The Road from Kilimanjaro

By KG MacGregor

© 2003

Part 2



Day 2 — Shira 1 Camp


"Who’s the moose?" Mary Kate demanded, entering the dining tent for breakfast.

"Drew!" answered Jack, Laurel, and Kendra in unison.

The sheepish man ducked his head in embarrassment. One of his former girlfriends had cited his snoring as the main reason for their breakup. "I can’t help it," he answered. "I’m supposed to have surgery this fall to fix it."

"What were they going to do? Maybe we can just do it here and save you some money," Jack joked.

Kristin grabbed a piece of bread and smeared peanut butter and honey on it. That with a cup of hot tea was perfect. The others drank Milo as they waited patiently at the table for scrambled eggs, tomatoes and mangos. As the campers ate, the porters efficiently dismantled the camp, folding up the tents and cooking equipment.

After a last trip to the latrine, the hikers packed their belongings and stacked the Summit bags in the center of camp. The air was crisp and damp, and by nine o’clock, they were back on the trail.

Mary Kate fell in behind the ranger today, followed by the ever-present, always talking Drew, then Ann and Tammy. Kristin had decided to stick close to John in the middle, hoping to be able to ask questions and get some of his insights on the mountain. Trevor and Leah were behind her, and Kendra, Laurel, and Jack brought up the rear.

Kristin learned that John had been working for Summit for over five years, and this was his 53rd trek to the top of Kili. He had reached Uhuru Peak all but seven times; in each of those failures, he had to return to the base camp with an ailing climber.

John wrote meticulous notes in a journal about each of his treks, and had made adjustments over the years to improve the chances of the climbers in his group reaching the summit. For this, he was Tom Muncie’s best and highest paid guide.

On every trek, John studied the hikers carefully, unobtrusively keeping notes on how much they drank and ate, observing their conditioning level, including how they rested during the breaks. He also assessed their confidence and determination, along with how they interacted with others. With almost perfect accuracy, these traits showed him who would have the best chance at getting to the top.

John loved this mountain, and every step along the way to the top. If his hikers went home with some of the same reverence and appreciation he had for this majestic peak, then he would feel he had done his job well. Gradually, he’d grown quite tolerant of the silly Westerners, knowing that if they had fun they would tell their friends, who would also come. It was still difficult to accept women who acted as though they were equal to the men, but Tom had prepared him for that. Strangely, more of the women usually made it to the top.

After an hour and a half of winding through the lush rainforest, it suddenly ended. There was no gradual thinning of the thick green vegetation; it was as though they had simply walked through a door into another room of the great outdoors. The accompanying armed ranger turned back and John took the point.

The brush was still relatively thick on this new terrain, but it was dry, and only a few of the trees reached higher than 10 feet. The canopy that had protected the hikers from the morning sun was gone, and at the first break, most of them peeled off their jackets and unzipped the pant legs on their convertibles. Mary Kate couldn’t help but laugh at herself again; she’d thought she was so smart finding this stuff on the Internet, and everyone else had managed to find the exact same things.

Late in the morning, the group stepped over a low ridge to discover their dining tent erected in a clearing, with the table and camp stools already set up. Gilbert and the porters had hurried ahead to prepare lunch, which was more peanut butter and bread, boiled eggs, bananas, carrots, tomatoes, and cucumbers. Ever present was the hot tea, which Kristin had all to herself while the others fought over the Milo.

"I bet that stuff has cocaine in it. That’s why you’re all craving it," she quipped.

"Speaking of drugs…," Drew started.

Kristin bristled, hoping he wasn’t about to stupidly tell everyone that he’d brought something with him.

"…are any of you taking Diamox?" Diamox was a medication that mimicked the body’s acclimatization to altitude. In other words, it facilitated the oxygen exchange between cells even if the body hadn’t yet adapted. The jury was still out on its effectiveness, but climbers had used it for years.

"I brought some, but I haven’t taken it yet," answered Mary Kate. "I haven’t really noticed any effects of the altitude."

"We started it as soon as we got to Moshi," Laurel explained, indicating her sister and friends. "My doctor said it needed to be in your system two days before it would take effect, so you might want to go ahead and start."

"What are you going to do, Kristin?" The Southerner trusted her new friend’s judgment, but she’d gotten the prescription to give herself the added ammunition to reach the summit.

"I hadn’t planned on taking it. I was hoping the water would be enough."

"Same here," Ann said.

"I’m taking it already too," Tammy spoke up. She’d meant to read the label at first light to see if that could possibly explain why she’d had a headache all night.

When they set out again after lunch, John promised them a beautiful sight before the next break, but would give no further clue of what lay ahead. The hikers shuffled their order again, with Tammy and Ann moving to the front of the line. Mary Kate dropped back behind Drew so she could also talk with Kristin. The five friends from Pennsylvania again brought up the rear.

The tall woman was quiet though, angry at herself for the near rage that had erupted inside her when she’d mistakenly gotten the wild notion that Drew had brought along drugs. Given her chosen profession as a family counselor, Kristin had dealt with the fallout from people who used drugs, and had no tolerance at all for it; but that was no reason for her to rush to judgment of people she barely knew. Besides, if she were really honest with herself, she’d have to admit that thinking the worst about Drew had more to do with his obvious attraction to Kate than to what he’d actually said. But who could blame him for that? Kate was likable, and so was Drew, and he didn’t deserve her scorn. Luckily, she had managed not to react out loud, so she didn’t need to apologize. But she should make an effort to be nice.

"Say, Drew? Who do usually hike with back in California?" Cyn and Andrea would be so proud of me, she thought, mentally rolling her eyes.

"I usually go with the Sierra Club. We try to do something every month."

"Have any of your friends done this?"

"No, and they’re all jealous as hell. But I have a feeling several of them will put it on their list. It’s a pretty expensive proposition for the average Joe."

"No kidding!" Mary Kate jumped in. The trip — including the safari — was costing her in the neighborhood of $6,000, most of which was money she’d been saving for a down payment on a house. Her grandmother had slipped her $2,000, extracting a promise not to say anything to the 19 other grandchildren. Mary Kate suspected that her grandmother had acted on the sly for all of her cousins at one time or another, and it was great to have the Sasser matriarch behind her on this quest.

"Everyone stop!" John commanded. When he had their attention, he turned and pointed to the top of the ridge they were climbing. Along its crest was a slim band of white. "The mountain," he said simply.

Ten backpacks hit the ground as the hikers reached for their cameras. Beyond that ridge, the entire mountain would be in plain view, but here, only its snowcapped peak was visible. It was tantalizing.

As they walked to the top of the ridge, the mountain grew exponentially larger as it revealed itself. Now standing atop the ridge that afforded their first full view of Kilimanjaro, they were awed again. For Mary Kate, it was simply the most spectacular sight she had ever seen. The uniqueness of Kili was that it rose up as a singular peak, not as part of a chain of mountains. In fact, it was the tallest free-standing mountain in the world.

From where they stood, it towered nearly 10,000 feet above them, still about 18 miles away. Completely devoid of vegetation, the mountain appeared to be gray, its glacier top looking like icing on a cupcake.

"And that is our camp. See?" John pointed to a cluster of colorful dots about a mile ahead on the plateau.

"That’s Shira 1?" Tammy asked. She hoped so; she had to go to the bathroom bad and John had her spooked about the snakes!

"Shira 1. It is 12,000 feet."

The hikers entered the open flat camp before three. Ann admitted to being more tired today than yesterday. She hadn’t slept well last night, still adjusting to the nine-hour time change from Minnesota. Tammy offered to fill her water bottles if she wanted to rest.

The first order of business was to spread the sleeping bags across the top of the tents, as last evening’s condensation had left everything damp. Next, Gilbert proudly presented the group with freshly popped popcorn, which disappeared almost as soon as he set down the enormous bowl. Retreating to the cook tent, he fired up the stove to make more.

"Man, that water’s freezing!" Trevor said, rubbing his hands together briskly as he returned from the creek that crossed directly between their campsite and the mountain.

Water? Kristin hurried to her Summit bag, taking out a small towel, washcloth, the camp soap, and a complete change of clothing. "I don’t know about you guys, but I’m feeling a little grungy. I think I’m going to try to find a wide spot in this creek — out of view from your prying eyes!" The latter point was directed at the three men who sat filtering water.

"Wait!" Mary Kate jumped up from where she’d been filling her Camelback. "I’m coming with you."

"Me too!" Ann shouted, poking her head from her tent.

Tammy and Leah followed suit.

The sisters exchanged looks then quickly scrambled to get their things.

"I wanna come too," Drew whined. "I’m grungy too."

"That’s right," Jack chided. "You stink and you snore. And the naked women don’t want anything to do with you."

Drew slumped dejectedly. "Story of my life."

Ten minutes downstream, the seven women found the perfect spot: a clear shallow pool about 10 feet across fed by a small waterfall above, and emptied by a second waterfall at the bottom. The sloping sides gave them a place to sit as they washed, without having to be fully submerged in the icy flow.

Kristin went first, pulling off her boots, socks, pants, and shirt. To that pile, she quickly added her panties and sports bra, squatting tentatively to slip waist deep into the water’s edge.

