Whoosh! Issue 38 - November 1999

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

What Goes Up Must Come Down

[156] Our "lil'slice o'heaven" at the summit is short-lived. Ten minutes, to be precise, and then it's time to go down. This is when ugly reality hits us. Many of us have used every bit of strength we had to get to the summit. Now, we have to go all the way back down to where we started, pack our tents and continue hiking for another three hours. It's a daunting prospect. The energy from the adrenaline rush is totally gone. On top of that, the altitude is starting to really affect everyone.


Contemplating the trip down
[157] I pack the camera away, along with Xena, and hand my backpack over to one of the guides. I think it's better that a klutz like me not be carrying the camera on the descent. And then, it's like a mad dash to get the hell off the summit. As fast as we can move anyway. Peg is urging Frederick "don't stop, just get us off this mountain". Everyone is starting to feel much worse.

[158] The first part of the ascent is okay because it's straight down. Matt is urging us all to go slowly and be careful because there are a couple of places where you can slip over the edge and, in our reduced mental states, anything could happen. Once we get past that, however, the path follows the rim of the crater up and down for almost 2 km until you reach Gillman's, after which it's all downhill. Going down is fine but, once we hit the first uphill section, Peg sits down and wonders if she is going to be able to make it. Her legs are ready to give out. Gord wonders whether he wouldn't be able to open a helicopter service to whisk climbers from the summit once they've reached it - we all agree this would be a very good idea and wish he would have thought of it before!

[159] After a number of brief rests, we get to Gillman's Point. There are still a few switchbacks we have to clear which are slightly dangerous. We are all extra careful and take our time because we are so tired.

[160] Finally, we hit the loose scree slopes! Sandy, Frederick and I half run/half ski the rest of the way down. I feel great! With every step I am feeling stronger and better. I am ahead of everyone, kicking up great clouds of dust as I barrel down the mountain. There are moments where I feel out of control and like I'm going to tumble nilly-willy into the dirt, but I don't care! I run on until I get to the first flats, almost near the bottom. And then I wait for everyone to catch up.

[161] Looking back, I see two African guides have locked arms with Peg and are basically running her down the mountain. I don't even think her feet are touching the ground! When they get to where I'm sitting, they let her go and she sinks to the ground, unable to move. The Campbells come in shortly afterward, looking very worn out. All except Nic, who is full of energy, bouncing and chatty. I think this is making up for the hell he and I went through last night, but I don't say anything out loud.

[162] We take a longer rest (15 minutes). We can see Kibo Hut from here. It doesn't look that far away but I've learned that distances are very deceiving on a mountain as big as this one. What you think is just a little hike to the next ridge ends up taking 2 hours.

[163] The sun is shining, we are on schedule and we have made the summit. We have a few minutes of what should be complete bliss. Except that the constant banging of my toes on the front of my boots during the descent makes me wonder if they are bleeding and I'm now also aware that my heels are killing me (I'm glad I taped them days ago!). There is no way I want to undo my boots here, so I just ignore the alarm signals from my feet and relax.

[164] Another hour of walking and, around noon, we stagger back into the camp we left twelve hours earlier. Sue is there to meet us and is thrilled for us. She can tell by our faces that we were successful. There are more hugs all around, bittersweet because she was not at the summit to share our joy.

[165] There is to be no rest for us yet, however. Iain, Don, and Lizbet have already been sent ahead, down to Horombo Huts at 12,800. Sue doesn't want us spending anymore time than necessary at this altitude. Time to pack up our tents once more and descend further.

[166] We first go into Kibo Hut for lunch. I manage to eat a few spoons of soup and a tea. No one can really eat much.

[167] I go to pack but I'm so exhausted I can't. I just lay propped up on my bag, not moving. I stare out the tent flap at nothing. I have to fight not to fall asleep. I try to pack but it's like I'm in slow motion. I put something in the bag and then take it out. It takes an hour for us to all get ready, a job that usually takes 15 minutes.

[168] As we start off, I once again hook up the solar panel but, of course, it starts raining within half an hour of us leaving. I walk with Frederick for part of the hike and learn he's 33 years old, has 5 kids and a grade 7 education. He likes guiding because it's the only job he can do where he makes a descent living. He is such a sweet guy. He calls all the women "ma'am".

