Enveloped in Darkness, Our Summit Bid Began ~ A Journey to the Top of Kilimanjaro

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PART ONE:

 

Night Five / Day Six

Thursday night, 12th July 2012 and Friday, 13th July 2012

From:  Barafu Camp (Base Camp) to The Summit of Kilimanjaro

Altitude: 4640m to 5895m

Habitat: Alpine Desert

Hiking Time: What felt like an eternity! (8 – 9 hours)

Distance: A hellish and relentlessly long steep climb up! Real distance unknown ~ probably just as well!

 

Life is brought down to the basics: if you are warm, regular, healthy, not thirsty or hungry, then you are not on a mountain. . . . Climbing at altitude is like hitting your head against a brick wall – it’s great when you stop. ~ Chris Darwin, The Social Climbers

 

Before climbing out my tent I re-read my messages of support one last time.  My hands were shaking as I unfolded the piece of paper.  A mixture of pure excitement and some nerves too.

This was it, the moment was finally here. It was time to summit Kilimanjaro!

The wind was blowing as I climbed out of my tent, camp was dark except for the headlights of my fellow team members getting ready.  Base camp is a bleak and inhospitable camping area to spend the night. Maybe it was a good thing it was just a few hours we would spend here. The stars burning bright in the black night sky as I looked up and breathed in the cold air. The wind was chilly as Donna and I quickly made my way to the mess tent, climbing over the tents guy ropes as we went.  This is the camp site totally exposed to the ever-present gales and I remind myself our tents are pitched on a narrow, stony, and dangerous ridge. Honestly, what is climbing a mountain without a little bit of adventure, this is exactly why I signed up! But on a more serious note, I step carefully as I remind myself this is a dangerous camp site where they warn you to familiarize yourself with the terrain before dark to avoid any tragedies. Their warnings are not to be taken lightly, and extreme caution should be used as fatal accidents have been recorded at this camp over the years.  I counted my lucky stars our camp site was somewhere in the middle of this ridge and not too near the edge. I step into the mess tent out the wind, big smiles are exchanged with team members as they enter the tent for tea and biscuits. I had absolutely no appetite but enjoyed a nice hot cup of tea and shoved a biscuit down my throat. When I’m nervous I can’t eat. I was at the point that I just wanted to get going now. The waiting just made me more nervous.

I had no idea what lay in wait ahead of us. Yes, I had heard accounts of people who had hiked this before me. It was hard they all said but you could do it. All I knew is that I had to push myself and when it got hard I would have to push myself some more.  I took off my gloves and moved the sleeves of my jacket up and then moved the layers of clothes underneath to reveal the delicate tattoo inscribed on my wrist ~ “Live Without Regrets” ~ It’s a tattoo I got to remind myself that my best life is on the other side of my fear and all I need to do is push past the fear.  Somewhere in 8 to 10 hours I would summit Kilimanjaro. It was not that far away. Just one night I had to get through. One night. That was it. I knew whatever lay ahead of me in the darkest and coldest hour of this night, it would be worth the pain of every single step as I climbed up, as I struggled to breathe, as I struggled to stay warm. I sat there with my hands around my mug of tea and recited one of my favourite poems “There as so many people out there who will tell you that you can’t.  What you’ve got to do it turn around and say, ‘watch me’.”  Everyone was giving me such amazing support but I thought back to when I first started vocalising my next dream to people in my life. “Oh really” or “Oh ok” were often the replies I would receive. I smiled deep within knowing that they may not believe I would get here but knowing without a doubt in my mind this dream would be realised, no matter how long it took me. Now, minutes away from leaving for the summit, there I was. I guess that’s the beauty of having dreams, even if others don’t fully believe in your dream, you must never give up believing and pursuing your dreams.

The tent flap opened and another team member joined us, huge big smiles exchanged and soft nervous-excited chatter filled the mess tent briefly. “This is it!” and “How are you feeling?” comments and questions were exchanged.  Anthony was dressed and ready to go. Still struggling with his flu, he was feeling strong enough to give it a go. I completely got his determination. It’s hard to describe. You want this so badly you will push through the pain and discomfort to realise your dream. His determination made me smile quietly.

