Our jostling, dirt-encrusted jeep bounces and squeaks for four unremitting hours across a narrow desert track through the open country of Tanzania. We arrive in the middle of the night, finally stopping in pitch blackness at base camp. As I climb out of the jeep, stiff and bone-weary from the long flight and journey from the Arusha airport, I trip headlong instead into the talons of a thorn bush. Sprawled in the dark, hot sand, impaled by stinging thorns, I’m brought up short and bloody. Edgy laughter competes with fatigued tears, and I settle on giving free range to both.
My mind quickly trips to the familiar. Whoa, now my new microfiber khaki safari shorts and Coolmax shirt are dirty. Laundry is more than a week away. Then, as I pluck thorns from my palms, I let myself ask the critical questions. What am I doing here? Why am I about to try to climb this 19,349′ peak? Is this an omen?
I grimace with the prick of thorny little jabs of pain. Why am I here, sprawled in the African desert, far from home? I enter a timeless zone of introversion, my frequent home as a psychoanalyst, beginning a familiar thread of tracking my own inner workings. My thoughts race with practiced ease. I recognize a dynamic tension between seeking freedom and the biggest challenges, traveling to the farthest outbacks, testing my mettle, stoking the fires of omnipotence and pleasure in taking control, versus my greatest trial of all: accepting limits, learning to let go, releasing the need for control. Another thorn pique bolts me back to my body. Life is short, and we’re here by a slender thread. I want to sort out the balance between living each day to the fullest as if there were no tomorrow and facing the fact that before I know it, I will be turning sixty. My beloved husband Jim, three years ahead of me and a far more reckless adventurer than I, has already lived out a lion’s share of his nine lives.
Pulling out the last of the thorns, I enumerate the list of reasons I am here as naturally as a homemaker makes out her shopping list. I long to tolerate my limits, accept my mortality, and cultivate a deeper understanding of impermanence. Finally relieved of thorns, I breathe in the sweet-scented African night air and rest a moment on the warm desert sand.
I am suddenly surrounded by my trek mates, relative strangers until we met a few hours ago in the airport. Their flashlights shine on me while Jim, my tall, lean, handsome, gray-haired husband, grins down with his sky blue eyes, saying, “So, Doctor, that’s a splashy start!” Anton, our expedition guide, trots smartly out from Jones Camp base tent with a first aid kit, a bucket of warm soapy water and his own impish, slightly unshaven grin, punctuated by sparkling blue eyes. He quips in a Cockney voice, “Kind of a pointed greeting we gave you here in the bush, eh?”
Next morning, after a stuporous sleep, our newly assembled trekking group trudges from individual sleeping tents across a barren, dry expanse to the cook tent for a breakfast of fresh fruit, grits, eggs, and homemade rolls. Anton clinks his spoon on a Toucan-emblazoned coffee mug to get our attention, his sandy hair still sleep-tousled. “Listen up, guys!” We pull our canvas camp chairs into position. We’re going to have our first daily “chalk talk” about what to expect in the coming days.
Outside the tent I hear the awakening chorus of the African bush–whirring insects, birds with unfamiliar feathers and songs chirping and singing. Anton gathers our two handsome, very black African assistant trek leaders, well-muscled Joseph and lithe August. We soon delight in hearing these Bantu Chagga tribesmen speak in clipped British voices, an ironic contrast to their boss’s brawly Cockney style. Eight American climbers lean forward in our camp chairs. We are singles and couples from all over the United States, and our trip doctor, Nihal, is an East Indian. We range in age from twenty-something to sixty-three, and our costumes vary from newly purchased REI and Campmore catalog clothing to well-faded, far-traveled gear.
With a portable blackboard, pull-down maps and charts, Anton formally welcomes us: “We’re about to trek through six distinct eco-zones over the next eight days of the climb and descent.” He indicates with his pointer on the trail map. “We’ll be leaving this high desert plain, crossing a montagne forest of dense jungle canopy, running streams, and plenty of orchids and monkeys, then we’ll move into the clearing that gives the first dramatic vistas of Kili herself. We’ll trek across the Shira Plateau at 11,000 to 13,000 feet with its gigantic specimens of myriad native plants, then up thousands of feet through sparse, arid volcanic scree before we reach Arrow Glacier, opening onto the glaciers at the Kili summit at 19,349 feet.”
This sounds like the brochure, fascinating and challenging, but with an unexpected spin. I respond with more than simple anticipation as he outlines the daily routine on the trek, telling us how to arrange our gear and what weather to expect. It’s not just that spine-tingling screech of chalk on a blackboard. In spite of Anton’s enticing introduction to the geological and botanical wonders we will traverse, as an attuned psychoanalyst I’m picking up a kind of eerie energy between Anton and our assistant guides, Joseph and August. I note a few disquieted pauses, and know that something powerful is preoccupying them. Even though we are still a group of relative strangers, it is my training as an analyst to ferret out unconscious communication and my basic nature to speak up. Not willing to accept unspoken barriers to communication with leaders on whom our lives will soon depend, I ask at first gently, but then persistently: “I sense something bothering you. No answer. Then, “What is it?” Still no answer.
