Oct 6, 2018 | So close yet so far: a postcard from Kilimanjaro
Five years have passed since I hiked to the top of Kilimanjaro; it happened precisely on the morning of 16th September 2013. It surprises me how vivid this memory still remains. Especially the last day of the hike, a lonely path from the last camp of Barafu towards the peak, I remember as bright as if it happened yesterday – maybe because finishing a PhD feels EXACTLY like that day. I have to say up front that I apologize for the graphic descriptions and for non-parliamentary words. But well, this is a real story, so I will add no sugar to it.
So, the sun was already high in the sky, but we were still slowly crawling up the hill. This was obviously not going according to the plan; the plan was to stand on the very peak at sunrise, just like everybody else, then peacefully head down and safely reach the last base before the afternoon comes. An afternoon can be nasty in the mountains, as this is when thunderstorms tend to strike the sluggish hikers. But well, someone did not calibrate the planning properly, and when the altitude sickness kicks in, it is too hard to plan anymore. So there we were my guide and me, slowly progressing up in the morning sun, and arguing on the way like an old marriage.
A few days earlier, we had departed from Machame gate in a pursue to hike Mount Kilimanjaro. It was September of 2013, and I embarked on this trip as the last venture before I start a PhD. There are a few routes you can choose from once you attempt to hike Mount Kilimanjaro. Machame is a very scenic route, going through five different climate zones, starting from the rain forest, going through an Alpine landscape, sub-desert, desert, and ending in the Arctic zone. Everything was going quite smoothly; every day, I would wake up as one of the last tourists on the trail, slowly put myself together in the morning, departure at the end of the column, and then, during the day, exceed pretty much everyone on the way up, and arrive at the next camp as one of the first visitors. I was jumping from stone to stone like a mountain goat, and could not wait for the final peak attack planned for the fifth day of hiking. In high mountains, you need to walk around at a certain altitude, and preferably, cross the barrier of 4,000atsl a few times before you make the final attempt to reach the peak. This is all very important for the acclimatization process that will eventually allow you to survive in a low concentration of oxygen that would otherwise kill you after a few minutes. I was feeling well at such level, although my nose was freezing in the cold, and every night I had a hard time falling asleep for that reason. Also, anti-malaria medicine – an obligatory supplement in Tanzania – makes the skin of your palms more susceptible to sunshine, and it is easy to get your fingers sunburnt for that reason. That obviously hurts, but you take one glance at the Uhuru peak looming in the distance and all the pain is over.
The last day before the final attempt was a bit different though. I felt dizzy and tired, and I was not really in a mood to be the fastest hiker on the trail anymore. I had a chat with some Polish couple at lunch and it was surprising to me how fresh they still were, especially given than they were both in their mid-fifties and with not-too-much interest in sports. When we reached the last base, Barafu, the only thing I was dreaming about was taking a nap. At Kilimanjaro, every tourist has a personal guide who is supposed to get track of your health and general condition. The guide is responsible for taking decisions on whether or not their client is eligible for the peak attack, and what strategy to take in order to maximize the chances that the peak will eventually be reached. My personal guide, Goodluck, was a 25-year old kid, who had hiked the peak exactly 50 times before he encountered me on his way. Goodluck is a popular name in Tanzania, by the way.
About Goodluck, I had mixed feelings about him from the beginning. Unlike many other guides, he did not bother to learn English very well and hiking for a week next to someone who barely understands what you are saying is a real pain. It took me two hours to explain to him that I was actually on a honeymoon trip – alone because my ex-fiance had run before the wedding. I am still not sure if he ever got the story, but anyways, communicating anything to Goodluck was just hard. After a few days I simply gave up, and I was just hiking next to him in silence, trying to concentrate on enjoying the views and sunshine. Yet, Goodluck was not yet another guide. Goodluck was special – he was very career-oriented. Yes, at Kilimanjaro, you can have a career path as well. In this business, everyone starts as a porter boy. Then, if you are good, you can be promoted to a cook and earn a higher salary. If you are really experienced and physically strong though, you can get additional education in a special school for Kilimanjaro guides, and become one. And if you are a very successful guide, you can run your own agency that organizes trips to Kilimanjaro – this is the end of the ladder. Also, the crew members are quite competitive and did not trust members of other teams. ‘Never leave your shoes in front of the tent’ – I used to hear from Goodluck and my porters. Seriously? Someone would take my dirty boots at Kilimanjaro? I couldn’t believe that. But apparently, that was a possibility so I was doing what I was told.
So, Goodluck had his career plans. ’I want to have my own company’ – he told me once. And he really behaved as if he did. He seemed to be really determined to make me hike this mountain no matter what. He was making sure that I finish every meal and he did not allow me to leave the cook’s tent before I ate everything till the last bit. I was complaining like a kid at every dinner; every evening I had four to five different dishes to go through, and it was so much food that it was taking me over two and half hours to finish. I was almost in tears at the end. Plus, a plate of porridge at every meal was giving me terrible diarrhea. But Goodluck was implacable – the food needed to be swallowed till the last bit.