To put yourself into a situation where a mistake cannot necessarily be recouped, where the life you lose may be your own, clears the head wonderfully. It puts domestic problems back into proportion and adds an element of seriousness to your drab, routine life. Perhaps this is one reason why climbing has become increasingly hard as society has become increasingly, disproportionately, coddling. ~ A. Alvarez, The Games Climbers Play

 

So much was running through my mind as I sat there sipping on my tea. I said a prayer for myself and for my team mates, strangers who had become friends, for a safe and successful summit bid for all of us. I spoke to Emma and asked her to walk with me and to help me to be strong in the moments that I may feel unstrong during my night journey to the top. I thought of my family and friends back home, sitting watching tv or maybe surfing the internet, or tucking their kids into bed as they spared a thought for me as my ultimate, epic journey was about to begin.  I could feel my heart beating in my chest as it rose gently with each breath of air I breathed in.

“Right guys, this is it.” Thomas rose from his chair.

It was time.

I took a deep breath. I was as ready as I was ever going to be. We all stepped outside the tent, the cold night wind hitting our faces and my thinly gloved hands.  One last toilet stop before we headed out, I peeled off the one pair of thin gloves I had on and starting working my way through peeling back my layers of clothes! Not an easy task when you are puffed up to the point of looking like a marshmallow ready to explode! Once again I found myself grateful for the porter loo we had and the fact that we didn’t have to use the “public” tourist toilets. My bladder was near empty; I reminded myself to drink more water. Lots more.

I re-joined the group all doing final touch-up’s and preparation outside the mess tent. I put on my first layer of gloves, a thin breathable pair of liner gloves.  This would hopefully keep my hands dry and any moisture would be wicked away from my hands ensuring that they stay warm.  I then put on my backpack and got my water pipe over my shoulder and ensured the pipe was zipped up properly to keep the water in the pipe from freezing.   I zipped up my jacket all the way up to my chin, I pull my buff, which is normally over my hair up over my mouth and nose and then I pulled my jacket hood over my beanie and pulled the draw strings in tight, tucking my scarf in tightly around my neck and inside my jacket.  This blocked the wind and the warmth suddenly enveloped me again. I put on my headlamp over my hood and turned it on.  This would be my only light as we headed up the mountain.  Lastly, I pulled on my thermal gloves over my liner gloves and then I pulled on my ultra-thick thermal out layer gloves. This rendered me completely useless as I had now lost the use of my hands due to the thickness of the gloves. Our guides, Dickson, Milton and Moses took over from here. These three men would become our saviours on this mountain slope as we headed way above the extreme altitude level. From this point on anything we needed they would do for us. If we needed to nibble on something, they would get it out for us and open it up and if needed even help us eat. They would open up our water pipes for us and put the pipe into our thickly gloved hand and help guide the pipe to our mouths.  They would encourage us.  They would be our guide.

This was our moment of truth.

4640m ~ 15 223 feet asl (Above Sea Level)

Trekking poles in hand, dressed with only our eyes peeking out and Dickson leading the way we headed out in single file, leaving base camp and other hikers still trying to get that last bit of sleep behind.  We were the first to leave camp. The dark night enveloped us as we began to climb steeply up, the noise of our hiking boots hitting the ground and the howling wind was the only noise to be heard.

As I walked I played over and over again in my head the image of Milton singing the Kilimanjaro song on our first days on the mountain.  Nothing but blackness was up ahead of us and the night sky was scattered with a million shining stars.   My mouth and nose covered with my buff and scarf was wet from the condensation of my hot breath hitting the cold night air. It wasn’t ideal but I needed the protection from the wind.

We had walked the first part of the summit earlier in the day on our acclimatisation hike but none of it seemed familiar now. Climbing over rocks my legs felt heavy to lift up and I was grateful for the arm of our guides to help us up and over and for my trekking poles, for me an extra pair of legs.

I don’t recall how long we had been walking for but it was time for a quick break.

