This year has been absolutely bonkers for so many of us. I started the year thinking I’d been in Africa summiting Kili before Spring…and definitely got some surprises along the way. Some beautiful chapters came to their conclusion and new ones (some expected, some not) cropped up too ✨
January 12th I got the call! KILI FEBRUARY IS A GO! Bought flight tickets!
THE NEXT MORNING get a call that it’s cancelled. As is their March trip, due to new US travel rules kicking in on 1/25 requiring a PCR test within 72 hours of arrival back into the US. With the long trip/transfer time in Amsterdam and very few resources in Tanzania…”there’s a chance you could get stuck mid-way and we don’t want that.” Honestly tho leave me stuck there, please?
The next date I could possibly go is June, but most likely (since I already have Baker in July), in September. I feel…lethargic. And don’t know why I should bother training, etc. It’s a perfect storm of cold and disappointment and loneliness post-holidays.
I drink some bourbon and eat a bunch of tacos and wallow. I try to rally and bootstrap, etc. to middling results. I write about it.
February is really hard. It’s cold, the weather is trash, I feel no drive to ‘try’ and my original departure date is coming. I have to remove all my OOO calendar dates from my work cal, disappointed.
I’m proud though, that I proactively realized the day would be hard and I take it off. I get my nails done, haircut and treat myself to my favorite bakery and a wander through my favorite used bookstore.
The day I ‘should’ be summitting is even harder and I didn’t realize how it would carve me up emotionally. My next possible summit date is 7 months away, which in COVID times feels like the same thing might happen again. How can I be hopeful when a new strain or issue might pop up then too?
Bought myself a ‘push present’ or just a rally gift of a necklace that says ‘Ad Astra Per Aspera’ aka ‘through hardships to the stars’ and it feels right.
Tried on my ‘big’ 65L backpack that I’ve had for like 4 years that still has the tag on! This 65L Osprey pack I got on a screaming deal at REI several years ago is gonna be my Baker bag.
VACCINATED! I qualified by being obese according to the BMI (the BMI is a trash measurement, check out this amazing podcast ep by Maintenance Phase) so I spent Friday refreshing the Cook County website until a spot popped up 1 hour away in Tinley Park. I snagged it then scrambled to apple and aquire a Zipcar membership – I do! I get a J&J shot and cry I’m so happy. It feels like finally we’re turning a corner on my loneliness/end of this thing.
Went to my first (and only) spin class and shockingly do…great?!
My first test-ish of my fitness level in a year and a half of training: Angel’s Landing (went to the top with Em) and the next day, the Narrows. Fitness good, my knee is suddenly big-time irked on the way back in the Narrows and my mom has to help me take my pants off! ADULTHOOD!
Former neighbors Jason & Regan get married! First wedding I’ve been to since 2018! I mistimed/forgot that I’d lose an hour jumping ahead to ET (it was in Michigan) and changed into my jumpsuit in the 2-door rental car and put on makeup, all in 12min, walking in 2 mins before ceremony started.
Applied for Discovery Channel’s tv show ‘Who Wants to be an Astronaut?’ and well, they called! I know! I kept it on the DL for so long! I had a Zoom call/recorded conversation with producers twice; one the end of May and one the beginning of June. No calls since so my dreams of hugging Mike Massimino are squashed (for now). Seriously though if they call back? I WILL LEAVE YOU ALL AND GO TO SPACE or at least go to Houston and hang with Bekah and the dogs for a few weeks.
I go to Little Rock for Memorial Day weekend (I’m only one year late) and see my loves, eat my faves, stub my toe and I’m 94% sure I broke it.
Check out the altitude room at Well Fit for the first time – since Chicago is hella flat/sea level – Brian and I go to check out this tool to practice acclimatizing for Baker (and Kili).
Make my first ever mint julep! And from mint I grew!
Lots and lots of altitude gym; truly a weird flex to wheeze and start panting during the WARMUP
Long long walks; 5+ hours, we’ll taper in July to Baker
Tornado alert – the sirens go off so much in one day that I actually pack a bag and set shoes by my door to go to the basement
Go into the office for the first time in 14 months and see several of my faves – we’re hopeful and happy and yet – I don’t go back until post-Kili. I don’t want to risk getting sick pre-Baker nor in my 6 weeks to Kili window.
Made my first charcuterie board using a gorgeous board my dad made me from a maple on my parents’ property
Cast on Laugh out Loud’s comedy improv ensemble! I can still do make believe!
Longest walks of my life. I am running out of podcasts/music to listen to for 5+ hours on Sundays. My PR: 6H22M, aka 18.9 miles on 8/22
On 8/10 they call: THE TRIP IS A GO. It almost wasn’t though; they let me know one other guy signed up for September just a few days ago. So it’ll be the pair of us.
Hit some truly creepy O2/pulse ox numbers in the altitude room on the 14,000ft Saturdays; broke 55% one day.
Last piece of Kili gear acquired with the addition of a Kula cloth! Check out my full gear list (including what I actually used/was worth it)!
September 1-9 feels like a fever dream. PCR tests and check ins and packing over Labor Day weekend and delivering on some truly wild work things before my Friday, 9/10 flight.
KILIMANJARO BAYBEE! Summitted at dawn on Monday, 9/20/21
Safari, Serengeti, Ngorogoro, I left some chunks of my heart and soul in Tanzania
^^ still writing about it!
Life feels weird – things are still happening but THINGS have happened to me (Kili) and I’m not over it. I feel a need to come up with a new driving focus; a reason to workout or be healthy or just give my life structure. I don’t know what to do with myself but answer everyone with ‘it was great.’
Go on my first adult ‘Girls Trip’ with a bunch of phenomenal female improvisers to a lake house in Michigan; visiting a distillery and laughing until we cried.
Take myself out on a date to see Dune at the Davis and dress up
Start my first ever modern dance class – at Old Town School of Music
Dress up like Lydia Deetz and crushed it out in the ‘burbs at Jason & Regan’s house
Met up with Marissa and Bhavini; we met through Well Fit (the altitude gym) but never met in person until now! Marissa went the month before me and Bhavini 2 weeks after me!
My coworker Matt goes and climbs Kili on the Marangu route (5 days) vs my 8 day Lemosho route. I feel homesick for a place I only was in for 2.5 weeks.
Got a homemade Thanksgiving dinner from a neighbor
BOOSTER BAYBEE! Get yer boosters when you’re eligible!
First ever trip to Florida for Robbie & Barry’s wedding! Kayaking and gowns and beaches and Japanese gardens and weird wonderful vintage stores.
My first Laugh Out Loud show! And first live improv show in over 630 days.
Home with the fam for 2 weeks, soaking in the love, having my birthday and a Christmas and a ton of snow.
It was a full year. Big dips, big wins, stood on top of multiple mountains, celebrated hard, long-fought joys and saw family 3x in one year. Crushed some huge work projects. Achieved a big dream for a big girl and I’m pretty damn proud. Onward and upward, pals.
Y’ALL I AM MAKING EYE CONTACT WITH THIS BABOON. There is nothing separating us. We are breathing the same air.
The baboon is in the car. “Whoa, whoa Bails, don’t you mean a different preposition? On, around, before, beneath-” NOPE, I do not, folks. THE BABOON IS *IN* THE CAR.
After the 3am arrival dinner (pre-breakfast?) I slept hard in my Itikoni Camp tent, halfway up the slopes of Mt. Meru, in the heart of Arusha National Park. I wake up around 8:30 and tug my earplugs out to the rumbling ‘whirrr’ of colobus monkeys and birdsong. Sleepily washing my face using the still very hot thermos of water from last night and fumbling, figured out the chemical toilet situation. I stepped outside to a whole new world.
After my first (two) mugs of strong Tanzanian coffee and a truly massive breakfast, Ben met us in the ‘lounge’ tent for a trip briefing, which included some of the deep history of Tanzania, Kilimanjaro, and cultural norms to be aware of.
