Climbing Kilimanjaro, in the Before Times

Just as Catherine asked us to reflect on how endurance training in the past had helped us navigate our surreal present, one of my journals from 2009 almost literally fell open at my feet. (I keep trying to tidy up pockets of my space, fruitlessly trying to put some order to a jumbled time). I found this entry, written I was traveling back home from climbing Kilimanjaro, reflecting on what happened for me when my focus narrowed completely to one almost impossible task, oxygen thin and nausea overlaying everything:

What did I find on Kilimanjaro? Economy of decision-making, quiet focus, determination, recognition that the connections to people whose imaginations overlap with mine are more powerful than any fears. The mountain is the mountain — today is today. There is only the next step. There is a lot to be found in the absence of yearning.

So wise, that 44 year old version of me. Economy of movement, quiet focus, connection — these are the essence of how I’m trying to swim through today’s pandemic hours, days, unknown span of weeks.

I hunted out the blog post I wrote on a long-defunct site about the actual climb. Instead of writing about today, I’m going to share that post, artifact of the Before Times when travel felt heady and light and what a thoughtful, globally curious person did. This is me, climbing Kilimajaro in 2009. It’s long, but so was the climb.


They get you up at 11pm for the final ascent to the Summit. The guide knocks on the door of the barracks-like bunk at Kibo (the “hut of hostility,” we called it), and brings you tea. You’ve had about 5 hours of agitated rest that couldn’t be called sleep, anticipating what you know to be the most demanding 10 hours you’ve ever done.

It doesn’t seem possible to be alive right now. It’s pitch black, frigid, and the air is empty of oxygen. You’re at 4740 metres. For the past 5 hours, you’ve had to go out into the hostile night every hour to deal with the churning guts you’ve had for 10 days now, but which altitude has prodded into agony. The first time out, you forgot your glasses, and in the snow-misted night, lost the path to the toilet and walked into the fence that’s put there precisely so tourists don’t stumble into the abyss in the night. Crouching over the fetid hole in the ground that you’ve got surprisingly good at thinking of as a toilet, you are wondering what the fuck you are doing here, how it is possible to be alive and having chosen this.

By midnight, you’re bundled up. Silk long johns, winter running tights, mountain hardwear hiking pants, rain/wind overpants. Five layers on top. You find yourself outside with your three mates, the joking of the previous three days subdued. In the air is a kind of dread.

Immediately, you find yourself on a steep ascent, rock and scree. Pole pole, says Fata Aeli, your guide. Today is today. The mountain is the mountain. We walk silently, slowly. Above us on the path, headlamps shine up until they blend with the vivid stars, the end of the path and the beginning of the sky blended and indiscernible.

Fata the indefatigable

After 30 minutes, we stop for water, to take off one of the overly eager layers. Beneath hats and balaclavas, everyone looks strained. Fata breaks into a swahili christmas carol, joined by Harold, one of the assistant guides. I recognize the tune but can’t place it. The singing in the blackness, the torches plodding uphill, the stars. I use my stick gratefully, muttering the only swahili sentence I know. Na penda fimbo yangu. I love my stick. Pole pole. Slowly slowly.

At the cave, we stop for tea and a biscuit. Above 5000 m now, the night and empty air pressing on us. Rebecca looks ill, says she’s nauseous, and after the tea, suddenly darts up. I’m going to be sick. Harold holds her up, while Flip rubs her back. Do you want to go on? She nods, fiercely.

After the cave, the casualties begin. Guides gently leading people back down the hill. First a man heading down, then a woman sitting blankly on a rock, her guide whispering to her. Through the night, as the endless ascent winds on, several times we suddenly come across guides nestled into a rock shelter, cradling a climber. African men, white climbers. It’s surreal and frightening and pragmatic. I nod. Fata occasionally exchanges a few words with the guide.

I turn on my ipod and let cello music wash at the edges of the gripping headache. Pole pole. Up. Occasionally I push Rebecca forward. Every time we stop, her body provides her with another excuse to quit. Diarrhea. Her period. Nausea. Headache. My own guts force me to be more immodest than I’ve ever been. When I stand up, I realize I’ve picked up scree in the layer closest to my skin. I find it for days later.

