Nathan and I summited Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest peak in Africa and the world’s highest free-standing mountain (not part of a mountain range) on 22 October. That day was the exact midpoint of my trip. In my mind, there is no more satisfying or profound point to start the last downward stretch of this amazing journey than at the Roof of Africa. Below, I have documented my Kilimanjaro journey in a series of quotations and photos accompanied by brief contextual bits.
PSYCHING MYSELF UP: GETTING READY TO CLIMB KILI WITH A FEVER
At the beginning of October, Nathan and I set our start date for the climb on 19 October. Then I left him for a solo trip through Uganda and Rwanda. A mere five days before starting our Kili climb, I found myself in Kigali, Rwanda, feverish and physically drained by illness. I was so scared that I wouldn’t be able to finish the climb, so I went about trying to psych myself up for it
“I will go until I pass out. If I pass out, I think I should go back, I think. But even if I have to turn back, I expect you to continue to the top and take great pictures.” – Written in a message to Nathan. I hoped that by stating outright and setting the expectation that I wouldn’t turn back unless I went unconscious, it would be easier to motivate myself forward short of passing out. That worked, I think. It definitely helped me keep myself conscious at the hardest times!
“I came here to do one thing—you!” – Staring at Kilimanjaro through the window of my bus from Kahama, the stop-over city in western Tanzania between Rwanda and Moshi. I was trying to psych myself up for the climb, still fearing that I would’t be able to do it because of my illness.
Nathan and I climbed Kilimanjaro with the guidance of Josephat and Gasper. Josephat was recommended to me by Megan Murdock who climbed Kili with him this past summer. What a great recommendation! He and his brother-in-law, Gasper, knew the mountain like an old friend. I could not have made it to the top without both of these men’s guidance.
We walked about 3 hours a day for 3 days to get to the base camp, Kibo Hut. Beginning at just under 2,000 meters, the climb took us through planned forests, rainforest, moorland, and finally, alpine desert. It was amazing to see the foliage change with the day—or even the hour—as we made our way upward. Even abiding our guides’ mandate that we go slowly—“pole, pole!”—we made quite good time.
THE MOONLIGHT ASCENT
We arrived at Kibo Hut at 1300. After a quick lunch, we slept until 1700. Then we ate dinner and slept until 2300. Then we woke, ate biscuits, and at midnight, began our ascent by full moonlight. (This was way better than any Full Moon Party!)
“Rule change: If I pass out, slap me, pour water on me, do what you have to, and bring me to the top! The top is right there—there’s no way I’m not making that.” – Me to Nathan looking upward at the crater ridge from Kibo Hut, the base camp for the final ascent, the evening of our ascent. The ridge looked deceptively close.
“Pole, pole.” – “Pole, pole” means “slowly, slowly,” or perhaps, “slowly, but steady.” If you don’t heed these words, unless you’re a high-altitude expert, you won’t make the summit. Moral of the quotation: you will be pleasantly surprised how far baby steps will take you.
“Too warm is also not so good—unzip.” – Josephat to Nathan and me as we began our midnight ascent to Gilman’s’s Point and Kili’s summit, Uhuru Peak.
“It’s so cool how you can see the other groups by their headlamps.” – Nathan commenting on the two groups who made it out of the gate before us and were highlighted on the mountain by their headlamps. The path upwards was a long scree slope marked by switchbacks. The other groups looked like small dots of light moving slowly upward. We walked for several hours on this slope, passing some of those groups.
“Don’t fall asleep, my friend!” – Gasper to me, as he pounded my back and shoulders, to keep me awake. He had seen me leaning on my poles and swaying dramatically while walking upward. Altitude sickness had begun to take its effects—namely a bad headache, intense nausea, and an almost overpowering urge to fall asleep.
Soon after the drowsiness set in, I vomited so violently that it knocked me to my knees. Josephat and Gasper were there immediately to hold me up and get me back on my feet.
HYPOTHERMIA: A Case Study in Bad Judgment and Good Luck
Me: “I really must stop for a moment.” After struggling upward for at least an hour, I needed to sit and regain my bearings. As soon as I sat down, I began shivering and trembling uncontrollably.
Nathan, standing as Josephat and Gasper kneeled to take care of me: “Don’t be stubborn and hurt yourself, man.” To our guides, he says: “I think he has hypothermia.”
Josephat saw me trying to warm my hands. He took off one of my gloves and began warming my hand with his own hands. When he tried to put my glove back on, the interior of the glove became inverted making it impossible to put back on. As he and Gasper tried to put the glove back on, my torso continues to tremble. Someone asked me how I felt.
Me, through trembling: “My hands and feet are so so cold, and it’s coming into my chest.” Josephat and Gasper couldn’t understand me. Luckily Nathan did. Me: “Nathan, please repeat what I said”—I was too drained to say it again.
Josephat, pointing to my top layer: “Take that off.” He began taking off his own top layer, shedding a fleece to give to me. I couldn’t control myself well enough to take off my top layer; Gasper helps. It’s a struggle to get the new layer on and my top layer back on over it; the zipper pull on my top layer breaks off soon after.
Gasper to Josephat: “I can take him back down…” He looks upward, “But Gilman’s is just there.” He points upward towards the top of the ridge we were attempting. In retrospect, I am so touched by his concern that I be able to get something out of the climb even if I couldn’t make the actual summit (Uhuru Peak).
