The Road from Kilimanjaro
By KG MacGregor
Day 6 Barafu Hut
On Saturday morning, the camp came alive at the usual hour, six a.m. Gilbert toasted the now-stale bread in a hot skillet, but it didnt improve the taste, as the campers had grown weary of the repetitive breakfast fare. John appeared in the dining tent during their meal to remind them that loss of appetite was characteristic of this altitude and that they should force themselves to eat more than they wanted. They would need energy for the climb.
This was also the day to take the Larium.
The hikers were ready to go by 7:30, but John held them in camp, explaining that they needed to give last nights summiting party time to vacate the campsite at Barafu Hut. He described the campsite as quite small, perched on a narrow ledge at the base of the path that led to Stella Point. This, he went on, was one of the reasons for the overnight push to the peak. If they waited until daylight to start out, it would be dark when they returned to Barafu. By forcing climbers to start at midnight, the park could accommodate twice as many.
The main reason for the midnight summit was that the icy path melted in the sun, and was far too slippery to traverse. It was therefore important to get up and get down before it warmed up too much.
The problem with the late start from the Karanga Valley was that the high valley walls shielded the camp from the warming sun. In fact, the pleasant afternoon they had enjoyed the day before ended shortly after four, when the sun dipped behind the steep western ridge. When they finished packing their gear for the start of todays trek to Barafu, the hikers climbed one by one high onto the rocks on the valleys west side, waiting for the morning sun to find them.
Except for the persistent chill, Mary Kate felt good today, wearing clean clothes from head to toe for the first time since Shira 1. She was dressed in lightweight black fleece pants, a moisture-wicking shirt, with a bright green fleece pullover that hugged her torso snugly. When the sun finally cleared the valley wall, she lowered her wraparound shades and basked in the thawing warmth.
Kristin was the last to emerge from the tent, tossing her dirty yellow Summit bag into the pile in the center of camp. She too was wearing form-fitting fleece pants, but had a looser Polartec top over a Capilene turtleneck. Bending over, she retrieved her backpack from underneath the rain guard.
"Wow!" Drew couldnt tear his eyes from the sight of the shapely rear.
"Wow is right," echoed Jack.
Mary Kates first inclination was to scold the men for their Neanderthal objectification of women. But that would be hypocritical, she realized, relieved that she hadnt said Wow! aloud herself. She watched from behind her sunglasses as her friend walked up the hill toward their group. The tall woman had an allure that completely transcended gender, and it went well beyond the fact that she was drop dead gorgeous. This wasnt a new feeling for the Georgian, and she couldnt doubt what it was: She was attracted to Kristin sexually attracted and she had never felt such a pull toward someone in all her life.
The tall brunette eyed her fellow hikers, perched high on the rocks to catch the suns first rays. Kates blonde hair shone in the light, making her easy to spot among the crowd. Not that Kristin needed any help she seemed to know instinctively where her cute friend was at every moment.
Sleep had eluded her last night in the Karanga Valley. No doubt, the altitude played a role in her sleeplessness; but it was more than that. Her tent mate had fallen asleep soon after they returned from the latrine. When the petite woman turned in the night, the nylon of her sleeping bag slid along the vinyl of the air mattress, and the bundled form inched down the slight incline until it came to rest, perfectly spooned against her. Had it not been so cold, she would have unzipped her own bag to pull Kate even closer. Instead, she just let her fantasies wander.
Her thoughts had danced all night, replaying her conversations with Kate from the last few days. The blonde had all but admitted that she had been flirting with her too, and that she didnt see anything wrong with it. Yet it left unsaid where they would go from here, and Kristin had lain awake, turning over infinite possibilities. It probably wouldnt amount to anything, but still, the prospect was very, very exciting. Kate Sasser was undeniably appealing, more so than anyone since Pilar, and Kristin wanted to be her sexual mentor.
But Kristins feelings for Kate went beyond a simple sexual attraction. The woman was friendly and open, and had a great sense of humor, even able to laugh at herself. She listened to others and seemed to know when someone in the group needed a word of encouragement or comfort. People like that were all too rare in this day of self-indulgence.
"Did anyone else have trouble sleeping last night?" Drew asked innocently.
"Are you kidding? With you awake and not snoring, the rest of us slept like babies!" Jack answered sarcastically.
"I knew something was different last night," Mary Kate added, only half joking. "I slept really well too. But that probably means that I wont sleep tonight before the climb."
"Then I guess Drew and I will, because I was up all night too."
Mary Kate raised her shades to look at her friend. "You didnt sleep at all?"
Kristin shook her head, taking a seat on the rock beside the smaller woman.
"Was that because your tent mate crushed you when she slid down the hill?" Mary Kate asked hesitantly. She had awakened this morning to find herself tightly squeezed against her companion.
"You werent the only one!" Tammy pointed accusingly at Ann, who just shrugged her shoulders.
"Yeah, Trevor does that to me too. I wake up every single day and find myself wedged up against the side of the tent," Leah grumbled.
"I thought you liked it when I cuddled," her boyfriend answered, nuzzling her cheek with his scratchy beard.
"On the other hand, at least he was clean last night."
"Well, believe me," Brad piped up, "If this old man snuggles up to me in the night, youre all going to hear about it!"
"Yeah, like youre the perfect tent mate," his dad countered. "Should I tell them what you do in your sleep?"
"No!" Brad answered frantically. How embarrassing would that be?
Kristin leaned closer to her friend, and in a voice only Kate could hear, told her, "It may have been one of the reasons I stayed awake, but Im certainly not complaining about it." Kate dropped her shades, her eyes fixed straight ahead as a light blush crept onto her cheeks. Kristin feared shed said too much again when she noticed the corner of the blonde womans mouth turn up slightly in a knowing smile. Yes!
From their perch high above, the hikers watched John strap on his backpack. It was finally time to start their day. They began with a steep climb, but immediately descended into another valley, this one almost three miles across. The route to Stella Point would remain obscured until they reached the ridge on the other side. From there, they would descend once more across a broad valley, and then climb a steep trail to Barafu on Kilis southeast corner. In all, they would gain 2,000 feet to Barafu, then 4,000 from there to the summit.
"How are you feeling, Kate?" Drew asked. After the last break, he and Mary Kate fell in at the back of the line, walking now in front of Eric, the assistant guide who been bringing up the rear for the last two days. Erics presence was a precaution as they climbed to the higher elevations, just in case someone needed to descend.
"Im pretty good. I keep expecting to start feeling the altitude, but so far, nothing. Too bad there isnt any wood up here to knock on." They had left behind all vegetation in the Karanga Valley.
"You know, I didnt say anything this morning, but the reason I was up all night was because I got this awful headache. I hope it doesnt come back tonight."
"Did you take something? I think Kristin has some aspirin."
"Its alright. Its gone for now. This happened to me before when I went up Mt. Shasta a couple of years ago, but we did that summit in two days."
"Did you have to come back down?"
"No, it went away overnight. But Im a little worried that it bothered me at 13,000 feet last night, and were headed way higher than that."
"You should tell John."
"No I shouldnt. If he thinks its going to be a problem, hell wanna turn me around at Stella Point, maybe even sooner. Id rather make that decision myself, you know?"
"Thats fine, Drew. But you should know Im not going to keep my mouth shut if youre doing something dangerous."
"Youre not going to rat me out, are you?"
"No," she answered seriously, turning to face him as he walked toward her. "Im not going to say anything to John, because I dont want anyone else making my decisions either. But I am going to watch you, and I hope you wont be stubborn about it if its obvious you should go back down. That peak isnt worth dying for, you know."
"So youll be like the friend that tells people when theyve had too much to drink, eh?" he joked. Kate was just the kind of friend he needed. He knew he had to tell someone about his headaches, and had trusted her to be his safety net. "I appreciate it, Kate."
"Thats alright. You do the same for me, okay?"
John made the rounds at the next break, asking each climber to come clean about any difficulties with the altitude. Tammy and Trevor admitted to having headaches, and Jack lost his lunch, but no one felt their problems were serious enough to turn back. Drew insisted he was feeling fine. Halfway up the ridge to Barafu, all but Kristin and Leah were gasping for air. John was pleased to see Kate handing out the Cliff bars and encouraging the others to eat. Her determination might just see her all the way to the peak, but he wasnt sure shed be strong enough when things got really tough.
"Someones in a pretty good mood, especially considering that she didnt get any sleep last night." Mary Kate lagged behind to walk with the tall woman. The hikers were spread far apart on the single file trail, most of them walking alone, lost in their thoughts about what the night would bring.
