Mt. Kilimanjaro: Celebrating my 35th Birthday at 19,340 Feet
“I can give birth, twice, but there’s no way I could do that,” read a friend’s comment on my Tanzania Facebook album, upon my return from summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro.
“I can honestly say that you are the only dissertation student I’ve ever had who has climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. Please bring some photos to your qualifying exam oral defense to show the rest of the committee,” remarked my dissertation committee chair.
Yes, I could die, but no, I probably wouldn’t.
I was looking for a challenging, new experience, and a trip with a purpose to celebrate my 35th birthday. Friends were considering girls’ trips to tropical islands, but those trips didn’t appeal to me at that point in time. I’d heard of several people climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, so I researched the details and judged the death risk. I declared that it was an “average” risk. Yes, I could die, but no, I probably wouldn’t.
When I was a child, I was envious of classmates who could celebrate their birthdays with a class party. As an adult and a school teacher, I embraced the fact that my birthday falls in June, and took complete advantage of “birthday travel.”
My trekking mate and I began training in earnest. We hiked the trails in the local San Gabriel Mountains in Southern California three to four times a week, typically followed by a celebratory burrito lunch.
“Have you been up Baldy [San Antonio] or Greyback [San Gorgonio]?” enquired a friend, mentioning the nicknames of two of the six highest peaks in SoCal, both surpassing 10,000 feet. Though I’d read that training in high elevation is recommended, I’d also read that casual hikers had summited Kilimanjaro without issues. Somewhere in the middle should serve sufficient, I rationalized.
Visiting Machame Camp (9,840 feet), Shira Camp (12,600 feet), and Barranco Camp (12,960 feet) over the first three days, we acclimated ourselves to the slow pace and long stretches of silence, as we formed a single file line while trekking. We acclimatized by ascending and descending slowly over the first few days. Holding off until absolutely necessary, I began my regimen of Diamox on Day Three. I immediately felt better, despite the guides’ lack of allegiance to the drug. “Food is medicine,” they would chorus. I didn’t want to risk edema, so I followed my doctor’s orders of ingestion above 10,000 feet.
Then Summit Night was upon us. After a spaghetti dinner, we retreated to our tents before sunset, hoping to sleep for a few hours before our 11:00 P.M. wake up call. I dozed, but the anticipation was intense.
Starting our ascent at 15,000 feet, we planned to summit at 6:00 A.M., just in time for sunrise photos and to beat the crowds. The temperature rapidly dropped. My four top layers and three bottom layers soon proved flimsy, due to the slow onset of hypothermia. I was instructed to constantly wiggle my fingers and toes, which provided a meditative activity amid the monotonous crunching of the dirt trail underneath our shoes. Our headlamps soon extinguished as the elevation increased. The draw of the “full moon climb” was now evident, as the unobstructed glow lit our path. As our modern technology failed us device by device, nature guided us toward our goal.
The temperature dropped once more and the wind picked up. We had reached Gilman’s Point (18,650 feet), a ruthless and exposed ridge leading to the summit’s crater and glacier. I spied a tiny shack in the distance, lit by a single bulb that beaconed through a frost-encrusted square window.
“There’s the weather station,” I thought to myself. “I’m sure they’ll have hot chocolate and we’ll have a short rest before the final push.” The weather station wasn’t appearing any closer, despite our advancing steps. I asked Ozzie, one of the assistant guides, about stopping there to wait out the wind.
My 35th birthday accomplishment propelled me into a series of milestones.
“No,” he said, “there is no place to stop.”
I realized my folly. I had hallucinated a scene from a story my sixth grade students read annually entitled Climb or Die. I realized that we would not stop and warm up before summitting. I froze in my tracks, literally and figuratively. I began to cry, “I can’t do this. I need to turn around. How much would it cost for a helicopter to pick me up?”
Our guides, one by one, approached me, pat me on the shoulder, and said, “You can do it!” I continued my enquiries about abandoning the summit. Diane said, “You didn’t travel all this distance to quit, especially not on your birthday.”
That’s right. It was nearing dawn on my birthday. What would I say to people when they asked what happened? How would I justify the money and time spent up until this point? Some trekkers were already descending and swiftly passed us by, encouraging, “Keep it up! Only about 30 more minutes!” I sucked it up and pushed on. Never had putting one foot in front of the other been so excruciating.
At the end of a snow flanked trail, gleaming in the sun’s first rays of the day, towered the coveted sign, congratulating us on conquering the “world’s highest free-standing mountain” and “Africa’s highest point.” No mention of conquering our self doubt and lack of preparation, but I knew that’s what my personal sign would read.
I sucked it up and pushed on. Never had putting one foot in front of the other been so excruciating.
After the summit descent, we stumbled into the last camp, Mweka Camp at 10,170 feet. A celebratory atmosphere permeated the air. The porters were singing in Swahili, trekkers were relaxing with books and music, and the camp store sold BEER! At four US dollars a can, we really didn’t mind, evidence that the altitude had tampered with our judgment. The five other hikers in my group scoured their provisions and created a thoughtful medley of gifts, decorated with delicately crafted toilet paper bows.
This story has been met with varying degrees of awe. My 35th birthday accomplishment propelled me into a series of milestones: finishing my dissertation and PhD, deciding to quit my teaching job, a solo travel journey, and acquiring a college teaching job. Those moments of self doubt on Summit Night transformed into moments of immense pride.
Mt. Kilimanjaro: Celebrating my 35th Birthday at 19,340 Feet