Three years ago a trio of wannabe mountaineers headed off to Tanzania in Africa. Just 3 months before my 50th birthday, this wannabe, learned how tough and adventurous she could be if she just set a stretch goal and believed in herself. Preparing for this wonderful trekking adventure put a unique and fresh spin on my life and it all became very clear how I wanted my life to look. This quest was the beginning of ‘Geterdone’ and also helped me discover a wonderful new passion for climbing mountains.
18 months before our trip I had started to make some significant changes in my life to get back to a healthy lifestyle. Thinking about how I wanted my life to look in my 50’s was a great motivator so I came up with a milestone goal to climb a big mountain. Plucked it out of the air really. Pictures from my collection of ‘Wonders of the World’ books convinced me that’s where I had to stand. I had never climbed a mountain before but I love nature, hiking and sleeping in a tent so it seemed to be the perfect overwhelming new challenge. I was in no condition at the time for such a task but I started plugging away at changing my bad habits. (read about training in https://karengeterdone.com/2015/08/03/not-easy-is-always-worth-doing/)
I was quite prepared to head off on this adventure alone. It could be a dangerous undertaking and I didn’t want to be responsible for others even though it would be nice to share with a few familiar faces. About 6 months before my trip, Jeff committed and bumped up his training. Then 2 months before the trip my very fit sister Alison committed to the adventure. It was a thrill to know I’d be sharing this adventure with 2 of my favourite people.
I had thought about putting the adventure to good benefit for charity several times but, quite honestly, didn’t want the added pressure on myself. This was a huge challenge for me and I was not sure I’d succeed, many do not. Just 4 weeks before we left I changed my mind. I couldn’t let the opportunity pass to raise funds and bring awareness to Alzheimer’s. With my sister now coming it was a great opportunity to climb in memory of our Father, Frank Simpson, who suffered for many years with the disease. I also believe in karma.
“You have to take risks. We will only understand the miracle of life fully when we allow the unexpected to happen.” ~ Paolo Coelho
As we’re heading off on our journey an article in a local paper helps raise some additional funds and awareness for Alzheimers.
It touched our hearts how quickly people were supportive of our cause and opened their wallets and I wanted to ensure our generous donors received a special insight to our trip. The following was written for our 84 donors who helped us raise $6200 in just 4 weeks toward Alzheimer’s research and caregiver support. This has only been shared with them previously. Now that 3 years have passed, I am sure they won’t mind it going public.
Day 2 – The weather goes from 80 degrees during the day to well below zero once the sun drops. Alison was not able to sleep, she shivered all night without a word. Her sleeping bag was too light, she left behind her bag liner in her packing decisions and, this is probably the one time, her low body fat wasn’t a bonus. Some changes would need to happen for tonight. We woke up at Simba camp and had a long hike ahead of us Day 2. We walked through beautiful terrain known as heath and moorland. Lots of uphill as you would expect when climbing a mountain but every once in a while we’d get to a flat piece and feel like super heroes. We asked a lot of questions, I’m sure the guides are used to it but, we knew we were overly inquisitive. They actually told us nicely we should just walk and not concern ourselves with the details. Each day we would barrage them with “how long will it take”, “how many kms”, “how far to Kibo” etc and the guides would attempt to appease us. At the end of the day we would assess their answer, it was all a big setup for us wanting to know the truth on summit day. Now I understand why they fudge the answers, you really truly want them to, but at the time we were eager newbies who were used to being in control. All in good spirit, we enjoyed the great weather with our good health still intact. We thought we were clipping at a great pace but 2 of our porters, Godfrey and Robert, back tracked to us.
Turns out they’d had camp setup for hours and were getting a bit concerned. As they take our guides backpacks without exchanging a word we joke “oh don’t worry, we’re fine, you know the ones who live at sea level, ya we’re used to this hiking all day with a backpack in high altitude”. The guides sheepishly grin and we knew the porters were very well trained. The porters did the trek that took us 7.5 hours in 4 hrs with huge loads. Amazing. We blamed our delays on photography and settled into Camp Kikelwa at 11,800 feet.
Cucumber soup and curry chicken so good we asked for the chef to come to our dinner tent so we could clap. He didn’t speak English but we knew he’d understand that international language. We’ve been told that the first two days of the climb determine your success. Constant slow pace – check, tons of water – check, eating well – check check, sleeping well – not all of us. All is going better than expected in mountaineering land.