"What makes you think Im in a good mood?" Kristin asked. In fact, she was in a very good mood.
"Because every time I look at you, youre smiling."
"Maybe thats because I smile every time you look at me," she countered.
Mary Kate had to laugh at that comeback, and fought back a blush. "Youre being quite the flirt, Kristin Addison."
"Is that a bad thing?" The smile this morning had emboldened her; Kate was feeling something too, but Kristin had no idea how far her friend was willing to go. Nor had she any idea what she wanted from Kate. The thought of touching this exciting natural blonde was tantalizing, but Kristin was starting to think that even that wouldnt be enough.
"Who am I to argue with something that makes such a beautiful smile?"
Thud! Where on earth had this southern belle learned to flirt?
The women walked slowly up the hill. Pole pole was still the mantra, more important now than ever as they neared Barafu Hut.
"Are you getting excited?" Kristin asked, earning an arched eyebrow from her green-eyed friend. "About the climb?" she quickly amended.
"Anxious is probably a better word."
"Youre going to make it, Kate." At this very moment, Kristin had more faith in Kate than she did in herself, given how tired she was. If she didnt sleep at Barafu, she might not even reach Stella Point.
When they crested the ridge, the site before them nearly stole their breath. John waited at the top, corralling the group as he pointed to the long incline that led to the glacier. "Up there is Stella Point. It is a four-mile walk from here, and is 4,000 feet higher. We will stand there at sunrise. Gilbert has dinner ready, and you should eat, then rest. I will wake you at eleven. It will be very cold."
Barafu Hut was home to three dozen tents tonight, including a larger one for three new guides who would accompany the group. It was important to have enough experienced guides on hand as escorts, especially to watch for signs of distress among the climbers.
The tents were packed closely together on the rocky ledge, the support wires wrapped around rocks or simply whipping in the growing wind. Kristin chose the one farthest from the single latrine and dropped her pack underneath the rain guard.
"Heres your bag." Mary Kate shoved both of their filthy bags next to the zippered door. "Lets get something to eat so you can get to sleep."
Kristin absently followed her companion to the dining tent, where Gilbert had laid out a large tray of French fries, a bowl of pasta, and a brown sauce no one wanted to try not even Jack. The Milo was gone, the tea was tepid. The tall woman wondered aloud if the loss of appetite at the higher altitudes was actually a myth started by trail companies who ran out of fresh food.
"Ill pack some Cliff bars for later," Mary Kate offered. "Go on to bed and Ill do the water."
Kristin nodded her thanks and disappeared inside their tent. Mary Kate retrieved the Camelbacks from their backpacks and filled them to the brim. This would be the last night they would have to worry about water. When she entered the tent 10 minutes later, she found her companion already zipped up inside her bag.
Quietly, Mary Kate undressed and put on her heavier set of Capilene long johns over a light Capilene t-shirt. To that she added her heaviest fleece pants, and the form-fitting green Polartec top she had worn all day. She changed into her last pair of clean socks, putting the dirty ones back on over them. At the foot of her tent, she laid out her gaiters, gloves, hat, balaclava, and a fleece ear band. To the side, she set the Gore-Tex pants and jacket; they would provide insulation and protect her from the wind. Her jacket had several pockets inside, including one that would hold her Camelback. If she packed her camera, Cliff bars, sunglasses, and water inside the jacket, she wouldnt need the backpack. That would make the climb easier.
As she did every night, she gently pushed her flashlight and camera to the bottom of the sleeping bag where the batteries would stay warm. Tonight, she added her Camelback, as well as Kristins. It was only six oclock in the evening, but at 14,000 feet, the temperature was already in the single digits.
The invitation came as she burrowed into her bag. "You can sleep next to me again if you want."
So she did.
Day 7 Stella Point Uhuru Peak Mweka Hut
Mary Kate was glad to know that Kristin was getting the sleep she so desperately needed. Too bad, though, that she didnt get any herself. Her lighted watch told her that the time was a quarter to eleven. John would be rousing them soon to start the climb to Stella Point. She had been perfectly still for almost five hours, afraid that any movement would wake her friend.
In the dark quiet hours, she had examined her feelings about this woman next to her. It was clear from Kristins overtures that the invitation was there. If she wanted it, they were headed toward something physical, whether just a kiss or some sort of mutual exploration. Who knows, perhaps they would even have sex.
It wasnt like shed never had casual sex, but it had been quite a while, since her cousins wedding four years ago. Champagne does that to people. On the other hand, she shouldnt technically have to count that episode at all, since the champagne had rendered her partner pretty useless.
The more she thought about having a sexual encounter with Kristin, the more Mary Kate found herself both excited and intrigued. If she were ever going to do something like this, what better place to do it than halfway across the world from Mooresville, Georgia? No one would ever know about it unless she told them, and she seriously doubted that shed say a word to anyone other than Deb. Mary Kate was attracted to this tall, dark-haired woman in a way she had never been drawn to Deb or to anybody else for that matter. It was more than just Kristins physical beauty, though that was undeniable. Every detail the woman chose to reveal was fascinating; Mary Kate found herself wanting to know more, and to share more of herself.
The one thing that made it so confusing was trying to figure out what Kristin wanted out of all of this. Mary Kate thought she could handle it if it were all just casual fun, but if this was some kind of game that Kristin played to test her own prowess, she wanted no part of it.
"It is 11 oclock now," John called, his deep voice rumbling into the night. "Trevor?"
"Were up," Leah answered, jostling her boyfriend.
"So are we," Tammy yelled out.
"Us too," Bill shouted.
"Kristin?" the guide called to the last quiet tent.
"Were up," Mary Kate responded, unzipping her bag to gently shake the sleeping woman. "Kristin, its time."
The tall woman sat up and scooted from her bag, stretching her long limbs to shake off the sleep. "I think I slept the whole time."
"You did. Are you ready for this?"
"Yeah, how about you?"
"I didnt sleep, but Im ready to go. Heres your water."
"Ah, warmed by your feet. How nice!" she joked.
"Would you have rather had a block of ice?"
"Point taken." Like Mary Kate, Kristin had slept in her thickest long johns and middle layer. Piece by piece, they dressed like jousters, covering nearly every exposed inch before emerging from the tent.
Before they exited the tent, Kristin gripped Kates gloved hand with her own. "Good luck tonight, Kate. Im there if you need me, okay?"
Mary Kate hugged her friend tightly. "Thanks, Kris. Me too you."
The full moon lit up the entire mountain in a magnificent spectacle, the glacier on top glowing like neon. John lined them up, asking that they try to keep the same order all the way to the top: Tammy, Ann, the guide Lazarro, Kate, Kristin, Leah, Trevor, the assistant guide Eric, Jack, Drew, and finally, the guide Mohammed. The hikers beamed in anticipation. This was really it!
All four of the guides wore head lanterns, but the added light was unnecessary with the brilliant moon. With John in the lead, the path was easy to follow. After walking very slowly for only a half hour, he stopped at a place where boulders lined the trail. "We will break every half hour for five minutes. You should drink."
"I dont know about you guys, but I think I wore too many clothes," Ann complained, already damp with perspiration from exertion.
"My hands are cold," Brad complained.
Mary Kate couldnt believe when she saw the thin leather gloves the youth had brought for this trip. Her own were heavy Polartec, with elastic that tightened around the wrist. "Here, take these." She reached into her pockets and pulled out the silk glove liners. It seemed as though her heavy gloves would be enough.
Five minutes passed quickly, and soon they were underway again. The pace was very slow, even slower than it had been throughout the trip. It reminded Mary Kate of when shed first learned to count seconds: One, Mississippi, two, Mississippi, three . Here they would take a step, count a couple of seconds, take another step, and count a couple of seconds. With each step, she would plant one of her climbing poles slightly ahead. This rhythm seemed to serve her well. She still hadnt really noticed the effects of the thin air, but she concentrated on taking a breath after each step to make sure it wouldnt hit her all at once.
Had it already been a half hour?
Mary Kate reached inside her jacket for the bite valve to her Camelback. She wasnt thirsty, but John insisted that they would need the water tonight.
"Its getting colder," Kristin said softly. "I hope you dont regret giving away your glove liners."
"Thats alright. But if Brad doesnt stop complaining, Im going to take them back when I push him down the mountain," she joked.
"Yeah, its too bad that he didnt bring enough warm stuff."
"It makes me respect all that much more what Vince accomplished getting to the top without his equipment."
