We maneuver by moonlight, trudging along for what seems an eternity, one foot, then the other. We’ve not slept since the previous night. If any of us feels even a hint of altitude sickness, we’ll have to descend.
We’ve trekked for five days, through rainforest, across alpine meadow, through the moonscape above the tree line. And now the final push to 19,000 feet, to Kilimanjaro’s snow-capped summit.
At a certain point, we slow our pace, stopping and leaning on our ski poles, breathing hard after each step. James, our guide, says we still have three hours before we can expect to reach the top. The temperature is well below freezing, and our water bottles are solid blocks of ice. We’re lucky that the wind is light. The ice glistens as the intense equatorial sun gains stature.
Soon I need a longer rest. Although the air is frigid, perspiration drips down my forehead and neck. I look back and see my wife struggling. I lean on my pole. After a few minutes Terri is making slow but steady progress. I resume my climb. Finally, we reach the crater. Ray, then Lisa, then me – we stagger to the top. Terri crawls her way up the last few hundred meters.
I take several deep breaths. The clouds swirl around us diminishing visibility toward the crater, but breaks in the clouds on the side we’d climbed allow for a view of the grassy, acacia-studded plains of Africa below.
At long last, here we are, on the roof of Africa. I feel sky high, but in time I’ll learn that our Kilimanjaro adventure is but a prelude to a mountain far steeper than any I’d imagined.
Some months pass and I know something’s wrong. The doctors can’t say just what, but think it unrelated to Africa. Before long, I find myself in the hospital, crippled by a neuropathy that came on gradually, before striking with a vengeance and rendering me quadriplegic. Recovery promises to be slow and uncertain.
At home, I’m wedded to a motorized chair, relying on Terri to perform the most basic tasks. At some point, my therapist wants me to try stairs. She’s a middle-aged Ugandan woman, soft-spoken, yet mercilessly persistent. She retrieves the talcum powder from Terri, and applies a generous amount to both railings. I’ll need the firmest grip I can muster. My nerves are on edge as I examine the five marble steps in the lobby of my condo.
After many grueling sessions, I’m making progress. My hands grasp the metal railings. First my left leg, then my right, then a little rest. “Bend your knees,” my therapist says. My shirt collar is soaked with perspiration, but there are only two more steps to the landing.
As I pause, my thoughts return to Kilimanjaro, to that final push to the top. I look up at the landing. Two more steps.
S. Michael Scadron lives in Silver Spring.