It was roughly 60°F, I was wearing three thermal shirts, three pairs of pants, a puffy down jacket and Gore-Tex shell, two hats and ski gloves, and standing about 19,000 feet closer to the sun than the average person.
I was a bit warm.
I was also becoming exceedingly thirsty.
An hour earlier we had reached Uhuru Peak, the uppermost point of East Africa’s Mt. Kilimanjaro, after trekking six and a half hours through the dead of night up Kili’s jagged, frozen, wind-whipped slope. At 19,341 ft., Uhuru towered not only above the now-miniature cities of Moshi and Arusha far below, but also well above the cloud lines. The view was breathtaking (as was the lack of oxygen).
It had not been an easy trip up. The culmination of 5 days of hiking and acclimatizing, what should be a victorious march to the summit is actually a plodding, laborious trudge at an unrelenting angle over frigid terrain. It’s a mental battle all the way, as you try to convince yourself that this completely voluntary thing you have undertaken that no one but your crazy stupid self has made you do is not only worth doing, but worth finishing. (Seriously, I almost lost this argument. I am pret-ty good at being able to tell when I’m lying to myself.)
But finally, painstakingly, I made it to the top.
That’s when my brain hiccuped.
The pack I was carrying began to feel considerably heavier the closer we got to the summit, so upon reaching the peak I immediately set out to rectify this problem before the trip down. As I had packed lightly on purpose, I chose to rid myself of the only thing there was to part with in my bag.
Yes, I emptied almost two liters of lemon-lime Gatorade-y water onto the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. I am not proud of this. (Turns out, I’m a bit of an imbecile at high altitudes. 15,000 ft. was about where I hit the “Rap Line,” as in the point at which I felt comfortable doing my best Kanye performance for the video camera. Never take advice from me above the Rap Line.)
Not until almost two hours into our descent, when the sub-freezing temps had surrendered to sunshine and we were now roasting in our sweat-wicking thermal layers, did I begin to regret my summit slush dump. The heat, combined with eight-plus hours of nearly continuous trekking, had depleted our bodies’ water supply and I, in my infinite wisdom, had generously donated my reserves to Uhuru Peak. We were met halfway back to camp by one of our gazelle-like porters who bounded up the rocks carrying a thermos of mango juice. Warm mango juice. Overcoming my system’s strong desire to send it back the wrong way, I drank what he offered and did my best to ignore the foot chorus of Stomp! going on in my head.
When we finally reached base camp we were given two hours to rest and recover before we’d need to pack up and head farther down the mountain. For an ascent that lasted until sunrise of the 6th day, our peak-to-gate descent would be complete in less than 24 hours. Like the Tin Man asking for oil, I used the last of my completely sapped energy to rasp for water. (Okay fine, I groaned and pointed to my SIGG bottle until my friend Katie got the picture and went and inquired for me.) I was just barely alert enough to hear the reply,
“No wat-ah til rains.”
“Yeah, they said they won’t have any more water until morning probably, after it rains this evening or if they find a spring,” Katie confirmed with pitying eyes and a small grimace, “but you can have the few sips left of mine.” (It might here be helpful to add that I believe Katie to be part camel.) Shocked that she had any water left at all, I greedily drank what she offered and laid down on the rocky tent bottom for a fitful hour-long nap.
I descended the rest of the day in a partially-dehydrated fog, as well as a literal one as we passed through several layers of clouds and air just misty enough to tease. When we got to our final overnight campsite our porters were somehow able to come up with a boil-able amount of water. It wasn’t the cool refreshing deluge I was hoping for, but it was something. It had never occurred to me that water was such a precious resource until I suddenly couldn’t get it anywhere.
Not having ample water in the wilderness is certainly not particular to Africa. All camping, mountaineering, and traveling requires constant attention to your life-giving resources. But not having ample water was also not particular to Mt. Kilimanjaro. Kili marked the third time during my month in East Africa that I had been dehydrated to the point of illness. My western mind couldn’t fathom – how does one survive here on a daily basis?
Of the three places we stayed in Africa – two homes and one hotel – none had tap water that was safe to drink. Compared to the places we worked – slums and IDP camps – it was a luxury that they had running water at all. But still our good health depended solely upon the barrel of treated water in the Waraos’ kitchen, the boiling pot on Irene’s stove, the endless supply of liter bottles sold at the local Nakumatt.
I was speechless as I realized that in the U.S., not only can we drink the water we bathe in, but even the water we use to wash our clothes is potable. Why do we have so much good water when so many people have not a drop?
Clean drinking water should not be a luxury. In far too many places, it is.
Organizations like charity: water are working hard to change that. Visit their website and see how easy it is to be a part of their plan. Next time you take a drink of water, remember how thankful you are you didn’t have to walk five miles to find it. Remember how thankful you are it’s not full of dirt and parasites.
I will be thankful I don’t have to wait for rain.
And if you ever find yourself thirsty atop Mt. Kilimanjaro (hey, you never know), look for the yellow-tinted frozen patch of water to the left of the Uhuru sign. I promise it’s clean.
And I swear to you, the yellow is Gatorade.