Saturday, August 19, 2017

Kilimanjaro Climb Days 6-7

Start at Day 1...

May 5, Day Six
When I returned to the tents from the outhouse, Antony informed me that someone would be carrying my pack for the summit push. While a part of me was dismayed, my pride wanting me to carry my weight for every day of the climb, pragmatism made me not argue. My chances of summiting were no longer 40% as they'd felt in my mind. Without my pack I had a good chance of success. And when I saw that they were carrying Jeremy's pack also, I felt less guilty. This guilt would disappear completely when I saw later that the majority of the climbers that day, men and women, did not carry their packs. David and Mike, however, continued to carry their packs and I salute them, especially when the steepness of the final push became apparent.

With our headlamps lit, we started up the mountain at midnight. I ended up behind Dave, who followed Tara in her permanent position behind Sinai. Daniel the assistant guide was carrying my pack and my water somewhere behind us. The ground sparkled with frost. As we tromped upwards, my world narrowed to the circle of light cast by my headlamp and the diamond-like sparkle of the frost-covered ground. We climbed and climbed. No one talked. The gravitas of the moment was upon us all. The ground tilted more noticeably, until our calves were fully stretched and we had to lean forward over our poles to maintain our balance. I shuddered to think how much more difficult it would have been trying to maintain balance with a pack on my back. This was especially true when we climbed over patches of slick rock. I'm sure I would have slipped and fallen if my balance had been compromised by a pack. The downside of not carrying my pack was that I couldn't take sips of water from my bladder. I had to wait for group breaks so Daniel could bring it to me. This became moot later in the climb as the water froze in the hose of my hydration pak, rendering it useless.

Dave and I on the final push.

Up and up we went, and several hours later we saw the other group of climbers that had left at 11:15 PM just above us, taking a break. I couldn't believe we'd caught up to them but I was thrilled. It was a neat, dare I say proud moment to pass up their long train of climbers -- I believe there were 11 of them. We took a break in a space just above them and just as we stood up to resume climbing, they did, too, resulting in a minor traffic jam. Fortunately their guide told the group to stand to the side to let us pass. Thank god for this because the more people you have in your group, the slower your progress. Trapped behind them, we would have lost all our momentum. We zipped past them, maybe feeling a little bit cool to be going so fast, until there was only darkness above us. If we kept the lead, we would be the first to summit.

The other group, passing us, whom we then passed a few minutes later on our way to summiting.

But our progress slowed as the terrain became more difficult. I made the mistake once of looking up, and the break where the ground met the sky was still so far above us that I despaired. Tara apparently felt this despair even more acutely. Near tears, she forced us to stop and demanded to be taken back down the mountain, telling Sinai and Antony that she was exhausted and couldn't go on. Antony got her moving again by telling her, "We've passed the point of no return." He was right. The thought of descending was worse than continuing up. We'd come too far to turn back now. So on we went, but slower now, excruciatingly slow. One step, two step, three step, pause. When I had read other peoples' reports about climbing Kili, an older man had claimed his progress on the final push had been 9 feet a minute. Dave and I had scoffed at that. Well, I'm pretty sure that our speed that night was about 15 to 18 ft per minute, our breaths puffing hard before us. So slow. And going slow was in someways worse, because every time we stopped (after every three steps), we had to brace our bodies forward to keep our balance. The incline was so steep that I sometimes fell sideways out of line when we stopped. My calves were stretched to their limits.

It was freezing. I was grateful for my balaclava to protect my freezer burned cheeks. But breathing through cloth meant I got snotty, so my scarf turned into a snot rag. As we pushed on, I no longer cared that snot was sliding down my face and I didn't bother to mop it up. I was just trying to make it. I kept thinking, "Wave pool in San Diego", and trying to recreate that feeling in my body. The altitude began to affect us in various ways. Streamers of color flashed periodically across my vision as though I were peering into the ocean and fish were attracted to my headlamp. Tara said later the mountain told her to take care of it, so a couple of times she tried to pick up litter. Most of us became dizzy. We kept climbing.

100 meters or so from the peak, Tara forced a stop for a second time, insisting she couldn't go on. The guides again talked her into continuing. But listening to them, I no longer believed their promises that the peak was close. They'd been saying that for hours. Jeremy said Antony had told him the peak was just ahead and when he'd looked it hadn't been anywhere near, and Jeremy had gotten mad. On we trekked, the ground becoming scree. This was actually the final face before Stella Point. With every step up, you slid down a foot. I began to grow frustrated by the effort I was exerting to make zero progress.