This last evening before the final hike, he was a bit concerned about my condition. He noticed that I slowed down in the past few hours, and he was deliberating how to approach this. But nevertheless, he took a decision that we were going to depart at 2 a.m. in the night rather than at midnight as most of the others. There was only one narrow trail to the peak, and he was afraid of the freezing cold on the way up, in case we get stuck in a traffic jam. Plus, he believed that, since I was generally faster than most in the others, we might appear on the peak way too early, before sunrise. At this time it is dark and cold at the peak, it is hard to take any photos and there is nothing better to do than turn around and come back to the base.
I was seriously sleep-deprived at that point and as my nose was getting frozen again, I knew it would be very hard to fall asleep right now, in a double-cold tent at 4,700atsl. Goodluck could foresee that one too, and he knew how much sleep deprived I already was at that point. The guides at Kilimanjaro have their own code of conduct; they are normally quite formal with their customers and keep some distance from them. For instance, they share the tent with the crew whereas the customer has their own, separate tent. But there was no time for formalities at that point. ‘You are staying with us today’ – Goodluck ordered and pushed me inside their tent. When five people breathe next to each other and the tent is hermetic enough, the temperature of the air is going higher – high enough for my nose not to get frozen again. So I became an extra, fifth layer in a huge sandwich, squeezed between the guide, the cook and two porters. It was very rather tight and altogether, everyone felt quite uncomfortable about the whole situation. But after all, I managed to fall asleep so I would call it a success.
The wake-up call at 2 am is never pleasant – especially when the temperature is as low as -20C, and there is not too much spare oxygen around. From the last camp, you departure with the guide next to you while the rest of the crew stays in the camp, and the only thing they can do is wishing you luck. And so we went, in the two of us: one last journey uphill.
I knew very well from the beginning that I was not in good shape anymore. For most people, altitude sickness takes the shape of a headache. But for me, the symptoms were different: I felt good on my mind, but my legs got completely de-oxygenated. They just became like two trunks, which I had to drag behind me. I had the first crisis at Kosovo, a small pre-peak on the way, still quite close to the camp. It was steep and rocky, and I almost broke my leg at some point while jumping from one rock to another in the dark. At that point, something tweaked on my mind: I realized how tired I already was, how far ahead the peak still was (and it was still like 1200 meters uphill), and how ridiculous this whole situation was. I started crying all of a sudden, but Goodluck did not seem to be moved by that in any way. I guess he was just used to such situations, so he did not even slow down. I had no better choice but to start chasing after him.
I was so slow at hiking though… Slower with every step. At some point, I started counting steps to ten, and after every tenth step, I was making a break by hanging my trunk on the Nordic walking sticks I was handling and letting my legs rest a bit. I just could not speed up. You know, it is hard to predict how your body would react to such unusual, low-oxygen conditions; at Kilimanjaro, it is common to see sixty-year-old, American housewives hiking to the summit in flip flops as well as marathon runners who need to drop out just because they go mental at a certain altitude. You just cannot predict the outcome before you try yourself with this mountain.
Furthermore, I started panicking as soon as I started passing by people coming back from the peak. At Kilimanjaro, one slope is sandy, whereas the other one is rocky. The trail uphill is deliberately delineated on the rocky side, and the trail downhill is on the sandy side, so that you do not slide on your feet while going upwards, but you slide while going downwards so that you can come back to the camp at double speed. This detail is important because it basically means that people who successfully reached the peak, are going back to the last camp by another, sandy trail and those who you pass by once you are on your way up are people who failed and had to turn around. Therefore, people whom you meet on the way are basically ONLY the people who failed. That does not help your psychic either; you recognize most of these people, as you were hiking the same trail every day for the past few days. So, obviously, it immediately comes to your mind: ‘damn, this guy failed, that girl failed… what would I make it then?’
And, at some point, these people just stopped passing by. ‘Hum, why is this?’ – I thought. ‘Are we so late that everyone is either on the top or back in the base?’ The darkness was slowly fading away, and it brought me even more stress – the plan was to stand at the peak at sunrise but now it became obvious that we were only halfway, if not worse. Goodluck’s English, of course, did not miraculously get any better in the meantime. Now, in the thin air, his inability to communicate was even more annoying than usual. He used to ask ‘what?’ in a response to every question, but it can be really painful if you are struggling to even ask the question in the first place, and get a pant every time you say a word. At some point, I asked him: ‘Are we far from the peak?’ After a few rounds of ‘whats’, he finally got the question, pointed at the rim of the slope that we were approaching, and answered: ‘well, the peak is just behind that rim’. So I fixed my eyes on the rim, and pursued towards the target, hoping that this is going to be the end of the nightmare… only to discover that once we reach that point, there is no peak – there is just another rim ahead. I lost any remaining patience at that point. ’You liar!’ – I yelled at him. ‘You wouldn’t have made it up here if I had told you the truth’ – he peacefully answered. – ‘You would have just turned around and gone down’. That might have been actually true, but at that point, I was too pissed and too oxygen-deprived to analyze the situation rationally. ‘F*** you!’ – I was yelling and shaking from anger. I was annoyed at him for not calculating our chances of getting to the summit in time properly; if he had observed me more carefully for the past few days, he would have actually got the idea that departing two hours after everybody else was not the best idea.