Look at those ripply muscles, Mary Kate thought as she eyed the woman’s beautiful body. Not an ounce of fat anywhere. Now if I were ever going to be attracted to a woman, she’d definitely be my type. No sirreee….the lesbians at Savannah College didn’t look like Kristin Addison.

The others began to undress as well, slipping wide-eyed and gasping into the icy pool. Bravely, Mary Kate followed suit, shedding all of her clothes and taking baby steps down the slippery rock so that she wouldn’t…splash!

"Oh, shit!" she screamed, gasping to draw breath into her frozen lungs. The slippery incline offered no traction as she tried frantically to pull herself out. Reaching out, she took Kristin’s outstretched hand, but not without noticing that the woman’s other hand was covering her mouth. "Don’t you dare laugh! Not one goddamn one of you!"

But it couldn’t be helped.


Unable to sleep, Kristin and Mary Kate talked into the night. The plateau was much colder than the rainforest had been, and the women were burrowed deep into their sleeping bags, zipped high so that only small holes allowed them to breathe and see out. Both were feeling refreshed from their bath; it was amazing how dirty one could get in only two days. But since Kili was an ancient volcano, the soil surrounding it was black silt, and it seemed to find every human orifice, clinging like soot.

Kristin was feeling a little guilty for sneaking a peek at her naked friend down at the creek. But it was pretty hard to resist, especially with her flopping around in the water trying to climb out. At least now she had something glorious to envision when she walked behind Kate on the trail.

"So you’re going to finish school this year?" The innocent voice interrupted her prurient thoughts.

"Yeah, probably by December. My dissertation’s almost finished."

"What’s it on?"

"It’s kind of morbid, actually. It’s about young women and suicide tendencies. I did interviews with about 300 college women, trying to identify feelings and events that trigger thoughts of suicide."

"Wow, what’d you find?"

"Different things. Usually, there’s some kind of perceived failure."

"It must be hard talking to people about things like that. One of the kids in my class lost his mom to suicide. It’s very sad, and it leaves behind such pain."

Kristin sighed heavily, not sure if she should continue. She hadn’t talked about Erin in a long time. "Yeah, it really does. My best friend from high school killed herself when we were seniors."

"Oh, my god! Kris, that’s awful."

"Yeah, it was pretty bad."

Mary Kate thought she’d heard a sniffle.

"She struggled a lot with her family. Her brother was really smart and athletic; everybody liked him, and her parents were always asking her why she couldn’t be more like Todd. And if that wasn’t bad enough, her little sister Shelley came along and she couldn’t do anything wrong either. Erin was a spirit who liked to have fun and she just never measured up in their eyes."

"That sounds so hard." Actually, Mary Kate thought it sounded familiar. Just change Todd to Randy and Shelley to Carol Lee. Her older brother and younger sister had hung the moon.

"When she didn’t get accepted at Gainesville, everything just went all to hell. One day she didn’t show up at school and they found her sitting in her car in the garage. She’d closed up and left the motor running."

"That’s so sad. It must have been awful to deal with."

"Yeah, it was hard. I just wish I could have seen it coming and said or done something to stop her. At least with the work I’m doing now, I feel like I might be able to make a difference with somebody."

Mary Kate lay silent, trying to think of something comforting to say that didn’t sound trite. The only personal loss she’d ever known was her grandfather, who passed away two years ago.

"Sorry, even after 12 years…."

"Hey, I understand. That’s really quite a story." The women lay quiet for a while, Mary Kate admiring the fact that her new friend had been able to turn such an awful thing around into a positive direction for her life. She was about to say so when Kristin continued.

"So what about you? You teach special ed, right?" Kristin hoped her morose tale hadn’t thrown a wet blanket on their conversation.

"Yeah, emotionally handicapped." Mary Kate went on to explain her job. She had eight students — all boys — in her small classroom, most landing there because they were behavior problems in their regular classroom. She liked the work; she loved the kids; but she wished she were at a different school.

"What’s wrong with your school?" Kristin asked.

"Nothing really. I mean, it’s a nice building, and all of the teachers are really nice. I went to school there myself 20 years ago. It’s just that my boyfriend — my now ex-boyfriend, that is — is the assistant principal," she explained.

"Ah, I see. So why don’t you transfer to another school?"

Mary Kate chuckled. "That might be an option in a place like Miami, but there are only two elementary schools in all of Hurston County. Jobs don’t come open very often; people tend to stay for life once they get tenure."

"So why do you have to stay in Hurston County?" That actually came out more challenging than Kristin had intended.

"I don’t, but I have to stay for at least another year. See, we have to sign a letter in February saying whether or not we intend to be back the next year. At the time, it just seemed like the right thing to do. Things hadn’t fallen apart yet, so I signed."

"And what happens if you change your mind?"

"Well, nothing really. It’s not like they can make you teach there if you don’t want to. But it won’t look good if you apply to teach somewhere else." The real reason, though, was personal. "Besides, the way I look at it, I signed a commitment, so I need to honor it."

"I think that’s admirable, Kate. I don’t think most people would have any qualms about breaking a contract, especially under your kind of circumstances. You don’t think he’ll make it hard for you next year, do you?"

"I don’t have a clue what he’ll do. If the past six months are any indication, he won’t even know we’ve split up," she muttered. "I can tell you right now he’s going to think it’s right out of the blue. Then he’s going to blame me for going off to Africa and ruining everything. But the hard part’s not going to be dealing with Bobby. It’s going to be telling my family. As far as they’re concerned, us getting married has always been set in stone. It’s like it’s part of the Great Mooresville Master Plan or something."

Kristin chuckled, wondering if there might really be such a thing. "Well, you can’t let somebody else decide that for you."

"Believe me, I won’t. But they’re still going to be disappointed. See, our family’s really close. Not close like emotionally close, more like…physically close."

"Oh yeah? Do I really wanna know about this?" The tall woman joked. At least she hoped it was a joke.

"Not that! I mean that everybody lives close together. Everybody knows everybody’s business. In two years, Bobby and I have never once stayed the night at each other’s apartment, because if we did, half of Mooresville would know it by eight o’clock in the morning! And that wouldn’t be good for either of our jobs, especially his."

"So…you end all of your…romantic evenings by one of you getting up and going home?"

"Right! And it’s usually me, because I can hardly ever get him to come to my place. I think he just feels more comfortable in his own territory, you know?"

Kristin understood that, though her experience had been much different. Pilar had been territorial as well, rarely wanting to venture together outside of her high-rise condo on Brickell Avenue in Miami. For a while, that had been more than acceptable, as they had spent most of their hours together in bed. Eventually though, Kristin had wanted more from her much older lover than just their secret moments. But the public acknowledgment had been too much to ask of a woman who had been raised in a conservative Venezuelan culture, and in the end, Kristin had forced herself to walk away.

Kate interrupted her memories of her first love. "I really just don’t think I’m cut out for small town life, you know what I mean?"

"Have you ever lived anywhere else besides Mooresville?"

"I lived for four years in Savannah while I was in college. It wasn’t exactly Gotham, but I felt more…I don’t know, anonymous."

"So why did you go back? After college, I mean?" Kristin loved her hometown of Miami, and as soon as she finished at IU, she planned to return. There were dozens of places where she could work, or she could always set up her own counseling practice.

"I don’t know. I wish I hadn’t. But you have to understand how things are done in small towns. Not many of the kids from my class went to college, and most of the ones who did go didn’t finish. They left, got homesick, and came back. And what happened to me is that my mom — she teaches biology at the high school — talked to the superintendent, who talked to the principal at my school, and he called me in Savannah my sophomore year to tell me he’d have a job waiting for me when I finished. And the next thing I knew, everybody had everything all worked out."

"But it hasn’t worked out for you, has it?" Kate’s voice had gone melancholy, Kristin thought.

"No. If I can just get through the next year…."

"Where will you go?"

"I don’t know, maybe I’ll try for a job in Charlotte." Her college roommate Jessica lived in Charlotte. Mary Kate had been maid of honor at Jessica’s wedding their senior year. Now three years later, Jessica was divorced and living back home with her parents. Maybe they could even get a place together.

"I have a feeling things will work out for you," Kristin said in support of her new friend. It would be awful growing up under the expectations Kate described; and worse having to deal with the same things as an adult, as though you were incapable of making your own decisions. She pushed her hand through the opening in the sleeping bag and stretched it out to squeeze the woman’s shoulder. "From what I’ve seen in just two days, I’d say you’re a determined sort."

"Thanks." Her own small hand snaked up and clutched the larger one. "Would you believe I have to pee?"

"Me too. God, I hate this part!"

In unison, the women unzipped their bags and slipped out into the freezing air inside their tent, poking their feet through the bottom to pull on their boots. Both donned their fleece jackets and Mary Kate grabbed the flashlight, which was essential to locate the small hole in the latrine. Together, they walked in the bright moonlight, their white long johns standing out like neon skeletons.


