They say the only people who can call it ‘Kili’ are the people who have reached its summit, gazed upon its glaciers, felt the biting cold of -25 degrees and wrestled with the unpredictable influence of altitude on both their bodies and mind. Mike successfully ascended neighbouring Mt Kenya at 5450 metres only a few days previously and recalled the journey as he sat in the van for the journey back to Nairobi. He wondered whether he had the energy to summit the mountain he had really come to climb – Mt Kilimanjaro.
He was exhausted after a 4:00am start, three hours of trekking only using headlamps, then a 21 km trek out to the final camp. The summit attempt on Mt Kenya had been exhausting enough and his reaction to the altitude had been pronounced – the -15 degrees temperatures had been confronting to say the least. Oh well, he figured that his first shower for a week and a real bed in Nairobi would change his attitude – at least his dreams would be more positive as the altitude influenced recurring nightmares each night as he slept above 4000 metres.
The familiar sound of the rustling of the tent, the steaming black tea with sugar and the sparkling and friendly smile of a guide greeted Mike, still rubbing his eyes. “It can’t be 11:00pm already”…. he thought as he accepted the tea in his gloved hands. The summit ascent on Mt Kilimanjaro was the business end of the trip. These types of adventures simplify your thoughts down to trekking, eating, drinking tea and moving forward – following your guide as if in a chain gang – synchronised to every step. As with all adventures there was some uncertainty whether you could achieve your goal. This type of adventure was intoxicating to Mike who loved the singular focus of attention where every gram of energy was directed to one thing. All aspects of mind, body and spirit needed to be in synch.
He drank his tea and swallowed his Diamox to minimize altitude sickness and then pulled on his boots, added another layer of ice-breaker and then donned his down jacket, neck-warmer and gloves. He had four layers on the upper body and three on his legs. Mike had just completed an exhausting day of rolling hills and valleys, climbing high then dropping down in altitude and the residual muscle soreness was felt as he crawled from the cocoon of his tent. He ate a tentative breakfast of porridge and black tea. Fluids were the key as he downed his third cup. He stared at other members of the team across the table in the food tent and didn’t say a word. He was usually jovial, buoyant in mood but he was now uncertain and apprehensive. No one knew how they would react to the altitude, so confidence would create a false bravado. He donned his headlamp and pack and began walking as the four guides interspersed themselves between the seven trekkers.
He began, warming quickly, breathing vapour, synchronising his steps and followed. It was difficult to look up as some 200 trekkers congregated for the communal pilgrimage to the summit, all routes intersecting at this base camp. The glow of headlamps far ahead looked more like fireflies in the night. Rest breaks were mixed affairs as Mike’s breathing became more relaxed but cold tore at the extremities of toes and fingers as he drank a frozen slushy from the drink bottle. He went through various stages as he climbed higher –feeling strong, dizzy, cold, exhausted and then the sequence would begin again. The dizzy spells meant that he walked like a drunkard and his walking pole became his stabilizing structure. The altitude was worming its way into his body and mind.
Some unlucky trekkers lay sprawled out on the ground, gasping for oxygen that was not there, others futilely argued with guides who forced them to descend showing signs of cerebral edema or pulmonary edema. It was difficult to feel emphatic as all his energy was focused on his own efforts. Mike kept his head down and plodded on, unsteady, unrelenting for hours, occasionally glimpsing a light, as if it was a star too far above to be motivating ……A final push and then there was no more looking up, only the kind embrace of a guide congratulating the weary trekkers. He sat exhausted, drinking tea, unable to speak, panting due to the steepness of the final push and then the final team member arrived. They had all made it …..
He scrambled the last gentle slope to 5900 metres, sun rising over the glaciers, hands freezing, too cold to take photos, but somehow he did. Final photos were taken at the highest point to verify the accomplishment, but Mike knew this was nothing compared to what his angelic mother went through every day ….. fighting, moving forward and repeating this over and over with a spirit way larger than her 30kg body. She sat painting her colorful scenes, mixing paint, combining the colours until they were just right for her picture. She decorated her room, suspending her bodily pain as she entered another place while she painted which was a tranquil, peaceful place. She became lost in the colour of her creation. She became lost in her own spirit of adventure – wandering to distant places through her son.
Mike scrambled back to camp, stumbling, stopping frequently, exhausted. He had expended all his energy for the upward journey and there was nothing left in the fuel tank. He made it back to the tent, crawled in and then cherished the weightlessness of his feet – 10 hours return and then he slept. The paint strokes steadily layered another colour on the canvas, bright, exuberant, joyously embracing life with every second priceless, another gift of time to pursue her love of life. She had climbed with him that day, inspiring his efforts, counselling him as only she knew how, calming him, encouraging him to reach for the stars and other lofty heights. His insatiable need for adventure would never be satisfied, simply calmed for the moment….