Again, the break was short and they started up. Mary Kate lost count of how many times they stopped, not really wanting to know how much farther they had to walk. Her watch was buried underneath four layers, and it didnt really matter anyway. She was getting very tired, and the temperature had fallen considerably as they climbed. With the fleece cap pulled low over her ears, she dropped the ear band over her balaclava to add a layer of cover to her mouth and nose. Her breath crystallized inside the fleece, but it was warmer than if she left it exposed to the night air.
"My waters frozen," Kristin announced at their next break. She had forgotten Johns instructions to blow the water back through the tube after drinking, and now the tube that ran from her backpack to her shoulder was frozen solid.
"Have some of mine," Mary Kate offered, tugging the bite valve from inside her jacket.
"I cant take your water, Kate. You might not have enough." Kristin knew that her friend was wishing she had her glove liners back right about now.
"Ive got plenty. Well drink yours on the way back down."
That made sense, Kristin thought, so she lowered her head to the smaller womans neck and took a long pull from the Camelback. In any other circumstances, that might have been tantalizing. But tonight, both women were too tired and cold to think about anything else.
"Hey, my water tubes frozen up," Jack said.
"Over here," Mary Kate extended her offer.
"Kate Sasser, Human Water Fountain," he quipped, grateful that shed thought ahead. Taking turns, he and Kristin helped one another by rolling the small tubes of their Camelbacks between their fingers until the ice broke up enough to force it back into the bladder.
If possible, the trail grew steeper as they climbed, now zigzagging between the rocks. The path was covered with scree a loose volcanic gravel that made it difficult to get traction. For every two steps the climbers took, one was lost on the slide.
Tammy was struggling with every step and every breath. John had taken her pack and placed it inside his own to lighten her load, but still she begged for an early break. The art student was the only one complaining now. In fact, she was the only one saying anything at all. The others were concentrating on breathing and getting their bodies to the next resting place.
"Oh, my God! Look at that!" All heads turned up to see what had astounded Ann so. It was the glacier itself, now on their immediate left, a stunning three stories tall.
Mary Kate looked up toward Stella Point. The crater rim was only a hundred yards ahead, clearly visible not only in the moonlight, but also from the glow that crept along the eastern sky. She could make out the silhouettes of several other hikers along the ridge, presumably on their way from Gillmans Point to Uhuru Peak. All 10 of them were going to reach the rim!
Moments later, Mary Kate feared she had jumped the gun, as God had saved the steepest part of the trail for last. Every step took a colossal effort, and no breath was deep enough to deliver the oxygen her body needed. But still she plodded on, occasionally feeling the hand of her friend on her back as she slid backward in the scree.
In the last half hour, the sky grew light, and as the group finally peeked over the ridge into the massive crater of Kilimanjaro, a brilliant orange sun tasted the horizon. Mary Kate fished inside her jacket for her camera, hoping the battery had held at what John estimated was 30 degrees below zero on the Celsius scale. It was still too dark see the faces of the people in their group, but she got a picture of the sunrise.
"The summit is there," John pointed to a trail that circled to the left. "It is one hour or more, almost a thousand feet higher. If you feel strong, you should continue. Anyone who feels pain in the chest or head should return to camp."
"Im going back down," Tammy declared. "God bless you all for your help."
"Im going too," Brad said. His hands and feet were freezing.
"Thanks for everything, Kate. This is it for me too." To Johns surprise, the climber Drew also turned back.
"Isnt the water beautiful from up here?" Jack asked, staring back at the cloud cover that enshrouded the town of Moshi.
"Jack is going down also," John announced, gesturing for Mohammed to escort the obviously delirious man. "The rest of you should try to go to Uhuru."
Bill caught up with Kristin and Mary Kate as they picked their way along the icy path. "Im so proud of Brad. He really wanted to turn around about halfway up, but this time he pushed himself and made it all the way to the rim."
Mary Kate turned slowly and looked at the beaming father. "You know what Bill? I think hed be really proud of himself if he knew that hed made it as far as his father did."
The man stopped suddenly as he realized the meaning of her words. "So youre saying I shouldnt go on to the summit."
"Shes saying that its pretty hard for a kid to grow up in the shadow of a father as successful as you. If he knows hes never going to measure up, hell eventually quit trying." Kristin was very impressed that her friend had discerned the root of the boys frustration.
Bill nodded as he weighed their words. "Maybe youre right. So get us a good picture, okay?"
"That took a lot of guts, Kate." Kristin was really proud of what her friend had just done.
"Not really. Believe me, when you work in special ed, you get used to managing parents expectations."
"Well, it was a good catch. Its going to make a big difference for those two, I bet."
"I hope so." Turning toward the peak, they continued, stabbing their walking sticks into the hardened snow to gain footing along the slick path. "You doing okay?"
"Im fine. You?"
"Im okay." Mary Kate was in fact ecstatic about how her body was handling the thin air. When they reached the rim, she had caught her breath, and since the route to the summit was a very gradual incline, she was no longer struggling. "I cant believe this, Kristin. Its like I dont notice the thin air at all."
Not getting an answer, she turned to find the tall woman standing perfectly still, almost 50 yards back. As quickly as she could on the icy surface, she hurried back.
"Im fine. I just panicked or something because I couldnt get air."
"Do you need to go back?" Without a moments hesitation, Mary Kate prepared herself to turn back so she could see her friend to safety. The summit isnt that important.
"No, Im fine. Really, I just panicked for a minute and I waited here until it passed. I feel okay physically. Lets go."
"Do you swear?"
"I swear!" Kristin lowered her balaclava to shoot her friend a confident smile.
"Here, put your other stick away." Mary Kate offered an elbow. They would take the rest of their steps in tandem. They were the first in their group to reach the summit, but they were joined soon after by Ann, the 45-year-old mother of three, who took their picture before the sign that proclaimed:
YOU ARE NOW AT
UHURU PEAK, TANZANIA, 5895M. AMSL.
AFRICAS HIGHEST POINT
WORLDS HIGHEST FREE-STANDING MOUNTAIN
ONE OF WORLDS LARGEST VOLCANOES.
Trevor and Leah reached the summit also, and John, who had walked with Ann, collected their cameras to commemorate the moment. After 20 minutes, the five Summit climbers and their guide exhausted but happy turned back.
For Mary Kate, it was easily the most exhilarating moment of her life. She thought back to the moment that her plane had tilted to yield her first image of the mountain. Her spirit soared as she quietly celebrated the personal conquest of that most intimidating sight. Now as she continued back toward Stella Point, she pored over some of the trips most important elements: telling her family that she was going; the countless days in the gym getting her body fit for the climb; the 10 days shed rested a sore knee, worrying that it would keep her from going; the $2,000 from her grandmother on the sly; Debs unending support, contrasted with Bobbys condescension; and the fear and doubt that had been her near constant companions for six months. All of the challenges had been met; all of the rewards were now obtained.
"We go back on this side," John indicated what looked like a steep slant board topped with scree, extending three miles toward Barafu Hut.
"You mean were going to bust our asses all the way back," Trevor observed.
"I do not know that expression, but other climbers have used it before." The sly smile on the guides face suggested that in fact he knew the expression very well. "They also say they get little rocks up the wazoo?"
"Yippee," Ann deadpanned. "Here goes nothing."
The others watched as she started to walk slowly down the mountain. Within 20 yards, her feet flew out from under her and she slid. Standing again, she continued, repeating the process over and over. The temperature had warmed considerably with the sun, but she wasnt planning on losing any of the layers. It looked as though she would need them for padding.
The others followed suit, though Trevor and Leah were skiers and had an easier time keeping their balance as they descended. Mary Kate and Kristin lengthened their adjustable walking sticks, using them for balance or to break their fall.
Three hours later, the six summiters entered the dining tent, black and blue like everyone else, their knees like jelly. High fives and hugs went all around as they were congratulated for their conquest. All 10 climbers then posed with Stella Point in the background, the "after" picture to compare with the one taken at Londorossi Gate.
After a short lunch and a change into lightweight clothes, the hikers left behind their summit adventure. What had been "pole pole" was now "haraka," Swahili for fast, or as Jack put it, "get the hell off this mountain!"
The descent wasnt steep at all, but it was relentless. The constant pounding took a fierce toll on the hikers knees and lower backs, and they struggled to find the best position for their backpacks, which now pulled on the shoulders and neck.
It hadnt occurred to Mary Kate until now that the routes on and off the mountain seemed to be one-way, since they never met anyone coming from the other direction. John explained that only the Marangu route the more popular tourist route was used for both the climb and retreat. By park rules, this route the Mweka Route was for descending parties only.
