In January, I found myself in Tanzania. I was attempting to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa and seventh tallest in the world. It's summit is over 23,000 feet. Most climbing stories are filled with conquest, or at least heroic survival in the face of difficult odds. This is not one of them.
I didn’t finish. I didn’t even come close. In fact, my adventure was one of the shortest climbs in Kili history.
When I arrived at the town of Kilimanjaro, I was very sick. I didn’t know it but I was coming down with the flu. I thought maybe I had gotten some food poisoning, having had a bad ostrich “Philly Cheese Steak” the night before. I assumed my stomach would quickly get better. Travel sickness for me is usually a "pass through", remedied with over the counter medication.
However, the next day, I was not feeling different. Instead I just lay in my hot, small and depressing room, the click, click, click of a fan overhead, sweating, feverish, and frequently vomiting. I was sick, as in only "Africa sick", which is a special kind of horror. Unless you've been there it's hard to describe, but suffice to say, death seems like a workable option.
Having missed my first days departure, I tried again the next morning, feeling a bit stronger. I had paid a lot of money, told a lot of people I was going, did a lot of planning and traveled a long way to make this climb. I did not want to be denied so I put forward a good face and headed out. I assumed all would be well. Sadly, I assumed wrong.
I went up a trail called Rongai, which is described as the easiest path to the summit. It is gentle and sloping. Rongai has the highest success rate of any of the trails up Kilimanjaro. At the first camp, after a normally easy hike of two hours and ten thousand feet, I collapsed into my tent. I had been "two exits, no waiting" the entire hike up, rushing into the bush every ten minutes. Though incredibly nauseous, to my horror, my porters kept trying to feed me
“Dabid, you must eat," came the plea.
“Please" I moaned. "I need to rest!”
“Dabid! Please. Will be very bad if you do not. Have potat and soup and pasta and chicken,” came more strident wide-eyed efforts.
“OK", I weakly submitted. "Potato. But then sleep."
I meekly pushed some food around on my plate, and lay staring.
That night was filled with hourly up and outs from my small tent into the cold mountain air. Sweating, feverish, I vomited and worse. I think there is a special place in hell called "African bush toilet" and I was there with frightening regularity. At about four o'clock in the morning I knew I was not going a step closer to the summit. Not even close. I was done. My goal to climb Kili was over.
It was pretty clear from morning conversations with my guide that he agreed. If I could not climb a simple trail for a few hours, than I might die if I pushed into harsh conditions. At the moment I only wished I was dead, and that's a big difference from the real thing. So, we decided to stay at camp an extra day, enjoy the most of what we could, rest, and then head back down the trail to the entrance. It was not a hard decision, as my body made it for me.
That next day in camp I hung with my crew, telling lots of stories and doing lots of singing. I got to know my porters, cooks and guides in a way one usually does not because you are often separated by protocols and the task at hand. But since I was “the boss” and there was no task at hand, all I craved was conversation. We talked about family, life in Tanzania, how hard and cold Kili is at the top, and that my guide had summited over 200 times. I found out he was the guide for Jimmy Carter, when he climbed Kili, though apparently he too didn’t summit. President Carter did, however, go a lot further than me. Of course, so close to the election, we also talked a lot about Obama. We ended the day speaking of the dreams we had for our children and the world. As night fell, we said "Lala salama", or "Good night" before heading to our separate tents.
The next day I hiked down to where I had started. My legs still wobbly, but feeling better. Tanzania is very concerned with bureaucracy and the leaving of a park when you are not supposed to is no different. The last morning after breakfast, I was introduced to the area ranger who asked me to fill out the log book. It was an old accountants ledger, musty smelling, ratty and falling apart. I called it “The Book of Shame”, because while you filled it out, the ranger making sure no mistakes were made, pointed out each item to be accurately completed. There was a column for your name, passport number, number in your party, etc. There was exactly ten columns for data, including the reason you were leaving early, and again why you needed to leave early.
This was the first camp, and not too hard to reach, so there were few entries in the book. In fact, the last entry was six months earlier, and in ten years of log keeping they had compiled exactly forty entries. You do the math. Suffice to say, I was in a very select group. The ranger gave me a dismissive look that said, “You sad sad man”, snapped close the log and whipped away without a word.
When I exited the park, I was again asked to sign an identical book with an identical looking ranger. I called this log, “The Book of Failure”. Same questions, same procedure, and same attitude. To add insult to injury, the ranger concluded by saying, “Please sir. Sit here. Not with the porters”, separating me as if I was an infected leper. It takes some serious “I’m OK, you’re OK” not to feel totally demoralized when twice reminded of how little was accomplished. Following a two hour ride back to the hotel, and a quick shower, I was headed home to New Hampshire.
So? Here's the question. After thousands of dollars, untold hours of training and planning, not to mention the travel, was it worth it?
I can only say this.
During my first dreadful night of sickness on the mountain, I dreamt a lot about pineapple and apple cider. I was so parched from fever and dehydration that my dreams had me drinking or trying to drink all through the night. In the morning, exhausted and weary, and confronting my quick abandonment of the mountain, I asked my cook, "Do you have pineapple?" His face erupted into a smile. Ten minutes later a plate emerged with bright yellow slices of fruit. As I sat watching the sun rise on Kilimanjaro, enjoying a sense of peace that can only come from total detachment, I took my first bite. The taste was indescribable. It was the best pineapple I had ever tasted. In fact, it was the best damn thing I had ever tasted, period. Kilimanjaro, which had so clearly humbled me, had also brought me to a state of complete bliss. It was an extraordinary moment.
Carl Jung said, "Every defeat for the ego is a victory for the soul." On Kilimanjaro, the victory in what had been accomplished for my soul was through a most unlikely route. I was again reminded that sometimes we grow more through subtraction than addition, and in what is not accomplished is where our greatest forward progress can occur.