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.
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.”
By the numbers, I shouldn’t be more nervous climbing Mt. Baker this weekend than Mt. Kilimanjaro in September. A hunky looming beaut visible from my parents’ backyard, you can’t miss Baker if you live in Whatcom County (or the lower mainland of BC).
Per Wikipedia “Mount Baker, also known as Koma Kulshan or simply Kulshan, is a 10,781 ft active glacier-covered andesitic stratovolcano in the Cascade Volcanic Arc and the North Cascades of Washington in the United States. Mount Baker has the second-most thermally active crater in the Cascade Range after Mount St. Helens.” YEAH I’M CLIMBING A VOLCANO, FAM.
Our main girl Kilimanjaro is 19,341ft. Almost double the height of Baker. But Kilimanjaro isn’t a technical climb – which is a weird phrase to say considering it’s one of the Seven Summits – but it’s really just a long, hard hike at high altitude. It doesn’t require any true technical mountain climbing gear like Baker: helmet, harness, ropes, crampons (aka them shoe spikes), ice axe, there are crevassesto fall into, you carry all your gear (Kili has porters), etc.
Which…is pretty obvious from the photos above ^^ that thing looks technical as all hayllll
Kili just has a lil snow at the top/last day of your hike and is managed in boots/with trekking poles. I understand Kili. I feel like I know Kili. As much as possible without actually going (yet). I’ve been devouring content about it for almost 2 years – blogs and videos, my computer (and phone) wallpaper is Kili, a tapestry of Kili on my wall, following the #kilimanjaro tag on Instagram, reading books and packing (and repacking) lists, my OBGYN telling me at my annual last year about her trip in 2012 (you have not lived until you’ve talked about the right and wrong type of leg gaiters as a speculum is inside you, trust).
Climbing Baker entered my brain last summer when I half-joking asked my sister Brianna, ‘did you still want to climb Baker before you turn 30? Because I’ll climb it with you.” AND THEN SHE SAID YES.
…it scares me. I feel like I’ve been watching the date grow closer and closer out of the side of my eye. Like when you don’t look right at a spider because then it KNOWS and it might JUMP at you because you shouldn’t look them in the eye(s) and INVITE them into your PERSONAL SPACE. It’s like 8-legged smol bears. It’s bears you shouldn’t look in the eye, right?
Baker is my hometown mountain. I see it every time I go home because you literally cannot miss it. Its straight out the kitchen window. It’s driving right at it east on Badger Rd. It’s the end of the eyeline on (no joke) Bakerview Rd. in Bellingham. I know several people who have climbed it; people I went to high school with, people’s spouses that I went to high school with, and I’m sure a myriad of people I don’t know about but do know have climbed it. I’ve skied on it. Hiked around it. Randomly someone I work with at Le ‘hub climbed it 3 weeks ago and summited.
I’ve been training for almost 2 years to climb a mountain and I’m terrified of what it will mean for me if I can’t do it. I know there are a load of reasons why we may not summit – legitimately – bad weather, a fellow climber’s injury, a guide making a safety call, etc. But I just am so scared it’s going to be me. That I will be the weak link. Mentally or physically that something will go wrong in me and I’ll have to look at that mountain every Christmas and Raspberry Festival and family milestone and hold a little shame nugget in my heart.
2 years of sweat and tears and gear lists and telling people and another mountain in 6 weeks and if I can’t climb Baker, can I climb Kili? Its not great mental game/sports psychology to think about not making it, but I think I need to. I wrote down this quote I read awhile back “The finish line is for the ego. The journey is for the soul” on my whiteboard and I hate it.
I need it but I hate it. Because I recognize my ego creeping up.
I think some wonderful things have happened in my soul over the last 19 months of mountain prep.
Organically met several people that have climbed Kili – my aforementioned OBGYN, a REI employee helping me with packs, a fellow guest at Jason & Reagan’s wedding – the absolute joy at talking Kili with people is amazing. They have been changed by this trip. And not once did I think to ask any of them “did you summit?”
