Monday, September 28, 2009

thanks katie

that fierce embrace

It doesn't interest me if there is one God
Or many gods
I want to know if you belong - or feel abandoned;
If you know despair
Or can see it in others.
I want to know
If you are prepared to live in the world
With its harsh need to change you;
If you can look back with firm eyes
Saying "this is where I stand."
I want to know if you know how to melt
Into that fierce heat of living
Falling toward the center of your longing.
I want to know if you are willing
To live day by day
With the consequence of love
And the bitter unwanted passion
Of your sure defeat.

I have heard, in that fierce embrace, even
the gods speak of God.

~David Whyte

Monday, September 14, 2009

zanzibar return

When you can't walk, you lay on the beach, or next to the pool. After finishing the Kili climb, Dan and I headed to Zanzibar. We further tortured ourselves by stumbling around for a day photographing Stone Town (which really does beg to be photographed) and then heading up to Nungwi for the beaches and the stylish W-ness of the Z Hotel.

on the streets of stone town

feeling a little better on the infinity pool edge at Z

another zbar starfish photo

storms rolling in and out like the tides

Sunday, September 13, 2009

day #6: a long way down

descending views

Ever since I slipped and fell down the escalator that slushy February day at the Ballston metro stop years ago, I've been a mess going down hills. Physically, downhill hikes have always been traumatic - I remember how much my knees killed me coming down from the lemon and olive groves of Cinque Terre years ago. Climbing Old Rag in VA - the downhill fire road made me crazy. The Ballston incident made it mental - in my mind I'm always slipping, falling and dying. Coming off Kili was infinitely harder than going up it - for one big stupid reason - I stubbed my toe over and over again and couldn't stop beating myself up for it.

Each time I could hear my mom "rub it rub it rub it" in my ear - like back when it was the coffee table or the sofa. This time I kicked a huge rock somewhere below Horombo in the moorland. I must have been looking at the clouds. I knew immediately that my left big toe nail was done for. And then I proceeded to do it 4 more times. Poor Dan tried to console me; I was inconsolable. It was more anger than pain by the time we made it back.

We finally crossed through the triangular gate back into reality, and rode back to Moshi to our hotel. I tried to walk up the stairs. I've never been so immobile in my life. I could barely lift my feet. The way up the mountain I felt [mostly] like an athlete. The way down I felt like an 85 year old woman. The receptionist at the hotel laughed at me. A lot.

Even as I write, I'm still suffering - now it's my vanity, as I look down at 9 perfectly pedicured purplish-magenta toes and one giant glaring absent toe nail on my left big toe "so gross!" But really I would trade that toe nail over and over again for the feeling of standing on Kilimanjaro - anywhere on Kilimanjaro, breathing oh-so-little oxygen and feeling oh-so-very alive.


Saturday, September 12, 2009

day #5: summit and descent

Months earlier, at Patagucci in Georgetown, I told the sales guy what I'd be doing and the usual temps on the mountain between the hours of 12 am and sunrise (usually about 15 degrees below Celsius). He introduced me to base layers, mid layers, down vests and shells... and I borrowed a pair of ski gloves and went merrily on my way, thankful that each layer can be used separately even in Uganda (rainy season actually brings on some chilly nights here). Several hundred dollars later, I was "well-equipped" for the summit.

We headed off in the darkness, starting the immediate steep ascent up the scree, joining the twinkly zig zag of headlamps in the darkness. My headlamp illuminated the frozen scree on the earth below me. The only sound was that of snot blowing freely from my frozen nose and James and Danforth softly singing "Jambo, jambo bwana." My hands quickly froze, even in the ski gloves with the hand warmers. I started to wonder if I'd be too cold to make it up. We'd only been moving for 2 hours. We stopped; Dan felt drunk and I was so cold. James rubbed my hands and fed me frozen chocolate goji berries. I wiped my boogers on his towel. I couldn't feel my face.

We kept moving and I kept looking up and down the mountain, confusing the headlamps for stars. I felt distended in space, hanging onto this mountain that didn't want me there at all, moving ever so slowly up the scree one slow and pathetic shuffle at a time.

Finally James whipped out his bright yellow Helly Hansen down jacket and insisted that I put it on. I came back to life.

Just as the scree turned to a scramble over boulders, a thin red line appeared on the horizon. The boulders took on an eerie-Mars-like shimmer. We clambered over the top rim. Gilman's Point. We celebrated; our first glimpse of a glacier, the wide sky putting on a show as the horizon changed from a deep red to orange to yellow to blue. Six hours in, we'd made it to the rim - now it was a ridge climb - 2 more hours around the crater to Uhuru, the highest peak.

gilman's point, giant yellow coat saved my life, glacier in the background

I pushed on, reminded of cross country races in high school. Saving it all for the end. In truth, I had very little left to give. When we got to Stella Point the ice fields were in full view. Tears started flowing uncontrollably down my face. My chest heaved. Ice on the roof of Africa. I took my last few steps to Uhuru and looked around. A couple right behind me collapsed in tears and kisses at the bottom of the sign post. I simply sighed, over and over.

the snow on the roof of africa

I sat down, the morning sun burning my cold cheeks; my nose hurting from the altitude and the cold. I looked at the glacier, the clouds, the earth. All I could think of was my brother, and how much I wished he was there to experience this summit with me.

