Six years ago, when I applied to the USC MFA program in Writing for Screen & Television for the first time, I had to write an application essay entitled “My Most Emotional Moment.” I chose to write about the happiest moment of my life: the day I got my paternity test results back and found out I wasn’t a father.
Yeah, that’s right. I wrote two pages about how I high-fived my mailman and called all my closest friends to tell them that this poor girl who thought I was her baby daddy was wrong, and I sent that shit to the USC Admissions Office.
I didn’t get in.
The following year, when I applied to that same MFA program for the second time, I had come to accept that my Maury Povich Moment essay—while as authentic and original as I expect all my writing to be—was tone deaf to the desires of its audience.
I needed to pick another emotional moment that exemplified characteristics more meaningful to an admissions board than a perverse fear of commitment. Something that didn’t make me, in the words of a friend who reviewed my first essay, “look like a total asshole.”
Another idea came to me quickly: Kilimanjaro. Back in 2006, my friend Whitey and I decided to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. He succeeded. I almost died. It was a perfect story.
I ended up writing a two-page ode to resilience and determination highlighting all the traits any academic program that embraced overachieving jerkoffs would love.
I still didn’t get in.
Nonetheless, it was a hell of a story. Unlike the baby momma drama, this one deserved many more words than I could fit on two double-spaced pages and a bigger audience than a college admissions board, so it’s worth telling one more time.
Like everyone else at the Kibo Hut campsite, Whitey and I woke up at around 11 o’clock the night we were supposed to summit Kilimanjaro. We’d spent the last three days hiking up the mountain, and this was the last leg of the ascent to Uhuru Peak. Everyone started their trek at midnight in order to catch the sunrise just as they reached the rooftop of Africa, and then they’d make their way back down to Kibo.
By the time I opened my eyes, the lights in our cabin were on and some of the other hikers’ guides were already setting up tea and biscuits.
Tea and fucking biscuits. For the last three days, every fucking breakfast was tea and fucking biscuits. Every lunch: apples, carrots and fucking cheese sandwiches. We had to wait until dinner before finally getting some protein from a dead animal.
Obviously I knew how ignorant it sounded to complain about getting three square meals a day while climbing a mountain, when the army of guides preparing those meals, carrying our shit up that mountain and generally keeping us alive were probably eating far worse and less. Yet I would’ve argued that you were the one who was ignorant if you expected no amount of whining from any person that came from a society where he was never more than 15 minutes away from a bucket of fried chicken.
My new diet wasn’t why I felt like shit when I woke up though. During the hike up the mountain, I hadn’t gotten more than two uninterrupted hours of sleep on any of the three nights. It did get down to 0˚F in our Kibo Hut cabin (and this was summer), but the real problem was the water, and the water was because of AMS.
Acute Mountain Sickness, or “altitude sickness” if you prefer Wikipedia’s generic term, was the real bogeyman on the mountain. It was a sickness caused by exposure to reduced oxygen usually at attitudes above 8,000 feet. Kibo Hut was at 15,520 feet. Uhuru Peak, the highest point of Kilimanjaro, was at 19,341.
Don’t worry about looking up symptoms. I’ll describe all of those in great detail in a little bit.
No one was immune to AMS. The only question was how badly you would get it, and the scary part from all the literature we read was that there didn’t seem to be a way to know. The day we began our climb, we’d heard that a perfectly healthy 27-year old man had just died from it on the mountain.
If you got it, you got it. And if you got it bad enough, you died. These were all parts I left out of the conversations with my parents about going to Tanzania.
The only thing you could do about AMS was try to reduce its effect on you. First was taking an acclimization day to adjust to the altitude. The Marangu route we chose to take was supposed to be two days up, then one acclimization day starting and ending at the same elevation, and finally up to Kibo on the fourth day before the last two days hiking down.
It was supposed to take six days total, but we had to do it in five in order to catch a flight to Zanzibar. Guess which day got cut from the itinerary?
