“Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain, 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called by the Maasai “Ngaje Ngai” the House of God. Close to the western summit there is a dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.” Ernest Hemingway – The snows of Kilimanjaro (Leopard). Is the leopard, an animal that is established graciously at the top of the food chain, up on the Kilimanjaro summit in seeking something more from life? Are we, a team of 16 women and men from all 6 republics of former Yugoslavia, guided by a former dog whisperer and 5 local guides, up there, because we are just nature lovers and adventure seekers looking forward to get out of our comfort zone, or are we there to pay respect to a mountain, a God, a ruler of our lives?
The rhythm of Africa
I’ve learned by now that the most important thing when climbing a mountain is to find your rhythm, to find focus and recite your own mantra to make peace with your brain. And I lost it while I was forcing myself to make another step on a thousand and something meter ascent from Kibo, the final hut of the Kilimanjaro climb, to Uhuru on 5895 m. The air was so rare that I felt that my lungs were not big enough. My stomach was curling in high altitude sickness. Normally, climbing a thousand meter slope is not such a big deal, but doing anything above 3500 m is exhausting. Step after step, what you normally use as a technique of walking doesn’t count here, because you have to inhale 2 times per every step. That’s where the trekking poles a local guide gave me in the middle of climbing did their magic. One inhale-exhale for one step, inhale-exhale for moving the trekking pole, inhale-exhale left leg, inhale-exhale moving the right pole. I also got a pair of yellow mittens from our guide who surprised me when I whispered that my fingers were frozen. Surprised as I didn’t know he heard me and I knew I didn’t have the strength to say it again. I somehow didn’t care about getting frozen fingers. The yellow mittens warmed me but, boy, it was strange not to feel your hands like those are your hands and hold the trekking poles.
The focus came when I overheard other people speaking about counting and finding your mantra (thanks Ivana for this tip). My brain was not in a condition to do anything more elaborate than counting. How could I not remember that counting is the best mantra?! Anyhow, I started counting my breathing. Short and deep breaths.
800 meters more. It seems to me that the rhythm you have to catch has an even more important role here in Africa, where everything is rhythm. Grinding coffee, dancing in the night club and climbing up on Kilimanjaro. And it’s an endless slow rhythm. The locals would say “Pole, pole” (“Slowly, slowly”). Everything is pole-pole here. The group of people that overtook us 5 minutes ago because we were too slow was vomiting now curled up on the slope. They didn’t catch the rhythm. We continued. Slowly, extremely slowly, two inhales per one step. I had my mantra, counting, endlessly. The wind splashed us with wild gusts of volcano dust and cold. The cold on this altitude is not the same as the same temperature on a 4000 meters lower altitude. Above and below us was a snake of flashlights on peoples’ heads slowly moving. We started this final climb at midnight, with head flashlights, through the darkness. We walked the 4.5 km for 7 hours. The night sky was so full of stars that it seemed like an overstatement of heights. We were too close to the sky. I could barely hold the trekking poles.
Gillman’s point or Leopard point
After some time, you could hear shouts of relief from above – some people succeeded in climbing to the edge of a crater. The place is called Gillman’s point and that is where the leopard bones were found ninety years ago. Everything is timed, so that once you get there the sun rises, the wind stops, and you feel like it’s all over. You start feeling the new life and the end of suffering. You feel safe. And you feel like you made it. But the peak is still far away. It sounds like it’s easy to climb another 200 m to get to Uhuru, the highest peak. It’s an hour and a half long walk. The biggest number of giving up encounters here. I felt like I’ve exhausted the last drop of my strength, but giving up didn’t even cross my mind. I never felt so resolute. It seems to me that whenever you overcome yourself, and find some kind of hidden strength inside, you can repeat that again and again. Maybe that is what pushed me further. I walked like a zombie. Exhausted, dizzy, blank mind, wandering over the crater edge. I didn’t know why, and how I was doing it.
Our guide trained us in the last couple of days to walk slowly, in line, like tired soldiers, to save our energy, to drink a lot, eat a lot. He checked on us every evening asking from us to grade our headache and stomach-ache on a scale from 0 – 10, he inspected our equipment, and was ready to make adjustments according to our abilities or problems we encountered on the way. But he didn’t parent us, he wanted each of us to make decisions for ourselves, and never to endanger any other team member. He changed the order and the system in measuring our strength, condition and abilities. We were like hyperactive children who respect their teacher, but can’t stand still. We sang a lot. We laughed a lot. I am not sure how much strength a good laughter takes, or how much energy you spend when you sing, but the guide didn’t approve. Our team met on Kilimanjaro for the first time in our lives, and we behaved and felt like we’ve lived together forever. We shared everything. Our team’s behavior gave the true meaning to a saying that the team is more than a sum of its members. I don’t have much experience in climbing high altitudes, and in that team, I felt, for the first time in who knows how long, like a princess, weak, and girly, in the company of women that were so much stronger than me, with so much more experience, confidence and knowledge. I felt secure and safe to hold on to them and listen to their advice like a child (Thanks Lejla and Jelena). The guide knew all of that and he showed that strange pride of a mother when children are unruly but smart and happy.