"You still feeling good, Kate?" Kristin stepped up to walk beside her friend. The trail was uncharacteristically wide between Barafu Hut and the rainforest, allowing the hikers to walk abreast.
"I cant believe it." Mary Kate stopped and turned around to face the mountain. "I mean, look at that. We were all the way up there just a few hours ago." The summit seemed even more daunting and farther away now than it had since it first came into view the day they hiked to Shira 1. This angle showed more of the glacier, the most majestic view yet.
"I know what you mean. Its almost surreal."
"Thats a good word for it," Mary Kate agreed. "You know, I was sort of irritated a few days ago because we were going so slowly. But if wed gone faster, maybe I wouldnt have made it."
"I guess thats possible."
"Things work out like theyre supposed to," the smaller woman concluded.
"Listen, I ." Kristin hesitated, not at all sure where she wanted this conversation to go. "Im really glad I got the chance to do this with you, Kate. You made it really special."
Mary Kates stomach fluttered with both excitement and nervousness at Kristins admission. "Yeah, it was pretty special for me too, being up there with you, I mean."
"So!" The tall brunette wanted to say more, but lost her nerve. She wanted to say that she hoped theyd have the chance to get to know each other better over the next week on the safari; that she hoped theyd be able to explore this "spark" that was dancing back and forth between them; or that she hoped Kate would just allow herself to be kissed completely senseless. "Whats the first thing youre going to do when we get back to the hotel tomorrow?"
"Youre kidding, right?"
"I mean after your bath," Kristin clarified.
"Probably another bath, and then another. Then Ill have to pick the scree out of my wazoo," Mary Kate laughed.
Her companion smiled, secretly enjoying the image that conjured; but she bit her tongue to stifle the offer to help. "Imagine what that hot water will feel like."
"Ha! Dont get your hopes up. The first night I was at the Keys, we didnt have any hot water. What do you think will happen when all 10 of us try to turn it on at the same time?"
We could always double up .
Up ahead, Brad suddenly dropped his backpack and darted off to the left.
"Why, you little shit!" Bill dropped his pack also, starting off in pursuit as the rest of the group tried to figure out what was happening.
In moments, the playful father and son were rolling on the ground, laughing hysterically until Brad finally cried "Uncle!" It was a welcome sight to all after bearing witness to the obvious tension between the two. Finally, the two returned to pick up their packs, still laughing, but not sharing what had triggered the chase.
"Did I hear you say there was an Internet café in Moshi?" Kristin asked when they picked up their pace again.
"Yeah, there is. In fact, I want to go send a note to Deb and let her know I made it. Wanna come?"
Though she knew it was silly, the tall woman grimaced, thinking for sure that she would hear that Kate was going to write Bobby. "Sure. I can send a note to my dad, and to Cyn and Andrea."
"What kind of work does your dad do?" Mary Kate asked. Kristin hadnt talked much at all about her family.
"Hes an investment banker. He travels a lot to Europe. I saw him in London on the way over here."
"You stopped in London?" Mary Kate couldnt believe how nonchalant her friend was about seeing London.
"Just for a few days. Ill see him again in Miami before I head back to Bloomington."
"Sounds like you and your father are close."
"Yeah, I lived with him growing up. My mom...fell in love with somebody else and left us when I was nine." For years, Kristin had spent sullen weekends at her mothers new home, staunchly refusing to accept Luis, her stepfather. Only when shed gotten old enough to realize the power of love did she finally understand why her mother had to leave.
"That must have been really hard for you, having your mom leave." One of Mary Kates uncles had gotten divorced, and it scandalized the family for years. "Do you ever see her?"
"Weve managed to get closer over the years. Well probably never be really tight, you know, but Im glad that shes happy." She had even become friendly with Luis. "Ill see her in Miami, if shes there. They travel back and forth a lot to Peru, and if thats where they are, I probably wont have time to go down and see them this time before I have to be back in school."
Mary Kate was fascinated to hear of Kristins life. She didnt know anybody who just picked up and went to London, or to Peru. She couldnt even imagine what it was like to live in a place like Miami. It was hard not to wonder what someone like Kristin would think of a place like Mooresville.
"Whats your family like?" It was funny theyd been with each other all week, lying awake for countless hours inside a five-by-seven tent and hadnt even talked about their families.
Mary Kate went on to tell about her family. At 26, she was the middle child of three. Her brother Randy Junior was the oldest, and he worked as a contractor. He and his wife Yvonne had three children. Her sister Carol Lee was six years younger, engaged to a policeman in Mooresville. Theyd all grown up on top of each other in a three-bedroom house just like half the other houses in town.
"So you shared a room with your sister?"
"For 12 years. Carol Lee and I are pretty close, considering were six years apart. Shes probably going to be the most upset about me breaking up with Bobby."
"We would do things together, the four of us. Carol Lee and Mom would always talk about how our kids are going to play together and where well build our houses and all." Mary Kate was growing depressed as she told about the life her family had planned. "I guess theyre all going to take it pretty hard."
"And youre sure its really what you want, breaking up with Bobby, I mean?"
Mary Kate didnt answer right away. After spending two years thinking she was headed toward a life with Bobby Britton, it wouldnt be right not to consider it again for another eight seconds. "Yep, Im sure."
"We break," John announced to the weary hikers. They had been hiking for almost two hours straight. This break spot was different: A dark green hut like the huts used by some of the porters at Shira 2 and Barafu sat next to a clearing, its door open to reveal a cooler, stocked with ice cold Coca-Cola. The guide laughed as he watched the hikers eyes light up at the sight, their mouths salivating as they dug into their backpacks for cash. One American dollar bought two Cokes; thus Bills $20 bought the round for the hikers and each of the porters as they straggled through.
Mary Kate got a spectacular picture of all of her friends sitting side by side on a long bench with their Cokes, the mountain looming in the distant background. John then took their cameras one by one so all 10 hikers could pose together.
"Hey, Tammy?" Mary Kate called the young woman over. "Would you mind getting a picture of Kristin and me?" She looked questioningly at her tall friend, who moved quickly to place an arm tightly around her shoulder. Mary Kate answered with an arm around the slender waist.
"Okay, say rice and some sort of brown sauce," she joked. There was no cheese on this trek.
"Wait, will you take one with my camera, too?" Kristin asked, pointing to her backpack. Neither woman loosened her hold.
"Say Ill never go to the bathroom outside again as long as I live."
After an hour and a half of hiking through the thinnest part of the rainforest, the Summit group came upon Mweka Hut, by far the muddiest camp they had seen on this trek. All five of their tents were huddled together way too close to the latrine for Kristins comfort underneath a stand of wispy trees with branches that brushed the rain guards.
The exhilaration of the climb to the summit well behind them, the hikers were weary of the trail, sore from sleeping on the ground, and very tired of camp food. Poor Gilbert got barely a greeting when he brought out the potatoes and soup. The drizzle chilled them all to the bone, and two by two, they turned in soon after eating. Kristin had slept only five hours since the Karanga Valley, and Mary Kate hadnt slept at all.
The tall woman didnt bother changing at all, kicking off her boots and climbing quickly into her sleeping bag. "I cant believe its this cold here."
"I know, I expected it to be a lot warmer too." Mary Kate dug out the long johns she had washed in the Karanga Valley. Once she had changed, she got into her bag, wordlessly scooting it next to Kristin, who turned on her side to mold her body with that of her friend.
Day 8 The Keys Hotel
Mary Kate awoke on her side, her entire length resting against that of her taller companion. Though completely inside her warm cocoon, the welcoming feel of Kristins long body was unmistakable. Thoughts of how relaxed they might be in this same position, but without the restricting bags, came unbidden. Although this strong physical attraction to a woman was an uncharted sensation, she felt at ease with it, much more so than with thoughts of Deb or Trish, or even Jessica. Mary Kate had long since stopped questioning this pull toward Kristin; in fact, she had all but made up her mind that she would explore this once they got some private time, if the tall woman was truly interested, that is.
"Hi," Mary Kate whispered as she raised her head for a moment and found her friends perpetual soft smile. "You have a dirty face."
"I hate to be the one to tell you this, but so do you."
The smaller woman chuckled and dropped her head back on Kristins broad shoulder. "I have a dirty everything."
"Theres ice inside our tent," Kristin remarked drearily, peering through the hole in her sleeping bag at the frozen condensation.