The second thing to fight AMS was taking altitude pills, and the third was drinking at least a gallon of water every day. Both made us piss like crazy. Our urine was supposed to be as clear as the water we drank, and all those gallons gave us plenty of opportunities to check. Thus Whitey and I woke up every two hours on every night with a sudden urge to go take a piss outside our cabin.
By the way, pissing directly outside our cabin was a typical asshole tourist thing to do. Each camp had toilets, but using them at night meant walking across the grounds in total darkness and below-freezing temperatures to go to an outhouse that looked and smelled like Satan’s asshole.
The outhouses also got worse the higher up we hiked. By the time we reached Kibo Hut, there wasn’t a big rock you could hide behind that didn’t already have a steaming pile of tourist shit waiting for you.
Those were the conditions leading up to Kibo, where we’d just gotten maybe four hours of sleep before our midnight hike. Next would be a five-hour and very steep climb up 3,208 feet to Gilman’s Point, where our tour company could check off successfully getting another hiker to the “top” of Kilimanjaro. Finally came 1.5 more hours and up another 703 feet to Uhuru Peak, the actual top of Kilimanjaro, to catch the aforementioned most amazing sunrise of our fucking lives.
I looked down from my top bunk and saw Whitey already out of his sleeping bag and dressed in the bunk below me. On the ground next to him was a disgusting pile of used tissues, which had become a common sight with him. He’d been suffering from a cold since the first day of our climb but had toughed it out so far to Kibo, that is if “toughing it out” meant complaining about having a cold every 15 damn minutes but marching ahead anyway.
He had his camera out to record the final night of our ascent and pointed it at me as I got dressed. “How you feeling, Chendaddy?”
We’d been keeping a video diary of our trek, essentially logging a lot of rambling speeches about the exotic nature of our surroundings and how our day-to-day guided tour was actually quite strenuous. It was supposed to be a smug documentary about our conquest of Kilimanjaro. That night, though, I couldn’t any muster any enthusiasm.
“Awesome,” I replied. “Feel like I’m going to climb to the top of this mountain.”
I said this with only fumes of determination and was, in fact, borrowing a mantra from Whitey. During the entire trip up, through phlegmy sniffles and incessant whining about his sore throat, Whitey kept repeating over and over again how he was going to summit this mountain.
“How do you feel?” I’d ask him. “Like I’m going to summit this fucking mountain,” he’d answer.
In theory, I held the same belief. I even sang the refrain to Eye of the Tiger approximately a hundred times on the way up, though it stopped being funny to Whitey and our guides around the third time I did it. Yet I never openly declared that I was summitting this fucking mountain as frequently or confidently as Whitey did to myself and to everyone who’d listen.
It’s not that I welcomed it, but I was open to the possibility of failure. I thought about the 27-year old guy that died on the mountain and accepted that as a possible conclusion to our journey.
Not Whitey. Whitey didn’t believe in fatalistic fates. He asked me to make a pact. If one of us stumbled along the way and couldn’t make it to the top of Kilimanjaro, the other one would keep going and still summit. That was so typically Whitey. This was a guy who would rather leave you a note that just said “Meet us in Berlin” than simply wait a couple hours for your flight to arrive in Paris.
As we finished our night breakfast of tea and biscuits, our guide August popped into our cabin to check whether we were ready and geared up for the final hike. He was a tall, patient, Hakeem Olajuwon-looking guy. Whitey had complained about carrying his own day bag early on during our trek, and August obliged by carrying it for him. He ended up carrying it for the entire trip.
I don’t remember if August asked us how we felt that night or what our replies were if he did. I know he didn’t give us any kind of pep talk; that wasn’t his style. However, we did get out of the cabin and hit the trail while most groups were still getting their shit together. We felt good. Like we were going to summit this fucking mountain.
