5, 895 meters Up Part 3: Biting My Tongue, Losing Toenails
What goes up must come down
Given the danger of remaining at such high altitude for so long, we weren’t allowed to linger for more than a few minutes. While you might think that getting off a mountain would be simple and quick, you would be wrong. An 8 hour hike up was followed by a 4 hour descent. The only thing I looked forward to as this point was full day of rest once we reached our next campsite.
My sense of self-preservation demanded I show myself that I was capable. I think it was less about proving anything to anyone else, but more so about not continuing to hope for undeserved favors. I wasn’t sure of how I would do the impossible twice…
Finally, I felt alive after what felt like several hours of sleepwalking. It was day time and the snow that had started (and blocked) the sunrise was now all too real. The trek down the mountain would be through lots of snow — and no one had prepared us for a snowy descent. As we all started to make our way down, I was really all about pacing myself. For the course of the next 4 hours, that was my life’s motto and nothing was going to push me past my comfort zone. I told myself that if it took me way longer than everyone else, I would be fine so long as I didn’t do on the way down from a perilous journey up.
With two guides by my side again, I was being “escorted” down the mountain. Naturally, I felt a way about all of this. I was strong. I could do this myself — so long as it was at a reasonable pace. Yet, for some reason I just entered into a new state of delirium. The ski pants that I had worn for the summit inspired me to believe I could body ski my way down the mountain. After shaking my escorts a few times, we all started to laugh as it was clear this was actually much faster and a more entertaining way for me to get down the mountain. After dodging a few large rocks, using my poles to somewhat steer the way, avoiding a steep fall or two and gaining lots of attention from others who had just summited, I was energized.
I had made it past the snowy parts!
But the beginning of the bad times had started. I had no problem with the upward slope in my hiking boots, but something was off with the downward slope. Each step I took was painful. I couldn’t or wouldn’t stop to see if my toes were broken or bloodied because it didn’t matter. I needed to reach camp. Also, there’s literally nothing you can do about broken toes for the most part. Oh and of course I had clipped my toenails before I came to Africa 20 days ago, but I guess the growth was causing some serious problems.
And so I soldiered on.
In pain for a few hours.
Just focused on my own well-being.
In recent memory, I had not done this thing I was currently doing: biting my tongue. The lovely back pack crew had reformed with a slightly different set of characters and was discussing the most fascinating of issues: race, beauty and the psychology of marketing. These are my favorite topics. I have so much to say about these topics all the time. I would never tire of discussing these topics. Yet, here I was realizing I *needed* to not contribute to the discussion and just focus on my potentially broken toes.
It was here. I had finally (re) learned to shut up. I had to just focus on my own stuff and butt out of what was not essential in the moment.
Once we made it to camp, I was relieved. I was greeted with a “Congratulations” by several porters. It was an honor I felt I didn’t deserve. I politely said thank you and made clear none of that would be possible without their help. Eventually I checked my toes, realized they were not bleeding and just felt immense gratitude.
Your Bag, Please
It was finally here. The last day of this dreadful mountain. The weather had finally improved — no rain or snow for our last day of hiking. I was so excited to leave. I knew there would be real food at the end of this day and a real bed and access to wifi. Oh, and the beginning of the safari — the dessert for some, but the main course for me.
To make our lives easier, the porters had always carried our sleeping bags and other gear. They left after us and always arrived before us. Usually, in sweatshirts and jeans. Talk about perspective. We usually carried a day pack with a few nalgenes for hydration on our 3–4 hour hikes between camps. The most frustrating experience was when they so kindly offered their help.
Let me take your (day) bag for you. I’d like to carry it for you.
It was the offer of help that sunk every ego. And Tembo — the nickname given to my another guide who helped me put my gaiters on each morning — was as furious as his namesake. It was the last day; I wanted to carry my backpack of cookies and water. Yet, I guess the weakness I displayed over the prior 6 days meant they didn’t want me to break on the final stretch. Or more likely, they could see through me. With my characteristic stubbornness, I said no until they were unrelenting. I don’t really think I had a choice.
The Final Stretch
At some point, I felt good. Despite the toe problems I was still having and the wet rocks on our way down, I thought I was fine. Until I fell and cut my palm. Ugh, blood. Okay, you really just have to listen. You are literally stripped of all things to carry but your body weight and even that was just slightly too much.
As things had always gone, our groups split after our last stopping point within the park. It would be about 2 hours left until we exited the park. A walk down steep rocks and then gravelly, winding roads. Until we finally did it. We reached the end, signed out of the park and were on our way to a “celebration meal.”
I felt like a changed person. I had learned so many things about myself and my peers. I made resolutions to myself that would eventually lead to significant challenges upon my return back to the real world of the HBS bubble (7 days later).
The new-me was incredibly distant, inwardly focused and less outspoken. The change in my personality was noticed by peers and a then-significant-other. I came back broken in a way, but remade in a way that made so much more sense. The climb (and the 29 days total spent abroad) made clear that I only had time for those who I thought would give me their spare energy, would push me up a mountain and had my best interest in mind. Given the context of HBS, this meant I distanced myself from a large number of peers.
It was the mental break I needed to move forward. My toe nails eventually fell off, and things started a new. The only thing I regret is that I didn’t write this sooner. It would have explained the shift in my being after returning for spring semester. It would have explained why I had to end that relationship. It would have explained why those friendships became less one-sided. It would have explained why I re-discovered my old friend, optimism. It would have explained why I considered sharing the story of gratitude and appreciation for a sectionmate with all of my classmates…and why I was moved to tears after giving the 10 minute version of this story.
But alas, 10 months later and after many failed starts, I am able to put it all on paper. Please don’t ask “Was Kili amazing?” as that’s something of a trigger given how many times I felt pressured to provide that sugar-coated response.