Its been a year since... aka Just do(ne) it!
It’s been a year since I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro
Its been a YEAR since I stood at 5,985m, hugging my friends around the Uruhu Peak sign wrapped in a Pavlovsky shawl. Long hair blowing in the light morning breeze, rays of, by then, generous sunshine warming our exhausted and hardened faces from the preceding gruelling night ascend. It really has been a year. Time – this most definitive of tests, just flew by and I am left wondering why do I think back to Kilimanjaro as if it was just yesterday?
I have recently started to be quite intrigued by Time. I mean, I really do try to think about Time, trying to grasp this concept of relativity and elasticity of this medium. Whether we have too much, or too little, how to best manage or not to waste it, or, as if apologetically, how to invest it wisely. Thanks to Mr. Einstein’s Time Relativity Theory, it’s exciting to think that you can loop time together, spin it, spiral it, downward dog it. Realistically, though, it is difficult for me to imagine past the 4rth dimension.
More interesting is that Time used to be more definitive when I was younger. For example in school, university or as a graduate making a leap into the working world everything was defined – it’s a year, since i graduated; this time last year i was lazing in the park after the exams. It was, as if, every event was a sparkly star lighting up. Now, Time does give me some additional definitive glimpses – it’s 15 years since I moved to London from Moscow, 7 years since I moved to Moscow from London and actually 3.5 years since I moved back to London. It’s more than 3 years since I am in a relationship, and more than 5 years that I own my own flat. These dates are so definitive that somehow their succession as points has just merged into a smooth curve of life itself. From definitive they became relative. What I mean to say is that nothing really stands out now because of the frequency of points on the curve.
Well, Kilimanjaro sticks out in my timeline like some freak anomaly. It is right there in between the everyday stress, the business trips, the doctor’s appointments, operas and ballets, and the general stuff to do and plan. It feels me with pride at the thought of the achievement, as well as feelings of joy that they could be shared with friends, coincidentally teammates. I did it. We did it!
I can’t say that my life has revolutionalised since then, but I definitely became much more appreciative of the idea of hiking (trust me, it is addictive!), I can probably now rent out hiking gear professionally (since I went a bit crazy with Ellis Brigham shopping beforehand), but moreover I became aware that sometimes you just need to disregard all the mundane logic that tells you that “this is not the right time”/”the markets are bad”/ “it’s so expensive” and just go for it. You know what... there is never the right time, you never feel prepared enough and yes it was a pretty scary thought of leaping.
Our trek to Mount Kilimanjaro was just 7 days at the end of October 2013. We were a group of 7 people, 4 guys and 3 ladies, all good friends, with the generous support of 1 Head Guide, 2 Deputy Guides and a team of further 10 people as crew. We chose the Machame route, which promised to take us through all of the 5 climate zones, which Kilimanjaro ascend boasts about, camping every night in different zone. We also chose the option of doing the night summit, so that we can greet the sunrise at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. What you don’t necessarily realise, is that it does actually mean waking up on that day at 11pm, and from 12pm setting out from the storming Barango camp (4,600m) on a 7 hour hike (for me at least) including some heavy scrambling amid huge rocks, and treading through the sinking volcanic ash to the top in freezing conditions and severe lack of oxygen. And then you have to get back, of course. Somehow people forget this part.
The night ascend was physically one of the most challenging... Who am I kidding? ...The night ascend was THE toughest thing which I have done to date, and it does not necessarily mean physically. The biggest challenge was actually a psychological one.
Imagine that for 6 hours at least you walk in complete darkness, with only a headtorch lighting your way. It is very steep, and you have to watch every step so that you place your foot exactly right so that it does not slip, because any additional exertion can tip you over the well constructed breathing balance, and make you out of breath. So you move, toe to hill, every step. Step by step, very slowly, or “pole, pole” as the guides tell you. It is freezing, and you are not quite sure whether it is really -40C or just feels this way because at high altitudes the body does not produce the same amount of heat. In my scale at least I was more freezing than on a night walk in January in Astana (capital of Kazakhstan) when the cheerful barometer was battling around the -42C mark. The hands feel the cold the most, and you are just so thankful for the Head Guide who met us in the hotel the night before the start of the hike to check the gear and gently recommend and then blatantly force you to rent the summit mittens. Oh, how you are thankful for this, since the hands otherwise would just fall off.