"Do you realize that when we crawl out this morning, we wont ever have to go back in?" In an odd way, that realization made Mary Kate sad. It wasnt that shed miss the hard ground, or the cold, or the dirt that pervaded everything she owned. But it had been nice sharing the small space with her dark-haired friend, especially when theyd lie awake and talk.
"And youll have your own space," Kristin finished. Shed miss this closeness.
"And you wont have a tent mate sleeping on top of you every night."
"I havent minded that at all," her friend assured. "It felt really nice to have you so close," she confessed.
Mary Kate raised her head again and met the sterling blue eyes. "I good. I liked it too." And I wouldnt mind trying it in a bed, either.
A sudden giggling from an adjacent tent broke the intense gaze.
"Hey everybody! Ann just challenged us all to a race to the bus. Last one theres a rotten egg!" Tammy was in a good mood this morning, no doubt because this would be behind them soon.
"Thats appropriate, since we all smell like rotten eggs," Jack yelled from inside his own tent.
"Im running off this mountain so fast you guys will be eating my dust!" Brad proclaimed.
"Its mud, Brad. There is no dust."
The banter continued between tents for another 10 minutes before Leah finally ventured out.
"What?" several voices asked.
"Everything out heres covered in ice, even the stuff under the rain guard."
Sure enough, Mary Kate and Kristin unzipped the tent to find a thin layer of ice covering their boots and Summit bags. A peek outside the rain guard revealed more; ice coated the ground and hung from the trees.
"Im ready to get the hell off this mountain," Mary Kate groaned.
"Im right behind you. One more day of this, and I really think wed be doing psych evacs."
Breakfast was hard-boiled eggs, delivered to the camp by the same transport that ferried Coca-Cola to the ranger station just above Mweka Hut. Mary Kate passed around the hand sanitizer, and everyone made the best of it. No one bothered to fill all of the water bottles today a single liter each would be more than enough. They would be off the mountain in three hours, and the persistent drizzle kept a chill in the air.
The exit through the rainforest was somewhat treacherous, as the damp moss growing across the rocks made for slippery passage. Nonetheless, they were making good time. Ann had positioned herself directly behind John today, still insisting that she would be the first on the waiting bus.
After their first break, the trail became somewhat muddier. Kristin helped her shorter friend navigate the muckier parts, lending a hand to ensure that she didnt lose her footing. Both women were glad that they had brought two walking sticks; most of the hikers had only one.
"So were almost there, John?" They had been slogging for more than two hours now.
"I think we are half." He hated to be the bearer of bad news, but the trail wasnt usually this muddy this high up. It was going to get worse a lot worse before they reached the roadway that would take them to the ranger station at Mweka Gate.
In fact, John had no idea it would be this bad. The runoff from last nights drizzle had spread through the jungle like a delta, and soon, the hikers had no choice but to trudge right through the middle of it. It was miserable, and seemed as though it might never end.
The usually jovial group was quiet, no one dare commenting this time that "it couldnt possibly get any worse." The slickened mud had brought down each and every one, most more than once.
"Hey Tammy!" Jack yelled ahead. "What did you say to God to make him hate us so much?"
The art student chuckled at the lawyers good-natured teasing.
"Let me guess," he went on, "you thanked him for giving you such a challenge, and now he feels obligated to give you another one."
John stopped them again when they came upon a log that had fallen across the path. It was as good a place to break as any.
"Hey John," Brad started. "It isnt like this in the movies. You see, in the movies, the African guide walks ahead and chops down the branches with a machete so the tourists can just walk through without any trouble. There is no mud."
The proud African guide shrugged his shoulders. "I have never seen a movie."
Kristin spotted her friend slumped at the end of the sloping log, her back to the others in the group. "Hey Kate, how are you doing?"
Mary Kate didnt answer at first; afraid of what might tumble out if she opened the emotional floodgates. "Not so good." The grueling slog had taken its toll on her spirit. Only yesterday, she had soared; today she was deflated, completely demoralized.
Kristin put a comforting hand on her shoulder. "Well be out of this soon."
"I sure hope so, because if I thought the next two hours were going to be like the last, I think I just might kill myself now."
The counselor recoiled at the flippant words. "Kate, please dont say that, okay?"
At once, the blonde realized the implications of what shed just said for someone who had lost her best friend to suicide. "Im sorry, Kris."
"Thanks. Its just that ."
"I know, I understand. It was a stupid thing to say." Adding guilt to the depression she already felt was too much and the green eyes suddenly filled with tears.
"Hey, its okay." The tall woman kneeled against the log and drew her friend to her chest. "Its just for a little while longer. I promise you, that feeling you had yesterday morning will be back."
Mary Kate smiled through the tears that trickled down her cheeks. Giving her friend a tight squeeze around the waist in return, she whispered her thanks. Feeling suddenly like a baby, she looked around at the others. Trevor was consoling Leah, who was covered with mud past her hips; Ann was similarly slumped. She wondered if indeed their misery today was magnified by the contrast from their elation at the summit.
When John stood this time, he offered encouragement. "No more breaks. Now we go to the gate."
"Why dont we walk the rest of the way with Ann?" Mary Kate suggested. "She looks like she could use a little moral support too."
Again, Kristin was touched by the way her friend showed concerned for others, even when she herself was overwhelmed.
In under an hour, the Summit group exited the muddy trail onto a wide dirt road. It too was wet, but here they could easily get their footing. To their surprise, they were met from the other direction by several young boys who escorted them the final half mile to the ranger station. Everyone thought it odd at first, but the youths friendly presence was a welcome addition. Rounding a final bend, the hikers got their first view of civilization such as it was in the form of several rugged four-wheel drive vehicles, and a simple white structure that housed the rangers station.
The boy who walked with Mary Kate took her arm and led her to a constantly running faucet that splashed onto a concrete slab. Carefully, she held onto a pole as he took out a ragged scrub brush and began to wash the caked mud from her boots and pants.
"Kate! Look at me."
The blonde woman turned and smiled as Kristin got the "real" after picture. Finally, she was coming out of her funk. She hadnt imagined at all that the descent would have been so emotionally draining. But it was over, and she had realized her dream.
The boy was thrilled with the two dollar tip; usually, it was only a few shillings. He liked Americans.
John directed the group to the rangers log book, where each hiker officially signed out of the park, noting the highest point reached. He was pleased that five from his group had made it to Uhuru. Tom Muncie would be glad to hear that they had achieved the 40 percent success rate they typically got from the Lemosho Glades Route. Ann and Kate had surprised him when they went on from Stella Point, but then, so had Drew and Bill when they turned back.
As was typical of Summit treks, this group of mostly strangers converged on his mountain and forged a bond that centered at first on conquering the summit. Over the course of the trek, this singular focus changed. Some like Kate and Ann, and the couple, Trevor and Leah still wanted the summit. Their hunger for the achievement was what drove them in this quest, and they had come to the mountain prepared.
Others, like Tammy and even Drew, set their sights lower, satisfied that any height under these conditions was a formidable personal triumph. Drew, he had learned, had quietly fought off the altitude sickness to reach Stella Point. His motivation, though, was not a matter of personal achievement, as it was for Tammy; his reason for pushing on was so the group itself would succeed.
And on every trek, some climbers set new goals that didnt really involve the mountain at all. The father and son in this group had done that, and the way they talked and joked with one another today suggested that their goal had most certainly been met. Jack and Kristin had come for the summit, but as the adventure unfolded, their aim shifted and they sought only to share this experience with others.
John was pleased that all of these climbers would take home happy memories of their time on Mt. Kilimanjaro. They all had helped one another over the challenges of the trail and had laughed at each other and at themselves. The African guide had no idea if these people would continue to be friends when their Summit trek was finished, but he liked to think so.
After a one-hour drive through the countryside, the bus pulled into the Keys Hotel, depositing the 10 tired and dirty hikers onto the same front porch where they had gathered expectantly eight days ago. In their last official act as Summit trekkers, the party pooled their dollars to generously tip their guide and the team of porters gathered by the bus. Remembering what Tom had said about the porters needing their extra clothing, several of the hikers left behind socks and Polartec shirts. Mary Kate donated her sleeping bag, which had suffered a small tear and was losing its filling, and her heavy backpack, which was caked in mud from the spill she had taken on the trip from Mweka. Kristin contributed her hiking boots, gloves, and two pairs of long johns.
In return, John rewarded the five summiters with official certificates from the Tanzania National Parks department, noting the date, time, and age of the climber. The others got a Summit Trail and Safari Company certificate, proclaiming that they had reached Stella Point.
