The Hardest Night by Adriana Páramo

It’s 11 pm. I’m standing at 15,715 feet, outside my tent on School Hut Camp, and on the final push to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest freestanding mountain in the world. My hands feel frozen inside my ski mittens I can’t feel my fingers. Ezekiel, our Tanzanian guide, briefs us on what lies ahead: We will walk through the night, poli, poli, slowly, slowly. We will ascend for approximately 6-7 hours, poli, poli,and make it to 19,340 feet to Uhuru Peak, the summit, by sunrise. He warns us: the next hours will be the most mentally and physically challenging portion of the trek. But not to worry, because we will go poli, poli. At some point during the night, as we make the steep climb to the crater rim at Gillman’s Point, a false summit, the switchback trail will turn from loose volcanic rock into heavy scree. The plan is to rest here, enjoy the spectacular sunrise over Mount Mawenzi, then head on to Uhuru Peak, passing through Stella Point, the second false summit, and ascend close to the spectacular glaciers and ice cliffs that still occupy most of the summit area.

I’m all pumped up. All night poli, poliunder the stars. It’s going to be beautiful.

Climbing Kilimanjaro is often described as a long-and-extreme-yet-doable-walk that requires equal amounts of physical and mental stamina. I want to see how much of both I have left in this 51-year-old body. Plus, I’m doing it with Usa and Jules, two girlfriends aged 61 and 52, who are extremely fit, extremely reliable, and extremely crazy, crazy enough to accept my invitation to climb the mountain with me. Ezekiel asks us to pose for the picture before we start night climbing. We try with headlamps on, then off, but it’s pitch black and no camera can capture this moment. Usa, Jules and I have a heartfelt group hug, followed by a few seconds of solemn silence, followed by a chorus. Let’s Climb This Mother.

We walk in formation: Ezekiel, Usa, me and Jules. Usa has been suffering from AMS from the start. One day she was so disoriented that Jules and I went around her tent removing all rocks and obstacles, afraid she might trip and fall during a midnight trip to the toilet tent. She lost her appetite and her sleep; she had bouts of diarrhea and the taste of water made her sick. She became dehydrated and lethargic. We were very concerned about her and although neither of us vocalized our thoughts, we both feared she might not be able to make it. But she is not a quitter, and tonight, she walks in front of me.

For the first four hours of our night hike there is no trail. Only rocks. Big, unclimbable boulders larger than bodies that rise up in front of us announced, like apparitions. Every time I see Ezekiel lift a leg to climb a rock, my heart shrinks. He is a tall man with long legs. He doesn’t need the walking poles. The three of us are short with tiny limbs. We manage to convince our tadpole legs to climb and conquer boulder after boulder. At some point, we hand the walking poles to Ezekiel and claw our way up the rocks on all fours, like toddlers, quad muscles stretched to the limit, our trousers about to burst at the seams. Sippy, sippy,our guide reminds us to drink water. I lift the hose of my CamelBak to my mouth, bite into the valve to coax the water out, but nothing happens. The two liters of water are now frozen solid. I want to turn around, go to sleep, and forget about the mountain.

It’s pitch-black, we haven’t slept in almost 24 hours, have been walking for seven days, our bodies are exhausted, and our minds are not sharp enough to negotiate the darkness. Plus, I can’t see the top. My headlamp is bright, but I can’t see anything outside its cone of light, except for the little shimmering dots coming from the headlamps of other climbers, above and below me, moving up the slope at an excruciatingly slow poli, polipace. It’s discouraging. Every time I look up, I see nothing but a sky heavy with stars and headlamps moving in the distance, but no summit and no signs of a sunrise any time soon. I don’t know how far the mountain keeps going. Just that it keeps going. Ad infinitum.

My legs burn with every step I take up the trail’s 45-degree incline. My lungs burn too. Breathing at 16,500 feet is the hardest thing I’ve ever tasked my body with. The air at this altitude has less than half the oxygen it does at sea level—where we live. I can’t breathe or stop obsessing about my fingers, which I imagine black with frostbite, gangrene slowly settling into my thumbs, inching its way across the other fingers. On a bend, we stop under a natural cave where other groups of climbers are also looking for signs of frostbite—the place is littered with hand and feet warmers— or tending to the blisters inside their boots, or vomiting as someone rubs their backs, or working the emergency oxygen tanks, or having a physical or mental meltdown, or both. While Ezekiel looks for new hand warmers for me, Jules sits down on a rock, leans on her backpack and immediately falls asleep. Wakey, wakey, Ezekiel shouts. Usa needs to rearrange the weight in her backpack and while he helps her with the straps, I fall asleep. We can’t help it. All we want is five minutes of sleep. Just. Five. Minutes. Wakey, wakey.Just a moment of inactivity, of not walking, and the chill sets in. Five minutes of sleep will bring hypothermia, then death.

The 25 degrees Fahrenheit wind envelops our bodies, percolates through our four layers of clothes, and attacks the uncovered bits in our faces from every angle. I look up at the sky. Where the hell is the sunrise?I want to quit. I want to turn around and head back. My two girlfriends can make it to the top and tell me all about it over a beer when they come down.I’m done.Then I think of Sonya, my boss at the university where I teach. I have a pebble with her name written on one side and her pain on the other. I can’t go back home carrying her pain in my backpack. I promised to leave her pain atop the mountain. I curse myself for making promises, I now, have to keep.