When I was researching the hike I realised just what a wonderful community this is. People are so willing to share tips and footage. There are numerous blogs and Youtube channels which can give you a glimpses of what you have signed up to. Although I would say that to anyone, who like me, was battling on the anxious edge of “to do or not to do”, you should better start watching them AFTER you said “yes”.
Well, when I read the blogs and watched the videos I realised that there was a lot of information on every single day except for the summit itself. The summit night was just either pitch black blobs of photographs before the triumphant summiting photos, or single line mentions of how the people just didn’t remember what happened. Literally, people wrote that they blanked, lost memory or any recollection of what actually happened. This really struck with me and I made absolutely sure that every step of the ascend I would be conscious of that step. I would count the steps, I would recite Shakespeare in my head, I would try to remember the full version of Brodsky’s poem “To a friend”. It was I, this weird person who was going up and humming a tune. Most importantly I was creating text to the messages and video addresses I would make for my family and friends.
My grandparents actually worked in Africa as doctors, not too far from where Mount Kilimanjaro is. So I really put together an incredibly eloquent text about “me reaching the Top of Africa as a tribute to their work and love for all of us, which I felt every step of the way to the top”. My sister and her husband and kids were going to get an address that spoke about the amazing bond which I felt to them, and thanking them for their support as well as celebrating their upcoming wedding and wishing them every happiness. My parents, of course, would get the benefit of an address that occupied my oxygen deprived mind for a good hour to compose.
Needless to say, that when I got to the top I blanked. I cried. I cried while filming actually, which really didn’t help since in this altitude the batteries on any phones and cameras get used up incredibly quickly. And then I saw something amazing. I was at the top, all my friends were there in good health (some more than the others perhaps) and smiling. We did it.
Another very powerful memory, which I hope will stay with me forever, as clichéd as it might sound, is the magic of daybreak. After about 6 hours of walking you are absolutely exhausted by the darkness, you really start to believe that it will stay like this forever. Then you see the blue’ish glimpse on the curved horizon, because from this high you can really see that the Earth is round and the Milky Way is staring indifferently at you from the Cosmos. Then the blue gives way to the reddish, and you now see a thin line when the night is breaking and the day is trying to make an appearance. The night does not let go easily, and you witness the miracle of the light and then the sun slowly and gloriously rising above the summit. This is the most definitive display of Hope that I have ever experienced, because right at the time when you think that the night will never end, the day comes.
Quick rewind, to mention that I enjoyed every single experience during this trip – the staying in tents, under the open sky at the altitude which is above the clouds, giving you an uninterrupted view of the sky; sleeping in sleeping bags not only with “stuff to keep warm” but actually with all your electronic devices inside, so that they will not run out of battery; the daily morning ritual of trying to decide how best to allocate the little bowl of boiled water which you are generously provided for hygiene; the overuse of wet-wipes in a desperate attempt to scrape off the first couple of layers of dust which is gathered everywhere; the mandatory 4 litres of water which you must drink the higher you go with all the subsequent consequences of multiple stops; the romantic candle-lit dinners in with our group in the dining tent. The days were long, perhaps 6-8 hours, up and down, ascending and descending, acclimatising. By the end whether you had to walk 7-8-9 hours really did not matter. The fascination of the trip, is that every single step of the way was yours. No matter who helped you carry the tents and the luggage, it was you who got yourself to the top.
Thinking back to that amazing week in October 2013 I can only say one thing – “ I am so glad I did it!” – because this adventure and memories will stay with me, while normal life just keeps on going. The markets are still bad (if not worse), life is still super hectic and it’s hard to imagine taking any time to go anywhere right now.
It is the scariest thought that it would have been so easy not to do the trek altogether – not to jokingly agree with my friends in a pub to “yes, why not. Let’s climb Kilimanjaro” sipping on probably one too many red wines. It would have been so easy to let life get in a way, stating that work, commitments, engagements, or just fear got in the way. I am not scared to admit that I was scared to do this trip, I really did not know what to expect from my body and my mind in extreme situations.
In reality climbing a mountain, this mountain, does not actually revolutionalise your life, but it does make your life better. Because you have, in a sense, stopped Time, you conquered it.
And now is my time to loop Time together, like Einstein suggests, because... It’s been a year since I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, but to me it’s like yesterday.
People on the photographs: Maria Zherebtsova, Elena Ogni, Natalia Tsvetsinskaya, Roman Zouev, Mikhail Volodchenko, Daniyar Abilov, Oleg Cheremin
© All photos are by Oleg Cheremin. Here you can see the whole gallery.
Mascha from Russia