5020m ~ 16 469 feet asl

They advise you not remove your gloves and rather to let the guides do everything for you. Once you get cold it’s hard to warm up they say. Milton helped me get a snack bar out. I took a bite and chewed the mouthful slowly and instantly I felt a wave of nauseousness hit me.  I asked Milton to put the snack bar back again.  It was far too sweet and even though my body needed the energy, I wasn’t prepared to make myself ill for it. The moment passed and I felt better again. Moses helped me open my water pipe and I took a few sips of water. It was ice-cold but refreshing.  The wind was bitterly cold so I turned my back against it, hoping it would shelter me.  I was shivering. It was so cold. I “danced” around on the spot trying to keep warm. I wanted to get moving again. So did the others. We fell into single file again, zigzagging our way up the steep mountain side. By now we had a stream of hikers behind us and looking back all you could see was a stream of headlamps of hikers making their way up. It was a beautiful sight.

“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” ~ John Muir

 

When the path got wider, faster hikers passed us, weaving a path up the mountain slope in front of us. Head down to block the wind my body was consumed with the feeling of tiredness and my lower back was beginning to ache.  I wanted to scream out in excitement to my kili team mates “We’re climbing Kilimanjaro” but I just didn’t have the air in my lungs to speak, let alone the energy to shout that out! Sometime later Judi’s voice broke the silence of the crunching of the scree below our shoes “We’re climbing Kili guys!” I laughed softly and managed a low whisper of “we sure are!” as one other shouted “whooo hooo!”

Every time we zig-zagged to the right the wind hit me full on in the face. I pulled my buff up higher over my nose and tucked my scarf in higher and tighter too.  All of a sudden that familiar feeling of panic that I had experienced a few days before hit me again. I couldn’t breathe.  I scrambled with my thick glove cladded hands to pull everything away from my mouth and nose so that I could gasp air into my lungs.  The panic rose quickly and without warning. My mouth and nose free again, the cold wind whipped across my face but I was grateful for the air I could take it. I took a few deep breaths as I walked and gently pulled my wet buff back over my mouth and nose again and this time I tucked my scarf back in, only this time much more loosely.  Occasionally, I would l let my buff fall lower so I could take in the much-needed cold air. My lips were so dry, the elements were harsh and my body was taking a beating.

5300m ~ 17 388 feet asl

We stop for another break. I can’t eat anything so I sip on my water pipe that Dickson has opened up for me. It is beyond cold. I “dance” on the spot again but it doesn’t seem to help. My lower back is aching. Seriously, why now? I know it’s because I’m tired, my body is weary. Donna is going around the group asking if everyone is okay. I manage to nod my head and give her a thumbs up as she asks me. I turn my back once again to the wind. I am shivering violently. My fingertips ache. They are so cold.  A stream of hikers pass us in single file as they head up. It’s a beautiful sight seeing all the headlamps coming up below us. I’m grateful I’m higher than them. My mind switches back to the cold. I can’t stop focusing on how cold I am. My mind is blank and all I want to do is move on again to get warm but I know we need to rest too. All of a sudden arms envelope me from behind and I welcome them and snuggle in close putting my head down. For a brief while I am protected from the icy cold wind and my shivering abates slightly. A pair of hands run up and down my arms warming me up. I eventually find the strength to look up briefly to find Simon’s eyes looking at me through the darkness. I smile but I don’t think he can see it. I put my head down and silently say thank you. It’s all I have the strength to do.

“Faith moves mountains, but you have to keep pushing while you are praying.” ~ Mason Cooley

 

