I’m not going to make it.
I have this thought halfway through the very first walk on the very first day. It’s pretty clear to me that I’m unprepared. After only four hours of walking, I’m already tired – and this is the easy part; we haven’t reached any of the steep hills of the later few days yet.
The guides say there are 5 rules to climbing Kilimanjaro. Drink lots of water, eat well, sleep lots, go slowly and stay positive. I’m struggling already with all of these things except for the pole-pole (slowly slowly) – in fact, it seems that my interpretation of “slowly” is much more generous than what the guides have in mind.
That night, after I finally reach camp with sore calves and aching shoulders from carrying too many unnecessary things in my bag and recover by doing nothing but sitting in the mess tent drinking coffee and eating popcorn and massaging my poor muscles, I collapse into the minimal warmth of my sleeping bag and have a long hard talk to myself. I have the painful realisation that I’m not strong enough or fit enough to get up this mountain through the use of my body alone. If I’m going to make it to the top, then I need to employ every ounce of willpower and positive thinking and determination (my friends kindly refer to this as “stubbornness”) that I have. The decision to climb Kili was, for me, all about the mental challenge, anyway. Pushing myself and finding my limits was exactly what I signed up for. I tell myself that there is no point in complaining when this is exactly where I want to be, exactly what I want to be doing, exactly what I need.
Day Two is, unhelpfully, much harder. We walk up and down steep ridges and scramble over rocks which seem, to my 5″3 (just) frame, to be more like boulders. Carrying less in my pack is helpful but, still, I am exhausted. Arriving at camp brings beautiful feelings of relief. I tell myself I’ve managed two tough days. Even though it didn’t feel like I would at times, I got up the hills and over the rocks and safely to the camp. Just five more days. I’ve got this.
The wind picks up and the night is freezing. I put on all of my warm clothes and huddle down in my sleeping bag but still I’m cold. I wake at 6am, stiff and cold and low-spirited. By the tent next to mine, a group of Kiwi guys start playing music from their portable speaker. They’ve made a ridiculous playlist filled with any song that mentions “Kilimanjaro” or climbing mountains. Each new song makes me giggle. I lay on my thin sleeping mat and remind myself to focus more on the good experiences of being up the mountain than the bad.
Finally, I find my rhythm. Day Three is a long, gradual hike uphill. My hiking poles beat out a steady click-clack and I soon find myself in a somewhat meditative state. I am transfixed by the beauty of being on this mountain. I am so lucky to be outside, to be in the sunshine, to be camping, to be meeting new people, to be looked after so well by the guides and chef and porters, to be learning about myself, to be above the clouds, to be reaching new literal heights every day, to be here.
The last couple of hours are less transcendent. As we hike downhill towards camp, my mind is filled with nothing but the repetitive mantra of I should have spent more time on the leg press. Nevertheless, as I collapse into my camp chair in the mess tent, I feel exhilarated and strong and alive. I’m loving this.
When I look at the beginning of the climb of Day Four, I have to remind myself to breathe. From camp, Barranco Wall is intimidating, and my calves shudder just at the thought of climbing up there. I breathe slowly. Challenges are only worthwhile if they’re actually challenging. I’ll get up that rock face simply because I have to. I may be calling myself lots of names on this mountain, but “quitter” is not going to be one of them.
Many of the rocks need to be properly climbed over. I ditch the poles and scramble up on my hands and knees. It’s been a long time since I’ve been on terrain like this. As I climb, I feel playful, loving the adventure. I soon realise that I’m grinning, giggling, genuinely loving this experience so much. I start to wonder if the altitude it making me delirious. How is it possible that I’m so happy? When we reach the top I am exuding enthusiasm, bounding about taking photos and gasping at the view, and I have to be reminded to sit down and drink water.
As I gaze out at the view below, I realise that I’m simply remembering things about myself: that I love being outside, that I can adapt easily to uncomfortable situations, that I’m tough (yes, okay, stubborn), that my body loves exercise, that I love challenges and the sense of accomplishment that comes with them, and that happiness comes easily to me. These are things that I let myself forget as I lost myself in the usual boring misery of adulthood. As I focussed more on the difficulties of being “grown up”, I forgot how to play. And as I got older, I began to doubt myself more and more. I lost any sense of self-belief and lived in states of fear. I told myself personal narratives that ignored the kinder facts and focussed instead on anything negative. I did not think I could climb a mountain. And yet, here I am, I think to myself. Not only am I climbing a mountain but I’m also loving it.
It’s at midnight of Day Six that we start the walk to the summit. There are only three words to describe this: cold and steep and dark. But I’ve got it. I’ve got the steady click-clack rhythm. I’ve got the knowledge that the pain and cold is temporary. I’ve got the excitement of knowing that the end is so close. Just keep walking. Just keep walking. It’s tough and yet it’s so simple – just one more step, then another, then another. It takes 6.5 hours but then I see it, the summit sign, and there are people around me congratulating me and the guide hugs me and there may be tears in my eyes and forgive me for swearing but it’s cold and I’m exhilarated and I have fucking made it.
The rest is inconsequential. Getting down the mountain is tough but, at the gate, I pick up my certificate and I feel self-pride spread throughout my body, replacing the pain and exhaustion and desperation for a shower. I’m not used to feeling proud of myself.
It’s a beautiful feeling.