Then above us, as the sky lightened, we could see the knife edge of the ground meeting the sky. David broke out of line, frustrated by the slow pace which was making it more difficult for him. He raced up the slope. Someone else passed me by. It was Mike. I tried to keep up, but I kept sliding down. That's when I hit my personal physical wall. I deliberately stopped for the first time in six days and leaned on my poles, gasping for breath. I thought, I don't know how I'm going to do this. I had 30 feet or so still to climb. My legs were hollow tubes of rubber. Would the guides have to carry me? I had no idea how I was going to reach the top. Then Daniel said, "Go to the right. There is a trail."

The scree slope below Stella Point which nearly killed me. You can see sunrise beginning behind us.

I stumbled my way to the trail and the ground was indeed firm enough to hold a step. I used my poles to haul myself up when my legs trembled from strain. I began to make upwards progress. Jeremy and Tara were struggling above me. I would be the last to reach the top and I considered a burst of speed, for pride's sake, but then I decided it wasn't worth it. It would turn out to be a fortuitous decision.

When I finally crested the top and staggered onto flat ground, I was completely spent. I stumbled forward, looking for my brother. He hugged me but I didn't have the strength in my arms to return the embrace. Other people hugged me, too, but I could only accept, not return. Jeremy's eyes were glistening. He said the sight of the stars had brought him to the brink of tears. I dropped onto a rock to catch my breath. I heard Tara asking Sinai, "This is the top, right? This is the peak?" He didn't answer. I laughed inwardly. This wasn't the top, which was why I didn't know why everyone else was celebrating and so excited. This was only Stella Point. We still had to reach Uhuru Peak. But from the others I learned that they'd celebrated because they knew at this point, now that we were on the crater ridge, everyone would summit. Makes sense, but at the time I wasn't in celebration mode.

Mike looking down from Stella Point. It was surreal being above the clouds.

After everyone had calmed down, Sinai told us Uhuru Peak was still 40 to 60 minutes away. I couldn't believe how far it was. I'd been craning my head around, trying to see the sign. Of course it was nowhere in sight. The others were discouraged, but we had to go on. We slogged along the rim of the crater with amazing views of the glaciers on either side of us. The clouds stretched below us as they do when you're flying in an airplane.

We were midway between Stella Point and Uhuru Peak when Mike asked if we could stop to watch the sunrise. It was the most unique sunrise I've ever seen. The sun came up from under the clouds, lighting them up in such a way as to make it appear as though the ground was on fire. It looked like a volcanic erruption. Mike became extremely emotional, which was really sweet. It meant a lot to him to see this.

So high in the sky.

After the sunrise, we continued on, but people began to fall back. For the first time, I began passing people in our group. I don't know what came over me, a second wind, or sheer adrenaline, but suddenly I had all the energy in the world. I even passed Dave, who'd stopped and was leaned over his poles. I actually thought for a moment that everyone else was playing a prank on me. Why were they exhausted when I had this much energy? I continued on with Daniel behind me. Jeremy called up to me, asking if I could see the sign. I told him no. And then I rounded a mound of rocks and there it was, a skinny H on the top of the peak, the background a perfectly blue sky. No one else was there, nothing else was there. It was an amazing sight. I laughed to myself. In my head I was yelling, "Kili!". I nearly broke into a run, I had that much energy. It was the strangest physical sensation I'd felt the entire trip. I didn't run, though, because I figured I'd better conserve my energy. As I drew nearer, I began to think about summiting by myself. And it occurred to me that it would be a selfish thing to do. This had been a group effort, and it seemed wrong to 'claim' the peak for myself. So at the base of the final hill leading to the sign, I drew up and waited for my brother. The two of us waited a bit more for the others to catch up and then we climbed to the peak of Kilimanjaro.

Daniel, my guide, and I, waiting for the others to catch up. The Uhuru Peak sign waits for its first visitor of the day.

I expected more hugs since this was the real peak but I don't really remember hugging anyone. We took group and single shots and then took more photos. We had the peak all to ourselves for as long as we wanted it. The sign looked better than I'd hoped because it was draped with several colorful Tibetan prayer flags. I was happy with this because I'd seen photos where the sign was mostly naked. I'd brought along my own prayer flags that I'd purchased in Nepal and David and I posed for our photo together with it. When we draped it over the sign, though, it covered up the lettering, so we ended up stuffing it behind the sign.

