Here is an uplifting story about cancer.
First, some background: when I was 24, I was diagnosed with a rare form of breast cancer. This did not run in my family. Relatives from both sides of my family regularly live to be in their 90s. We are hard to kill. When I was 25, I had a unilateral mastectomy and I have been cancer-free for the last 9 years.
Sometimes people do things extreme things to celebrate their victory over cancer, like get that big tattoo they’ve always wanted. I got the big tattoo I’d always wanted when I was 22, so I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro instead.
I like this story a lot, because it involves two of my favorite activities: adventure travel and winning at things that matter only to myself.
“Jem,” called Haruna softly outside my tent, slightly mispronouncing my name in his Swahili-inflected English. “Time for tea, sista.”
“No thanks, Haruna,” I say, a little groggy but mostly excited. In thirty minutes, I will begin the highest and greatest walk of my life.
Haruna unzips the tent’s rain fly and then the entrance, holding a cup of tea in his left hand, his right hand poised carefully with a spoon over a small plastic container of raw sugar. “How much sugar?” he asks. For the past five days on the trail, it has been inconceivable to Haruna that one would not want tea. Midnight tonight is no different.
I sit up, resigned to the fact that I will not be starting the ascent to the summit of Kilimanjaro without tea. “Two, please,” I reply.
Haruna hands me a plate of small cookies along with a cup of steaming tea and retreats. “Asante sana,” I call out to him. Thank you very much.
I hear my trekking (and tent buddy) Ted laugh underneath the hood of his sleeping bag. “Guess you’re having tea,” he says. “Can I have one of those cookies?” A bare arm emerges from his sleeping bag and takes a couple of my cookies. He reminds me of Cookie Monster, if Cookie Monster were blond, Swedish, and liked to do things that could get a person killed.
I went to sleep wearing most of my ascent clothes so I wouldn’t have to get dressed in the cold and dark. I have everything I planned to bring laid out for my guide, Tunzo, who has volunteered to carry pretty much all of it, including the water and a thermos of tea. (Tanzania used to be a British colony.) Tunzo reckons he has summited Kilimanjaro more than 200 times. Tonight he happens to be wearing hiking boots and gaiters, but he could probably climb the steep switchbacks barefoot and blind-folded. He doesn’t have any gloves.
I grab my Swiss army knife from a belt pocket on my pack and rip open a package of hand and toe warmers and put them in my boots and pockets. Note for future expeditions: these are useless and add a lot of unnecessary weight. Live and learn.
It is cold on the mountain; around 2 AM, it will drop to about 5 degrees Fahrenheit. This on a mountain that straddles the equator. The night before, we had stone-sized hail.
Balaclava, hat, long underwear, windproof pants, headlamp, trekking poles, down jacket, windbreaker, sunglasses, sunscreen. Two hours of sleep and full of gritty determination. Even with the full moon high in the night sky, it’s very dark. I turn on my headlamp and follow Tunzo on the rocky, unreliable ground of base camp Barafu to the start of the switchback-laden trail, along with approximately 150 other trekkers who are trying to reach the 5,895 meter summit as well. That’s approximately 19,341 feet.
Over the next 8.5 hours, we walk. I often glance behind me on short breaks and see the other trekkers, looking like small ants from my vantage point, marching in a single file line alight by headlamps. Some people stop for longer breaks – to eat an energy bar, to drink water, to vomit. Some of the guides are singing to keep their clients’ spirits up.
Uhuru Peak is the highest point in Africa, so close to the equator that no Europeans believed there could be snow on the summit until Hans Meyer went up there in 1889 to find out for himself. The locals, for their part, had never seen snow and therefore didn’t know what the white stuff on the top of Kilimanjaro was. Understandably, they feared it. Now, of course, it is a major source of tourism dollars for Tanzania. Unlike when Meyer first summited, however, there’s not much ice left on Kili, which means this isn’t a technical climb anymore. That doesn’t make it easy.
Over the previous five days, Tunzo and I developed a report. As anyone who has walked for days on a mountain knows, it can sometimes – rarely, but it happens – get monotonous. We would play the “alphabet game,” whereby you pick a noun – fruit, countries, song titles – and go through the alphabet trying to come up with an object for each letter (apple, banana, cantaloupe; etc.). This is how I discovered that Africa has a lot of cities that start with “z.” We discussed religion, racism, and why black people’s farts smell so much worse than white people’s. (His belief, not mine.)
Tonight, though, there is very little talking between us, mostly just the sounds of rocks and dirt shifting underneath our hiking boots, the sound of the tip of a trekking pole scraping on stone. I stop several times to catch my breath.
I’m unnaturally sleepy and then I remember that I factored in every possible contingency except for one – I take a medication at night that knocks me out. This meant that during my frequent stops, I almost invariably fell asleep. This gives me the dubious distinction of being perhaps the only person ever to consider taking a nap in the middle of the night, 17,000+ feet above sea level in below freezing temperatures on one of the Seven Summits.
“I’ll take a nap if I have to,” I tell myself irrationally,, but not once do I consider turning around and going back to base camp. “I beat cancer,” I keep repeating to myself. “I can walk up a fucking mountain.”
Which is exactly what I did.
The final push to the summit – if you time it right – occurs just as the sun is rising over all of Africa, lighting up the massive glaciers that emerge from black volcanic rock, prisming in the early morning sun.
Scientists predict that all of the glaciers on Kili will be melted completely by 2050. What this portends for a whole continent constantly struggling for resources is a concern for another day; right then, there was only the ice, the blinding sun, and the other exhausted trekkers coming back to life as they gazed at the imposing beauty of it all. It is a sight that fewer and fewer people will get to see as the mountain succumbs to global warming.
Of course, you can’t really say you’ve climbed a mountain unless you’ve also managed to get down, and getting down is often the hardest part. After some victorious photos on Uhuru Peak, Tunzo and I begin our four hour descent back to base camp. The plan was to eat lunch in “The Barafu Hotel,” a nickname Haruna had bestowed upon our ramshackle food tent the day before.
1. It is a brave thing to ask for help or to accept unsolicited help. We often think it’s a sign of weakness, but really it’s a sign of strength. There’s nothing wrong with knowing your limitations or needing to learn something.
2. I am truly one of the most determined people I know. I’ve heard this my whole life but I never quite believed it. “Determined” is not always a euphemism for “stubborn,” and determination can take you very far. Lesson: believe the good things people tell you about yourself.
Growing up, my mom always told me I could do anything I set my mind to, as if, through the power of magical thinking, I could always get exactly what I desired. Is it foolish to think I can do anything I put my mind to? Perhaps. But on January 27, 2013, it worked. Turns out I’m hard to kill, too.