I stand with my hands on my knees, heart racing, breathless. I’m literally gasping for air atop Mount Kilimanjaro’s Uhuru Peak at 19,341 feet, the highest point in Africa. My fingers are numb, the sky is cloudless, and glaciers and blindingly white snow are visible everywhere.
I’m delirious but jumping inside of my skin with the glee of a child who just made it to the top of a massive tree. Unlike on the ground, the world up here is an untouchable sprawl of space—jagged and so crystal clear that I feel alive, awed, honored.
Kili, as my friends and I call her, is one of three places in equatorial Africa where one can see snowcap peaks and acres of ice. The loss of breath is magnified by the fact these glaciers may one day vanish. As CNN reported in 2014, 84% of Kili’s ice has disappeared since 1912. My face is windblown raw but I crack a wide smile in spite of it.
For five consecutive days, my crew of seven, four guides, and countless porters (of which I learn only 1% are women) and cooks, climb five to seven hours everyday up, up, up Africa’s tallest mountain in Tanzania, the highest free-standing mountain in the world.
Before flying 26 hours from New York City to Dar es Salaam Christmas Day 2014, I try to prep. Two months prior, I schedule weekly trail hikes in upstate New York. I abstain from alcohol one month before and extensively research the three-layering system needed for the erratic climate. My doctor even prescribes acute mountain sickness (AMS) medication to minimize the symptoms of headaches, vomiting and hallucinations that can accompany this altitude, illnesses that cause fluid to accumulate in the lungs or the brain (and in some cases, death). To say I’m not scared is a lie. This is a mountain after all, and I’m a Brooklyn-bred city dweller.
The first few days are easy because we move through some of the lushest, Dr. Seussian-looking landscapes I’ve ever seen: giant moss-covered trees that intertwine to create overhead canopies; butterflies and monkeys that flit through the air as we scramble for our cameras; mud that splashes and eventually turns to dry land that pushes out dessert-looking foliage that lies somewhere between a cactus and a palm tree.
Soon, however, the scenery becomes the moon, with boulders and rocks precariously balanced, courtesy of past volcanic explosions and haphazardly strewn as if sprinkled by the hand of a god. Caves carve into the walls of the mountain. Slush then ice rain down and pummel our faces without notice, making us thankful for waterproof gear. Clouds and mist encircle so tightly it’s sometimes difficult to see yards in front of our faces.
Several times I do my best impression of “monkey business,” where I zigzag along sharp rocky edges, feet over hands, hands over feet, kissing the mountain even as I don’t mean to, while porters push pass and ahead of us, carrying duffel bags that could house a body. I chew on more nuts, power bars and energy gels than my jaw can stand, but this is just the physical.
The mental? Well, sharing a three-foot tent with another adult is challenging. Packing up every morning at 6:30am to hike to a new base camp to gorge on vegetables and rice, bread and tea to eventually sleep takes discipline. Shivering one night because the temperature slips so steep that sleep dodges is frustrating. Fumbling with a headlamp to find a secluded space for… human needs is downright sobering.
On day four, as I huddle in the dark gazing up into the blackness, I watch wide-mouthed as stars whizz across a Christmas-lit sky between the Big and Little Dippers, Orion, and the Little Bear. There’s quiet on Kili that’s unattainable in New York City. All these things, including not showering for days, inspires me toward minimalism. When my bed is a sleeping bag and I’m trying to not roll onto my tent mate or kick her in the face in the middle of the night because I’m having nightmares or worse, scrambling to get out of the tent to urinate—right now—excess feels unnecessary.
Two days after I experience my first AMS gut punch, when my head pounds furiously while my chest tightens and I can’t seem to inhale enough air—all while the heavens shatter ice balls onto our heads and trick our feet into doing figure skating splits—my face explodes. We will summit in 12 hours and I am lethargic.