Looking down into the crater top of Kili, called Kibo.

The ground is black, covered with lava rock. I hadn't remembered to bring a bag or other container so I scooped up soil from the peak and poured it into one mitten. I also picked up a souvenir rock. We took photos of the glacier below us and then finally we didn't need to take any more photos. I'd guess we'd been up there for 20 to 30 minutes. Being at 19k feet felt great, but we were done and ready to make the descent.

Farewell, Uhuru Peak.

It was awesome going back down the ridge and finally encountering other climbers, in this case the group of 11 that we'd passed in the night. We cheered them on and they offered us their congratulations. It was a great feeling, everyone was happy. Then a few minutes later we passed another group, smaller, much more grim. I don't know what their problem was but they didn't look happy at all. Jeremy told me later he passed a woman throwing up. Maybe their group had had a lot of problems with altitude. We passed more people. It was becoming busy. I was so grateful and thrilled that we'd been the only ones to see the sunrise from the ridge and had had the peak to ourselves. It would've sucked with the big mass of people that we passed all on the peak at the same time, waiting in line to have their photos taken, hoping no one would be in the background. For us, we'd climbed Kili alone and we'd summited alone. The mountain had always belonged to us.

The funny thing about summiting Kili was that I hadn't thought much about the descent. Maybe in the back of my mind I'd had the ludicrous idea that we would be airlifted down or there would be chair lifts or belay ropes. Of course none of those were present, although we all did consider (jokingly) faking medical emergencies so we could be airlifted down (we had paid for insurance, after all). According to Sinai, a helicopter rescue was only $8000. Not too bad split amongst the 5 of us. Later, we would seriously consider it.

Beginning the dreaded descent.

Going down was excruciating. I'm not exaggerating when I say that climbing down Kili in 5 or 6 hours was in many ways worse than climbing up it in 6 days. Of course our physical state at that point had much to do with it. We'd been climbing for about 16 hours on 4 hours sleep, with much of the most difficult climbing occuring most recently. Our leg strength was gone, our arm strength was gone. I remember thinking as I painfully eased my body down the rocks that if someone pushed me I wouldn't even fight it; I would relax and allow myself to fall down the mountain. It would be a relief compared to bracing the poles, easing one leg down, then the other, rinse and repeat a thousand times. By the time we hit the scree again, I was done. I didn't have the strength to keep my weight forward on my toes without falling headlong down the mountain so I put the weight on my heels, which caused the slippery ground to dump me on my ass and once, flat on my back.

Daniel came to my rescue, hooking his arm through mine to keep me upright as we descended together. By that time our group was every man for himself. I saw Tara off to the side with Sinai. I don't know where Mike went. David and Jeremy were ahead of me. All I could do was hang onto Daniel and pray for solid, flat ground. It was a long time coming. The scree was so deep at one point that every step dropped you 2 to 3 feet. I told Daniel, "This is fun," because at that point it was. Then it sucked again and I stumbled down like a dumb, stunned accident victim. David steamed ahead, determined to find relief at camp. Jeremy lingered and joined me. Below us we could see Barafu camp, but it was so far away, like on another continent. I was paranoid that it was on a ridge that we'd have to climb. I didn't want to do any more climbing. I couldn't.

Barafu Huts. Our tents are on the left. The tents of the group of 11 climbers are the orange ones.

Fortunately it was an optical illusion. We didn't do any more climbing although we faced a few hairy descents on slick rock. The camp never seemed to get any closer, but finally the ground leveled out and Jeremy and I were able to hold a conversation as we walked. Down below, we heard some whoops as David entered the camp. That meant we were close. When Jeremy and I finally made it, I turned and gave Daniel a big hug, thanking him for keeping me alive. Michael our waiter and another porter let out whoops at our arrival and gave us glasses of juice. I don't know what kind of juice it was but the sugar made my head buzz. It was the best juice in the world.

