"Success isn't how far you got, but the distance you traveled from where you started."
-- Steve Prefontaine, running legend
Jambo! It's officially been a month since I made it to Stella Point on Mount Kilimanjaro, so I figured it's high time I update this blog accordingly. Yes, friends... I did make it to the "roof of Africa," albeit not as far as I had planned or hoped. I wrote several detailed blog posts about my adventure on my personal blog here and here, so I won't rehash that story again on this blog. What I will do, however, is use this as an opportunity to reflect on what actually happened on that mountain... and what I'm trying to learn from it.
If you read those posts, you'll learn that I suffered from a few physical and mental setbacks during my hike in Tanzania. I only have myself to blame for the asthma attack on day one. I had studied the hiking itinerary religiously for the 8 months leading to our hike. I planned all of my practice hikes to best simulate the distances and elevation gains of each day, understanding that the altitude wouldn't match past Day 2. Day 1 was listed as an 11 km hike (~6.9 miles) with an elevation gain of ~3,900 feet. I did several similar hikes to prepare for this, and figured I'd be in good shape. I had hiked with a lot of the girls on my trip before, and knew my pace to be on par with them. And we'd be going "pole pole" (slowly), according to our guides. This should've been a piece of cake.
Surprisingly, I rushed myself on this hike. I was never at the front, but I did try to keep a pace that was faster than one in which I could comfortably breathe. I also talked too much. I expected the stairs, but didn't expect them to impact my knee as badly as it did. When we finally stopped for a break, I was in a full blown asthma attack - partially brought on by anxiety and partially brought on by the thick, humid air. My guide, Aboo, was very attentive. A fellow hiker sweetly offered to stay back with me and helped greatly too. But I was embarrassed. I had trained for this! I have lived with my heart and lung issues for over a decade, and I know how to control them. What was my problem? Why did I let this happen? And could I actually overcome this? I felt so defeated at the end of the day.
The next morning, I was asked if I'd like to hike early with a guide and another hiker. I was embarrassed but I agreed. And although the other hiker decided to not join us, it ended up being a pretty terrific day. In fact, it was my favorite day on the mountain! My confidence, still shaky, was better and I started feeling more like myself again. I started to feel like I could actually summit this thing!
Over the course of the next three days, however, my emotions were in turmoil. I'd struggle on seemingly easy areas of the trail, and then speed right along on the trickier, rockier areas. For every confidence building moment, I'd have two or three that would knock me back down again. It was frustrating, humbling... and lonely. I spent so many hours awake at night fretting over how I could have done better during the day. I wanted to bond with the rest of the group, but found it difficult to do so. I didn't really get to hike with most of them, so it was hard to relate with their day. I really wanted to talk about what was happening with me, but it was hard to do that too. I finally broke down on summit night at dinner, crying at the table because I was so tired. That 5th day was rough for a variety of reasons, but the hardest on me was the lack of sleep. I forced myself to eat, and fell asleep at 8.
Summit night was the hardest thing I've ever done. They told me it would be. Because I was in the slow hiker group (a decision I was really struggling with the previous day), we were awakened at 11pm to begin our hike a little after midnight. I know I talked about this in my other post, so I won't belabor that event again here. What I will explain, however, are the reasons I ultimately decided to stop at Stella Point - a decision I do not regret, but still breaks my heart today.
As I mentioned on my personal blog, I felt no effects of altitude sickness prior to summit night. In fact, my pulse, temperature, and blood oxygenation were better than most. I really thought I'd be able to make it up without any issues outside of exhaustion. I was wrong. I started having a really hard time breathing after about 3 hours. At some point, I started dragging my pole. My friend asked if I was ok, and I then realized I couldn't feel my arm. I could feel my hands and fingers... but my arm was limp. As I continued, I realized my leg was dragging too - I could feel it, but could not lift it. During our breaks that followed, both Nelson (my summit guide) and Teddy (my summit porter) took turns massaging my arm, but to no avail. By the time we got to the last scramble before summit, I had to rely on Teddy to physically lift the left side of my body to propel it forward. I blacked out completely at least twice before summit, Teddy catching me the last time. As we got higher, my nose began to bleed. I could feel my heart racing at some points - and periodically stop at others. Tachycardia is scary, y'all.
When we arrived at Stella Point, I collapsed on a rock and cried. My head hurt, my ribs ached, and my nose continued to bleed. My friend asked if I wanted to continue, and I responded in tears that I couldn't. I took several hits off my rescue inhaler, and attempted to defrost my hydration bladder. After a few minutes, I could feel my arm again. I asked my guide if he thought it was safe for me to see the glaciers, and he nodded that it would be ok. It was then that I noticed that I could see the Uhuru sign from this point. I gave it a quick thought, but ultimately decided that my symptoms were too scary to risk the additional hour and a half at that altitude. My guide nodded, helped me take a few more pictures, and we headed down.
The descent back to base camp was grueling, but that was my fault. While my guide attempted to help me descend more quickly, I was so shaky and scared that I could only go down at my own pace. It took us forever - so long, in fact, that I had just laid down in my tent when we were called to lunch. The rest of my descent was equally slow... sometimes at my request, and other times at the request of the guide accompanying me. It was nice because I really got to know the two guides I hiked down with, but it did nothing to boost my confidence.
Several hikers from other tours congratulated me on my "summit." Yes, I still put that in quotes because it's still hard for me to accept. Still, their kind words helped a lot that day. And the kindness and congratulations from my fellow hikers and guides at the Mweka gate were equally uplifting.
I said before that I don't regret my decision to turn around at the "the point of no return," aka Stella Point. And a month later, I still don't regret it. I went to the doctor after returning to California, and was advised that I likely suffered from hypoxia on the mountain. This caused acute kidney failure (the pain in my ribs I experienced) and likely caused the dizziness and numbness that I experienced. My blood pressure was also very, very low (and I say this as someone who reads an already low ~105/65). My doctor prescribed me a combination of diet and medication for both, telling me I was very lucky. I am... and I'm doing much better today.
Despite all of this, I am still struggling with confidence following this experience. I haven't hiked since I returned to the states - partially because my doctor advised against it for two weeks, and partially because I am not sure I'm ready mentally. While I have been very proud of my accomplishments over the last couple of years, I can't help but be reminded that the last three major accomplishments all came with terrific setbacks as well. I got injured doing my runDisney challenge last November, had an anxiety attack doing Badly in May, and now all of this on Kilimanjaro. Perhaps I have tried to do too much too soon? Maybe I'm not training enough? Or training too much? Or maybe I'm looking at training wrong altogether?
I have a lot to think about. In the meantime, I welcome your suggestions. And if you're in my neck of the woods and want to meet up for a hike, please let me know. I'd be so happy to have your company.
Until next time... stay safe out there!
NOTE: I have had several people tell me I should be proud of my Kilimanjaro summit... and I am! Please don't mistake this post as a petty pity post about not making it to Uhuru. I share this mostly so that others can be aware of what happened, and so that others who face similar setbacks don't think they're alone. I'm lucky to belong to a supportive hiking community where we celebrate each other's successes, both big and small. I mostly get words of encouragement and celebration, and I think that's really great! Still... I needed to get these words out and in the open. Like I said, I've struggled to talk about this as openly as I have here. It may take me a while to recover mentally... but I'm still stoked to have made it as high as I did!