There is life on Mars—I know because I am here.
There is water on Mars, too—I know because I am wet.
I cannot see the rain in the foggy glow of my sunglasses, but I can feel it—like icicle acupuncture on my face.
I left Horombo at half past eight this morning, trudging over rounded stones, up, up the hill and over the crest and into The Saddle I had seen yesterday. Already, my breath was heavy and hard. I made my steps smaller, walked purposefully, stone by stone.
Within the hour we reached a stark, cinematically-tilted wooden sign sticking out of a mossy puddle that read Last Water Point, which I believe is Swahili for “Turn Back Now” (rough translation).
I filled up all my bottles with tea-colored water, added the iodine tablets kindly provided me by the ever-pleasant National Geographic nurse, and then tread onwards, higher and higher.
At this point, something happened. I am not sure if it was the thin air, or the strangeness of being isolated on all sides by the tops of the clouds—but suddenly, the entire Earth unfolded before me—a glorious deep red-brown against a Kool-Aid blue sky.
I turned to make sure everyone had seen it—but I was alone. Well, faithful Zachary stood next to me but he was looking at his feet only, setting a slow pace for me to follow.
There was Kilimanjaro—immense—and then, like a painted backdrop in a school play, a dusty trail that swirled just so, disappearing beyond the higher horizon. The road to heaven, I thought—not all white with angels, but red and vast and silent.
Neither Zachary nor I spoke for an hour—we only scuffled our feet across the high mountain plain, feeling every foot of great distance before us. This was the traveling part of travel—not the beginning and not the end—the great and undefined middle.
Everything was desert—only the dust of the red planet swirling up from the six-inch high shrubbery. We walked another hour in silence—not even when the rain arrived so gently did we speak. The mood was serious, our goal defined—slow speed ahead.
The sun came and clouds fought for attention, hot and cold, changing the colors of the landscape from deep umber to an almost-glowing crimson, but in the end, the darker charcoal mist overwhelmed us and I listened to every drop hit my raincoat.
So it rains on Mars, I thought. I must tell NASA.
After hours alone, I saw two ghosts pop up on the ridge—a pair of black shrouds billowing in the growing mountain storm. Soon they turned to four and popped into focus—another team bustling downhill with a stretcher. This time it was harder than last because I knew the guy—a fellow American I’d met on the trail but who did not chose to take the extra day to acclimatize. He made it most of the way, but when he began coughing up fluid, they sent him back down.
You can never really say why one person makes it and another doesn’t. Such is the random challenge of Kilimanjaro—you can prepare, you can make good decisions, but then for whatever reason, it just doesn’t work out. I have accepted this—I think you have to accept that you might not make it.
The sight of a peer getting carried off the mountain was quite sobering. Our five-minute rest stop at Kibo Pass was no pick-me-up, either. In great contrast to the beauty of the day, I soon found myself in a post-apocalpytic wasteland of shadowed boulders and dense fog, livened up only by the creepy white-necked ravens who hopped about ominously, as if looking for bones to pick.
And yet, not five hundred meters up the trail and I began greeting all the other hikers who had made the peak and were making their way back down with smiles and serenity. “Good luck!” they shouted. “You’ll make it!” they encouraged. Somehow their gift of positivity made me feel better and more confident.
On cue, the sun re-emerged, brightening the final stretch of path uphill to Kibo Hut. After five hours of hiking, I reached my goal. I write this at 15,500 ft (4,750 m) where I think the cold grilled cheese I am eating (with cloves?) is about the greatest thing I’ve ever tasted. Though if you handed me cornhusks right now now, I think I’d eat them with a smile.
Decreased appetite is one of the signs of altitude malaise, so I’m happy to report that we’re doing okay in that department. Although, as I was ripping open my long-treasured can of Pringles (purchased at sea level), I forgot about the whole principle of air expanding so that instead of a pleasant pop, the can actually exploded, plastering my grizzled face with tiny shards of cheddar cheese potato chips.
Thus begins the nervous wait before my ascent—after an early supper, I will go to bed for a few hours, then awake before midnight, put on every item of clothing I have with me (including down jacket, wool socks and a face mask), then begin a starry slog up the steepest and final stretch of my climb. Another 4,000 feet of altitude remain to be walked and I intend to do it, one small step at a time. If I fail to make it—I will not be upset. For me, hiking Kilimanjaro has so little to do with the summit and everything to do with the journey. I am so glad for where this trip has taken me—for the dramatic landscapes I crossed today and all the ruddy characters I have met along the way.
I imagine that reaching the summit will be nice, but I can’t be sure that it shall be more spectacular than what I have already seen.
After all, I have spent the day on Mars.