Did ya know (bc I did not): Tanzania is the compound name of two countries – Tanganyika + Zanzibar = Tanzania – which merged in 1964
There are over 55 million people who live in the country and over 125 tribes
Most people are trilingual – speaking their tribal language, Kiswahili and an additional language like English, French, etc. and many speak additional languages – quadlingual? When does ‘multilingual’ kick in? Pentalingual? I feel like there is a ORU joke there but I’m just gonna leave it alone!
Swahili or Kiswahili Swahili is a ‘lingua franca’ aka a language that bridges the 125+ tribes in Tanzania (and the many outside of TZ) and spoken by over 100 million people in Tanzania, Kenya and surrounding nations. When speaking Swahili, the language is called Kiswahili – but when talked about in English it’s usually called Swahili.
The Kilimanjaro routes (there are several) are named for the village(s) located at the bottom of each trail – I took the Lemosho route but other popular ones are Machame, Marangu and Rongai (which starts in Kenya)
Ben’s been guiding on Kilimanjaro for 25 years this year – he’s seen it all – and always with Mountain Madness
The Chaga (sometimes written Chagga) tribe are the ones around Kilimanjaro; Ben is from the Chaga tribe and his extended family still lives in the Kilimanjaro area.
Arusha is both the name of the city and the region (and the national park we’re in) – think of it like a city and county/state name – and when people say “I’m from Arusha” it could mean either!
We plan to go on a short afternoon hike after a light(er) lunch (seriously – this whole trip – there is SO MUCH FOOD and it IS ALL DELICIOUS). Our park ranger, Tony, leads the way; casually wearing a bolt-action rifle on his shoulder.
It feels so good to stretch my legs a bit – my body has been training training training for so long that 2 days in transit has felt almost oppressively still – and the guides are subtly watching how we walk and breathe to gauge the level of support we’ll need on Kili. We stop often to note animals, plants and tracks; Ben, Geoffrey and Tony have eyes like hawks and can spot critters on a dime.
We return to camp, spotting our first giraffe through some trees, eat dinner and do a gear check – I have everything I need and it’s now got Ben’s official stamp of approval – I continue to make some cuts, asking myself “Is this need to have or nice to have?” and make a plan for tomorrow’s game drive. Since J and I both came a day early (remember how KLM was like ‘come on time and pay $2000 more or come a day early and…save $2000′ and so…I have chosen the better path? Yup. We’re going to continue exploring Arusha National Park and Momella Lakes (there’s 7!) with our bonus day.
Monday morning blooms bright and after a hearty breakfast – Robert makes omelettes an art – we tuck into the Land Cruiser and head out for a walking safari with Tony, Ben and Geoffrey. We stop in a massive open savannah and my eyes hungrily drink in this view.
It’s wild and magical and unbelievable how we just…walk…through this area. There’s so. many. animals that it’s like going to a zoo but there’s no walls. In just this one open area we see baboons, buffalos, giraffes, warthogs, bushbacks, ducks, and more just harmoniously living. It feels like we’re getting away with something secret and wonderful; we’re mostly hushed except for a soft word from a guide (or Tony) to keep (or stop) walking in certain spots. The water draws all the animals to this spot and they find an unspoken rhythm taking turns at the stream.
We drop off Tony at the ranger station (don’t worry, he’ll be back!) and head with Ben & Geoffrey to explore the Momella Lakes and eat some lunch. We drive up on these pals – aren’t they cute? THERES A BAYBEEEEEEE!
BUT y’all, that baby is Matt Damon and the adults are Brad Pitt & George Clooney because this isn’t ‘cute game drive’ this is now Oceans 11: Tanzania. After stopping in the Land Cruiser to photograph this troop (yes, a group of baboons is a troop) through the open roof (it pushes/pops up so we can stand and photograph from inside the car), we start to pull away and I have my head out the side of the car window snagging final shots. I look over my shoulder and spot a baboon running up beside the car, thinking ‘oh cute, it’s like a Dalmatian chasing a moving car or whatever.’
Me:”Geoffrey, there’s a baboon running next to us on our side.”
Geoffrey: “Oh, where?”
Me: *looks back over my shoulder* “Oh I don’t see – oh I think it just jumped on the back tire”
Me: *looks up* “Oh my gosh, it’s on the [open] roof”
Like Y’ALL I AM MAKING EYE CONTACT WITH THIS BABOON. There is nothing separating us. We are breathing the same air.
And then the baboon is IN the car. He’s jumped inside.
SERIOUSLY in less than 10 seconds it’s:
Baboon running beside us
Baboon on tire
Baboon on roof
Baboon in CAR IN THE CAR IN THE CAR IN THE CARRRRRR
And I just need to say – have you ever seen someone’s face when they’re panicking a bit but trying not to look panicked so you don’t panic? When I say Geoffrey and Ben’s faces looking back at that baboon…that is the face they both made. The ‘don’t scare the clients’ face, throwing the car into park, both shouting in Swahili and Ben threw a water bottle at this baboon and all I can think is THERE IS NO WAY FOR THIS DUDE TO GET OUT EXCEPT GOING BACK OUT THE WAY HE CAME IN HE’S GOING TO NEED/WANT AN EXIT OH MY GOSH I AM GOING TO GET BIT AND GET RABIES BEFORE I EVEN CLIMB KILI
and pretty much treated this baboon like a weird person hollering on the train in Chicago – I turned my face/body into the corner of the door, hunching over my valuables (read: camera) and waited for the rant to be over. Rule 1: don’t make eye contact. I’m serious fam, I’m a Krav Maga certified instructor but like…the most important lesson is to know when you shouldn’t engage in a fight. And I was not here to get bit on DAY TWO! This was a jacked male baboon who had been doing Gym, Tan, Laundry and STEROIDS and I avoided this juiced up guido, who not only came in our car but ran up and CHECKED THE SEAT POCKETS. Seriously, he was right next to me and checked the pocked of the seat in front of me.
Between the baboon screeching and Ben/Geoffrey hollering in Swahili and me just hiding out in the door’s buttcrack, the baboon grabbed our lunchbox (think those big pink cardboard cake boxes) and jumped out of the car the same way he came in – through the open roof. Jokes on him though, that box is hinged, so our wax paper-wrapped lunch items fell out and dude left with an EMPTY cardboard box. Ben and Geoffrey jumped out, throwing stones and yelling as a ranger car spins up in a cloud of dust and two rangers jump out, berating the guides for getting out of their car in this area (a big, well-signed faux pas).
I turn to J, wide eyed, and say ‘did that really just happen?’
Ben and Geoffrey get back in, laughing with the rangers, who return the empty box that Danny Ocean had angrily discarded, explaining we were the third car hit that day. This was getting to be a common spot for this troop to prey on safari vehicles; and they’re so smart that they knew to jump in the open roof, check the pockets and where lunch is usually kept. In 25 years, Ben had never seen anything like it.
So…I learned the word for baboon is ‘nyani’ and we used it. A lot. I didn’t trust an open roof near a troop of baboons the rest of my time in Tanzania. Not afraid, just…wary. Y’all know they got a whisper network going on to talk about gullible tourists and I was not here to get got twice in one trip!
Something was in the baboon water today, I swear – Robert, our chef – had another baboon encounter with one coming in the open door to the camp kitchen. He had to shake a machete at it! Mercury rising or whatever; nyanis were making bold moves! We came back to camp to an absolute feast; Robert outdid himself with our ‘night before starting to climb Kili’ meal. Pork chops, purple yams, chicken, lamb kabobs, grilled veggies and a breathtaking lemon passion fruit cheesecake that I wanted to roll around in. Critical vocab was quickly learned and deployed – ‘tamu sana’ – very delicious.
They had to roll me outta that meal tent; Tony walked J and I to our tents, which he’d done each night. Honestly, I’d thought it was a bit overdone, something they probably do for tipsy clients or those too old/young that might get lost, etc. A bit of theater to keep clients feeling ‘safe.’
Well, serve me up a plate of crow, people.
,Following Tony we waddled quietly in a ‘I’m very full and sleepy’ pace to our tents, under a wide, almost full moon. I breathed deep that fresh, mountain air, thought ‘whew, smells like manure,’ and suddenly he just. stopped. and put a hand up.
