Guardian Angels

I recently wrote about my climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. What I didn’t mention were the two guardian angels I met along the way that helped me climb the mountain.

First, I should mention why I needed help. I started climbing on Sunday after arriving in Africa from New York on Saturday. When I planned the trip months ago, I didn’t want to devote any more time than the allotted 8 days to make the trek. With 20/20 hindsight, this was probably not the best schedule given the jet lag I was feeling.

Starting at about 7000 feet above see level, I felt pretty good for the first 3 days of the trek as we rose up to an altitude of about 13,500 feet. Day 4 is when the wheels fell off for me. We crossed 15,000 feet in elevation before we camped lower at about 14,000 feet (one of the guiding principles in higher altitudes is to climb high and sleep low in order to help acclimatization). By the end of the 6 mile hike that day, I had nothing left. I can’t remember being that tired, with every step feeling like it required herculean effort. My head ached, my legs were like rubber, and my body just wanted to lay down. I was exhausted.

Nothing prepares you for your body’s rebellion from getting too little oxygen. Your legs scream to cease and desist. Parts of your brain shut down. I was still trying to remember the names of my 8 porters, but I could not put names to faces, something I am usually able to do pretty well. I needed a calculator to do ANY math. I cannot tell you how long it took me to calculate how much money I needed to tip my guide and porters! And then there’s the heart, whose sole purpose is to provide our organs and tissue with oxygenated blood and to return deoxygenated blood to our lungs so that it can become oxygenated again. That fist-sized pump of muscle and membrane was abused for the 8 days, pumping 50% faster than normal while at rest. Climbing uphill is obviously much more demanding. The rest of the body is calling for oxygen and the heart and lungs try their best to meet the demand, but they are always struggling to keep up. And just when they get used to the oxygen level at a certain altitude, you climb higher and give the poor bastards less oxygen to work with! I’m surprised they didn’t strike and walk off the job because of poor working conditions!

Sometime that day, two switches flipped off for me. A switch in my head turned off my ability to sleep for the rest of the journey, only permitting short cat naps when I was absolutely exhausted. Another switch in my stomach turned off my appetite. I could not eat. I didn’t even want to see food (this is extremely unusual for me!). The problem is that you need rest and energy to handle the remaining 4 days up the mountain.

That afternoon after finally getting to camp, I spoke to my guide, Gasto. I told him that if I felt as bad the following morning, I would not be able to continue. Although I was able to get a cat nap that afternoon, when evening came, I found myself staring at the roof of the tent all night. Feelings included exhaustion, worry, anxiousness, fear, panic, embarrassment, sense of failure, desperation and disappointment…oh, and headache and nausea.

Out of desperation, I took the altitude medicine that a previous travel doctor had prescribed for me when I went to Bhutan in 2014. My current travel doctor didn’t prescribe it for me because she said that I couldn’t take it with allergies to sulfa compounds which I’ve been tagged with since a childhood reaction to penicillin. At that point though, I didn’t care about any allergic reactions. Almost anything would be an improvement over how I felt that afternoon. I needed relief from the headaches, exhaustion, loss of appetite and the inability to sleep. (Don’t try this at home, kids)

The only reaction I had to the medication though was peeing…a lot. Apparently, it is a diuretic. I spent a good portion of that night peeing (I was awake anyway). Normally, I would have had to put my boots on and walk across the camp to get to the outhouse in the dark and the freezing temperatures in order to pee. I made the resourceful and perhaps somewhat gross decision to use the zip lock bags I packed as my own personal urinal in the relative warmth of the tent. Through the night, I almost filled 2 -1 gallon bags. Apparently, I was retaining quite a bit of water! Some of you may consider this way too much information, but I want to give you a feeling for my condition that day.

The following morning I felt better, but still somewhat weak and tired and very anxious. I was contemplating whether I should continue venturing further up towards the sky or descend back to earth. This is when my two guardian angels showed up, as if on cue, to help me make the decision.

My first angel was a young Indian women who was trekking with friends and “happened” to be in the next tent over in the camp. I started up a conversation with the group and asked them if they felt as terrible as I did. Although most of them said they didn’t feel well, none of them said they felt terrible…except this little Indian woman. When she described her symptoms, they were exactly what I was feeling. This actually gave me some comfort. I wasn’t alone anymore. I met someone who could understand and empathize. After a few minutes of commiserating, she imparted a piece of wisdom on me for which I am eternally grateful. She told me that chocolate was the only thing that she could eat the day before but that was enough to sustain her.

Obviously, that advice would have been useless if I didn’t have access to chocolate on the mountain. But fortunately for me, Gasto (who I could include on my guardian angel list for this) had suggested I pick up some chocolate prior to the start of the journey and thankfully I decided to purchase the large bag. So I had in my possession the solution to one of my two major problems. I now had a source of energy for the remainder of the climb.

This angel had unknowingly given me one of the keys to making it to the summit of Kilimanjaro. Unfortunately, I was never able to thank her personally because I never saw her again.

