“Pole, pole,” John said softly.
All I could do was nod in response. I was beginning to black out, stumbling over every step. My head felt like someone took a bat to it. I could barely walk in a straight line, but my feet kept moving one after the other.
The top of the mountain was within sight, but I kept my eyes down.
The sun was starting to rise. We’d been walking for over seven hours non-stop at around a 30% incline. I knew we had to be close, but I didn’t look up.
“Pole, pole,” John said again as I tripped over a large step.
So there I was 19,000 feet up, 8,000 miles from home, and just one minute from the first summit of the tallest freestanding mountain in the world: Kilimanjaro.
But with every step, I realized how much my body was faltering without the normal oxygen levels. Every thought I had related to breathing, to walking, to moving. And in the moments I couldn’t think of anything else, my brain just repeated the same Swahili words over and over.
Pole, pole. Pole, pole. Pole, pole…
Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro was not a lifelong dream for me. But it was definitely something I’ve had on my mind. I’ve been a rock climber for over 13 years, but mountaineering is something completely different. The technical skill and physique it requires is different, but mostly it takes a different mindset.
And I’ve never been one to say no to challenge.
Kilimanjaro is 19,341 feet tall. At the top, there was only 47% oxygen. The route we chose, Machame, is the second hardest of all the routes on the mountain and would require us to hike over 35 miles across six days. All uphill.
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Kilimanjaro was definitely not short of challenges.
I trained for about four weeks. Most would recommend four months. I would probably recommend four months. But unfortunately, I didn’t realize I’d be going on the trip until four weeks out. So for those four weeks I worked out twice a day, everyday. It absolutely destroyed my body, but I knew because of the nature of the trip, I would have two weeks of not being able to train because I’d be volunteering at a local village.
The first day of the climb was an easy 5 km hike through Kilimanjaro’s tropical rainforest. It was absolutely beautiful. The forest was full of vivid green, ginormous plants with a subtle ambiance of the sound of birds calling for one another.
Over the first couple hours, our group settled into the pace. We chatted back and forth or just walked wide-eyed taking in the scenery.
“Pole, pole,” our guide, Calvin, called.
Pole, pole means “slowly, slowly” in Swahili. Guides can often be heard calling their most enthusiastic clients back with a quick “pole pole.” And with good reason. Ascending a climb like Kilimanjaro too quickly can make climbers incredibly sick. The higher climbers ascend, the less oxygen becomes available and the more likely it is that climbers develop altitude sickness.
Altitude sickness is very common once you reach a height over 8,000 feet. If you end up developing altitude sickness, it can cause a headache, nausea, dizziness, and problems breathing. If left untreated, it can result in even more serious health implications or even death.
But based on our route, we wouldn’t start to feel altitude sickness until our third day, if we felt it at all. So for now, we were just getting used to slowing down and appreciating the place we found ourselves in.
But it wasn’t long before the rainforest lived up to its name. The rain came quickly and without any warning. We rushed to cover backpacks, our clothes and cell phones. I paused as I got out my cell phone to see if anyone had messaged me. Obviously, I didn’t have a signal even if they had. A feeling of disgust creeped up on me.
Why did I even bring this? I had an actual camera and, in airplane mode, a phone is really just extra weight. But when I packed my bag, it wasn’t even a thought in my mind.
“Pole, pole,” Calvin warned my group as they braved a muddy hill just ahead of me. I stuffed my phone into the bottom of my bag and I turned to continue with my group.
The rain continued for hours, soaking into our socks and boots. We laughed as Calvin rapped every Kendrick Lamar song we could think of. And when we couldn’t think of anymore, Calvin gave us some of his originals. It almost made the squishing in my toes seem normal.
We were all still singing when the trail opened up to a sea of tents.
“Wait, that's it?” one of my group members said.
“Well if it’s like this the whole way, I can totally manage that,” another called.
Ah, what innocence.
But we found our tents and began changing clothes. We had a few hours before dinner so there was plenty of time to relax and rest up for our next day of hiking. After I peeled off my socks and replaced them with fresh, dry ones, I cleaned out my bag and reorganized it. My hands wrapped around my phone and I pulled it out. I sighed.
Maybe it’s cliche, but after not having a signal for so long, the thing felt almost toxic in my hand. Toxic because I knew that it had the power to ruin this experience or make it less authentic. Toxic because I kind of wanted to open it anyway.
Another group had arrived and a familiar warning was given out to some unknown clumsy climber.
This trip was meant to be transformative, at least that’s what I wanted it to be. It was meant to challenge my mind just as much as my body and that wouldn’t be possible with this toxic piece of metal and plastic constantly pulling my mind and body towards it.
The mountain gave such pure energy. Something untouched and everlasting. The mountain had so much in store for me, it was only fair I gave it my undivided attention, which meant feeling every moment a little slower.
I pushed my phone in the deepest part of my bag. And it was gone. Out of my mind and away from idle hands.
The next few days we continued hiking between six and nine miles everyday. We passed through its many biomes including the Cultivation Zone, Forest Zone, Heather-Moorland Zone and Alpine Desert Zone. What makes Kili so unique is every day you wake up in a new biome, with each one looking more alien than the last.
