Anne Riskin, the wife of Jeff Riskin, who lost his battle with myeloma several years ago, posted this on my Facebook page about my upcoming trip: “I hope everything goes exactly as planned!” Well, one thing I learned quickly on this trip was not to have too many rigid plans and to go with he flow.
Contrary to our plan – to post regularly here, to post on Facebook and send out tweets daily.. – well, we learned quickly that THAT was just not going to happen. Even when we were in a hotel on the first day (a rest day) in Moshi, electricity was sporadic to to a nationwide shortage, and wi-fi was illusive. So I decided not to stress about that at all and to just enjoy the journey.
So I will share with you about this trip, about how we bonded and helped each other up that mountain, how respect and friendship grew and how our new friends, the mountain guides and porters at Real Life/Embark, helped us reach our dream.
Moshi, Tanzania – rest day
After our long trip to Africa, we arrived in Moshi for a day of acclimation and rest. Our group of 18 included 4 myeloma patients, a myeloma doctor, a representative from Takeda Oncoloy, (the company that developed 2 of the great myeloma drugs) and the director of patient advocacy from CURE Magazine. I should interject here that these two companies were our sponsors and that Takeda paid for the travel expenses of the group as well as the amazing video and photographers who documented the trip (Thank you, Takeda!!). Also with us were the wife of one of the patients, the twin daughters of a patient, and the daughter of a woman who had lost her battle with myeloma two years ago. Jamie Slater, who is friends with one of the patient climbers, Stan Wagner, and who came to the MMRF with the idea of climbing Kili lead the team and brought along two supportive friends who joined the effort. Finally, we were joined by Jim, of Embark Adventures and our two amazing documentarians, John and Ben, who took icredible photographs and video (including some using a drone) to tell our story. They had to be so fit to work so hard and climb alongside and often in front of us!
Day 1 on Kilimanjaro – to Londorosi Gate (7382 ft) to “Big Tree” (9172 ft)
Our Kilimanjaro route was the longest, and in some ways hardest, route – the Lemosho Route. The idea is to take the slowest, longest path up the mountain to allow your body to acclimatize to the altitude. The climb would be hard for any of us, but our biggest enemy would be altitude. After a 2 1/2 hour drive from Moshi, we arrived at the gate where we registered, got our bags weighed and meet up with our support crew, led by Freddie, of Real Life. So our band of 18 was supported by 82 people- porters, who carried heavy bags and supplies, often on their heads and walked much faster than we did, cooks, camp/tent staff, etc , and our mountain guides, who we would learn the full appreciation for later in the trip. We were a team of 100… Working together to achieve our goal.
To our surprise the 3 1/2 hour first day hike began as it would continue – very steep and often muddy. When we arrived at “Big Tree” camp we were greeted by the Real life porters and staff who sang and danced to celebrate our arrival.
Tents were set up already and we settled in before our first dinner on the mountain in our mess tent. A medical check in was conducted before we went to bed (as it would be every morning and night): pulse, oxygen level, bodily function report, and how-are-you-feeling-on-a-scale-of-1-10. We went to bed early, as would be our custom 8:00 or 8:30 was late for us!
Day 2 – “Big Tree” (9172 ft) to Shira 1 (11,451 ft)
Everyday we awoke at 6:00 AM , greeted by our mountain guide asking us if we would like coffee or tea and providing a warm bowl of water and soap to wash up. Our first and second days were in Rain Forest, and yes… it did rain! We often were enveloped in clouds – or rather were camping IN the clouds. It was pretty and soothing, but we wanted to see the mountain.. After breakfast of fruit and porridge, we headed out for our first long day – a 7 hour hike. It was nice to walk with different teammates along the way and to get to know these amazing, wonderful people who were aligned in spirit and mission. I learned a lot at what is like to be a multiple myeloma patient, from the patients, the doctor and the caregivers.
Much of the terrain on this day was over large rocks, akin to taking two steps at a time in the stairwell. I was so glad I had taken to training on the 12 flights of stairs in my apartment building as part of my preparation for Kili! After a good meal of soup, followed by rice and chicken we were off to bed – by 7:45! We would come to learn that it was all about EAT-CLIMB-REST/SLEEP. That is how you climb this mountain.