The five-hour hike from Kibo up to Gilman’s was the steepest part of the Marangu route. The face of the mountain sloped up to a 45 degree angle, so we had to criss-cross back and forth up a narrow trail. Despite our early start, there were still several groups ahead of us, all moving way too slowly for Whitey.
“These slowass motherfuckers are fucking up my pace.” He squeezed his way past them on the narrow trail.
I didn’t know if it was the pace Whitey was setting, but I was tiring out much earlier than usual. I imagined it must’ve been the odd start time and the combined fatigue of spending three days hiking up a mountain, except Whitey seemed stronger than ever despite leaving a pound of himself in snot along our trail.
I was having the opposite experience. Every step was making me more light-headed, nauseous and disoriented. I knew this feeling. It felt exactly like having a debilitating hangover while still trying to go about your day, except my day happened to be hiking up to the top of Kilimanjaro in zero-degree weather.
We’d already hiked for over four hours and were closing in on Gilman’s Point when I couldn’t take it anymore. I sat down on a rock at a bend in the trail.
“I need a break,” I said. Whitey waited but fidgeted anxiously as he saw the other hikers he’d worked so hard to pass now passing us by. I didn’t care anymore. I couldn’t go any further.
I unwrapped an energy bar from my day bag and bit into it. It was frozen as solid as a brick. I chewed at it, unsure if I was grinding the bar or my own teeth into rubble.
Then I pulled out my thermos to get a few sips of water. August warned me that bottled water usually froze at this elevation, and he was quite surprised that my generic Target thermos had kept my water liquid.
What my thermos didn’t do, however, was keep the water at a drinkable temperature. The not-quite-ice-cold water bit into my chest as I tried to force it down my throat, and my body felt more shock than hydration. This was the least refreshing sip of water I’d had in my life at a moment when my life most depended on it.
I gave up trying to eat and drink and looked up to see how much further we still had to go. There was an outcropping not far above us around which we could hear faint cheering.
“Is that Gilman’s?” I asked August. He nodded yes. That was it. I made up my mind. I would make it to Gilman’s Point no matter what it took. I’d reach it on my hands and knees if I had to.
On wobbily legs, I got up and started again. I trudged on ahead of Whitey and August. My breathing turned into gasping, and my face contorted into hideous grimaces of pain like those of an out-of-shape man who suddenly realized he had no business running a marathon and just decided to die at mile 20.
Against modestly challenging odds, I made it to that outcropping, but the remaining few feet would require an actual climb up. Both Whitey and August looked at me concerned, but I didn’t hesitate for an instant. I threw my hiking stick up on top of that rock and dragged myself, exactly as I imagined, on hands and knees until I got up there.
I’d made it. Gilman’s Point. Last stop before Uhuru Peak. I felt such a sense of relief and accomplishment. A sudden burst of adrenaline made me think that I could possibly reach the summit after all. How far was it anyway?
Then I looked up and saw the sign: Uhuru Peak – 1½ hours
I bent over, threw up, collapsed onto the ground, closed my eyes and just waited for whatever was coming next. August kneeled down beside me and shook me, “Hey, don’t sleep. Don’t sleep!”
I knew I couldn’t stay there. I’d never recover at that elevation, but I refused to move. The sheltered, American side of me popped up first in my mind and told me that they’d send a helicopter up and fly me to a hospital. Rationality quickly prevailed though, reminding me that not only could most helicopters not reach this height but nothing about the two weeks I’d already spent in Tanzania indicated there’d ever be a helicopter in this country just waiting to rescue idiots like me who got themselves into trouble.
Then I thought again of the mythical 27-year old guy who died on the mountain. And I thought to myself this was it. This was how it ended for me. Dead at Gilman’s Point, one and a half hours away from the top and a long way from anything I knew.
I heard Whitey talking to August. He was asking if I was going to be okay. August assured him I’d be fine, which was news to me. They had a discussion about Whitey finishing the hike with our assistant guide, and then I heard Whitey get up close to me.
