Our Daily Lives

Back on Top of Kilimanjaro, 46 Years Later

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Kilimanjaro was a mountain that Jurate Kazickas had already climbed, many years ago and in her tennis shoes. But this summer, at 68, she found herself once again scaling Africa's highest peak and feeling pretty great.

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Less Than Half Succeed

It's estimated that 15,000 people attempt Kili every year and that less than half make it; most are struck down by altitude sickness--dizziness, nausea, severe headaches and extreme fatigue--which befell several of our group as well.

What sustained us, besides the energy bars and quarts of electrolyte drinks, was the camaraderie. Our group shared extra socks, cough drops, bandages and remedies for headaches and indigestion. We rallied members of the group who succumbed to nerves and anxiety. We told stories and discussed our careers, raked over the bad bosses that plagued good journalists, dished about recent sex scandals and were grateful to be 6,000 miles away from the debt ceiling crisis. One woman who found she had service on her BlackBerry somewhere past 10,000 feet was heard to moan, "I have 150 messages!"

On summit day, we awoke at midnight at Barafu, our high camp, at 14,650 feet. We had nearly 5,000 feet to go to reach the summit. It was cold.

We bundled up, pulling on layers of long underwear and pants before swaddling ourselves in down jackets. As I headed out into the night, I was amazed to see hundreds of bobbing headlamps snaking across the mountain. The various routes up the mountain had converged into one path to the summit and there were at least a 1,000 climbers heading to the top.

A Personal Push

While the camaraderie of the women had supported me throughout the grueling hikes, the push to the summit was more personal. I wanted to feel the surge of wonder again as I had 46 years earlier when I stood on the top and realized no one in Africa or all of Europe was standing on higher ground than I. My legs got wobbly half way up. My hands were frozen. I felt dizzy and desperate for water.

At last, after nearly eight hours of climbing, we were at Point Stella on the rim of the crater. But the actual summit was another 660 feet further. For the final push, I drew deep into myself for a strength I didn't know I had--or needed--when I was 22. I was too close to quit.

The sun was brilliant in a cobalt sky. Just like it was on that day back in 1965 when I posed for one photo with my African guide on that lonely, empty wind swept peak and signed my name in a book in a bolted box.

The box was long gone, replaced by a crude wooden sign congratulating us on reaching Uhuru Peak. I stood there surrounded by my joyful support group of women, feeling how great it was to be back and on top again.

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Jurate Kazickas, a former Women's eNews board member, is a writer living in New York City who hikes occasionally in Wyoming.

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