Day 3 – Shira 1 (11,451 ft) to Shira 2 Camp ( 12,830 ft)
I slept well – almost nine hours, so grateful for the cozy and warm “zero degree” sleeping bags and inflatable sleeping pads provided by Takeda Oncology. I am a newbie to camping, (I think I more than doubled the # of nights I have ever slept in a sleeping bag on this trip!), so out of my comfort zone. I was happy to sleep so well. Today’s hike in the “heather” ecosystem was supposed to be relatively easy, but our 5 hour hike seemed to go on forever as we hiked through drenching rain. I was so glad I had waterproofed my shoes (with waterproofing spray) and that I had the awesome Arc’terek jacket and a rain poncho. The rocks were slippery and muddy but we made our way by simply focusing on the feet belonging to the person in front of us, step by step. As I reached 12,000 feet, I could feel it was harder to breathe, but not a problem. We were once again greeted by our porters and guides with the “Kilimanjaro Song” which I now understood got a little longer at each camp as a verse for each milestone/campsite is added as we go up the mountain. We also began to recognize more Swahili words in the song, including “Hakuna Matata” (No Worries)
Day 4 – Shira 2 (12,832 ft) to Lava Tower (15,259 ft) to Baranco Camp (13,065)
This was our toughest day so far. It was hard to believe we were only at day 4. We were above the tree line and climbed to Lava Tower where every single person on the team reached their personal highest elevation ever. We worked together as a team to make it up to over 15,000 feet and all felt triumphant that we had accomplished this milestone together. Despite drenching rain, our spirits were bouyed and we all were certain that we would summit together in just a few days. The hike back down to 13,000 feet where we would camp was hard. Rain and mud made walking down the rocks treacherous. We were humbled by a man we met with a prosthetic “runners leg” who seemed to be doing better than we were – even with his metal appendage . He told the story of how he and his wife were in a motorcycle accident and they each lost a leg. She did not come on the trek or have any desire to climb Kili. He was climbing with his son. I had run out of water and by the time I got to camp felt nauseous. A nap an fluids were helpful, but a full nights sleep restored me to full health. This trip is exciting but there is a cloud of ominous anticipation. I am reminded: “one day/one step at a time”.
Day 5 – Baranco Camp (13,365 ft) to Karanga (13,315 ft)
This was another day of going up and then coming down to sleep lower – all the while getting closer to our goal. We were excited that the clouds had lifted ( or rather, we were above them) and we could see Mount Kilimanjaro – our finish line. This was both exhilarating and frightening. This day freaked out several on our fellow hikers, but was my favorite. This was the day we scaled and scrambled up the 350 foot Baranco Wall, what seemed to be an almost vertical face
Those skills I honed as a mother of “tweens” at the indoor rock climbing club in Stamford, CT came back to me quickly and my heart was smiling, thinking of my daughters as I faced day 5. It was not an easy day by any means, and I went on to bed feeling ill (again). I had blown up my sleeping pad with my mouth as opposed to the hand pump (because it is faster, and I want d to lay down quickly). I think giving away oxygen in these circumstances is a bad idea. (yeah, note to file: Don’t do that!)
Day 6 – Karanga Camp(13,313 ft) to Barafu Camp ( 15,222 ft)
Today was to be a short day, though the hike felt like it was straight up! We started a bit early it and finished by 12:45 After lunch we were instructed to prepare foe the summit climb – that is get everything we needed organized and in our packs. Then I took a short nap. We ate (again! – gosh we had all lost our appetites days ago!) and then went to bed at 6:30 PM, knowing we would wake at 10:00 PM, have a snack and head out to summit at 11:00 PM
Night 6/Day 7 – Barafu Camp (15,222 ft) to Uruhu Summit (19,341 ft) back to Barafu
I felt prepared for the cold night and day ahead, ready for what I likened to the super cold ski days I had experienced in Vermont. I pulled out some new stuff I had yet to wear on the trip. I wore long underwear, and fleece pants covered by rain/wind pants below. On top I wore a smart wool base layer, a long sleeve cold weather running shirt and my super thick, furry North Face fleece. On top of THAT, I wore the orange MMRF Arc’terik jacket. This was supplemented by a new thick wool hat, glove liners and warm ski mittens. I was grateful that my shoes and socks had done such a great job of staying dry and warm. I was good to go.
We all left together, each of us with a mountain guide assigned to help us. As we took those first big steps up the rocky craig that started our final trek up, I felt a little panicked (for the first time of the trip). It was dark except for our headlamps and the light of the full moon. We walked up and up and up the steep grade, only focused on our individual goal to get up that big hill – no matter what. The trudging became meditative – the only thing to focus on was the steps of the mountain guide in front of you If you could follow him, you’d be OK. That was the mantra- just keep following the only thing you see: those blessed feet in front of you. Quite often those feet would be joined by a hand. Indeed I am certain that for at least an hour my guide, Rinatus, held my hand and led me up the steep spots of the incline and assured me with his strong arm and hand that I could do this. Around 4 hours in, I turned on some music – soft, slow, quiet music (mostly Mark Knophler and Nick Hexum Quintet). I needed to disassociate, something I knew well from marathon running.
At 5 or 6 hours in I hit the wall. Why didn’t I bring any sports beans or chock blocks on this trip? As an endurance athlete, I knew to do this, but forgot. The trail mix and other snacks I brought sounded aweful and did not provide the eletrolites my body needed . We were aware of each other on the summit trek, but only had enough energy to get ourselves up to the top. Thank goodness for Freddie, Augustine, Renatus and all of the guides. We knew the others were being taken care of and could focus on our own efforts .
