Karin Padden, who lives on one of Montauk’s high hills, said during a recent conversation that she had decided to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, “the world’s tallest free-standing mountain,” as a way of celebrating her 50th birthday.
It was also her way of saying that she, who has experienced much grief in the past several years, including the death of her husband, Robert M. Padden on Nov. 10, 2010, continues to love life and is not one to shrink from challenges.
“I’m not a mountain climber,” she said in anticipation of her interviewer’s first question, though fitness, she added, had little to do with whether one might succumb to high altitude sickness. “Martina Navratilova is obviously fit, though she wasn’t able to do it.”
Only about 40 to 50 percent of those who attempt the almost-20,000-foot climb make it to the top, said Padden, who runs six miles in Hither Woods every other day, saying “Je suis pret” (French for “I am ready’) before setting forth.
“I went with a friend of mine from Puerto Rico, a woman I’d met about 10 years ago at a raw food institute near Rincon. We joined one of the groups, ‘Climb Kili,’ which is based in Tanzania. . . . There were nine in my group and we all made it.”
No ropes were needed, she said, though the ascent into the clouds was plenty arduous. “Every day we saw people being carried down on stretchers.”
And at one point, along a narrow embanked trail, she had pulled one of her fellow climbers out of the way of a bulging logging truck. “He said I’d saved his life; he had my back after that. I’m 5-2, height challenged, and he was 6-3, so he’d give me a boost whenever I needed it along the way. We all were given nicknames. Mine was Lucky. His, she said with a laugh, was Buffet Boy. He was a good sport.”
The party, whose ages ranged from 44 to 68, attended by strong and attentive porter guides, hiked from a rain forest to moorland, to a high desert, and on up.
They climbed four to seven hours a day on average for eight days (six-and-a-half up, one-and-a-half down) setting out at about 6:30 each morning, except for the climb to the summit, and breaking for lunch. “The higher you went the more the terrain looked like the moon.”
They slept in small tents. “There were no showers, no bathrooms. . . . I just let my hair go. After a few days, I looked like Phyllis Diller.”
When her interviewer said that, even so, it probably beat being on that fetid cruise ship in the Gulf, she laughed. “If I’d been on that ship, I would have jumped overboard when it got close to shore!”
The wind and cold, she continued, had bothered her more than anything. “It gets colder and colder as you go up, especially the nights. . . . We saw all kinds of weather — rain, hail, snow, thunder. . . . Eight people in another group, a group of 18, decided to go back from the last camp. Two men were struck by lightning, and one died.”
“The last night they got us up at 11 — we were tired, we hadn’t really slept because we were anxious about making it to the summit. We hiked for seven hours, arriving at sunrise. The guides had timed it that way.”
By the stove in her kitchen, where the interview took place, she showed how it had been, their breathing labored as they, like astronauts, slowly put one foot after the other on the steep way up. “They’d say, in Swahili, ‘Slowly, slowly.’ If you climb too fast you get sick. Your muscles need more oxygen at altitude.”
In writing of the experience later, she said, “There was no conversation, just the communal sound of our lungs stretching to capture all possible oxygen in each labored breath. The water in our camelbacks and bottles was frozen, which was just as well. It was too cold to expose the necessary parts to urinate. The hairs inside my nose were frozen. My ears were so cold and painful it felt like they’d snap off if it weren’t for the two hats holding them on my head. Some of the hikers were vomiting from mild altitude sickness. Many had to stop, but none turned around.”
“Early in the final climb I began a series of mind-focusing exercises, starting with well-known prayers, which I repeated many times. Then I recited my secret Sanskrit chant, practiced ‘loving kindness’ meditation and Zen meditation before trying to remember — at 15,000 feet you begin to get silly — the lyrics to the songs I was studying [to sing at Carnegie Hall on March 24] before leaving New York. Then I had a silent conversation about all the good reasons I was climbing Kilimanjaro — pretty flowery stuff. I thought also about the quote I had put on the gravestone of my husband of 25 years: ‘Courage, above all else, is the first quality of a warrior.’ ”
“The view from the summit, with the world at my feet, the full moon on one side of the universe, the rising sun on the other, and with the giant Furtwangler glacier incongruously set in the alpine desert,” was, she said, “the most beautiful view I’d ever seen. Feeling the slightest hint of warmth from the sunshine, I thought I’d never before been so happy to see a sunrise.”
After 10 minutes, however, they were told to begin descending. “They want to get you out of the altitude, they hurry you down. . . . Going down was harder in places than going up. But they were, ‘Go! Go! Go!’ Part of it, I think, was that they were eager to party. . . . We climbed from 11 at night until late in the afternoon of the next day, with a 2-hour rest in between.”
“I was happy it was over,” she said.
No, she said, she would not climb Mount Everest next.
“Maybe I’ll do the Camino de Santiago. . . . I’ve got a long bucket list.”