The hard thing about hard things
Day 6. That's 6 days of not sleeping so far. This is the last full night sleep before summit push. This night has been the roughest. Every cough drags out from the deepest part of the lungs, only to linger like a theft not satisfied of what's already stolen. For every breath lost, 5 or 6 must be gained in long prahna way only to calm the heart again. Changing clothes is a struggle here. Pooping requires strength one could never imagine would be required for such activity. I don't think I've had 5 minute stretch of not coughing all night. My lungs feel swollen. The mild fever from the last two days subsides in the night, only to come back to visit in the afternoon, in time for me to mask it with yet another naproxen. Every time I dose off, panic rushes in and I find myself choking desperately for air.... air that would not be found. Not here. Not this high up atop Kilimanjaro. Tonight has been twice as bad as the night before. I was hoping that this bronchitis or pneumonia or whatever it is would settle in after my summit. I was hoping that maybe If I could squeeze in 12 more hours I'd make it up to the top and then resume my sickness after. At the rate this is going, I am not happy.
The team has been donating everything from cough drops to Vicks vapor rub, to foot warmer, to thermarest sleeping pad to help me sleep better. Eventually Justin crawled over from his tent to mine at 2am offering the only page he could muster to pull up from the tiny amount of cell network we get,... "Altitude.org -- don't die of altitude sickness".. Perfect.
"Yo, T. I'm worried. Do you think you have one of these.. Pulmonary oneama or whatever..," asked Justin.
"I don't think so. Abraham (the guide) asked if I'm coughing pink stuff. I'm not. It's all green. Definitely infection. He didn't seem concern. I don't know."
"At this rate it's going to be tough for you to summit with that breathing problem,"
It's funny how logic goes out the window so quickly when you're in a situation where the goal is right in front of you and obstacles like breathing somehow seems optional or trivialized suddenly. Sometimes I wonder if it's my cockiness that got me this far in life.. that somehow I think I can just keep going despite all odds. Or perhaps this is sheer stupidity. Maybe both.
Finally the sun peeks out from the horizon. My time is up. Day 6 begins. Today we walk to Basecamp and begin prep for summit push.
"How'ya feeling Thaniya?" ... Thomas, our chirpiest & most lovable member, asks me daily. I can't understand half of what comes out of Thomas's mouth because of his thick Liverpool accent. He is a kind soul, and probably a really fun dad.
"You know Thomas, I'm spirited.." I smiled, knowing full well that the answer pretty much sums up as mind-over-matter.
Our daily routine of breakfast, followed by debrief and health check resume per normal. Today's oxygen [81%], pulse  -- normal for this altitude anyway.
"How are you Thaniya?" Asked one of the guide performing health check.
"Are you tired?"
"Not at the moment."
"How did you sleep?"
"I did not."
"You woke up a few times?"
"No. I did not sleep."
The whole camp could hear me cough all night. There's no way the guides would sleep through all of it without noticing. Whether they deliberately ignored it or were seriously careless, I don't know. Every day we do this, every day they write the same thing on the report "sleep ok, woke up a few times." When these things aren't accurate, they paint a picture of the process being superficial. If this was America I'd call it an attempt to record plausible deniability.. But we're in Africa, so I can't possibly even guess the motive. Maybe they're encouraging us. Mind-over-matter.
Basecamp walk was a quick breeze. As a matter of fact most of the hikes so far have been quite easy. If you've done more with your life than eating potato chips on a couch, you could do these hikes at lower elevation easily. I feel much better at 4600m today than two days ago when we attempted the Lava Tower hike. That was the first incident of true altitude sickness hitting acutely within minutes. It felt weird. Altitude sickness, for me anyway, starts with a headache in the shape of a baby alien. The alien would attach itself to my face with tentacles pierced right from the corner of both my eyes, through the brain, then wraps itself around the top part where the spine meets my head. It'd be there the whole time. When it feeds, it'd choke my head and face causing deep headache, dizziness, and nausea. I eventually named the alien Winona. She wasn't gonna go away anytime soon. I needed to find a way to embrace her. The Lava Tower climb was my first vomit.. First of oh-so-many to come..
We were suppose to try to sleep after lunch, then again after dinner, so that we'd be prepared for the summit by 10.30pm. I did manage to squeeze two precious hours of lying down in the afternoon. Sleeping is a privilege at this point. Right now time is a blur. Energy is a blur. Right now who I am outside of the person standing before this giant rock is one big blur. It's now 10.30pm. Equipped with basically every garment hauled up the mountain so far, we all gathered silently for what was to be the summit march into the night.
It's dark out. The kind of darkness that fools you into believing your eyes are still shut. That maybe this whole thing has been one long dream. I don't recall why I never saw stars that night. Usually up this high above the clouds every sparkles in the sky would decorate the horizon. Not tonight for some reason. My headlamp felt heavy around my head so I dangled it around the neck instead. From 4600m, we're heading up to 5895m, a whopping 1095m in elevation -- more than all of the days trekked thus far combined. Air temp hovers about -6 to -13 celsius. Each step feels heavier than the last. Each breath feels colder, shorter, more urgent. All I need to do is put one foot in front of the other. Just keep at it. And we'll get there. Right? It doesn't matter how slow I go, so long as I keep going. Right? Just pretend like time has left the universe. Don't think. Just do.
