Do you remember when you were a kid and drew pictures of mountains? In my world at least, they were always drawn in a half moon shape, big fluffy clouds, and a sun hovering over in a big round circle with squiggly lines dancing on the paper. The sun ALWAYS had a big smiley face drawn on it, well because the sun is always happy. The sky was scratched in with manic looking blue lines from my crayon to finish off my masterpieces. Peaceful, happy, innocent – brainwashed as a mere child for sure. Mt. Kilimanjaro is NOTHING like that. Holy Crap! I’m not sure who wrote the ‘Easy Climb -Mt. Kilimanjaro’ brochure but they are grossly misinformed.
Of course, the mountain is majestic with lush rain forest in the beginning. Only to fool you, my dear. I was lured in with the promise of a small incline as I traipsed up the path. Soon the incline turned into steep rocks, narrow dirt path, and before you know it my calves were screaming obscenities at me. After a grueling 5 hours of your body getting used to walking you are rewarded with a night’s sleep. As innocent as a wee babe, I fell asleep thinking the worst may be over. Because, well, remember mountains are crescent-shaped (like the St. Louis arch) and that is easy. Right? See you tomorrow, smiley face sun dude!
On the second day, birds wake you up singing to trick you into thinking sunshine and blue skies ahead, baby! I’m sorry but a half hour in the reality sank in. Um, are we rock climbing? Yes. We. Are. Danielle. A long, narrow path up a rocky cliff, slowly creeping up above the clouds and there goes that silly reality showing you the “real” talk. Gorgeous views were thrown at me like confetti so I was drunk on the beauty of Mt. Kili. Your brain says, this is one helluva party! All the more to trick you, my dear. Did I forget to mention we did 7 hours of this?
Ahhhhh, day three starts out sweet and innocent batting the baby blues at you so you don’t really know what are behind those tricky eyes. The day of acclimating your body with hours upon hours of a slow baby step march up an incline as cold clouds roll in around you. I thought clouds were soft and fluffy and warm just like in the pictures I used to draw?! During the day we were honored with a break to eat lunch surrounded by huge lava rocks with chicken bones littered all over the mountain floor. Can I tell you something? It is quite liberating eating chicken like a Neanderthal on the side of a mountain, unshowered, with nails caked in dirt. For real. Not a care in the world. Me, my matted hair, surrounded by a beautiful team laughing at the absurdity of the mountain that tricked us all, as we talked about our poop. I have never talked about pooping this much in my whole 38 years. There is something raw and real about sharing poop stories with your fellow climbers. Forever bonded in our crap.
Day four – Barranco wall. Oh you, cheeky fool, you. In all honesty, my absolute favorite. Full of adrenaline and music blasting in my ear, I climbed this huge wall pretending I was wearing a Red Bull shirt because they endorsed my climb. Merely because this day surely deserves an endorsement from some major company for any extreme cliff climbing fool. This was also the most -punch her in the gut- kind of day as it sunk in how hard our porters worked for us. Porters are the sweet angels sent from Heaven to carry your over-packed duffel weighing as much as 40 pounds while carrying their own gear up and down the entire non-existent arch shaped mountain. Yep – a mountain with peaks, valleys, inclines, rock walls, and steep, steep, steep cliffs. Some carry bags on their heads, with non-sufficient gear, terrible shoes, and in the awful blazing heat to boot. They always gave a nod, followed with “jambo” (hello) and a “pole pole” (slow slow), as they passed by me panting and clinging on any unsteady rock within grasp. Bob, please don’t read that last part. A perspective punch in the eye that these precious humans work so hard to keep you alive and carry your stupid baby wipes and North Face gear for as little as $7 dollars a day to support their families that average about 5 dependents or more. But, they do so with pride, joy, and genuine smiles. We were also graced almost daily with dancing and singing by these men under the beautiful African sky. There is nothing more magical than hanging with 50 African men, singing and African booty dancing, laughing as you hear the song echoing around the mountain, in what seems like another world on another planet.
Full of dirt in every single crevice, master of the ‘go girl’ pee contraption for women, and teeth begging for a good flossing and a scrub brush, day five called me to hurry up and move! There was a ridiculous incline, rocky path, and a huge peak and valley calling me for dinner like my mom used to do when I was outside playing for hours and the sun was starting to set. It is chilly (then hot), hazy from the clouds rolling in around you, and long. Just for extra torture, a huge hill requires you to climb it before you can rest out your exhaustion at a camp with lunch waiting. The food is always outstanding and well worth the torture of climbing hours upon hours. We shoveled food down and prepared our time to climb a rock wall to Barafu Upper Camp (the friendly sister of Kosovo Camp). Friendly because most people camp at Kosovo and start their summit from there. Not us – we were blessed with the option to get to Barafu Upper Camp to set up camp for summit night and get the rock wall out of the way. Or shall I say “rock waterfall” because it was as if ages ago the rocks were a waterfall but now frozen in time. Basically, you have nothing to grip with but your poles and the arches of your feet. Try arching your feet in hiking boots. Good luck!