My breathing is shallow. My stomach hopscotches and refuses food. It’s lunchtime, and though I should feast, I sip slowly on ginger tea and force down small spoonful amounts of vegetable stew over pasta. Between the liters of water, tea, and my urine-inducing AMS pills, I stumbled into a rancid-smelling communal toilet stall to have the fiercest nosebleed ever. I trip back out, stuff tissues into both nostrils and pant like a dog. I rip my hat off and throw it. I stagger to a rock and collapse down. I think What the hell am I doing on this mountain?
Blood is all over my face and down the front of my jacket, and I’m not sure I can make it back to my tent. I curse myself for thinking I can climb a mountain. Through a haze, I see a tall, much older man come into view. I feel him squeeze my hat onto my head lopsided. He then offers a handful of tissues, pats me on the shoulder, and says, “I’m so sorry.” And I cry.
When I’m found by one of my guides wandering in the wrong direction, his startled face confirms how busted I look. His only words of advice once he returns me to my tent is, “You must rest and eat because we summit at midnight. New Years.” I skip dinner for sleep and toss and turn through nightmares about the Brooklyn Nets and midnight. When I wake, people are chanting, banging on pots, sounding off war cries, and looping the words “Happy New Year.” It is the first day of 2015 and I’m spending it peaking a mountain.
With headlamps on, hands and feet warmers in, my group starts the ever-popular hike. Along with hundreds of others, we twist up Kili like lit ants. About an hour in, I feel my chest constricting and think I need to sit down, slow down, maybe even go down. The antidote for AMS is to retreat down several feet before coming back up again. This gives the hiker more time to acclimate, to catch his or her breath. But I am about seven hours away from the peak and there is no going back down now. This is it.
Struggle is all I have. I notice my feet shuffle. We’re an hour in and I say I need a break though it’s brick cold out. My nose keeps running and my hand warmers aren’t warm enough. I must stop. I move again when they remind me it’s too cold to stay. Throughout the hours I make this plea, while most of my friends climb with ease.
The altitude hits so hard I fall behind and have to (again) be rescued by a guide. This time however, I’m breaching more than tears—I’m begging, gripping his hand, repeating like a skipping record, “Don’t leave me. Don’t let my hand go.” And he doesn’t. I continue up the mountain because he practically drags me up.
Though I see the sun lift the night and marvel at how its color streaks across the sky, I’m too done to pull out my camera or smile for a photo. The sun rising over Kili while I stand hours away from the peak is something I cannot capture. It’s too precious and I’m too mountain crazy to care about a selfie or panoramic shots.
I foot drag and sometimes fall to climb or step over a rock. When I think I have to give up because I don’t know how much longer I can stand not having enough air in my lungs, my guide says I’ve made it. I see the Stella Point (18,885 feet) sign and throw myself down, swallowing in huge breathes of air. With just an hour more to the highest point, I push myself up and push on. From pure powdery snow to thick ice glaciers, I stand knowing the struggle to get there is worth it. I don’t realize I’m crying (yes, again) until someone tells me so.
Even though descending is easier on the lungs, it forces knees to buckle and ankles to unscrew. It’s a seven-hour bottomless, bouncy hell ride under a sun that sears a crusty layer of skin to my face. Once back in the forest on day seven, it’s as if yesterday never happened.
In less than 24 hours, I go from wearing six layers to a tee and leggings. I’m alert, photographing split-down-the-middle trees and chirping nonstop with my guide about how happy he is to see African-Americans here, why Tanzanians are proud of their Swahili, and how being a guide is the most desired job in Kilimanjaro because it pays well. My tour company says the staff earns in total earn $581 per trip.
When I return to New York, I feel empowered. I recall the seven days spent atop a mountain with a bunch of smiling Tanzanian men who carried my backpack when I couldn’t, in addition to their own heavy loads. The importance of teamwork and packing light has more meaning now. I donate clothes and an entire dresser. Sheets. Blankets. Shoes. I purge, unwilling to unremember my week of minimal living on Kili.
When I think about my place in this world, being a Black woman who travels because I’m addicted to exercising my global citizenship and feel in my marrow its important to export the images I want, I see myself on a rock, high in the sky, with my head in the clouds, breathing easy.