I suppose I should actually finish off this series since at least two people have mentioned that they thought it was interesting, and two is good enough for me. I know those two people are on the edges of their seats dying to know if I actually made it to the top of Mt. Meru.
So when I left off, it was about eight pm on our second day, and Julius was fretting that we weren’t eating enough. I should have known this would be an important clue about what was to come, since he really was ambivalent about our eating habits up until this meal. As it would turn out, when you get up at midnight, you get coffee, a couple shortbread cookies, and that is it until you get back down the mountain. So this was quite literally our last full meal for the next 16 hours. Had I really thought that through, I would eaten more.
“Make sure you have three liters of water,” he said, and I kind of nodded. 2, 3, close enough. My head was hurting and I didn’t feel like drinking that much. I know, stupid. Headaches are a sign of not only dehydration, but of altitude sickness, and one exacerbates the other. And I made both worse by nursing my Camelbak.
So before I knew it, midnight hit and our cook was gently tapping on the door. We rolled out of our bunk beds and pulled on layer upon layer of clothing- thermal underwear, sock liners, socks, fleece, down jacket, neck warmer, waterproof pants, windproof shell, gloves, hat, boots. I felt like the Stay Puf marshmallow vet. I know this will not seem like a big deal to most of you, but 95% of my life is spent in a single layer of a t-shirt and shorts, so wearing 5 complete outfits at once was new to me.
I peeked my head out the front door of the cabin, fearful of the sort of freezing rain that still hits Meru on occasion as the rainy season gives way to dry, and breathed a sigh of relief. The inky black sky was dotted with stars, crystal clear and cloudless. We quickly threw down some caffeine and cookies, wide awake with anticipation for what lay ahead.
“Do you have everything you need?” asked Teri, who had already intuited that I was the needy one of the bunch. “Do you have snacks?”
I shrugged. I had packed jelly bellies, my go to glucose source for hikes, but in the wet and capricious wildly fluctuating climate on Meru, the jelly beans had melted then re-congealed into one solid fist sized glop in a baggie. In order to eat it, I had to chip away small bits with my fingernails, which were encased in gloves and only moderately clean after two days without a good shower. The instructions we were given as to summit snacks was limited to “you may want some chocolate,” so I had packed a big bar of Vosges, which had, I suspected, also melted and re-solidified at least four times, but it was all I had so in it went to the backpack.
After being fed mercilessly by the camp cook like the witch in the forest fattening up Hansel and Gretel for the past two days, I had assumed we would be sent on our way with some sort of lunchbag for the 11 hour hike that lay ahead, but as I watched him clear our coffee cups and wave a solemn goodbye, I started to realize my mistake.
No matter. The sky was a crystal clear dome, the horizon windless and cool, and I was about to walk to that metal Tanzanian flag 3500 feet above me come hell or high water. I tossed back another couple of Advil, took a swig of G2, and stepped out after Julius. We had a long morning ahead of us.
The hike began well enough, Teri asking our guides the names of the constellations, pointing out the Southern Cross. We strode across the gently rising slopes leading up to Rhino Point, the last major landmark on our hike aside from the summit. Margareta, who was fighting her way through a chest cold, paused. “I’m not sure this is going to work,” she said. Our faces fell. Margareta, one of my personal new heroes who started climbing in her 40s and has already been on Rainier countless times, was the impetus for this hike and the reason both Teri and I were here.
Julius shook his head. “We’ll carry your pack,” he said. “Go as slow as you need, and see how you feel.” He lifted her backpack from her back, gave her a squeeze on the shoulders, and moved on. We continued for an hour, blinking at the ground illuminated only by our headlamps, until the path opened up and the small green sign marking Rhino Point came into view. It was 2 am. Rhino Point, named for the rhinoceros skeleton inexplicably found here at 3800 meters, is the turning point between the lower slopes of the mountain and the actual arduous climb up the steep walls of the crater dome itself. We were allowed just a quick minute for water, stamping our feet in the cold, then we marched on. I looked up ahead of me, knowing there was a massive mountain looming over, but seeing only black, I focused on Julius’s long legs striding off into the ether.
The path on the other side of Rhino Point narrowed again. “What’s on either side?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he said. “Watch your footing.”
At this point, the chit chat halted and we found ourselves entering the meditative state one needs to find in order to continue the trek. We came upon a sharply sloped wall of scree, rocks sticking haphazardly along the side of the mountain. I could see no further than the ten feet illuminated by my headlamp, but I could tell this was the sort of wall one would probably not want to fall off of.
“Just follow the green dots,” Julius said. The National Parks rangers had spray painted green dots along the path to guide hikers to the top in areas where the trail was otherwise unmarked, but in the dark of midnight the green dots disappeared into the shadows. I looked down into the abyss of nothingness, then scrambled to keep up with Julius, praying I didn’t twist an ankle. In my head, I named the section “Crappy Traverse” in honor of its dubious safety.