My second angel appeared only a few minutes later. This one was different from the first. I knew him. He was one of my porters on the journey. The porters (they would be called Sherpas on Everest) are amazing for their strength and speed in climbing at high altitudes. Each day, Gasto and I would set out first thing after breakfast (uneaten by me for the last 4 days) and leave the porters to clean the dishes and pack up the camp. They would complete these tasks and then set out along the same path for the next camp. Every day they would pass us carrying the entire camp on their heads or backs and get to the subsequent camp site and have it set up and ready prior to our arrival.

But this porter, Serafina, became one of my angels not for his strength and stamina, but for his kind and compassionate words. He must have seen the worry on my face as I pondered whether to move forward or turn back. He probably saw that I was staring off into the distance at the next challenge, a scramble (a hike that you need to use both hands and feet to climb) up a very steep incline known as the “Barafu Wall”.

jen-wallThe Barafu Wall

What he shared was the second piece of wisdom I needed to complete the trek to the top of Africa. He told me to stop thinking about the entire journey or even about the entire Barafu Wall. He told me that thinking about the whole journey can be overwhelming and intimidating. He told me to just think about the next step and focus on making it a strong one. That’s all. Just one step at a time. IT WAS SO OBVIOUS! It’s even the name of my blog, “One Foot Then the Other”. Serafina reminded me in my weakened state that during the tough times in our lives, sometimes all we need to do is take one little step forward. Sometimes all we have to do is BREATHE! It was just the pep talk that I needed!

Now I was equipped with both the mental and physical tools I needed and, as a result, felt much better prepared to handle the challenges ahead. I was now able to make the decision to move forward with at least a little confidence. I had at least these two things to hang my hat on.

So, it was with the help of the little Indian woman and Serafina that I climbed Kilimanjaro. One of them knows how they helped me and one of them doesn’t. But at the time, neither knew the impact they would have on my life. And so it is in our daily lives. Every day we interact with family, friends, colleagues and strangers by the dozens or hundreds. We may never know the impact we have had on them. Some may share with us how we have helped them and many may never get the opportunity. But I think it is good to keep in mind that we have the opportunity with every small interaction in our day do be helpful, loving, kind, and compassionate to another living creature. We have the power in our every word and action to spread light in the world.

And what was the cost? What did it cost the woman to commiserate with me for a few minutes and to offer some free advice? What did it cost Serafina to offer encouragement when he saw I was down? Absolutely nothing! Not a penny! You may ask, “but what did it gain them?”. It’s true that in our modern world that focuses so much on monetizing things, it would be tough to put a value (to them) on their actions. I can’t promise you a happy afterlife for your positive actions in this life. I have no idea what happens to us after we leave this world. But I do believe the sages that have spoken to us through the ages on how to live a “good” life while on this earth. I’ve boiled it down to the following:

-Love your neighbor as yourself
-Be present
-Be honest with yourself and others
-See the wonder of it all
-Strive to live authentically and “lean to the light”
-Accept life as it is
-Have gratitude
-Work hard to grow up to become a mature human being. Never stop learning and growing
-Forgive others and yourself
-Understand that everyone is fighting a great battle in life. Have compassion
-Help where you can
-Enjoy the ride

I would suggest that when we have the presence of mind to think about it, we consciously work to spread light using the guidance above. There is enough darkness to go around, both through the actions of others as well as our own; when we are in a mood, hurt, sad, fearful, worried, stressed, angry, jealous, envious or for any of the many other reasons we become self-absorbed and forget our obligation to and impact on others. These are the times; when we are experiencing our lower natures; if we are lucky and open, some guardian angel will show up and lend a hand and help us return to our higher nature. So as it turns out, we’re all just taking turns helping each other make the climb up the mountain.

img_5760Gasto and me

img_5828My porters. Serafina is bottom left

9 thoughts on “Guardian Angels”

  1. What a great story John. You really told it as it is and saved me the pains and trepidations while still enjoying the journey. My wife received a double lung transplant three years ago and prior to that she could relate easily to your detailed descriptions about the lack of oxygen. She needed oxygen support for about two years prior and experience the same symptoms that you described. She just wonders now why no one ever suggested Chocolate. Oh well, she lost her chance. Your thoughts on life are true and we should all try to follow them… it would be a much better world. Welcome back John and thanks for taking us along on another adventure. Now off to the next great adventure.

  2. Wow great trip john, as I read I feel as I’m right there with you, I have severe lung issues ever since my time at ground zero, with all the doctors I’ve been to, you think they would have mentioned chocolate! Please be safe in your journeys old friend, I really hope one of these trips takes you to disney world, we could hoist a few in the Kilimanjaro of florida, In Animal Kingdom, I think you would enjoy a nice 15 minute night safari, enjoy the ride, Joe

  3. Just wanted to say congratulations on another accomplishment. Thanks so much for bringing us along on this journey and sharing life’s lessons. We all need occasional reminders of those lessons.

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