We stopped too. After our safari walk earlier today, we knew – when Tony stops – you stop. But I didn’t see anything. Not taking a step, I raised up on tiptoe and craned my neck to look around the corner, where all of Tony’s focus was. He slowly shifted the rifle off his shoulder and held it, ready, in his arms.
You know it’s serious when the rifle comes off the park ranger’s shoulder. Their job is to protect you and the animals, in that order. They’ll always try a warning shot to scare an animal, but if needed, they’ll put it down to protect you. My eyes snagged on the swooping curve of a massive, male cape buffalo’s horns in shadow, just outside the floodlight’s reach. I knew now why I’d smelled manure. We’d been told about big, solitary ‘bachelor’ buffalos earlier today; they’re big and mean. And we were less than 20 feet away from one, with a bolt action rifle and some paltry bushes between us.
We waited, silent for probably 2 full minutes, in a standoff. Turning his head but not looking away from the buffalo, Tony spoke so quietly that we had to half-lip read: “Walk backwards. Very slow.” We took two steps and the buffalo bolted, thankfully away from us. We laughed, breathing shakily to expel the adrenaline. Unlike previous nights, Tony walked us all the way to the door of the tents and waited until the double zip was completely sealed.
“Usi Kumwema” he called.
“Lala salaama” I hollered back.
⛰️✨ We start up Kilimanjaro in the morning ⛰️✨
Bailey’s Kiswahili Vocab for the Day(s): A Series Written Phonetically
(AKA how I thought it should be spelled, likely v wrong)
It’s been awhile since I’ve traveled internationally – but more than that – it’s been 6+ years since I traveled somewhere new internationally. I forgot how fun it is to have a completely new experience. To blend nerves and discovery together and not be totally sure it’ll work.
I slept most of the way to Amsterdam; a good plan on an 8-hour flight that left Chicago at 4pm. We descended through the misty, Seattle-esque clouds around 7am local time and I was looking forward to hanging out in a lounge for the 4-hour layover, using them sweet lil credit card perks, only to find out it was closed. Boooooooooo! C’mon capitalism! Do your girl a solid! Instead I snagged an iced coffee (I mean, it was Seattle weather), watched some Ted Lasso and did a 10-minute meditation in a quiet nook of the terminal.
Waiting to board the AMS > JRO leg, I saw so many people at the gate who looked like me – daypack, hiking boots, REI-ish layers – and had that same feeling: what are y’all doing on my special adventure?! On one hand I’m aware many, many people go to Kilimanjaro (and Tanzania, the Serengeti, etc.) in general and on the other hand it felt odd to have spent 2 years overall preparing for this thing so incredibly solo (being isolated in a pandemic, living/working out alone, etc. for the past year and a half) but being surrounded by other people realizing their dream ON THE SAME DAY AS ME. I may be your only friend/family/person to climb Kilimanjaro but trust me; there’s literally hundreds of us at any given time.
After an easy, uneventful 8-hour leg south to JRO, we arrived around 9pm local time. Seated in row 43 of 45, it took me awhile to get off the plane. I almost vibrated with palpable excitement, looking out the window at the bright letters KILIMANJARO INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT. We rushed outside, groaning with relief in stretching our legs…to get into line. A huge line. A cozy, 75 degree darkness enveloped us, sandwiched between the outer walls of the airport and the massive KLM jetliner we’d evacuated, bottlenecking to be paperwork-checked.
Get in 300+ person line and slowly get to the front of the pack.
Get waved over to one of 10 people checking paperwork, temperatures and IDs.
Paperwork approved, temp check ok – go stand in a different line to pay the $10 COVID test fee – with a credit card machine that is out of receipt paper so they’re handwriting/stamping all receipts, taking forever
Go inside, get pretty thorough COVID rapid test up the schnozz
Booty barely touching the waiting area seat when they loudly call your FULL GROWN FIRSTNAME MIDDLENAME LASTNAME and hand me the (thankfully) Negative results
Get in different line to get a visa, fill out paperwork, scan all ya fingerprints, you’re Jason Bourne now
Pay $100 for the privilege of the finger scanning
Go to a different window to get a receipt for paying $100 for the Bourne finger scan
Go get your bags from the floor (they’ve been nicely pulled from the carousel and set in a line with the other hundred bags, watched over by airport staff) ***It’s been 2 hours since you landed***
Put all bags (including carry on) back through another X-ray machine so you can leave. X-ray attendant is halfheartedly scrolling on their phone.
Finally emerge out into the night, where 50 Tanzanian men are all holding signs with various safari company names on them in varying fonts and font sizes
Honestly? I just started scanning left to right. I was the only person to walk out the door at that moment, so they’re all just watching me stand there, eyeballs glazed over. I started at my 9 o’clock and was going clockwise through all the names, standing in one spot like a spooked baby horse when – suddenly – out of nowhere this guy pops through the ring of men, saying “Mountain Madness?”
“YES” I gratefully breathed as he and another guy, fully masked, took my bags and led me past the other guide companies, closer to the parking lot. “I’m Ben” and “I’m Geoffrey,” they added, as I felt my shoulders finally droop below my ears. Someone else was in charge now. I could rest. There was no more big, solo decisions to make, things to coordinate, etc. It was a relief to have someone else take the wheel.
I think that was one of the things I was most looking forward to on this trip and I didn’t fully realize it until I got back home. There’s only a few people that I’ve talked to about it that really get this, and they’re also single women. Its not unique to us but there’s a unique perspective to it. It’s exhausting to have to do all the things alone. Not just the tasks of living (although that’s a lot) but also the decision-making, the weighing of options, the research, etc. When you’re in a couple (or family) you can take turns wearing those hats, even if one of you does it most of the time, it’s rarely all of the time for all of the things.
You have to get up for work no one is going to wake you up so set your alarm ok it’s time get up and decide what to wear I’m hungry but what are you gonna eat you should use that cookbook that mom got you or maybe just get on google and type in the ingredients you have and see what looks good do not open Grubhub you’ll never cook and those bell peppers are 84 years old in the drawer you gotta do it today or they’re going to rot on you ok I found 2 recipes for stuffed peppers well when are you going to cook it you just started another episode of L&O SVU ok but are you going to eat it like a wolf out of the pot because why get another plate dirty it’s just you and you’ll have to wash that dish oh you’ve just used the same 3 dishes for the last week that’s ok who’s gonna know oh lord that trash has gotta go out I’ve pushed it down too long gotta take the rent check to the post box on the corner tomorrow or it’ll be late I also gotta look at flight times so Mom knows when I’m coming home for the holidays but need to check and be sure it doesn’t conflict with work or theater schedule are my plants dying? when’s the last time they were watered – well – if I didn’t do it then no one did it…etc. etc. etc.
I know there’s beauty in the freedom to make my own choices and it’s a privilege to have the financial flexibility to live alone. Most of the time I’m aware and grateful for it but sometimes it catches up to you – that mental & emotional labor – and the fact that you can’t take all the hats off. The Beret of Personal Responsibility is glued on, y’all.
Standing in the black-velvet Tanzanian night outside the airport, there was a palpable, physical (and mental and emotional) sigh, listening to the bugs softly chirp, a light breeze soothing my almost 24-hours of travel soul. Someone. else. was. in. charge. I took a step away, pulled down my mask and gazed up at the star-flecked sky, gulping in fresh air and rubbing the mask lines imprinted on my scalp. I could rest now. I’d done everything right – I’d trained, I’d prepared, I’d executed, I’d been in the right places at the right times with the right paperwork and my reward was finally here – someone else in control. Glorious.
We tossed our duffels and bags in a khaki-colored Toyota Land Cruiser and started the 90-minute drive out to Arusha National Park and Itikoni private camp, where Mountain Madness has taken clients for decades. It was just after midnight, but to J (our other hiker) and I it was about 4-5pm to our stateside origin bodies. With our whole car vaccinated (and J and I very freshly PCR tested (in the states pre-flight) and rapid tested (about 1 hour ago in the KIA airport) negative for COVID), we took off our masks and happily chattered away. I didn’t even know J’s name before I left the country yesterday and was about to spend a week+ on a mountain with him and the guides, so I was curious.
