Climbing Kilimanjaro

Martha Stortz—August 3, 2008

“What are you trying to prove?” a colleague kept asking. The question hadn’t occurred to me. I tried to consider it.

Physical challenge had always appealed to me. I’d always only gotten “B’s” in Phys Ed, a consistent smudge on grade school report cards. Was I still trying to excel at sports?

I’d never been fast at anything, swimming, running, or anything that required the quick reflexes and eye-hand coordination. Something that required determination, endurance, and sheer grit, though, I knew I could handle. Was I trying to see if my stamina still held?

Finally, there was history to consider: a ten-mile swim in Lake Michigan in my twenties, the bicycle ride across Iowa in my thirties. Was I overdue for some gratuitous exertion?

All these were definite considerations…… in the end, I wasn’t trying to prove anything.

When a good friend invited me to join his trekking party, I floated the idea with some friends. It both captured their imagination—and exposed their fears. What about altitude? What about cold? What about knees? Hips? Back? Those were their fears. Mine was something else: if I don’t do this now, I’m afraid I’ll never got another chance. My eighty-three-year-old mother offered the benediction: “What are you waiting for?”

That’s how I came to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, the Shining Mountain.

At 19,340 feet, Kilimanjaro is the tallest mountain in Africa. Geologists identify it as a free-standing peak, because it is not part of a range or cluster. From the summit, you can see the earth’s curvature, as well as the richly cultivated farmland fed by the mountain’s water. To the west is the Great Rift Valley, created by a seam in the earth’s tectonic plates. To the north is the savannah region known as the Serengeti, to the east is Kenya—and the Indian Ocean beyond. At the southern base of the mountain are the Machame and Marangu gates, which offer best access to the mountain. Mount Meru rises to 14,980 feet in the southwest, and part of the beauty of the climb is watching Meru play in the shadow of the taller peak.

The climb was simultaneously physically challenging and spiritually arresting. Hundreds of photographs we took demonstrate the physical challenge; the spiritual dimensions are harder to document. Maybe a few non-digital snapshots will suffice.

#1: Team Sanga—or “You never walk alone…”

We called ourselves Team Sanga, after the Tanzanian in our party, and we were seven in number: myself, three computer scientists, a social/worker/psychologist, a composer, and the other woman in the group, a theologian and colleague from the Graduate
Theological Union’s Jesuit School of Theology. Lisa Fullam had been a veterinarian before she’d studied theology, and it would be good to have someone with medical training on the trek. I teased the others: “All we have to do is drop down on all fours and whimper. Lisa will know exactly what to do.”

Actually, on the mountain, what we did at sea level in our professional lives didn’t matter much. It’s true that the computer scientists had the state-of-the-art camera equipment, but when we weren’t taking pictures, we were all bodies in need of food and water, encouragement and rest. Since most of us hadn’t been camping since Scouts, there were the occasional regressions: we were in our early teens the last time we’d been without running water and electricity in the great outdoors. But these incidents were surprisingly few—and instantly defused by humor. Team Sanga was long on wit, and no one was immune to teasing. As we tromped through the dust raised by whoever was in front of us, we joked about “becoming one with the mountain.”

We also knew how much we depended on one another. One of the younger members of the party was capable of going a lot faster; he was also the most aware of everyone else’s capability and level of exhaustion. I remember his face—from the front of the line or the back—as he checked each of us out to see how we were doing. He’d often go ahead to “scout,” doubling back to report on conditions ahead. Another member had so much trouble balancing, it was bold of him to make the trek at all. Yet, he was the heart of the group. He knew more about the mountain than all the rest of us put together, and he had a love of Africa that was contagious. We spent a lot of time picking out retirement plots for him in the countryside. And when the native Tanzanian among us, the Sanga of Team Sanga, had to leave at 15,000 feet due to altitude sickness on the third day of the trek, there were tears. We had come to depend on him more than we knew.

That was just the seven of us trekkers. We climbed with a small tribe of twenty-three porters, cooks, guides and assistant guides. We’d leave them to break camp each morning—and then they’d stampede by us during the day, carrying our tents, our duffle bags, our food, and our water. “Pole, pole,” they’d say as they’d hurry past, which in Swahili means “Slowly, slowly!” They didn’t go slowly though: they ran ahead to set camp and prepare dinner. They cheered us when we came down from the summit, and on the last day they danced and sang to our accomplishments, despite the obvious fact that we couldn’t have made it without them.

