Part 1: Poa Kichizi Com Ndezi
You don’t get much sleep when you know your wake-up call is coming at 10:30 pm…. even if what awaits you is a daunting 8-hour hike to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro and another 5 hours down to our next camp. I think I may have dozed a couple of hours, but I may not have either. I couldn’t get the buzzing in my brain to quiet.. I have been training for this day for months, even through gruesome radiation and chemo. More than once, it was the prospect of Summit Day that powered me through an hours-long hike to train. Our Survivor Summit team has been prepping together for a week now, seeing how the mechanics of each of us work and falling in love with each other, which will ultimately carry all of us up to 19,341 feet.
We knew the first five hours were going to be steep, snowy, rocky, cold, and dark. This we knew. 5 hours is how long it will take us to get to Gilman’s Point, on the crater rim… From there, we will walk another 2 1/2 hours along the rim to Uhuru Point, the true summit. I, of course, didn’t do much research on HOW hard this task might be. Now I know that only 20-30 percent of Kili climbers actually get to the true summit, and about 100 a year die trying. The day before our hike, there was so much new snow and wind, we don’t suspect many people summited at all. None of this had any effect on our belief that we would summit and summit together.
Thankfully, it wasn’t raining or snowing when we left Kibo Hut camp at 11:30 pm. And the moonlight was so brilliant that we could turn our headlamps off for a bit and see the mountain reflect the light of the night sky. It was ethereal and magical. But then, the terrain got rocky and uneven, and I had to turn on my lamp so as not to kill myself or others with a misstep that could send my body careening over the side.
The hours actually passed fairly quickly. I used the same time-passing trick I use when I run. I count songs. Songs are generally about 4 minutes long (except for Jane’s Addiction’s “Three Days,” which lasts three days and always messes me up). So that means after about 13 songs, it’s 52ish minutes and time for our 5-minute break.
After about 4 hours, we were close to 18,000 feet. I figured it was going to start to get cold as dawn approached, so I asked Rob, my summit buddy, for my Kjus puffy jacket, which was in my stuff sack in his backpack. Somehow, as Hypoxic Rob was getting the sack out and giving it to me, Hypoxic Wendy stopped paying attention, or never was paying attention in the first place (more likely). The next thing we hear is Chris, our guide, shouting that the orange stuff sack, with expensive jacket inside, is flying down the mountain like a jet-powered snow ball, as Rob and I stupidly (more me than him) watched what was unfolding, never moving an inch to help. Chris and Tadei, one of our Tanzanian guides, went chasing, but there was no hope. They said they saw the sack bounce into another valley. Hopefully, some porter sometime will find that jacket so at least it will be used. That would make me feel better, not that I’ll ever know. More immediately, now we are going to summit and I don’t have a warm coat. But the physiology of this Survivor Summit group is that the individual parts do what they can to make the whole team stronger. Without hesitation, Matt and Rob both offered me their only puffy coat layer, which meant that if it did get cold (it can dip to below zero at the summit), they’d freeze. In another setting, I might have declined and suffered, but as part of the bigger Survivor Summit team, I took Matt’s coat.
I assumed that when we hit Gilman’s Point, the next couple of hours of hiking would be easy, despite the fact that we are close to or just over 19,000 feet of elevation and the air is Olive Oyl thin. But we continued to walk up little rollers, all along the crater rim. From here, the view is breathtaking. You can see the ancient glacier to the side of the mountain, shining its blue and white striped steepness. Everywhere you looked, dawn was making the colors of the sky and the mountain particularly vibrant and bright. It could also have been the lack of oxygen in my brain. Speaking of, when we passed Stella Point and had about an hour to go, I started feeling kind of weird. I had a little nose bleed and I could taste the blood dripping down the back of my throat. I was also feeling some Bugs Bunny eyes: Like they are overdilated, so things are starting to look a little washed out. My high altitude hack (Kili Cough) was getting worse, too. Rob was getting worried and mentioned my weirdness to Chris and Nelson, but I kept going. I’d been so lucky to this point… no real altitude sickness, no blisters on my feet, and Matt solved my cold problem. A little weirdness certainly wasn’t going to keep me from the top.
Then, I saw it: The sign for Uhuru Peak. A couple of folks in our group were already there. I wanted to run, but there was just no way… I do think I trudged a little faster, though. Now, dawn has broken and the sky is clear and blue for the first time in days (Visibility a couple of days earlier was only 10 centimeters). And even though we had seen other groups hiking up to the peak, we were the only ones at the top for the whole 30 minutes or so that we soaked it all in at 19,341 feet. All together, our team, on the roof of Africa.
It’s a powerful thing, 16 cancer fighters achieving a goal that some might have thought was impossible. I know I was asked more than once whether I should still attempt the climb, as I suffered through weeks of debilitating, excruciating radiation side effects. The thing is, you suffer during cancer treatment so that you get to live a little longer. And what’s living if you’re not challenging yourself, scaring yourself, throwing the doors and windows open at every opportunity? I never had any doubt, any fear, any wasted moments doing critical analysis to discover reasons I might NOT make it up. Someone compared the climb to cancer treatment: You suffer and tolerate, making relentless forward progress (Thanks, Jeremy), until the beautiful summit, the end of treatment, the other side. We unfurled honor flags, three of them, at the top. On them, we had printed or written names of cancer heroes and warriors that we love. I honored my friend, Chris, who lost his fight last year and my friend, Stuart, who is in the midst of the battle now, and my aunt and cousin, a mother and daughter, both trying to slay the beast at this moment. I believe that our clear, beautiful morning at the summit was somehow orchestrated by those we honored, in appreciation and love right back at us.
Chris asked what we learned about ourselves that we are going to take back to our “regular” lives now that we have shared this adventure of a lifetime. I said for me, it was an affirmation and a discovery. I know I’m tough; I know I have a high threshold for pain and endurance, but this tested me like nothing ever has before. The rest of the team asked me to compare it to Ironman, which I’ve done five times. There is no comparison. The Kilimanjaro hike is way, way, way harder, physically, mentally, emotionally. With Ironman, you can control the intensity, and if things got REALLY bad, you walk off the course. Our intensity level, at least mine, on the climb was usually in the red zone, and there’s no quitting in mountaineering (Chris kept saying there’s no crying either, but we proved him wrong repeatedly. Especially on the summit. There wasn’t a dry eye on the roof of Africa). Now I know that I can endure much more than I ever thought possible. I am a bad ass.
But I wasn’t always a bad ass during the 8 days; none of us was. Here’s where the team comes in. We held each other up in moments of darkness and cold. We made each other laugh when Good God, it was raining again and my jacket proved not to be waterproof. We all shared Doug’s glee when the cooks surprised us with french fries. The team of 16 is so much stronger than the 16 individuals who made it up. We learned that perceived weaknesses, like admitting we need help, are really strengths and opportunities for the team to help each other become even stronger. This one small team, this Survivor Summit, is powerful, wonderful, reverberating with love and strength that will ripple through Park City and Orlando and Austin and Jackson and Kent Island and Chicago and Katy and Iowa and North Carolina. This summit is so much bigger than the 16 of us. It was a very public affirmation of strength, belief, teamwork, unity, knowledge, attitude, love. We proved that cancer can knock us down, make us sick, take our friends and family, but we will still rise up.
Gonna rise up
Find my direction magnetically
Gonna rise up
Throw down my ace in the hole
-Eddie Vedder “Rise”