We turn off the main road into Arusha National Park and put the Land Cruiser into 4-wheel drive for the rugged, teeth-jostling final 30 minutes of the trail. It was too dark to take any photos but we leaned forward, hopeful we’d see a critter or two illuminated in the hazy lights of the car, and were rewarded with half-glimpses of a giraffe and a cape buffalo just off the road. Pulling into Itikoni just shy of 2am, we were taken to the mess tent and introduced to Po, who had made a full meal for us.
Y’all, I know my brain was like ‘hey girl, it’s only 6pm-ish’ but also, after 24 hours of travel I was ready to big sleep. And here an incredibly nice crew made us a full multi-course meal – tangy, brightly-colored salad, freshly sliced steak, even a hand-crafted dessert – and were smiling, waiting for us to eat. They offered me a beer or a glass of wine but I knew I’d be out before we hit ‘asante’ if I did. When my eyelids were heavy and belly full, Ben, Geoffrey and our armed camp ranger, Tony, walked us to our spacious private tents and after a brief tour (how to use the toilet, wash my face, take a shower, and to not to leave the tent while it was dark (there was an emergency whistle if I felt unsafe!)), I said goodnight, zipped the inner and outer tent door and crawled into bed just before 3am, pulled up my sleep mask, squished in my earplugs and slept a deep, dreamless, thankful sleep.
[Sidebar pro-tip if you’re going to KIA in the next year-ish: You can pre-pay your COVID test and you can pre-file/get your Tanzania visa online but I didn’t pre-do either and still beat the other travel/hiker in our group out of the airport by 20+ minutes. Normally I would have pre-done both but, shrug, six of one and a half-dozen of the other, you know?]
Next Up: Itikoni Camp & Arusha National Park (Days 2-3)
Baboon Danny Ocean
We get up close and personal with why our camp ranger carries a bolt action rifle
I stared at the ‘Out of Office’ banner splashed across the top of my work Gmail and gave a half-hearted cackle and fist pump – and then couldn’t stop – I stood up and suddenly it was way too hot. I whipped my shirt off and just stood in the middle of my living room having a Disney villain moment clad in a sports bra.
“It’s happening,” I muttered to myself in increasingly loud increments. I ran to the bathroom to look at my face and said it in the mirror like a mantra. “It’s HAPPENING. It’s hApPeNiNg.” I put on some music and couldn’t stop dancing maniacally. If you think this is a fever dream/memory – here’s proof:
Yeah, it’s a video, and yeah, I’m taking that one to the grave.
Everything to be done was done.
The packing – ✅
The PCR COVID test – ✅ – and results were in: NEGATIVE
The OOO Gmail, Slack, etc. for work – ✅
Someone to water the plants & grab mail – ✅
The fridge food – eaten – ✅ (and the next day’s breakfast & lunch set up ✅)
Downloads of podcasts, support videos (friends, parents, my trainer Brian), audiobooks, book books, etc. – ✅
House cleaned top to bottom – ✅
Travel outfit set out – ✅
Folder of critical travel documents, copy of passport, trip insurance, TZ address for on-the-ground Visa, etc. – ✅
All there was left to do was execute on the plan.
Day 0 – Friday, September 10
I remember thinking, ‘wow, what if I don’t sleep tonight? I’ll be so excited the adrenaline will probably keep me up.’ And promptly knocked out around 11. I set a 9am safety net alarm, but woke up around 7:30am – my flight not being until 4pm. I made a french press of coffee and sat quietly on the couch, drinking it slowly and looking at my bags. I had a checklist on the door of final things to confirm while going out (take out trash, triple check you locked the door), and a smaller one on the kitchen table for different final things like a gov’t form I had to complete w/in 24 hours of arrival in TZ and writing Katie a note about my plant children’s care, writing my rent check, etc.
I’d fortified myself – a weird word, but true – with emotional boosts, should I need them. My fresh journal has a ton of recently-installed stickers, phrases and quotes making me think of places or people or feelings that would help lift my moods on tough days/nights.
A card tucked inside with a quote from St. Therese of Liseaux (also attributed to St. Therese of Avila and Minnie Louise Haskins 1908 book of poems, but still hits me): “Today may there be peace within, may you trust that you are exactly where you are meant to be. May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith in yourself and others. May you use the gifts that you have received and pass on the love that has been given to you. May you be content with yourself just the way you are. Let this knowledge settle into your bones, and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love. It is there for each and every one of us.”
I felt as prepared as prepared could be. The week before the trip everyone kept asking ‘do you feel ready?’ And I did. Body, mind and spirit – I was ready to go – there were no more muscles to build or last-minute-shove-this-in-the-bag epiphanies or frantic items to buy.
A friend came by and picked me up around 1:15pm to head to the airport and I finally breathed out – we were on the path – plan in motion. We missed our airport turnoff and laughed, looping around and finding a modified route back to Terminal 5, O’Hare’s international wing.
4 bags surrounded me: North Face 71L Base Camp mountain duffel, medium-size suitcase, 35L hiking pack on my back, and my Mountainsmith Tour bag on my shoulder with things I’d actually need during transit (travel folder, passport, all camera gear, phone, electronics, book, sunglasses, possible three hand sanitizers?). As I navigated the airport, I thought, ‘I don’t think I’ve had to do a full 4-bags airport dance since I moved back from Korea 6 years ago.’
In line for KLM, I found myself – shockingly – unaware of a form I needed. I felt my spine lock up until the rep said ‘just scan this QR code and you can fill it out online.’ Rapidly filling out a declaration form for the Netherlands (my stopover in Amsterdam for 4 hours needed it, I guess (tl;dr they never looked at it once)), I got to the front of the line and pulled out my travel folder. I glanced to my left, where another man stood with a duffel and a pack, answering the agent’s query ‘Headed to Tanzania.’ I was surprised to see another person in Chicago leaving on the same flight, also headed to the same place; I’d felt like I was on some grand unique hero’s journey and here this random dude was on a parallel track to my story!
Standing in the security line, I was a little bored, so I pulled out my phone and checked work – I KNOW – and someone I’d never met had messaged me, asking about putting a meeting on the calendar next week. I chuckled and typed, ‘I’m literally standing in the international departures TSA line at ORD headed to Africa; unless you want to wait 2.5 weeks, you’ll probably want to find someone else.’ Apparently the OOO notification wasn’t that noticeable…
Once in the terminal, I finally used my fancy credit card perk (getting a travel credit card in Oct 2019 was a stellar move, jk) and hung out in a lounge until boarding. I was reading Gorge: My Journey Up Kilimanjaro at 300 Pounds, and craving those last minute Kili-cramming moments. Do you know they give you free Diet Coke in there?! They doooooooooo.
Boarding call. Everyone was casually sitting and I was practically vibrating. I just wanted to shout ‘I AM GOING TO AFRICAAAA I AM DOING IT IT’S FINALLY HAPPPPPPENING’ but I was not here to get dragged into the Jack Bauer bowels of O’Hare 5ft from the finish line, y’all. We boarded, and I wound my way to my seat in the back of the plane. It was pretty empty – just how we like it! I tucked away my hiking daypack above and snugged my Mountainsmith under the seat in front of me, buckled my seatbelt and sat back, sighing in relief.
A feeling was overwhelming me. A peace that I’d done everything that could be done. Everything happened exactly as I’d planned, thought, worried and laid out for almost 2 years. Wheels in motion and there was truly no turning back now. I was so happy. Happy happy happy and incredulous. I couldn’t believe it was happening. Genuinely I had half-thought it could still be canceled, up until now. That I’d have to use that travel insurance at the last minute. Tears rolled down my face. I took a picture – it was not a good look – but I didn’t care. I realized there was one more thing I wanted to say before leaving US soil.
