Ana's Climb Up Mount Kilimanjaro
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Note from the Executive Director. A few months ago, I was sitting down with Ana in my office discussing her and her mother’s plan to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. Her mother had been an 8-year board member of our branch, as president and treasurer, and Ana a Miles for Mental Health run volunteer. Ana wanted to tie in their climb to mental health by writing a blog about her life with her father, who had bipolar disorder. Shortly after this discussion, Ana herself had a manic episode and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She was hospitalized and treated, but courageously decided to carry on with her plans anyway, notwithstanding the stresses that the travel and altitude would put on her newly fragile mental stability. The rest is her story.
I am happy to submit a brief summary of my Climb for Mental Health to this newsletter.
Now that I am back from Tanzania, everything is slowly sinking in. I was at the top of Africa over a week ago. And it was amazing and very surreal. I’m not even sure where to start—with the country, culture, nature, or the people that I met during the days I was there. Everyone has a great time on trips abroad but explaining that greatness is more difficult.
On my way there I was aware about my setbacks. Lithium, the circadian rhythm, and a new environment. We arrived at midnight and had an hour's drive into town. Pitch black the entire way I sat in the front seat, on the left hand side (remembering this was once a British colony), imagining the landscape. The next day we walked into the centre of the city (Arusha) and wandered around the streets and the massive market that was mostly outdoors. Amazing! The frenzy and chaos combined with a lively spirit was seen everywhere. It reminded me of Cambodia. But this time I wasn’t on the brink of mania; I was stable. Enough. I felt like depression ended for me at the end of June. Close call since we left on July 3rd.
The safari trip was unreal. The Serengeti is named that for a reason (literally meaning "vast plains"). I have never seen anything like it before and probably won’t ever see anything like it again. The flora, the fauna, everything about that four day experience was new and exciting. The trees were out of this world; Acacias, Baobabs, and beyond. I love trees and I was in tree heaven. But my human geography side kicked in and I could not help but find the political complexities of the national parks and conservation areas unsettling. I don’t want to just be here on a vacation, ignoring the issues at hand. So I learned as much as I could from anyone that was local that was willing to talk to me. I listened and wrote a lot. But this paragraph isn’t supposed to be about my international community development interests but about mental health. However, it was being there and having those conversations that reignited my passion for my future aspirations. Get going, get it together, there is work to be done.
As eye opening as the safari was, it was a toll on my mental well being. Being in a jeep for four days straight wasn’t easy. I have enough patience to sit in places for prolonged periods of time (getting from Vancouver to the Kilimanjaro airport took a total of 25 hours) but that was too much. By the last day I was really ready to start the hike. I gained a whole newfound appreciation for movement. Walking, running, hiking, whatever. Exercising took on a whole new meaning for me. So a couple of days later I went from one extreme to the other. Bipolar, no pun intended. My mom and I began a 100 kilometre journey. Hiking Mount Kilimanjaro. We were in a group of twelve, and we all managed to get along really well, which was wonderful since we were about to spend the next six days together.
We hiked six to seven hour days, every day, gaining new elevation and slowly acclimatizing. We were on the Machame route, the hardest but most scenic way to get to the top. The landscape was constantly changing, from one ecosystem to another. The path started in the rainforest. Of course, jungle in this case but it reminded me of home, hiking through the red cedar forests. Sub-alpine and alpine regions followed with vegetation indigenous and unique to that area. I learned new facts from the porters and guide whenever possible. The entire mountain was truly enchanting, with amazing sunrises, sunsets, and celestial skies.
However, with all of this beauty there was some hard work to be done. The longest stretch to get to the top and then down to our last camp was the most difficult. Not technically, but physically. We had a seven hour hike until the base camp, where we had four hours until our last ascent began. All together, 30 hours of hiking in a 36 hour period. And those six hours were spent eating, preparing, and resting; albeit the resting did not include sleeping. I was just about to attempt to summit. The ultimate goal of this climb, of any hiker really. To stand at the top and be rewarded with a spectacular view. The last thing I could do is have a three hour nap.