Day 3 – “This will be a short but steep day of hiking” … they missed saying “but just wait til later”! Today we ascend over 5000 feet in 3 1/2 hours. We are all strong and thoroughly enjoying all the hiking. We are living an adventure after all. All we do now is hike, eat and sleep. This is our new life but we have a goal and we are always looking at it, zooming in on Kibo with our cameras when it seems too far away. Really it’s not getting much closer but we know they are taking us through lots of switchbacks to help us acclimate. Today is all steep and we are all thankful for the hours of training on our legs and backs. It’s all good and we surprise the porters by getting into camp an hour before they thought we’d arrive.
The amazing treat at camp is fried chicken and french fries. How do they do this? Sharing how we feel amongst the 3 of us, we all agree we are doing very well. After the climb, it is surprising to read Jeff’s entry in our journal after Day 3 of hiking, “Every fiber of my body screams, my feet, calf muscles, quads, hips, buttocks, back, shoulders telling me to turn around. The only muscle that screams louder is the brain which tells me to keep going, don’t give up, you can do it.” Mind over matter for sure! In July, we climbed Mt Beirstadt in Colorado, a 14,065 foot mountain. Tonight is the highest we’ve ever been at Camp Mawenzi Tarn at 14,200 feet. In Colorado we came down right away, tonight we have to sleep at this altitude.
Day 4 – We all wake up at Camp Mawenzi after being up too many times during the night. Alison and I watch the sunrise from one of the coolest campsites which is directly under peak Mawenzi at the top of a cliff. Stunning. Alison and I agree that we don’t feel so great, headache, bit queasy but tolerable. Getting back to our tents Jeff is propped up in a chair and Kassim is forcing him to drink water. He feels crappy and admits he didn’t drink much yesterday. None of us want breakfast but we force ourselves to eat what we can. A lineup of hikers who arrived much later than us yesterday, get ready to leave the camp. We feel sorry for their choice of doing a shorter climb and we are very thankful we have a day at this altitude to acclimatize before heading to base camp. It would not have been a great setup for the summit attempt. Despite being called a “rest day”, our guides make us do a 3 hour acclimation hike up the side of Mawenzi and over the saddle back to the same camp. “You will feel better”.
Not only did we have a fabulous view of where we were heading tomorrow but the hike worked and we felt much better on lower land once back at camp. At this point Alison has discovered the joys of Mr. Hot Water Bottle and jumps into her tent each night as soon as “he” arrives in our dinner tent. Our success is still everyone’s main focus. They start to measure our oxygen and heart beat twice a day. We are all around 80% oxygen with slightly higher than our normal heart rates. The guides are happy but keeping a close eye on Jeff who isn’t eating or drinking like he should.
Day 5 – What a difference a day makes. Today is the final trek to base camp, Kibo. We all had a decent sleep which is good because there will be no more sleep until late on Day 6. Off we head like Martians on a deserted planet, no one else anywhere, barren land with majestic rock scapes. The scenery is to die for! Spectacular!
The cameras don’t seem to do it justice. Today we hit the saddle between Mawenzi and Kibo and have a clear view of our summit path which still seems so far away and shockingly steep. There are nerves we push aside because there’s no point going there. Negative thoughts will take our focus off the present and the goal. We’re just ants doing our job, the penquin march, sheep, whatever analogy puts us into the mindset to continue putting one foot in front of another. At one point I sing from “The Little Engine that Could” I know I can, I know I can. As we climb up, Jeff’s bad headache and dizziness return. The guides are worried about him but he’s a trouper and doesn’t complain much. Alison and I feel the breathing change and decide that multi tasking by drinking water while walking is no longer in the cards. We have to force ourselves to eat (they should bottle this affect for lower land). For 6 hours we walk toward Kibo and see all the blues, taupe and grey of the mountain. No picture captures it, we try to burn it into our brains, the mountain is stunning. After 6 hours we arrive at Kibo base camp at 15,520 feet. Oxygen levels reveal Alison has improved to 85%, I’m down to 72% and Jeff is now in the 60’s.