The blonde woman then retrieved her valuables along with the extra bag she had stored in the hotels closet, and climbed the stairs to her small room on the second floor. She had arranged with Kristin, who had already disappeared into her room down the hall, to meet on the porch in one hour to walk into Moshi to the Internet café.
Methodically, Mary Kate emptied her filthy Summit bag, hastily repacking the things that were dirty, or that she wouldnt need for the next five days on safari. She smiled when she opened the second bag, reveling in the fresh supply of shorts and tops. It was going to be so nice to be clean.
Turning on the faucet in the step-in shower, Mary Kate was disappointed despite her diminished expectations about the plumbing at the Keys Hotel. The shower barely managed a trickle, and it was cold. It would have to do.
After 30 minutes of intense scrubbing, the small blonde called it quits, dressing in her clean olive green convertibles with a plain pale yellow t-shirt. In the post-9/11 world, she had been warned not to wear clothing that might identify her as an American, so none of her t-shirts bore slogans or names. Sandals were a welcome change to the boots she had worn since leaving Mooresville. Finishing the new look, she added small gold hoop earrings, and the barest hint of makeup. It made her smile as she acknowledged to herself that she wanted Kristin to think she looked good.
Together, the women walked into the small village, stopping along the way to buy Cokes from an open-air stand. Kristin generously bought drinks and candy for two children playing nearby.
"So are you going to email Bobby?" she asked nonchalantly.
"I was going to send him a quick note, but he isnt very good about checking his email. I was thinking Id try to call him at school from the front desk before dinner."
"That sounds like an adventure unto itself," Kristin joked.
"Yeah, I asked them if I could, and they said I could have six minutes for 20 dollars. Vince called his fiancée from there, but he said the connection wasnt all that good."
When they reached the café, Kristin took the last open terminal while Mary Kate perused a week-old copy of the International Herald-Tribune. The connection was sluggish, but eventually, the counseling student signed in to her campus account, quickly concluding that there were no messages that couldnt wait another week. First, she typed a short note to her father, letting him know that she had reached the summit and was now safe at the hotel in Moshi. Next, she wrote to Cyn and Andrea:
Well, I have to tell you, ladies Kili was everything you said it would be and more. Five of us made it to the summit including yours truly and most of us are headed out on safari tomorrow. Cant wait to tell you about the "and more" part suffice it to say that shes blonde, with the most expressive green eyes Ive ever seen. I sure hope I have a lot more to say when I see you, but if not, Ill be happy just to add another person to my short list of very good friends. Ill e you again from Miami, and I cant wait to look at your pictures again.
"Your turn," the tall woman said as she playfully snatched the paper from her friend. "If youre going to tell your friends all about me, be sure to say nice things."
Mary Kate smiled at Kristins mischief. "You mean I cant tell them how you laughed at me when I fell in the water, or how you taunted me when I couldnt get up the Barranco Wall, or ?"
"No, none of those things. I dont want your brother and Bobby Britton thinking they need to come beat the shit out of me."
"Why, Kristin Addison! I do believe you understand Southern culture after all," she answered in her best Scarlet OHara voice.
Mary Kate sat down and logged onto her email account, grinning broadly as she read her longtime friends reply.
To my dear, dear, dear, dear friend Mary Kate,
You cannot imagine the joy it brings me to hear you say that you are finished with Bobby Britton. In fact, I bought a six-pack of Coors Lite to celebrate the blessed event with you, but I drank the whole damn thing in your honor.
Im glad to hear how much youre enjoying your trip. By the time you get this note, youll have been to the mountain top! Cant wait to hear about it, and for Gods sake, Mary Kate, dont bring home any parasites!
Mary Kate was exceedingly glad that she had a friend like Deb Demers. She was the kind of friend that wanted for her what she wanted for herself, and Deb would have supported her even if shed eventually married Bobby. She couldnt wait to talk to her about this mysterious attraction to Kristin, but she wouldnt do that in her email.
To my dear, dear, dear, dear friend Deb,
Have I told you lately how much I appreciate the way you make me laugh!
I am indeed back from the mountain, and I, Mary Kate Sasser, have conquered the highest peak on the entire continent of Africa! There were 12 in our group, and 5 of us made it: Ann from St. Paul, a mother of 3 teenage boys, Trevor and Leah, a couple in our group from Philly, and Kristin from Miami, who is a grad student at Indiana. She and I have gotten to be really good friends on this trip, and I hope I can talk her into driving through Mooresville on her next trip between school and home so you can meet her. She has a keychain just like yours. ;-) Anyway, Kris and I are doing the safari together for the next five days, then its back home. Shell be flying through Amsterdam instead of Johannesburg.
I REALLY wish you had been able to come. I cant wait to get my pictures developed.
Love, Mary Kate
Thinking ahead to her phone call to Bobby, Mary Kate decided to skip writing a note. Walking by her friend at the counter, the blonde woman snatched the paper away teasingly, returning the favor from before. "We should go back before it gets dark."
"Did you let everybody in Mooresville know?"
"No, just Deb. Now I have to call Bobby and ask him to let my parents know. But I dread talking to him."
"What are you going to say?"
"Im not sure. Ill have to wait and see what comes out of my mouth."
When they walked past the Coke stand on their way back, eight small children came to greet them, obviously on the recommendation of their two friends. The women bought another round of drinks and candy, just making it back to the hotel before dark.
Mary Kate pulled a $20 bill from her pocket. "May I use your phone to call the States?"
"Good luck, Kate." Kristin started to head toward the bar when Jack suddenly appeared with Kendra and Lauren.
"Why look who it is! I almost didnt recognize you with your face clean," the lawyer ribbed.
"Look whos talking. Youve been walking around with the same food in your beard for four days," the counselor answered back.
"Hi Dreama, its me, Kate Sasser Mary Kate. Can I talk to Bobby?" So much for privacy.
Mary Kate? Kristin was surprised to hear that her friend went by a different name with the people back home. "Mary Kate" was positively adorable.
"Mary Kate? Why do Southerners have to have two first names?" Jack asked, getting an elbow from his girlfriend and a wicked glare from the small woman on the phone.
"Let me buy the first round," Kristin offered, attempting to steer the others out of the hotels small lobby.
"Hey Bobby, its me! I was just calling to let you know that were all back down, and I made it all the way yeah, it was pretty tough no, only five of us ." Now she had to listen to him speculate why the others didnt make it. "Listen, Ive only got a couple of minutes this call is costing me 20 bucks but I just wanted to let you know, okay?" Listening to his protests about how expensive the phone call was, Mary Kate watched the clock on the clerks counter, noting that she had less than 30 seconds. "Bobby, I have to go. Ill see you at the airport, okay? And will you call Mom and Dad and let them know that I made it and that Im down and Im safe? And tell them to call Grandma." She cringed as she heard the words she knew were coming. "You too. Bye."
Flooded with emotions, Mary Kate leaned across the counter to hang up the phone. She felt guilty for her pretense, but the stronger feeling was relief to be done with it. It would feel even better once theyd finally talked about things being over and they could move on from being a couple, maybe even to being good friends. At least now, she could spend the next few days not worrying about it.
The Southerner found her fellow hikers all 11 of them at a long table on the outdoor patio of the bar. An ice-cold Safari beer sat at an empty spot next to the dark-haired woman from Miami, who was lost in conversation with those around her.
Before sitting down, Mary Kate took a moment to study her beautiful friend from behind. Kristins long black hair was loose around her shoulders, and her casual pose one arm across the back of the empty chair as she leaned across to talk to Ann was the picture of relaxation. It was a delightful contrast to the reticence she had shown only last week when they first met. As she approached the chair, Mary Kate found herself intent on peering down the open-collared shirt, stirred when she caught a glimpse of Kristins white lacy bra.
"Thanks," she murmured, picking up the beer as she took the seat beside her friend.
"Youre welcome. I assumed youd want a beer." Kristin was pleasantly astonished at the way Kate had casually leaned into her arm when she sat down.
"Very much," she confirmed, taking her first taste of Tanzanias finest. "Oh thats different."
"The second swallows better, and by the third, itll be your favorite," Bill explained. Father and son sat directly across the table, Brad trying not to guzzle the first beer hed ever had in his old mans presence. He wanted to agree, but thought it best not to let his dad that his 18-year-old son knew his brew.
"Boy, it sure felt good to have a shower and a shave," Brad said instead.
"You shaved?" Jack asked incredulously. "Did you use a razor?"