The night is stars, and steps, and up, and pain, and resistance, and surreality, and will, and kindness. Up. Up. The final thread up to Gilman’s Point is almost impossible, stopping every 20 or so steps to lean on your stick, occasionally sip the water that is starting to freeze. Up. Scrambling now, big rocks that require hands as well as feet. Up. Tightness, empty air, the stars. Up. The Swahili christmas songs have stopped, though once Fata breaks out into We are Climbing up to the mountain, yes we are, and a deeply unexpected Yippee Kai Ai Yippee Yippee Ai.

I stay connected to Rebecca, checking in with her. Her will is another coat around her, carrying her up. I’m in pain, and the resistance is unbearable. She is somewhere else entirely.

Suddenly Fata points up — that rock up there, it’s Gilman’s Point. This pleases no one. It’s too far. “It’s not what I expected,” mutters Flip, the indefatigable travel writer who never ever complains. Up. Breathing deep, finding lungs where there were none. Up. My ipod has shifted to Alison Kraus and Robert Plant, which moves me forward just enough, distracts just enough from the pain. Stars, still, crisp and close.

At 5:45, we scramble up over Gilman’s Point. An uneasy milestone. Once thought to be the highest point on the mountain, we know there are still probably two hours to go. We remember the advice of Seamus, the gnomic sage who briefed us. “If you can still put one foot in front of the other at Gilman’s, go on.” He implied that the last two hours wasn’t so difficult as what came before, but right now, that seems impossible.

Trying to smile

We are silent, forcing down tea and a biscuit. I’ve had no appetite for days, no fuel left in my body. We’re wordlessly checking in with each other. Miraculously, the sun cracks the night in the east, a slit of flame. Rebecca watches the dawn wordlessly, bleak. I can see the curve of the earth.

As we sit, the night is shattered by shouts over the edge. Never Again! shouts a woman, hysterically, laughing. Suddenly we are surrounded by loud South Americans. I want to punch them in the head, no energy for absorbing anything so full. I find out later that Flip poked them with her stick.

We nod at each other, and go on. Fata, then Rebecca, then me, then Flip, then guide Stevie, then Ray, then Harold. “Is it flat,” I ask. “Up and down,” says Fata. My heart sinks as the first steps are down. I lose track of everything behind me, except for the continuing boisterousness of the South Americans. I’m grateful when they pass us.

We’re on the west side of the ridge, the crater and brilliant icefields off to the right. The crater is redbrown, deep, a desert surrounded by ice. The sky is beginning to be blue. I’m walking carefully, pole pole, step, grateful for my stick with mountain on my left and full exposure on the right of the narrow path. Rocks, rolling steps, gasps for breath.

Suddenly we come up to the top of the ridge, open mountain. The world is open on both sides, miraculous. The glaciers on the left, cumulous clouds far far below us. The world below. Sky brilliant now, the sunrise still flaming red and orange.

Sit, water, breathe, bleak disbelief. The world is more open than it’s ever been, and more narrow, my gaze a tight band. The headache has formed itself as part of me, no longer mentionable. Rebecca’s eyes are small, her movements tiny. Flip darts about taking photos with her big camera, exhilarated. When Fata says Sawa sawa — okay — she doesn’t hear. “We’re going,” I try. I have no more energy to mobilize. Fata, Rebecca and I continue, leaving Flip and Ray and the other two guides on the ridge.

The last 45 minutes are hallucinatory. We can see the summit now, impossibly near and impossibly far. A few people are descending, wan and taut, occasionally muttering a word of encouragement. The path is gentle under our feet now, red-brown dirt, the ridge open, but the hills roll ahead of us, every step impossible. I remember the people in the rocks cradled in the arms of the guides in the night, my sister and her husband on the summit 7 years ago. My hardest marathon, my hardest emotional moments.

