This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, I thought to myself. I don’t know if I can make it all the way.
It was the fifth day of our climb up Mount Kilimanjaro, the day we summited. I’m not sure when this thought occurred to me, or if it’s even accurate–it could be that I’ve experienced harder things in life–but at the time, this sure felt like the hardest.
Gilman’s Point, where you first get onto the Kibo crater rim, wasn’t even in sight–never mind Uhuru Peak, the mountain’s true summit.
Located in Tanzania, Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa and the highest free-standing mountain in the world. Uhuru Peak stands at 5,895 metres, or 19,341 feet above sea level.
In comparison, Mount Robson–the highest point in the Canadian Rockies–stands at 3,954 metres, or 12,972 feet.
Getting to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro is not a technical climb that requires special equipment–it’s a hike, really. Still, it’s not a climb that everyone completes, and a few people die each year attempting it, typically due to altitude sickness.
“It is very hard to gauge the mental and physical strength needed to climb Kilimanjaro,” the website UltimateKilimanjaro.com notes. “If you’ve spoken to those who have successfully or unsuccessfully climbed it, you’d get a wide range of accounts. The truth is, like any other activity, some people excel at it and some people struggle.”
My journey began on Tuesday, July 9. For the first four days of the hike, I excelled.
On the fifth day, I definitely struggled.
We hiked just two hours that first day, eight hours the second day, four hours the third and six on the fourth. When you hike up Kilimanjaro, your guides tell you “pole, pole” repeatedly–Swahili for “slowly, slowly.” You hike at a slow pace so that you can acclimate to the high altitude.
I was the second youngest in a group of six men that also included my dad. Most of the men were in their late 40s or mid-50s. I hadn’t done anything special to train for the hike–in fact, I had barely broken in my hiking boots. I chose not to use the walking poles the others in my group were using and I often had one layer of clothing on while others were wearing three or four layers. At the end of each day, I had energy to spare and sometimes wondered why we couldn’t keep going further.
It almost felt too easy.
That fifth day, though–Saturday, July 13–was something else. Bundled up in winter clothes, we started hiking at midnight, with the intention of reaching Gilman’s Point at sunrise that day. We would then hike an additional hour-and-a-half to Uhuru Peak.
Although I’d only slept for roughly three hours, I started the hike optimistic. The path was much steeper and narrower than anything we had encountered up to that point, but that was to be expected.
We were moving really slowly, though, mostly to accommodate a member of our group with bad knees, as well as my dad, who was so fatigued that he was falling asleep on his feet. Eventually, we decided with our guides that the three faster members of our group would go ahead, while I and the two slower members of our group continued at the slower pace.
It was discouraging to be hiking at what felt like a snail’s pace when I knew I could be going faster, but I wanted to summit with my dad.
Before long, the lack of sleep caught up with me, and I slowed down to a point where I couldn’t go much faster than my dad anyway. I could also feel the effects of the high altitude, plus I became dehydrated because I’d foolishly decided that two litres of water would be sufficient for the day.
Long before we reached Gilman’s Point, I was moving about as fast as my Opa, who is 86 years old. We took frequent breaks.
At that point, the battle was all mental. Part of me doubted I could make it to Uhuru Peak in the condition I was in. These are the things that kept me going:
1. I kept reminding myself that every small step I took was one step closer to my goal.
2. I told myself I had put in too much work climbing the mountain to give up without reaching the summit.
3. One of the trainers at the gym I go to sent me an email right before I left wishing me all the best during the climb. “You are so strong and I know you will do well,” she wrote. “I haven’t seen anyone with your determination yet.” I’ve never really thought of myself as particularly determined when it comes to anything, so that was a great email to receive. I wanted to live up to it.
4. The Eminem song “‘Till I Collapse” kept running through my head. (Another one of the trainers at the gym I go to often plays it during workouts.) “‘Cause sometimes you just feel tired,” Eminem says during the intro to the song. “You feel weak, and when you feel weak, you feel like you wanna just give up. But you gotta search within you, you gotta find that inner strength and just pull that shit out of you and get that motivation to not give up and not be a quitter, no matter how bad you wanna just fall flat on your face and collapse.” The song was a reminder that I can go all-out if I want to.
Eventually, we reached Gilman’s Point. Then, we kept walking another two hours along the crater rim to Uhuru Peak, summiting nine or ten hours after our hike began that day.
Getting down to camp took an additional four hours, so what our guide initially estimated would be a nine-hour hike ended up stretching into a 14-hour day.
Still, we made it.
I recently came across an article from The Telegraph where a writer describes her experience hiking up Kilimanjaro. She puts it best when she writes:
“It was hellish at times … but I feel euphoric now at the achievement. Yes, it was worth the grief.”
* * *
One of the things that made my trip to Tanzania special is that I got to do it with my dad. We first started talking about climbing Mount Kilimajaro at the beginning of May 2009. I remember that conversation distinctly because we had just gone to see the movie X-Men Origins: Wolverine. I guess we were pretty jacked up from seeing an action movie and we figured we needed to do something epic.
Hiking up a mountain in Africa seemed like a more realistic option than putting together a team of crime-fighting mutants.
If you ask me to describe my father, “athletic” isn’t one of the first words that comes to mind. He has, however, made a concerted effort to live a more healthy lifestyle in recent years.
In July 1992, his father–my Opa–passed away suddenly after having a heart attack during his walk home from church one Sunday morning. I think that event inspired my father to get more active.
He started going on walks a few evenings each week once me and my brothers were in bed. Eventually, he started running, and in the last few years, he’s run in the Manitoba Marathon a number of times, completing the whole thing at least once and running the half-marathon a handful of times.
Health and fitness isn’t something we talked about much as a family when I was growing up. My parents signed me and my brothers up for soccer when we were kids, we played volleyball and basketball in school, and I played football for a number of years for a local community club. My mom and dad encouraged us in these endeavours and supported us by coming to our games.
But I don’t recall any specific teachings from my parents about the importance of health and fitness. (I don’t blame them for that at all–I’m just trying to give you some background on where we were coming from as a family.)
I think my father started running in part because he realized maybe he hadn’t set the greatest example for my brothers and I in terms of health and fitness when we were growing up as young kids, so he wanted to provide that example for us later on in life.
Prior to me making the decision to get healthier, my dad actually expressed to me that my size and sedentary lifestyle worried him. It was the summer of 2011, and I was sitting on my parents’ deck one Sunday afternoon, smoking a cigarette and reading a book. My dad came outside to talk to me about something–I forget what it was–but soon he was telling me about how he was worried about my health.
In terms of awkwardness, this conversation was reminiscent of the time, 17 or 18 years ago, when my dad bought me a Slurpee, sat me down and told me about sex.
It was awkward because when you’re a morbidly obese, sedentary smoker, you kinda like to think it’s your little secret, even though it’s clear to the world that you’re pretty unhealthy.
It’s awkward when all of a sudden you’re confronted with the reality that it’s really no secret at all.
I’m not sure exactly what I said to him in response. I think I quietly thanked him.
If the conversation had happened some other time, I might have balked and become defensive. I’m not sure why I didn’t that day. Probably because I knew he was right, and probably because I recognized it wasn’t easy for him to say what he said. It took courage on his part to be willing to have an awkward conversation with his son and say, “Hey, I’m worried about you.”
Two years later, he’s still running marathons, I’m in a lot better shape than I was back then, and we got to climb Kilimanjaro together.
It took longer than we thought it would, but pole, pole, one small step after another, we both made it to the top.