Nathan, entirely justifiably and with evident concern: “You’re being stupid.” He said something else about suffering permanent harm if I continued on with hypothermia.
I began breathing exercises to try and control my own trembling—it worked somewhat. The new layer from Josephat brought my total torso layers to six (long underwear, medium fleece, heavy fleece, fleece shell, heavy fleece, and wind breaker) not counting my scarf, hat, hood, and heavy gloves. I had three layers on my bottom: windbreakers, jeans (Levi’s for the win!), and long underwear.
Me, through still-roughly chattering teeth: “How far is Gilman’s?” To be honest, I wasn’t sure what exactly Gilman’s Point was, but I knew it was the next step of the climb, and I knew that quitting was not an option for me.
Gasper or Josephat: “It is one hour.”
Me: “I can make it, I can make it.” So I hauled myself up and carried on. The hypothermia seemed to have been left behind by the breathing exercise and, most importantly, Josephat’s fleece. I was still incredibly cold and very drowsy and nauseous. But I was determined to make it where I had to go, one baby step at a time, no matter how many times I had to pause. (At this point, I’d like to apologize again to Nathan who, despite being super cold himself, put up with my frequent stops on the way to Gilman’s.)
***Note from Nathan: “Wherever he says he was ‘saying’ something, Alex was actually mumbling incoherently.”***
This brings me to a brief discussion about the sole difference between someone being a bad-ass and being a dumbass.
BAD-ASS OR DUMBASS? WHEN LUCK IS REALLY ALL THAT MATTERS
All of us, at some point, find ourselves in dangerous situations for which we have little to no control over the outcomes, either because we lack needed expertise or we’re not in control of what’s happening. One such situation occurred for me in Mombasa, Kenya. Two friends and myself needed a ride home one rainy night; so naturally, we all jumped on the back of a single motorcycle. Our fates were not in our hands that night. Similarly, my hypothermic episode was a situation whose outcome was out of my hands because I just could not control my body’s reaction to the altitude.
In such dangerous situations situation, the sole difference between someone being a bad-ass and a dumbass is whether they get out of the situation safely. If they do get out, they are admired for their daring and bravery—they are a bad-ass! If they don’t get out, they are criticized (usually correctly) for being a reckless dumbass. Since the person doesn’t have any control over their fate in these situations, whether they are a bad-ass or dumb-ass is entirely up to chance. We didn’t crash that night in Mombasa, so it was a cool experience rather than a tragedy. The same goes for my decision to continue upwards after suffering hypothermia.
I think understanding luck’s role in differentiating between a bad-ass and a dumbass is so important—especially for adventurous folks—because it moderates our tendency to laud crazy thrill-seekers and can help us become more cautious when seeking our own thrills. For instance, I know people who have backpacked in Somalia and Afghanistan, and made it out safely (and with great stories, to boot). However, while I admire there daring to an extent, I know that what they did was quite foolish, and that if 100 people did that, a good many of them would not escape unscathed. (That’s besides the point that the only people who can tell awesome stories about backpacking in Somalia and Afghanistan are those who make it out. Those who did not escape safely either cannot or don’t want to share their experiences, and so it’s only those lucky ones’ stories who make the headlines.)
Moral of the story: if you have a healthy respect for the role of luck in getting you out of a dangerous situation over whose outcome you have no control, then you’re better able to predict your ability to deal with risk in a dynamic situation and have more adventures more safely.
THE SUMMIT AND AFTERWARDS
When we made it to Gilman’s, I cried with happiness. Thanks to Josephat and Gasper’s help—aside from warming me up, keeping me awake, and lending a hand over rock scrambles—and everyone’s incredible patience with my pace (thanks, Nathan!), I had made it through the toughest phase of the climb I had conquered the fears I’d been harboring for the past week of not being able to finish the climb!
After Gilman’s, an hour or so’s walk around the crater rim with Gasper took me to Stella Point and finally, Uhuru Peak, Kili’s summit. I was still fighting altitude sickness, but the worst was behind as the sun rose, warming me and feeding my adrenaline.
“Why did you fall asleep?” – Gasper to me near Stella Point, atop the crater ridge. I had sat down briefly for a rest and almost immediately fallen asleep without realizing it. He was understanding but reprimanding since he’d been telling me to stay awake at all costs for the last two hours.
Uhuru Peak was so beautiful, though I missed seeing it with Nathan. He had gone on ahead with Josephat once we hit Gilman’s because I was going so slowly and he needed to keep moving to stay warm.
We reunited back at Gilman’s at about 0730.
“Did you make it?” “But of course.” – Nathan’s question to me and my response upon our reunion at Gilman’s’s Point atop the crater ridge.
“You didn’t seem like you would turn back.” – Gasper to me, reflecting on my hypothermic episode.
As proud as I am of toughing out the hypothermia and altitude sickness to summit Kili, I know that this personal triumph is so much thanks to the company I had along in the hike. Josephat and Gasper, time and time again, offered the encouragement I needed to keep going, whether it was an admonition to stay awake from Gasper or a helping hand from Josephat. And, Nathan’s concern for me and patience meant the world to me. Especially in intense situations, having a voice of reason is critical. Nathan’s objectivity and care for my well-being both shined on our ascent, and though I didn’t head his wise advice, it kept me grounded and aware of the risks I was taking on. Finally, without his patience, I could have just lost heart for the climb—so thanks again, Nathan!