Time elapses without me noticing.  I have no idea what time it is or how long we have been standing there. Judi asked if we could move on, I agreed and the group readies themselves to move on again. We fall back into single file, Dickson leading the way with Donna behind him. We are somewhere in the early hours of the morning. My lower back is hurting so badly all I want to do is throw some of my water out. Thomas and Milton say no I need my water. I reply saying that I just want to get rid of a little bit to make my pack lighter. My back is really sore. I want to stop and take a pain-killer. Thomas urges me on and to wait till the next break. I can’t help but wonder if it’s all in my mind or if my back is really sore. I question why now again? Up front Donna is no longer with us. Dickson, our lead guide, is walking with his hands behind him holding her up. Milton is carrying her backpack and her trekking poles.  Her head is bobbing up and down between her arms that Dickson supports behind him as they stagger their way up. I have a lump in my throat at Dickson’s strength and commitment to getting us to the top. Donna, like the rest of us, is exhausted. Everything around us is covered in ice and the wind whips over it making it even colder. To my right as we make our way up, a man is sitting by himself on some rocks next to the path, his body half bent forward. He sits back as we pass. He does not look well. I wondered where his team mates are and I am suddenly so hugely grateful that we are all still together. I wondered if he would reach the summit. Before we left for the mountain, Donna and I had chatted to a young school girl who had just come off the mountain. She told us of her summit night and how she got separated from her team and how she just sat down and cried. I smiled though when she told us that she did summit. It must be scary to be walking up this mountain completely alone, even though many others hikers are heading up in the dark.  I would hate to be alone. We were still all together and just knowing my team mates were still with me, gave me strength.

5500m ~ 18 044 feet asl

“Somewhere between the bottom of the climb and the summit is the answer to the mystery why we climb.” ~ Greg Child

 

It was time for a break again. Someone said it was 2am. At that moment it felt like my body was caving in from the inside out. I wanted to cry. It was only 2am. I felt my heart sink right down to my toes. We still had so far to go. I didn’t eat again. I was feeling okay just breathing hard but I knew if I ate I would get that wave of nauseousness again and that was the last thing I wanted. Moses helped me get out my panado’s (pain killers). I swallowed two hoping it would help the back pain. One of the guides, I think Moses, took my backpack.  Quick checks with everyone as to how they were doing. We were all hanging in there and unbelievably Anthony was still with us. His determination and courage bowled me over and I couldn’t even begin to imagine what he was feeling with the effects of flu on top of the effects of extreme altitude. The human spirit is an amazing thing!

My fingertips were burning they were so cold. I had hand warmers inside my gloves but they were doing absolutely nothing for me. Simon complained too that his fingertips were so cold.  Everyone seemed to have the same problem.  Simon was worried about getting frostbite. He’s a musician you see, his fingers are his livelihood.  The wind was swirling all around us, icy, icy cold. Arms suddenly wrapped around me again, this time I knew who it was and again I was grateful for the extra warmth the closeness of his body offered. I took his gloved fingers and rubbed them between my gloved fingers trying to warm them up, if that was even possible. We huddled close, blocking the wind, desperate for warmth. Then it was time to move on again.

Crunch, crunch.  Crunch, crunch.

That was the only sound to be heard as we switched back and forth endlessly, minute after agonising minute, hour after hour.  I looked up and saw a stream of hikers headlamps zigzagging up ahead, all the way to the top, looking impossibly far away. It was a beautiful but heart-breaking sight. It showed me how much further we still had to go.  The wind got strong and the hours went by one by one. It got colder. Our water started to freeze leaving us with a slushy mixture of water and ice. Thomas appeared on my left and came in close and reminded me Emma was waiting on top for me. He spoke words of what I wrote in the little book the night before we left for the mountain.  (Link back to pic from Arriving in Moshe) The tears welled up. I was living the hardest night of my life. I reminded myself this was only one night I had to endure.  I knew in my weary state of mind that I could do this. I would not give up. I repeated in my mind to whoever was listening in spirit, “bring me air, fill my lungs.” I reminded myself once again all that was required was to simply put one exhausted foot in front of the other. Pole Pole. There were more and more people sitting on the side of the path. Each one looking absolutely exhausted. I was grateful I was still on my feet. My head began to fall. I couldn’t stay awake any longer. With my eyes closed I was transported into a dream-like world. I was aware I was walking but my body had just switched off and my eyes were closed. My legs bashed into rocks as my head bobbed up and down. My body feeling heavier and heavier. Milton took my trekking poles and Moses began to guide me up. I felt like I was falling into a deeper and deeper sleep. It was beyond cold. I willed the sun to come up. Every now and again my head would jerk up, I was still with my team, that’s all that mattered. More and more heads were bobbing up and down. Everyone was exhausted. I didn’t want to know what the time was. My chin hit my chest and I was gone again.