Initially, we counted seven people in Team Sanga—but by the end of the trek we included this army of people who cared for us. And behind them were countless others. Just behind me were Jewish and Christian and Muslim prayers, prayers from the 7:30 Mass crowd at Holy Spirit Parish, the Methodist Prayer Warriors in Lower, Slower Delaware, and the support of dear friends back in the Bay Area. Everyone of us had a similar good wishes pushing him up the mountain.

Back here at home, people wanted to celebrate my accomplishment, but the experience made me keenly aware how little it belonged to me. It was a joint accomplishment, warranting a joint celebration!

And I wonder if accomplishment is even the right word.

#2: The mountain—and other fierce landscapes

“You conquered the mountain!” a friend chortled. I hastened to correct him: “I wouldn’t say ‘conquered.’” Climbing Kilimanjaro feels less like an accomplishment than a privilege. Or an epiphany. After being in the presence of something so beautiful and mysterious and vast, I’m not sure what language to offer. I’m more certain that, if such language exists, it would take a lifetime to learn it. The mountain can’t be conquered by climbing or captured in words. Better Job’s response, after YHWH speaks to him from the whirlwind:

“Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know…
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you….” (Job 42:4–5, NRSV)

So what did we see? We saw the entire mountain, but only from a distance and only when the mists cleared in early morning and late afternoon. Usually clouds covered the summit, and their condensation fell as rain or snow. When we were actually climbing the mountain, we saw it piece-meal, as we ascended through its various regions: the dense and magical rainforest, the heathery moorland, the alpine desert, and finally, the moon-like arctic reaches of the summit itself. We saw plants that had adapted to equatorial climes and extreme temperatures. We saw ravens that could cruise the thin air at 16,000 feet. We saw a field of lava shards that looked like broken pottery from a giant’s kitchen. We saw shields commemorating climbers who had died near the summit. We saw that we were in a fierce landscape.

Fierce landscapes remind you of the other-ness of God. Job saw this in the whirlwind; Luther saw this as the “hidden God,” the deus absconditus. We tend to smooth the rough edges off this dimension of the divine, forcing God into the more familiar mold cast by our need. When Moses ascended the mountain to speak to the Lord “face to face,” when Jesus “went up into the mountain to pray,” we set the scene up on some grassy hill. But the Ancient Near East was more like the moonscape of Kilimanjaro’s upper reaches—and probably equally forbidding. Moses and Jesus climbed mountains to escape the gravity of the incessant murmuring in the desert or the disciples’ constant bickering. Their example is worth imitating.

When I got back from Africa, I looked up Belden Lane’s article on place and images of God. He notes that if he hadn’t been raised a Christian, he’d be a Jew or a Buddhist: “The people of these faiths, formed by mountains, desert and tough terrain, celebrate, oddly enough, a sense of God’s indifference to the assorted hand-wringing anxieties of human life…. One of the scourges of our age is that all of our deities are housebroken and eminently companionable; far from demanding anything, they ask only how they can more meaningfully enhance the lives of those they serve.” (Belden C. Lane, “Fierce Landscapes and the Indifference of God,” The Christian Century, October 11, 1989, p. 907).

Inhabiting a fierce landscape alters perceptions of deity—and self! Before the climb we shared expectations: what we wanted out of the adventure. Some wanted the challenge of getting to the summit; others saw it as a pilgrimage; still others brought to the mountain a spiritual or relational issue they hoped the climb would clarify. We didn’t revisit this conversation after the climb, but I would bet that Kilimanjaro not only met our expectations—but profoundly altered them.

It certainly altered mine. I deliberately kept my expectations minimal: I simply wanted something physically demanding to prepare for and to look forward to. For me it wasn’t about reaching the summit. But there’s a photo my friend Liren took of me at the summit that says it all. Against the backdrop of one of Kilimanjaro’s fabled glaciers, my eyes are closed, my mouth wide open. It could be a yawn—after all, we’d started climbing at midnight to reach the summit by daybreak. But it’s more the look of someone who suddenly realizes she’s been starving for years—and wants to eat everything in sight.

