Midnight on Kilimanjaro: The Moment of Truth
It’s midnight on Kilimanjaro. It’s pitch dark and it’s cold. Bitter cold. They woke you up at 11:00 to get ready. You fumble to get dressed in your tent, bent over at the waist with only a headlamp to guide you. You stumble out into the darkness and the cold air slaps you in the face. You eat a bowl of runny porridge. The same awful runny porridge you’ve eaten every morning for a week. Six days of awful runny porridge. Six days of climbing up, climbing down and climbing up again. 10,000 feet. 13,000. 15,000. Just a little more than 4,000 feet to go. 4,000 feet. The mood is sombre. The group is cold and tired. No one is talking. You can see your breath. 4,000 feet to go. It’s summit day. It’s midnight on Kilimanjaro.
After an hour it feels like a death march. You move like a zombie in the dark and in the quiet. You’re part of one long train of slow moving zombies. The headlamps litter the sky. A sea of headlamps. You look up and there they are – the slow moving train of zombies with headlamps, snaking through the mountain. Up. Up. It nearly breaks your spirit. So many zombies, so far ahead of you. So many headlamps. So much higher to go. You look behind you and it’s the same. One slow moving train of zombies with headlamps snaking beneath you. It’s disheartening. So you put your head down and focus on your boots.
Two hours and you’re freezing. You need to find your zen. You try counting your steps but it’s too slow so you create a pattern. Wiggle your left hand. Wiggle your left foot. Your right foot. Right hand. That doesn’t work. Then you notice a rhythm. Your nose is so runny that you can’t stop sniffing. Step, step, sniff, you notice. Step, step, sniff. That becomes your mantra. Your zen.
Step, step, sniff.
The man in front of you is tired. Unsteady. You know if he falls, you fall, so you steady him with a hand to his back. You offer up platitudes like “You can do it man.” Step step sniff.
The pain in your shoulder is sharp. You can tell it’s not muscle. Your pack must be sitting awkwardly, hitting a nerve. You try to adjust your pack but all your water has frozen and it’s too heavy. The pain is now excruciating. Then it goes away. Step, step, sniff.
You keep adjusting your balaclava to cover your freezing nose. But when you cover your nose you can’t breathe so you alternate between breathing and protecting your nose. The breathing usually wins out. Step, step, sniff.
You stumble on the skree and go down on all fours. Your knee hits a sharp rock and you hope it doesn’t bleed and stick to your clothes. The slow moving train of zombies with headlamps stops to wait for you to get up. You try to stand but your pack full of frozen water is weighing you down. Someone behind you helps you up and the slow moving train starts up again. You forget to say thank you.
It’s supposed to take six hours. You now have no idea what time it is but you’re afraid to ask. It’s still dark. Very dark. Step, step, sniff.
Your toes are freezing so you try to wiggle them in your boots. The same boots that saw you through six days of climbing up. The boots that you’ve been staring at for hours. The boots that betray you in the cold. The boots you now despise.
You feel a sharp stab in your left quad. You remember that pain from two days ago but you thought it had gone away. The pain gets sharper, like a knife in your leg. You want to rub it but you’re afraid of halting the rhythm of the slow moving train of zombies with headlamps. It goes away. Step, step, sniff.
Polé polé whispers the porter. Polé polé is Swahili for slowly, slowly. You’ve heard that phrase often this week, but this time you listen. The porter is part Massai and he’s inherited the regal demeanour and soft, gentle voice. Polé polé, he whispers again as he slides a bar of chocolate into your hand. You don’t like chocolate but you need it. You try to break off a chunk but it’s frozen solid. You manage to chip off a piece and slide it under your tongue to let it melt. But your nose is so clogged you have to keep your mouth open. A thick glob of chocolate tries to slide out so you suck it back in along with the cold air. You start to choke. You need water but remember it’s frozen. “I’m okay” you explain between choking coughs. “It’s the chocolate.”
Step, step, sniff … cough.
They call them switchbacks. It’s too steep to go straight up so the slow moving train of zombies with headlamps zigs … and then zags. It seems like a waste of time but you’ve lost any cockiness to prove your point. Polé polé. Step, step, sniff.
The group in front of you is moving too slowly so your group breaks away for a bit and climbs up the rock face. You scramble on all fours hoping your pack with the frozen water won’t throw you off balance. You pass a group of Chinese climbers and one of them whispers “American Ninja!” You let the American thing slide and accept the compliment with a smile. Your group makes it back into the slow moving train of zombies with headlamps. The pace is good. Not too fast, but not so slow that your feet freeze. Step, step, sniff.
The ascent is so steep now that you think your Achilles tendon might snap. Unlikely you remind yourself. Your heartbeat is off the charts. The slow moving train of zombies with headlamps stops for a moment to catch their breath. But it’s too cold to stand still so you move on – polé polé. Step, step, sniff.
Now your hands are cold. You try wiggling your fingers in the gloves, within the mitts, within the pockets. It doesn’t work. And now your nose is freezing but you don’t want to take your hands out of your pockets to warm your face. Step step sniff.
You need more chocolate but you can’t find it in your pocket. You know there’s food in your pack but now you wonder why you even brought the pack if everything in it is frozen and your hands are too cold to reach into it anyway. You find some two-day old trail mix in another pocket. You eat it along with the mountain dirt and the sand. The grit crunches in your teeth. You have to chew with your mouth open so you can breathe. Some of it falls out of your mouth and lands on your knee. You don’t care. Polé polé. Step, step, sniff.
You hit a plateau. The slow moving train of zombies with headlamps stops and people are cheering. You’re not sure why. A porter pulls out a thermos with hot water and hands out cashews. Sweet, beautiful porter with his hot water and his cashews. “Almost there,” explains your guide. Almost there. The sun is starting to rise and the slow moving train begins again. Polé polé. You round the corner and look up. Sweet Mother of God! All you see are three huge ridges separating you and the summit. The plateau with the hot water and the cashews was just a cruel ploy you realize, as you stare at the three huge ridges separating you and the summit. Damn you evil porter with your hot water and your cashews.
You’re in a dark place. It’s almost 6:00 in the morning now and the slow moving train of zombies with headlamps keeps climbing. And then it happens. The epiphany. The moment of truth. That short moment of clarity when the voice in your head screams in silence: WHAT THE HELL? I ACTUALLY PAID TO GO THROUGH THIS?!