One evening, my husband and I were out to dinner with two of our close friends, Penny and Peter. Penny had just joined the board of Outward Bound, the well-known, non-profit organization dedicated to helping people explore the world and expand themselves and their potential through wilderness trekking and travel. To celebrate, she was in the process of planning a trip to Africa with the rest of the board to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.
"Oh, Tina, why don't you come along?" she asked brightly. "You'll get to do some real mountain climbing. It's just the sort of challenge you love."
She was obviously remembering my marathon days and assuming that I was in far better shape than I was. But in a moment of bravado, assisted by a few too many glasses of Sauvignon Blanc, I heard myself say, "Yes, I'd love to."
I immediately regretted my decision. Why did you say yes? I chastised myself as Steve and I walked home that night. What were you thinking? Mount Kilimanjaro? I wasn't even sure where Mount Kilimanjaro was. A quick look in the encyclopedia when I got home told me that it stands 19,341 feet above the plains of Tanzania--about 19,000 feet too high for me. I'll call Penny tomorrow and tell her I can't go, I comforted myself as I crawled into bed that night.
I always read before going to sleep, and that night I happened to be reading a book Steve had gotten me called "Genghis Kahn and the Making of the Modern World" by Jack Weatherford. I loved the book. Genghis Kahn's life fascinated me, and as I lay there reading about his spirit quests -- the journeys he would take into the mountains before a big battle to find himself and his inspiration -- there was one passage in particular that struck a chord in me: "The genius of Genghis Kahn did not come from epiphanies or sudden flashes of insight, but from a persistent willingness to try new things. In every battle he fought, Genghis tried something new. He never fought the same war twice." That passage really affected me -- it had been so long since I tried anything new.
That night, I had a dream. I dreamed that I was climbing a mountain and it was dark. I couldn't see and I was cold and alone. In the dream, I knew that I should be frightened, but I wasn't. Alone on the mountain, I actually felt peaceful for the first time in years.
The next morning, I decided not to call Penny and cancel. Kilimanjaro was going to be my spirit quest.
In the weeks that followed, I made preparations. I bought all sorts of exciting gear including a bright pink parka with matching pink snow boots (how could I resist?), a huge backpack, and a pink sleeping bag that the rugged, young guy at the North Face store guaranteed would keep me warm in temperatures as low as 40 degrees below zero. I visited my doctor and received the obligatory vaccinations for yellow fever, typhoid and a host of other lovely diseases. "You know what you're getting into, I presume," my doctor said sternly when I told him about the trip. "It's a spirit quest," I said happily.
Before long, I'd assembled everything I needed: passport, visas, hairdryer, a camera, a full makeup kit, rollers for my hair, a pair of heels and a super-size bag of M&Ms in case I got hungry. Then suddenly, the trip was upon me. The night before I was scheduled to leave, the phone rang. It was Penny. She was crying and she told me tearfully that she wasn't going to be able to go. Her chronic back problem had returned, and her doctor had told her than under no circumstances was she to be hiking up any mountains. If I was going to Kilimanjaro, I was now going on my own.
I was in shock. I debated calling the whole thing off -- but the sight of my backpack sitting by the front door, ready and waiting, seemed to be urging me to just go anyway. So the next morning, summoning all my courage, I boarded a plane bound for Nairobi, Kenya. From there a charter flight took me to the town of Moshi at the base of Kilimanjaro.
The day we set out, I arrived at the foot of the mountain for what I hoped would be a leisurely climb and found myself among a group of very experienced hikers. They were all wearing earth tones and eating trail mix; I was wearing neon pink from head to toe and eating my M&Ms (I'd been in Africa less than a day and I was already ravenous). I had my hair curled and my makeup on -- after all, this was my great adventure, and the mountain looked beautiful, shouldn't I look the same? The other hikers smirked and tried to avoid me.
We had been told that our backpacks could weigh a maximum of 70 pounds. It had never really occurred to me that anyone would actually check this, so naturally I had brought along lots and lots of extra stuff. As we stood there preparing to depart, our trip leader -- a tall, handsome man who looked like a cross between Harrison Ford and Brad Pitt -- stepped forward and said, "This will be the most exciting trip of your lives. You will be tested like you have never been tested before. Some of you will make it to the top of the mountain, and some of you will not." He was so good-looking that I was momentarily distracted from what he was saying -- and then it hit me. I tapped one of the hikers next to me. "Wait, we're climbing to the top? The very tippy top where the snow is?" He looked at me with disdain and said, "Of course." "Dear God!" I said. "I don't belong here." It was too late.
