Whoosh! Issue 38 - November 1999

Alzheimers, Mt. Kilimanjaro, Xena, And Me: A Journal

Uhuru Bound: Monday, 08/30/99, 10:30pm

[122] It's 10:30 pm and I'm on my way back from my second trip to the outhouse. As I suspected, Sandy and I haven't had any real sleep. We did doze for about an hour between phone calls. I am thrilled right now because the clouds and sleet have blown over and it is a beautiful, clear night. The moon is blinding, so bright that I don't need to even use my headlight to make my way across camp. I peer up at the outline of Uhuru and try to imagine myself on the summit in a few hours. I see myself standing on top, very happy. And then I try to imagine what it's going to be like getting to that point and draw a blank. Maybe it's better that way.

[123] I lay in the dark of the tent and concentrate on getting my breathing back under control. The simple act of taking my runners off has left me panting. I am aware that I have an uncomfortable feeling in my stomach and a growing headache. Only a few minutes later, I hear Sue waking everyone up. It's time! We all scramble out of bed in slow motion. Does that make sense? Our movements have urgency and yet are very deliberate. We seem more calm than excited - I think it's because we are apprehensive over what awaits us.

[124] Everyone is ready in a matter of minutes. Our backpacks are as light as possible - mine has my water sack, my special package and a handful of drugs in it and yet it still feels heavy. I have tucked extra batteries and videotape in my polar fleece vest under my coat.

[125] We meet inside the hut, where Frederick has cookies and tea waiting. I can't even take a sip. I am now feeling very nauseous, as are Nic and Sandy. We are chewing Pepto at a rapid rate - the idea of "take 2 tablets every 4 hours" goes out in the window in a desperate bid to feel better.

[126] Sue gathers us all together outside. In a wonderful bit of understatement, she says "It's a lovely night for a little stroll. Remember, the summit is optional, the descent is not." Meaning, we all have to come back in one piece.

Watch that first step - it's a lulu!

The view from the summit, Uhuru

Reaching The Summit: Tuesday, 08/31/99

[127] And so we begin. It's midnight as we fall into line and start to weave our way up the mountain. There are a couple of other smaller groups leaving around the same time, all of us shuffling along in the dark. Our bobbing headlights make me feel even sicker but thankfully we soon realize we don't need them for illumination. The light from the moon is so strong that it is casting shadows on the ground. My headache is slightly relieved once the pressure from the headlamp has been removed. I keep looking up at the moon and think of Doug also looking up at that same moon. I try to gain some strength from picturing him. I try to imagine the moonbeams are bathing me in energy from him. Anything to get my mind off of how hard it is to breathe.

[128] What I would have described as a crisp, pleasant night quickly degenerates as the wind picks up and it turns brutally cold. I'm alarmed when I find my water pipe freezing up. I can barely suck any water out of it. In the next half-hour, it freezes solid. I have no choice. I remove the platypus from my backpack and stuff the whole thing down my shirt to thaw it out.

[129] Hour after hour, we plod along. We have been taught that the best way to walk is to plant each foot deliberately. We end up resembling a zombie wedding march.

[130] We are all in our own personal war with fatigue. No one is complaining out loud, yet the faces say it all. I have a headache and feel terribly nauseous, as does Nic Campbell. He and I check in with each other at every break. Matt asks me how I feel and I reply "I just wish I could throw up. I'm sure I'd feel better". But I don't mean it. None of us wants to be the first to throw up. I just imagine how the horrible retching sound would reverberate and echo across the mountain. Matt tells me that it will make me feel better to focus on my breathing and keeping it regular.

[131] During one of our breaks, as Nic hangs over his ski poles and I lean back against a rock, Don comes up and says that he's rapidly joining us in nausea. In fact, he looks terrible. I hope I don't look that bad.

[132] We are behind schedule. A couple of our team members are slower than others and require frequent breaks. The problem for the rest of us is that this throws our whole tempo off. It's when we stop that I feel the worst and my breathing screws up. I hear Nancy and Peg also saying that it's hard on them when we stop.

[133] I soon find I can only keep one thought in my head at a time. It is "breathe in through my nose, out through my mouth". If I start to think about anything else, I start to pant and breathe erratically. When Seamus had reviewed our climb, he suggested that we count steps to help us set goals. Count out 100 steps and then take a rest. I don't need to do that. I have basically hypnotized myself with my breathing mantra. I am not really aware of much else. Occasionally, I throw back my hood and look around, to see if there is anything interesting in the landscape that I should be committing to memory. I never look up.

[134] After a few hours, Don throws up. Again and again. Strangely, I feel a little better just hearing him retch. Don is congratulated on breaking the ice for the rest of us but he doesn't look happy.

