There are days filled with unprecedented occurrences or so, at least, we feel – days aligning themselves with one revelatory moment linked to another – the birth of our child, our marriage, the passing of a dear loved one, moving day, the official good-bye. We shroud these days with deep significance for they are the days when our paths become altered and everything seemingly changes.
Today was such a day.
Tea and biscuits were brought to our tent around 2:45 AM. I hear the word biscuit and my American mind cannot help but register a visual of flour dough balls baked in the oven. These ‘biscuits’ were packaged cookies offered with the now familiar ginger brew.
Not much fuel, it seems, for summit day but at this hour I’m not complaining. The few bites and sips feel laden with effort.
We’ve all attempted to sleep fully dressed sans the outer down jacket. A few forced final gulps of tea and we are called to begin. Headlamps are in place. I look up and can see a faint trace of bobbing lights high above. From where I stand, the illuminated heads of earlier departers look like glow worms floating in the sky.
“How far up are they?” I question, and feel a wave of nausea and dread swirling in my gut.
Mark gives me a packet of disposable hand warmers, the kind that look like large tea bags. Once crunched and gripped in your hand, the inner gel inside the packets activates heat for hours. I place one within each palm inside my gloves.
We start – summit day has arrived.
The night before, Harold and John had both come to our dinner tent to go over the specifics of our final hours of climbing. Terrain, delirium, fatigue were all topics of discussion and Harold always brought the subject back to his 100% success rate on the Machame. Other trails, he says, have been hit or miss because of a too swift rise in altitude but the Machame is methodically laid out to help the climber succeed. He would then look at each of us with this stoic, solemn stare as if to say, “You have no choice but to make it.”
A half an hour into it and it already feels like trouble. Scaling rock in the dark, my heart begins to pound, my body revolts and I begin breathing with large, audible, breath deprived gasps that echo throughout the seeming innaccessible darkness.
“You are breathing wrong!” chides Harold, as he tries to emphasize a through-the-nose-out-the-mouth technique to calm me down. It feels too difficult. My body is craving more oxygen than my nostrils seem to deliver. I try and regulate per instruction but every ascended step feels like a punch to the gut.
I reason with myself. “The first hour of every morning is always the hardest. You’ll settle in. You’ll settle in.”
Breathe. I am settling in. I am settling in. Breath.
Am. Settling. In.
The self-talk helps and even though it all feels momentarily daunting I manage to keep moving carefully up the rocky path. Several more hours up and I imagine we have now become the glow worms for those left at the camp far below.
We stop frequently. Since I am trailing behind by about 5 minutes, the duration of my rests are shortened. Harold and second-in-command John play switchback with the four of us, leading then trailing the rear in order to keep a close watch on each of us.
I can’t feel some of the fingers on my left hand and I squeeze and bend them vigorously to prompt any circulation.
By the first glimpse of dawn, I have gone from trailing the others by five minutes to being unable to see them at all on the slopes ahead. John has taken charge of the others and Harold hangs by me, weaving from my right to my left. My lungs are burning and air bubbles from sipping water through an insulated straw make my stomach swell and ache in the thin morning air.
I stop and stand staring at the ground.
“You are not walking!” Harold firmly states. “You must keep walking.”
Another hour passes. I am able to comprehend that I am audibly mumbling – not formulating words, but mumbling sounds, syllables that seem to mysteriously help my process.
Another hour passes. I have stopped, perhaps twice, collapsing on a rock for stability and a desperate rest. I close my eyes and instantly feel the sting of Harold’s hand across my face. He has slapped me. Grabbing my shoulders he speaks firmly with determined eye contact, “You can not close your eyes! You must keep them open! You must stay awake!”
He is right. My internal mechanisms want to give up. The lack of oxygen is making me drowsy. To give in would be fatal.
I stand to begin again when Harold starts yelling at me in Swahili.
“What? I’m standing!” I think or did I respond aloud? The truth is I can’t remember, and as I turn towards him, he’s pointing and yelling at the sky ahead.
In less than one second, I turn, look up to where he is pointing, and see what could easily be a 4 ton sized boulder flying directly at us.
It resembles something straight out of a Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner cartoon.
They say time stands still. How accurate a description, for within what could only have been a matter of two seconds, there was assessment followed by decision making, all taking place within my brain. I see the air born boulder. I look to my right and see a boulder of equal size along the side of the path. I dive behind it. Harold dives left.