Things got even worse when our handsome leader announced that in keeping with Outward Bound tradition, we would all be carrying our packs ON OUR BACKS. At this pronouncement I literally laughed. Everyone turned and looked at me. "Is he joking?" I pleadingly asked one of the female hikers who just stared at me witheringly and turned her back. I looked around at the other trip members who were gamely hoisting their backpacks and I burst into tears. I could barely lift my bag off the ground much less onto my shoulders. Fortunately, one of the local porters came to my aid. He took me to a tent where I unloaded my hairdryer and curlers and makeup, and then he took some of my heaviest things and secretly put them in his bag. I was grateful to him and a little ashamed at the same time.
I wept for the first four days of the climb. The route we were taking went up the north side of the mountain rather than the more heavily-trafficked south side; Outward Bound preferred to use this path as it was isolated and there were no other hikers. We slept in caves with bats--well, everyone else slept, I never closed my eyes. The first day was swelteringly hot as we trekked through the lush, tropical forests at the base of the mountain. I am a soap opera actress, not a mountain climber. What was I doing here?
We reached the third and final base camp on Kilimanjaro at 17,000 feet after five days of relentless climbing. The camp sits exposed on a lonely outcrop of glacier and volcanic rock and when we finally arrived there, I was certain that I would never make it home. The last forty-eight hours had been brutal. High winds and freezing temperatures made for near impossible trekking, and we were all struggling with altitude sickness, even the seasoned hikers. Roughly ten climbers die on Kilimanjaro each year attempting the summit, and as I huddled in my sleeping bag it occurred to me without any particular fanfare that I could be one of this year's statistics.
It was then, in that moment, that I rediscovered just how much I wanted to live. I had been hiding away from the world these past ten years, gaining weight and giving up, and now here I was in a place that looked like some lunar wasteland, covered in dirt, and all I knew was that I wanted to get home alive so I could start living my life again. I decided then that I was going to make it through this trip alive, no matter what.
At midnight we started the final leg of the climb so that we could reach the summit at sunrise. It was pitch black and I couldn't see the ground in front of me. With every step, the wind and snow intensified, and the scree -- a blinding mixture of ice, snow, and gravel -- swirled around me and pulled me to my knees. I crawled forward, fighting my way across a crevasse so that I wouldn't lose sight of the other climbers. But when I looked up, there was only darkness and the howling wind. The other hikers with their little headlamps had vanished. I was alone. It was just like my dream, I thought, except this time I was terrified beyond all imagining.
I collapsed onto the frozen snow. I wanted to cry, but I didn't have any tears left. I wanted to scream and curse my fate. With every second that I lay there, it grew colder and colder and the wind blew harder and I thought regretfully, This is the end. I am going to die on a mountain in Africa. But then -- oh thank God! There was someone reaching out to me, a figure extending a hand out of the blackness. Oh dear God, it is Genghis Kahn, I must have died and then I looked up and saw the other climbers.
There was the soap opera character I had played for so many decades, Lillian Raines in her nurse's uniform, still looking fabulous, and my Parisian mentor, Aga smiling and smoking French cigarettes. There was my husband Steve, holding a dozen roses and a carton of Haagen Dazs, and my son Renny, saluting me: Keep going, Mom. My mother in her little red beret was calling my name, and my father, reading his newspaper, was waiting for me to join him for lunch. And my friends, my wonderful friends. They were all smiling and waving me on. And then Genghis Khan smiled. He'd come to help me. For a moment I was convinced that I had either died or lost my mind. I wiped my eyes and looked again, but there he was. He held out his hands to pull me up. And I got up, and I kept going.
And just before dawn, I reached the summit. I made it to the top. Standing at 19,000 feet, I watched the sun rise up over the mountain top and felt the light's hint of warmth on my face. I was cold, and hungry, and tired to the bone, but for the first time in years, just as my dream had predicted, I felt totally at peace. And then, as I stood there breathing the cold, thin air, I watched as the sun turned the glaciers and the snow on the top of the mountain bright pink. Everything was bathed in a pink neon glow. I looked down at my snow boots and smiled. The mountain was dressing up. Just like me.