He lay there in his sleeping bag, on that thin mattress, which rested awkwardly on top of that hard, wooden frame, his lungs burning and his head pounding from the hard day’s climb. The sun had disappeared below the clouds and it was cold enough for him to see his breath. He slunk a little deeper into his sleeping bag. He glanced over to the other bunk. She was already fast asleep. He wished he could sleep. In the dim light, he could see the carvings on the bunks; the others that slept in this bunk before him, some on their way up, others already descending. Some of the marks were quickly and haphazardly scrawled and would likely disappear over time, while others must have taken hours and would last for as long as this hut stood on the side of this mountain. He decided that he should probably leave his mark as well. It was kind of thrilling scanning through other people’s scribblings. Each one was demarcated with a date. Some merely declared a name and the year, others the precise day and month as well; some even gave email addresses and beckoned future visitors to email them with their story. There were some who scrawled words of encouragement, others a funny joke. The oldest carving he found was from 1964. He made up his mind that simplicity was the way to go. He spent the next hour deeply gauging the wood panelling, carving the logo that the two of them had given themselves. It was hard work, even harder trying not to wake the others in this small hut with the scraping. He worked with a small knife and a dim headlight.
When he was finished, he lay back and admire his work. Only the two of them would recognize that mark, but maybe someday they would return to this place and remember this day. It was a good day. Neither of them had ever been this high up before. He could still remember the last time he was in a place that looked like this, though; It was in 2005. Back then he didn’t have a porter carrying his pack. He didn’t have a chef cooking his meals. He didn’t have a guide or a girlfriend to share the journey with, to tell stories to, and to laugh at jokes with, in order to help pass the hours spent mindlessly hiking. Back then it was all about noise and light discipline. They walked, single file, in the middle of the night with no lights. No one spoke with voices, but the language they used was unmistakeable, a very distinct sign language. There were no stories. There was no laughing.
He remembered the walking sticks that were resting outside of his hut, thinking about back then, when there were no walking sticks, but rather a M-4 assault rifle and a M-9 pistol, which always rested at his side, even when he lay in his sleeping bag. He smiled a little at the thought of sleeping with his weapons. It reminded him of Full Metal Jacket. The hut that he would try to sleep in at the end of that hike would be made out of mud instead of wood, and hopefully no one would know he was there. He brought himself back to the present, glad that there was no body armor involved with this mission. This mission would have a happy ending, he thought. In less than three days the two of them would make it to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, hand-in-hand.
Back then the final destination was a police station in the mountains of Afghanistan and the mission was not a pleasant one. The compound was not accessible by roads, so the chinook dropped his platoon thirty clicks east, and they hiked silently at night, stopping occasionally so that the PL could read the map under a red light to make sure they were still on course. They rested during the day so they would not be seen by locals, or worse. It was nice not to be out in all of that gear during the hottest part of the day, during the hottest part of the year. They sweated enough walking at night. Here in Tanzania they climbed during the day and tried their best to stay warm during the icy nights. The higher up they traveled the more frigid it became while the sun was up, smiling at them. It was nearly unbearable when it disappeared. Back then they passed the days playing cards and telling stories. Here on Kili, they passed the nights the same way.
He remembered the feeling of not knowing what to expect. He felt it now, but it was different. Back then he was green and he was in the Wild West. He had seen what the worst case scenario looked like, and it had put the fear in him. Here, the worst that could happen would be that he might get sick and have to turn back. Earlier that day he had seen a kid, probably 10 years younger than him that had to turn back. The kid looked fit and he was surprised to see him in this shape. He looked awful. His face was red and he was going to wretch at any moment. His head looked as though it was about to explode. He didn’t say anything, just focused on the ground in front of him, leaning on his guide. He was grateful that it wasn’t him. He remembered setting up camp back in on that dusty Afghan mountain, thinking about the PFC the week prior who got hit by a sniper while his squad was over-watching the construction of a CP. He was in line outside the chow hall when the convoy rushed the gate and pulled up to the medic tent. He caught a glimpse of the boy; he couldn’t have been more than 19. There was so much blood that he couldn’t tell where he had been hit. He never found out what happened to that kid. He hoped that he made it. It was the first casualty he’d seen. He was grateful that it wasn’t him. He felt strange about that now.
He slowly crept out of the bunk, trying not to make any noise, gently closing the door behind him. He sat on the steps, still huffing heavily. He pulled out a cigarette and as he lit it, he couldn’t help but feel tough, to be smoking while climbing this mountain. Truly though he knew it really just made him an idiot. He sat there looking out into the blackness below. It was cloudy, as it always was here at night. He was above the clouds, though. He couldn’t see the lights shining up from the city of Moshi. He was glad about that. It made him feel alone with the mountain. He looked up and there were so many stars. That was the best thing about Afghanistan, too. There, in the mountains there was no electricity. He remembered being at the FOB at night, laying on the hood of his M-1151 up-armored Humvee, staring at the stars for hours. He was just a private then and it was his job to take care of that vehicle. It’s name was Roxy. Everyday he would PMCS it and refuel it, if it needed. At first he followed the manual, but eventually he knew what to do by heart, just as he eventually knew Roxy by heart. Most nights he would lay on the hood and watch the stars until it was time to rack out. Sometimes he brought his night-vision goggles. The green din was annoying, but he could see twice as many stars. Puffing his cigarette he wished he had those goggles now.
He snuffed out the cigarette and tossed it into the cup that he had put out for butts. As he soundlessly slunk back into his sleeping bag; he finally felt tired. He looked forward to tomorrow’s climb. As he drifted off to sleep, he remembered the first time he walked through a poppy field in Afghanistan. At the time he didn’t know what poppies were, or what they were used for, but he remembered thinking how beautiful the flowers were.