Day 3 — Shira 2 Camp


Ann took charge of breakfast, spreading peanut butter and orange marmalade on bread, sending it around the table until it found a home. The mother of three was the only camper who had gotten much sleep, it seemed. Mary Kate and Kristin stopped talking when they returned from their second trip to the latrine around 3:30, and each thought the other was asleep. Drew and Jack dozed only in the early morning hours. Tammy and Trevor were nursing powerful headaches, and Kendra had been up all night throwing up.

The sleeplessness, headaches, and nausea were all related to the altitude, John said, but he assured them that this would be an easy day — a hike of three and a half hours, with an altitude gain of only 700 feet. The good news was that they would reach Shira 2 by lunchtime; the bad news was that Shira 2 wasn’t exactly the most hospitable campsite.

Mary Kate’s maladies this morning went well beyond a lack of sleep. She decided after their conversation yesterday to begin taking the Diamox, reasoning that it wouldn’t hurt to have an extra hedge against altitude sickness. But now, she had numbness in her groin, face, and hands, the latter so bad she had trouble holding onto her bread. Clearly, she wasn’t going to be able to continue with the medicine.

Kristin suggested they walk close to the front today, falling in behind Tammy — who had claimed for her own the position right behind John. The women talked about their studies, the careers they’d planned, and then their experiences so far on this trip.

Kilimanjaro was an artistic quest for the young student from Missouri; she had taken three times as many pictures as anyone else, and was capturing details no one else even noticed. No doubt, that eye for the unique would serve her well when she returned to paint. Unfortunately, she hadn’t really prepared for the physicality of the expedition, and was struggling with nearly every step.

John recognized that Tammy’s lack of conditioning, coupled with the headaches she was having from the altitude, made her a long shot to get to the top. He would have to watch her very closely, or she might push herself further than her body could go.

If there was any bone of contention among the hikers, it was the realization that — despite the rigorous training regimens they had undertaken to prepare for this trip — it was Tammy’s fitness level that was setting the pace for the entire group.

"We break," John announced.

Kristin dropped her backpack and turned her attention to seeing how Kate was doing. From the corner of her eye, she saw Tammy collapse tiredly in a heap.

"So how are you feeling?" The tall brunette eyed her pallid friend.

"Well, the good news is that I’ve gotten the feeling back in my hands, and the rest of me has finally stopped tingling."

"And the bad news?"

"I’m so tired that I ache all over. I think that’s jet lag," Mary Kate muttered.

"I think I have that too. I’ve got some aspirin if you want it."

"Yeah, maybe I should. I’m glad today’s a short day. Maybe a good night’s sleep will help."

Kristin pulled a small bottle of aspirin from her backpack and handed it to her friend. "You know, you didn’t eat much this morning. Maybe you ought to have one of those Cliff bars you brought."

"Good idea. You want one?" Altitude had a way of stealing one’s appetite. All of the hikers would soon have to force themselves to eat.


As they munched on the snack, it occurred to Mary Kate that Kendra was probably starving, since she’d skipped breakfast after throwing up all night. Reaching again into her bag, she brought out a handful of the precious energy bars. "Anybody want a Cliff bar?"

At that generous offer, several others pulled out their own snacks, though no one had thought to bring as much as Mary Kate. But the blonde had plenty for those who hadn’t packed any extra nutrition, including the two sisters and Jack.

Laurel was glad to see her sister take one. "I don’t know about you guys, but I’m kind of pissed that Tom didn’t prepare us all better for this with the stuff he sent out. I mean, he gave this long list of things people should bring, but then he kept reminding everyone to pack light. I don’t know if I’ve brought enough clothes. I nearly froze to death last night, and we’re just at 12,000 feet."

"I think we’re going to have to wear the same clothes the whole time we’re out here, just adding something else every day. By the time we go to the summit, we’ll probably have to wear everything we brought all at the same time," Drew said.

"Just imagine what you’ll smell like by then," Jack quipped. "I hope you at least brought enough underwear to change every day."

"Nah, just half as much. I’ve just been turning them inside out on the second day."

"Gross!" Kendra said. "That’s way too much information, Drew."

"And you wonder why you’re still single," Trevor admonished teasingly. "Get a clue, man!"

At the front of the line, John picked up his pack and turned toward the mountain. He had made notes at the break. Tonight, he would tell each one what they might expect on the rest of the trip.

One hour later, the hikers climbed onto a rocky mesa, so small that the tents were erected with only a yard between each. Kristin chose the tent in the center, figuring that the other tents would buffer the frigid wind on this exposed ridge.

Again, they spread out their sleeping bags to dry, this time securing them to the tent wires so they wouldn’t blow away.

"Whose tent is this one?" Trevor yelled, opening the flap to find two Summit bags already under the rain guard.

"That one’s ours," a voice called from the dining tent, where two figures sat huddled against the stiff breeze.

The hikers converged on the tent, surprised to be meeting new arrivals on this, their third day on the trail.

The older man stood, offering his hand. "I’m Bill, and this is my son, Brad. We were supposed to go up with a group on Sunday, but I got delayed with business in London, so Summit switched us over to your group. Hope you don’t mind a couple of extras."

"Not at all," Mary Kate answered. "So you came up the Machame trail, right?"

Brad spoke up. "Yeah, we’ve been here since yesterday waiting for you guys. Thank God I’ll have somebody new to talk to besides this old guy!" The teenager stood up and put distance between himself and his father. It was not cool to be pals with your old man.

Bill raised an eyebrow, but otherwise let the remark slide. His son had just graduated from high school in Richmond, where he lived with his mother. This was to be an opportunity for the father and son to bond, and Bill had hoped the boy would lose the attitude once they met up with the others in the group.

"Excuse me, did you say your name was Brat?" Jack blurted out what was already on everyone’s mind.

"Brad!" the youth answered indignantly.

"Well Brad! What makes you think we’re going to want to talk to you?" Ann sneered menacingly. Raising her own three boys had more than prepared her for this.

Everyone laughed as the youth’s face turned as red as a match head. Finally, he let out a small grin. In less than five minutes, these guys got his number, and it looked like he was going to be at their mercy for the next five days.

Gilbert became the man of the hour when he suddenly entered carrying a pan of hot cream soup. After lunch, the campers retreated to their tents to escape the relentless wind. Mary Kate pulled out her journal. It had been two days since she’d written anything, and she wanted to make notes while her memories and impressions were still fresh. First, she summarized the walk from Big Tree to Shira 1, describing the thrill of her best view yet of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Next, she wrote of her unfortunate bathing experience, along with the exhilaration at being momentarily clean.

Wow, that was only last night, she lamented, noting the thick black dirt underneath her fingernails.

Finally, she began to write her impressions of the group.

Drew is a very nice and interesting guy, especially now that he seems to have gotten the message that this is not a date. He’s very knowledgeable about climbing, probably with more experience than everyone in the group combined.

Trevor and Leah make an interesting couple. Both seem like over-achievers, but in a real down-to-earth way. They just seem to belong together. I hope Leah gets her transfer to Tokyo — it would be shame for them to have to live apart.

Kendra and Laurel are really close. It’s clear that they miss each other a lot with Kendra in New York now. Jack is hilarious! I don’t think I’ve ever met a more easygoing guy than him, and he’s so quick with his stupid jokes and one-liners.

It’s great having Ann along on this trip. I expected her to be more old-fashioned, I guess because she’s older. Instead, she’s as much of a cut-up as everybody, but probably with a more level head. She and Tammy have gotten to be pretty good friends already.

Speaking of Tammy, we’ve all been kind of worried about her. She’s been having headaches from the altitude and it’s clear that she hasn’t conditioned well for this trip. No one has actually said anything, but by the looks on everyone’s faces, I’d say people are losing patience with walking so slowly and having to stop so often for breaks they don’t really need.

It looks like Kristin is definitely going to be my best friend on this trip. We don’t really have all that much in common, but she’s just so easy to talk to. Of course, that’s probably just because of her counselor training, and here I am thinking we’re getting to be great friends. I bet everybody else thinks she’s their best friend too.

She’s really interesting, and from the very exciting city of Miami, which she loves. She’s also manages somehow to stay beautiful, even though she’s filthy like the rest of us. We’ll be doing the safari part together, which will be fun, at least for me. Let’s hope I don’t drive her crazy with my lack of sophistication.

On the other side of the tent, the brunette was also recording her thoughts. Kristin though wasn’t writing her impressions of their ensemble cast of climbers. Rather, she focused her thoughts on the blonde who shared her tent.

I feel like I’m making a real friend in Kate Sasser. Note to Cyn and Andrea: I told you I wasn’t defective!

Kate’s a really interesting person. It’s fascinating that someone from her small town background would venture out on a quest like this, especially alone and without much support from her family and boyfriend. Right now, she plans to ditch the boyfriend as soon as she gets home, but who knows how she’ll feel when she actually gets there. I find myself hoping that we stay in touch after our return so I’ll know how it all turns out.

"I think I hear Gilbert. Are you hungry?" Mary Kate wasn’t looking forward to going outside again, but the sooner they finished dinner, the sooner they could settle in for the night. She was pretty sure that sleep would not be so elusive this night, as she and her tent mate had now logged almost 36 waking hours.