Soon we levelled off onto a path of soft decomposed lava. I could see the tiny pinpoints of headlamps suspended in midair high above us, younger hikers with faster legs making their way to the top, and nothing else. Teri caught up to me and whispered tips about the proper hiking form for soft, slippery dirt, kicking your toes deep into the dirt to gain traction instead of taking a step and sliding six inches down the trail. Not for the first time, I asked myself why I ever thought this was a good idea. I dug my hiking poles into the black sand, watched the dust swirl in the light of my headlamp, and wondered what I was climbing up. I wouldn’t find out until the way down.
We settled into what can best be described as a meditative state. Teri was softly singing, I was later to learn, counting in French to 300. Without realizing it, I had also begun to recite a mantra in my head, a five word sentence that cycled over and over in one step increments: “This. mountain. is. no. joke. This mountain. is. no. joke.” Breath came quickly, lungs fighting for oxygen in the thinning atmosphere. I tried not to think about it.
My head was pounding. I asked Julius to stop for a moment so I could take Advil, which he grudgingly agreed to. “Quickly, please,” he said. “It’s not a good idea to stop too long.” I hadn’t been drinking nearly enough, but the energy required to stop breathing long enough to take a swallow would actually be enough to wind me for a good thirty seconds. I didn’t realize how gnarly this elevation was until I tried to sip water, then it became obvious. Teri had begun to cough, a wet, hacking cough. She ignored it. We were a hot mess.
The wind had begun to snap at us from both sides, leaving me to wonder what exactly we were walking on, suspended as we were in midair. My legs were numb. My mind was empty. I had reached a point of zen, my brain devoid of thought and oxygen, thinking only of making it to the goal. It was right about this point that Julius pulled us aside and gave us a 10 minute break. “We’re only an hour from the top,” he said. We had been hiking for 5 hours. We drank Gatorade, stretched out our feet, and huddled under a rocky outcropping to stay out of the whipping wind.
About 45 minutes later, my corneas spasmed at the sight of gray peeking at the corners of the horizon. We were approaching dawn, our benchmark for reaching the summit. “There!” said Julius.
“What?” I said.
“The summit,” he said.
And there, suspended in the dark grey sky, I saw it. Socialist Peak. 14, 960 feet. The outline of the flag of Tanzania, the marker at the summit of this mountain I had dreamed of conquering for months. A tiny square poking up into the sky, representing the culmination of this whole crazy adventure. My brain exploded.
I turned into Gollum. “The PRECIOUSSSSS!” I said, and, reaching into some vast reservoir of unknown energy, I looked up the lonely spiky wall of scree we needed to climb in order to reach the summit, and started to scramble. I sprinted, on hands and feet, scrabbling Gollum-like up the side of the mountain in a warp speed last minute ascent.
“Wait for us!” Teri called, but I was in the zone. Nothing would stop me from grabbing the flag. I even left my guide in the dust, knocking him aside with my trekking pole in my mania.
And there it was, glorious, metal, frigid. I ran up and hugged it. Hypoxic and euphoric, I ripped off my gloves and my neckwarmer and yelled in tongues for a few moments, wrapped myself around the pole like I was drowning and it was my lifesaver, then took a second to look around me.
We were on top of the world, above the clouds and the ash cone of Meru’s long ago collapse, suspended on a razor point as the sun rose above Kilimanjaro 50 miles in the distance, spilling light onto the cloud cover like an upended bucket of golden paint. I have never in my life seen a sight quite like it. It was worth every ridiculous moment of my middle aged existence.
Soon after, I was joined by Teri and Margaretta, who had managed this entire climb with her chest cold. We high-fived, we took photos. I took out my chocolate bar, only now realizing it was caramel bar and if I were to eat it would cover my hands in sticky caramel. Disgusted, I took one bite and shoved the rest back in the bag, where it would subsequently melt all over my camera equipment. Or should I say, Brian’s camera equipment.
The couple from Canada who were going it alone had thought to pack Ramen noodles. We cooly watched them eating soup as we sat frozen on the rock, chipping slivers of chocolate off and chewing on semi frozen Gu. As the adrenaline wore off, my body finally clued into the fact that I was entering a state of moderate hypoglycemia in addition to my dehydration and hypoxia, and some small portion of the survivalist region of my cerebellum whispered to me that this was a poor state in which to attempt a mountain descent. I ignored it. I had no choice.
But no matter! I had done it! Me, in my (cough cough) thirtysomethings, a stay at home mom who had just two years prior thought it a grand excursion to walk down the street to the mailbox, had made it to the second highest mountain in Tanzania, a point higher than the highest point in the contiguous United States. On that day, I earned my Badass Old Lady badge.
Only one problem remained: I still had to make it down alive.