Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Snows of Kilimanjaro

So...Africa...I've been back for coming on a month and no blog post about the adventure yet. In blog years (which are even more swiftly accumulated than dog years) that's probably the equivalent of a decade, and, indeed, it does feel like a long time ago that I reached the summit of Kilimanjaro, peaking just ahead of the sun, and then watching the light leech into the glacier and crater on either side of Uhuru as I headed back down.

Then last night I was reading, belatedly, Hemingway's The Snows of Kilimanjaro. A short story about a man, a writer even, who is dying of gangrene caused by the prick of a thorn he didn't treat with iodine some weeks earlier on his journey. He waits for death on the savannah, near the base of Kilimanjaro, while his companion, a woman he cares little for, waits for the rescue he no longer desires.

A strange coincidence.

I was back in the support van on the fourth day of the run from Mombasa to Kilimanjaro. Two days earlier I'd injured both my big toes so badly I couldn't participate in the run anymore. I felt like a failure. What had gone wrong? I'd run 30 miles the first day and 21 the second day, but something must have been strange with my gait, I suppose; some adjustment to the long miles I was hoping to put in over the 6 days of the run. Or maybe I was just a wimp and couldn't take the pain. I had blisters, yes, but worse, my toes were swollen tight, the skin stretch, the nails fit to burst off my toes. Other than popping the blisters, I'd done nothing to take care of my toes. Then, sitting in the van, as it drove slowly alongside another runner, I felt a cool drop slide down my foot. The blisters, instead of healing and re-filling, as they usually do, were seeping. I'll spare you the rest of the details, except to say this...flies buzzed and settled on my toes. David said, "Now will you put on some iodine and cover those up?" Indeed. Not to mention the double doses of Advil I started to take for the swelling. Things improved. And unlike Harry, in Hemingway's story, I was able to continue the journey. By the time we reached Kilimanjaro I was able to walk without too much difficultly, and I guessed that the uphill would be no problem and would give my toes extra time to heal before they had to endure the downhill. Fortunately, that theory worked out in my favour. And fortunately for everyone else, it's not sandals season, so no one has to look at the aftermath.

But I've jumped ahead, again. I'm giving you Africa in puzzle pieces, which will, I promise, fit together into some kind of picture by the end. It is, after all, the season of puzzles, or at least my family always seemed to have a complicated one going over this time of year.

The run--215 miles in 6 days, from the Indian Ocean to the base of the tallest freestanding mountain (19,300 ft). The roads--for the first 3 days we were on the main trucking route from the ocean serving Kenya and the surrounding African countries. Yes, it was as busy, terrifying and smoggy as it sounds. Never mind the heat. Then 2 days on a less traveled dirt road, through Masai country and Tsavo West, a game reserve. Yes, again, that means watch out for "game"! On the fifth day we crossed the border into Tanzania and the last day took us to the Marangu gate of Kilimanjaro.

My personal run highlight--Running on day 2 with three schoolgirls in uniforms, no shoes, carrying large jugs of laundry detergent and small plastic bowls (for food? they looked too small for washing). The girls (all under 14) ran about 2 miles, chatting to me the whole Swahili. So I followed suit, and chatted right on back at English. When we reached what appeared to be their school, they peeled off. Later that same day a teenager ran with me for some time, whether he was a bit loco or not is anybody's guess (our van drivers were concerned), but he was hare-fast, and popped in and out of huts along the way, always catching me up after his stops, always carrying his toothbrush in his mouth, clamped down despite his giant smile, an extra pair of pants in his hands, and his head bobbling with pleasure.

After injuring myself I spent a day wallowing in self-pity and then pulled myself together to play proper support for the other runners, and discovered that when I let go of the feeling that I had "failed" by injuring myself, I enjoyed my new role immensely. Along the way the driver, who was a bit of a professor, gave me Kenyan history lessons, so that I learned just where the Germans, crossing into Kenya from Tanzania, had laid down their arms at armistice in WWII.

Next up was climbing Kilimanjaro. And, as a friend of mine says, "This was not my first rodeo."

19 years ago I had climbed Kili, or rather, I climbed most of Kili. On the day we were to summit, my then-husband was hit with bad altitude sickness and we turned back together. So for almost two decades I carried around this thought--"I could have made it." But I hadn't. And I wanted to know. This trip was going to clear up unfinished business, or so I hoped. Well, you already know the answer, since I gave it away at the beginning.

When I finally reached the summit, Uhuru Peak, it was still dark. I first glimpsed the summit in flashes, literally. Seeing the traditional mountaintop flags and the wooden sign announcing the summit lit up in the lightning poof of a camera, then disappearing again, like a hallucination. I started crying, overcome by relief and happiness in equal measure. The shroud of darkness began to lift, and grey-eyed Athena's early morning light leaked in, barely rose, more like a black and white photo, the soft greys of the glacier, huge cliffs of ice that looked as if they had been shaved off by a giant wielding an ice pick, the crater a grey savannah, softened by a layer of misty clouds.

We hiked down to Kibo Hut (from where we'd come), and then made the decision to hike down and off the mountain right away, another 20 miles. The day was exquisitely long and unending. Far from living in the moment, I wanted nothing more than for it to end. I had done what I'd come for, and I did not have the energy to re-focus on the descent properly, as gorgeous and varied as the terrain was.

Once down and showered, after a day that had lasted from midnight to 6 p.m. already, I finally had a moment to really consider what had happened; and what I felt was a deep sense of contentment. The feeling was not ecstasy, nor that electric glow I've sometimes felt after doing something exceptionally difficult (say...Pikes Peak), but something DNA-deep, a sense of opportunity re-captured, something we so rarely have a chance at, a setting right of things, a confirmation that I could do what I'd always thought I could. The question, the scintilla of doubt that had assumed a post in the corner of my mind was put to rest, banished.

I let the new feeling settle. Become a part of me, in the way each new experience we have can cause tiny shifts in our self.