Dinner was more soup, mashed potatoes, a very popular beef and vegetable stew, noodles, and orange slices. Everyone ate hurriedly, eager to get back inside where it was warm. John came into the dining tent as they were finishing.

"Tomorrow is our longest hike, about seven hours. We go to Barranco Hut, which is our most beautiful campsite. I said I would tell you after two days how I think you will do on the hike. If you do not get sick from the altitude, I think all of you will reach the rim of the crater, at 18,700 feet. That is Stella Point. It is one or two hours from there to Uhuru, but many people do not go further." Unbeknownst to the climbers, this was John’s standard speech, which seldom varied, no matter who was in the group. His assurances were important, he knew; besides, he considered it his job to get everyone in his party to the crater rim. At that point, he was reluctant to push them to go higher than they wanted, watching each climber very closely to ascertain any serious problems.

Mary Kate crawled into their tent shortly after dinner, very much encouraged by John’s predictions. If she could reach Stella Point, she was certain to persevere to the summit, no matter how exhausted she was. Her reasoning was simple: If John thought Tammy could make it to the crater rim then she was sure that she herself could go well beyond that. At this point, the only real obstacle was the altitude, and who knew how that would play out?

"You feeling okay?" Kristin asked as she shed her boots and scooted backwards toward her sleeping bag.

"I’m much better, thanks. How are you doing? Do you have any symptoms at all?"

The tall woman thought for a minute, then shook her head. "No, I don’t think so. I keep wondering if it’s just going to hit me all of a sudden, but nothing has so far."

Mary Kate rummaged in her bag for her long johns. "You know, when I packed for this trip, I made up this thing called a "two-day rule" in which I’d wear everything in my bag for two days. Now you’ve probably noticed that I’ve had on the same pants since we started, but I wanted to assure you that I’ve been changing my underwear every day, so if I should be in an accident, I’ll want you to let my mother know that."

Kristin laughed at her friend. "A ‘two-day rule’ huh? Looks likes you’ve already expanded it to three."

"Wait till tomorrow. I have a feeling it will be four," the blonde woman grinned. Hurriedly, she pulled off her fleece pullover and t-shirt and slipped on the long johns over her sports bra. Just as quickly, she put the pullover back on, now focused on repeating the procedure with her pants. "At least if I have to get up in the night — what am I saying? When I have to get up in the night — I’ll be fully dressed."

"Yeah, we need to be really careful if we go out. These tents are so close together. Somebody’s going to trip over the stakes, I bet."

It happened just as Kristin predicted, about two a.m., when Brad the Brat ventured out to relieve himself. Unfortunately, it was their tent that caught the sprawling teen, jarring them both from a much-needed restful sleep. When half the camp woke up to check out the commotion, they discovered a still sick Kendra, and her very worried sister.

When the activity died back down, Kristin and Mary Kate found themselves wide awake, the six hours of sleep seemingly sufficient.

"So what are we going to talk about tonight?" the blonde asked through the small hole in her sleeping bag. Despite the close proximity of the tents, they didn’t have to worry about keeping their voices down, as the howling wind drowned out everything.

"Why don’t you tell me about your friend, the one who has a keychain like mine?"

"Deb," Mary Kate smiled as she thought of her longtime friend. "She’s been my best friend since we were in second grade. One day on the playground, she just beat the shit out of some boy who was picking on me."

Kristin laughed. "Sounds like something I’d do."

"Well the funny part is that it was Allan Britton, my boyfriend’s little brother. And to this day, it’s always awkward for Allan when he and Deb get in the same room, like he’s afraid she’s going to do it again."

"Sounds like a wuss."

"Yeah, Allan’s a wuss, alright. And Deb is not somebody you want to mess with, let me tell you."

"So is she out?"

"Not really." Mary Kate paused, unsure how much of the story she should tell. She hadn’t talked about this since they’d shushed everything up in high school. Oh, what the hell, she thought. It wasn’t like Kristin was going to go back to Mooresville and blab. "It’s kind of a complicated story."

"Coming out stories usually are."

"Well, see…we used to do everything together. You know, we stayed over at each other’s houses, we shot hoops together after school…."

"You played basketball?" Kristin had played in high school as well, and enjoyed the occasional pick-up game at IU.

"Yeah, I was the two-guard on our high school team, and Deb was the small forward. She had a few inches on me — like who doesn’t, right? — but I always gave her a good game. Anyway, a couple of the girls on our team decided that we spent too much time together, and they started a rumor that Deb and I were lovers. It got all over school, and since my mom taught there, she heard it one day in the teacher’s lounge. Of course, she assured everybody that it wasn’t true, but then I got the lecture about how all the other girls my age were dating, and that people wouldn’t be saying stuff like that if I went out with boys. So I did, and Deb and I really cut back on the time we spent together. It’s kind of funny that we had to start sneaking around to see each other like we really were lovers," Mary Kate was still pretty bitter about all of that, not to mention ashamed of the way she’d treated her friend in the fallout.

Kristin couldn’t imagine what that would have been like. There were several gay teens in her high school, and most people thought it was pretty cool to have gay friends. Of course, she hadn’t exactly known she was gay back then, so it might have been different, but she didn’t think that people would have cared one way or another.

"Then when we were seniors, I had this boyfriend, Craig. We…went all the way after a party and a month or so later, I thought I might be pregnant. There was no one I could talk to except Deb, and…," Mary Kate always felt so bad when she remembered this, "…and when I told her, she just…started crying. She wouldn’t tell me why, though. I just thought she was worried about me."

Kristin thought she knew exactly where this story was going. She’d gotten that sick feeling in her stomach when Erin told her about sleeping with Ben.

And then later when everything worked out — I just got my period late — she finally told me what it was. She said that…she just hated to think about somebody else touching me like that." Mary Kate sighed at the memory. It was one of hardest moments the two friends had shared, but it bound them even to this day.

"So Deb was in love with you." It was a statement rather than a question.


"How did you feel about that?"

"Mostly, it was just kind of sad. I loved her too, more than anybody else in my life, just…not that way."

"I imagine that was pretty sad for both of you, then." Kristin had never told Erin how she’d felt. "Have you managed to get past that?"

"Yeah, actually it wasn’t all that hard because we were such good friends. That afternoon, we both just cried for about an hour, then I started hiccupping, then we both started laughing, then Deb peed in her pants and by that time we were way past anything serious," Mary Kate laughed as she recalled that day. "But we were closer after that, and I was really glad when she met somebody in college."

"So she has a girlfriend?"

"Not anymore. But they were together a couple of years and I think it did Deb a lot of good. You know, it boosted her self-esteem."

"That’s a really cool story, Kate. And Deb sounds like somebody I’d really like."

"Everybody likes her, except Allan and Bobby, of course," she laughed.

"What’s Bobby got against her?"

"I don’t know, maybe it’s just loyalty to his brother. Or he resents how much time I spend with her. Either way, it’s mutual. She never cared for him either, but she was always polite. I couldn’t say the same for Bobby."

"Pardon me for asking, but why did you stay with this jerk so long?" Bobby sounded like someone with big time control issues.

"You know, I make him sound like he’s awful, but he’s not a bad guy really. Bobby’s usually nice to everybody, and he helps out a lot in the community. He even got up at a council meeting once and argued that not enough tax dollars were being spent in the black neighborhoods. And believe me, in a place like Mooresville, saying something like that won’t win you many friends."

"But he’s not for you?"


"So why haven’t you broken up?" Kristin question wasn’t challenging, just curious.

"Because I’m a big chicken, I guess." Mary Kate rolled over in her sleeping bag so that she was facing her new friend. "The sad part is that once you throw out Bobby Britton, there really isn’t anybody left."

"What about…Deb? After all these years, are you sure you don’t feel something there?" Kristin knew that she was running a risk with that question, but Kate had been very open so far in their talk.

"Yeah, I’m sure. But sometimes…it’s almost like I wish I did. I mean, I wish I could have a relationship with somebody that was as easy as ours is. We respect each other; we always have. I just don’t feel any…physical attraction to Deb."

"Is it just Deb, or…is it women in general?" Nothing subtle about that.

Mary Kate laughed nervously, suddenly feeling that Kristin had somehow seen a part of her that no one else did. "It’s…. Boy, you ask hard questions!"

"You don’t have to answer."

"No…I’ve come this far, and you can’t see me blush in the dark anyway," she laughed. Mary Kate felt the anxiety welling up inside. She had never told a soul what she was about to tell Kristin, a woman she’d known for three days. "When I was in college, I developed a serious crush on my roommate Jessica. She just…I don’t know, fascinated me. I just felt so lucky that we were friends. Then she met Bill Jones. I swear that’s his real name. They got married during spring break our senior year, and it just broke my heart."

"Did you ever tell her how you felt?"

"No! Are you kidding?"

"Why not? How would you ever know if there was a chance for anything?"

"Because it was just a crush! I just knew that I loved her and I figured that meant wanting her to be happy. And she was happy with Bill," Mary Kate explained. "Of course, they got divorced last year, so I guess she wasn’t that happy," she added.

"So the truth outs! Is that why you’re thinking about moving to Charlotte?"