As we trudged on in our “death march” we stopped more and more often to catch our breath, regulate our heart rate and rest our legs. We often saw our colleagues and did a quick check in making mental notes of who was still with us. I had to keep reminding myself to look up at the gorgeous sky – full moon, Southern Cross, and an upside-down Big Dipper. I was mindful of taking that in and memorizing the stars cape.
By sunrise at around 6:15 AM we were in a trance-like state. I remember feeling like I was walking like a drunk. Jim, from Embark, mentioned to me that he was worried about some members in our party . I thought for sure he meant me, so I ignored him and trudged on, afraid that he would recommend that I discontinute my efforts up the mountain. My guide presented a MARS bar, which gave me a lift and a new kick of energy. He offered to carry my backpack, but I did not want to loose my Camelback – I came to rely on drinks from it often, even as the water froze in the mouthpiece rendering it useless.
By this time there were rumors that a few had to turn back and be escorted down the mountain, and this proved to be true. I was sad for my colleagues, knowing how disappointing their inability to summit would be. I pushed up that mountain despite pain, cold and near dilerium by the incredible desire to stand at the summit next the the Uruhu sign and hold the MMRF banner that contained the hundreds of myeloma patient names.
Around 8:00 AM I was surprised to see Ryan, Julie, Jana and MM patient Bobby greet me. God Bless them, they were waiting for me so that we could summit together! Within 15 minutes we had reached the top, Bobby first (!!) and the rest of us close behind!
We had done it!
We took in the beauty of the place: the glorious glacier, the view from the top and put our eyes on the prize – the Uruhu Congratulations sign. We took individual photos as we awaited the arrival of the other team members. Finally I pulled out the banner and we got the “money shot” : The summit photo with the banner of patient names We were all thrilled and exuberant. We thought of the myeloma loved ones in our lives, and cried a few tears, filled with so many emotions. We fist pumped each other, honoring the grit and determination that got us all the way up to 19,341 feet and that bonded us together in this effort.
We could not stay long at the top. It was so cold (zero degrees with winds of 35-45 mph) and the air was thin. We had to head back town to the camp we had left 9 hours earlier .
I was exhausted. It was as if I had spend every ounce of energy I had getting up that mountain and I had nothing left to descend . I was slower than Jana and Julie who were walking down with me. Eventually Rematus, my guide, told me to hold his arm and he “skiied” me down the maintain on a bed of deep lava dust. My quads ached as I braced myself while being “ragdolled” (to use Julie’s term) down the mountain for 2 hours. I would have stopped and slept on a cold rock (and died) if I could Down, for me, was harder than up. Back at camp we were greeted with yips and whoo hoos of glory – and mango juice. First thing I did? I threw up! Whoo Hoo!
We all took a 45 minute nap and ate and then the hardest thing : we had to hike down another 3-4 hours. To be honest there are memory blocks of both the summit and the aftermath. With the air so thin and our bodies so exhausted, we were a little out of our minds up there. But we were victorious and so happy to have reached out goal and taken on (and conquered) the hardest thing any of us had ever done. There is such satisfaction in that!
Day 8 – We continued down the”hill”.
Imagine taking 1 1/2 days to climb down what it took you 6 1/2 days to climb UP . Yeah.. Quite a descent. I was a goner My legs were so sore and tired. At one point I relieved myself in the rainforest brush and was literally unable to stand up from my “girl” position I literally had to crawl to a tree to shimmy up and stand up (I laughed at myself for sure) “Saint Augustine” (pictured here) is responsible for getting me down the last 6-7 hours on the final day. He held my arm and assisted me as if I were an old woman. I was the last one down, but we did it!
I When I arrived the team was enjoying African beer and lunch. I was so happy to be off the mountain, victory under my belt.
We closed the excursion with a ceremony. First, of course there was signing and dancing. We all joined in. Next, I wanted to address the porters and guides It was important to me that all of the 82 of the staff people understand the enormity of what they helped us achieve. I spoke and Freddy Chikima, who heads up the Real Life team, translated into Swahili, so that even the porters, who often did not speak English, could hear from each of us: who we are, why we climbed, and how important they were to our journey. It was really moving. This was followed by a tipping presentation and lots of hugs and tears.
The Tanzinan people we encountered were so amazing and wonderful. We are so indebted to them. This photo symbolizes the strength, kindness, love and humility that Real Life shared with us so richly.
Jambo kaka. Asante Sana Sana
(Hello, my brother. Thank you so, so much!)
This is the banner that we displayed at the top of Kilimanjaro. This is this what got us up the highest freestanding mountain in the world. Honor and love of those we know with multiple myeloma. Powerful, indeed.
We are Moving Mountains for Multiple Myeloma