Done to the Top: A Lesson in Positive Thinking

The following story is from my book, The Dogs of Nam. It's one of over 30 short stories in the book, the majority of which having never been published. This tale comes from my time spent in Africa, and a rather impromptu climb of Kilimanjaro. It's the precursor to my recent post on tipping your porters.

 

I could hear the ravens. They circled about the camp, diving low to weave between our weather-worn tents. The whoosh-whoosh of their jet-black wings glided over the din of the porters and their rowdy conversations. Their shadows were fleeting, ghosts on the stone and canvas. As they swooped low, dancing about, the gusts of wind from their wings pressed into my tent with an audible thud. The birds had been with us since day three of our journey, circling in as we shuffled along the windswept trail toward the forebodingly-named Lava Tower.

At lunch, they would perch themselves nearby, hopping about, hoping for scraps. We would stare at one another, heads cocked in mirrored interest. They had sinister faces, beaks curved in a vicious grin, a Glasgow Smile bestowed by evolution. Beady eyes watched me from the rocks above, each bird marked by a white splotch of colour at the base of its neck. Sprawled out on the cold stone of the mountain, hiding from a bitter wind, I pondered why they had evolved with such a pattern. The stark black and speckled white reminded me of war paint, a warning that I was no longer in familiar territory. This was their mountain.

This was Kilimanjaro.

Sitting there, on the frost-bound slopes, we were in their element. They watched us indifferently, waiting to feast on our leftovers: chicken bones and sandwich crusts and, should the mountain win the day, the marrow of our very bones.

I had decided to climb Kilimanjaro – the tallest free-standing mountain in the world – on something of a whim. I was in Kenya visiting my sister and we figured, “Well, we’re in the neighbourhood...” With zero training, and lacking most of the basic supplies, we made our way to Tanzania via a cramped and hastily driven bus, found ourselves some guides, and began what I consider one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done.[i]

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Fortunately for us, this was not an endeavour we could undertake alone. Leading us into the fray were two guides and a team of porters whom we had heard would get us to the top come hell or high water. Mike, a young local in his late twenties, was our head guide. He was soft spoken and tall, pushing a few inches over six feet. His face was round and soft, chipmunk-like, and often framed by a purple bandana that keep the sun and wind at bay. His deep brown eyes were equal parts relaxed and attentive. He spoke almost perfect English, a qualification that rose him from the backbreaking ranks of the porters – the men who hauled our gear up the mountain for a meagre wage – and into a better payed and more respected position of guide. While he was young, he was nevertheless decidedly experienced: he had been up the mountain well over 100 times. His first summit was when he was only 18, and it was as a porter. Strapped to forty pounds of gear, he carried his scrawny self up and down the mountain. No trial run. No training. Just up.

His assistant was an older man from his village, a man he had known since childhood. Just shy of 60 years old, Jackie had trudged his way up Kilimanjaro well over 300 times over the past fifteen years. Not surprisingly, his gait was nonchalant, his pace slow and steady, as if the mountain couldn’t resist his patient onslaught. His skin was smooth, wrinkles held at bay by the positive vibes that emanated from his carefree attitude. His English was broken, leaving him grasping at the right words as he worked to keep us informed during the climb. What he lacked in linguistic quantity he mad eup for in quality, harnessing the power of memorable catchphrases to keep us all in good spirits.

As we progressed up the mountain we came to realize that, more than any training, more than any awesome gear, there was one critical element you needed on Kilimanjaro: a positive attitude. That fact was hammered home directly by Mike, who always reminded us to relax and enjoy the trip, to focus on each day as it came. It was also hardwired into the very essence of Jackie, who I spent most of my time with. His philosophy – on the mountain, on life – was summed up in his clichéd, but heartfelt, catchphrase response to any situation:

No problem. No worries. Piece of cake. Easy peasy. Hakuna Matata.

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With these five phrases, Jackie could address any problem; it was, quite literally, the extent of his English. Truth be told, it was all you really needed. Have to pee? No worries. Need a break for water? No problem. Struggling to climb a mountain almost 6,000 meters tall? Piece of cake.

Our battleground was the Lemosho route, a winding trail we would call home for seven days. While it was more scenic than the popular Machame route, it also had a lower success rate. Our odds of making it to the top were sitting pretty at around 75%. I had shoved my chips all in for worse odds than that, so I wasn’t overly concerned. The most common factors that hindered hikers were altitude sickness and the weather. I made sure to pack some pills for the altitude, leaving our fate in the fickle hands of the elements.

This is not to say the hike wasn’t demanding – it most certainly was. The final day involved almost 16 hours of trekking, including a 7-hour summit which began at midnight. Kilimanjaro is no Everest, but it is definitely no walk in the park, either. It was never far from my mind that one wrong step could send you home bloodied. Between the jagged rocks and sheer cliff faces, an injury didn’t seem unlikely. A handful of people actually die on the mountain every year, a statistic which includes a friend of my boss. This was, to be clear, no afternoon stroll.

Nothing hit that home more than the Barranco Wall.