"God, you’ve got a mind like a steel trap!" The Southerner had forgotten that she’d given that bit away. "I’ve visited there a few times, yes, and I like the city. It just seems like it would be a nice place to live."

"Uh-huh, whatever you say. Are you and Jessica still friends?"

"We’re not close anymore, but if I moved there, I’m sure we’d do things together."

"What kind of things?" Kristin’s tone was now teasing.

"Now you’re being bad," Mary Kate scolded playfully. "I’m not telling you any more of my secrets."

"You mean you have more secrets?"

"I didn’t say that."

"But I’ll tell you my secrets."

"I bet you don’t have any secrets," Mary Kate challenged. "I bet you’re an open book."

"Oh yeah?" Was Kate right? "Well if that’s true, then…then…then I guess we should try to go back to sleep."

"Okay, but I have a hard time sleeping when I think about having to go to the bathroom. How about you?"



Day 4 — Barranco Hut


"Sorry, guys," Kendra moaned. "I hate that I’m holding everybody up."

Kendra and Laurel had made the difficult decision this morning to descend. The New York property manager seemed to be getting worse, her nausea compounded by a headache that kept her awake for the second night in a row. Over her vehement objections, Laurel was accompanying her off the mountain. Jack, on the other hand, would continue with the group, meeting them back at the Keys Hotel in five days.

Park rules required that hikers be escorted at all times, so John had radioed for a ranger to meet them at Shira 2 to escort the women from the park. A rutted road came within two miles of their current position, and a vehicle would wait there to return them to Moshi.

As John was ultimately responsible for signing each hiker out of the park, all of the hikers had to wait until the transfer was effected. And it was very, very cold this morning at Shira 2. To make matters worse, the tents had been broken down during breakfast, so the porters could hurry ahead to get the best campsite at Barranco Hut. Consequently, the hikers were exposed on the ridge to a piercing wind that seemed to come from all directions.

At Barranco, the Shira and Machame trails merged with the Umbwe Route, a popular route for more experienced climbers. That mean that tonight, they would be sharing their campsite with several dozen additional campers. While it was too bad their tents had been packed up already, everyone agreed that it was important to get a good location at the next site.

The good news — no, the great news — was that their hike today would take them onto the mountain itself, and they would be shielded from the fiercely cold winds that had plagued them here at Shira 2. Kendra and Laurel distributed their cold-weather gear and extra supplies to their friends, and wished everyone luck.

"Just think about us over the next few days. While you’re out here freezing your asses off, we’ll be back at the bar in our shorts drinking beer."

"Kate?" John surprised her as he called out her name.

"Yes, what is it?"

"I was asked to give you a message from the other group of Summit hikers."

"You’ve talked to them?" Mary Kate was excited.

"Yes, and I was to tell you that the man’s luggage did not arrive yesterday."

"Oh, no! Poor Vince! He must be freezing!"

"He is very cold, yes. But the others are sharing their things and he continues."

"What a guy! I can’t imagine not having my stuff with me. That’s so amazing that he’s still climbing."

"It is the spirit of people on the mountain," the guide explained. "Everyone helps everyone else. That is why I know that all of you will reach the crater rim. Because I have watched how you help each other."

John’s words were warming to everyone in the group, even if the cold wind wasn’t. All of the climbers took quiet pride in his observation, each ticking off the ways they might be able to lend a hand to the others. John was very good at his job.

Almost as soon as they left the plateau, they left behind nearly all of the significant vegetation. This new terrain was like dessert, with only an occasional shrub to decorate the mountainside. Within an hour of slow uphill hiking in the brilliant sunshine, everyone was warm again, running behind the rocks at the first break to pull off their pants and shirts so they could remove the long johns they had on underneath.

Mary Kate started out the day walking with Bill, learning all about his success as a software entrepreneur. A millionaire many times over, he was looking forward to retirement soon from the corporate world so that he could turn his attention to developing tools for charities and non-profits.

"I wish Brad had a little more drive," he lamented. His son would start his freshman year at Old Dominion next year, but for a long time, it had been touch and go on whether he would even be accepted. "He’s a really good kid, but he doesn’t put out a lot of effort, and doesn’t really like to be challenged. It took me forever to convince him to come on this climb."

That was odd. Mary Kate had gotten the impression earlier that this trip had been Brad’s graduation present; she just assumed it was something that he wanted. Now the boy’s reactions made more sense. He probably didn’t want to be here at all. Still, it was too bad they had come all this way together and weren’t even talking to each other.

Little by little, the hikers spaced themselves on the trail, shelving conversation for the moment as they became caught up in the majestic landscape. It was a beautiful hike, as they picked their way three times over steep crests, then down into broad valleys. In the third valley, they found to their delight the now familiar dining tent. Gilbert waited with a cream soup made with potatoes, carrots and soft green peppers. No soup had ever tasted as good to the hungry climbers.

The lunch break was shorter than usual, since they were two hours behind schedule today. After only 40 minutes, they were climbing again; glad to be making progress toward their goal.

"Hey Kris, are you alright today?" Mary Kate thought her friend seemed subdued this afternoon.

"Yeah, I’m just thinking about stuff." Kristin was in fact marveling at how John had noticed the way everyone was helping each other along. At the last break, Kate had once again extended her offer of Cliff bars, while Drew and Ann were making sure they were all covered in sunscreen. Leah had offered to stand guard while the very shy Tammy found a private place behind a rock, and Drew and Bill volunteered to fill the water bottles when they reached camp. Trevor’s good deed for the day was that he had not yet told Brad to shut up. The boy had talked non-stop, mostly about the Washington Redskins, since they left camp, but Trevor had humored him for going on six hours. He was certainly headed for sainthood.

"Here you go. You didn’t eat much at lunch." Mary Kate shoved a Cliff bar into her friend’s hand.

"It makes me ill to think about touching my food with these nasty hands." Like everyone else, dirt had gathered deep underneath her fingernails, and her hands hadn’t been washed with soap since the bath at Shira 1 two nights ago.

The blonde answered by producing her small bottle of hand sanitizer, which smeared the dirt around, but hopefully killed the bacteria that were lingering. "It’s not exactly a surgical scrub, but it’s better than nothing."

"Thanks," Kristin said, taking a squeeze and handing it back. "So you suppose Gilbert’s hands are clean?"

"I soooo wish you hadn’t gone there."

"I mean, he’s handling all our food, right?"

"Stop. Stop right now. Don’t say another word."

"Hey, I know what I’m going to do."

"What?" Mary Kate was almost afraid to ask, just in case this had anything more to do with the unsanitary state of affairs.

"When we get to Barranco, I’m going to ask Gilbert for my very own pan of warm water, and I’m going to go into our tent and take a sponge bath — with soap!"

"Aren’t you smart? What a great idea!"

Kristin smiled smugly, her mind racing ahead a few hours when she would be clean again.

"Hey, I’m still on your list for camp soap, aren’t I?"

"Sure, like I said, it’s in my best interest to keep you clean too. In fact, what’s that old saying? You wash my back and I’ll wash yours." Kristin wiggled her eyebrows in mock seduction. She’d be more than happy to make that exchange, and anything else that needed washing.

"Actually, I think it’s scratch, not wash." Is Kristin flirting? Mary Kate found that idea…flattering as hell.

"Same idea, though. My back doesn’t itch, but it’s dirty." Kristin smiled and took a big bite of her Cliff bar. "By the way…that’s the second time you’ve called me Kris."

"Oops, sorry."

"No, it’s okay. Remember the other night when I told you about my friend Erin? The one who died?"


"She always called me Kris. I liked it then too," she said seriously, a shy smile peeking out.

"Then Kris it is." Mary Kate matched the smile with one of her own. For the longest moment, the women held each other’s eyes, both beginning to feel a bond that was surprisingly deep for their young friendship. Their conversation last night had brought them closer, Kristin feeling honored that Kate had opened up, and Mary Kate glad that she had finally had the chance to talk to someone about Jessica. She could have told Deb any time, she knew, but that would have surely hurt her friend.

"Oops, they’re leaving without us," Kristin said, jumping to her feet and grabbing her backpack. With her free hand, she held Mary Kate’s as the woman backed into the straps and secured them across her chest and waist.

Kristin Addison had an uncanny way of making Mary Kate feel important when they talked. Probably her training, the blonde woman thought again. It would be really cool if they could somehow stay friends after this trip. Miami wasn’t so far away that she couldn’t visit a time or two, and maybe they could meet sometime in Orlando. That idea prompted unwelcome visions of Bobby Britton.

Suddenly, Mary Kate realized that she wanted to know a lot more about her enigmatic friend. "So do you have a girlfriend back home?’

"No, not for a while. I have found that my dissertation committee can be very generous with my time," she laughed. "Until this trip, I hadn’t really had a break in over two years. Even during the holidays, I always had so much reading and research to do."

"But when you finish, it’ll all be worth it, right?"

"Yeah, I think so. At least I’ll get to do the kind of work I want."

"So Kris?" Mary Kate had lagged back so that they were walking well out of earshot of the others in the group. "Did you always know you were gay?"

