Alone with my thoughts as I struggled up the scree, I reflected on Shirley Mae’s own struggle with COPD and her daily challenge to breathe. “Come on, girl, pull it together. This is a piece of cake compared what Shirley did each and every day.”
I played games with myself. If I could walk 10 steps, I could walk 20, then possibly even 25. Each time I carefully counted out each step to myself. Soon my 20 became 12, and my 10 became 6. Each time I stopped to catch my breath it was harder to get going again. But somehow I reached Stella Point, completely drained.
I was told later that my team gave me a standing ovation as they witnessed my slow progress through the scree while finishing their box lunches. I don’t remember that. As they set out for the summit, someone said “Just another hour to the summit.” An hour!!! Really? How was I going to do that? I’d already dug so deep…. so I sat down on a rock and contemplated the next steps and tried to pull together my resolve. A 60 minute steady upward climb but thankfully no more scree, then a descent back to Stella and just another hour to get to Crater Camp for the night. “Come on, girl, do it for Shirley.”
I picked at a box lunch that I’d been given. I had no interest in eating but knew I needed the fuel. Regardless, I gave away my hardboiled egg and coconut cookies to Pastori and the porter, and tried to eat a little grilled cucu (chicken). I chilled and knew I had to get moving soon. I needed help to get my pack ready, gloves on, walking sticks positioned, and jacket zipped. I remembered Jim talking about painfully dressing his daughters as young children before going out in an Ottawa winter and at that moment, I felt like a kid in a snowsuit, immobilized by too much weight and padding. Yet I was determined to get to the summit. No one could do that for me.
Visualizing “the sign”
The Uhuru sign is not visible enroute to the summit, but I knew it could not be too far off. The snow had melted and hardened under the blazing sun and strong winds. In Nunavut, I would have my strap-on grips to trudge through the ice and snow. Here, I relied on my walking poles, as my trusty hiking boots now provided little in the way of sure-footing.
I met my team descending from the summit, giddy with their accomplishment and wishing me well…. but once again, my progress was much slower than expected. I was now counting out 5 steps, resting, and another 5. Finally, I put my head down, willed myself to keep walking no matter WHAT until I ran headlong into the Uhuru sign. Even more fitting in this life experience challenge is, as I now have learned, Uhuru means “freedom” in Swahili and relates to Tanzania’s independence that took place the same year I was born.
At long last: the Summit
After the endless hours of the grinding, step-by-step ascent, there it was… that majestic sign I’ve seen in so many summit pictures… the one I dreamed of being under: Uhuru Peak, Mt. Kilimanjaro, 19,340 feet above my two homes of Iqaluit, NU and Gabriola Island, BC.
So after that demand on every fiber of my body, mind and soul – was there celebration, elation, and a short dance to the song “I’m sitting on the top of Kilimanjaro”? No, the wind was increasing and there was little time to celebrate apart from a couple quick photos to record “my” moment on the top of Africa. Yet, I told myself and my mother, Shirley, I did it, I made it! But, little did I realize that my biggest challenge still lay ahead in the descent back down to Base Camp.
(Stay tuned for Part 3 – The Descent)