My family and I were living in Tanzania, East Africa in a little town named Arusha, located at the foot of Mt. Meru. Now, Meru is not some dinky little bump on the surface of the Earth, but rather a 14,979 ft active strato-volcano, and the 2nd highest peak in Africa. While not a technical climb requiring ropes and harness, it’s still a steep climb.
I had learned that one of the local ex-pats had climbed the mountain several times and wanted to go up again. Being brain damaged, I promptly shot my mouth off and said that I wanted to climb too. This was greeted with something less than outright enthusiasm. I smoked, I was a skinny little geek, and in addition was, what else? Brain damaged.
Well, I boasted and puffed up like a little toad and finally convinced everybody that I could make it to the peak. In reality, I just wore everybody down and they agreed just to shut me up. They figured that they would just leave me someplace when I finally gave up and pick me up on the way back down. Yeah right.
After some months of preparation, we started our ascent by driving up through the thick jungle that covers the initial approaches to the mountain. There were only three of us making the climb: the Tanzanian guide, Nat the ex-pat, and myself. When we could drive no further, we parked the Jeep, shouldered our packs and started walking.
After hours of trekking up the increasingly steep path, crossing streams, and negotiating tricky patches of scree (small rocks and debris that slide under a climber’s feet), we made it to the first hut at 8,000 feet. Though panting and exhausted, I was still determined. I knew what had been said behind my back about my inability to make the climb and thought that I would just show all these lame people how tough I was.
The next morning, after breakfast, on went the packs and away we went. Our next destination was Saddle Hut at 11,800 feet. If I had thought that our initial trek was rough, I was in for a nasty surprise. This particular section of the climb is through the cloud layer and as a result is damp, muddy, slippery and eerie. There is wildlife even at this height and we could hear them, sometimes quite nearby, but never see them. The mist shrouded everything. The footing was treacherous and losing your footing resulted in a slithering free-for-all until fetching up against a tree. I, naturally, was miserable but kept going with a grim determination that only the young and stupid can muster.
Saddle Hut is located on a saddle (of course) directly above the cloud line and the view was fantastic. The slopes beneath us disappeared into clouds that stretched away in the distance like a fluffy, white carpet. Above us, the summit soared into the sky, gray and forbidding. There should have been trees here, but the ground was bare and rocky. All of the trees were gone, as well as the hut. We had packed tents for just such an eventuality and out they came. It was decided that we would stay here for the night and start our final ascent early in the morning in order to catch the sunrise over Kilimanjaro, far to the east. At this point, I didn’t much care one way or the other. I just wanted to rest. It was high, cold, windy, and I was pooped. I had no idea of what was coming.
It grew dark with frightening speed. The darker it got, the colder it became and the more the wind picked up. Snuggled in my sleeping bag, I listened in awe as the wind shrieked and tore at the thin walls of our little tent. It whined and roared and thumped at the tent like some ravening beast intent on finding a way under, around or through the flimsy nylon, mindlessly intent on tearing the flesh from our bones and flinging it back down the mountain. As these dark thoughts wormed their way through my head, I slept fitfully.
Something had grabbed me and was shaking me furiously. Before my bladder let go, I realized it was only Nat waking me for the final push up to the summit. It was pitch dark and the wind was still blowing at gale force. Half-convinced that Nat had lost his ever-loving mind, I struggled out of the warm cocoon of my sleeping bag and into the frigid confines of my boots. Last minute instructions were yelled into my ear that I was to keep up! If at any time I lost sight of Nat or the guide, I was to stop and wait for one of them to come back and get me. The ridge we would be traversing was dangerous and a misstep could catapult me over high cliffs. I was then told that I would more than likely not be able to reach the peak and was to stop wherever I gave up and wait for them to retrieve me on their way back down. That was it, now I was mad. I would show them by golly!
Flashlight in hand, off we went. The wind was horrendous, the climb up the steep incline agony. I could hardly breath and was terrified of losing sight of my companions. I prayed that my flashlight would not suddenly die and leave me stranded and alone in this black, roaring, desolate place. Onward and upward I struggled, gasping and cursing. On several occasions, I had to stop and rest and each time I was told to stop where I was and give it up. Each time I was told this my resolve stiffened and I pulled myself up and continued. After what seemed hours of this mind-numbing nightmare, my brain just sort of went on auto-pilot.
It was ghastly, this seemingly never-ending torture of wanting to stop, rest, give it up. It would be so easy. Just stop. No more pain, no more cold. Just stop and wait. They had said they would get me on their way back and we could get off this hulking monster. I vaguely wondered why I kept going. What had become so important that I continue this madness? Was it the risk of shame or derision from all those who had said that I would never complete the climb? Or was it something else? At the state I was in on that pitch-black, cold, windy slope, I doubt if I would have cared if the devil himself had laughed at me. I just wanted to stop and rest and go no further. I kept going.
I gradually became aware that something had changed in my surroundings. It was getting lighter and I was becoming more and more able to discern my surroundings. My companions had finally abandoned me and told me to sit tight, that they were going to push for the summit and the sunrise. They were tired of waiting on me and my dogged persistence. A dull rage began to build in me. “Leave me will you?” As I could now see where I was going, I groped and staggered my way up the last few hundred yards to the peak. My companions were astonished to see me clambering up the steep slope towards them. I was greeted with backslaps and grins and, I like to think, a little chagrin at themselves.
The sun had already risen over the distant square peak of Kilimanjaro. I didn’t care. I had made it. In the face of doubts and little faith, I had made it. It was no longer important to me whether or not anyone else believed in me, but rather that I believed in myself. I had accomplished what no one, including myself, thought me capable of. On that windy, barren, rocky slope, I had passed a test. I had not given up when that would have been the easiest thing to do. Perhaps the sanest, I don’t know. But I do know this. In some small, fundamental way, I had become a man. I was still brain damaged. After all, I was still just a teenager. But something had made itself known within me. Call it stubbornness, call it what you will. I will call it pride and a new knowledge of self.
Every human has to pass through some rite of passage. Be it graduation, prom, or war. We all have to do it. Mine just happened to be this wretched, cold, windy, beautiful volcano. We should all be so lucky.