Sunday, February 23, 2014

Happyson, Kronk, and the weight of an empty backpack

A recent move has left my own photographs buried in a box somewhere... via

A number of years ago, I decided - sort of on a whim, honestly - to hike Mount Kilimanjaro. An idealistic pain in the ass of an undergrad, I decided to flex my totally naive and incomplete mastery of development economics (the Thing I Was Studying) by volunteering with a small business in Tanzania.*

In the sometimes foolish (but hopefully charming?) way that I have, I picked the volunteer site mainly because "Kilimanjaro region" sounded cool. As a lark, I figured I'd try the mountain after my placement ended. I'd never camped before (minus one very weird week at Bonnaroo in 2006), but if there is one thing I have in spades, it's an outsized sense of my own abilities.

So, up we went. I was in a group of strangers - some of them experienced outdoorspeople, some of them gleamingly kitted-out newlyweds, one of them an unassuming English kid named Jon, who'd been living on a marine biology research boat off of Zanzibar.

On our second day, we broke through the clouds; in typical fashion, I'd chosen the shortest and steepest non-technical route possible - Rongai, up the Kenyan side. The air thinned quickly, and I found myself going to sleep worrying that I'd have a heart attack in the night, because my pulse raced with the effort of oxygenating my blood.

Our lead guide was a Maasai warrior named Happyson. As I understand it, warriors obtain their status by undergoing ritualized circumcision with no anaesthetic.** So... a badass. A badass with a wonderful name, given to him for his sunny disposition (and, if I may say so, creative linguistic flair). It was Happyson, and his right hand man, who I remember only as Mara Tun (he was training for a marathon and had a beautiful accent), who made sure we understood: hydration is most important in the first two days. The days when you feel your best are the days you need to be most vigilant, keeping your blood rich for what is yet to come.

Jon and I listened. The two youngest, we had no vanity when it came to taking direction from our guides - some of the others, particularly a brick shit house who lives on in my memory as Kronk, took to teasing us. We always ate when we were told to eat, slept when we were told to sleep, and walked pole pole, or slowly - so slowly that I usually ended up well behind the group, daydreaming or singing to myself. Happyson developed a soft spot for me, probably because we were both head-in-the-clouds types. Kronk usually bounded ahead, giving us all crap for our general slowpokiness.

Summit day sucked. We were all woken at one o'clock in the morning, as the workers at the last camp meted out the logjam of hikers from all the trails that were converging on Uhuru Peak. Tiny lights stuck to our heads, we trudged up through the frustratingly soft scree; each step, already small by order of Happyson, sent you back half the damn distance. All I could see was the trail of white lights switching back and forth above me as all the various groups dragged their asses, seemingly endlessly, up the slope.

Hours passed this way. My personal theory is that they started us in the dark so that we couldn't see how far we still had to go. My tent mate, an irritating middle-aged complainer named Louise, gave up and was taken back down to the lodge sometime before dawn. Them's the rules: any hint that you can't finish the hike, and and you're forcibly whisked down to richer air; the risk of edema is too high for the guides to risk letting you tough it out. (For the record, Louise later loudly insisted to anyone who would listen that she could have made it, if only Kronk's mother hadn't convinced her to stop. Huh.)

It was the most brutal eight hours of my life. Breaks were under two minutes, so that we didn't spend any more time than necessary at altitude. I'd been easygoing up until then, not really complaining because fuck it it's Kilimanjaro - but I started to wear down, and asked for longer breaks. I couldn't explain why, though - general tiredness didn't elicit any sympathy, and I had made the brilliant decision not to tell anyone I have asthma, at risk of being taken down.

The snows of Uhuru in 1938, via

Though I did make it. When we reached the top, I was distracted by a short time from the exhaustion by taking photos and looking down upon the crater and wondering where the crap the glaciers had gone (having hiked the "wrong" side of the mountain, we'd been denied the snowy views that I had gotten used to from my volunteer placement. The degrading ecology of Kili should scare everyone). But after a while, my pack, which was basically empty - we'd left most of our stuff down at camp (also: porters. The unsung heroes of naive hikers) - started to feel like a brick on my back.

As we started to descend, Happyson saw me flagging, sitting down and letting myself fall further and further behind. I'd never been so tired, I told him, and he took my embarrassingly light bag off my shoulders and added it to the four he was already carrying. I still wouldn't walk, just wanting to catch my breath and maybe take a nap.

This is where Happyson became my hero.

I didn't realize I was getting mild altitude sickness, but he sure did; I was too foggy and stupid and stubborn. He told me to stand up, and hold on tightly to his shoulder. He reached around my back, grabbed me under the arm, and told me we were going to run, and then, when he said so, plant my feet. I'm pretty sure I laughed at the idea of running, but then that motherfucking warrior was off like a shot, and it was either keep the hell up or get dragged.

When we'd picked up enough speed, we dug our heels into the slope and started skiing. I was a ragdoll in Happyson's arms, he had five lesser people's bags on, and we were scree-running down the same pebbles and sand that had nearly beaten my willpower a few hours before.

After a little while, I started to feel better. The air was thicker, and my brain came out of its oxygen-depleted fog. When we skated upon Jon, retching behind a rock, I told Happyson that I could take my pack back now and walk on my own. I received a hug, and poor Jon aimed a miserable and humiliated look my way as he was wrenched up and run downhill like a sad, sunburned sack of flour. I sauntered off.

I followed the trail alone for a few hours, happy to see plant life returning to the landscape.

Why tell this story? A few reasons, I suppose.

Firstly, to say some sort of thank you to Happyson, who literally carried my weight for me until I could take it for myself.

But also to wonder out loud if sheer force of will and a somewhat delusional sense of my own capabilities is enough to get me through Big Shit. Happyson got me down the mountain - but I got myself up it.

Perhaps, this is also a reminder to go a bit more pole pole through the world. I didn't appreciate it until afterwards, but apparently the three weeks I had spent volunteering and unknowingly acclimatizing to an altitude of 3,000 feet set me up to be better-suited for the hike than many others. Waifish, inexperienced, asthmatic, 19-year-old me ended up being stronger than a lot of other veteran climbers, and I didn't even know it.

And Kronk? Well, for all his muscle and rock climbing and braggadocio, apparently he went too fast, without enough water - found vomiting before daybreak, he never made it to the summit.

*Yes, kids, a partially-educated American went to Africa to share her knowledge. I'm sorry.
**About which I have a horrifying story, for another time.

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