I’d never truly considered how dangerous this was. Things happen, you know? People still die on Kili; on average about 10 people per year (stats pre-2020 bc COVID) out of ~30,000 who attempt the climb. It was still a dang mountain, and a big one. Literally one of the Seven Summits. Sure, it wasn’t a technical climb like Baker. No abominable snowpits to be swallowed by or glacier ridge spines to tip over on. But it was a formidable mountain; altitude sickness can make your brain swell, or pulmonary edema can make your lungs explode (apologies for the science inaccuracy but I think that’s close) or you can just trip and hit your head on the wrong rock.
I don’t have a will (Will?). I think I’d googled it like 2-3 weeks before leaving, but you know, it was an insanely busy season with work and we were still doing all the final prep/workouts/I was big-time preoccupied. Seated in 43I, I wanted to have one more word to y’all on my trip and also, I don’t know, kinda ‘eulogize’ if something happened. If I didn’t make it over the ocean, or I didn’t make it up this mountain or if a zombified giraffe went to town on my spleen and I didn’t make it back…I wanted my people to know I was still glad I went.
This sounds hella morbid (and I am writing it on Halloweeeeeeen *ghost voice*) but I didn’t feel freaked out or strange doing it. If something happened I wanted y’all to know I was still going to be happy I did it. That I did a big, wild, I-am-not-sure-if-I-can-but-I’m-gonna-try kind of adventure. That I leaped when my landing spot was still cloudy, not fully clear. Big swing and not sure if it would be a home run or a whiff. I wasn’t going to regret this decision, no matter what. I typed and retyped several times, tears running down my face, thinking about what would bring peace (if needed) and be authentically my voice.
“I’m going to go do this thing – chasing something fun and unsure and wonderful – I’m in the right place at the right time doing the right thing.
Hakuna Matata, bbs 🏔🐘✨“
The pilot came over the intercom in Dutch, then in English, and the flight attendants began striding up the aisles, checking for compliance. I looked left down the completely empty row 43 and put my head on the headrest, willing myself to stop crying because the snot inside my mask wasn’t helpful for ya know, breathing.
We pushed back from the gate. I sucked in one, happy sob and looked out at the tarmac and smiled so big that my cheeks lifted my glasses up.
I can feel that I’m putting off writing about the trip. Just a little bit. I will write about it. You know those first moments of a relationship – when you’re not telling people – and it’s private and special and just the two of you? That’s a little how it feels. That and I’ve only been back 10ish days, but it feels like forever and 5 minutes ago, teeth jostling loose on Ngorogoro Crater dirt roads in the Land Cruiser and waking up in my frost-coated orange tent halfway up the mountain.
I’m working on it – telling you about this jaw-dropping adventure – the highs, lows, critters, and the unforgettable men who kept me safe, made me laugh to the point of tears and saw through my brave front. I’ve edited down from ~3300 photos (2700 DSLR, 600 iPhone XR) to ~650 that represent the experiences and feelings, the smells and sounds, the dusty, wonderful moments in Tanzania.
Life is also reminding me of all the things I set to the side while training (and doing) this journey.
Work – Still in a record-breaking hiring season for the vertical I support, and getting back up to speed on projects we’d already set in motion.
Comedy – I was cast into the ensemble of Laugh out Loud Theater in Schaumburg in late July, and I’m ramping up in new cast member rehearsals and attending shows to acclimate to their process. RIFF, the music improv show I’ve been a part of, is also getting a run at the Annoyance Theater this fall/winter!
Personal – Between the ‘Panini,’ busy summers and me training/working out every day but Mondays, I haven’t seen many people in the last year and a half. Those 6-hour Sunday walks didn’t leave much time! So I’ve been doing a looooooot of catching up! I went out FIVE TIMES this week – pre-panorama me scoffs – but it’s a big step up from pre-trip me. I may have overdone it a little but it’s a such a good thing to be reconnecting with so many folks. Have I done trip laundry no I have not buzz off to the next bullet, y’all *pushes down laundry hamper, sits on it*
Fitness – Um, noooooope. And it feels weird. This was such a massive chunk of each day/week. I don’t know what my next fitness step is. Do I rejoin my gym regularly? Do I just see Brian weekly? Do I go back to at-home workouts? What’s the new goal; I’m not great at consistency in this realm without a little fear-of-something in me like my Krav instructor cert date or climbing Kili.
Things I’ve been wanting to do: Take Photo II at Chicago Photography Classes, a dance class at Old Town School of Music in my neighborhood, some domestic travel to see friends, some LinkedIn Learnings on new topics, attend weddings, etc.!
Thank you thank you thank you to all of you have reached out by text, Instagram (or blog) comment/DM, Facebook post, via-a-family-member or friend – I am very excited to start knitting this story/pictures together and I’ll have the first post by the end of this month or I will not touch a Diet Coke for all of November.
THOSE ARE HIGH STAKES. Here’s an absolutely unbridled, child-like joy selfie as a reward from Day 1 in the Ngorogoro Crater! Look at her face! I remember thinking ‘there’s so many of them’ in total wonder. And then we saw hundreds more over the next 4 days; zebra babies and zebra bellies and zebra(s) crossing the road at. their. own. pace.
Depart home late afternoon and fly Chicago > Amsterdam (sadly, not leaving the airport; I’ll be back to explore another time, I promise), +7 hour on US Central and +9 on US Pacific Time.
Day 1 – Saturday, 9/11
Fly from Amsterdam to Kilimanjaro (JRO) Airport, landing around 9pm. I’ll have a rapid COVID test and get my Tanzanian visa; a Mountain Madness rep will meet us and drive to their private compound. I’ll be +8/+10 hours ahead of CT/PT, respectively.
Day 2 – Sunday, 9/12
This is a bonus day – most people fly in/land this night – but it was $2100 cheaper to fly in a day early! So fingers crossed we do something fun local like visit a coffee farm, shop in Arusha or walk around a bit.
Day 3 – Monday, 9/13 – Elevation: 6,500 ft / 1981 m
Transfer to a private camp in Arusha National Park. Here, at about 6,500 feet / 1981 meters, we’ll begin to acclimate; Chicago is about 597 feet above sea level. With only our climbing team (guides, porters, fellow climbers) here, we’ll ease into our adventure, enjoy some game viewing, try to relax from traveling, and prepare for the climb.
Today our guide(s) will host a trip briefing and review our equipment. There may be time for a walk or game drive, which will be taken out into the grasslands for views of African game and Mount Kilimanjaro, as giraffe, buffalo and antelope usually seen in the area.
Day 4 – Tuesday, 9/14 – Elevation: 9,000 ft / 2743 m
MONTANE FOREST — LOMOSHO APPROACH – Hiking Time: 3 – 6 hours (3.2 miles / 5.2 km)
After a short drive through the grasslands and scattered Maasai villages we’ll arrive at the forest edge of Kilimanjaro National Park. From here we’ll walk a few hours through the undisturbed lush jungle to our camp for the night. Our Tanzanian guides will share their knowledge of the local ecology as we walk through the fantastic plants and trees, hear birds, and see other exotic wildlife. Y’all know I’mma be asking tons of questions here. With luck we’ll be able to see Colobus monkeys and signs of elephants on the walk to camp. If I see an elephant I will attempt to hold in an excited squeal. ATTEMPT. Upon arriving at camp, we’ll find our tents set up as well as hot tea and snacks waiting for us in the dining tent.
Day 5 – Wednesday, 9/15 – Elevation: 11,400 ft / 3474 m
SHIRA PLATEAU — WEST SIDE – Hiking Time: 6 – 8 hours (4.8 miles / 7.7 km)
Our Tanzanian guides will greet us at our tents with tea and hot water to wash with before enjoying breakfast as I try to rouse my carcass and tame my inevitable hair tangles. We’ll take our time walking through the forest, which enables us to acclimatize comfortably and spot the plentiful game and bird life while enjoying the views down canyon through breaks in the jungle. Today’s hike will take us through the Montane Forest and the Hagenia Zone. We will point out the unique environmental differences that characterize these separate equatorial zones. Harlan Kredit would be proud (I think). I shall endeavor to ask as many kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species as possible and reward myself with a Jolly Rancher.
