visibility was limited to only a few feet ahead I did not see this coming and was suddenly whisked by one of the guides and pulled all the way to the top. It all happened so fast that I had to run up the rock and I nearly collapsed to the ground once it was over. It took a minute or two before I could catch my breath enough to continue and find my rhythm again.
Along the way, there were a few things I found somewhat unnerving. The first was the sight of several large wet patches on the side of the trail and on the nearby rocks where other trekkers had vomited due to the effects of the increasing altitude. Another was the sight of a small (and seemingly permanent) camp, which looked slightly extra-terrestrial with its luminescence in this environment, but was probably a summit rescue station. And not far away, beneath a towering boulder, was a gurney – stripped to the metal and looking abandoned, cold and desolate, and reminiscent of death.
These observations caused me to take a mental check of my own state. My head was fine and my stomach remained stable, but I found my pace was much slower than before. The effort required for each step was getting heavier and harder and I had to stop more often to catch my breath. Also, as we climbed higher the wind set in and it only continued to get colder and colder. Although I had my balaclava, my winter cap, and my hood on, I could feel my cheeks being chapped. The double layer on my hands was also insufficient and I could feel my fingers beginning to suffer.
After about 4 hours of climbing, we had only reached approximately half way up. Upon learning this, I started to do another mental check. With my increasingly slower pace, I estimated that I had another 5-6 hours before reaching the summit, and another 3-4 hours to make it back to camp. With my body already stiff and cold and my fingers becoming numb, I was seriously concerned that I could be facing possible frostbite and hypothermia. I was also uncertain how far behind the rest of the group I was and was concerned that I would be slowing everyone down. If either of these possibilities were to mean that Dickson would turn me back, it would also mean that I was jeopardizing Andy’s chance to summit since he continued to stay with me and go at my pace.
I voiced my concerns to Andy but rather than turn back now, I decided to carry on for a while and re-evaluate later. But the concerns never left me, and if anything, increased the farther I went. I began to ask myself why I should keep going. I knew at this point that I COULD reach the summit if I wanted to, but did I WANT to if it meant risking my health and possibly other people’s opportunities?
This difference – between knowing what I was capable of (can do) versus what I needed to prove (want to do) – had come up as a discussion with Andy on a previous hike back home. It was a puny mountain by comparison, but extremely grueling to climb, especially in the 32o C (90o F) heat. I was tired, I was nauseous, and I didn’t want to continue. At first I pushed myself despite it, thinking I would have to do the same on Kilimanjaro (might as well get used to it now right?). But I came to a point where I sat down and told Andy I was done. Andy wanted me to continue… to prove to myself I could do it. The point was, I knew I could make it. I just didn’t need to. I knew that I would not feel any more sense of accomplishment and joy sitting on the summit versus where I was sitting at that moment. Nevertheless, I followed Andy’s direction and carried on all the way to the summit. As expected, I felt no greater accomplishment, and no greater joy. And experienced no better view! In fact, the best view on the mountain was not far from where I had stopped. All I had gained was a much longer journey back down.
I was now experiencing a similar decision on Kilimanjaro, although far more calculated and less emotional than on the other mountain. When I asked myself why I should continue, the only answer I got in return was so that I could tell all the people back home that I had made it and not that I had “failed”.
That is when I stopped.
This was not a journey to prove something for others. Nor was it simply about reaching the summit. The journey to climb Kilimanjaro for me was simply for the experience. I had no more to prove to myself, and I did not feel it was worth the potential risks. So I turned around.
Andy understood, and I wanted to see him reach the top. It was, after all, Andy’s dream to climb Kilimanjaro more than it had been mine. So we parted ways with a good luck to one another.
To this day I am still comfortable with my decision and know it was the right one to make. Some have said I didn’t have it in me, but I know to my core this is not true. Others have said I just didn’t want it badly enough, and this actually is true enough. The marker of a summit is never the essential element for me and there are certain lines I will not cross in order to make it.
So “failure” is relative. I may not have seen the summit, but I was still above the clouds. I saw the stars, and I saw the sunrise.
Had I made it to the summit with the others, all I would have seen was fog.