Mountain is Mountain. Life is Life.

A decade and a half of marriage. We thought, what better way to mark this milestone than to trek side- by-side, stand together above the clouds and watch a technicolor sunrise on the highest peak in Africa. The mighty mistress Kilimanjaro. Why the hell not? We have always wanted to set our feet upon her soil. So, that’s precisely what we set out to do together. Months of preparation, hundreds of hours of training and a hellacious five flights later, we find ourselves in Moshi, Tanzania.

Completely exhausted, freshly showered and packed to the gills with first world accoutrements, we set off for the trail head. It’s worth mentioning at this point that the Type A {productive badass} side of me had been hard at work over the preceding weeks – making lists, checking boxes, driving those around me bat shit crazy and just getting ‘er done. The Procrasti-hater had been successfully exterminated. Ok, ok…maybe exterminated is a tad bit overzealous – it was more like the sinister impediment to my optimal productive badass-ness had been regulated to a dark basement, forced to wear a white moo-moo with pale purple flowers, gorge out on week old blueberry donuts, commune with the rats and eat powdered sugar with a spoon. However you wanna call it, she was firmly out of the picture.

The incessant list making and checking made it possible for us to step away from our life for a few weeks and had gotten us where we wanted to be – ready to take on Kilimanjaro. The goal was firmly in sight, get these feet of ours to 19,341 feet. We were ready, so very ready.

Immediately, I found it almost impossible to contain the emotions that this place stirred in me. My first impressions were many, but what stood at the forefront was that this is a land of many contrasts.

Prolific brown dirt combined with magnificent color. Children caring for children in the morning sun. Traditional dress alongside a barefoot Disney princess. Women working their fingers to the bone. Tremendous natural and human beauty packaged in a way of life so very different from my own. Why had it taken me 39 years to come here?

I would soon learn that this strangely magnificent place would also force me to stare directly into the chasm that is the difference between my own expectations and reality. The route was Macheme and we had a solid plan for six days up and one day down. You know I like to keep things simple, so that’s seven days total.

Once at the gate, our porters organized the gear and food supplies. There would be two of us (clients) and ten of them (guides, assistant guides, cook, porters). Again with the simple arithmetic, that’s twelve in our group total. I found it so odd that we would not be carrying our own things. It seemed to me like we were in some way cheating our way to the top.

We were off  with about 7 hours of hiking ahead of us through the dense forest with monkeys serving as our watchmen. As we walked along the path, porters would come up and quickly blaze past us while balancing 30 – 50 lbs on their heads.

“Jambo, lady!”

[Insert the sound of my own huffing and puffing here, which of course we choose to blame on jet lag rather than admitting any physical shortcomings]

Just before sunset, we arrive at Macheme Camp at a mere 9,900 ft. I am already beginning to suspect that first world, sea-level dwelling may indeed make us genetically inferior human beings. The camp is well protected and tucked gracefully in the trees. As the sun sets, we enjoy our first tea in the mess tent by candlelight.

After some mighty fine food and good night’s sleep, it’s time to head out.

The porters break down camp and we set off for the next stop – Shira Camp at around 12,000 ft. Today will be a much shorter day with only 4-5 hours on the trail.

The scenery is much different as we hike through the low alpine or heather zone. The trail is rocky and steep surrounded by various low grasses, trees and shrubs.

These haunting moss-covered trees blowing in the alpine mist define the mood and experience of Day Two on Kilimanjaro.

And once again we are lapped by porters burdened with camp supplies on their backs. Scaling these trails with only a glimmer of effort.

We arrive to Shira Camp in the mid-afternoon just before the rain. Much more exposed, we spend a cold night in this wide open place with the summit behind us.

And Mt. Meru in the distance.

On Day Three, we move much slower – pole, pole. It almost feels like we are moving in slow motion. The landscape now looking more like what I imagine the surface of the moon to be like. The trail is much less steep as we make our way across a vast plateau. The summit ahead of us the whole time, shrouded in a blanket of mist.

And our guide Babuu was ever so patient as we worked our way slowly up.

The highest point of the day was Lava Tower at just over 15,000 ft. I remember feeling like a bit of a space cadet as we finished the trudge up to this rock tower. I was fully aware that I was walking, but felt the subtle sensation like I was disassociated from my body.

