Hiking all day with nothing in sight but the snow-capped summit miles away, my mind would wander because it felt effortless at the time and strangely the summit was far from my thoughts. I quickly learned that my dry sense of humor translated well in Swahili, as we all shared deep belly laughs with our guides. I saw my friends and I get more in tune with each other, because the closer we got to basecamp, the more emotions and symptoms started to show.
When we reached base camp at just over 15,000 feet, the energy shifted. It was 6pm, we had a few hours to eat and sleep, with a wake-up time of midnight and on trail by 1am. As we waited for the bunks to open up from previous climbers, I jogged a few meters to carry something to a friend, and when I got there, I could barely catch my breath. In a matter of seconds, I was reminded how high I was; higher than I had ever been in my life. When I woke up at midnight, I put on every article of clothing in my bag, and stepped out into the darkness and roaring wind. Linked with my 3 closest friends, we closed our eyes and held each other, and I started to cry. 10 hours later, linked once more, but this time in front of the Uhuru Peak summit sign, we cried some more at 19,341’ feet. Those 10 hours were full of begging for the sun to rise for a little heat to warm my body, dry-heaving on all fours fighting altitude sickness, singing in Swahili from our guides, and telling each other that we could take another step through tears and half-hearted smiles.
Walking down was like walking out of a dream. I can’t really remember how I felt because all I remember were the smiles and laughing. Looking back at photos now, I can see, oh yeah that did happen, I was there. We joked about the pain and struggle just hours before, like it was months ago. It’s amazing how quickly your body recovers as you get more oxygen, and what was truly the hardest physical task of my life suddenly felt like an out of body experience. Right before we dipped back into the rainforest, I peeked over my shoulder to say ‘goodbye’ to the mountain, but if I am truly being honest, it was more of a ‘thank you’.
When I got home and started unpacking, everything felt a little different than when I tore the tags off the new gear, stuffing it into a new bag. It felt heavy with some newly earned memories. It was covered in volcanic ash and it was worn-in, just the right amount. Maybe it sounds a little silly, but when I see them now, I get the feels – those are the Keb pants I summited Kilimanjaro in. I know most of me came down off that mountain, but I think I left a little piece of my heart up there.
Ally Coucke Instagram