The Barranco Wall

The Barranco Wall

On day four of my hike I encountered the wall: 250 meters of solid rock, jagged and hungry. It was a daunting cliff face and would require a fistful of diligence and a pinch of luck. Fortunately, climbers don’t need to vertically ascend the wall but rather inch their way along the slope on a diagonal, all while doing their level best to avoid tumbling to their death. It was a stop-and-go ascent, the kind that makes you second-guess the very reasons why you’re on the mountain. There were sections that required us to hug the wall and shimmy along a narrow ledge, precisely the kind of ledge you’d avoid on an average day. There was no safety line, either, just a hope and a prayer that you would make it. Another section required us to leap over a precarious gap in the path, a leap that would send us crashing into craggy stones if we failed. The obstacles on the Barranco Wall were daring enough to give most people pause, to get the blood flowing, adrenaline pumping.

Of course, any time I mentioned the challenge to our hearty guides I was met with a smile and a pat on the back from Jackson. Hakuna Matata he would say. No problem he would say. By then, of course, all you could do was smile and repeat the phrase, willing yourself to stay positive as you shrugged off the challenge. Though as many climbers learned that day, it’s hard to hold on with your fingers crossed. 

It was the perfect reminder that, more than anything, Kilimanjaro is a mental battle.

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As we prepped for the final day, I asked our guides why we were summiting at night, why we had to start the hike to the top at midnight. Call me crazy, but hiking the during the day seemed infinitely more enjoyable than a blind death march to the top. I had done a midnight hike before, if you recall, and it wasn’t the most endearing experience. With a smile, Mike responded, “Because at night you cannot see the top. You cannot see how far you must go. And because you cannot see, you cannot quit.”

And he was right.

Without a visual guide, you really had no idea how far you had to go. You could ask your guide, but he would lie, knowing it would lull you into pressing on (which is precisely what Mike did). Hiking seven hours at a pace that covers only half a foot with every step is tedious; it’s a mental battle as much as it is a physical one. People turned back mere hours from the summit, their body and mind folding to the pressure, their hopes dashed to feed the ravens. I witnessed hikers collapse from the exertion, from the altitude, crumpled and exhausted as they huffed and puffed warm air into the frigid atmosphere. Those still on their feet clawed forward, shivering in the dark as the temperature slipped to a desperate -20 Celsius. A sparse line of headlamps dotted the mountainside, like faded Christmas lights strung up without a plan. Headaches spread, lungs grew weary, extremities went numb. I was wearing 5 layers on my torso and 4 on my legs, somehow both sweating and freezing as I mindlessly dragged my feet onward and upward. All I could do was press on, every moment a new opportunity to give in, to give up. Step by step, it was battle. A test.

Right foot. Piece of cake.

Left foot. Hakuna Matata.

Step by step. No problem.

I worked a mantra into my pace, an Buddhist tune I picked up years ago from one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s books.

I have arrived. I am home. In the here. In the now. I am solid. I am free. In the ultimate I dwell.

Every step, a breath. Every step, part of the mantra. Head low, eyes on my feet. I turned my headlamp off, my eyes well-adjusted to the sooty pre-dawn shadow. Quitting wasn’t an option. Victory or death. Easy Peasy.[ii]

By the time we were nearing the summit, dawn was inching its hungry talons over the horizon. My throat was parched, my water bottle long since frozen. But the summit was near, within sight. I had passed 9 different groups as I pushed forward, each left to follow in my footsteps as I willed myself beyond the clouds. The sky was bleeding purple, a bruise of light stretching out before me. My face was cold, my fingers tingling and bloodless. Slender slices of orange stabbed into the murky blues and deepening purples of the sunrise, the clouds well below us, kneeling to our might. I stared at the horizon until my eyes hurt, until they watered tears that froze against my skin. It was a sunrise etched onto my heart, one I’ll carry with me for the rest of my days.

I had made it to the Roof of Africa.

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Feet planted, lungs brimming, I tasted life on top of a continent. For but a moment, I was the tallest person in Africa; no one with their feet on the ground was closer to the heavens than myself. Casting my bloodshot eyes to the endless horizon, I felt so powerful, so limitless. And yet so insignificant, a beat-up pebble on a mountain that will live forever. I savored the sensation as long as I could. It was a feeling I had had before, one I’m sure I’ll have again. Somewhere. It’s no doubt one you’ve felt, too. In your heart, in your gut. It hits you like a frozen moment, like a cosmic déjà vu. It’s a universal experience, a profound juxtaposition that binds us all together. It’s the feeling of being human.

It hit me at 20,000 feet above sea level, where the air was razor thin and desperately cold. I couldn’t bring myself to take my gloves off for more than a moment to snap some pictures, proof I had overcome the mountain, and myself. Proof I was nothing and everything. I fumbled with the camera, my fingers fat and red, stiff and swollen from the altitude and from the meds I had taken to avoid getting nauseous. A side-effect of victory.

With a second wind clawing in my ribcage and an icy wind battering my skin, I headed back down. No problem.

The next day I found my weary self back at the outfitters. I was given a certificate proving I had made it to the summit. I was also given a t-shirt. On the back of the shirt, it listed the altitude of Kilimanjaro – 5,895 meters – and celebrated my victory in broken English:

DONE TO THE TOP!

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[i] Living at a monastery likely takes the cake for the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It was an ongoing psychological and physical warzone, with 6, 10,15, hours of meditation per day. There was even one week where I didn’t lay down at all – I sat up every night, tied to a pillar so I would stay upright and awake. It was intense. And Kilimanjaro – specifically, summit day – is a close second place. That’s how challenging it is…at least to someone with no preparation.

[ii] I mean, obviously there was another choice – quit and go down to my cozy tent – but I paid a couple grand for this trip so you bet your britches I’m getting my money’s worth.