I don't know how long we walked before Rachel paused. At that point I had been focusing on air supply. For however hard it was to make a step forward it was much, much harder to breathe. The cough has reached its height of exacerbation. Each push of the air out welcomes a whole array of green phlegm, watery fluids, and no room for the inhalation back. I had to be deliberate -- pausing, pushing way for the nasal passage to expand as much as it could and breathe as deeply as i could. 5. 4. 3. 2. 1. One cough, 5 make-up breaths. Slow. Steady. Don't let that heart rate shoot through the roof. Don't panic.
"We're going to split into two groups. . Group A go ahead.. Ruth, you're going to A." .. Military grade command from Abraham pierced the air.
"No.. Rachels' my friend. I'm staying..."
"I'm in group B.," Justin also quickly replied.
Abraham can see that people will stick to their friends rather than obeying his commands. He sighed sharply before disappeared into the night up the hill.
I don't remember when I started throwing up. Probably not terribly long after the group split. Every few feet I would oscillate between burping and vomiting. At first we'd pause. After a little while the pausing proved to be too cold and it was better to just walk and vomit. A few times we paused to get water, wait for our friends. Each time I sit the world feels more and more lifeless. It's cold out -- the coldest i've ever felt my whole life. With every rest, I feel more and more sleepy .. as if a cocoon of warmth awaits me at the other end if only i'd just stay there and stop moving. I know this is hypothermia. I've seen every mountaineering movies Hollywood's ever made. I might not have prep'ed enough to climb this god damn mountain, but at least I saw all the movies. It's a weirdly quiet and comfortable feeling, hypothermia. Like being inside a dark empty room. Into Thin Air replays in my head over and over...
I can feel the alien on my face -- Winona, the altitude alien. She's growing larger and larger by the minute. But that has been trivialized by the coughing and the struggling to breathe. It's getting harder. At this point Kevin the guide is already carrying my pack. I no longer have water to drink consistently. Each time a sip comes my way the throat has become so parched that it feels like swallowing razorblades. My feet are still moving, one tiny step at a time. At some point logic kicks in. I find myself thinking louder and louder... it's the voice of my college self, at around the time when I failed the course "decision systems".
"What is this worth? ... A picture at the top of the hill? A bragging right? Knowing that you can? ... At what price? C'mon, t. You're smarter than this.. You got yourself here. You're about to cough your lungs out of your throat. You can figure it out. Think."
At what price...
Josh's face pops up. "You know, Thaniya, this is a struggle of privilege. You paid to be here..."
At what price...
I knew at that point the price would involve my lungs at the very least. Whether it would be a permanent or temporary price, that photo at the top will cost me my lungs. Then I got angry. Angry because deep down I know the smart move would be to descend. My feet were still wobbling upward. My will power, whatever left of it, refuses to register defeat.
We stopped again. This time Tayla is sitting down, almost lifeless. The guides are talking.. Their stance is that we (climbers) know our body best and that we're the only ones to decide whether to keep going or to descend. They can't advise us what to do. It's a smart stance. People do weird things when they are pushed to their limits, and this is one of those places where limits are very much pushed. Humanity at its rawest form comes out right here. Some cry (I did). Some get angry (I did). Some get real quiet. You can see that everyone's waiting to see if she'll forge forward. I turned at Christian, her cousin, "Do you think she'll be able to make the right decision whether to keep going or not?"
The hard thing about hard things is that it's even harder to give up. It's hard to be the first to turn around. There's a social pressure to keep going. Oh, you've already come this far.. Oh, it's only a few hundred meters away. Oh, the sun will rise soon. Oh, but you'll be the only one not in that photo. After having lived as long as I have, I've come to know when to not give a shit. Will I be embarrassed that I didn't make it to the top? Not at all. Will I regret my decision if I go down now? Not at all. Is 3 more hours of progressively worsening condition worthwhile? Nope. The answer is never clearer to me. But that emotion -- the little guy that screams defeats -- sits in the way. I suppose the crazy ones that make it to the top learn to lean into the unreasonable. For me, for that moment, it was very clear that this endeavor wasn't worthwhile. If someone's life depended on me reaching the top, or if there were other external reasons beside my own self-fulfilling bucket list that motivates me, I probably could go on. I look back at the situation unfolding before me: will Tayla be able to think clearly and make the right choice for herself? ... She's fading. Her cousin finally stepped in and urged the right thing to do.
And so Tayla and I decide to descend....
A porter carried me by the arm and took me off the path. My last hurrah vomit at ~5500m elevation marked the exit. The time was around 5.45am. The next two hours comprised of a combination of dirt sliding (like skiing without skis), more vomiting, and partial pass-outs. I arrive back at my tent by 7.30am -- cold, crying, coughing even more, and so ready to go home. It wasn't until much later on that afternoon when Ruth gave me doxycycline that my lungs, and ultimately a trip to the hospital, was saved.
48 hours after that I'm sitting in the doctor's office in Brooklyn, still breathing as if oxygen still needed to be stolen.
We were about 2.5hrs, or 385m away from Uhuru's peak.