Day 6 – Thursday, 9/16 – Elevation: 13,500 ft / 4115 m
MOIR CAMP – Hiking Time: 3 – 6 hours (4 miles / 6.4 km)
It will take us roughly three hours to hike across the Shira Plateau and then one hour up the western slope of the Kibo Massif. Our Camp will be in the upper Heath Zone. We pass the Fischer Camp, which has a plaque dedicated to Scott Fischer, friend and founder of Mountain Madness. In the 1980’s, Wes Krause and Scott Fischer pioneered the Shira Plateau route on Kilimanjaro, which we travel. The views of the mountain at sunset and sunrise are truly spectacular – I’m attempting to make the instructors at Chicago Photography Classes proud (or at least not embarrassed!).
Day 7 – Friday, 9/17 – Elevation: 15,000 ft / 4572 m
LAVA TOWER – Hiking Time: 5 – 7 hours (3.6 miles / 5.8 km)
After breakfast, we’ll slowly hike to 14,850 feet / 4526 meters, just under the “Lava Tower.” This will be our first introduction to the Alpine Zone where the only plant life is the hardiest of grasses and lichens. We will have a spectacular view of the final route of ascent up the Western Breach. There is an exciting optional rock scramble (non-technical) to the top of this unusual lava tower – its gotta be easier than the Roman Headwall, right? The views from the lava tower summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Mt. Meru and the surrounding valleys are quite impressive – fingers crossed I capture them in their glory.
Day 8 – Saturday, 9/18 – Elevation: 16,000 ft / 4877 m
The Western Breach ascent route is now in full view. We spend a few hours climbing to the base of the route and make camp near the Arrow Glacier at 16,000 feet / 4877 meters. To further our acclimatization, we take an afternoon hike up a spectacular ridge further up the route before relaxing in camp. This camp is famous for the absolutely magnificent sunsets, which illuminate the African sky.
Day 9 – Sunday, 9/19 – Elevation: 18,700 ft / 5700 m
SUMMIT CRATER CAMP – Hiking Time: 7 – 10 hours (1.6 miles / 2.6 km)
A looooooong day but should make the next day easier. Today we climb up the Western Breach for about seven hours to the top of the crater rim. There will be time to explore the inner crater before moving to our high camp on the crater floor. It is common to find snow along this section of the route. Our high camp will be next to a spectacular glacier and the summit merely a short hike away! The rest of the day will be spent drinking lots of liquids and enjoying another fabulous sunset dinner (plz yes).
Around 8-9pmish for you Central folks and about 6-7pm for the Pacific ones – this is when I should be summiting (the next morning for me) – raise a glass at your dinner (or from your couch) and I betcha I feel it.
Day 10 – Monday, 9/20 – Elevation: 19,341 ft / 5895 m
This is one of the big reasons I chose MM; I loved the idea of camping in the crater, close enough to touch the stars at 18,700 feet, and making the very hard summit day/night a little easier. After breakfast, we’ll leave camp and hike to the top of the crater rim. From there it is just a ten-minute hike to Uhuru Summit, the highest point in Africa at 19,341 feet / 5895 meters! We arrive at the summit and are rewarded with clear views before the mid-morning clouds roll in. We will bask in the glory of our accomplishment, grab a bite to eat, enjoy the views and take lots of photographs. PLZ BATTERIES DO NOT FAIL ME NOW. I SURVIVED CHICAGO SNOWPOCALYPSE WITH AN iPHONE I GOT THIS.
Now we go down, down, down 9,000 feet and descend to Mweka Camp – Elevation: 10,500 ft / 3200 m
Hiking Time: 8 – 10 hours to camp (6.8 miles / 11 km)
After summit celebrations we will begin our descent past Barafu Hut and down to our camp near Mweka Hut, where our porters will have prepared a special celebratory feast! We will have descended almost 9,000 feet / 2743 meters today and will feel intoxicated by the oxygen rich air. AIR DRUNK AIR GUITAR, GO GO GO. Will sleep a deeeeep sleep.
Summit day is ~10-12 hours and that’s a ‘shorter’ one compared to other companies. Although Baker took 16 hours so honestly, bring it, Kili.
Day 11 – Tuesday, 9/21 – to 4500 feet / 1372m, then drive
Hiking Time: 4 – 7 hours (5.2 miles / 8.4 km)
Hiking time will vary depending on the trail conditions while traveling through the lush vegetation at this elevation. Rain can occur any time of year at this location and can make the trail muddy requiring a slower pace. Once we have descended the 4,500 feet / 1372 meters to the road head we will have our lunch and say goodbye to our mountain staff before heading off to safari with our same guide team. We’ll night at Ikitoni Private Camp (where we started) before transferring to safari the next day.
Day 12 – Wednesday, 9/22
LAKE MANYARA NATIONAL PARK AND NGORONGORO PRIVATE CAMP
Safaaaari szn, bbs! We continue on our journey with a visit to Lake Manyara National Park, a park Ernest Hemmingway described as “the loveliest I had ever seen.” Found amid the variety of animals is an abundance of bird life, including the pink flamingos that enjoy the water-based microcosm of the lake and its environs, all of which add to the ecological diversity of your safari. After our visit we drive to the highlands of Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area. We stay for two nights at MM’s deluxe private camp at Ngorongoro, near Olé Dorop’s, our Maasai friend and walking safari guide.
Days 13-16 – Thursday, 9/23 – Sunday, 9/26
Continue exploring Ngorongoro and Serengeti, seeing animals, visiting villages and taking all the photos my heart can stand! Return to Arusha for our final night.
Day 17 – Monday, 9/27
Another ‘bonus’ day that saved me another $2100 on the flight – shop, connect, savor – and fly out at 9pm from JRO > Amsterdam.
Day 18 – Tuesday, 9/28
Fly Amsterdam to Minneapolis (there were no directs to Chicago, so odd); then MSP to Chicago, landing around 3pm local time. Customs, bags, Lyft, home. Greet my plants, eat whatever dry goods I’ve squirreled away in the cupboards and likely crash/sleep because my body will still be +8, soul stuck in Tanzania time.
We’d all slept like trash. Every muffled squeak as someone rolled over on a sleeping pad. Every critter wandering in the dark, snuffling for snacks. A soft throat clearing. I doubt I slept 10 minutes between 9pm and my 2:00am alarm. It was a relief when someone else’s alarm when off at 1:45; the whole camp had been holding our collective breath, awake, waiting. 12 sleeping bags unzipped at once and the muted glow of headlamps made each tent a brightly-colored lantern in the moonlight.
I was glad I’d set out everything I’d needed the night before – the layers to wear, the gear already 95% packed, the snacks tucked away in side pockets, the water pre-purified – my eyes felt gritty, like college all nighters or red-eye flights. B and I didn’t really speak; we didn’t need to. I got up and grabbed hot water for oatmeal; shoving some bites in my mouth quickly before my nauseous brain caught up to my stomach’s signal of ‘hey, I’m not really in the mood right now.’ Double-knotting my rented boots and triple-checking my (and B’s) gear I ran and re ran through my mental lists.
Just before 3:30am, we set off up the narrow, protruding spine beside Easton Glacier, summit-bound on Mt. Baker. It was hushed other than the crackling groans of the glacier to our right, but we were in high spirits. The only light was a constellation of headlamps before and behind me, and the massive, round moon on our left. We walked on the dusty ridge, mostly in silence except to murmur a word of caution to another hiker about a thorny spot. The group broke off into two chunks, with B and I linking up with the ‘fast guys’ group and one of our guides, Peter. We pulled ahead and began sinking our feet into snow, duck-walking the way we’d been taught the day before at ‘Snow Camp.’
The sky softened to a salt lamp pink – the moon still holding court – but not for much longer. We reached our ‘snow from here on out’ point and sat to snack and put on our crampons, helmets, harnesses and roped up, each holding an ice axe. As the groups converged and the guides divvyed us up, we laid out our intentions for the day and pace plans.
