Stop Thinking, Drink Water – and other lessons from Kilimanjaro

Stop Thinking, Drink Water - and other lessons from Kilimanjaro

I never expected I’d be in the back of a taxi, in a thunderstorm, on my way to a hospital in rural Tanzania. But there I was, the night before I was about to leave for an 8-day trek up to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro on my way to Arusha Lutheran Medical Center.

I’ve come up with crazy plans before so my idea to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro before I started my semester study abroad in South Africa was never out of the question. I found a tour company, booked my flights, bought all my gear, and boarded a plane bound for Nairobi, Kenya where I would stay for two nights before taking a bus to Arusha, Tanzania to begin my trek.

            Nairobi was wonderful – it was my first time traveling solo and I enjoyed the thrill and freedom it brought. I am fiercely independent and my motto when traveling is to always trek on. After my adventures in Nairobi, I traveled by bus through the countryside, across the border to meet up with the tour group that I would be with for the next eight days as we trekked up to the Roof of Africa.

To my surprise, I was the first person in my group to arrive at our hotel which was just used to host hikers the night before and night after their treks, so I happened to be the only guest there.

I felt lonely, but I had enough to keep me busy and I was mostly excited about the adventure that lay ahead of me. I took my altitude medication and went to go find some dinner, but I started to feel very dizzy and nauseous.

I used the precious hotel public Wi-Fi to figure out what the side effects of my medication were. It was a wonderful list filled with ailments such as dizziness, lightheadedness, loss of appetite, vomiting, and drowsiness.

These also happen to be the main symptoms of altitude sickness, so I found myself in a lose-lose situation and started to grow anxious.

            I started to really panic because I couldn’t be sick at the start of my big climb. I had never felt so sick before and started to get seriously concerned.

Trying to be resourceful, I went to the front desk and asked if they knew a doctor I could talk to. They said I could go to a hospital, but it was about 11 pm and had just started thunder storming.

However, I didn’t feel comfortable enough to just go to sleep. So, I sat in the lobby waiting for what felt like forever for my taxi.

A million thoughts were going through my mind as I waited but the one at the front was that I would rather stay at my hotel for eight days than go climb this mountain tomorrow.

            When I finally got to the hospital, the taxi driver took me inside. I wasn’t asked for an insurance card but was told to provide my name and birthday and was immediately told to pay in cash for my visit.

I did not have any cash with me and was sent back outside in the rain to find an ATM with my taxi driver. At this hour, none of the banks were open, so we kept driving around and around.

I was crying so hard at this point. The taxi driver kept asking, “Sister, sister, why are you crying?” We eventually found an open ATM, but I realized I didn’t even know how much money I would need so I just hoped I was withdrawing enough.

When we got back to the hospital around midnight, the staff all looked half asleep and I was assigned to a doctor who told me I get a blood test done.

I was warned by my doctor at home not to get any tattoos while abroad and to generally avoid needles but decided this was my best option.

I was already dizzy and getting blood drawn didn’t help. I asked for a cup of water but was told there was no clean water available. We needed filtered water or even a cheap energy drink, but there was none available. What a perfect storm.

The doctor came in to discuss my test results where he found me still crying and finally asked me what I was doing in Arusha and what was wrong.

I told him I was so anxious for my climb and I felt so sick. He told me, “Being alone is a sickness. All you have is your thoughts to make you nervous.

Your test results are fine, consider not taking the altitude medication anymore, go back to your hotel and watch a movie to help quiet your mind.”

I felt calmer and climbed back into the taxi. When I returned to my room, I put in my headphones and turned on my favorite movie about being brave and adventurous, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, before finally dozing off. Having barely slept, I woke at 7:40 a.m. to take the bus to the start of Kilimanjaro.

I still wasn’t sure I wanted to do this, but I ended up calling my parents and they managed to calm me down and before I knew it I was packing my things and heading to the bus where I met the six other people I would be on this journey with. After everything that had happened, we were starting Day 1 of our trek.

I loved all the people in my group and we exchanged stories and I finally started to calm down as we traveled to the base of Kilimanjaro. We began our hike through the rainforest and we moved slowly to help our bodies acclimatize.

I had trained for six months before the hike, running, rock climbing, and stairclimbing, to make sure my body was physically ready for this feat. Day one went smoothly and after a few hours I heard people up at our first camp and grew excited because I knew we were getting closer.