My query brings on a chilling silence. I swivel around in my camp chair to see what I can read in the others faces. Seeing their attentive expressions, I’m guessing I’ve nailed a feeling some of them may have felt unconsciously. Nihal, the trek doctor and a Chicago radiologist by trade, trains his sharp, black, well-schooled Indian eyes first on Anton, then me. Susan, the youngest and bubbliest of the group, leans forward, the effervescence evaporating from her wide Texas smile.
Anton begins formally speaking of the dangers of Kili and high altitude. It sounds like a canned safety speech. He says the company has an almost 95% success record on reaching the summit, almost twice the average. I’m being stonewalled. Anton turns apprehensively to look at Joseph and August, who are staring down at their sandaled feet. I continue gazing at him pointedly across the breakfast table. It takes Medusa’s stare to dissolve his defense.
Finally, returning my gaze, Anton drops his pointer and his teacherly mien and blurts out, “Just over a week ago, a woman on our last trek died on the mountain. We’re all pretty stirred up about it. It’s never happened to me in all the years I’ve guided this mountain. It was the second to the last trip before I retire into married life and a desk job. I’m not ready to say more.”
Whoa. In spite of the rising African heat, a chill raises the hairs on the back of my neck and on my arms. I’ve always welcomed goose pimples as clinically informative; they signal anxiety and say bulls-eye. I rub them. At this moment, we all barely know each other and we’re each cocooned in our own pre-trip anxieties. Anton’s confession rips silently through the group. The meeting breaks up awkwardly, half-finished tea and coffee mugs are hastily abandoned and we scatter, shuffling in nervous silence through the hot sand to our tents to spend the day readying for tomorrow’s departure. Nothing like a to-do list to pull you back from the brink of panic.
After dinner our group settles around a blazing campfire that lights up the starry African night. This time it is Susan who breaks the ice for us, pressing Anton for more details. She is recently divorced, a thirty-something, curly blonde and blue-eyed Texas lawyer who has revealed her spunk and courtroom savvy by effortlessly gleaning information from each of the climbers. She’s a little Texas pistol who applies her vivacious good offices and impressive cross-examining skills, confronting Anton across the campfire: “You’ve got to tell us more.”
Anton leans back in his camp chair and his Cockney accent rivets us. “A 53-year-old woman, her name was Zoe, was on our last trek with her new husband. It turns out her doctor had warned her not to exceed 12,000 to 13,000 feet due to some heart stress. But she and her husband Bart never said anything about it to me. They described their health as excellent.” Anton pauses to throw a log on the fire, sending crackling sparks skyward. “But by the third day she was really struggling.”
Jim, ever the mountaineer, interrupts to ask, “What signs was she showing?” Anton says, “Unsteady on her feet, breathing hard, her color was pale and she felt clammy. At 16,000 feet I told her she had no choice. She had to turn back. It was bizarre. She didn’t want to, but I told her again she had no choice. Reluctantly, she set out with two porters to help carry her gear and a radiophone to keep in contact with me. Unbelievably, Bart wanted to continue to summit with the rest of the group and let her go down on her own.” Our anxious murmurs turn to gasps and exclamations of “Oh, my god!” Susan blurts out, “You mean her husband didn’t go with her! I would’ve decked the guy!” Anton, August and Joseph are all breathing hard and shifting uncomfortably on their chairs. Anton takes a deep breath and continues, “On the second day’s descent, the porters radioed me. They told me Zoe had gone into cardiac arrest.”
“Oh my god!” I bleat.
“What’s her condition?” There was a static silence on the radio, and then I heard, “She’s dead.” Joseph and I were in total shock. There was nothing we could do.”
Anton clears his throat, and in a voice husky with emotion, continues. “I told the porters to carry her body down. Joseph and I decided not to tell the rest of the group until after their ascent on the summit next morning. We waited until they had all summited. Stoked about reaching the top, none of them, most especially her husband, were focused on Zoe. It was awful. After we came off the top and were starting down, then I had to tell them of the call and about her death.”
A log suddenly collapses into the fire and we all jump as coals fly dangerously close to our feet. In spite of dancing flames and crackling fire, a grim pall settles over all of us. Nihal, Susan, Jim, Janet, Ruth, the others and I all groan in horror, sympathy and disbelief. Anton pauses while Joseph pushes one of the logs back into the center of the fire.”When I told him, I found out her husband had actually known all along that she was at serious risk.” We all lean forward, waiting for details.
“The guy actually tells me then and there that she’d told him she wanted to be cremated if she didn’t make it!”
As a group we emit a chorus of incredulous groans. “No shit! What a shit!”Â
“Yep,”Anton continues, “He let her go alone. Bart and Zoe had both put the whole group at risk. They knew about her condition. Zoe’d been to see her cardiologist and he’d warned her unequivocally and outright, “You shouldn’t go above 14,000 feet! They’d suppressed his report, never alerted the agency on the medical forms.”