Summit Day – We get to nap for a few hours once we arrive at Kibo (impossible) and wake before midnight for a quick tea and layer up. THE FINAL MARCH! We are all silent but we all know we are thinking the same thing. It is very cold. By 12:30am we will be on our way to the summit. Climbing all night should have us reach the top around sunrise, NOT! We are bundled, walking is painfully slow, the steep incline with the most annoying lava gravel that moves your foot back every time you take a step. Heavy breathing and sweating begin quickly. It is a good thing we can’t see where we are going because it would likely be quite depressing. Mostly our heads are down just watching the ground for rocks. We are told not to waste our breath talking, not to stop moving as our muscles could seize and, for sure, do not sit or fall as that would likely end our climb. I am just waiting for the sun to rise as that should signify we’re close to the top, NOT. Several hours into the climb I beg to find out the time “You don’t want to know” is the guides answer. Hm, yes I do. “3am”. He was right, I should know by now. The guides are force feeding us power gels which we enjoyed yesterday but now passionately hate. I make toddler faces and Jeff is vomiting. We all experience dizziness at some points but I am dizzy most of the climb up. We are all happy for hiking poles. Alison and I both feel bad for Jeff but we are not worried, we see his steely determination. We finally hear “there’s a white line in the sky” (signifying the sunrise finally coming above the clouds), I didn’t even have the energy to look sideways to see it, I watch my feet then Alison’s feet then the guides feet just counting my steps. Most of the pictures taken this day were by our guide “I’ll be your paparazzi for the day”. It’s a good thing because that was the last thing on our minds. As the day breaks and I look up I am horrified to see that the top is hours away and steep boulders. There is nothing you can do but count your steps, play games with your mind. I look back once in a while and see Jeff trudging along, Kassim is taking good care of him. Alison is right behind me and comments “they sure don’t make it easy on you”. Alison tries to give me constructive feedback by noting that I take a step and stop, not getting momentum. I respond that I have to stop to breathe. “You just keep on breathing then sweetie”.
Finally, I look up and see the corner of a green sign above a very steep series of boulders, it registers and I burst into tears (find out why that moment had such a huge impact on my life https://karengeterdone.com/2015/07/20/tears-for-fears/). Alison comes to my rescue thinking I’m in trouble and I immediately look at her and say “no no, they are happy tears, that ugly green sign is now the most beautiful thing to me”. Just rethinking that moment now I am still emotional. Alison gets powered and climbs to the top, me not so quick. At the top we watch Jeff cheering him on with our best advice and encouragement. We are so very proud of him and us. We all finally make it, breathing recovery takes a long time, actually it doesn’t really happen. The top is nothing like the pictures we’ve seen, it is massive, looks like another country. All the pictures we’ve seen show a small round crater, where is it? Well, from a plane taking pictures it would look small but standing on the edge of the crater it is huge. The glaciers are very cool, sad they could be gone by 2020. As we take in the view at 19,000 feet, our oxygen is tested – Jeff and I are at 60%, Alison is 80% (proving marathon running is good for all kinds of things) and our guide is at 90%. Picture time paparazzi – we have accomplished our feat, breathe then smile.
It is NOT Over. “Getting to the top is optional, getting down is mandatory” ~ Ed Viesturs. Immediately after 8 hours of hell climbing up we had to climb back down. It took me 3 long hours and Alison ran down in 1 hour. Jeff stays with me and produces the most romantic moment of the trip. He gets to the ground, not easy. He sits on his knees, not easy. He takes off my boots and strips 2 pair of my soaked socks from my cramped feet. What a guy. My toes were done and this got me to the bottom. After a short rest at camp we were forced to pack and continue hiking for 4 more hours. That totals 15 hours of hard climbing in 17 hours with no real sleep for 36 hours. We considered a boycott before the 4 hour hike but were told it is dangerous to sleep another night at that altitude. Magical snow starts outside and we hike through a winter wonderland in Africa arriving at our last camp, Horombo, early evening. It was a brutal day! We are exhausted and joyous at the same time. Luckily, the final hike of the day burned off any lactic acid causing pain from our muscles, we are actually limber. These guides really know what they are doing.
Final Day – We wake Day 7 at Camp Horombo at 12,100 feet . Our camp was setup on the edge of the cliff so we can see the sunrise over a gorge with a perfect view from our tents.
Today at breakfast we present every porter individually with a gift of our gear and a generous tip, they sing us special songs in celebration of our climb and we leave for our last day of hiking. We hike down 20 kms to the park gates. None of us are sore really, we feel energized. The reverse affects of altitude now drive us to challenge our guides in a cat and mouse race down the mountain with the motivation of a shower, pizza and beer. At the park gates, our certificates are created, final goodbyes to the porters and we head back to our hotel.
What a journey! A top life memory and experience. I recall negative thoughts on summit day, I recall feeling really crappy but that feeling quickly dissipates once you’re done. By the next morning, there was already speculation about another climb. George Mallory, a famous mountaineer, when asked why he climbed responded “If you have to ask the reason why, you won’t understand the answer. Because it is there”. Now we understand.
“Nobody succeeds beyond his or her wildest expectations unless he or she begins with some wild expectation.” ~ Ralph Charell