We’re put in a group with Kush, our rope guide. He’s followed by B, myself, and a couple from Seattle behind me. A pack of 5 all ‘summit or bust,’ with all of us (sans Kush) on our first technical climb. We shuffle out, slowly figuring out the rhythm of having people before and behind and keeping the rope slack (but not too slack). ‘A smile,’ they say – not dragging – and not pulling on teammates. One hand clutches my trekking pole, the other wraps around the blade of my ice axe. They are decidedly not the same height, giving me a lurching gait up the mountain.
Don’t step on the rope don’t step on the rope shoot I stepped on the rope maybe I can get off the rope before B notices okay got away with it this time don’t step on the rope don’t step, step – step – step – step – okay I’m doing it okay this isn’t so bad aw man I stepped on the rope again good lord we have so far to go, don’t look just focus here HERE here brick by brick, bite by bite, step by step you’ll lead me and I’ll follow you all of my daaaays what is that song? Oh right, walk with your toes out, Alex said it saves your calves, and I’ll need them more, my butt is tougher, I have a very tough butt. All those stupid box step ups thank God Brian still never made me do box jumps what was the french word for the way we’re walking again? Oh plie – right – like ballet – I should sign up for a class at Old Town when I’m done with Kili –
This was it. The whole way. Welcome to my brain.
We took breaks ~every 35-50 minutes on the way up. Sinking my butt into the cold snow was such a relief, even if it was damp as I stood up. Steam was probably coming off me; I shed layers and unzipped as we walked but after 2 minutes on a break would start to shiver as the sweat (and snow) rapidly cooled me down. Snacking on gummies, goos and Sour Patch Kids, the sun peeked over the skyline and poured down the ice towards us. I looked over my shoulder and gasped at how far we’d come. I looked up, wondering when we’d see the infamous Roman Headwall. I’m wildly grateful that at no point in the first 6 hours did someone say how far we were from the top.
Gradually, one climber peeled off with a guide, headed back downhill. The groups shuffled, and our pack had to pick up the pace. I began to chatter at B – for her and for me – to just give my mind something to do as my body got whiny, got tired, got very over just keep swimming-ing along. Songs from our childhood (Pocahontas was a favorite), did she think Mandy Moore moved faster than us (she’d climbed Mt. Baker literally the week before), and on and on, stepping over small crevasses slashing the snowfields and further up, further in.
We stopped to lunch just below the headwall around 10:30am. I hadn’t googled it – the only thing I knew was a brief blog/writing on Mountain Madness’ website, written by a previous climber. I thought it was like a 100-150 ft. difficult bit. Over in 10-20 mins max.
Reader, that was not accurate.
First – Kush cautioned us that this was not a place we could stop and pause to catch our breath. There would be no butt-sitting, Sour-Patching, reflective moments; anything more than a one breath pause would be dangerous to someone else on our rope line, vulnerable to the rapidly warming (and melting) snow.
Second – Did we want to continue? We were the last summit-bound rope team of the morning – from our company and any others. Groups were coming down as we were sitting at the bottom of the headwall, making our decision. We needed to speed up if we wanted to summit – and speeding up through the hardest part – where we couldn’t pause/take a break.
As we ate, looking at each other, I thought about the summit. I’d always thought it would be such a big deal. Just that week I’d written a post here about how summiting really mattered to me. That I was a prideful little dragon who wanted to roar from the top. I can’t believe the same person is telling you this now but – at this moment sitting at the base of the headwall – butt damp, 7+ hours into this exhausting climb, still 2+ hours from the top and considering if we should continue…I did not care.
I felt wildly proud of how far we had come. This was the view:
All those halting, sliding, crampon-footed steps. I was tired. I was still ok to keep going but I was worried about being 2+ hours still from the top. I knew the snow was softening. I was nervous about the crevasses we’d stepped over on the way up being stealthier, cracking open further in the sun as each second ticked by. I say nervous – but afraid is more like it – these abominable snowman caves were scary and only getting scarier.
I thought about the night before, laying in the darkness next to B. The sun had just set and a soft haze helped us just make out our features as we faced each other, curled up in our sleeping bags like parentheses.
“I’m scared,” I whispered. A tear ran down my face as I admitted it to her, and to myself.
I was scared that if I couldn’t summit Baker, that I couldn’t summit Kili. That something in my body or spirit was too weak, too chickenshit, that despite over a year and a half of training that Brian and I hadn’t found my secret Achilles Heel, some secret streak of physical or mental cowardice, and it would somehow shamefully rear it’s head on the side of the mountain. Someone had been airlifted off Baker just the weekend before, barely misstepping, slipping and injuring their ankle so bad they couldn’t walk.
“Me too,” whispered B. We sat in that uncomfortable silence. There was nothing left to add. There was no changing the path. Several times following in that sleepless night I went through this mental cycle where my body tried to produce an excuse. “Am I sick?” I’d thought countless times. “No, you’re not. You’re just freaking out. Try to sleep,” the angel on the other shoulder whispered back. I felt panicky, checking my heart rate on my watch, but it was relatively normal.
I sat just below the headwall, looking at that view. All that boastful, puffed-chest pride just seemed like cotton candy now. I’d thought the idea of summitting was such a big deal; it certainly looked huge as it twirled up in my mind before the trip. Every whisk around building another layer of spun sugar, another layer of why it mattered to summit. The summit matters, the summit matters, the summit matters. Sitting there, though, it was like that cotton candy in a rainstorm. Just a sad, sodden little lump of sugar – it never mattered. Or it mattered so much less than what we’d already accomplished. We’d come so far. If we had chosen that moment to not summit, I wouldn’t have been mad.
I know that sounds so incongruous with that previous post. And it was. It didn’t line up with what I thought I would feel. I think I would have come back. Attacked Baker again. Felt challenged to strap crampons back on and take on Koma Kulshan. I was truly at peace with the effort we had done. 7 hours of pushing, clawing, sweating. We all took a few minutes to sit with that idea in our souls. That we had come far enough. That we had nothing to feel ashamed about.
Kush checked in with each of us.
I tried to catch B’s eye – to tell her I was at peace with us stopping here. I didn’t want her to feel like my cotton candy pride was influencing her decision for her safety, for our group’s safety. She was facing away, looking west; gazing over the ‘horns’ of Lincoln & Colfax Peaks towards Whatcom County, having her own moment with her soul.
“Yes,” she said. We made eye contact. I asked her again if she was sure.
She was. I was. We were.
I don’t know why it’s called a headwall. I googled it when I got back and didn’t feel like I got a clear answer. Something like ‘the final push before a summit,’ which I guess is accurate. In my head I’d thought it would be an icy stone-ish scramble; maybe we’d have to use our hands.
It was a single track slushy snow ledge, winding around crevasses I genuinely was too frightened to look into. I felt like the crevasse would notice me, like the Eye of Sauron, and I didn’t want their attention. Focusing my mental and physical energy to being present, aware of the rope, each step a precision placement as we inched alone, ice axe then trekking pole, ice axe then trekking pole, never stopping for more than a deep breath.
The top of the headwall was ‘messy,’ per Kush. Not wrong, and yet woefully light on details. It was like the devil’s gravel playground; every rocky step you thought would be solid was mush gravel and those you thought would be mush gravel were strangely firm as your crampons screamed, scraping over glacier-fed rivulets and streams of dirty water. All I could think was “1, get through this, 2, stay present, 3, if this is bad now what will it be like on the way down as we’re shaky in an hour or two?” Walking out of the headwall we let out a relieved ‘whoop’ to be back on our faithful pal, ole’ snow. We trekked across a pretty flat 30-minute stretch, the false summit, towards a little ‘dirt mound’ that is Grant’s Peak, the true summit of Mt. Baker.