And just then, we turned around and started our descent.

I surfed down the scree, churning up the rocky dust in my wake; eating the dust of those descending before me. Dust, relief and joy filled my eyes, my nose, my mouth. The scree wall that took us 6 hours to ascend - I came back down in 1.5. And then across the saddle again, just as windy, arriving once again at Horombo, where a couple of days before I'd clutched the doorstep and puked up my hope.

I slept, a boiled Kili Sigg of water at my feet, a smile on my face.

Friday, September 11, 2009

day #4: moor. desert. endurance. kibo.

the saddle - on what? satan's horse?

Fact #4: When uncomfortable in an environment, I do everything I can to get out of the situation as fast as possible, particularly if I see an end in site.

Exhibit A) High school cross country meets - I only gave it my all when I could see the finish and then I burned a path to get the race over with ASAP.

Exhibit B) Biking up hills - I love it I love it I love it. Especially at the top.

Exhibit C) Day 4 Kili - the saddle - wind burn, dust, cold, hungry. Get me out of here!

Discomfort makes me the fastest-moving person out there.

Day 4 started out beautifully - a clear morning, a walk through the moorland. Altitude sickness for me had all but vanished. The giant lobelias showing off the mountain's curves, their lively green hats and shaggy old brown sweaters sucking water from the parched earth. We got to the top of Mawenzi Ridge and took in the sweeping views - moorland behind us, alpine desert ahead. I thought it looked so flat and beautiful.

looking back at mawenzi's jagged peaks

...and looking forward towards the alpine desert and the steep slopes of kibo

Immediately upon descending into that valley, I felt like Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments - the part where he's wandering around in the rocky wasteland somewhere in Bible world, wondering why he's been cursed to struggle. It certainly was biblical - the scenery, my suffering...

And so I put my nose down and burned a path to Kibo, stopping at the rocks just before the hut to binge on the little bagged lunch in my pack. Sheltering from the wind in front of a rock and hunched over the bones of what was once a piece of fried chicken.

Just the mindset I needed to climb a mountain. We trekked the final bit to Kibo Hut, where we shared a room with about 8 other people. I tucked myself into a top bunk and listened to the wind whistling outside. One of the girls was puking over and over and over; her guide trying to tell her she should still attempt the summit. I turned towards the wall and drifted off, awakened by Peter and dinner. I know we had soup, because we always had soup - but for the life of me I cannot recall anything else.

Midnight loomed. We asked James why we had to summit at midnight. He assured us that if he tried to take us during the day, we'd never make it up the scree wall.

day #3: adjustment

Fact #3: During our climb, I took great pleasure in doing little more than either:

a) hiking for a long time,
b) eating, or
c) spending every other minute tucked into my sleeping bag, resting.

Our guides didn't have to tell me twice to rest. So, on our day to acclimate at Horombo, post-vomit, I ate porridge, I tested my blood oxygen level, and then I rested. I didn't read. I didn't chat. I didn't sleep. I rested.

the horombo dining hall, with mawenzi's teeth bucking over the horizon

The guys roused me in the afternoon post-lunch to go for a hike to acclimate - from our current altitude of 3720m to Mawenzi Ridge just past Zebra Rocks at 4200m. I said okay, wandering through the moonscape amongst the giant lobelias and little piles of rocks that marked the trail, trying to be a good sport, but burping the whole way. Tripping on rocks.

water-colored zebra rocks

We got back and I tooled around Horombo, listening to the Swahili porter chatter, watching the comings and goings of all the local guys that make it possible for us crazy mzungus to climb. Dan and I had a staff of 9 guys - guiding us, carrying our crap, carrying our food, cooking our food.

porter village

We ate another dinner, I slurped my soup and ate lots of toast. Peter cleaned up our table and used the red-and-black cover as a scarf. We thanked him for our meal. He never had a clue what we were saying. Oddly enough, I went to sleep on day 3 and woke up on day 4 completely renewed. A million bucks. Not the last time my body would surprise me.

day #2: vomitus altitudinus

Fact #2: If you have to puke - as in you really cannot avoid it - clinging to the stone stoop in front of your hut on Kilimanjaro and being utterly distracted from your agony by the sheer beauty of the starry sky - that's the best way to do it.

Despite the frigid air, I woke up in the middle of the night thinking I was in Gulu. I had that all-too-familiar taste in my mouth that usually is brought on by bad water or tainted local food during so many past trips to Northern Uganda. I lay under the eave in my bed at Horombo, feeling really bad for myself and figuring "well, that's it. I tried my best, but the altitude will take my life, so tomorrow I have to go back down. Shucks."