“Hey Chendaddy, I’m going to keep going, alright? August is gonna stay with you. Hang in there! Eye of the tiger, man!”
Then he was gone. There was only August left, standing over me repeating “Shit shit” while dozens of other hikers passed by wondering whether some dude lying on the ground in the middle of the trail was normal.
August kept trying to get me up. Reminding me that I couldn’t stay there. Telling me that we needed to head back to Kibo Hut. I didn’t care. I would not move. Right then, I would’ve done anything to avoid getting up and moving, even die. I welcomed that option. Anything but to have to fight through this. Anything but to have to keep going.
Yet death didn’t come. In the end, August’s relentless, desperate nagging beat out even my stubborn acquiescence to perish.
“Okay, okay,” I finally said. Draping an arm over August’s shoulder, I struggled up to my feet. I still couldn’t hold my eyes open, but I was ready to make my way back.
The way down from Gilman’s Point to Kibo Hut was far different than the way up. Instead of the slow, zig-zagging slog upwards, heading downwards was a fast and reckless slide straight down the steep slope.
“Just like skiing,” August told me.
Like skiing with another human being trying to support your body weight while everyone else on the slope was heading in the opposite direction. We fell many times. I’d hear August saying, “Shit shit” to himself some more, and then I’d hear other hikers and guides approaching us to see if I was alright.
After a few falls, I vomited again. My eyes still weren’t open, so I had no idea on what or whom I was vomiting. I just fell on my ass, turned my head to the side, and threw up. August seemed relieved though that I did.
“Good, good,” he said. “Now you feel better.”
He was right. I don’t remember when I opened my eyes and started walking on my own, but I was by the time I saw the sun rise over Kibo Hut. Whitey and I were two of the first up the mountain, so I was by far the first one back.
The camp was nearly empty except for the crews that accompanied the guides up. The sunrise here was beautiful. I knew Whitey was 4000 feet above me on the rooftop of Africa watching an even more triumphant sunrise, but the one I saw was still the most amazing one I’d ever seen. It still is.
“You look strong now, like you could do it,” August said, pointing back up the way we came. I understood what he meant. It wasn’t an invitation for another try. It was an attempt to reinstill some of the confidence that I’d lost in a pool of puke back at Gilman’s Point.
“I wish I felt like this two hours ago,” I replied, and he nodded.
I took a drink from my thermos. “That’s a good bottle,” August said, still impressed that it kept my water liquid up at Gilman’s. I looked at it. It was a good bottle. I paid $25 for it at Target, crammed it into my backpack and brought it to Africa just to use it for about seven hours from Kibo to Gilman’s and back.
“Here, you keep it,” I handed it to him.
He was surprised. “Are you sure?”
“I don’t need it anymore,” I said.
“Thank you!” he said, happily tucking it away in his bag.
“Thanks for saving my life,” I laughed, just before I was overwhelmed by a wave of disappointment and shame.
I was asleep in my bunk by the time the first few hikers got back to the cabin. I got up, went outside and looked for Whitey. He wasn’t back yet, so I just wandered around taking pictures of the campsite.
Part of me wanted to capture the stunning views, but another part just wanted to capture that moment. The times when you know you’re experiencing a defining moment in your life are rare, but I knew I was in one of them then.
Whitey returned a little later, feeling victorious with the photos at Uhuru Peak to prove it. He also had that one of me doubled-over at Gilman’s to record my everlasting moment of failure.
I barely remember anything about the day and a half heading back down the mountain. None of the magnificent views that enraptured my hike up caught my attention on the way down. Whitey and I joked around like normal, but I was utterly lost in my own head.
As unpredictable as AMS was supposed to be, I couldn’t help but view this failure as a commentary on my life and the way I’d lived it. Namely, I was lacking. I was soft. I wasn’t competitive. I didn’t have the eye of the tiger, I cringed from the thrill of the fight, and I never rose up to the challenge of my rivals. I was a big, fucking failure and didn’t have the drive to succeed at anything meaningful. Like climbing a big-ass mountain.