That is when the wave came crashing over me as we got past the rock waterfall and headed up the steep hill to the upper camp and the view became clear. There she was in all of her beauty and glory. The snow-capped tip of Mt. Kilimanjaro sparkling in the sun and wrapped in those big, fluffy white clouds I used to draw. So close I could almost lick the snow off the cap like a snow cone. Then He spoke (not that big booming voice like in the movies but with a gentle whisper), “Sweet child, from the side of a bridge to the top of a mountain. Our journey almost complete yet so much more to come. A chapter to conclude and a new one to start. A joy and adventure beyond anything you could ever imagine. My grace is sufficient to erase all the pain, guilt, unworthiness, and shame away from that precious soul of yours. My beautiful child – you conquered mountains bigger and harder and darker than this. You jumped from a bridge and I caught you with the team of officers I sent. Tonight, I am by your side as I always am.” Tears poured down my face like that stupid rock waterfall I just climbed. A moment so surreal and peaceful that it felt dreamlike. That or the altitude was still kicking my butt.
Never will I forget that moment when He blessed me with an immeasurable amount of His love and placed a princess crown on my dirty, matted, smelly head as I approached the final camp before we summited that evening. Still a beauty in God’s eyes even though I am forever a hot mess. An elixir of bravery, strength, fortitude, and stupidity washed over my body in preparation for the night’s climb only hours away.
We ate an early dinner, laughed, prayed, and talked about poop – of course. Headed to our tents to pack and rested for a wake up call at midnight. Soooooooo, did you know it is freakin cold as you get close to the mountain top? Well – it is. The wind beat against the tent taunting the Hell out of me and kept me awake for an hour. Midnight rolled up and gear check and water check and let’s roll. Oh, what sweet ambitious babies we all were as we threw on our head lamps and headed off to conquer the summit. Two minutes and reality gave us all a swift kick in the butt. It was freezing cold, the wind was relentless, and what looked like a slight incline in the daytime turned out to be the steepest, rockiest, zigzagged path straight up to Hell. It was dark and all you could see were lights blipping up the mountain in zigzag formation as we all marched to what seemed like our death. The wind beat against our faces, causing momentary deafness, and we could no longer hear each other’s words of encouragement or the cheerful military cadences that we shouted to each other over the last six days on the mountain. Isolated and alone, but still on each other’s heels, the realization of mental strength slowly dying inside was scary. I wrestled with thoughts of giving up and I’m pretty sure I was only 10 minutes in. Time stood still as we summited so concept of time was simply that – a concept. Then altitude sickness choked me out, just enough to make me dizzy and drunk, with a sprinkle of hallucinations to keep me entertained. Back in the old days hallucinating was fun but lost its luster when I got sober and grew up. Yet, I’m pretty sure my ability to push through the dizziness and hallucinations without panicking was my only saving grace and the only benefit from my old, reckless days of partying. Seriously. I’m pretty sure anyone would have lost their mind in that condition on the summit for that many hours straight.
Hour two of “mountain drunk debauchery” was becoming unbearable. I said to myself, where is the red tap out button? All I have to do is tap the button, heating blankets, and an escalator will surely appear, right? Then sanity came back and I remembered – girl you are on a summit in Tanzania, Africa, and there ain’t no magical helicopters showing up to rescue you. I prayed. And prayed. And prayed for five hours straight. We had sporadic breaks and Oda (my guide) shoved sugar down my throat. I shouted, “Oda, am I going to die?!” “No, Daniella, you not!” Good to know, I thought. At one break, he pulled out a bottle of Coke and told me to chug. I burped my whole way through it and then got ticked off. The image of me chugging a bottle of Coke in below freezing temperature and tortuous winds on the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro will never make it to the Coca-Cola commercial circuit, and I will never be able to cash in on the royalties. I’m going to try and write the CEO at some point because I’m pretty sure I deserve some sort of Medal of Honor presented by the Coca-Cola company. At least I deserve to get a free case of pop or something (even though I don’t drink pop). Without a doubt.
When we reached Stella point and the sun started to rise it was as if the Heavens were opening up. We started at 1:15am and 6:30am came in with the fresh promise of hope and the romance of light to warm our souls. WE MADE IT ALIVE!!!! We all are going to conquer this mountain! Wait – oh – 45 minutes to Uhuru peak (tip of Kili) up that incline and over those rocks?! No problem – as I shook my frozen fist up at the sky! Forty five minutes of torture later the real celebration began. Hugs and tears and pictures and more pictures were taken. I wandered off a bit and got down on my knees and cried. I placed my rocks (gathered at the bottom of the mountain) of shame, unworthiness, guilt, and impatience (and my husband’s heavy rock of fear) on the ground and prayed over them. Finally released from it all. From the side of a bridge to the mountain top to lay it all at His feet and no longer carry the burden after 17 years. Left on the mountain for God to carry and I will never have to look back.
It has been a life-changing experience and describing with words found in the dictionary seem sophomoric and don’t quite do the experience justice. I am still wrapping my brain around everything, the words spoken over me, conversations with fellow climbers, and things that came to fruition in my heart. I don’t have all of life’s answers but I sure can appreciate the beauty of life and the promise of today. There is no guarantee how long life will be for any of us, in our human brains we try to control the longevity of it. Our egos put a time stamp on what we expect our lifespan to be. Today I’m going to be in the moment and soak in the beauty of it all and let Him handle silly details like expiration dates.
Don’t even ask how we got down the mountain – or shall I say how we skied down quicksand for three hours straight and ate dirt all the way. Stopped for a short lunch and hiked another four hours down a jagged hill to another camp. That is another story for a different day. I have a lot more to process in my brain. Thoughts to gather and ways to articulate them. In the meantime, I’m going to pass time drawing new mountain pictures because my childhood drawings are grossly negligent to educating society about God’s majestic mountains.