Three weeks ago I got a call from a friend.
“I’m going to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa, with some friends. Come along!” she said excitedly.
“No thank you!” I replied flatly
“Why not?” she insisted
“Because the doctor’s told me not to; I fell and injured my left knee!” I lied. “And the injury is permanent which means I can’t climb any mountain or hill ever again!”
The truth is many years ago, I ventured out with some friends to climb Mount Longonot, not as high as Kilimanjaro but still very high for my standards. After that experience, even though I never consciously told myself that I’d never do it again, I knew from the bottom of my heart I’d sealed a promise with myself – never again!
We started early in the morning before sunrise. I wore very small shorts, snickers and a baggy T-Shirt, a decision I regret bitterly till today.
We were around twenty people when we started. Half way up the group had reduced to four – the rest had given up at one point or another along the way and gone back. The sun was up and scotching hot, and we were thirsty and sweating a lot.
We had been warned beforehand to carry small bottles of water and to drink wisely. My friend Martha and I went the extra mile: we filled our respective backpacks with lots of water bottles, sandwiches and other stuff we thought essential.
Somewhere along the way, I noticed Martha wasn’t carrying her bag anymore and had relieved herself of everything but a small bottle of mineral water and when I asked what she had done with her possessions, she pointed to a cliff of the side of the mountain. She was too tired to speak.
It didn’t take me long to follow suit even though I didn’t throw my backpack over the cliff like Martha (I was too terrified to look in that direction). I hid it in a small bush with the aim of retrieving it on our way back down!
We were so exhausted that at one point even the small bottles of mineral water we were each carrying felt like too much weight to carry! We got rid of our bottles and continued climb. We were just four people: Martha, her cousin Sabrina, and I – the fourth person was a mountain guide.
At one point, probably three quarters way up, I remember looking down, or at least I think I did, and feeling overwhelmed!
“I need to go back!” I cried in panic. “We’re going to fall and die! I need to go back! We’re too high up, we’re going to fall and die!”
“We’re almost there and you can’t go back alone.” The mountain guide said. “This group can’t split any further because there’s no other guide but me left. The other guides accompanied the people who gave up at one point or another along the way. We either all proceed to the top or go back together. It’s up to you guys to decide.”
“We can’t give up now!” Sabrina cried in dismay but she must have seen the look of determination on my face because she turned to Martha for help. “Martha, please tell her we can’t give up now! We’re more than three quarters way up!”
Martha said nothing: I could see she was trying to stay neutral.
“I don’t want to fall all the way to the bottom!” I cried desperately.
“We can’t even see the bottom!” Sabrina countered. “You’re panicking! Calm down! It’s not as steep as you think and it’s impossible to fall all the way to the bottom. There are trees and small bushes to protect you from freefalling!”
“I’m going back alone!” I said determinedly but didn’t move. I realized I was equally afraid of going back down the steep mountain as I was of proceeding to the top. I don’t know whether or not Sabrina was telling the truth but I didn’t want to put it to the test.
“Fine. If you want to go back down alone then there’s nothing we can do.” the impatient mountain guide said after studying me carefully for a while. “But you should know that there are wild animals and poachers lurking everywhere.”
“Wild animals?” I enquired.
“Lots of them! Lions, tigers, buffalos, elephants, snakes…”
“We should proceed to the top quickly and then call for a helicopter!” I cried desperately. Had she just mentioned snakes?!
Both Sabrina and the mountain guide sighed with relief!
“Alright guys let’s get to the top of this mountain and finish this challenge!” the mountain guide said.
As we proceeded to the top, Martha, who was walking behind me, whispered. “I’m glad we’ll be getting a helicopter when we get to the top! Sabrina just said all those things so you wouldn’t give up! This mountain is steep and if you look back, you can definitely see that we’re dangerously, dangerously high up!”
“O dear God! I knew it! I knew she was lying!” I whispered back unsteadily.
“And on the side over there is a dangerous cliff.” She continued mercilessly. “And trust me, if for whatever reason you slip and fall over that cliff, it’s a freefall all the way down!”
As we proceeded, all I could think about were the words freefall all the way to the down! Some parts of the climb were quite steep and every time I attempted to look sideways all I could think about was the steep bottomless cliff. Freefall all the way down –Martha’s words haunted me. The only comfort I got was the knowledge that once we got to the top, it would all be over: someone would call for a helicopter and then we would be out of there in no time!
We did get to the top, all four of us. Thirsty, tired, sweating and burning under the scotching sun –but we made it to the top! We had finished all the water and I was scared to death.
While Martha and Sabrina admired the view from the top of the mountain and took pictures using the mountain guide’s camera (both of them had gotten rid of all their possessions, including their mobile phone on the way to the top), all I could do was sit (the ground was too hot to lie down). I was too afraid to stand up or even look around (I felt I would be blown off balance and freefall all the way down). I couldn’t wait for the helicopter to arrive.
I turned to the mountain guide and asked when the helicopter would be arriving and I would never forget the look on her face when she broke the bad news to me!
I glared at her, and then at Martha and Sabrina who seemed to be enjoying the experience and had completely forgotten about me.
To cut a long story short, there was no helicopter and we did make it down safely. On the way down, however, my baggy t-shirt got caught in a thorn bush and completely torn away and I proceeded to the bottom in nothing but my bra.
When we arrived at the bottom, a crowd was waiting to congratulate us! They clapped, cheered and took pictures as we approached. I tried to hide behind the others but there were cameras flashing everywhere and from all directions!
The next day my whole body ached so badly I could hardly walk. I was sore everywhere and could barely move. However, when I did go out, I was shocked at the attention I got!
The embarrassing pictures had landed in several magazines, and each had its own shocking version about what had happened! The most deplorable version was that I’d gotten so tired of the climb that I simply took off my shirt and threw it way; and would have taken off the rest of my clothes had the mountain guide, a decent and devout catholic lady, not stopped me in time.
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This is a work of fiction. All characters in this book are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.