The boulder flies directly over our heads.
There is no adrenaline rush. As I think back, I ask myself, “How can that be?” I can only rationalize that my delirious and exhaustive state must have led my neurotransmitters to take a holiday.
Crawling back up, using my walking poles to stand erect, the only commentary I am able to muster is a flat, monotone and barely audible, “Wow, avalanche.”
“Not good,” replies Harold, indicating the boulder, as we turn to see where it may have made a new resting place. It is divine providence that sunlight was reigning rather then low hanging fog, otherwise we may have never seen it coming.
I later learned that once every other year or so, an avalanche occurs from the eroding, shifting soil, often resulting in fatalities.
“Keep moving,” Harold says, these short, cryptic sentences becoming his current style of communicating.
We soon enter a terrain of scree – loose, sandy gravel offering the simulation of walking up a mountain of sand. With every three steps, I slide back one, making our headway up to the summit feel completely in vain.
This is my breaking point. I practice an internal apology – offering it to all those in my world who may experience disappointment for my having failed to summit.
“I can’t do it,” I feebly whisper to Harold. I feel awash with shame.
“Yes, you can,” he replies, taking my pack and beginning to push me in the small of my back towards the crest of the scree. It’s a remarkably supportive gesture but it proves too awkward for both of us in navigating the quick-sand like terrain. Harold gives up, moves to the front and grabs my gloved hand.
His hand is bare and he intertwines his fingers with mine. He starts pulling me up.
“We just need to make it to Stella Point at the top of this crest. It’s the next to the last summit point. You will at least get a certificate. There you can rest.”
Astonishingly, the little boy within me perks up over the fact that I might still earn something, anything after all of this.
I stare at his hand grabbing mine and I am beyond humbled as he pulls me relentlessly up.
I have completely surrendered.
The revelatory moment has arrived and our hands become an unshakeable visual and heart-altering symbol. Suddenly, his hand represents the hand of every person, spirit, energy that has ever existed – the ceaseless, supportive lifeline that was and is always there when ever any experience prompts feelings of helplessness or giving up. It is the hand of the Universe – a direct lifeline dragging, pulling, lifting me to a greater degree of sufficiency. It is, in truth, the hand of God.
I stare back at our grip and for a brief time, forget the physical struggle.
Perhaps it was a half hour, I can’t accurately assess, but Harold continues pulling, then pulling more, bringing me up the merciless terrain.
We both stumble up those final steps where we are met by blasts of harsh, frigid winds.
There was a marker indicating Stella Point. To the side is a cave-like overhang where I make my way and collapse, taking shelter from the wind.
I had resigned within me that this was good enough. It wasn’t Uhuru Peak – the very top summit point, but it was close.
“Get up. We must continue.”
“But you said, I could.......”
“You can’t stop here. You must finish.”
“Harold, I can’t.”
“Yes, you can. You are almost there. The hardest part is over. Less than an hour. Come.”
And he stretches his hand again, lifting me up.
I realize that even though he is most likely lying about the ease, the end has to be near. Reserves I thought were long used up, leak out into my bloodstream with inexplicable renewal. Gleaming glacier walls line the horizon and raw, rising emotion makes its way out of me. This is the final path way to Uhuru Peak.
Others are making their way down, passing me and offering encouragement.
“You’re almost there. Congratulations.”
And not long after, off in the distant, I can see the well-worn monument sign.
The other three in my group are there, finishing their photo ops with the allotted maximum of twenty minutes allowed at that elevation without supplemental oxygen.
They had only been about twenty minutes ahead all along. They, too, had each struggled significantly.
We wearily hug and high-five as they make their way back to Stella then further down to camp.
I look over at Harold. It is just us, as it is perfectly designed to be – standing at the highest point on the continent of Africa – standing on top of the world’s highest free standing mountain. Not as tall as Everest – but pretty damn tall.
“I could not have done this without you,” I say to him as he smiles broadly.
“It’s my job.”
“I know, but you don’t understand. I would have never made it here had it not been for you.”
“It’s my job,” he again says cryptic like.
“Yes, indeed, it is your job,” I whisper thankfully.
And I wonder if this thing called life – if all that it really is, is a series of hand-holding episodes, a pulling of one another up out of the seemingly impossible to the experience of the possible.
I stand by the sign, victory fist in the air, as Harold takes my photo.