We lunch in the shadow of this ancient rock tower and then begin the lumbering 2-hour descent in an ice storm through a forest of giant Senecio trees until we reached Barranco Camp. After almost 7 hours on the trail, we would sleep a mere 200 feet higher than we did the night before.

It was at Barranco that we got our first up close and personal look at the summit. It was right there, so close. Looming overhead and peeking through the eternal mist. Another beautiful day behind us and all is going to according to plan.

I should probably explain something here. Being goal oriented has always been, at least in my world view, framed as a good thing. Establish your objective, make a plan and simply do it. You see, failure was never an option.

That was until Barranco.

Rene went to bed very early, not feeling well at all. I stayed up and finished dinner with Derkjan, a fellow trekker from The Netherlands. It was a long and cold night and outside our tent, I could hear the wretching of the others dealing with their own little slice of high altitude pie. Hell, I even had a little bit of rumbly in my tumbly too. We were exhausted, but something much more serious was going on. Rene was having severe chest pains and shortness of breath. Sure, he had these sometimes at home, but nothing like this. These pains continued all through the night, but we agreed that we would wait and see how he felt in the morning, blissfully unaware that we were about to be let loose on a very different course entirely.

In the morning, there was no question that we must descend immediately. The pains were intensifying and we couldn’t risk a cardiac event this far away from it all. A decision was made and we informed our guide Babuu of our intentions.

The disappointment was palpable, written in capital letters with a jumbo black marker across our faces.  All I could think was – we failed. A mental battle was waging. We were so close to achieving our goal. Like so close I could taste it and it tasted strangely like cucumber soup.

Then Babuu said something…

“Mountain is mountain. Life is life.”

These were immensely wise words which my reptilian brain wanted to dismiss in favor of the much more toxic mental combination of pride, determination and self-obsession. Sure I was slightly hypoxic, but more so I was myopic – I wanted to get to the top of that damn mountain.

But, what are we even climbing for anyway? The sole reason I was even there was hurting. And I mean, really hurting. I knew what we needed to do, but I hated myself for the thoughts that were dancing through my head. It was then that I learned about the fine line between rabid determination and taking things too far. This is the line that gets people killed – just at that moment when the thirst for victory shoves reason in the throat.

It is only a mountain and Babuu understood this. There is so much more to it all than that cloud covered piece of rock. So, we took this picture, packed up and began the next part of our journey.

Together we waited for the helicopter rescue that never came.
Together we nursed our individual thoughts of failure and disappointment.
Together we gained awareness of the deliberate choice we made to come here and the choice we make now to save the summit for another day.
Together we learned about the dreams, hopes and sorrows of those who would help us.
Together we met people who do amazing things.
Together we benefitted from the “super duper” kindness of others.
That night, together with eight new friends, we came down the Umbwe route of the mighty Kilimanjaro without seeing our technicolor sunrise above the clouds. The monkeys now playing night watchmen over our jungle descent. After 7 hours of trekking straight down, our knees were screaming obscenities at us. For most of the descent, Rene walked ahead with his arm over the shoulder of Babuu along with two others. I followed with a group of guardians catching my every fall and reminding me…pole…pole. Both of us trapped in our own individual world of disappointment and failed expectations. During the final hour, we were able to once again walk together arm and arm with our mental voices held at bay. We emerged together from the trail at 1am – exhausted and relieved.
We later learned that Rene suffered a pulmonary embolism that night at Barranco. We know now that we made the right choice and, although we didn’t stand together upon the top, we had an altogether different journey. Like I said before, this is indeed a land of contrasts. Contrasts too vast and too many to count.
Expectation. Thirst. Fear. Determination. Disappointment. Friendship.  All real things made sharper and more intense along the trails of Kilimanjaro. It is simply a cloud covered rock in East Africa, but for us, it is an enchanted place that lies at the intersection of stark and contrast – embodying and magnifying the simple complexities of life.
Mountain is mountain. Life is life.
To those who helped us when we needed it most – asante sana.
Special Note:
I would like to express our most sincere gratitude to the people of Zara Tours and the Springlands Hotel in Moshi. Zainab Ansell has built the most amazing team of people and showed Rene and I unparalleled kindness during an uncertain time. We would also like to thank Babuu and the Rescue Team at Barranco Huts, Kilimanjaro, for their hospitality and gracious support. We also wish to thank Kurt Wedburg of Sierra Mountaineering International for helping us to make the best decisions in a moment when we were unable to think clearly and Dr Greg Higgins of the Kilimanjaro Orphanage Center for his quick assessment of Rene’s condition when we arrived back into Moshi.