Funny, straight people always ask that, Kristin thought. Come to think of it, so did gay people. Some of her lesbian friends would turn the question around: Did you always know you were straight? But Kristin’s answer actually made it a fair question, or so it seemed.

"No, not really. When I was in high school, I figured I was just like everybody else. I thought all girls got crushes on their friends and their female teachers. And I thought all guys were pretty lousy in bed," she laughed. "Then when I was 19, I met Pilar and she showed me everything as it should be."

"So who was Pilar?" Mary Kate encouraged. She was glad that Kristin felt comfortable enough with her to talk about such personal things.

"Pilar was 41 years old, the same age as my mother. She was Venezuelan, very beautiful and exotic. Our entire relationship existed inside her home, though, mostly inside her bedroom. She couldn’t be public, and I was feeling like I’d just invented sex. I didn’t want to be private anymore — I wanted to tell everybody."

"So you decided then that you wanted to be with women instead of men?" Deb had said once that the decision wasn’t women or men; it was women or nothing. But maybe Kristin had a different experience.

"I knew. Because with Pilar, I felt like I’d found the key to intimacy. For me, it wasn’t what someone said or did to arouse me or to satisfy me. It was what I could do to arouse or satisfy them. And ever since I’ve learned that, I’ve only wanted to be with women."

Mary Kate hadn’t actually anticipated that Kristin would move their discussion to that level of detail. But since she had, the blonde woman wanted to know more. "So you enjoy touching women, but you don’t enjoy touching men?"

"I guess that’s right."

If pressed, Mary Kate would have to admit that she didn’t enjoy touching Bobby. Nor did he seem to mind, as far as she could tell. He usually only wanted one thing.

"So have you ever been in love? I mean, with anyone since Pilar?"

"I had a serious girlfriend for a couple of years when I first started the grad program at IU. We lived together, but it didn’t work out."

"What happened?"

Kristin chuckled at the memory. It honestly didn’t hurt anymore, but it had been devastating at the time. "What happened was that Kristin Addison learned a very important lesson: When you steal somebody’s girlfriend, you should expect to see them leave the same way."

"Oh, that must have been awful!"

"It was at first. But like I said, I learned not to go hooking up with girls who would cheat on their partner."


It was five o’clock when the party reached Barranco Hut. John was right about its beauty, and also about his prediction that it would be crowded. More than 50 colorful tents dotted the site, a large landing just beneath the intimidating 600-foot Barranco Wall. First thing tomorrow, they would scale that wall.

Kristin’s idea was a good one, and though Mary Kate hadn’t appeared with a reciprocal offer to wash her back, both women managed to get in private sponge baths before dinner. In fact, Leah, Tammy and Ann had followed suit, which meant that the dinner conversation centered on just how dirty the men in their group actually were. Leah had the inside track, as she was sharing a tent with Trevor.

For dinner on this fourth night, Gilbert had prepared oxtail soup, rice, cabbage, and chicken in tomato sauce. Brad gullibly whipped his head around to see the "lion" on the ridge, only to find that his chicken had disappeared from his plate. The same thing happened to his hard boiled egg at breakfast this morning. If he could just last for four more days without starving to death, he would consider this trip a success.

After dinner, Mary Kate took a few minutes to make some notes in her journal before turning in. She thought it would be fun to write her impressions of the Barranco Wall before climbing it, and then again later.

As before, her thoughts turned from the mountain to her companions, especially the dark-haired woman who shared her tent.

Kristin grows more and more intriguing every day. We talked a lot last night and I told her things I’ve never told anyone. And she told me a bunch of personal stuff too, so it’s nice to know that she’s as comfortable talking to me as I am with her. If I didn’t know better, I’d say she made a pass at me today, offering to wash my back if I washed hers. I’m sure she wasn’t serious, but she was pretty cute when she said it. Who knows? Maybe before this trip is over I will, and wouldn’t that blow her away?

The moon was almost full, lighting the way for those midnight visits to the latrine. Now about those latrines…. At each camp thus far, there had been two, usually on opposite sides of the camp, and one was informally designated as the porters’ latrine. Until this night, the Summit party had had each campsite to themselves. Now at Barranco Hut, there were more than a hundred campers and porters, and still only two latrines. Their condition simply defied description.

Though they were shielded from the wind, the night was bitterly cold, driving the hikers into their tents soon after supper. Mary Kate hated the idea of putting on the same long johns for the fourth time, but she wanted to save her others — the ones with the turtle neck — for the night they went to the summit. Kristen went on and on without mercy about how clean she felt in her fresh long johns; that is, until she learned that Kate had given her third pair to the guy who didn’t get his bags.

"I shouldn’t tease you. That was a very kind gesture, considering he was a guy you didn’t even really know."

"I know I didn’t know him, but you know what? I knew his dream. It was just like mine. He saw this mountain and it called him here. I think I’d be willing to spend a couple of extra nights in dirty clothes if it meant he had a chance to get to the top. You know?"

"Yeah, and you’re a better person than I am."

"Now come on! You’d have done it too, wouldn’t you?"

"Yeah, I’m sure I would have. But sharing toilet paper…now that’s special. I don’t do that with just anybody, you know."

"And I appreciate it very much," Mary Kate answered. "So how come you knew all about what to bring?"

"I have two friends back in Bloomington who did this a couple of years ago. They went with Summit and said they had a really good time. Cyn made it all the way to the peak; Andrea made it halfway to Stella Point."

"What happened?"

"She got a cerebral edema. Basically, it’s a severe headache, but it was so bad she had to turn back right away."

"Wow, I bet that was disappointing for her."

"Not really. Getting to the top was Cyn’s goal. Andrea’s goal was to come along so she could share the experience with Cyn. They both got what they came for, and they went home fulfilled."

"What a great story!" Mary Kate wished she weren’t so focused on the summit, but there was no denying that she’d have trouble rationalizing her failure to get there.

"Yeah, they’re really good friends of mine. I think you’d like them. I know they’d like you." Kristin was sure that her friends would approve of this petite Southerner.

Mary Kate dozed off, imagining what it would be like to spend time with Kristin and her friends. As long as it wasn’t in Mooresville, it might be fun.


Day 5 — The Barranco Wall and Karanga Valley


If Mary Kate and the others were intimidated by the massive rock face before them, Tammy was terrified. She’d known it would be a bit of a scramble, but nothing she had read prepared her for the sheer drop-offs as they picked their way up the steep trail. As always, the art student lined up directly behind John, which was a particularly good idea today, since he would help her negotiate the tight turns and the leaps from one rock to another.

Mary Kate had started out in front of Kristin, but they found out early on that it was best for the taller woman to lead. That way, she could lean down and offer a hand to help her shorter climbing partner scale the taller rocks. A couple of times, Mary Kate returned the favor, giving Kristin’s backside a push.

"Oooo, here’s another big rock," the tall woman cooed so no one else would hear. "Will you put your hand on my butt again and help me up?"

"Oh yeah, I’ll put my hand on your butt, alright!" she answered with a hard slap.

"A spanker! Be still my heart!"

Mary Kate could only laugh at her friend’s antics. She hadn’t felt this uninhibited around anyone. "You need to keep your mind on what you’re doing," reminding both of them that the Barranco Wall was serious business.

The tricky part — besides the ever-present looming cliff — was the effect of the weight in the backpack. It was relatively simple to judge how much energy was needed to leap from one rock to another, how much "give" was required in the recovery, and how to maintain balance while climbing. But all of these mental calculations were thrown off kilter by the 30-pound pack riding — for the women anyway — above their center of gravity. Simple hops from one rock to the next became more adventurous, and the utmost concentration was required.

Comically interspersed in their precarious efforts was the near constant stream of porters, still in shorts, t-shirts, and sneakers, and still carrying upwards of 80 pounds each. The sure footed porters scrambled ahead, usually passing through the center the trail, but sometimes forging their own path on the adjacent, steeper rocks. All of the hikers stopped to laugh when a porter from the Umbwe group passed carrying a black Travel Pro roll-on, absurdly out of place in this rugged terrain.

One hour into the climb, the hikers were halfway to the top, sweating and sucking wind as they collapsed on a wide shelf.

"This isn’t a 600-foot wall," Bill proclaimed breathlessly. "It’s a hundred six-foot walls, and we’ve only done 50 of them."

"Remind me of that tonight. I’m going to write that in my book," Mary Kate wheezed.

Once again, the climbers went to work, helping one another up the wall until finally all 10 stood on the high ridge, now at 13,300 feet. The view behind them was majestic, as a thick cloud cover followed their tracks, totally obscuring the view of Barranco Hut and the entire plateau beyond.

"Mt. Meru," John nodded in the direction of a second peak more than 30 miles to the southeast, rising high above the clouds. Cameras came out to capture the scene. It was amazing to imagine that had they departed one day later, they would have traversed the mountain completely enshrouded in fog and rain.

The view to their left was absolutely breathtaking. At this altitude, the vast mountain terrain resembled one of NASA’s moonscape photos. Here atop the Barranco Wall, they were directly beneath the towering glacier, topping out over a mile above where they currently stood. It was simply incredible to imagine it as their final destination, and that they would push their way up in less than two days time.

