Eric Walters reflects on his inch by inch trek up Mount Kilimanjaro in this personal essay
Between Heaven and Earth is an original essay by Eric Walters, part of CBC Books' Moving Forward series.
Between Heaven and Earth is an original essay by Eric Walters. It is part of Moving Forward, a special series of new, original writing featuring work by the English-language winners of the 2020 Governor General's Literary Awards, presented in partnership with the Canada Council for the Arts. Read more works from Moving Forward here.
I put one foot ever so slightly in front of the other. I'd been doing that all night, for almost six hours. Moving forward, twelve inches at a time, counting each one. We were coming up to 200 steps. I never stopped before that. That was the minimum, but I also wasn't capable of many more.
I always pushed myself to do another 30 steps. It was a game I played, giving just a few more. Besides, I needed to find a spot where I could move slightly off the path and not block other climbers. I shuffled over and slumped down onto a rock, exhausted. My guide did the same, settling in beside me.
The sky was filled with a billion stars. They were brighter than I'd ever seen. That made sense. I'd never been this close to them. I pushed down the glove on my left hand to look at the altimeter strapped to my wrist. A faint greenish light — 18,891 feet and time 5:19. Less than a thousand feet and a little more than an hour to get there if I wanted to see the sunrise from the top.
Between the glowing stars and the beam of my headlamp I could see up the slope.
Between the glowing stars and the beam of my headlamp I could see up the slope. Some people were resting and others slowly moving forward. I knew if I looked down, I'd see the same behind me. It was important not to be envious of those above or feel superior to those below. We were all doing our best, moving forward, heading for the top.
It was so quiet. There was a calmness in the air — which wasn't surprising since there was little oxygen to begin with. My breath came out in hazy gusts. It was cold. My fingers still tingled but my feet had gone silent. Lifeless and heavy like two blocks of cement. Not so much moving me forward as holding me back, rooted to the rock. I felt like I could just lay my head down and go to sleep. That was the cold and the exhaustion talking and I couldn't listen. I had to get up and go now or I soon wouldn't be able to at all.
My guide must have sensed it. He got to his feet. He held up three fingers. I nodded in agreement even though I didn't know if I could manage 300 steps. I'd try. Slow and steady. I pictured myself as being a tortoise but realized there were no hares in this version of Aesop's fable.
We started moving and I started counting. It was almost like moving meditation. Saying the numbers in my head because I couldn't possibly waste oxygen on words. The longest journey starts with one step. And then another, and another and another. How many steps had I taken tonight? How many more were still to come? It didn't matter. I was going to keep going. 200 steps at a time. I could do 200 steps. And then rest and then 200 more and rest. And 200 more. If I had to, I could crawl out the last part. I wasn't going to stop no matter what. Just keep moving forward.
We started moving and I started counting. It was almost like moving meditation.
I reached 300 steps and looked for a place to rest. There was a pull on my arm — my guide gestured for me to come forward. I wanted to sit down. I wanted to lay down. He gestured again, and then smiled and laughed. I couldn't help laughing back. I nodded and shuffled along. I could do a few more steps. One at a time.
Focusing on my guide's pack, not looking left or right, I kept moving forward. Somehow it seemed to be getting easier — and was it getting lighter? Then I realized the slope was lessening, and there was a faint glow in the sky. I looked up, beyond my guide, and there it was, the sign marking the top. We were at the top. The summit. Between heaven and earth.
I realized then, climbing up was optional. Climbing down was mandatory. Moving forward now meant going back down. But first, I'd drink in the moment and watch the sunrise.
Eric Walters' inspiration for Between Heaven and Earth
"It's freezing cold, the middle of the night and I'm on the final section to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. The only light is from the stars above and a flashlight strapped to my forehead. I strain to get air in my lungs and am so exhausted I just want to go to sleep. I measure my stride in inches and have to stop every few minutes. After each rest I wonder if I can go on. At these moments, I think, wouldn't it have been better to just imagine it instead of doing it?"
Eric Walters is one of Canada's most prolific writers for young people. He's penned over 100 books, including Camp X, The Power of Three and Run. His 2006 novel We All Fall Down came in at #88 on the list of the bestselling 150 Canadian books of the past 10 years. Walters won the 2020 Governor General's Literary Prize for young people's literature — text for The King of Jam Sandwiches.
CBC Books asked the 2020 Governor General's Literary Award winners to contribute an original piece of writing on the theme Moving Forward. Between Heaven and Earth was Eric Walters' contribution to the series.