As usual, the young man blushed furiously, coming up empty in his quest for a comeback. He was saved by a flicker of the lights, then another, before the entire complex was thrown into total darkness. The electrical grids in Africa were unpredictable.
"Gosh, Jack, you just got better looking," Brad quipped.
In a few moments, the bar staff appeared with candles for their table. Trevor and Leah sprang for the next round, as the 10 summit climbers regaled Kendra and Lauren with their post-Shira exploits, laughing as they told the story of Jacks delusional arrival at Stella Point.
"The ocean was there, I swear it! Someone must have moved it before you guys turned around," he whined.
Mary Kate bought the third round, though she, Kristin, Ann, Tammy and Bill had switched to Coke after two beers. Around eight oclock, the restaurant manager appeared to announce that despite the power loss, the buffet was ready and their table was set.
No one ate the potatoes.
Her plate piled high with baked fish, tomatoes, and freshly-baked bread, Mary Kate squeezed into a seat at the far end of the table. Kristin joined her at the corner, brushing their knees together as she sat down.
Leaning over, the green-eyed woman lowered her voice so that only Kristin could hear. "Its nice to see you so relaxed tonight."
"Hey, Im from Miami. I cant relax unless Im warm," she joked.
"Well," Mary Kate really wanted to pay her friend a compliment, "it looks good on you."
"Thanks." Kristin reached under the table to squeeze her friends knee and was pleasantly surprised when Mary Kate covered her hand with her own. Things were heating up.
"So Kristin," Kendra interrupted, "as the resident psychologist on this trip, how about running down the list of disorders that you observed in the last week?"
"Lets see, you mean besides Bills hallucinations and Brads inferiority complex. Oh, scratch that last one. It isnt a complex; Brad really is inferior."
The teenager just shook his head as everyone laughed at his expense. He was so far out of his league; he figured he might as well concede.
"And then there was the mass meltdown on the last leg from Mweka Hut. I think nearly everyone was on the verge of psychosis."
"And lets not forget who went catatonic at 19,000 feet," Mary Kate threw in, hoping her friend could take some teasing.
"Oh yeah I forgot about that one," Kristin said sheepishly.
"How convenient!" Mary Kate was pretty good with her Church Lady imitation. And just to let her friend know that the teasing was good natured, she reached back under the table and groped for Kristins hand, squeezing it with reassurance.
Kristin squeezed back, this time not letting go. Casually, both women continued in the lively conversation, but something too subtle for the others to see was raging on their end of the table.
This candlelight banquet would be the last meal together for the 12 new friends. Jack, Lauren, Drew, and the father and son team were heading out for home early in the morning. The others would stay for several more days to tour a few of the areas safari lodges, but tomorrow they would split up into three groups. Trevor, Leah, and Kendra were traveling together. Tom Muncie had paired Ann and Tammy for their safari leg, just as he had paired Kristin and Mary Kate. After tonight, they wouldnt see each other again until they arrived back at the Kilimanjaro airport on Saturday afternoon.
When dinner was finished, Mary Kate collected email addresses from everyone and promised to distribute them once she got back home. After exchanging warm hugs with the departing travelers, she and Kristin were left alone in the restaurant. Neither wanted their night together to end, and both were too nervous to suggest otherwise.
Mary Kate finally broke the impasse. "You want to walk me to my room?"
Kristin wasnt yet clear on exactly what her friend wanted, but she was reluctant to push. Kate seemed like she may be open to exploring things between them, and Kristin suspected that she might be entertaining thoughts of a casual sexual encounter. It was as though Kate had come to Africa seeking thrills, and that Kristin was but a part of the Southerners adventure. And if you keep things in check, that doesnt have to be a bad thing at all.
"Sure." Kristin stood and led them through the candlelit restaurant, and into the candlelit lobby, where they were met by a young girl with a flashlight.
"I take you upstairs to your room," she offered.
Together, the three women mounted the stairs, arriving first at Mary Kates room. Their escort waited until she had located the matches on the nightstand and lit the single deep candle in her room.
"Good night," Kristin said awkwardly as she turned and followed the woman down the hall.
Kristin parted the mosquito net and crawled into the twin bed. Tucking the net securely beneath her mattress, she settled naked into the smooth cool sheets. This was her first night alone since theyd left eight days ago for the Kilimanjaro climb. Privacy sucked.
She had hoped that by walking Kate to her room, she might have stolen a kiss. Kate Sasser. Mary Kate Sasser. What have you done to me, Mary Kate Sasser?
At the other end of the hall, Mary Kate was having a similar conversation with herself. At least tomorrow night she and Kristin would share a room. Too bad theyd run into that clerk downstairs. She had no compunctions at all about wandering around in the dark with her friend. And once theyd found her room, she might have even coaxed a kiss out of the beautiful woman. The very idea of feeling Kristin Addisons lips on hers .
A light knock at her door interrupted her thoughts as she climbed into bed.
"Who is it?"
Mary Kate released the barrel bolt and opened the door, smiling to find her pajama-clad friend leaning against the door jamb, holding a candle. Wordlessly, she grasped the womans wrist and pulled her gently into the room, snapping the privacy bolt back into place. Blowing out the candle so that only her own lit the room, she finally spoke. "I hope youve come to sleep beside me again. Ive gotten sort of used to that."
Kristin had come for that elusive kiss. She had not expected this. "If thats what you hope for, then thats what youll get." Setting down the smoky candle and her room key, she boldly placed a hand on the smaller womans hip. Her other hand tenderly tipped the womans chin, and she lowered her lips to brush softly against Kates. Back and forth, Kristin nibbled and tugged with her lips and teeth, finally urging the mouth open to take her gently probing tongue. A soft moan told her that it was welcome, and soon, the two hands around her waist were roaming up her back, pulling her closer.
Mary Kate felt her knees go weak when she felt the womans lips on her own, and she instinctively reached out to pull Kristin close. The lips and tongue were soft and seeking, and now she realized that her hands were sliding up and down the tall womans muscled back. When Kristins lips dropped below her ear, she decided that she wanted to feel this mouth in other places.
Stepping back from the heated assault on her neck, Mary Kate took the dark-haired womans hand and led her to the opening in the mosquito net. "Here we are again, crawling into a tent."
Kristin chuckled softly and ducked through the slit, climbing across to the second twin mattress. Pushed together, the twin beds made a king-sized bed. "Somehow I think this tent will be different."
"I sure hope so," the smaller woman said, slipping into the enclosure and closing the gap behind her. The candle flickered with its yellow glow, casting two silhouettes onto the transparent white netting. Turning again toward the tall woman, she continued, "Now where were we? Oh yes, I believe your lips were right about here," she presented her neck for further exploration.
Kristin didnt miss the invitation, pushing Kate back onto the bed as she devoured the tender neck. She was vaguely aware of two hands pushing through her hair, and a soft low moan of approval. Again, she brought their lips together, this time in a searing kiss meant to reach deep inside the other woman. Unconsciously, she draped her leg between the two beneath her, both women now rocking in a slow, steady rhythm. Realizing her climbing need, she stilled her hips and drew back; she was moving too fast. It wasnt likely that Kate was ready for all of this.
Or was she?
Kristin was surprised when the small hands left her hair and ventured down her back.
"I want to feel you," Kate pleaded, lifting the womans top to her shoulders.
Kristin helped to pull it over her head, and now was naked from the waist up. Her long fingers worked the buttons of Kates top, and when the soft breasts were finally revealed, she resisted the urge to caress them with her hands and mouth, instead lowering her body to bring their warm skin together.
Mary Kate thought she might die from the softness against her. This was so what was it? It was sweet; it was sensuous; it was exquisite. Her hands roamed across the rippled shoulder blades, down the dip of the tall womans spine, and back up the curved sides to start again. Lowering her hands to Kristins hips, she slipped her fingertips underneath the elastic of the flannel shorts. "More."
Kristins heart hammered as she answered the demand, slipping off her shorts and tugging Kates off her bent legs. Shifting on the bed, she positioned herself between the soft thighs and lowered herself slowly, gasping as she watched her own dark curls cover the blonde mound beneath her.
"God, Kris," Mary Kate murmured. I am lying here naked with another woman! She had no idea that two bodies together could feel like this.
"You feel so good, Kate. Dont let me go too far."
Mary Kate trembled at the womans warning words. "I want you to touch me." She wanted the long hands and the soft mouth to know her body.
"Are you sure?" Kristin searched the green eyes in the dim light for any sign that they should stop.
In answer, Mary Kate pulled her down again for a heated kiss, guiding Kristins hand to a waiting breast. "Please."