Made a true friend in my randomly-assigned-by-LSAC personal trainer, Brian – I’m sure I will write a wildly emotional post about how his partnership in this process has been crucial – and how I was doubtful the head of triathlons was my ‘person.’ But through injuries and my emotions and a pandemic and no gear (we were literally having me do kettlebell swings with a grocery tote and 5/7 Harry Potter books for awhile) his creativity and care has helped shape this journey and kindly nudge me back on course.
Had a north star to mentally and physically focus on when the world went to…absolutely uncertainty this past year+. Even though the Kili date has changed twice I always knew it was going to happen. And telling myself that each workout, each dumb PT stretch (I look so, so foolish doing them), every emotional breakdown as I still CANNOT DO A NON MODIFIED PUSH UP I just tried to look at this wall tapestry and whisper ‘keep going.’
I’ve actually learned about my body; what it is capable of, what it really has opinions on (hello hip flexors, my nemeses), how feeding it right during a long, multi-hour workout makes ALL THE DIFFERENCE and its taken me far, far too long to get here. I grew up playing sports. Lots of sports. How did I not know some of this?! But you know, better today than tomorrow. I’m better at listening to what hurts, dissecting it, knowing what’s ‘mind over matter’ and what’s worth slowing down on. ALSO did you guys know that quad means FOUR like FOUR MUSCLES IN YOUR THIGH I’m 33 how did no one tell me this until TWENTY TWENTY ONE you should have seen Brian’s face I’ve never seen someone so disappointed and trying to hide it as I truly howled with laughter.
Had A Wild Adventure to Plan; it’s been a long time since I felt like I was on a true new adventure. I moved to Chicago 6 years ago from Korea and while there have been several mini-adventures, there hasn’t been a truly wild one since. One of my favorite Kili books has been “Kilimanjaro Diaries,” by Eva Melusine Thieme. I spent several long walks around Chicago listening to the audiobook and at the end (or jump to it in the link above) she writes a list of ‘What the Mountain Taught Me.’ I highly recommend checking out the post above because it’s also excellent life lessons but these ones ring especially true in me: “- Wherever you are in life, it’s always a good idea to plan a new adventure. (But get yourself some good boots and take a few extra packs of wet wipes.) – Everyone needs a mountain to scale in their lives. When you’re younger, life supplies many a mountain – graduation from high school, going to college, landing a good job, getting married. But during the middle years of your life, things get awfully flat (though often rather bumpy). Climbing a real mountain almost certainly helps put things in perspective. – Consequently, it’s okay to do what you want or must do, even if it sometimes means doing it alone, when others don’t want to come along for the ride. – You can always take another small step. Pole pole. There is almost no limit to what you might accomplish in life if you just go about it pole pole, one step at a time. If you’re overwhelmed by the task (or mountain) ahead, concentrate on the feet in front of you. Or on the garden trowel, if you must. – It’s always good to have a change in scenery. If your life seems drab at sea level, maybe you need to take it to high altitude. At least that’s how it worked for us. The higher we climbed, the thinner the air, the more we laughed.”
So I know there’s been a wonderful and good journey in my soul. But my lizard self; the dragon that guards my soft pink heart at the center of my hoard of gold coins, she wants a summit. I don’t know how she’s going to react if she doesn’t get it. She wants it bad, y’all. She wants to stand on the mountain and look down at those clouds and open her jaw and ROAR. That’s the heart siren at full volume. To scream that it was all worth it. And is it still worth it if she can’t roar? Logically I know the answer is yes. But she wouldn’t be satisfied.
In re-reading that paragraph I feel it’s vital I tell you I could not be more sober. I haven’t even had a Diet Coke today.
I guess that’s the ego then, the dragon. My scaly self that wants to summit. That wants to cross the finish line. That isn’t sure if its worth it (time, money, effort, etc.) unless I stand at the top. I need to sit and reckon with the dragon and the logic of knowing this has all been worth it even if I don’t summit. That I’m a changed person from this journey regardless of where my boots land.