[169] Eventually, I am just walking on my own. I am laughing that I'm walking by myself through Tanzania. I run into some Brits, who are amazed by the solar panel I once again have flapping on my back. They take a picture of me (the next day Sandy ends up talking to them at camp and they say to her "you should have seen this crazy American woman with a solar panel strapped to her back!" Of course Sandy set them straight and told them I was Canadian. She didn't refute the "crazy" part though).

[170] By the time I get to camp it's raining quite a bit and the tents aren't even set up. We stand around getting wet, tired to the bone. Some of us try to crowd into Don and Lizbet's tents. Finally, we all have a tent but everything we have is now soaked and muddy.

[171] I take my boots off and inspect the damage to my feet. No bleeding on the toes, but I have damaged the nerves because my big toe is numb (weeks later, it remains that way). I have huge, deep blisters on my heels and cannot wear boots for the rest of the trip.

[172] We each take turns going to Don's tent to talk to him about not making the summit. For Iain and Lizbet, it was a major achievement to get to Gillman's and they seem happy. For Don, who would accept nothing less than the summit for himself, it's a difficult defeat. I talk to him and tell him I know what he's doing to himself, beating himself up, because I have the same competitive personality and would be doing it to myself as well. He says he has unfinished business with that mountain and will be back someday. I know he will.

I thought we were going DOWN?

Wide shot of the group starting up Mawenzi
[173] Dinner is ready right away but none us can eat. We show up, get mud all over, have some tea and go to bed. Unfortunately, Sandy still has to make some press calls and, because the call to Global at the summit didn't work, we have to set something up. I call the news producer, Gab. The first words out of her mouth are, "We heard 7 of you made it. Were you one of the 7?" Her second question: "Did Gord make it?" We set up to record a phone call with Sandy in ten minutes. I am so tired I am falling asleep sitting up but Sandy keeps saying "you have to stay awake!" We manage to get through the calls.

[174] Finally, more than 37 hours after we had set out, it is time to sleep. Our tents are slanted downhill, everything is damp and I don't want to move. I make a vow I'm not going to get up for the bathroom, no matter what!

Debriefing: Wednesday, 09/01/99

Two seconds before the King of the Jungle swung by

A porter makes his way down the muddy lower path
[175] We wake up in the relatively luxurious surroundings of the Horombo Huts. Let me qualify "luxurious". There are tables to sit at and toilets that flush. Mind you, it is still a hole in the floor, which leads Peg to say "When I hear flush toilet, I expect to have something to sit on!"

[176] Sandy's face is swollen. In particular, her lower lip protrudes like a 2x4 smacked her. Sue says this is edema, the fluid collecting in her face. Sandy is totally wiped today and can't even walk up the smallest incline without taking a break. I'm a little worried about her, because she is super strong normally.

[177] After we pack up for the last time, Sue gathers us together for a little speech. I run around and find a battery for the big camera with the wide-angle lens. It is almost dead but it should easily be enough for ten minutes. I put the wireless mike on Sue, I have the shotgun on the camera and I start rolling on her wonderfully moving speech. Twenty seconds in, the battery dies! ARGH!!! I am so sick of this camera, these batteries, of shooting, that I don't even bother to go and get the little camera or to ask Sue to wait. I just put it down and become part of the team.

[178] Sue tells us how proud she is of us, how we choose to put ourselves in an uncomfortable situation and how, if we reach for the moon, we'll fall among the stars. She saw great courage in many moments and she hopes we'll have other mountains that we'll climb in our lives. Sandy tearfully thanks everyone on behalf of the Society. We all thank each other for special moments we recall from the climb, particularly Sue for her unbelievable strength. She has shouldered the responsibility for our safety and well-being while at the same time struggling with her grief and memories. She has been so strong throughout this entire time. I think to myself that we all need heroes like Sue in our lives and I am so lucky to have met her.


[179] I have many more pages in my diary, with more experiences and memories from the end of the trip. Some of the highlights:

Say 'Thank God we made it!'