[135] We pass a couple of people from the other group who are stopped along the side, a man vomiting while a woman stands beside him, pretending that she is not bothered by his unfortunate state.

[136] I know we are coming to the time when some of my Xenite friends are going to astral project to meet me on the mountain. I try to open my mind to the thought. I imagine they are there, cheering me on. I think of each of their names to inspire me. I picture the faces of the ones I know personally. It picks up my spirit. And then I can't think of them anymore because I have to return to the task of breathing.

[137] In and out. In and out. In and out.

[138] I am taking one breath for every step. My nose is running but I don't care. I have closed my hood so tightly around my face that there is only a small slit to see out of. My world consists entirely of the heels of the person in front of me. I'm thinking this is pretty brutal.

[139] At 4:30 am Sandy is supposed to do a live hit on Global News at 6 in Vancouver. She isn't feeling well at all, so I've been keeping track of the time to remind her. At 4:25, we need to call but she can't remember where she left the phone. Oh yes, she gave it to one of the African guides. A frantic few minutes ensue, as we try to determine which guide has it. Finally Frederick finds it and we dial the number. When the news producer answers, she says "oh good, we're coming to you in 15 seconds". Half way around the world and we manage to time it perfectly! Even though she is sick, Sandy goes into automatic PR mode and does a great job with the hit. I pull out the video camera from inside my coat to shoot her in action, but find that it is frozen solid. Yikes! I stuff it down the inside of all my shirts, right next to my body and hope it will thaw out by the time we get to the summit.

Sorry, can't make a joke about this: it's too gorgeous

The most beautiful sunrise I've ever seen - at Gillman's, near 19,000 ft.
[140] Lizbet is just about spent. She is moving very slowly. And we are falling further behind schedule. We have been traveling along and stopping to let her catch up. Now Sue tries another strategy. She puts Lizbet at the front and has her helped by the guides. This will make all of us travel at her pace. It is very slow but I'm not complaining. I'm actually starting to feel better. My nausea is subsiding, as is Nic's. Unfortunately, Don's has intensified and I hear Sue telling Matt that she is feeling weak and drained. I close my eyes and I actually fall asleep for a couple of seconds. It would be pleasant just to drift off here...

[141] Matt encourages us to hand off our backpacks to an African guide if we find them too heavy. Most people do but I am determined to carry my own to the top. I don't even know why.

[142] We all continue our slow plod upwards. We are getting close to Gillman's Point but Matt and Sue are concerned because clouds seem to have closed in. The weather may not be good enough for us to try the summit. They say they will assess it once we get to Gillman's. I am thinking to myself "I didn't come all this way not to go to the summit!"

[143] The sky seems to be getting lighter. I have no concept of time anymore. I am moving automatically, one foot in front of the other.

[144] We stop for a final time just 40 feet below Gillman's Point. The earth turns just enough for the sun to peek over the horizon. We are in awe as one of the most beautiful sunrises we will ever witness warms our souls. The Saddle far, far below shows us how far we've come. Across from us, we can look down on the 16,893 foot summit of Mawenzi. We are at 18,600 feet. I pull out the camera and capture some of the team's faces. Instead of shooting the sunrise, however, I actually gaze on it with my own eyes. I can see the curvature of the world and the pink hued clouds the sun continues to rise above. I savor it. I can't describe it accurately in words but know the memory will remain vivid for the rest of my life.

[145] We are newly energized. All of us except for Don, who continues to be sick, and Lizbet, whose face is etched with exhaustion. I turn the camera on myself and shoot a little bit of what my breathing sounds like (later, in the edit suite, coworkers remark that they wouldn't have recognized me if they didn't know my voice because I looked like I was 90 years old! Even I was surprised at how tired I looked). We are at the steepest part of the climb and scramble up the last 40 feet to Gillman's. By this point, I now understand why many people never make it to Uhuru. I'm wasted. Everyone hugs each other but the celebration is very muted. Some of us will be going on to the summit and some will not make it. Sue is staring off at the sunrise, crying. She is obviously remembering that last year she shared this moment with Jim.

[146] Matt and Sue determine that the weather has cleared nicely and those who are strong enough can carry on. Don, Lizbet and her husband Iain decide to go down, along with Sue, who says that she has lost her focus. We all look across the crater rim to the true summit, 2 km away. It looks very steep at the end. I briefly think to myself "you know, this is far enough...I think I'm too tired". (Everyone later admits they had the exact same thought). However, I remember the special reason I have for going all the way to the summit and I resolve to continue on. The Campbells, Sandy, Peg and Matt also decide to try for Uhuru.