Over the years, I’ve seen myself as an atheist. Not tonight. My body is my God. I pray to it fervently. I make deals with my knees, negotiate rewards with my back, cross my heart and hope to die with my shoulders. I have random thoughts. The Empire Carpet tv commercial: 1800-588-2300 Empiiiire!! I think of my dogs, both dead now. Tiramisu. Brad Pitt’s amazing lips in Thelma and Louise. The striking realization that the three of us are about the same height and wear the same shoe size. Dolphins are assholes: gangs of male bottlenose dolphins isolate a single female from the pod and force themselves on her. I want these two women in my life until the day I die. Gnurr: the lint that collects in the bottom of our pockets. Edith Piaf. Non, rien de rien/Non, je ne regrette rien/Ni le bien qu’on m’a fait/lalalalalalaaaaaah. I do long divisions in my head and recite the 12 times table. Occasionally, it occurs to me that I wouldn’t mind falling over, break a bone, and be evacuated perfectly horizontal, swaddled like a baby, my body mercifully immobilized and bound to a rescue stretcher. A heavenly fantasy. Anything is better than this agonizing incline. I want to stop and tell Jules and Usa how much I love them. That’d be weird. Camels have three eyelids. The day Usa announced that she was moving abroad, I went home and cried for hours. Should I tell her now? My daughter’s tiny fingers playing Chopin’s Nocturnes on a baby Grand. Usa, Jules, hear me out: we are a gang of wild women. We need to remain together so in twenty years, we can reminisce over a glass of wine about that night when we were crazy enough to climb to the top of kili. We haven’t showered in over a week. Do we smell? I think about my friend Hector, bound to a wheel chair for the last 35 years. Wouldn’t he kill to be in my position? To be able to stand upright and bend his knees and haul the weight of his own body, step after step, all the way to this monster’s crest?

We reach 18,650 feet, Gilman’s Point, a false summit that brings no joy. “Congratulations,” Ezekiel says pointing at the wooden signpost. Later, we make it to Stella Point, and forty-five minutes after leaving Stella Point, we have a glimpse of the summit in the distance. Lots of tiny bodies gather around the Uhuru Peak sign far and up, up, up there where my legs don’t want to go. On the left is what remains of the disappearing Kilimanjaro Glaciers. Scattered chunks of white walls flank our path to the summit, the sun now hitting our backs hard. The summit in sight. I’m almost there. We are almost there. Jules, Usa: we made it.

The last two yards are tough. My heart wants to stand at the summit; my legs refuse to cooperate. I stop and take a deep breath. C’mon legs. My thoughts seem distant and a little scattered. Jules asks me if I’m okay. I don’t have the energy to explain that my heart and legs are at a standoff. I nod and mumble, You? She removes her balaclava and gives me a faint smile. Yes. And then I see the summit in front of us. A simple wooden sign that marks Uhuru Peak is a stack of off-centered boards bolted across two poles. Anticlimactic, nowhere near as majestic as I imagined, but, oh so beautiful.

“Congratulations. Congratulations,” Ezekiel says, waving us to the signpost. “Ma’velous, ma’velous,” he says again, his arms wide open ready for a group hug. Usa, Jules and I stand atop Kilimanjaro. We are all smiles and tears. We are tiny. A few thousand feet below us, a thick layer of cotton-white clouds forms the vastest horizon I’ve ever seen. Now, with the sun burning our eyes like cigarettes, what was all black on the way up is now an old glacier, a mile-and-a-half-wide crater, and without a doubt, the tallest mountain we have ever been on.

I have dreamed about this moment for months. In my dreamed summit, time was elastic. Generous enough to gift us a private moment, long enough for us to peel off layer after layer of fresh wounds, old scars, you know, the stuff ageing mothers are made of and leave the monsters of our hearts behind. But Uhuru Peak belongs to everyone. We stand in a crowd, fatigue-blasted into a kind of hysterical rush to be photographed at the sign, to touch the inscribed boards with numb, but victorious fingers, as we smile the dumb smile that says: See how tough I am? We stand by the sign, hug each other, eyes misty with exhaustion and reverence, and sport our Warrior Women stance. There isn’t time for much else, because it is too cold and too dangerous to remain at this altitude for more than a few minutes.

I’m exuberantly proud of our accomplishment. It is true: We are not young. Our bodies no longer turn heads. We have bad bones, sciatica issues, prolapsed bladders and saggy breasts. Yet, we have walked for ten consecutive hours, with no sleep, no food and no water. We are the toughest menopausal chicks you’ll ever meet. We’re da bomb. Someone at the bottom, please prepare a heroes’ homecoming.

Was it worth it? Yes. I have found something right at the edge of what I thought my body could do. What was the most gratifying part of this extremely crazy climb? The knowledge that I can do it, that I did it, that the hardest night of my life is over, and that I’ll never, ever, ever climb Kili again.

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BIO: Adriana Páramo

I am a cultural anthropologist, memoirist and women’s rights advocate.
I’m the author of two nonfiction books: “Looking for Esperanza,” winner of the 2011 Social Justice and Equity Award in Creative Nonfiction, and “My Mother’s Funeral,” a CNF work set in Colombia. My work has won numerous awards and honors, including multiple Pushcart Prize nominations, been featured in the 2015 Best American Travel Writing, and noted in The Best American Essays of 2012, 2013 and 2014. In 2014, I was named as one of the top ten Latino authors in the USA.
I teach Creative Nonfiction in the low-residency MFA program at Fairfield University. I’m an alumna of the travel writing workshop of VONA—Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation—a community of writers of color.
I currently write from Qatar where, oddly enough, I work as a yoga and Zumba instructor. If I’m not teaching yoga, CNF or Latin dances, I’m traveling. I try to keep a travel blog at: http://www.paramoadriana.com/travel-blog.