The wind whipped at us – with nothing to block it at the top of the world – and our sweat cooled as we pulled on whatever layers were left. Dropping our packs and unroping, B and I leaned uphill, arm in arm up the dirt track at the end. A small box was at the top. I never looked inside; it made me think of geocaching and felt sacred. We looked around in wonder, grabbing a few pictures and marveling at the views of Rainier, Shuksan, Glacier and countless other Cascade peaks jutting into the horizon. B waved at Baker Laker, where a co-worked was camping this weekend. After a round of photos, we looked at each other and said ‘let’s go.’
Everyone has asked me “How long were you up at the summit?” and literally everyone is so disappointed when I say “10 minutes.” “Only 10 minutes?! Why?!” Because we’d seen what we needed to see – the summit! We felt accomplished, we got our photos, we ate some snacks, we were very tired and knew it was 5-6 hours down; including the increasingly treacherous crevasses, the rapidly softening headwall, and fighting our own mental exhaustion. At this point we also thought we were the last rope team heading down on the mountain; potentially risky/dangerous if anyone needed assistance or fell. B peed behind a hump of snow, we latched up our pack wait belts, roped back up and took one last glance at our accomplishment, beginning the descent.
As we marched back through the false summit snowfield, we crossed another team – relieved we were no longer the last ones on the mountain and someone was coming behind us – we murmured verbal encouragements as others had given us and trekked on. The gravelly top of the headwall was as treacherous as we’d thought it would be; two team members slipped slightly, soaking their boots/butts in the frigid, murky water. I fleetingly thought about how grateful I was for all those stupid core stabilizing moves Brian had made me do, each hip extension, PT stretch and superman back flexion alone at 11pm on my belly in mid-2020, afraid of our own groceries.
There was no time for other thoughts, though. Every step had to be perfect. All I wanted to do was disassociate and take my mind away – to Kili, to invent dumb songs because I missed RIFF, to thinking about the raspberry pie I was promised – but I couldn’t. I thought about that idea from “The Good Place,” the one about ‘what we owe to each other’ and I felt I owed my teammates my mental focus. Each of us protected each other by carefully placing each wide, cowboy-stanced, cramponed foot down with intention. We gave each other the gift of razor-sharp focus as we descended down, down, down, Kush in the back quarterbacking our route from above.
‘Go faster,’ he called – and I accidentally glanced at and quickly away from a crevasse – hoping it hadn’t noticed my gaze. We picked up the pace, heel-plunging down as the sun beat on us. It felt like walking in an exceedingly bright orange Slushy; our poles and ice axes catching us every 4-5 steps as a seemingly-firm step made our feet slide forward. It was only when I got back and looked at photos that I realized the orange/brown haze of the snow I’d been seeing all day (assuming it was dirty) was my glacier sunglasses filtering the glare. My photos looked a lot better than I thought; everything I saw looked like a toasted meringue on top of a pie but the photos were just high-exposure white on white.
We finally reached the bottom of the headwall and paused at our former lunch spot. There was a ‘dicey’ spot just below us; I remembered feeling like ‘whew that’s risky’ on the way up and thinking at the time ‘that’s gonna suck on the way down.’ And it did. It kept sucking. I remembered stepping over 4-5 cracks on the way up and about 3 truly spooky spots.
Well, the spooky spots had been fruitful and multiplied in our absence. The sun did her job (and us no favors) and we slid and slushed all down that mountain. For 6 hours we went down and down and down. Multiple times I thought (and said) ‘we cannot have come up this way. Nothing here is familiar.’ The artist formerly known as ‘strong butt and thigh game’ had the shakes and loudly let me know anytime we paused for more than 3 seconds. We were quiet as we descended, all alone with our thoughts, narrowing to ‘just this step’ and resetting each time. At one point, everyone but AJ (our anchor) and Kush had fallen multiple times in one minute. “You all are probably setting some kind of record for falls,” Kush deadpanned from the back. I didn’t have enough energy to laugh as my foot slipped again.
It was hot. We’d all stripped back down to sun shirts, stowing our fleece and jackets in our bags. B and I were very low on water; we’d brought 5 liters between us and it wasn’t enough. Our team shared; but I knew I was dehydrated. Enough punishing walks roaming around Chicago and I knew my signals. I hadn’t peed since we left camp, over 12 hours before, nor did I need to pee.
‘Just this snowfield, that has to be the last one’ I told myself, dismayed at each new snowfield we saw. ‘Pick up the pace,’ Kush called again to AJ, and the long-legged dude obediently ratched up the speed of descent, making us all groan. At one point I remember chastising myself and saying ‘listen you either walk off this mountain with your own two legs or get helicoptered, get it together, we’re not falling here, this close to Kili.’ I slipped again. It felt unending.
The snow eventually gave way to snow and rocks, and wet, dark gaps between stone and ‘berms’ that we were cautioned to avoid. We looped around an outcropping I felt looked like “The Martian” and I finally recognized where we’d initially sat to put on our crampons in the pre-dawn light with Peter. ‘Only a little further’ said Kush and I recognized the same tone that aerobic instructors use as they promise ‘just 15 more seconds’ and give you another 20 burpees. My feet felt bruised and soaked as snow had snuck in on our mushy descent; what had felt like cooling relief now felt like probably blisters and audibly squished as we pulled off our crampons. I finally needed to pee but didn’t trust my body to squat; I also didn’t think I had the energy to de-rope, walk off trail, take off my harness and come back without just saying ‘leave me here’ and likely meaning it.
We reached ‘high camp,’ about 20 minutes from our campsite at ‘low camp,’ and de-cramponed. It felt a bit like stepping off a treadmill as my gait re-adjusted to normal booted life. AJ and Amber scooted ahead, and B and I walked slowly like two female Frankensteins back onto the spine of the Easton Glacier ridge.
I remember thinking ‘don’t fall now; you’re probably not going to get back up.’ Kush slowly walked with us as we silently made our way into camp. It was just past 7pm. Someone snored happily in one of the tents. B and I slumped into our tent; beyond spent. I put on fresh layers and slipped into my camp shoes (Crocs!) and went to go have a very-delayed pee break; genuinely too scared to look at the dangerously dehydrated color after 16 hours.
I grabbed some stuffing and mashed potato dinner with shaky hands, weakly smiling at another hiker who was back and happily chattered away about their team’s experience. I nodded politely and walked off to refill and repurify 2 liters of water for B and I. Sitting on a small boulder next to the brook, circling my Steripen around and around the rim of my Nalgene bottle, I looked at the alpine meadow, towards the setting sun, and briefly felt my tired little dragon give a tiny wing flap. Like when your dog is tired or sleepy, laying on the ground and you call their name and they give a single tail wag, a soft ‘wap’ onto the floor. They’re tired but they acknowledge you – that was it. A brief ‘thank you’ to my mind and body for the focus. For the grit. For not giving up. I was too beat for any other reflection.
The following afternoon, I waited in my bathrobe for B to get done with the shower and I looked out at Baker from the window at my parent’s house. Bathed in pink and lavender as the sun set, I couldn’t reconcile this view with these legs with that experience the day before.
“I climbed that. These legs did that.” I kept whispering to my soul. I believed it (and my legs wouldn’t let me forget) but it seemed almost dream-like. Even though it had been less than 24 hours ago. A whole mountain. From the 4 hour hike in, the 16-hour summit ascent and descent day, the 2.5 hour hike out that next morning – I remembered all of it and fleeting pieces of it at the same time – the memories firming up like setting cement in my mind.
I woke up the next morning and padded out onto the deck, warming my palms with a mug of coffee, gazing at the sunrise coming up over the crest of the peak.
I spoke out loud to myself, hushed. “I did that. I did that with these legs, and this body, and that whole mountain.” I kept repeating it because I almost didn’t believe it. 10,781 feet. Of grit. Of fear. Of focus. Of exhaustion. Of Sour Patch Kids. Of hours of workouts during a pandemic where I was alone, sobbing in my apartment. Of Zoom calls and masks and virtual happy hours. Of disappointing trip cancellations and build-up of pride and the humility of shakily clinging to the side of a crater, 7 hours in. Of wonder, and joy and raw beauty out in the wild. This world isn’t tame.
My heart siren burbled a question and I shook my head. “Not yet. Let’s just enjoy this one for a bit.”