[147] Before we leave, Sandy wants to have our picture taken with the Alzheimer banner on Gillman's with the whole team. Everyone is growing restless as the seconds tick by. It's very cold and we're all tired and growing cranky. Gord says "let's get going if we're gonna go". Frederick tries to feed us tea and cookies but I tell him I'll throw up if I do. He says I should have some because I need the strength and coaxes me into having two little sips. I do it to make him happy.

Last one up's a rotten egg

Nearing Gillman's
[148] After hugs and good wishes, we leave a part of our team behind and carry on. We are so tired from the climb already and not looking forward to going another two hours. We begin the slog to the summit. It's hard to describe the sensation of not being able to gain your breath, or panting so hard on even the slightest incline. All of us just put our heads down and march. Adding to the pressure, we are under a time deadline as well. We only have two hours to make the summit or we have to turn back because we still have to get back down in time for packing up the tents and going down to the Horombo Huts at 12,800 feet.

[149] The worst thing about the summit climb is how deceiving it is. You see a peak and think that is it, only to get to the top and be disappointed to find another peak behind. It seems endless. Finally, the one true summit looms ahead!!! We can tell because there is a large wooden sign erected at the very top. Once I see that sign in my sights, I have a big adrenaline rush. Finally, finally, finally - the summit! We made it! We stagger up to the sign that reads "Congratulations! You are now at Uhuru Peak, the highest point in Africa, 19,340 feet". I'm just elated that I have run out of mountain to climb.

ALL drinks are on the rocks here

Glacier view from Uhuru
[150] Nancy collapses into her son Jeff's arms, sobbing. The strain on the whole Campbell family has been immense. Because they are politically prominent, it would be news if they were to fail. Every interview that we have done ends with the question "and how is Gord doing?" The relief for them is very apparent.

[151] Sandy is almost in a stupor but valiantly tries to phone Global. We have promised them a call from the summit. After two attempts, she gives up. We find out later she was just placed on hold while they set up the record, but she didn't realize it and so she hung up.

[152] Matt, our guide, is saying "We can only spend ten minutes here. I have to get out of this altitude. I'm feeling really weird". This sends us scrambling! I throw myself on the ground and claw at my package, trying to unwrap it. I call to Frederick to help me. Finally, I pull out my prized cargo, my motivation for getting up here: my life-sized Xena standee! On the back of it are written all the names of the Xenites who wrote me kind words of support or pledged to the Alzheimer Society. I have brought them with me on this journey. Gord is incredulous. "You brought Xena all the way to the top of Kilimanjaro?!?!?" he sputters. Nic, it turns out, is a fan of the show and is whooping when he spies Xena. I get a couple of pictures taken with her and then throw the video camera at Jeff and ask him to roll. When I'm sure he is, I yell "Yes, it's true, I brought her all the way from Vancouver! And I'll auction her off to one lucky person. And now, the highest Xena yell in the world". I'm not sure I can do this. I don't know what's going to happen. I suck in as much air as possible and produce a passable Xena-yell. There is cheering all around. Matt says "I would have passed out if I tried that".

Easy for Xena to say - she rode piggyback all the way up

Xena at the summit.
To view this .mov you will need Quicktime 4.0. DOWNLOAD IT HERE.
[153] I look around to find Peg. Her father loved reading about this continent but never got to travel here. She has brought some of his ashes to bury on the roof of Africa, carrying them to the summit in a little box with a zebra on it that her husband has carved. Trying to locate a proper burial place, she finds bare earth on the side where the snow has blown away. She digs with her heel into the dirt, crying. Suddenly she is hit with a wave of nausea and starts vomiting. I see her digging and throwing up, with tears streaming down her face.

[154] We hurry to take pictures with the Alzheimer banner and one with me and our guides flying the Global Television banner. Matt, who, along with Gord, is supposed to be one of our official photographers, has run out of film. He is just sitting on the ground, his camera in one hand, a roll of film in the other, repeating "I can't believe I ran out of film". I am not much better. I think I'm rolling the video camera on some shots of people hugging, of the huge glaciers below us, of the welcome sign, but in fact, I am not. I end up with just some shots of the camera pointed at the ground. Oh well.

[155] As we turn to go, I have one more thing I need to do. My dad loves to travel but doesn't often get the chance. To give him a taste of the world, I bring him back rocks and sand from all the places I visit. Of course, he asked me to bring him a rock from the top of this mountain. Most of the summit is covered with snow, but there is a little path cut through it, two feet deep, that reaches down to the bare rocks. I walk a little ways, kicking the ground with my foot, until I spy the perfect one - a piece of lava that has been broken in half. I pick up one half to take home; the other half will always be waiting for him at the top of Kilimanjaro.

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