Climbing imagery is awash with phrases like conquer, vanquish, or prevail, which I’ve never really understood. I’ve never really felt that way. I feel like I simply get to spend some time with the mountain, and for that time I am grateful. I don’t beat the mountain if I summit, I just get the pleasure of a singular moment on that mountain when there is no place further to go.
We still had a tough couple of days to the summit. As I suspected, I was feeling somewhat better after a day of hiking – even a very long day of hiking. The meds were kicking in; I was throwing up less often, which is always a good thing.
First up, we had to climb the Baranco wall, about 1000 feet of scrambly climbing. We fall in the long line of people zigzagging up the wall. Once up, we have to drop back down into the next drainage and up the other side. This day is a nightmare for one of our group, with his intense fear of heights. This day is one long panic attack for him. But with a lot of help he stays focused on the task in front of him – the next step. His crazy perseverance in the face of his overwhelming fear is inspiring.
The next day is no easier, just different. It’s steep, but over rough, dusty trail or scree. We all grow weary of seeing grey rocks and grey dust. We have so many false hopes – is that crest the top? – no, there is still more up. There is always more up. Even though I still stop periodically to puke – dry-heaving now – I enjoy these two days. The scramble, the steepness – this is more like climbing a mountain to me. It’s been a few years since I’ve been on a big mountain; this reminds me of why I love climbing. I’m tired, but I’m happy.
Stella Point – there is no more up for today. We have reached the summit rim. Most climbers head immediately up to Uhuru Peak, the highest point on the rim, and then descend. We have different plans. We will spend the night in the crater, at the base of the glacier. We will light luminaria, and in the morning raise prayer flags and take part in the highest-ever Relay for Life. Then we will climb the final hour to Uhuru.
The only problem is, at this altitude ice takes a very long time to melt, and we are a huge group. We need a lot of water. I need a lot of water. I know from past experience that I have to work very hard to stay hydrated. My water bottles are nearly empty. I drink what I can and leave my bottles to be filled. The porters bring us dinner in our tents; up here we have no mess tent. I eat what I can and wait for water bottles. Water bottles never come. In the morning a few bottles are filled. We raise the prayer flags, do the Relay, hug and sing, and still no water bottle for me. I finally get back one of my bottles with the few sips of water left from yesterday.
We pack up our gear, and get ready to leave. I am struggling. I am dehydrated. I am exhausted. It’s a beautiful morning so I take pictures although I can’t really see. My eyes won’t focus. This is a strange thing that happens to me at altitude ever since chemo. My eyes won’t focus. No one can figure out why. I’ve had eye exams and brain scans. I’ve talked to all of my doctors. It’s a mystery, but I hold out hope that sometime someone will figure out the answer. I merely take note of it; I know that as I climb down, it will eventually get better.
Uhuru is 300 meters away, about an hour. As we leave, we separate into two groups – one group heading up to Uhuru, the other to Stella Point and the climb down. I fall in with the group crossing the crater back to Stella.
I am finished with the mountain. I reached the summit rim, slept in the summit crater, but will not climb to the highest of the summit peaks. I am ready to leave, to not stand atop Uhuru Peak.
As a climber, this seems like an odd choice for me. I have rethought it since coming home. As I said in my earlier post, when I have backed off a mountain in the past, it was completely obvious to me that that was the right decision. In the comfort of my house, where I have abundant fresh, clean water, where I have slept and eaten, and when I haven’t thrown up for a couple of weeks, it’s easy to think, “it was just one hour….” But that morning it was absolutely the right, if unexpected, choice for me. As we packed, I assumed I would climb up. But as we walked out of camp, I chose Stella. There was no question in my mind, and I don’t regret it now.
Very quickly into this climb, the trip became less about a climb than about something entirely different. It was about a group – this group. It was about celebrating survivors, honoring caregivers, and remembering friends and family who were gone. It was about a journey, not a particular rock on this mountain.
We came together as 40 individuals – 19 cancer survivors and 21 caregivers. We each had our own experiences, strengths, and fears. Some of us had a lot of experience in the outdoors, some of us had climbed in the past. Others had little experience with hiking or even regular exercise. Two had never been camping. One was terrified of heights. But they came here in spite of the fears or lack of skills and experience. They came each for his or her own reasons: to reclaim their health, to overcome fears, to prove they could, to do something they never imagined.
It strikes me that, although we each have our own stories, we have been creating something new on this mountain – a whole that is somehow more than it’s parts. I keep thinking about Bach’s Goldberg Variations – an aria plus 30 variations not on a single theme, but on the bass line. The aria is a sarabande, a stately French dance. The variations each present a unique character with different time signatures, harmonic flavors and pacing. They all are grounded in the aria’s bass line, but each is a delight of individuality. However, as wonderful as each individual variation is, the magic of the piece comes from the synergy of the variations combining to create a whole.
I offer my own reflection for the group: The aria from the Goldberg Variations,
This is the Glen Gould recording from the early 80s. Thank you to all of you. I am honored to have climbed this mountain with you.