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Brooklynites Abroad: The curious case of Kilimanjaro

The Project Elevation team sits down to a snack of popcorn and biscuits in the mess tent. Photo by Natalie Ingle. From left: Betina Brockamp, Jas Haddad, Jackie Hellen, Laura Burns, Natalie Ingle, Michelle Gibbons

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

The last thing I expected after climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro was to spend July 4 in a hospital bed. In the Amsterdam airport. With food poisoning. My five minutes in the tarmac ambulance were novel, but they took me away from where I wanted to be – on that KLM flight bound for New York City. And while I have to blame the goat cheese tartlette I ate for dinner in Delft, Netherlands, that was by far the least shocking thing I’d done in my two weeks abroad.

Just days before, I had stood on the so-called Roof of Africa, 19,341 feet above sea level, sobbing as my teammates and I crumpled in a triumphant bear hug. Spent and slightly delirious, too cold even to change the lens on my camera, I could only pose for a group photo. Sunrise across the glaciers was stunning, but the wind was relentless and my head was beginning the slow pound of altitude sickness. One team member vomited. On the way back down, I’d never wished so hard for an easy way out – an inflatable slide, maybe, or a helicopter – anything but the three hours spent skating and slipping down gravel and dirt, poles flailing, stomach churning, knees buckling. It seemed like the descent was harder than the climb or maybe it was just the sorry state we were in. This part of the Kili experience was nothing like I’d imagined.

When my five teammates and I sat in our mess tent that night, fondly slurping our last soup on the mountain, finally rid of the headaches and the fears, the summit itself seemed strangely unimportant. That we’d reached it was essential. More memorable, though, were the breathtaking camps we’d stayed at along the Lemosho route, the enormous full moon rising over the mountain, the Milky Way and the glittering lights of Moshi, Tanzania, far below. Most days, the clouds had spread in a foamy sea beneath us, adding to the thrilling effect that we were walking on the edge of the earth.

We’d trekked through unforgettable rainforest, moorland, alpine desert, and tundra. We’d been teased by ravens, regarded curiously by monkeys. We had learned to sing in Swahili with our guides. We had learned to love the dirt that became part of our hands. Every day, we purified our rations of water, and every night we peed into bottles in the safety of our tents. We knew far too much about each other’s menstrual cycles, nightmares, bowel movements, and gas. Living in high intensity, close-proximity quarters for eight days, we were bound to share certain intimacies.

But that’s precisely the kind of detail you don’t anticipate from the comfort of home. Over the brief couple months I had to plan for this trip, I’d focused on writing and fundraising for the two charities our climb was meant to benefit. Under the name of Project Elevation, our team – five women from New Orleans and myself, from Brooklyn – attempted to raise $20,000. In the end, we reached half our goal. And while I was tempted to be disappointed by the total, I recognized that’s $10,000 two very worthy charities didn’t have before we started. In that sense, and in our successful summit trek, our project was a complete success.

And if standing on top of the tallest free-standing mountain in the world was slightly underwhelming, it’s only because the rest of the trip was so startlingly remarkable. I’m grateful my body held up as long as it did. Coming down from the mountain, I suffered only two bruised toes. Things didn’t fall apart until we reached the city. During post-trek celebrations, someone danced across my left big toe and my walk turned into a limp. I fell off a see-saw which led to an afternoon getting X-rays of my back in a Moshi hospital. I collected so many mosquito bites while waiting for my flight out of the airport that I appeared to have contracted chicken pox. Then, of course, there was the food poisoning acquired during my long layover in the Netherlands, my near black-out on the plane, the ambulance, the injection, the soup and the tea, and finally the new flight home—five hours later. I’d never been so happy to flop into the back of a Yellow Cab as I was at JFK that night.

When it took my luggage four days to catch up to me at my apartment in Brooklyn, for once, I wasn’t surprised.

September 3, 2013 - 9:00am


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