The sun threw its rays against the summit of Kilimanjaro. The collision was invigorating. No doubt some of it was physical; it did not feel so cold. But there was a mental aspect as well. After months of preparation--blood, sweat, and tears--our group of seven could at last see our goal.
What I didn't see coming was the rush of personal emotion.
Eleven months prior to this moment in time I was injured in a water-skiing accident. The hamstring muscle group of my right leg was ripped from the bone. It was the most painful experience of my life (See posts here, here, or here).
The surgeon presented me with two options. The first was to do nothing. The pain would eventually subside, he said, and life would resume. However, I would forever walk with a limp and be unable to run or jump due to severe weakness in my leg. Even stairs would present an obstacle. The other option was have a surgery to recover the frayed tendons and attach them to anchors set into my lower pelvis. It too had risk; the sciatic nerve ran through the middle of the disaster zone. Any damage to the nerve or even to its sheathing could result in a lifetime of pain.
I chose the surgery.
The reattachment was successful. At the follow-up I asked the surgeon if my dream to summit Kilimanjaro the following summer would be possible. He gave me one of those sideways looks with a raised eyebrow (a skill they undoubtedly practice in medical school, don't cha Rob?) and said that it really depended on me.
Six weeks of immobility followed the surgery. Three months of physical therapy followed the immobility. In my first meeting with the physical therapist, I gingerly mounted a stationary bike. The pain of one rotation almost sent me over the moon.
But I kept at it. And in the months to come I went from a wheelchair to crutches to a limping walk and eventually to a stairmaster.
With the summit in view, many of those memories came sweeping back. I had God to thank. My surgeon to thank. Vicki to thank. Craig to thank. My physical therapist and Mr. Stairmaster to thank (and curse). Right there on the gravel trail I got all teary-eyed and choked up. The latter is not a good thing. Breathing normally is challenging enough in thin air.
The path on Kili's flattop meandered between boulders and led to a knob with a wooden "scaffold" on top. There was no dramatic peak of ice or stone. The hill we were walking simply rose into the wind and gave way to purple sky.*
We reached the sign. I pulled off a mit and put my hand on one wooden post. Boards attached to it were carved with the following words (from top to bottom):
CONGRATULATIONS YOU ARE NOW AT
UHURU PEAK, TANZANIA, 5895 M/19341 FT AMSL
AFRICA'S HIGHEST POINT
WORLD'S HIGHEST FREESTANDING MOUNTAIN
ONE OF THE WORLD'S LARGEST VOLCANOS
WORLD HERITAGE AND WONDER OF AFRICA
We basked in the moment with other climbers who had arrived ahead of us. There was plenty of back-slapping and laughing. Suddenly I heard Martin's voice above the din and wind. He exclaimed something about Mo and Rachel. I turned around and, sure enough, the party of three (which had become a party of two) had appeared out of nowhere! We had passed them in the wee hours of the morning. Mo said she had seen us go by but was too winded to cry out.
Martin later wrote of the moment, "The emotion of personal achievement was special but truly equalled by seeing Mo and Rachel - it was a double celebration!"
We enquired as to Vlad's status. Apparently, his signs of elevation sickness were serious. He was escorted down. News of Vlad's condition rendered the moment bittersweet. We were elated that nine of our original ten had made the summit but concerned for Vlad. His strength and youth underline the observation that elevation sickness is no respecter of persons.
In a final effort for the top, we edged out an Italian group (no small feat in itself) and claimed the sign for a group picture. It hangs on my office wall to this day. But even without it, I'll never forget sharing this incredible experience on God's magnificent earth with these wonderful people.
*The peak of Kilimanjaro has carried the name Uhuru (Swahili for "Freedom") since 1961. Previously, it was labeled Kaiser Wilhelm Spitze, a name given to it by the first European to reach its summit. Wilhelm I (1797-1888) was a Prussian leader who had recently died when Hans Meyer made his historic ascent in 1889.