My anger reached a peak when I met a familiar group of people coming downhill, which was the first group in many hours that we encountered on the way. In that group, there were two girls I had talked to on the way. They stopped by and they both looked puzzled by the fact that I am still on the way up by this time, and that we even meet. I was puzzled too, as I thought that they did not make it. ‘Did you miss?’ – I asked. ‘No, we went all the way to the very summit’ – they answered. – ‘What are you doing here?’ ‘Hey, I am still on the way up. But, what are YOU doing here? The descent trail is elsewhere’. ‘This is the descent trail’ – they told me. I took a look at my feet and indeed, I was standing in the sand rather than on the rock. It turned out that for the past few hours, I had been floundering in the sand, instead of hiking the proper trail, only because the home-grown psychologist Goodluck took an independent decision to drag me out of the right trail, towards the sand. He just decided that hiking the sandy trail is a lesser evil than the demotivating view of people coming back with a failure. That also might have made some sense but it drove me nuts.
In other situations, I would have turned around at that point, but I just didn’t want these two girls to see that I was giving up, so I pretended that everything was fine and I continued crawling upwards. ‘You idiot! You bastard!’ – I yelled at Goodluck when he was alone again, but he seemed to be completely unimpressed by this.
And, finally, we reached Stella Point. Stella is a pre-peak in the massive of Kilimanjaro, just a hundred meters below the Uhuru Peak, and if you reach that point, you can call yourself successful. But of course, everyone still wants to get to the very end of the road: to reach the green board saying ‘Congratulations! you are now at Uhuru peak, Tanzania, 5895 atsl’. I made myself a break at Stella, and just laid down for like half an hour. Some people were approaching and asking Goodluck if I was even alive. ‘It is fine, she is just striking’ – he was answering with a smile. Finally, I stood up and started crawling towards the peak again. Now, it was a true nightmare; my limbs completely stopped listening to me, I finally caught a little headache and the sun was so high in the sky that I was fairly sure that we were the very last people on the trail. Goodluck was determined to make it a success though. ‘You cannot just spoil my plans’ – he said. – ‘I need to set my own company, and I need to have good statistics for that purpose’. Good statistics… Well, indeed, I must admit that his balance was way better than most of the other guides’ scores; officially, the mean success rate across all the six routes to the peak is around 50% whereas Goodluck’s performance was 87% at that point. He was just determined like nobody else. At some point, when my legs started whirling in different directions without any control, he grabbed my arm and started dragging me uphill almost by force. He never made me feel like he even cared who I was as a person, but this one thing was the point of honor for him: drag me all the way, whenever I want it or not.
And, we finally arrived at the peak. He grabbed my camera and made a number of photos in order to collect clear evidence that the mission was successful so that we get a diploma at the base. I was just standing at the board like a piece of wood, trying to emulate a smile. ‘It will look better on Facebook this way’ – I was trying to convince myself to make this last effort.
Then, we turned around and we have run down towards the camp. We were sliding down through the sands at the speed of light, and in an hour or so, we were back at the camp. The crew was happy to hear that the mission ended up with a success. In practice, a happy customer equals a higher tip, so I totally understand this outburst of joy. Also, finally, one puzzle got solved; I was wondering from the beginning why Goodluck had been dragging a half-a-liter bottle of Fanta all the way from the Machame gate. So, Fanta was there to celebrate the successful summit attack, and now, he proudly opened it. It was warm and disgusting. Well…
* * *
After coming back to Europe, I was thinking about this whole story many times. On the way up, I requested to turn around to the camp a few times, and Goodluck just ignored my requests. Officially, if the client requests, there is no choice: you must turn around to the camp. But he did not listen. Eventually, I reached the peak, but was this because he was so determined to make me succeed at my personal goals? No, he was determined to achieve his own goals. So, was risking my health a matter of altruism? No… But did it eventually work for me? Well, yes… It was very hard for me to make up my mind about what all of this means in terms of work ethics and teamwork in general. Is that the goal always justifies the means? I felt guilty for throwing all the invectives at him on the way up, so I gave him a really high tip at the end. And, we never met again.