33 Comments on “Mountain is Mountain. Life is Life.”

  1. westerner54 says:

    What a great tale, told beautifully.

  2. Christine Rogers says:

    You guys are modern day heroes to yourselves, kids and each other. You accomplished way more than your original goal.

  3. michel says:

    wow, what an amazing story, which I think at then end will enrich your lives more than any summit or sunrise. Congrats on making a great journey out of life.

  4. This was so amazing to read, Amber. You guys are a great couple. I can’t wait to read more.

  5. Diane Collins Wagner says:

    Wow! What an amazing journey. Rene and I went to grade school together…ummm too many moons ago to count. It is so incredible to see how each of us grew up and the amazing experiences we have had. Thank you for sharing this!

  6. Christine says:

    Wow! Incredibly written and told and I love the images. What an amazing journey and amazing awareness that came from it. I hope to one day make it to Africa. You are a beautiful couple and I am glad that you turned around and took care of each other. Babuu shared some very wise words. I really do believe that it is always much more about the journey itself than the final destination.

    Wishing you both many more enriching journeys ahead.

  7. Kiersten Humbert says:

    I have the feeling this is just one of the many “mountains” you and Rene will climb together. The love and respect that you have for each other is rare and golden…and larger than any mountain you will ever climb. Thanks for sharing your story friend!

  8. Edward Mrx says:

    Inspirational on many levels. You conquered more than a mountain!

  9. Irum says:

    You were born to write, Amber. Storytelling is an art form that you have mastered. I’m happy that you were able to make the journey to East Africa (my mom was born in Kenya, but I have never been there). Many of my Kenyan relatives that reside in Canada have the ability to break down the most profound life lessons into simple one liners (much like “Mountain is mountain. Life is life.”) I’m always left in awe of their outlook on life.

    I am so glad that Rene is alright and that both of you made it back to Texas safely and in good health. Life really is about the journey and not so much about the destination.

    I wish you and Rene many more years of wedded bliss and adventure together.

    • Thanks for your kind words, Irum. Simple wisdom is indeed a gift that I often lack. Those whom I met in Africa. however, have an abundance. It is a magical place and one that I cannot wait to return to and share with our kids. Hope all is well out West!

  10. Maria C. Gracia says:

    Mi hijita, you are truly a wonderful storyteller. I love your writing and how you enriched the story with such beautiful photographs! It was an amazing accomplishment what you two did. It marvels me that such simple and incredible persons can have such a deep understanding of life and what it is really important. Babuu’s words are so true and valuable. It really puts in perspective what is important. You guys might have not reached the tip of the mountain, but you strenghtened your love and relationship even more. I can’t express how proud I am of the both of you. ILU 😉

  11. jacob stapp says:

    It’s still a journey even if you don’t end up where you planned, right?
    Mountain may be mountain, but mountain will still one day be conquered.
    Keep writing, and keep climbing, Gracia!

  12. Mike says:

    Glad y’all saw something bigger than the technicolor sunrise.

  13. Mike says:

    And we never really conquer mountains IMHO. Just visit for a moment and humbled by the perspective.

  14. Anwar says:

    First time I came upon your blog. Wow what an amazing story. It takes a lot to turn back even if you know it is the right thing to do. Really well told and engaging.

  15. Mayra says:

    Wow Gracias!! This is an amazing story!!

  16. Michael Criqui says:

    So glad you made it down safely. It was a pleasure making your acquaintance.

  17. […] done anything like it and was all in. There was plenty of time for training and with that other little challenge we had planned, I thought I would be in prime shape. Here he is in seasonal attire. How could I […]

  18. So moved. And love the visuals as part of the story. You are a writer. And you are my hero.

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