Flabbergasted, I repeated, “And she wanted to be cremated on the mountain? This is appalling shades of Into Thin Air and Krakauer’s description of some of those dangerously self-oriented climbers on Everest!” Anton and Joseph mutely nod.
I find myself trying to imagine their motivations. Anton says the husband was strikingly handsome but seemed like a very self-centered jock, always driven to find some new challenge. Zoe the bride sounded mousier, and was probably pushing herself to impress and meet the athletic standards of her new macho husband. I know something about this dynamic. Though mousy I am certainly not, before I met Jim “€an avid skier, hiker, competitive cyclist, and macho man himself.” I was pretty content with a comparative walk in the park. Here I am, about to do something I would never have dreamed of. And now it’s sounding way scarier. My friends and family still can’t believe what I’ve gotten into since I met Jim fifteen years ago. I am excited by most of the sporty challenges and adventures he’s spurred me on to. We’ve done a lot of downhill and cross-country skiing, many miles backpacking in the backcountry, and treks up to 21,000 feet into the Land of the Snow Leopard in the Himalayas. But I certainly don’t have a known heart problem.
Not only do I comprehend why Anton, Joseph, August, and the porters seemed so squirrelly and weird, but I also realize that our group has the raw death of this woman to carry with us. We each might have to contemplate our motivations. I’m ready to look into my own grandiosity and the truly unsettling implications of this story of people who could afford to travel halfway around the globe to prove something. The questions I asked myself during the thorn bush episode ratchet up.
Anton the Brit seems like a highly competent leader, but usually a jokester, good at making light and putting people at ease. August and Joseph are young, maybe in their mid-twenties, both friendly but shy. They all seem deeply relieved to unburden themselves of this horrible experience as the rest of the story tumbles forth from Anton.
“By the time we got down to the bottom of the mountain it was clear the evacuation of a body is very difficult at best, since there are only two helicopters in all of Tanzania. They’re reserved for the president and the military. In spite of how we felt about the guy, because of what her husband said were her wishes and the logistics of how difficult it was going to be to get the body back to Arusha, we decided we had no choice but to build her a funeral pyre.”
This information about the helicopters, I later discover, derails us all momentarily from the unfolding drama, stirring mini panics and resentment among those of us who paid a lot extra for emergency evacuation insurance. The only way to be evacuated off Kilimanjaro, it turns out, is to be physically carried down the mountain on the back of a porter, and driven for two days over bumpy roads to Arusha, the capital. We’re going to have to make this climb on our own two feet and not expect to be rescued. Serious gravitas settles in the air around our snapping campfire. But for a minute, it takes our minds away from the horrible image of the funereal fire that is about to unfold.
Anton continues, “I don’t think any of us are really ready yet to go back to that scene, even in our minds. You’ll soon discover that there’s very little available wood around on the mountain. It took the porters all day to scavenge enough to build a funeral pyre. I can’t really talk about what came next. Just imagine, it was pretty damn traumatic for the survivors, to see, hear and smell her body burning.”
The image is excruciatingly graphic. How can you not be overcome by an image of a funeral pyre, with unimaginable smells and the sounds of flesh sizzling? Our warm, crackling campfire takes on a creepy symbolism. But for Anton, Joseph, August, and our porters, the memory of that other conflagration must still be raw and unmetabolized.
I feel that as a group we have no choice but to help them contain and defuse the intensity of this awful experience. But what will it leave us with on the eve of our climb? As I ask this question, I find myself ready to metaphorically leave the campfire. I want to move away from the intensity of the present moment, to escape the heat by going inward and taking refuge in my own free associations.
From my clinical experience with patients, and from my own life, I know that raw trauma is sometimes simply too much to contain. I have learned that we can never be inoculated against trauma. Once we absorb the energy, we may have to tolerate being haunted by it for a time. But for the moment, it’s clearly a relief for these witnesses to share their grisly nightmare at last.
Though I can feel a clutch in my belly and the cold tension of hair rising on the back of my neck as I sit with Anton’s story, I’m aware that I struggle with other tensions and anxieties of my own. I pray that one day I will be emotionally free enough to release them. I am concerned about my need for control and security. For example, I am such a neat freak that my son Gabriel once jokingly gave me a label maker so I could list the contents of all the drawers in the kitchen to be sure nobody, god forbid, would dream of putting the pizza cutter where the pastry brushes belonged. In terms of emotional security, I want Jim to reassure me too much about his love for me, and to tell me that he’ll watch out for his physical safety when he goes on long bike rides. I also feel I have too many attachments both in the material world, to my home and its contents (that goes way beyond the pizza cutter and the pastry brushes), and to particular aspects of my identity, my professional role and my role as a mother. I fear I hold too tightly to these.
I’m brought back to the dying campfire, aware of dead silence all around. Stirred and hushed, one by one we pull back our camp chairs and head somberly to our tents for the night. Jim and I try wordlessly to expunge these distressing ruminations and morbid images with tented love. It helps, but it has an edgy aura like the gravity of knowing a lion is crouched outside the tent.