Sure, it was an overreaction, but it was one grounded in reality.
Somewhere along the way down, I made a commitment to myself. Not a commitment to success, but a commitment never to fail again. At anything. Ever. It was the kind of commitment only the insane would think possible. At the same time, when has anyone other than the insane ever moved the world?
Down at the Mandara Huts, the lowest of the camp sites, we finally stripped out of our long johns and winter wear to the t-shirts and shorts we wore during the safari we took earlier in our trip. Whitey took a piss and proudly announced that it was as yellow as sweet lemonade on a summer day.
From there, we rushed down to the entrance at Marangu Gate. We were both eager to catch our ride to the airport, and I was even more eager to leave this part of our journey behind me.
Suddenly though, trudging and leaping down the trail became something that before my hike of shame down the mountain would’ve been tiresome and anxiety-ridden to me: a race. I didn’t want Whitey to get to the top of the mountain and finish the trail before I did. I pushed harder, making sure I was always one step ahead of him. Whitey noticed.
“Hey,” he said to me. “Let’s finish at the same time.”
I felt resentful at that suggestion. This guy summitted. Why shouldn’t I finish first?
Because, as angry as I was at myself and as bitter as I felt towards him for succeeding where I couldn’t, he was still my best friend and this wasn’t a competition. This was a journey we decided to undertake together, and just because we walked different paths didn’t mean that we shouldn’t finish the same way we started: side-by-side.
We crossed through that gate together. Then we waited around as our van showed up three hours late and made us miss our flight to Zanzibar.
That’s right, the reason why we didn’t take the acclimization day that could’ve helped me summit Kilimanjaro became moot because our shit tour company—Bobby Tours—fucked up our ride to the airport like they fucked up everything from our start date to every interaction we had with them. Then they argued with us about whose fault it was (August was sympathetic and argued for us; we still love August).
Honestly, if you take nothing else away from this 4200-word novella, take away this: Fuck Bobby Tours.
That night, after Whitey and I finished watching the Mel Gibson classic WHAT WOMEN WANT on Tanzanian TV in our dumpy hotel room, I lied awake in my bed staring at the mosquito netting above me and kept thinking about my failure.
I thought about it when I woke up the next morning and on the shuttle to the airport. I thought about it when Whitey asked me to hang on to our two certificates: my gold one for making it to Gilman’s and his green one for making it to Uhuru.
I thought about it some more when the flight attendant on our plane called out Whitey and my names over the PA to inform us that we had left our Kilimanjaro certificates at the gate in the airport, but some thoughtful soul had found them and brought them onto the flight for us. I refused to budge from my seat, so Whitey had to go up to get them. To this day, he still has mine.
And that’s it. That’s the whole story. There is no Act III. There is no ending. Sure, I tied it up nicely with a bright pink bow for the USC Admissions office. Some bullshit about how the whole experience taught me determination and relentlessness. How I may try to summit Kilimanjaro again one day but that gaining the value of self-confidence was even more important. I think I even threw in that I was going to become a screenwriter with or without the validation of their stupid fucking MFA.
But in reality, no ending exists to that story. What does exist is the precipice on which I now find myself standing. After five years in LA and approximately zero screenplays completed, I’m ready to call this one a failure, too. I’m ready to quit. I’m about to do what I promised myself on that mountain that I’d never again do.
That’s the dramatic interpretation anyway. I’m frankly many steps above lying down and trying to die. Yet right now I feel exactly how I felt that morning down at Kibo Hut, unwilling to look back up at the top of the mountain that I couldn’t reach or look at all the people returning to camp who’d just accomplished what I couldn’t.
That morning I didn’t even consider if I’d ever return to the mountain and try again. I just looked back downhill towards my path ahead and the next destination to come.