Just as all the climbers began to feel satisfied with conquering the Barranco Wall to reach this new height, the unthinkable happened. John picked up his pack and began to lead them down the other side of the ridge.

"No! We climbed all that way, and now we’re just giving it all back!" Jack whined. "Can’t we just go up from here?"

"Here" was closest to the Western Breach, not at all an approach for amateurs. John laughed as the hikers grumbled. By the end of their short hike today, they would climb almost 3,000 feet, but would net only 300 feet in altitude. They were traveling the South Circuit Path, detouring for the night into the Karanga Valley, so they would have one extra day for acclimatization. The extra day in the valley and the long hike across the plateau were the main reasons this route was more successful than others. By the time this group made its push for the summit — tomorrow at midnight — the hikers would be ready.

The Summit campers were delighted to find that they had the Karanga Valley to themselves, as the Umbwe group had gone directly to Barafu Hut, where they would summit tonight. This too was a beautiful campsite, nestled against the mountain and bound on the east by a rapid stream pouring straight from the glacier above.

Arriving in the Karanga Valley at one p.m., the hikers had the whole afternoon to rest in the warm sun. As was their practice, they hung out their sleeping bags to dry, and Mary Kate took the opportunity to finally wash out the Capilene long johns she had worn for four nights straight. The material was quick to dry, and she hoped she’d have it if she needed an extra layer for tomorrow night.

This time, it was the men who set out to find a bath, climbing high into the rocks and greenery to disappear for half an hour, emerging finally clean for the first time in days. The women followed suit, finding the water at this elevation to be much colder than the icy pool they had shared back at Shira 1. Still, the temptation to rid themselves of the clinging soot was overpowering.

When they reached the first small pool, Kristin broke the bar of soap in half, giving one half to the others. "I’m going to go up a little further and see if I can find a waterfall to wash my hair."

"Can I come?" Mary Kate asked. Her short blonde hair was matted to her head, thanks to the rain hat she had worn since they left the Keys Hotel.

"Sure," she answered, relishing the idea of having a private bath with this little cutie. However, Cyn would point out that the polite thing to do would be to invite the others as well. "You guys wanna join us a little higher?"

"No, I’m fine right here," Ann answered. "I’m just going to wash up a little bit. I don’t think I’m going to bother with my hair this time."

"Me either," said Leah. "I’m just going to pull it back a little tighter. If there are any bugs in there, they can live in squalor."

About 30 feet higher, the women found what they were looking for: a pure stream of water tumbling between the rocks into a narrow shallow pool three feet below, creating the perfect spot for hair washing. Perfect, that is, if the water were 60 degrees warmer. Without getting undressed, Kristin loosened the tie that had held her long hair back since its last washing at the Shira 1 campsite. Tipping her head forward, she gasped as she soaked it in the icy stream, and then began to lather.

"I have a feeling this is going to be the fastest bath of my life," Mary Kate said, as she dipped her own head under the frigid running water. Briskly, she began to scrub the dirt from her scalp.

"I know, but it’ll be worth it. Remember how nice it felt the other night to be clean, even if it only lasted an hour or two?" Kristin rinsed her hair of the thick black sludge, and started to lather again. It would take several more washings to get anywhere close to clean, but at this temperature, two cycles would have to be enough.

Mary Kate followed suit, rinsing and scrubbing again. Her shorter hair would fare better than Kristin’s longer locks. "I think this will do it for me. Remember my two-day rule for the clothes that turned into a three-day rule then a four day rule?"

"Yeah." Rinsing her hair one more time, Kristin immodestly pulled off her now soaking shirt and sports bra, soaping a cloth to wash her upper body.

"Well, I think I’m going to change my definition of clean, too. I think if people can tell that I’m a blonde then my hair’s clean."

"Then I guess you pass. But are you a natural blonde?" Like she had on the trail, Kristin knew she was dangerously close to flirting again, arching her eyebrows suggestively.

"Why, I would have thought you already knew the answer to that." Mary Kate teased back, figuring that her friend would certainly have noticed such a thing; she had stolen a glimpse of Kristin’s jet black curls, and she wasn’t even a lesbian.

"Kate Sasser! Are you accusing me of peeking?" The tall woman’s voice rang with mock indignation. Oh yeah, I peeked alright.

"So you didn’t?" Mary Kate grilled her friend playfully, and was right this minute getting an eyeful of two perfect breasts, the rose-colored nipples stiff and tightened from the chilled soapy cloth. Did my brain just say ‘’perfect’? "Well? Did you?"

"Maybe a little," Kristin answered sheepishly. Busted!


"I’d…say…you were…a natural blonde." Her voice was just above a peep.

Mary Kate found her friend’s discomfort amusing, but didn’t make her wallow long, not wanting to make a big deal out of it. "That’s right. Here, let me have that." She held out her hand for the soapy cloth and stepped across the narrow creek to wash her friend’s back, as though it was the most natural thing in the world. She liked doing this, and was glad that Ann and Leah hadn’t come up with them. Others might have read more into this than just the friendly gesture it was.

Kristin, on the other hand, felt her heart speed up at the other woman’s touch, wondering if Kate had any idea of the effect she was having.

"It’s no big deal. I…peeked a little too. I think it’s perfectly natural, don’t you?"

"You peeked? Why would you peek at the girls, Miss I-Have-a-Boyfriend-Back-in-Georgia?"

"That’s ex-boyfriend," Mary Kate corrected. She finished scrubbing and dipped the cloth back under the flow so she could rinse the soap from the woman’s sinewy back. "And it wasn’t exactly peeking. We were all sitting out in the open buck naked. It was kind of hard not to notice."

The dark-haired woman didn’t bother to say that she was planning on getting under the small waterfall to rinse when she was finished washing. She was enjoying Kate’s touch too much for that. "Ah, but I only noticed you." Now that was flirting, and Kristin knew it too late to stop herself. "Of course, no one else was flailing around in the water like you were."

The blonde woman chuckled at the image. "That’s true, and I especially noticed you because no one else offered me a hand out," Mary Kate reasoned that was as good an excuse as any for looking at her naked friend. She didn’t want to leave Kristin the impression that she always looked at naked women.

"That makes sense." Kristin pulled off her boots and socks, then hooked her thumbs underneath the elastic waist of her convertibles, wiggling as she pushed them off her long legs. "But are you peeking now?"

Mary Kate’s face went completely scarlet as she realized that she was indeed checking out her friend.


"Go ahead," Kristin teased, "it’s okay if you are. I’m not shy." And by all means, let me know if you see anything you like. It was obvious that Kate was looking at her, but what she really wanted to know was why.

"I…," Think! "It’s just that after I started working out and all, I started paying more attention to how my muscles were developing. And then, I started to notice other women who worked out." That’s all it was. "Their muscles, I mean."

"So is it just my muscles you’re checking out? ‘Cause I’m not exactly flexing over here." Again, Kristin knew she was flirting, and that she was getting perilously close to something more overt.

Mary Kate opened her mouth to speak, then closed it, thoroughly embarrassed at Kristin’s pointed questioning. I can’t believe she’s doing this to me! "You just…have a very nice body. It’s hard not to notice that."

"Thank you very much. For what it’s worth, Kate, I think you have a very nice body too." Now that was unmistakably a flirt, and from a soapy woman wearing only her panties.

Mary Kate looked at her friend, this time at her beautiful face, which wore a gentle smile with no trace of mischief. Suddenly overwhelmed at the near electric atmosphere, she finally looked away. "I can’t believe we’re having this conversation."

Kristin’s forced chuckle broke the tension. "Yeah, it did seem to have a life of its own, didn’t it?" She’d obviously just made Kate very uncomfortable, and she needed to recover quickly. "Hey, sorry if I…."

"It’s okay." In fact, Mary Kate was feeling something very akin to excitement from knowing that Kristin found her body attractive. The feeling was quite mutual, but it hadn’t occurred to her until just that moment that her admiration was…attraction. And with that observation, she couldn’t help but wonder if Kristin was attracted to her in the same way. That thought was both arousing and alarming.

"Hey, just let me get under there and rinse, and I’ll go on back to camp and give you some privacy."

Mary Kate looked away as Kristin removed her panties and slid into the freezing water, briskly rinsing her soapy skin. In under a minute, she was out, shivering madly as she dried herself with the towel.

Kristin was angry at herself for overstepping the bounds of common sense. No matter what her gaydar said, it was obvious that Kate didn’t want to go there. She was about to screw up a great friendship with this…predatory behavior. It’s no wonder that I don’t have many friends.

Twenty minutes later, Mary Kate entered the camp to find her nine fellow hikers stretched out in the sun like cats. She was unnerved about what had transpired up at the creek. Kristin had flirted with her, it seemed; but the next thing she knew, it was like she was flirting back. Or had she just misinterpreted everything, reading something sexual into it when Kristin hadn’t meant that at all? Whatever it had been, she hadn’t handled it well, and if she didn’t fix it, it was going to be uncomfortable for both of them.

The dark-haired woman was off by herself, leaning back against a large rock as she wrote in her journal. After tucking away her dirty clothes, Mary Kate screwed up the courage to go to her, feeling that it would be best to clear the air.

