How difficult is summiting Mount Kilimanjaro? Depends who you ask.

Peter's Kilimanjaro misery

Like a procession of overdressed zombies holding walking poles, we’ve been staggering uphill on this loose volcanic rock since midnight. My watch reads 4:14am.

Although our pace rivals that of a snail, my chest heaves laboriously as my lungs struggle to extract oxygen from the stingy air. The five layers of clothing are strangling me like a Gore-Tex, down-filled anaconda.

I can no longer feel my toes.

A full moon hangs overhead, but does little to illuminate the barren landscape before us. The headlamp I’ve been carrying for days has finally become more than just a fashion accessory, helping me to avoid lurching off a cliff.

Our Tanzanian guides – James, Julius, Alpha, and Cerafin – sing in hushed Swahili harmony as we plod along, delirious and exhausted.

“Wageni, mwakaribishwa! (Welcome guests!)

Kilimanjaro? Hakuna matata! (Kilimanjaro? No worries!)”

The blistering wind blows fine dust into my face but I keep my eyes squinted, focusing only on the turquoise backpack ahead of me.

That backpack belongs to my partner, Marina.

She seems completely unfazed by the altitude. Over the past seven days I’ve trudged behind her, I’ve become intimately acquainted with that damned backpack – so smug in its cleanliness, so taunting in its cheerful colouring.

It was Marina’s idea to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro – the highest peak in Africa and the highest free-standing mountain in the world.

I was less than thrilled to head higher than I’ve ever been –5,895 metres – especially given the throbbing migranes and severe nausea I’ve experienced at lower altitudes. As a compromise, we took the long way up, which promises a higher chance of summit success, and a lower chance of vomiting.

Looking up in the distance, I notice dozens of headlamps bobbing up and down across the never ending series of switchbacks up the mountain.

There appears to be no end in sight to this torture.

With increasing frequency, we pass fellow climbers. Some are hunched over on the side of the trail forcefully emptying the contents of their stomach, others are stumbling around and babbling incoherently, while a few particularly unlucky souls are carried down the mountain, barely conscious.

To prevent my mind from entertaining ideas of sickness and failure, I ignore the fallen and regain myopic focus on Marina’s backpack.

As the sun starts to rise, nearly six hours since leaving our base camp, we finally step onto some even ground. Reaching Stella Point, on the rim of Mt. Kilimanjaro’s volcano, we’ve completed the first section of the summit.

“Here, we rest,” declares our lead guide.

I sit on a rock, barely lucid, and try to catch my breath. For the first time since we started hiking over a week ago, I believe that I may actually make it to the top. All that remains between me and Uhuru Peak is a gentle walk around the crater rim that ascends the final 210 metres.

After a brief respite to gnaw on a hardened granola bar and to try unsuccessfully to drink water from my frozen hydration pack, I’m again shuffling my numb feet forward.

Not only is Marina once again in the lead, she’s actually jogging ahead to snap photos of me in my misery. Fortunately, I’m much too detached and numb to feel humiliated.Peter's Kilimanjaro misery

Before long, the two of us are standing on the roof of Africa, posing for pictures. As I summon all my strength to look more excited than exhausted, I confess to Marina; “This was definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

“Oh, really? I actually didn’t find it that difficult,” she says, beaming.

And with those words, the greatest physical feat of my life became just another leisurely hike.

At the top

 

Peter

Note: an edited version of this article was posted in The Globe and Mail on March 10, 2015

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Sleep No More in New York City

SleepNoMore

The distorted bass line of a techno track wobbles in sync with the pulsing of strobe lights. In the centre of the room, Macbeth wavers unsteadily atop a round table, his arms outstretched to the ceiling. Three nude witches writhe in a trance around the table; one of them is holding a bloody baby doll, while another is wearing a Minotaur mask.

Looking to my right, I realize I am not the only spectator here. A dozen other voyeurs, all hidden behind white Venetian masks, stand transfixed by the ensuing techno orgy.

Unfortunately, since losing her over an hour ago, I have yet to find Marina. That’s what I get for googling “weird things to do in NYC.”

On a whim, we had purchased tickets for Sleep No More, an immersive theatre production based loosely on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The show involves some 20 actors and takes place throughout five floors of a fictional 1940s hotel named the McKittrick, located in Manhattan’s Chelsea district. Sleep No More is equal parts theatre, haunted house and burlesque show.

The night started innocently enough, as Marina and I enjoyed a drink at the hotel’s smoky Manderley Bar. Before long, we received our masks and were herded into a dark elevator with several others.

“As guests of the McKittrick hotel, you should be aware of a few rules,” the elevator operator began. “Your mask must stay on at all times. There is absolutely no talking. Most importantly, there is no hand holding.”

Marina squeezes my hand. The elevator lurches to a stop and the door opens to a dark hall.

With a menacing tone the bellhop offers his final piece of advice: “Remember, fortune favours the bold.”

Just as Marina steps off the elevator ahead of me, the bellhop extends his arm and blocks my exit. The door closes between us. As soon as I am set free on another floor, I begin my search for Marina.

Instead, I come across an unmasked young woman with strawberry blonde hair dancing in an empty ballroom. A single spotlight illuminates her flowing movement, while a soft stringed melody provides a soundtrack.

I pause and watch the performance. Without warning, the music cuts out.

The woman abruptly ceases dancing and runs into the darkness. Instinctively, I follow, chasing her through the hall, down a set of stairs, and into a luxurious hotel suite.

Suddenly she stops, turns and looks directly into my eyes with an unnerving intensity. Feeling protected behind my mask, I stand still. Without breaking eye contact, she approaches slowly, leans in and kisses me on the neck.

Then she bolts again.

I’m left paralyzed. I remember Marina when an upbeat big band song from the 1930s shakes me from my reviere.

Over the next few hours, as the protagonist in my very own Choose Your Adventure, I witness bar fights, ballroom dancing, spousal abuse, murder, and a healthy dose of nudity in and around the abundant bathtubs in the hotel.

Marina and I finally find each other, while standing inches from one such bathtub in which a fully naked and blood-covered Macbeth was being washed by his wife.

In the taxi back to our hotel, we shed our sweaty masks and chatter excitedly about the night. It might be 2:45 a.m. but sleep is the last thing on our mind.

Note: An edited version of this story was published in the Globe and Mail.

Peter

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