The dark-haired woman needed no further encouragement. She kneaded the firm breast, teasing the brown nipple into a hardened tip. Lowering her head, she enveloped it in the warm softness of her mouth, sucking gently as her hand sought out its twin.
Mary Kate pushed her chest higher off the bed, willing it deeper into Kristins caress. She watched through hooded eyes as the dark head moved from one breast to the other, lavishing a tantalizing touch on the aching peaks.
Too soon, the wet mouth left her breasts, but as it drifted lower across her abdomen, Mary Kate became solely focused on a stronger ache, this one burning from her center. Instinctively, she raised her hands to cover her own breasts, pinching and pulling her nipples in an excited frenzy.
Kristin shuddered at the erotic display, feeling her own excitement build. The scent of Kates arousal now filled her head, and she wrapped her arms underneath the soft thighs, lowering her face to its source. Unable to hold back, she pressed her mouth into the wet softness, thrilled at her new lovers sweet taste.
Mary Kate had never imagined anything so sublime. On impulse, she opened fully to allow the soft tongue to trail through her most intimate folds. Every nerve in her body had seemingly vacated its function, all now congregated in a single place. The instant Kristin closed her lips over that tiny spot Mary Kate erupted, a million sensations rushing like lasers to and from her core. Nearly frantic, she jerked away.
"Its okay, its okay," Kristin assured the rapidly retreating woman. She withdrew her mouth completely, recognizing the hypersensitive response to her prolonged caress. Quickly, she crawled up her lovers body, cradling her in a calming embrace. "Shhhh, Ive got you."
The blonde woman shook as she wrapped her arms tightly around the sinewy back, still feeling both the physical and emotional aftereffects of her numbing orgasm. She was barely aware of Kristins soft words, but the deep rich voice was soothing. Mary Kate had never had such an explosive response to sexual intimacy. Bobby had brought her to a climax a few times before, but never one that thundered deep inside her as this one had, and none that left her weak and pulsing in its wake.
"Are you alright?"
Mary Kate buried her head into the long neck and nodded, too embarrassed to raise her head and speak. Her body still trembled and twitched from what Kristin had done.
Kristin stroked her back gently and planted soft kisses on the blonde head that burrowed under her chin. What had happened to change Kates surging insistence into such obvious regret? Kristin feared she had indeed gone farther than the other woman ever intended, stepping over a line that she hadnt recognized.
Gradually, Mary Kates small body began to relax, her hands finally loosening their death grip on Kristins broad back. It was humiliating to have gone into something she simply wasnt prepared to handle. Worse, Kristin had been witness to her obvious naïveté. This was so much more intense than anything shed ever experienced.
And it was so much more intimate. Bobby had kissed her down there once, but he hadnt tasted her as Kristin had. At his urging, she had returned the gesture, but with a similar lack of enthusiasm. Now with horror, it suddenly occurred to Mary Kate that Kristin might expect her to reciprocate. She didnt think she could do that.
The counselor tried to make sense of what had happened between them. It was beautiful, so sweet. Kate was very aroused, and had climaxed quickly, but withdrew as though it were something she hadnt expected. Kristin knew from the way the smaller woman was huddled against her chest that Kate needed some sort of reassurance, and she needed to feel safe. Stretching her long arm to the foot of the bed, she pulled the sheet up to cover both of them.
"Youre lovely, Kate. You taste so sweet," she soothed. The body in her arms relaxed a little more at the comforting words. "Im so glad you let me share that with you." Lowering her face to the one beneath her chin, she softly kissed the cheekbones and the corners of the mouth, finally resting her lips against the quivering pair that opened slightly to receive her. "So special."
"Im sorry, Kris."
"What could you be sorry for? It was beautiful," Kristin continued softly.
Mary Kate shook her head without answering. She couldnt articulate what she was feeling.
Gently, Kristin pushed her lover back against the bed, stroking Kates breastbone with her palm. "Talk to me, Kate. What are you feeling?"
Mary Kate couldnt meet the waiting blue gaze.
"Did I do something you didnt like?"
"Oh, no!" Finally, she turned to see a look of doubt in the beautiful face. "No, it was wonderful. Really it was. I just ."
Steadily, Kristin continued to stroke her chest. It wasnt a sexual caress, but a touch meant to comfort and disarm. "Talk to me," she whispered again.
"It was so intense. I was just surprised by how strong it all was and how fast it happened." Mary Kate figured that with more experience, she might have had more control. It was just another contrast between herself and the intriguing woman who held her.
"Sometimes its like that. And other times we can take longer." She hoped there would be many more times. "Did you like what we did, Kate? Did you like my mouth there?"
Mary Kate looked away, feeling a hot blush that she hoped Kristin couldnt see in the dim light. "Yes, it was amazing."
"Good, because I liked it too." Kristin was relieved to hear that Kate had enjoyed what theyd done. They might salvage this night after all. Beneath the sheet, she trailed her hand lower to caress the flattened stomach. "In fact, I like many things about you, Kate Sasser. Mary Kate."
Mary Kate sighed dejectedly. Could this night get any worse? Shed known that Kristin had overheard her on the phone, but she hoped it wouldnt come up. To folks back in Georgia, it wasnt unusual to use two names, but people outside of the south always seemed to find it funny.
But Kristin wasnt making fun. "Mary Kate is a beautiful name for a beautiful woman. Id like very much if youd let me call you that."
"You want to call me Mary Kate?"
"I like it. And if all the people who know you and care for you call you that, then I want to call you that too."
Mary Kate finally allowed herself a small smile. "Okay," she acquiesced.
"So Mary Kate " Kristin murmured softly as she nuzzled the smaller womans neck, " I want to touch you again. Please."
The blonde woman stiffened involuntarily, a sudden hitch in her breath. "Kris, I dont ."
"Trust me. I would never do anything to hurt you. Please trust me." Tomorrow would be the most awkward day of both their lives if they didnt get past this uneasiness. Kristin wanted to take it very slowly, and she wanted to connect with her lover on an emotional plane.
For long minutes, she caressed the muscled body beneath her, finally trickling her fingers through the blonde curls, her fingertips urging the thighs to part. "This part of you, Mary Kate ," she dipped her hand into the wetness, " is the warmest ," she kissed the womans cheek, just in front of her ear, " the softest ," she whispered low and sexily, " and the wettest. And this ," a long slender finger gently entered the opening, " is a treasure."
Mary Kate willed herself to remain calm, though her hips wanted badly to thrust forward and take in more of the probing hand. But that would just show her impatience and her lack of control. Instead, she fought to remain still.
Kristin slid her finger deep within and then almost out. Again and again, she slowly rocked her hand against the soft folds, adding a second finger to the slippery canal. With each stroke, her own mound pressed rhythmically against the thigh beneath her. But no matter what she did, Mary Kate remained seemingly impassive, and Kristin began to worry that this time she had really gone too far. "Do you want me to stop?"
"No, please dont stop," was the near desperate response.
Relieved, Kristin continued with her soothing words. "You feel so good inside. Can you feel how deep I am?" Almost imperceptibly, she felt the hips below rise a tiny bit to meet her hand. In a growing rhythm, the women began to thrust into one another tenderly, then with more fervor.
This time, it took Kristin first. "Oh yes, Mary Kate Im coming," she gasped, grinding her hips against the now rigid thigh. At the same time, she pushed her fingers still deeper, brushing her thumb against the sensitive bundle of nerves.
Mary Kate wasnt sure what triggered her climax the hand that filled her or the look of ecstasy on Kristins beautiful face but this was even deeper and more intense than the first. And this time, she didnt pull back.
"Oh, Kris. Oh God, youre so beautiful." She felt herself pulsing around the fingers that had stayed inside her, but she was more enraptured with the idea that Kristin had climaxed without so much as a touch.
The women lay still until they both caught their breath. Ever so slowly, Kristin extracted her fingers and cupped the blonde mound protectively.
"That was wonderful," she sighed. Im going to fall in love with you, Mary Kate. She knew that the instant she felt the blonde woman release her body from the self-imposed restraints, demonstrating the trust shed asked for.
Mary Kate was almost overwhelmed at the rush of emotions shed felt at what theyd just shared. Kristin was a skilled lover, but more than that her touch and her words had conveyed a connection that Mary Kate had needed after her earlier retreat. Kristin hadnt turned away, and she hadnt just allowed the less experienced woman to withdraw.
With this exotic, erotic woman, Mary Kate had set out to explore a different aspect of her own sexuality; but now she was getting more than shed ever imagined. Much more.
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