Matt, Sue and I at the end of the climb
[180] Having Gord tell me he called his office and apparently I was in a plane crash! In an amazing roundabout route, some Xenites learned about the crash with 12 tourists in Kili, someone called the Alzheimer Society, they told Gord's office, he phoned in and learned about it and it made its way back to Kilimanjaro and me!

[181] Once we got back to the hotel and washed off (I had to take two showers in a row to get clean) we had a ceremony on the lawn. All 38 porters and guides sang songs, we shook hands and thanked each one personally, we were presented with our certificates and we presented them with their tips. We then sang a song for the porters that we had made up to the tune of "Wooly Bully", called "PolePole" (it's pronounced "pole-lay, pole-lay"). Even though they didn't have a clue what the melody was, the porters got a huge kick out of the lyrics.

Why did we want this many potatoes?

Porters on the move
[182] Checking in at the Kilimanjaro airport to go home we find there is a power failure. We are checked in by candlelight, the only security measure being the officer asking "do you have a knife? No? Okay, go ahead". Sitting on our airplane for six hours before finally being told we aren't going anywhere because the plane is broken. At 3 am we are shipped off to the African equivalent of a Motel 6. It looks exactly like a prison compound. The rooms are more like 4x6 foot cells. My shower is a handheld unit, but the cord is only 2 feet long, so you have to kneel in the tub to use it. I suspect it's so you don't try to hang yourself with it! My head finally hits the pillow at almost 5 am. However, I'm awakened abruptly by what I think is the sound of cattle being slaughtered. My foggy brain searches to determine what the unearthly noise might be and finally decides its the Muslin call to prayers being broadcast over loudspeakers in the compound!

[183] Driving out to the airport for the last time, a miracle happens. Mt. Kilimanjaro is free of clouds. It's a beautiful sunset and so rare to be able to see this peak in the evening. We pull over to the side of the road, fortunate to be able to gaze upon it one last time. Some of us hold hands, some of us take pictures as the sun slips off the very top and it begins to fade into dusk and the gathering clouds at its base. Goodbye, Kilimanjaro.

Buh-bye! Buh-bye!

Our final view of Kilimanjaro as we head to the airport
[184] Many people have asked me if this experience changed my life. Ummmm, no. Did I have any profound insights or spiritual moments? No, not with the climb, but certainly with my friends. I learned many lessons about how loving and caring they are. I was humbled by their belief in me. It makes me want to try to be a better person. Would I do it again? Uh, yes, but it's a big world and I don't like to do anything twice. I'd rather do everything once! What's next? Matt, our guide has done Everest and says it's not that hard. I asked him about that famous picture, the one where you have to cross a deep crevasse by walking over the rungs of a steel ladder and he said that was the most dramatic part and, in fact, you're roped off until 8,000 meters. Hmmm, it's something to think about!

[185] After I returned home, I went to see my neighbor in the hospital and showed her the pictures of me on the summit. I think she even smiled but I couldn't tell because I turned away to wipe the tears from my eyes.

[186] Thanks for reading everyone! And, more than anything, thanks for the incredible support you gave me throughout this whole adventure. I will never forget it.


[187] Ascent for Alzheimer's has raised $125,000 so far. Please contact Ms. Poirier at tpoirier@ISTAR.CA if you wish to donate.

[188] The pictures of the expedition were provided by Don Stevens, Matt MacEachern, Gordon Campbell, Peg Hunt, and Sandy Riley.


Tamara Poirier Tamara Poirier
Tamara doesn't let her Catholic school education get in the way of wearing her skirts more than 6" above the knee. She has been promised to have a good life by passing through the nostril of Buddha in Kyoto, Japan. So far, so good. Her greatest wish is to discover that tapping that little bump on your wrist does absolutely no good as she gets extremely nauseous on a space flight. Between Xenafests, Xena Cons, Xena lunches and Xena memorabilia collecting, Tamara keep a parking spot dry as Creative Director at a tv station.

Favorite episode: (drama) DEBT I (52/306); (comedy) A DAY IN THE LIFE (39/215); ("A" for effort) THE BITTER SUITE (58/312)
Favorite line: Xena: "You don't know how much I love... that" THE PRICE (44/220)
First episode seen: SINS OF THE PAST (01/101)
Least favorite episode: Rhymes with "Sing of Lasses" (54/308)

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