Twelve o’clock midnight began the summit bid. We had already hiked for four hours in the morning, reaching Kibo hut around 1pm. We were meant to rest during the afternoon to prepare and acclimatize. It was impossible to sleep. The camp was so crowded and noisy and I was absolutely FREEZING. I cuddled between Eyal and Amit in their tent to warm up but it was futile. I could not stop shaking.
We were served dinner but I couldn’t eat. I had a sharp stabbing pain around my sternum whenever I swallowed. I felt like someone was standing on my chest. I was nauseated, throwing up a bit, and had a nosebleed. I cried. Had I really made it this far to not be able to go on? I felt at that point there was a good chance I would not make it to the top. I had come so far. I was frustrated that there was no medic at the camp to tell whether my symptoms were normal or it was unsafe to continue.
Base Camp on Kilimanjaro.
They woke us up at 11pm for tea and a snack before leaving camp. I geared up; thermals, 2 pairs of socks, insulated pants, base layer, polar tech fleece, body warmer vest, down hooded jacket, wool gloves with ski gloves on top, and a full-face covering balaclava. I felt claustrophobic under all of those layers. I put on my music and Charles, our guide, led the way. We didn’t get far before I decided that I wouldn’t have the strength for a nine hour steep climb.
I could not feel my fingertips. It felt like razorblades were slid beneath my fingernails. I wished the boys well and decided to go back to camp. I chose to head back before I got too far so that way Charles could go on with them. I tried to sleep but the tent was on a slope and I kept sliding down toward the door. I was sleeping in all three of our sleeping bags and still couldn’t warm up. I must have been feverish to have been that cold. The wind was whipping and there was nothing but a thin piece of polyester between me and the elements. I felt sick but could not bear to use the toilets. I wretched every time I went in.
Why you ask? Where is the fun in all of this?
The answer is this. Nothing compares to the indescribable feeling of unzipping your tent at sunrise to find the jagged peaks of Mawenzi silhouetted by the rising sun. The sea of clouds swathed in peach, pink, and purple pastels. The roof of Africa behind you. The setting moon next to it so close you feel like you can grab it. Sleeping under a black velvet sky punctuated by millions of points of light. A shooting star trailing from the heavens and then fading into obscurity. To be sitting on top of the world above the clouds, my friends, this is why we climb.
A view from on Top of the Clouds.
So am I disappointed that I didn’t reach the summit? Of course I am, but it wasn’t worth putting my health or safety at risk. My parents have already suffered the loss of a child and I promised that I would turn back if I were ill. We had passed too many crosses along the way marking where people have died trekking. I wasn’t taking any chances. I felt great the next day so if we had had one more day to acclimatize I may have made it.
For me it was never about the summit.
This climb was about $10,000 and awareness for Autism Speaks, so my mountain was already climbed. I was just there for the experience, and what an experience it was! Life is about the journey, not the destination.
We began our trip at the Mountain Inn Lodge. Decent accommodation but far from luxurious. We each had our own rooms to get some good rest before the big day. We had the world’s worst massages. After being slathered in olive oil, I expected to be battered and fried. At dinner we met some climbers who had just returned and were spewing lots of negativity about everything from the food to the weather. We decided to tune them out and see for ourselves.
Some of the Porters & Guides carrying gear.
We left early the next morning, saying goodbye to any sense of comfort; beds, toilet, shower for the next week. We drove for hours through small villages in Tanzania. We passed the time singing and learning Swahili with our guide Charles.
Charles, 54, is married to a teacher and the father of 3 grown boys. He is an ex-paratrooper and Major in the Armed Forces. With his wife he leads a choir of 75 in his local parish. He has climbed the mountain nearly 500 times. We were in good hands. Charles took me under his wing. He gave me a Swahili name which means, “happy girl” because I am always smiling. Throughout the climb we shared stories.
He spoke of life in Tanzania and about his family. He insisted that we climb ‘pole pole” or ‘slowly, slowly’ because it “is not sports”. And slowly we went, painfully slow for a NY’er. Literally one foot in front of the other. Going at this pace I did not have difficulty breathing as I normally do in altitude. The Diamox was helping too though it made my fingers and toes all tingly. We trekked through the Pine forest belting out the cheesiest 80’s tunes all the way.
A look at Kilimanjaro from afar.
The route we chose had us camping rather than staying in huts. The food was decent. For breakfast, an omelet, porridge, and toast. Lunch was a fried bread sandwich and french fries. Dinner was delicious soup or stew and either crepes, rice, or spaghetti along with a meat. We had popcorn at tea time. There were no showers or facilities, just a bowl of warm water to wash up. The toilets were long drop toilets. Essentially just a hole with footholds on either side. The stench was horrific.
Whenever I could, I opted for nature’s toilet. The nights were cold and there were times I really had to ‘go’ but didn’t want to leave the warmth of my sleeping bag. I had worked so hard to find the most comfortable position and wasn’t about to move. I contemplated the benefits of a colostomy bag. I tried to make it through the nights and not get out of bed until the sun warmed my tent.
The unsung heroes of the trip were the porters. What incredible people. Charles employs about 70 local Tanzanians who live near Morangu gate. They ranged in age between 19 and late 30’s, mostly male but we saw a few females with other groups. We had nine on our team. They are paid very little and have incredibly difficult jobs. They carry up to 15 kilos on their heads and backs, up and down the mountain, wearing clothing completely inappropriate for climbing (dress slacks, sneakers that are falling apart without laces, no jackets, etc.).
The Crew for the Excursion.
They carry all of our backpacks, bushels of food, cooking equipment, water, tents (and for other groups port-a-potties, dining tables, and chairs). Their English was minimal but we managed to engage them in a game of cards. We played a simple game of Last Card or “One Cardie” as they call it. While the guys were dragging their exhausted bodies to the summit, I spent the day with the porters from all the groups playing cards. Despite the language barrier we had a lot of fun!
Immediately following the climb, I donated half of my clothes and brand new gear to the porters and was inspired to create a non-profit organization that I would call HIKE (Help Improve Kilimanjaro Excursions) for the porters and guides. I planned to collect new and used clothing and gear and send it to Tanzania. I recounted the event for a Kenyan friend over a beer in Nairobi. He just laughed and said, “Man, you fell for that?” and proceeded to tell me that my $300 Gore-tex pants would be sold for $5 on the street. I was deflated.
“You think YOU are the first person to feel bad for them and give them stuff? Why weren’t they wearing it?”
I couldn’t believe that a seasoned traveler such as myself could have been so naive. My heartstrings had been played like a fiddle. I couldn’t pinpoint why I was so upset. I suppose it was just feeling deceived after having formed a bond with them. I would have happily given whatever I could. I made my peace with it realizing that whether it was the gear or the money, they need it more than I do. And as Leonardo DeCaprio’s character said in the movie Blood Diamond, “T.I.A. This is Africa.”
Jackie Knechtel is the Chief Life Enthusiast of Pure Vibrant Living, a movement she founded to share her passion for holistic heath, travel, sustainable living, fitness, positivity and living life to the fullest! For the past 12 years she has dedicated herself to her work as a Speech Language Pathologist specializing in Autism Spectrum Disorders.
Jackie is a black belt in Okinowan Shorin Ryu and a belly dancer. She loves all kinds of dance, pilates, yoga, aerial silks, adventure sports, music and the outdoors. Jackie is a holistic health coach and is known for her amazing smoothies. You can find more of her musings in Greenster Magazine, and MindBodyGreen. Connect with Jackie Knechtel: Join the Pure Vibrant Living Community.