After we had registered at the site, we received our tenting partners, but I had to tent by myself because there were no other single females in my group.

I was nervous about being in a tent by myself because then I would have no one to talk to. I realized I was still alone and I didn’t even really know the other people in my group yet.

At breakfast the next morning, all the other people in my group started taking their altitude medication for the day. I went up to one of my guides, Seraphine, to ask if it was necessary that I take my medication after having such a violent reaction to it.

He suggested I take one pill instead of the recommended two. I was hesitant but trusted him, so I decided to take one. As we started hiking, I kept looking at my watch and started to calm down after each 10-minute increment where I felt symptom-free. One foot in front of the other.

I became distracted by the hiking and never wanted to stop because it kept my mind occupied. Seraphine kept coming up to me and saying, “Are you thinking? Don’t think. Just drink water.” I felt fine physically but mentally kept going back to my night at the hospital. As we settled into our next camp, I turned my iPod on and mindlessly played solitaire until I fell asleep.

Some days were hard. I would get impatient at how slow we were hiking. I started focusing on completing the smallest of tasks and remaining calm. Just wake-up and get ready. Just eat breakfast.

Wait calmly until climbing. Put one foot in front of the other. Calm down after hiking. Eat dinner. I just thought about accomplishing my goals, and not about the future. I focused on the present.

Six long days of hiking in high altitudes passed. Some of the others in my group started complaining of minor altitude problems but I was still feeling fine. Seraphine would come into the food tent every morning with an oxygen level monitor and track each of our vitals.

I hovered around 97% each day, the highest in my group. Even if I didn’t really believe I was going to make it to the summit, at least I now had some positive statistics to back it up.

We were going to be leaving for the summit at midnight that night so that we could hike for seven to eight hours before reaching the summit at sunrise.

One of the other guides came to my tent with the news that Seraphine would be leading us on summit day. I had grown to trust him and deeply appreciated his daily, simple reminder to stop thinking so much.

Before we left, I thought about telling Seraphine about my fears, but I already knew his answer. “Stop thinking. Drink water.”

We were greeted with strong winds that would sometimes literally take the breath out of me. I fixed my eyes on the green backpack in front of me and thought, “If he can keep walking so can I.”

The wind made me feel like an airplane during turbulence. I kept telling myself it was just an inconvenience, not a problem.

Unless Seraphine says you can go down, you are going to keep climbing up. We continued to climb in darkness and I kept looking to the see if the stars were fading so I would have some indication of what time it was and how long I’d been hiking.

Then I finally saw it, one single line of red as I turned a switchback. Walking towards it I had this moment where I thought, I can’t believe this is the sunrise! I was overwhelmingly filled with joy, crying this time at the sun’s presence.

I had made it! I had survived the night and morning was here and the sky filled with even more colors. I turned off my headlamp and soaked in this sweet moment of joy.

About thirty minutes later, we all reached the summit. All the guides were high-fiving us and hugging us when Seraphine came over to me and said, “Welcome to my office. What do you think?” I responded, telling him that it was beautiful. He replied, “I have to tell my clients this mountain isn’t hard, I tell them that it’s a piece of cake, but it is hard! I do this so that you don’t think about it so much.”

We began to head back down, and it was at this point where I started to finally feel altitude sickness. I felt dizzy and I started throwing up at some point but Seraphine told me to keep hiking and keep drinking water.

As we finally reached the last gate, there was an entire picnic set up for us. More food than we could imagine, lawn chairs, and certificates for each one of us officially marking our Kilimanjaro trek as a success.

The mind is an incredible thing and for a long time I had convinced myself that despite six months of training that I was not going to make it to the summit. I don’t think it was until I saw the sunrise that I knew I was going to make it.

But the person crying in the hospital on that stormy night was not the same person standing on the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro eight days later. I found a level of bravery inside of myself that my friends, family, and guides could see before I could even see it myself.

But sometimes that is the thing about going outside of your comfort zone, it forces you to find something inside of yourself that you haven’t accessed before. I didn’t expect to be thinking straight at the summit but standing there and realizing what I had accomplished this message was crystal clear, it just took 5,895 meters to get there.

Written by Christine D.

Thanks for reading!

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