So as I make my packing spreadsheet sitting among a nest of REI Garage Sale finds and prioritizing the fancy performance laundry that needs to air dry for 2 days before flying ORD > SEA this week – I want to tell you (me) something.
I am scared and I’m doing it anyways.
I’m fully packed and I’m convinced I forgot something.
I’m taking my ego, yes, and I know my soul holds a certainty that I’ve done all I could.
I haven’t come this far to give up before the race even starts. Also I’m mildly convinced my body will activate some latent Pacific Northwest super power upon landing and it’ll boost me up Easton Glacier and if one of you says it’s weed I will ban you I swear it by the power vested in me by the state of…the internet.
So if you’re into sending vibes or prayers send some over:
That Brianna and I won’t murder each other in our tent for 2 nights we are not known for smooth camping skills
That the THREE different types of bug repellent I have will keep the biting flies and mozzies away from my sweet juicy body
That Tom Hiddleston will quote Shakespearean sonnets to lull me to sleep by earbud or by presence (I’m not picky)
That I take at least one good picture of Baker to justify buying a fancy polarized filter and lugging a DSLR up there
That some raspberries will still be in season because the one thing I’ve asked my Mom for post-climb is a raspberry pie and we are at end-of-season barrel levels
That I don’t revert to my improviser default of MAKE THE PERSON LAUGH when trying to distract our guide from some physical thing about myself (likely trying to put on a harness right (why must there be SO MANY LOOPS))
That my body doesn’t do what handsome PT calls a ‘textbook inflammation response’ where my knee got BIG MAD in Zion in April but had never happened to me before in 33 years of sports life #themgoodknees
That no matter what happens on the side (or top) of the mountain I have grown up orienting my life around, my dragon and my soft pink heart will be satisfied by my effort and still hungry for the next one.
I’m grown enough to know that bourbon and tacos aren’t a healthy coping strategy. But also, living alone during a pandemic and facing a large pile of disappointment? Yeah. It could be worse than bourbon and tacos.
Yesterday I texted my therapist, asking for a session to talk about the fact that in 30 days, I planned on leaving the US for my Kilimanjaro trip. I was struggling to reconcile being a good global citizen with pursuing this dream. We talked through the issues being 1) do I feel safe and more importantly 2) am I afraid of others’ perception of me traveling right now? And yes. Yes I was afraid of #2.
Today, I got a call that due to new US restrictions on international travelers entering the country, that my trip was cancelled, with the next dates available in June, 5 months away.
My guide company, who are phenomenal, awesome people – do not have access to guaranteed resources to get me COVID tested in Tanzania, 48 hour turn-around-time for results, take off to Amsterdam, layover 6 hours, then fly to the US within the 72-hour time frame. That’s 63+ hours if everything goes perfectly. And if you’ve ever traveled, you know that’s a big if. So they’ve made the difficult (and in my opinion, right) decision to cancel the trip rather than risk leaving me and my trip mates abandoned in airports flung across the globe.
It sucks, it sucks, it sucks it sucks it sucks. And yet I know there are a thousand things more important. The country is in the grips of civil unrest, there’s a damn pandemic still GAINING GROUND on us and here I am, sad no one will let me climb a big ole’ mountain. There are people without jobs, legitimately fearful of eviction, first responders beyond burned out and I’m soft drunk on my thrifted big red chair, crying that my trip is delayed (for the second time).
But if everyone’s Tad Hamilton to someone then by God, we all have got Kilimanjaro’s worth of disappointments from this past year. My Kilimanjaro is Kilimanjaro, but someone else has to cancel their wedding. Someone else’s new baby hasn’t met friends, coworkers or grandparents. People have lost their family members to COVID. Kids without classmates, triathlons delayed, reunions by the wayside, dream jobs abandoned, graduations deferred, one-in-a-lifetime experiences – gone.
I know I’m one of many. But it still hurts. And I feel, more than ever, so aware that I am alone in this apartment. That the only person who can soothe me is me. That the only way through it is through it.
Tomorrow can be for rallying. Tonight is for tacos, bourbon and sorrow.