Updated: Jun 27, 2019
A small silver compass, the size of a child’s pinky nail, on a thin silk string held more weight for me than my 65 liter backpack on the hike up Kilimanjaro. When I had placed it carefully around my neck six months earlier, I had no idea where it would lead.
The necklace came with a card that read, “Wear this if you are lost and once it falls, you will find your path.” The sentiment was clearly written to sell and somehow make it acceptable that one day this silk string would break resulting in the loss of your purchase and likely littering, and still, I believed it. I wanted to believe that it could be that easy. I had felt lost in heartache over past relationships, career trajectory, poor choices, crushing expectation and so much more. So what could a compass hurt?
Cut to six months later, I was in the middle of working full-time, an extreme MBA program and had just broken up, again, and found myself climbing the highest summit in Africa at a whopping 19,341 feet. I had decided to climb the Machame Route, fondly referred to as the ‘Whiskey Route’ for how challenging it is. There’s also the Coca Cola route along with about 6 others ranging in difficulty. The average mildly athletic individual can climb the Whiskey Route with few or no problems over 7 days as long as they drink enough water along the way. I unfortunately only had 6 days before needing to be on the next leg of my journey, but I’m an avid climber, mountaineer, and athlete - so I figured no problem, right?
Side bar - the first thing that people as you when you finish climbing Kilimanjaro is, “was it hard?” This was a difficult question to answer. I thought, “well I just climbed over 19,000 feet and back in 6 days on a mountain that claims about 10 lives a year. But no it’s not hard…” Instead, I more commonly answered, “it was an incredible accomplishment and I feel very humbled to have had the opportunity to experience it. I would recommend it to anyone interested in putting in the effort.”
Despite Kilimanjaro being one of the more straight forward mountains; with well worn paths, nothing technical, and a lot of support, it can definitely still be a challenge. The altitude is significant and does effect a solid percentage of climbers. I was fortunate in that I went with the pro guides at Top Climbers Expeditions. It was actually quite the challenge to even find the right guide group as there are so many to choose from, but each of their sites and communication style can be sub optimal given what we’re used to in the states. I was truly lucky to come across a blog post that boasted about a new company of passionate, driven guides that do not nickel and dime and genuinely want to show you a good time. Top Climbers was exactly that. They scheduled a 6 day private trek up the Machame trail for a friend and I, and we were given 11 staff support between us. 2 guides, 1 chef, 2 wait staff, and 6 porters for all of our gear. I was shocked and honestly, a little embarrassed. I was so used to carrying my own gear while mountaineering, that I felt a little like a poser. Like if I didn’t do it all myself, then it didn’t count. Looking back, I’m glad I had them.
Each porter was a hero; carrying our tents, tables and chairs (YES TABLES AND CHAIRS FOR COMFORT!!!), water, food, AND our individual items like clothing, toiletries, and sleeping bag. At the base of the mountain, each porter divides up all of the gear into duffle bags that are carefully weighed, and then the porter not only carries their own backpack full of gear, but they also carry the duffel bags full of our gear - balanced on their heads. Oh, and most of them wear sandals while doing it. If that’s not enough, they also wait to pack up the camp each morning until after you leave, they pass you on your way up the mountain, and have the next camp site built long before you ever arrive. I was in absolute awe of their superhuman abilities on this trek. I carried one liter bottle of water, lunch, and my 3 pound camera every day, and I was exhausted.
The guides constantly remind you to drink water and move “pole pole”, pronounced polay. “Pole pole” means slowly slowly in Swahili, because if you don’t move slowly up the mountain and adjust to the altitude, you won’t make it. In fact, my climbing partner did get altitude sickness and almost didn’t make it to the top because he didn’t have enough water! Pole pole became a mantra, a state of mind, and a reminder that only together, do you make it to the top. That, along with regular battle cries of “one team, one dream” and “more water, more fire” and vice versa. Each of these chants served as reminders that we were stronger together and my dream of summiting was wholly supported by the team. It was humbling.
Each day you traverse through 7 different microclimates, some unique only to the mountain. One morning could be in the jungle and that afternoon you could be going through arctic tundra, or barren rock-scapes. The name of the game for success is water (especially when you don’t feel like it) and layers. I had about 3 layers with me at all times not including various hats and gloves for when the freeze would kick in. Overall, the mountain is incredible, the night sky is something to be admired, and the trek almost spiritual. Every day you get a little bit closer, but it never seems close enough, until… on the 4th night of your 6 day summit, you sleep at 6pm in anticipation of your 12am summit.
The summit day is of course the most exciting and if you're on the 6 day route, you don't have time to rest between 15,000 and 19,000 feet. The mountain is so cold at 12am at 15,000 feet, that your water bottle freezes while you drink it. We woke up and put every layer that we had available on. I wore long underwear, two pairs of socks and gloves, pants, a cotton shirt, a skin layer long sleeve, a down vest, a polar fleece north face, a thick synthetic Patagonia jacket, and shell as well as a balaclava, a beanie, and a hood and I was still cold. As you walk, you see your breath for the first mile, until your balaclava freezes from the warm breath and liquid leaking from your face. Every careful step you take, assisted by a headlamp and trekking poles, feels like it might if you were to walk on moon dust. Imagine having so much gear, you're almost indistinguishable from an astronaut. Each move is made slowly, thoughtfully, and carefully to protect for what lies ahead. The world around you looks foreign and unnatural. And every step that you take is exhausting and perilous as your feet sink, deep into the gravel below. You continue like this for 6 hours until you see the first glimmer of light from the sun and you see how far you've come. It is nothing short of magic to see the sun peek behind the earth with nothing in the way. At this point, you know, you're almost there.
The last 30-45 minutes are the most treacherous of the hike. You've come this far and you don't want to turn back, but you're tired, hungry, dehydrated and are very likely feeling the affects of altitude sickness. And it was at this point that I realized, my compass was gone. The silk string had broken at some point on the summit and my small, silver compass was lost to the mountain. It was at this point that I started to cry. I wasn't crying out of sadness or grief, but instead, a sense of gratitude. I was overwhelmed with appreciation for the journey I was on, for the team and people in my life supporting me along the way, and for the severe lessons in patience, humility, and strength in vulnerability. I cried because I knew deeply that I was on my path. Not the right or wrong path. But mine.
We summited around 6:30am, delirious and forever grateful. We were given only 20 minutes at the top before going ALL THE WAY BACK DOWN 11,000 feet. We would reach our campsite by 5pm at a crawl, believing fully that our legs would snap like toothpicks at any moment. But that night we were greeted by songs, dancing, and a hot water bucket to seal the experience and the friendships that we forged along the way. We gave each of our support staff a tip for their time and support on the mountain. If you do trek, it's extremely important that you put aside some serious cash for your team. This is mainly how they're paid and they are the reason that you made it to the top - between the two of us, I think we gave 11 staff a total of $600, but there are some great tipping tips on a few other blogs.
Some weeks later, on the last day of my trip in Africa, I climbed Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa. The trek took only a few hours with a couple technical climbs, but as I reached the top, chalked full of tourists, cafes, and a souvenir store, I came across another little silver trinket on a card, much like my lost compass. The pendant was shaped like the African continent, no bigger than a pencil eraser, and on a thin brown silk string. The card behind it read, "This is Ubuntu. A reminder of humanity and together we can do great things." I thought of the team that brought me to the summit, of all the people that made that experience possible from my family house sitting for me back home to my friends routing me on from abroad. With a moment of gratitude I smiled, bought the necklace, and wore it ever since.