As we exited the forest zones on the third day, the scenery turned more two-dimensional. There were a few bushes here and there, but it was mostly made up of mossy rock. When you looked left and right you could see clear across the side of the mountain, even catching glimpses of other climbers on other trails.
We stopped once for a water break.
“Guys shhh,” I said, shushing the rest of my group.
They looked at me like I was crazy, but quieted down. Suddenly the silence I was catching between conversations hit everyone like a brick. It seemed to flood our ears as smiles inched up everyone’s faces.
“Wow,” one of my fellow climbers whispered.
I had never heard that type of silence in such a large, unconfined space. A gift from the mountain.
We packed up quietly and continued on.
Unfortunately, by day three we were starting to get used to the constant threat of rain. It had rained off and on the day before and the clouds were beginning to gather in the distance. We were still two hours from our next camp when the sky opened up and released a waterfall of rain on top of us.
To make it worse, I was beginning to feel a headache coming on. The altitude sickness was starting to set in. I stopped talking as it only made the pounding in my head more intense.
One of the girls in our group started complaining about having to walk. She asked how much further. She asked when it would stop raining. She whined about her feet. She complained about being wet. And with every word I felt a knife going into the base of my skull.
“I hopped off the plane at LAX,” a member of my group began to sing.
I looked up for the first time since the rain began.
“With a dream and my cardigan” he continued.
I smiled as this kid belted “Party in the USA” by Miley Cyrus at the top of his lungs and couldn’t help but jump in. We sang every song we knew, even if it was just a handful of lines. We were out of breath and laughing by the time we reached our next camp.
I’m sure he started singing to stop the girl from complaining anymore, but in the end, his small way of passing the time changed my whole outlook on the day. We were literally singing in the rain on Mount Kilimanjaro. Another gift from the mountain.
My groupmate said it best.
“I’d rather have a wet day on Kilimanjaro than a dry day anywhere else,” he said between Imagine Dragons songs.
The night of the fourth day we finally made it to our last camp before the summit. We were exhausted. The hike that day had started at 6 a.m. and was just over 9 miles. Now we had just three hours to get some sleep before the guides would wake us up to begin our long trek to the top.
That night, we had our med checks. The entire trip I had consistently had a 98% blood oxygen level with a pulse around 65. But not that night. That night, I had a 57% blood oxygen level with a heartbeat of 116 beats per minute. Most people would have hospitalized me, but my guides chalked it up to a faulty machine and sent us to bed.
I did say I wanted a challenge, right?
I tried to sleep, but the headache was starting to move to the top of my skull. My tentmate that night spent most of the night vomiting. Another had skipped the last four meals.
But no one was willing to throw in the towel.
We started the trek at 11:30 p.m. in complete darkness. The temperature was something under 0 degrees Fahrenheit. The wind cut into our faces and seemed to scoff at my four layers under my coat. It wasn’t long before I lost feeling in my toes and my water bottle froze.
One of our guides, John, kept a watchful eye on me as I sat down for a break. Everytime I sat, I would black out. It felt like I was falling into a deep sleep until I was jerked awake and met with John’s “pole, pole” as he stood me up. I lost my sitting privileges soon after.
It was seven hours of grueling hiking. Every part of my body ached to stop except my feet. They kept pushing forward even as my own mind told me this was a bad idea.
“Pole, pole,” John said.
I glanced up and realized you could see the entire galaxy in the sky. I have only experienced that one other time in my life. The Milky Way felt so close you could reach up and grab it.
I was blacking out while walking now, but the top was so close. I didn’t look up. I wanted to remember every step and moment that led me to the top. I wanted to feel every bit of the pain and cold pass through my body. I wanted to remember exactly what I went through to fully appreciate the end.
Once I stepped onto the peak, I threw my head up and took a deep breath. I let myself cry for a moment before being pushed into a photo.
The irony is every single photo I have of myself at the top has a big fat thumb in it. Not very aesthetic for Instagram. When my friends saw it they were so apologetic and felt bad. But it honestly didn’t matter to me.
“Pole, pole,” John said to me as I started to descend.
My heart was full. People say the photos don’t matter, memories do. And I’ve never felt something to be truer in my life.
I came home terrified. Eventually, I had to unpack my backpack. Eventually, I had to look at that metal and plastic thing that I had buried deep away. And eventually, I knew I’d become addicted again. It’s almost impossible not to when my work, my friends, my education and everything else is neatly packed into that device.
I was terrified of the magic of the mountain wearing off. Would it become just something I’ve done on a list of things I’ve done in my life? Would I feel the same “living in the moment” feeling that I did then? Would I enjoy singing in the rain again? Would I ignore silences or shy away from necessary pain?
I grab my phone now and open whatever social media app my brain is craving.
“Pole, pole,” my brain recites.
I set my phone down.
I imagine myself one more time drenched and singing. Or the silence seeping into my ears. Or being on the side of a mountain gasping for air. Or at the top of that mountain, crying because every moment was worth it.
A final gift from the mountain.