When I woke in the morning to Peter's broken English "water for wash. breakfast red," I'd already assumed my Kili trip was over. I washed my face. Brushed my teeth. Popped some Diamox anyway. Devoured my oats porridge with honey and sugar. My slightly burnt toast with plastic-y orange jam. Still I felt like shit.

Day 2 had been a great day. We'd emerged from Mandaru in the morning feeling strong - Dan with a slight headache and me with the start of blisters - but otherwise in solid form. Not long into the hike we passed from forest into heather, and finally got our first glimpse of her.

the elusive peak reveals herself

We ascended above the clouds. Spaces grew wide open and majestic. Plants got smaller, clinging to the earth. I mistook the happy shining sun for a welcome friend. The radiation intensified and burned my hands and neck. We saw scores of people descending post-summit. Big smiles and trekking poles flying, burning a path down the mountain. Optimistic/Foreboding.

We got to Horombo in the afternoon, and it was still warm in the sun, so I perched myself on a rock outside of our hut, intermittently reading Rebekah Heacock's old copy of Surrender or Starve (really? did I REALLY read about famine and politics in the Horn while climbing Kili?) and watching two buzzards dance high overhead, their wings brushing each other. My mountain mind found it to be romantic.

So I listened to my entire Sigur Ros collection. I inhaled and exhaled with the clouds; expanding, contracting. The sun set. I was awestruck.

As the sun set I reluctantly came down from my rock, brushing the lichen from the seat of my lululemon yoga-turned-mountain pants. Maybe that's the trick with mountain sickness. It purges all that beauty; clears the way for the realist. And so I woke up wretching.

photographic interlude

Some photos from our crater walk on day 1.

impatiens kilimanjarico

some creepy guys dressed up in russian monkey suits or
black and white colobus monkeys

day #1: the quiet caboose

Fact #1: Mount Kilimanjaro shut me up.

From the second we stepped through that magical triangular gate into the green, the words stopping coming. Dan, on the other hand, found that the mountain gave him plenty more subtext for witty banter. As he and James (chatty guide #1) marched ahead lying to each other about all their girlfriends, Danford (stoic guide #2) and I hung back, silent. The quiet caboose.

I have 100 girlfriends! No, my belly is bigger!

Everything, everywhere: green. Moss, lichen, vines, leaves, trunks. In the absence of sound you could hear the chlorophyll pumping. Pole pole slowed my feet, but it slowed my brain too. All I could register was the throbbing green, my thumping heart, and my chilled skin. And blue monkeys.

who, me?

We stopped to eat the packed lunches we were carrying in our packs. Already starved from the 1.5 hours of fresh air and movement, I did a quick inventory:

2 Marie glucose biscuits
1 very fried piece of chicken
1 sandwich with white bread and something like tuna
1 triangular-shaped carton of pineapple juice
1 nugget of cake
1 teeny tiny itsy bitsy banana
1 hard-boiled egg - anemic white yolk

The moss thickened around the tree trunks and hung from the branches overhead, and we kept marching up, boots slipping on damp rocks until we arrived at Mandaru Huts. Dismal, gray, cold. Just like the two Slovak dudes in snow pants with a satphone who refused to share a hut with us. Jerks.

We drank a metal cup of Milo and hot [powdered] milk and set off for a quick walk with James up to the crater. We stopped for a full ten minutes, slack-jawed at our first view of Mawenzi, flanked by grasses, Kili's peak shrouded in clouds over it's right shoulder.

on our walk to the crater

On a passing recommendation from some South Africans we ran into in Moshi, we asked Peter to fill up our aluminium flasks with hot water to put in the bottom of our sleeping bags. I thought we would spend the night sleeping on a mat in a tent, so a nice little A-frame hut with a hot water bottle at my toes after a day of really slow walking in a pretty forest. Piece of cake!

how kili came to be.

mawenzi ridge at dawn

Last December, as I was saying goodbye to DC, I spent an evening hanging out with my friend Dan. He played Jose Gonzalez on his Martin and we talked about respective futures - mine filled with Africa, his filled with international arbitration. We were equally excited about our diverging paths, and as I ducked out into a mist-filled dusk, I said good night with "Kili 2010!"

Nine months later, thanks to the economic downturn and my tendency to say "sure, why not?," Dan was scheduling a nice long holiday and suggested we take the Kili trip early. "Sure, why not?" I didn't have anything else solid on the calendar in September.

As the summer passed, August 28 came at me like a slow motion, un-dodge-able bullet. With my name on it. I rushed to get everything in line with One Mango Tree so that I could piss off on yet another holiday (one which I was quite sure I did not really deserve). To climb a mountain, at that. I went to yoga a few days before climbing - that constituted my training.

With the summit now in the rear view mirror and attention turning to riots in Kampala and the annoying pain in my left toe nail that reminds me it's going to fall off, it's somehow hard to believe I was ever on those beautiful slopes. So I figured I'd write about it, before the details become even more fleeting.