The Chagga people live around Kilimanjaro, farm the fields at the base of the mountain and graze cattle in the surrounding pastures. They tell a legend about people who climbed the mountain in search of treasure, silver and gold—and return with life-giving water. Nothing more—and nothing less. It’s water from the mountain that has sustained the Chagga people, their farms, and their cattle for centuries—not the silver and gold they sought.

#3: The limits of preparation

No one climbs Kilimanjaro without a guide, and guides are available through a variety of trekking companies. We signed on with a Welsh mountaineering company—and they sent us The Lists: a list of gear we’d need for the mountain, a list of shots we’d need for travel in East Africa and medicine we should pack, and finally, recommendations for training. Preparing to climb Kilimanjaro looked like a full-time job!

As I studied their lists, I mentally began to make my own. I had a list of “What Needs to Happen Now—and What Needs to Happen Later.” First order of business was purchasing and breaking in hiking boots, followed quickly by finding a good light-weight, aluminum backpack and getting used to carrying weight. By late April Lisa and I were hiking around the East Bay hills in our Vasque hiking boots whenever we could carve out the time. We’d meet at a coffee shop in the village at 6:30am—and head into the hills, barely awake but with coffee in one hand. By May we added backpacks, loading them up with dictionaries. I had a “Modern Languages Hike” with my Spanish, Italian, French, German, and Portuguese dictionaries that weighed in at 23 pounds. An “Ancient Languages Hike” was less onerous, only 15 pounds.

As we walked through the hills looking like Urban Pioneers, the neighbors smiled and cheered us on. I hoped a steady regimen of short, hard hikes combined with consecutive days of hiking would get us in good enough shape for the mountain.

Next order of business was getting to the docs. After he checked everything out, my primary care physician solemnly assured me that the worst part of the trip would be traveling on a cramped airplane for 20 hours—and then ascending 19,000 feet. He urged a day’s rest before the climb. I prevailed upon Team Sanga to frontload a day after arrival to simply “contemplate the mountain.” We all agreed this had been invaluable.

Finally, there was the Gear—and fortunately, Berkeley is a great place for gear. You can get high-end gear, you can get low-end gear, you can even get used gear. I would send Paul e-mails with the subject line: “Not Girl-Talk, but Gear-Talk,” and he’d respond generously with suggestions and online deals. Lisa and I set time aside to gear-shop, and we got to know the Gear Guys at REI, Any Mountain, North Face, and Marmot. We quickly learned the best times to shop, the best deals available, and the Guys who gave the best advice—without making us feel like idiots.

We did endless Gear Checks, consolidating our first-aid and trail mixes. Most important, we figured out water: how we’d carry it and how we’d ensure it was potable. Water, we knew, was our best protection against altitude. As the Chagga discovered, water was more valuable than silver and gold.

Altitude sickness strikes where it will. Even the most fit and the most prepared succumb. We saw lots of people on the mountain who were in trouble, and some of them had to do down.

In the end, though, we could only prepare so much. Finally, we had to lean on what we’d been able to do—and trust that our preparation and our shots and our gear would be enough. Fortunately, it was.

Besides, you can’t prepare for everything. The cold could have been crippling: it wasn’t. The precipitation could have been debilitating: it only drizzled. The trekkers could have been fractious and cranky: we weren’t. Nothing could have prepared me for the beauty of each day: frost on the ground one night that sparkled in my headlamp like the thousands of stars overhead; sunrise on the glaciers; flowers that grew in the narrowest crevices of rocks; the slant of the Southern Cross in the night sky; the colors of the sky at dawn and dusk; and all around us, rocks, rocks, and more rocks in timeless elegance.

Lessons from the mountain

As I look through the photos, particularly the ones that remain non-digital, I see the mountain taught me three things:

I had to figure out how to walk, no matter how slowly, so that I could keep moving forward at a steady pace without stopping and starting all the time;

I had to figure out how to breathe, no matter how shallow, so that I could keep a rhythm and not be gasping for air;

Finally, I had to pack what I needed for each day—and leave everything else in the tent.

Not bad lessons for life at sea level—or wherever it finds you.