"Hey, Kris," Mary Kate kept her voice low so that the others wouldn’t overhear. "I’m sorry about…you know, up there. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable or anything."

Kristin looked up into the serious green eyes. She couldn’t believe Kate was standing here apologizing to her after the way she’d acted. "No, Kate. I was out of line with the teasing and stuff. I…." How much should I say? "I really do like you a lot, and I’d hate it if I did something that offended you."

"No worries there, Kris. You and I are fine. It’s just that I…." Am I going to admit to what I really feel?

"I know. I shouldn’t have said something like that."

"Listen," Mary Kate held up her hand, drawing in a deep breath. "You weren’t exactly having a one-sided conversation, you know. If there’s any blame to go around, we should share it. Or maybe we should just agree that nobody did anything wrong."

As they had in the rocks above, the women locked eyes again in a stirring gaze. Both had more to say, but neither wanted to take a chance on ruining what was turning out to be a pretty nice moment.

"You guys want some M&M’s?" Drew ruined the moment instead.


Gilbert outdid himself with dinner, especially considering that the shelf life of anything with protein in it had long since passed. The first course was French toast with marmalade. Next was a mixture of peppers and carrots, and piping hot French fries, which disappeared as soon as he set them down. This time, no one objected to the 10 sets of cleaner-than-usual hands that plunged into the bowl. For dessert, he produced a plate of fried banana pastries.

Brad finally got his revenge on Jack, telling him that his sleeping bag had blown into the dirt as he stole the last pastry from the prankster’s plate. Ann offered hers to the flustered lawyer then stuffed it into her own mouth as he reached to take it.

Bill enjoyed watching his son finally come out on top, but he was especially proud of the way Brad had handled the ribbing from practically everyone in the group. No one was cutting him any slack, but he’d lost the attitude. Too bad he wasn’t warming up to his old man.

Just as they were finishing dinner, John came in to brief them on what the next day would bring.

"We leave tomorrow morning at nine o’clock. We have a long day to get to Barafu Hut. Barafu means ‘ice’ and it will be cold there."

Jaws dropped around the table as the guide warned of a night more chilling than any they’d known. Though they were shielded from the wind here in the valley, the night air already gave every indication that the temperature was headed into the upper teens, below what they’d experienced at Barranco.

"When we reach the camp, we will eat and go to sleep. I wake you at 11 o’clock to climb. If you help each other, we will all be standing at Stella Point by sunrise."

"And how many of us do you think will make it all the way to the summit?" Drew wondered.

John had watched the group carefully, and predicted that three who would reach Uhuru would be Drew, Leah, and perhaps Kristin. Tammy would not; nor would Brad, who complained often about being tired and cold. All of the others seemed capable, but it was unclear how they would respond to the thin air at Stella Point. "I will guess only four or five, but I do not know which of you," he answered.

This was it. Tonight was their last full night before the push for the summit. The enormity of the moment hit everyone all at once, it seemed.

"We’re finally here," Leah said quietly. "I mean, I know it’s not Everest or anything like that, but this is the biggest mountain I’ll ever hope to climb."

"I know what you mean," Ann said. "Tomorrow’s the day I’ve been working toward for six months." She laid her hand in the center of the table, palm down.

Mary Kate covered it, and Kristin covered both. One by one, all 10 climbers built a tower of hands as a show of solidarity.

"Hey, guys?" It was Tammy, who had kept to herself most of the afternoon. They were all worried about her, as she continued to have headaches, but still she didn’t complain. "Listen, I just want you all to know how much I appreciate the way everybody has helped me along so far. My goal is to reach Stella Point, not the summit. I’m going to do my best, and I have faith that God will help me; but if I fail, I’m pretty satisfied just to have made it to the top of the Barranco Wall."

"You’re not going to fail, Tammy. We’re not going to let you," Drew spoke up. "Ten for 10 at Stella Point, alright?"

When their meeting broke up, Kristin and Mary Kate scooted backwards into their tent, leaving their boots in the usual spot beneath the rain guard.

"Did you hear that, Kris? John thinks only four or five of us will make it." Mary Kate had looked carefully at the other climbers, trying to find the clues their guide had used to make his predictions. Drew would make it; so would the marathoners, Trevor and Leah. Kristin would certainly get there, and given Bill’s pattern of success, she figured he would also. "I wish I knew if he thought I could do it."

"I’m kind of glad he didn’t name names, you know? How would you have felt if he hadn’t called yours?"

"Like I wouldn’t be able to do it, I guess," she conceded. At this stage of the game, John wasn’t really part of the equation. This was between her and the mountain.

"Kate?" That was John’s voice.

"In here," she called.

From outside the tent, the guide relayed the news. "I got word from the other group. It was very cold on the mountain last night. Only two of the three reached the summit. They were named Kako and Vince."

"He made it!" Tears rushed to the green eyes as she thought of the odds her friend had beaten to accomplish his dream.

"That’s great," Kristin said softly, touched at her friend’s emotions. "We’re going to make it too, you know."

Mary Kate reached over and took Kristin’s hand, squeezing hard. "Yes, I know." But did she? She was feeling no ill effects from the altitude, but many climbers were struck suddenly, and the only recourse was to descend immediately. Without the Diamox, she was on her own. Would she have the courage and stamina to push through the smaller obstacles, and the good sense to give in if she had to? She hoped so.

"I had no idea I was going to be spending so much time in my sleeping bag. Did you?" the tall woman asked, squirming into her narrow bag.

"Yeah, I guess I did, now that I think about it. I read a bunch of personal accounts on the Internet. That’s why I asked you to share a tent. I couldn’t imagine being up all night with Drew," she laughed.

And you ended up trading one horny hiker for another, Kristin mused. She lay quietly, not knowing where to take the conversation after that thought.



"Could I ask you a personal question?"

From inside her sleeping bag, the tall woman let out a muffled laugh. "After all the stuff we’ve talked about, you have to ask if you can ask me a personal question! I can’t imagine what it’s going to be, but fire away!"

Mary Kate returned the laugh, but her thoughts were much more serious. "I was just wondering about how you decided the first time that you were going to have sex with a woman. Was that Pilar?"

"Yeah, it was Pilar." A very interesting question, Kate. Where did it come from? "We met at an art festival and ended up walking around together all day. She invited me to her condo for dinner and I accepted. Now that I think about it, I’m not sure I ever consciously decided anything. It all just sort of happened."

"But did you say, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I’m doing this?’ or was it just natural? Did you have a little voice in your head that said you shouldn’t?"

"Well, now that you mention, I’d have to say that I did have to sort of give myself permission to do it. But I think it was something I’d thought about before, and I figured I would once I met the right person."

"So did you feel funny afterwards? Or guilty?"

"Not really. I mean, I told you, I felt like somebody had just turned all the lights on. I thought it was just going to be an experience. I had no idea it would define so much about me." Kristin couldn’t help but wonder if Kate’s curiosity was because she was going through some sort of upheaval of her own. Clearly, there was something going on in her head, and she’d probably never given voice to it before. "So have you ever considered it, having sex with another woman?"

Mary Kate froze. She had brought their conversation this far knowing it would lead here. She wanted to tell somebody. "Yeah."

"With your roommate, the one you had a crush on?"

"No, I never really let myself think of her that way. It was just so obvious that she wouldn’t want that, and I was happy just to be her friend…and to have my little fantasies."

"So there was somebody else?"

"Yeah, but it wasn’t a girlfriend or anything like that." Mary Kate couldn’t believe she was telling all of this. Kristin Addison was going to know things about her that no one else on earth knew.

The small blonde had grown very quiet, like she was debating whether or not to say more. "Do you want to talk about it, Kate?"

Mary Kate blew out a deep breath. "There really isn’t much to talk about. Nothing happened."

"Okay," Kristin answered softly, not wanting to push.

"When I first went to Savannah College, I was invited to try out for the women’s basketball team. A lot of the girls on the team were lesbians, and one of them — her name was Trish — got to be a pretty good friend of mine. So one night I stayed over at her apartment off campus and we just started kissing. I came so close to just…." She couldn’t finish the words.

"What stopped you?"

"I don’t know. I just got scared. I didn’t want that."

"You didn’t want it, or you didn’t want to let yourself have it?" Kristin asked gently.

"Both I guess. The whole idea of it was exciting and all, but I didn’t really feel that way about Trish. And then there was that part of me that didn’t want all those people in high school to have the satisfaction of being right."

"But they weren’t right. You and Deb weren’t lovers."

"That doesn’t make any difference though, when you think about it. Whether it was Deb and me or somebody else and me, it would have been the same thing."

Kristin heard both resignation and resolve in her friend’s voice. She suspected that Kate had been warring with this for a long time. "Do you still think about what it would be like?"

"Sometimes," Mary Kate confessed. Like right now, she admitted to herself.

The women lay still for a long time, not saying a word. Each thought the other had gone to sleep until finally Mary Kate whispered.



"I have to pee." At three liters a day, a body just rented water.

Uhuru Peak awaits. Part Tatu (3).

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