Uhuru peak – 5895m
When I saw the big sign board of the Uhuru peak I was too tired to feel anything. I was still breathing heavily. Barely able to lift my feet from the ground. I didn’t see anyone around me, I didn’t see the famous snows of the glaciers, I didn’t feel the sun, nor the wind. I didn’t think about the leopard. I stopped counting. My yellow mittens were not annoying anymore. The volcanic dust stopped being black. The people around me were just colorful spots spilled all around. If zombies feel like that, I was a zombie. I didn’t even have the strength to be disappointed. And then I heard one of the girls on the right hand side sobbing, crying… I turned my head, confused and almost asked her why are you crying. But then it all came, the warmth of the people around me, the energy of our team. I hugged her. With my strange yellow mittens. I hugged her and laughed and started to cry, and then somebody else hugged me, and there they were, all eight of us, the women of our team holding each other, crying and sobbing and laughing and wailing, and hugging… We kept walking all together, holding each other, like we conquered the world, like we conquered ourselves. But we knew we can never conquer Kilimanjaro. We hugged it instead. It hugged us back.
Some mystic impulse within us and within the leopard drove us to seek some sort of an answer on the top of the mountain, an answer to a question we didn’t know how to ask. In most civilizations a God or gods reside on the highest mountain tops: Mount Olympus for the Greeks, Mount Sinai for the Hebrews, Mount Fuji for the Japanese. Sometimes the whole mountain is sacred. In our climb, in our joint effort, in our different stories about the reasons of our coming there, and different views on why are we doing it, we all felt like Kilimanjaro and Africa summoned us. We felt like we had to catch the rhythm of Africa and find out that it is the same rhythm in all her music.
What you can’t climb without
While preparing for the journey I obsessed over where are the last showers on our way up are, and when can I have a bath, what kind of electric power sockets were in Tanzania, and when do we have internet. I didn’t think about food or cold weather or high altitudes. I did a thorough research of what equipment I should take, and I felt ok with it. I had only one sun cream, and one bottle of Autan as a protection from mosquitos. I took a couple of energy bars and 5 bags of instant oatmeal. I came all practical, by the book, with the equipment I thought I needed.
I didn’t think about the team. I didn’t know anybody from the group but Filip, a nineteen-year-old from my Montenegrin hiking group. The team was 8 men and 8 women, strong and happy, full of energy, experience, and knowledge. Somehow we came from all six republics of former Yugoslavia. On many points on the opposites sides of the nineties war. On many more points on the same side of life. My Yugo-nostalgia kicked-in and it responded well with everybody else. We sang Yugo songs. I like to think we are the only team who climbed Kilimanjaro who sang at the top and to the guides and porters (the video – shows how strong we were at the top, and my yellow mittens, and sorry for the sound – it is singing at the top of our lungs at 5895 m).
Guided through the opposites
As soon as we arrived I asked the guide about the power sockets and he laughed cynically “any kind, everything fits here… If there is electricity at all.” It was a sudden kick into reality. A culture shock. A change in values. First the pole-pole slowness, which to me was beyond my patience levels, then the amounts of drinking water. To overcome altitude sickness, you have to drink a lot of water, which means going to the “bathroom” a lot, and that means no sleep, and you need sleep to save energy to climb. To get energy you have to eat a lot, and high altitude makes you sick and you can’t eat.
You need a hand to sort out all of the opposites. Your personal habits with the possibilities (washing, going to the bathroom, drinking water, brushing teeth), your walking preferences with the rhythm of Africa, your type of humor with the humor of Africa (the locals have the best kind of cynical humor), your prejudice (I felt sorry for the porters who carried our duffle bags and our food but they were so genuinely happy and warm and it seemed to me the guides cared for us – one of them would regularly ask me: ”How are you, sista’?”). And I thought the hand that was offered was heartily African, though given by our Bosnian guide with a scent of humor and cynicism, with the warmth of a lioness who pushes her cubs into the world of survival to try the life ourselves under her protective paw, by a leader who by all books would be a transformational type of a leader but he was an alfa male authority.
You can’t go without good equipment to this kind of mountain. But the one thing you can’t go without and enjoy the ride, and really feel it as you should feel, is a guide. Well, and a team. But that was the same, the guide was an inseparable part of the team and the team members were my guides.
Back to Earth
I am still struggling to make sense of ordinary life. I forget to take my phone with me, to charge it, I am not sure what to think when I realize I didn’t take a bath and have to force myself to brush my teeth. It feels like somebody pushed my reset button and the real me is still wandering around the Kilimanjaro crater, or is maybe frozen close to the frozen leopard. The superficial me is here behaving like I’ve always behaved.
In today’s world we welcome and accept things that are easy. We are guided by convenience. We wear and wash and drink and eat what is convenient. We maintain friendships over social media because it’s easy. And convenient.
My goal that I worked towards, and developed personally through my free time in the previous year was to get to the top of Kilimanjaro. That was not easy. But “to live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top”. (Robert Pirsig “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values”). The effort to get ready for Kilimanjaro expedition and the difficulty to reach the top was the fundamental aspect of my journey. I could have climbed some other mountain or take a helicopter to the top. But what matters is not the outcome and the fact that all of us reached the top, it’s the life experience we gained.
A big thanks to our local guides – Lazaro, Pasco, Honesty and Leo for the energy they shared, the porters who took our earthly possessions to the top of Kilimanjaro and back with a song and laughter on their lips, to Kenan, whose leadership techniques, psychology skills and love for animals are a basis for my future research and obsession, and endless thanks to the universe for gathering a YU team, which I will cherish as my sisters and brothers and my idols to look up to.
Natasa is an avid hiker, but still discovering herself and the world of hiking. This blog is a place where she shares her thoughts of the mountains.
An economist by education, Natasa is the chief marketing officer of Domain.ME, the international tech company that operates the internet domain “.ME.” She’s spent her entire career at the intersection of airline, banking, social media, leadership and technology, and is constantly trying to figure out the secret to being in three different places at the same time.