This year my parents both had birthdays where they turned numbers it would not do to mention in polite conversation. Because they are my parents, and because this is my family, they decided the best way to celebrate would be to climb a mountain.
Hiking is a yearly ritual for us. Even though it means sleeping bags too few centimeters from sharp rocks, even though our feet and calves and thighs ache at the end of it, even though it means my brother and I forced into close proximity for longer than healthy, even though we spend a lot of time wet and tired, still, more than once a year finds us glued into hiking boots, plodding on in some direction.
This year my parents saw to it that direction was upwards on Mount Kilimanjaro—the tallest mountain climbable without knowing mountaineering, which we all excelled in lacking (except Neel). And so the end of July found us with plane tickets in our hand, seven packed duffels in tow, hiking boots laced tightly, Tanzania-bound. Two days—hours of flights, one panicked airport transfer, and a musty hotel later—found us outside Rongai Gate, 1700 meters above sea level.
We walked among forest, dense and damp and green, at first, but the trees grew shrubbier as we ascended. Under one thick with delicate gold flowers we rested and watched malachite sunbirds—emerald and iridescent—curve long thin beaks to the air overhead. The stiff form of an augur buzzard, a dramatic black and white when close, spiraled into silhouette and out of sight. Till we reached camp, there were no other hikers—only our footsteps sounded on the gravel.
Alone with giggling streams and lovely green, the world felt made for us, but when we arrived at the tent site we filled our names in a thick guest book. My brother and I spent several minutes flipping through the people before us: a fireman from New Zealand, a blogger from India, all these millions of footsteps before us. I sat and read at a bench facing the trail till the light thinned to onionskin, imagining everyone that had crested the ridge before me and seen the camp ahead. The journey I took with them across time and mountain, now, by adding my name. And the next morning when we woke, the truncated peak had emerged from clouds. High above, it glistened in gray and white. There is a reason mountains house gods. We stood at its base as supplicants.
Flowers came one by one to replace the long bearded moss—the bushes grew like spindly candelabras, and from their tips emerged crumpled yellow blooms. Two gladiolas flamed among the dark green shrubs, which themselves rustled with waves of unafraid streaked seedeaters. They sat next to us and pecked at the heather in camp that evening while we luxuriated in the sun. Flutters of movements by our tents betrayed the scurries of four-striped grass mice with full cheeks.
That night the clouds cleared into wavy brushstrokes, leaving the mountain bare to the night and garlanded by stars. Before crawling into the warmth of our sleeping bags we stood outside and watched the silhouette of the peak, something dark and unknown.
The next morning, before breakfast arrived and the fog came down again, I took my camera and clambered up to where you could see the slope of the mountain from base to peak, without interruption by rocks or trees or plants. The just-awoken light left the world full of edges and showed it holy. I sat gazing at in silent prayer: the camp was distant enough that I had the windsong to myself and around me was only the alpine meadow, far and full of glowing sunrise into the distance. Every moment hung sacred. With every breath I disappeared a little further into the landscape and all was expanse and open mountain.
Past 3400 meters that day, we left the birds and trees behind. Instead we got vast fields of flowers as we walked. The mist hung far ahead: by the midmorning that shone upon us, it had engulfed the peak, but we hiked in sunlight, arms bare to the air, and stopped often for the daisy-like blooms. They grew from thick stems leafed in ghosted, glimmering silver, pale and sharp as frost; the flowers themselves turned yellowed-white in older plants and gleamed in younger ones. They tapered off to bright points that promised to cut. These are everlasting flowers, Helichrysum newii; they survive up here by closing up against the cold and opening wide to swallow the sunlight when it comes. They never wilt, and we saw them that day spread out across the mountain’s flanks like snowed-in pastures, glorious in the sun, whiter than the mist then beginning to whip past in glacial wisps.
The mist became a flood just as we reached camp that day. We stayed inside as rain began to come down, laughing and playing card games inside the mess tent. I came determinedly last while my mother smiled and bluffed and won and the cold remained outside just for a little while. By the next morning Kilimanjaro, clear before us, had donned virginal robes.
We shook the ice from our tents and set out among boulders. At the top of some, hikers before us had scrambled up and piled cairns, as if trying to assert that humans could still exist here, in this steadily more hostile landscape. In the shadows, frost cowered next to still stubbornly opening Helichrysum; the flowers became less frequent, sometimes growing in circles with the edges curled in on the fragile forms of dead plants, and instead around us the mountain expanded into dusty expanses without anything in sight. Even as the mist came again and surrounded us in damp gray, the path ahead led through unknown distance.
At lunch we ate fried sandwiches by a rock outcropping beyond which we could not see more than ten meters, feeling thoroughly miserable as the rain started beating a pattern on our backs. Our guides had told us we had an hour left to reach camp, but they laughed at our bemusement when five minutes later a weather station emerged ahead, and huts afterwards, and a sign that said, Summit This Way. This was Kibo, our highest camp, and tonight we would head for the top.
We napped sporadically over a long drizzled afternoon next to a vast valley tracked by a long-melted glacier. At dinner that day we picked at our food: suddenly the altitude had set in on us with a vague bloatedness and yearning for warmer climes and familiar views; we talked in hushed voices of the meals we wanted to eat when we came down, which seemed very far—thirty kilometers and the top of Africa away.