5650m ~ 18 534 feet asl

I have never turned back in my life; I shall not do so today.~ Emile Rey

 

By the time we stopped again the pain killers had helped and I could no longer feel my back pain and for that I was ever so grateful. Moses still had my backpack and as we came to a stop for our next break I headed to him to get some water. He would now carry my backpack all the way to summit for me. Even if I wasn’t thirsty I knew that I had to drink. I sucked on the pipe, the water was ice-cold and slushy bits struggled to come out of the nozzle. My water was well on its way to freezing. With water in my system I turned my back to the wind yet again and noticed some of my team mates sitting on some rocks. I went to join them.  In a sheltered little piece of the rock we hugged and drew close to get warm, rubbing fingers between gloves, anything to get blood circulating and the painful stinging in the fingertips to stop. I rested my head on a shoulder, grateful for the rest.  I was far from warm but I was snug and when the time came to get up again I didn’t want to. I wanted to sit there till the sun came up, with arms around me to keep me warm and fingers between mine and tucked between legs for extra warmth. We didn’t budge.  We were told it’s time to go and despite every fibre in our bodies protesting, we knew we had to move again.

I don’t remember much from here. I was going in and out of consciousness as my body let go and fell asleep as I walked. It’s a strange thing sleeping while you walk at high altitude.  But it seemed to be the latest craze, everyone was doing it!

“It’s always further than it looks.
It’s always taller than it looks.
And it’s always harder than it looks.”
~ The 3 rules of mountaineering.

 

When I came to every now and again, I would turn back and see the trail of lights coming up behind us, some just leaving Base Camp.  It was encouraging to see how far we had come. I tried to avoid looking up as much as possible, no matter how high we were climbing it crushed me every time I glanced up and saw how far we still had to go. The line of headlights just never seemed to end. Where was the sun? I wanted the sun to rise more than anything.

Milton and Moses were walking next to me, supporting my body by holding my arms. I didn’t even want to think of where I would be without their help.  Every now and then they would ask me if I was okay. I would nod yes.

Dickson up front was still leading Donna, her head still gently bobbing from side to side. Tears suddenly well up in my eyes.  One foot in front of the other again and again and again. That’s all it took. We were still all together, walking in single file.

In the mountains there is the promise of… something unexplainable. A higher place of awareness, a spirit that soars. So we climb… and in climbing there is more than a metaphor; there is a means of discovery.” ~ Rob Parker

 

Suddenly I noticed the sky was no longer pitch black but a dark blue.  Sunrise was close. It had to be.  My body filled with a renewed energy. I urged the sun to show herself, I longed for her rays to warm me up. I shivered as I turned into the wind as we zig-zagged to the right for what felt like the million

Finally, from the depths of inside of me I found my full voice for the first time since we left Base Camp, “Thank #$%#%&^” I exclaimed out aloud closely followed by a voice that was close to breaking “Thank You God” and I meant every single word that spilled out of my mouth!  For there on the horizon the sun was rising. I felt little to no emotion. I was too tired to really care. We did stop to take in the beauty of the sunrise. I captured no pictures on my camera, neither did anyone else.  I have the memory finely imprinted in the memory of my mind. It was far too cold to take off our gloves and everything took added effort to do. We stood and watched her rise. I closed my eyes and put my head back, so utterly thankful in my numb mostly emotionless state that sun was finally rising. In a strange way that is hard to describe, in my numb sense I felt almost angry at the sun for having took so long to come up.  But that didn’t matter anymore. It was getting lighter by the minute and my team members were smiling, small weary smiles, but smiles none the less. We didn’t have long to go. Soon we would reach Stella Point.

There was one thing I knew for sure, I would leave this mountain richer in every sense.

We moved forward, now almost as if the sun’s rays, which were in no way hot yet, gave us new life. The sky grew ever lighter as we pushed forward, changing from dark blue to light blue, the sun rising and the thought of our goal up ahead fuelling our exhausted bodies as we took our next step forward….

“May your dreams be larger than mountains and may you have the courage to scale their summits.” ~ Harley King

 

~ Part Two of our summit bid will continue tomorrow. ~

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Finally, the end of the story! ~ A Journey to the Top of Kilimanjaro | Walking4Air

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