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Many tours of Kilimanjaro are five or six days long. Our overall hike is seven days including an acclimatization day at Mawenzi Tarn where we spend two nights at the same altitude. A slow, steady ascent is the best.
During the acclimatization day, we luxuriate in not having to pack up, have tea in bed, as usual, and hike pole pole up the North Corrie to a ridge of lava extending thousands of metres to the plains of Kenya. We are higher than Mount Rainier. I stop at a plateau covered with papery everlasting flowers overlooking the tents below. In 1999, I sprinkled some of my first husband's ashes at this viewpoint above the clouds, surrounded by colour and black rock. Jim led the first Ascent For Alzheimer's in 1998 and I went as his assistant guide. The next spring, he was killed in an avalanche in Alaska, a few months before we were scheduled to guide the 1999 Ascent. The Alzheimer Society asked me if I would guide the group anyway. I did — for the next 14 years. Remembering the past has allowed me to embrace the present and to envision a future. I wonder what it is like when you can't remember?
That afternoon, the team does a summit dress rehearsal. Burdened by layers of synthetic clothing, down and Gore-tex, they sweat in the sun and amble around the dusty basin like sumo wrestlers. On their chests, underneath several layers, bulge camelbacks of water rigged to stay in place so they won't freeze on the cold and dark summit night. I adjust some systems. Esther is dubious about the camelback.
"I don't drink very much. When we first began climbing in Switzerland, we weren't allowed to drink until we got to the top, so my body got used to it. And I prefer to drink from a water bottle." She makes a face at the camelback. I tell her that everyone I've taken to the summit has not had the energy to take out a water bottle and drink from it. The water must be easy to access and insulated so it doesn't freeze.
Martin appears in puffy down. He has had frostbite on his hands and feet before so I am careful to check his gear for the third time. I comment on their long down jackets with ample hoods made of a telltale rust-coloured nylon used in outdoor gear in the '60s.
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