It was 11pm. And it was cold.
Although we were strongly encouraged to go to bed after dinner, knowing what lay ahead, most of us hadn’t managed to sleep.
Perhaps it was the temperature, or the timing, or the sheer excitement.
I had barely got my mitts on, and was still adjusting my poles to the proper length, before we were off.
(‘Let’s go!’ in Swahili)
One by one, step by step, in single file line, we began our final summit night ascent up Kilimanjaro.
I looked up from the path and the carefully trodden footprints to the women in line ahead of me, and to all of the guides on either side of us – with two more than normal there were seven altogether – and I felt both proud and protected.
‘One team, one dream!’ Hemedi, one of our main guides, had declared our first night together. And it had quickly become our slogan, our proclamation, our lifeline.
We were one team – and a powerful force at that – with one dream… to make it to the summit.
We continued to climb, but it somehow felt more serious, more somber than before.
Six days earlier we’d begun our climb up Africa’s largest peak.
We’d conquered rain and snow, the famous Barranco wall, and even Lava Tower – our day 3 destination – who’s high altitude had affected the majority of our group leaving many ill and worried they wouldn’t be able to go on.
Although at times challenging, and despite long days of nine plus hours of hiking, I never doubted my ability to get to the top.
And although physical fitness doesn’t guarantee one won’t be affected by altitude sickness, l was still pretty confident I’d be able to make it happen.
Until I wasn’t.
Just then I began to feel it.
Not only were my hands freezing, my tummy was turning. And then came the gurgles.
I began to feel it. The altitude.
It was hours before our first short break.
And not a moment too soon.
Even then, there was no time to dawdle. It was hurry up and do your business if you must, grab some water, and get back in line.
(Although I certainly felt better afterwards, having to do your business on the side of the mountain, where it was very difficult not to be exposed somehow, and in the middle of the night when the last thing you feel like doing is taking off all of your layers, is not so much fun let me tell you!)
By the time I was back, we were immediately off again in our single file line.
There was no singing, no laughing, no bubbly conversation as there had been the days previously.
‘This isn’t fun anymore!’ someone from our group proclaimed.
My heart sank. I’m sure she wasn’t the only one feeling that way. In fact, I’m pretty sure we were all beginning to feel that way.
Perhaps I’m making it out to be a bit more somber than it actually was. I mean it wasn’t all that awful – at least at first – but it was also no walk in the park.
At first, I was quite enjoying the rhythm of our steps.
I was enjoying the quiet. The nature. The team we were a part of.
I was beginning to realize we were now on a mission that became bigger than any one of us.
But after a few hours, the first in line peeled off. And then the next one. And the one two behind me.
I was also beginning to realize we may not all make it.
As a team leader that’s tough. And when you’re not allowed to get out of line yourself to check in on your people, and when you yourself aren’t feeling so hot, it makes it even harder.
I began to recite a mantra in my mind:
'we will summit, we will summit, and we’ll be, warm again.’
It had a distinct rhythm and tune. And I must have recited it several hundred times before we finally made it to the crater rim of the mountain, Stella point.
And by that point, my stomach had settled a little bit. We had been going for almost 8 hours.
The next 45 minutes of the climb, also the last 45 minutes of the climb, although not overly physically demanding, lasted an eternity.
However as the sun slowly began to offer its morning light, I felt hopeful.
My fear that I may not make it, which was pretty real at some point during the ascent, subsided. It was happening.
It was freezing, we were freezing, and a few brave members of the group – who had declared more than once they were ready to turn back, and who had been persuaded more than once to keep going – were barely hanging on.
It was no longer about me making it to the top, and more about making sure all those still with us would make it.
I knew this sign had better show up sooner rather than later!
We began to pass fellow climbers coming in the opposite direction, big grins on their faces (or occasionally very white in their faces!) heading down the mountain.
‘Congratulations!’ they shouted. And I knew we were close.
And then off in the near distance I saw her.
The official post that marked the summit.
We began to quicken our steps.
And suddenly, there we were.
We made it.
We had reached the peak, summited to the summit, achieved our goal.
So we took the picture, dug deep to smile big, and then just like that, the moment was over and were already on our way down.
Blink and you could’ve missed it.
And if I’m honest, it was almost a bit anticlimactic.
Now in all fairness it was snowing and very cloudy and there was no beautiful sunrise to be seen. Perhaps that would have made a difference.
But still, this big summit reaching moment wasn’t what I thought it would be.
And as I began the descent back down, I realized although we may have made it to the summit, it wasn’t about making it to the summit at all.
It never was.
And it never is.
Whether a summit, a destination, a goal…
Here’s the thing. You’ll never get ‘there’ – yet you’ve already arrived.
It really is about the experience, the journey, the steps you have to go through in life order to get to where you want to go, and more importantly the person you have to become in the process.
And that was certainly the case for our climb up Kilimanjaro.
The actual moment of reaching the summit paled in comparison to all of the special moments we enjoyed leading up to it.
The singing and dancing and cheering we did with all of our guides and porters at camp.
The deep discussions we’d get into in our dining tent on life, love and diamox (to take, or not to take?)
The sharing of our roses and thorns at the end of every evening, which ended in laughter or tears or powerful breakthroughs.
Hard to believe this epic experience of a lifetime has come to an end. But the learnings and the connections are only just beginning.
And these special moments will truly last a lifetime.
And I am so freakin’ proud of what our ‘one team, one dream’ accomplished.
So although I will continue to set goals and climb mountains and may even attempt to once again reach the summit – and hope you do too – I’m going to focus on enjoying the journey (hopefully with less gurgles next time!)
“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that maters, in the end.” ~ Ursula K. Le Guin
Have a FAB week!