Eight years ago today I was on Day 6 of my climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro. The following day, with a few feet of snow under my boots and brilliant blue sky overhead, I summited.
People ask me all of the time about the mountain, what it is like. Pictures are on my website www.ritahartley.com, but I decided this week, with the beginning of a new year, and perhaps some new personal goals, it might be a good time to share an excerpt from my journal.
I will quickly introduce you to the cast of characters. My climbing partners: Jeff T, a retired farmer and fit philanthropist who has cycled across Canada for caregivers of people with Alzheimer’s Disease. Jeff K, aka Rafiki, a gemologist and geologist. Kathy, my tentmate, an experienced climber who works in the medical field. Aaron, a thirtysomething in the computer industry, anxious to see the glaciers before their predicted extinction. Our guides: Endesha, lead guide. Jahi, second-in-command. Safi, our server of food. Medicine Man, medicine man. Ha.
I feel great when I wake up at Karranga Camp (13,123 ft.). It’s a beautiful morning, so we lay all of our wet clothes out in the sunshine. I have dry gloves! And socks. And another shirt to wear. I’m so happy.
Jeff T is in bad shape. Vomiting, diarrhea, can’t keep anything down. I feel so good for me and so bad for him.
We set off late, 10:15 or so, but it’s a short hike over to Barafu Camp (15,260 ft.). As we go up the fog settles in as usual, and then we go down through a bordered, shaled valley. An Alpine Desert, Rafiki calls it. We leave Jeff T and Endesha part way up the first hill. Rafiki pounds on rocks and takes pictures of them – one looks like a giant pinkish-red bowl.
We arrive at Barafu early, around 12:30-1:00. Kathy says her head is exploding and I’m worried, so I help her with her gear and sleeping bag, help her lay down. Jahi is calling my name behind me, over and over, and I don’t understand. When I finally get out of his way, I realize he needs to give Kathy oxygen. Her oxygen saturation rate is perilously low, 70%. Normal is between 95-100% and anything lower than 80% can lead to respiratory or cardiac arrest.
I go to the mess tent. Sip tea, look at Rafiki, Aaron. A storm comes up – wind, hail, snow – and I think about how Endesha and Jeff T, already struggling, must make their way through it while I sit dry inside. This is the highest altitude we’ve encountered and things are different. Scary. I eat some tasty potatoes with green onion on them, but ignore the fried foods which hurt my stomach. Safi takes lunch to Kathy in our tent.
I check on her after I eat and she seems good. I’m relieved. I return to the mess tent, and am relieved again when Jeff T stumbles in, but he looks like hell. His face is as white as the white of his hair and whiskers. He must descend. He sits at the table, tries to eat soup, almost passes out in it, then starts puking on the floor in front of him. It breaks my heart to see him this way.
“Endesha almost shits his pants,” Rafiki tells me later, because Jeff T told Endesha he thought he should stay at Barafu for the night, go down in the morning. “I don’t have enough gas in the tank,” Jeff T said. The fix, though, for altitude sickness, is a prompt descent. So Rafiki, Aaron and I prop both Jeff T and Kathy up outside the mess tent and get our last group shot on the mountain. Jeff T entrusts us with Sharrington Bear – sent by elementary school kids from his hometown – and Jahi heads down with him.
It’s only 3:30 pm, so there is time for a small hike – to see what we’re in for tomorrow, summit day – and Medicine Man leads Aaron, Rafiki and I upward. The shale clinks under our boots, like broken bricks, and we say, “Jambo, Jambo (Hello),” to people as we hike through the various camps.
We go up. Pole, pole, which is Swahili for slowly, slowly. Through shale, then rock, then giant pinkish-red rocks that swell out over the earth and make me think I’m not taking up too much space. Then, narrow rock, with black muck mixed in. Then snow. For about an hour beyond that we climb up, joking with Medicine Man that surely he’s taking us to the summit. I don’t know if he understands. Descending, we appreciate how much quicker it is, like half the time.
Kathy joins us for dinner and afterward, when our oxygen levels and heart rates are checked, we’re all given the green light to climb. I hear people around our tent at midnight, those shale pieces clinking, and I’m convinced something has happened to Aaron and he’s being evacuated out.
I sleep fitfully, awash in vivid dreams. A cargo van comes to pick us up to climb the mountain and I get in without my boots, without my gear. I try, Endesha tries, to convince the driver to turn around, but he won’t. Then, I’m with Hugh’s mom and we are dressed up, in pretty dresses, to go to a picnic. We are moving furniture, so much furniture. Just the two of us, as no one else is around to help. Our dresses are getting dirty, but we keep going and going, moving beds, sofas, chairs. On and on. It’s endless. I wake up and realize I just have to finish climbing a mountain.
I run into Aaron at breakfast and find out the clink, clink, clink I heard last night was just other campers descending.
If you haven’t had a chance to read Long Climb Back, Trekking through loss and beyond, and want more, both paperback and eBook versions are for sale on my website.