At 12 am a knock came on our tents and we fumbled into layers and stumbled out for tea and shuffled outwards towards the peak, so much closer now. We bent our heads up to it as we started, at the glaciers anchored far above, in respect. And even as the cold and dark forced us to muffle ourselves in as many hoods and beanies and balaclavas as we could, to look down at the wan circle of headlamp light and hope the scree would not give way before us, the crater, too high above, exerted a tangible presence. Like a lighthouse. Like an altar. With every step we laid an offering. Take us further. Take us higher. With every breath we whispered our own wordless mantras. Behind us, Mawenzi—another peak on Kilimanjaro’s slopes—loomed ominous.
That final climb is divided into three key portions—a winding path at the beginning, a switchback section in the middle, and a rocky finish—but within it the ascent only felt endless. I counted my steps, rationing my liter of water out for every four hundredth shuffle forward, but within the first two hours the wind began biting us through our layers and my pipe froze. Still I counted, because in the night there was no other way of measuring—there was nothing except for you and those behind and those ahead and the cold and still the path heading up, unshakeable as faith.
We waited for the light and warmth of sunrise, but while the last few mornings had left the summit bathed in sky, when we turned painfully at a rest (all collapsed on the loose scree, not even looking for a convenient rock) we found only a dimly lit fog. So we continued with the sun creeping only fragile beams in. We began to see the rocks bewitched in the light snowfall we had ignored when wrapped in our own footsteps and the glacier now next to us. The snow had crumpled its surface into small mountain ranges with tiny fragile peaks. As the light grew, being able to see (re)anchored us within the world, as if we now emerged from water into air.
The guides started singing when we came in sight of a ridge above where no distinguishable path extended. Kilimanjaro, no worries… We clambered over the last rock to Gillman’s Point without adrenaline, only the quiet finality of arrival. My mother embraced my father. Around us, the sun had emerged from the clouds without warning. The crater beneath us was filled with white; the glacier glistened. Behind us, Mawenzi watched unobstructed with a jagged eye over the golden plains. The huts at Kibo were just distinguishable, but far, far below. Beneath us, the slopes of Kilimanjaro were laid out like a map and aglow, and even though our exposure to the crater meant the wind whipped through our layers, it felt inevitably perfect. I had got my camera up but didn’t want to take it out, wanted to hold the sun in my memory. We were always going to know this light, cascading with the multitude of blessing, like there would always be enough to give.
I’m scared of heights, but we ran down the mountain after that. Our guide showed us how to avoid the firm paths and instead use the loose soil of the scree to carry you downwards—to step into the places with the least stability and let yourself fall with it, to avoid any temptation to search for firm ground, to embrace the pull of gravity rather than fight against it. Long-stepped and limber, we flew as we fell, and my initial terror at the unpredictability, the lack of any anchor, gave way to exhilaration, all the thousand meters down to Kibo. I let the mountain guide my steps. It had done this longer than I had.
After Kibo we left for the plains and our last camp. We walked through the valley we had watched when waiting for the summit, into the vastness, with the peak to our back and Mawenzi at our side and huge cliffs watching over the sweep of rocks, dust, and a thin path. I felt small, and remembered why I love the mountains. In the cities where I’ve spent most of my life, people and their creations are the largest things in sight: what matters is your convenience, your time, your entertainment, your work. But among these rock cathedrals, whether in the Himalayas or Dolomites or Pyrenees or Kilimanjaro, nothing could matter less than a person. There, I inhabit something so much more than myself. I bear witness to millennia beyond my imagining.
We left that desert behind for the flower meadows soon after, but that feeling remained. We came across giant groundsels, emerging like huge bulbous fingers from the mist like nothing I’d ever seen before, several times our height, looking like they belonged on a desert island known for odd endemics and few inhabitants rather than 4000 meters up in Tanzania. That night, the stars came in unparalleled millions. The only cloud was the Milky Way, spinning its slow dance, and we stood for a long time admiring a universe beyond our comprehension.
By morning, the only fragment left of that was the moon clinging to sky and a clear Kilimanjaro below. It followed us as we descended further till a ridge erased it from vision and instead we were left with only the meadows and the mist, yet again, creeping in around the everlasting flowers. On one, a small white butterfly outlined in dewdrops clung frozen—our first and only of the trip.
Conscious of our descent, of the emerging shrubby trees and the warming air, I wanted to stop for every flower so I could hold this glistened alpine world forever before we left it behind above us. But we had twenty kilometers to go and so we picked our way carefully through the mud and ran down when the path became firm.
In the canopy of the first proper trees we came across colobus monkeys that left us breathless. Gorgeous in black-and-white, they hung long soft tails towards our head. As we watched shell-shocked, they leapt across the path with restrained grace, one by one, to sit sorting through the moss with thin fingers. But eventually we moved on from those, too, after I struggled with juggling my camera and binoculars for a few minutes, into real forest now: mossy and green and enchanted. The trees held hyraxes curled into stillness, bright pink elephant trunk flowers in their crevices, secrets just out of reach in the shadows.
What came closer below was another world where cars came and disappointingly lukewarm showers awaited and hot food steamed in anticipation. But we had left another world behind us in the alpine meadows, and before that among the stars, and before that in the whitened peak, and before that in the camp, and the plains, and the morning. Every place only held the path in common and our pilgrim feet on it, each step a ritual to conjure the next, in whichever direction it may lead us next. Each step our homage: to mountains, to gods, to beauty, to wild.
Happy birthday, Mama and Dada.