So at midnight we started our hike, a few hours after I took my lithium dose. By now it kicked in and my body was telling me to chill out. I didn’t consider this night climb when doing my Diamox (altitude sickness pill) trial tests in June (to see if Diamox would have an adverse effect on lithium). Well, too late now. The final ascent began. It was between -5 and -10 degrees Celsius. Not incredibly cold but the lack of cloud cover and areas with ridges did not help. After 30 minutes I had come to the conclusion that I had never been so cold in my life. Ever. Despite having five layers on, two pairs of gloves, and a toque, I was still cold. To make matters more fun I had forgotten to pack my down jacket. My backpack was loaded with everything else but that. Great, another seven hours to go. How am I going to manage this? It would be ridiculous if I don’t make it to the top because of the cold. Seven hours to go. So I admired the scenery. I didn’t need a headlamp because the moonlight was so bright I could see everything. It was beautiful, we could not have asked for better weather. It was a bittersweet feeling, a clear sky. So cold, but so captivating.
When the scenery could not deflect from the cold, I started listening to music; eventually the iPod battery died, and I shifted over to conversations. Those were minimal, as we were all trying to restore any energy for the rest of the trip. I had a few moments of dizziness where I decided to take another Diamox pill. Eventually I felt better but the shivering never stopped and the great urge for the sun to rise was stronger than ever.
By four in the morning, my mom decided she wanted to go at a slower pace, and not with the rest of the group, so as not to inconvenience the others. The good friend I made on the trip was also there with his mom so the four of us stayed behind. We managed, although it was hard for us since we had been ahead of the group in the previous days, and got used to a faster pace. However, the slower pace was not a bad idea as gaining too much elevation too quickly can make you not acclimatize properly and leave you feeling tired, nauseated, and dizzy, especially over 5000 metres.
The last half hour to Stella’s Point was probably the hardest part of the entire trip. I took out my heavier camera, with the bigger lens and all, to photograph the sunrise. I will never see this scene again exactly like this. Each moment is different and I want to remember this one, more than just in the mind. So I pressed the button and it wouldn’t work. I start laughing. Of course it doesn’t work. I couldn’t decide if I was more frustrated at carrying the camera all the way up here or at taking my backpack off, opening it and taking the camera out. That was a LOT of effort. I took out my smaller camera, and it worked. Okay, at least I have a few photos. They may not be as "nice" but I’m alright with it.
I was exhausted by the time I put everything in my bag and back on my shoulders. I could see the plateau. Ugh, when will I reach it?! This is the never ending trek! I finally made it and my friend and I were cheering, as much as we could as we still had another half an hour to Uhuru Peak. The highest part of the mountain. Yup, still not over yet. "Want to run up to the top? I’ll race you!", I said to him. "Are you kidding?! We’d die," he replied. So we passed by one row of hikers and then were about to pass another, but I stopped my friend, half out of breath, put my ego to the side and said, "Wait, I can’t pass them too. Let’s take a break, somewhere with no wind, if that exists up here." He laughed and we found a few rocks to rest on. The sun was up by now but it was still freezing. Our faces were pale, lips were burnt and mauve by this point, we looked like death. It was then that I began wondering why people do this. Why put your body through this? And people think manic phases are crazy. I beg to differ.
A gruelling half hour later, what seemed like a life time at this point, we made it to Uhuru. 5,895 metres. The top of a continent. Surreal. Looking over at the glaciers, the savannah, Moshi in the distance, the other peaks... the glaciers. Yes, I did mean to repeat myself. I am glad that I have seen them now, before they disappear, since they are melting at a rapid rate and will soon be gone. Apparently they will only be around for five more years. Our moms made it up shortly after and were equally as excited to have made it this far. We hugged, took photos, and enjoyed the moment.
Now what? Oh yes, we have to get back down. So this time I didn’t wait around for my mom and went ahead to get to base camp and relax. I was exhausted. But I still managed to move my legs, almost mechanically by this point. Going down, we half slid down the gravel, the angle was steep. I cannot believe we hiked all of this in that little time. 1,200 metres in those hours. No wonder we start at midnight. Moonlight does have its limitations. So no one really sees the top clearly or the pathway to gauge the insanity that lies ahead. And the guide explained to us that this is exactly why this happens. It’s not about seeing the sunrise or any other romanticized notion I imagined. It’s about the success rate. A lot more people who hike during the day give up because they can see what’s ahead. Makes sense.
All in all, I don’t know if words could ever fully describe this experience. No matter how detailed or precise they may be. It was a personal milestone and I have come out stronger from it. My confidence increased just a bit more... the only way it could, by proving myself wrong through eliminating self doubts and fears and replacing them with goals, actions, and accomplishments.