Breathe, step, step, step, lean on stick. Every time I stop, I realize I couldn’t have gone on another second, want to sink to the ground and lie down, just for a minute. I know that’s crazy. Fata is encouraging us, just another hill. We’ll see the summit. I count steps, breaths. It’s me, and the hill beneath me, and my tan worn leather boots, and my lungs, and the lights shooting across my vision. Rebecca in front.

Step, stick, step, stick. Fata is holding Rebecca’s hand now, and occasionally I pat her shoulder. I give her my water. As we round the last hill, about 100 metres from Uhuru, I begin to weep. Empty, exhilarated, pushed. I did this encased in this amazing group, and I did this on my own. Crossing the last steps, Rebecca tucks her arm in mine, and we hug each other. Fata hugs us. SUPER, he says. The man who wears years of the mountain on his face.

Uhuru Peak. 7:15 am, December 17, 2009. 5895 metres, 19341 feet.

I sip water, dig out my good camera. Rebecca’s is with Harold, who’s been carrying her pack since the cave. Me at the sign, Rebecca, the two of us. The world is open and the world is tiny and narrow. The snows of Kilimanjaro are disappearing, I heard on CBC before I came. I’m here. The mountain is the mountain. Today is today.

We see Flip coming near, and then Ray, staggering, holding onto Harold. The four of us on the summit, hugging in a group, then Ray staggering away and vomiting. Aussie to the core, he rallies for a smile for the photo of the four of us. Harold and Stevie squabble over the camera settings.

My aussie crew. None of us knew each other before this trip, but we are forever connected.

I need to get down, chill and immobility setting in. It’s the most miraculous place I’ve ever been, and it’s fleeting, a moment only. Fata, Rebecca and I set off down the red path, what feels fast now, any descent a gift.

Halfway back to Gilman’s Point, exhaustion overtakes me. Two weeks of not absorbing any fuel, 3 days of trekking, 4000 metres of ascent, no sleep. My body is my body and the mountain, slow. We sit and I force down water, a bite of a bar. Flip and Ray join us, and together, we thread back to Gilman’s Point. Na penda fimbo yangu.

We sit, daylight now, drink water, quiet. “I nearly fucked myself with those pictures,” laughs Flip. “I think I have that whatsis,” says Ray, “that cerebral edema.” We look closely at him and realize he’s right. Staggering, slurring, vomiting, headache. The 200 m down is restoring him. Altitude is relentless.

An American is sitting with us, and I watch with a kind of detached disbelief as he hauls out his Kindle, his e-book reader. “I take this everywhere,” he says, “I thought a photo of it up here would give my friends a laugh.”

I’m searching for sunblock and in disarray with my waterbottle and pack when I realize Fata has decided it’s time to go. Everyone else is over the edge while I’m still struggling to put my pack back on. It’s the only moment resembling panic I feel. “Wait for me!” I shout. I realize how much I’m carried by the formation, lost without the path stepped first by Fata.

Back in formation, we step carefully down, scrambling in reverse. The sun is up now, the blank cold of the night replaced by hard hot rock. My sunglasses are somewhere in my pack. The rockface is practically vertical, so steep, impossible. We climb at night because of the sun, but also because seeing this would make it impossible to keep going.

Down is forever. Scrambling, heat, sun. Layers come off, water dripped in, body emptied. After about 15 minutes, Fata tracks us into the scree slope, and we ski scree, slaloming. At first it’s fun, but then it’s hard dusty work, sun blazing, dust in eyes, feet uncertain.

The 45 degree slope is forever. Flip slips, and we take off more clothes. Any modesty I had is gone, as I remove all of the underlayers of my hiking pants. Down, ski, sun, heat. Finally Kibo, 4740 m, 10:10 a.m. We started climbing at midnight, after a 6 hour day of hiking upward.

We have one hour at Kibo to rest, but the altitude is too hostile to stay. People have been sent back from this hut, no further climbing possible. We have a 9 km walk ahead of us to Horombo. Head still taut, I sink into the unforgiving bunk.


The mountain is the mountain. Today is today.


Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who is isolating in Toronto, wondering if learning swahili should be her pandemic project.