24 Dec KILIMANJARO

Ever since I was a little girl, I wanted to go on a safari. When my friend Jenny said she couldn’t find anyone to hike Mt. Kilimanjaro with, I said, “I’ll go! We’ll do your dream of hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro, and then we’ll do my dream of going on safari!” It seemed like a perfect plan.

Now, I knew NOTHING about Mount Kilimanjaro. She actually had to tell me it was in Africa. Also, I’m not really a “hiker.”  I just love a good view, and I’m willing to walk for it. I thought, “Sure, we’d probably be walking a lot, but the views are gonna be amazing!”

She gave me some books to prepare myself, but I didn’t want to read too much. I really wanted to be surprised, so I just perused.  In my perusing, I found out something really interesting about Mount Kilimanjaro: it could kill you! People died every year! We were going to be walking in extreme altitude for seven days which could cause “cerebral edema,” whose symptoms included two petrifying words: BRAIN. LEAK.

Now, I’m adventurous, but I’m also extremely fearful. A therapist once told me, I “run anxious.” When I walk down stairs, I picture my dead body at the bottom of the stairs– broken and limp. It’s very vivid, very horrifying and very consistent. It’s just what my anxious brain does. This “brain leak” knowledge was the last thing my brain needed.

The gear list didn’t help. It was seven pages of “essential” gear with words like: “gaiters,” “neoprene sleeve,” “balaclava…” I didn’t know how to pronounce them, let alone what they were for, but I felt like if I didn’t get them, I would die.

I hadn’t planned on doing training. I had read somewhere in one of those books that “you can’t train for altitude,” and I had really clung to that. However, two weeks before we left, I was so freaked out, I started hiking Runyon canyon and doing panicked squats at the gym.

When we got to Kilimanjaro, we met our seven hikers, thirty porters and three guides. They immediately checked our heart rate and oxygen levels. It felt serious.

The first two nights on the mountain, I didn’t sleep at all. Jenny snuggled into her sleeping bag and passed out immediately. I put on every layer of clothing I had and lay there. Petrified. I was scared of the cold. I was scared of the wind. I was scared of that brain leak!

I kept telling our guides all my fears and they’d say, “Don’t worry. It’s not a problem.” It felt like a problem to me. One day a guide asked, “Who here is afraid of heights?” My hand shot up, “I am! I am afraid of heights!” I was the only one. “You will walk behind me tomorrow,” he said. The next morning, we had to scale this enormous wall of rocks using all four of our limbs to get us up.  It was no joke. We were walking seven to ten hour days. You’d fall if you didn’t have your pole technique down. I did not have my pole technique down.  I kept glaring at Jenny thinking, “Damn, your dream is dangerous!”

The night of the summit attempt, we started hiking at 12:30am in the pitch black, up this icy incline for six hours. They told us it was too high and too cold to stop. People were struggling.  A woman in our group yelled, “Stop!” She hunched over in the dark, and then we continued.  An hour later Jenny yelled, “Wait! I have to throw up!” She threw up in the wind, and then we continued. Hours later two in our group said, “It’s not worth it!” They turned around and headed back to base camp.  We continued.  We were passing lots of people who were turning around. We passed a woman who was sitting, her eyes were bugged out and she was breathing shallow and rapidly like that guy in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom who gets his heart ripped out.

I was doing surprisingly well. Sure, I kept repeating my name and address over and over again to myself to make sure my brain hadn’t sprung a leak, but I was feeling strong and determined and focused.

It was weird, because I kept thinking, “This isn’t even your dream. What are you doing?” I had just wanted to go on safari, where you’re not even ALLOWED to walk. You just had to sit in a jeep and look at giraffes, but there I was climbing this mountain, trying to reach this summit. Why? Did I really care about reaching the summit?

No. It wasn’t about that for me. I felt like I was walking toward every anxiety that I ever had. I felt like I was facing myself, facing my own nature, facing that thing that I try so desperately to ignore—my mortality. I kept thinking about my father, who had died the year before, and I knew he would want me to keep walking. I thought about my life and what I wanted it to be about, and I knew I didn’t want to be that girl who turned around on the mountain.

At 6:30 in the morning, we made it to the summit. We hugged. We cried. I said, “I need to pee,” and I did so behind a tiny rock in front of many strangers.

I felt triumphant, like I had reached a higher place inside of myself. I could have died, but I didn’t. There was something deliciously defiant about surviving and that made my safari even sweeter.