The sun was just beginning to rise when I got back to camp. Not yet high enough to begin warming the air, I could now see that frost and small ice crystals had accumulated on the outside walls of the tent. The porters came over immediately to ask how I was. Still freezing, I nearly begged for a thermos of hot water to take to bed, which they graciously obliged.
That thermos was heaven! I tucked it up close, slowly thawing out and eventually drifting into some much needed sleep. But a few hours later I awoke again needing to peel off the layers of thermal protection since the sun was now creating a great deal of heat inside the tent.
I fell asleep in a freezer and woke up in an oven.
The porters must have heard me stir because within a few minutes there was a familiar scratch at the door and good morning wishes… and an entire thermos of hot sweet tea and a small bowl of deep fried dough.
Just. For. Me.
As I sat there enjoying the view, relishing the fresh mountain air, and being nourished by the tea and Tanzanian donuts, I thought of my cohorts who were starting to make their way back down to camp… exhausted and battered… and thought how glad I was I had come down when I did. I couldn’t have been more content with life.
There were 3 from our group who did not reach the summit. The father from Canada had not been feeling well but had kept it to himself. He knew that he would not make it to the summit but had set out with the rest of us nevertheless. I did think it was odd that he was the very last of us to leave camp considering all other days he had been near the front. He also appeared to have difficulty each time I stopped to catch my breath. While Andy and I remained standing, he would immediately slump on the ground. I learned later that he had just been waiting for someone to turn around so he could follow. Andy and I have since wondered what may have happened if I hadn’t, since he came back to camp with me. The other was the guy from Philly who had been reporting the migraines. Although he had set out for the summit, he was rapidly declining and Dickson (our chief guide) turned him around early on. It turned out that his doctor had not even mentioned using Diamox and the group felt bad when we learned this since many of us had some extra tablets, enough that he could have taken them throughout the climb and likely would have made it with the rest. As I ate my donuts and waited for the others, I bid him well as he headed down early to the next camp to recover.
Around noon I heard the group returning. They were all shattered. Andy, usually a fireball of energy, could barely crawl into the tent and gave me a weak ‘high 5’ for having made it. He was so tired he was nearly incoherent and literally flopped onto his sleeping bag and proceeded to snore. But his rest was short lived since we had to get up an hour later for lunch and start heading down another 4 hours to Mweka Camp – a beautiful camp among the magical twisted trees of the forest.
Needless to say, everyone slept well that night and seemed refreshed and eager to get started back. But before we set off, we were gifted with the usual song and dance of the Kilimanjaro crew. Although the crew do this for every group they take up the mountain, there was no less enthusiasm. In fact, not once did I ever feel like a “client”. I truly felt that all of the crew were genuinely there to support us in our efforts. That more than anything was their true gift to me.
Our Kilimanjaro journey ended with a much needed hot shower and distribution of certificates to those who made it to either Stella’s Peak or Uhuru Peak.
This was a very bittersweet time since we were all happy to celebrate the accomplishment but I don’t think any of us truly wanted it to end. At least I did not. Even as I write this 2 months later I still wish I was back on the mountain and with our group. For a week, these people were my family and the mountain my home. I enjoyed the company and shared challenges of the experience. I enjoyed living in the moment with the barest of necessities. I loved having a simple purpose and losing track of time and days. I may not have bathed for a week, been smelly and dirty with unkempt hair and no makeup, squatting in the bush and sleeping on the ground, but rather than leave my dignity behind I lived with an authenticity we ignore in our western lifestyles.
One day I may be back. The experience may not have changed me, but it is forever embedded in me.