After flying 20 hours, jumping ten time zones, five days of hiking I arrived at Barafu base camp (15,331 ft), it was then another 8 hours of hiking the remaining 4,000 + feet of elevation in the dark to reach the summit at 19,341 feet by 7:45 am.
What thoughts did I have as I laid eyes on the summit sign?
The sign that reminded me that I was standing on the absolute tallest free-standing mountain in the world! Well, after hugging it, I thought how bitterly cold feels like at minus 12 F, how the snow and sleet around me reminded me of north of the wall from the Game of Thrones. And also how incredibly beautiful this isolated remote and barren land was. Because of the snowstorm that decided to join us on our ascent to the summit, there was no view beyond 100 feet. I just knew that there were surrounding glaciers, I could not see them, and despite morning being in full swing, it felt more like early dawn as somewhere behind the clouds there was a sun somewhere.
And the day was only half over. I had another 4 hours to reach the base camp to finish packing up and hike another 7 hours to arrive at the final campsite at 10,006 ft. If that day did not count as an endurance race, I don't know what does.
Did it go as planned?
- Heck no!
Day 1 - I was climbing using the Lemosho route, and you start at 7,742 ft of elevation, and to put this in perspective, the mean elevation in the USA is 6,900 ft. So you immediately feel the altitude.
Day 2 - We started what would be an endless cycle cold dry-ish mornings that ended in rain. October is supposed to be a dry season, but this year the rainy season came early. The day was the day that my rain jacket turned out to be a reliable repellant of snow but absorbed all the rain like literally a wet blanket. The combination of carrying a wet blanket 5 miles, and climbing to at 11,500 feet, in 40-degree weather, resulted in the loss of feeling in my left foot and shivers I could not stop. After time in the kitchen tent, drinking several cups of hot chocolate and soaking my feet in hot water. I was back. I found my emergency plastic poncho and figured out what would be my strategy for the next day.
Day 3 - Little did I know the next day had a different set of challenges for me; today, it was altitude sickness. The leading cause of altitude sickness is ascending too high too quickly. Given enough time, your body will adapt to the decrease in oxygen. That is acclimatization. To help with this, doctors prescribe Diamox to help adjust. I was taking my prescribed dose, I had done prep hikes of 6,000 to 10,000 ft and had climbed Mt Whitney (14,500 ft) for good measure to help my body prepare for this, but I was afflicted with moderate altitude sickness which meant that no matter what food I put in my body that day, it was not going to stay in my body. I thought my "session" before breakfast would be it, and I was fortunate as I made it through our hiking and to the camp destination before I was ill again. This was one of a few times I thought the trip might end for me, as my inability to keep food in me made me incredibly weak, and I had no idea how I would gain the energy needed to keep hiking.
The lead guide, Ezekiel, said with much confidence that in the night, I would feel better and put some food near my sleeping bag because I would be hungry.
And lo and behold around midnight that evening, I was hungry, and I did demolish several packages of ginger biscuits and electrolytes. The next morning after a big breakfast, I felt better to hike. I was really weak, and the guides instructed me to keep eating all day. I'm pretty confident I ate about 5,000 calories from the constant input of cliff bars and regular meals. But I kept hiking, just putting one foot in front of the other and going slow. At lunch, we arrived for the first first time at 15,100 feet at Lava tower, and I was back in the game.
What kept me going? Grit and gratitude.
Before starting this trip, a hiking friend shared with me the 40% rule. It's the Navy SEAL's secret to mental toughness. The 40% rule is loosely defined this way; when your mind is telling you, you have reached your limit, you have reached only 40 percent of your limit. The only way I was going to call this game over was if my feet could not move forward. I also had my mental grit list, the list of accomplishments that to me reminded me that I had the grit to keep putting one foot in front of the other. I was also fortunate as I started participating in triathlons about five years prior and recently finished a half iron man, where you push your body to swim, bike, and run 70.3 miles. I knew I had everything I needed to succeed, and yes, that might have been a mantra.
What about the remaining percentage? That is gratitude. There is beauty all around you, and you have to find it. If you can't find something amazing about your current situation, keep looking because it is there. I might have been freezing and vomiting on my bucket list item, but I WAS doing my bucket list item, and I was freezing in a part of the world that held beauty to me that I had only seen in the pages of national geographic. Every day I was given an incredible view of the world that only a few people get to see. That is a gift, no matter how cold or sick you are.
If you would like to help me celebrate achieving my goal, feel free to donate to these causes by clicking the links above.
The world is filled with Mt Kilimanjaro's. You are always going to presented with challenges. The magical thinking is how to take these challenges and turn them into opportunities to find beauty.
Stay tuned for part two of this and how I translate this experience to the world of big data.