I looked back up the mountain and could see Mike way up on the face. I didn't see Tara anywhere. I stumbled into the tent. David greeted me with slight surprise. He'd seen how defeated I was by the scree, and I was proud that I'd returned as quickly as I had. He told me he'd been so exhausted that he'd staggered into camp like a drunk. Our sleeping bags were packed up, so we lay on our pads. But it was freezing. I was shivering and miserable. This didn't feel like much of a reward for summiting Kili. David finally unpacked his bag and tucked himself partly into it; we were both still dirty from the mountain and wearing our full gear. I didn't want to muddy my bag so I unrolled it and draped it over me but it didn't help. My teeth were chattering. I finally said to hell with the mud and unzipped my bag and climbed in. I was still too cold to sleep, although I probably dozed out of sheer exhaustion. I roused an hour and a half later to the sound of cheers when Mike and Tara arrived in camp. Mike was done for. Tara as well.

Sinai and Antony visited us and told us something we didn't want to hear. Park rules didn't allow any climbers to remain at Barafu huts after making the summit. We had to descend on the Mweka route. It was stunning news. We'd been climbing/descending for 21 hours. We were all completely wrecked. We asked Sinai how much descending we'd need to do. When he said about another 5 hours, we were utterly speechless.

Tara refused to move from her tent. Dave, Jeremy, Michael and I discussed our options. What if we refused to descend? What if we made tomorrow a 7 or 8 hour day of descent instead of a 3 hour one? But Sinai was adamant. It was a park regulation. We *had* to go to prevent illness. So we reluctantly agreed and gave him the task of informing Tara. While we waited, we considered the weather. It had begun to rain hard. Then it began to snow. The wind and snow battered at our tents. Surely we wouldn't go out in such weather? I was so thankful we'd made it off the mountain before the weather turned. If we'd been a day later in our schedule we would've had to summit through snow. Right now, the snow might work in our favor. It might allow us to stay in camp overnight.

No dice. It took a long time, but finally Sinai convinced Tara she had to go, but at least he made a concession. We'd hike for 3 hours to a nearer camp. What a gift. Sure.

When the snow let off, we set out from Barafu Huts. We moved like the elderly, our knees and hips aching, bracing most of our weight on our trekking poles. I didn't feel any residual happiness from summiting, I just wanted to be able to lie down and pass out. We came upon a strange contraption, a device for bringing injured people down the slope. With one wheel it looked like it would be a hell of a painful ride. I asked Antony if they'd ever had to use it and to my surprise he said yes, several times. I was surprised because our group had been especially lucky in the injuries department. No one had a blister much less a sprained or broken limb. The climbing gods were with us.

Fortunately none of us required this.

We walked and walked, gracelessly. Like shipwreck victims stranded on a desert island we began to discuss what foods we'd love to have at that moment. Jeremy and I agreed on pizza, although I also would have killed someone for a juicy grilled steak. I became obsessed with a Grilled Stuft Burrito from Taco Bell (although when I finally ate one when I returned to Vegas it didn't provide the mouth orgasm it would have had it magically appeared in my hands on Kili). When we finally hit Millenium camp we were down for the count. We'd been climbing or descending for 24 of the last 28 or so hours. Mike was so worn out he couldn't even leave his tent to join us for dinner, so Michael the waiter kindly made up a couple of plates for him and Tara and brought them to their tent so they could try to eat. The good news was that we could finally sleep and Dave and I could go off the Diamox. We were looking forward to an end to the side effects. That night, if I dreamed, I don't remember it. I slept like the dead.

May 6, Day Seven

Packing up for the last time held no real emotional significance for me. Summiting Kili still didn't feel like much of anything. Mostly I thought about having a soda with ice. Or good food, not the prix fixe meals that I knew awaited us at the Kilimakyaro Lodge in Moshi. I wanted a burger. I guess it was a good sign that my appetite had returned.

Antony and Sinai promised that this final descent would be easy. A few steep descents but nothing bad. We would be re-entering the jungle, so we were instructed to dress for warm weather. Anticipating heat, rather than cold and wet, was a nice relief.

Back to the jungle.

But by this time we were all handicapped, or at least that's how we felt. Our pace started out relatively quick -- Sinai and Antony seemed determined to get us off the mountain and collect their tips -- but soon slowed as various aches and pains demanded it. My knees were killing me. Others had toe pain in addition to knee pain. We were definitely slow and becoming aggravated by the lack of water breaks. When we finally stopped at Mweka camp, the ranger station there was selling Cokes for $4. I passed, only because I figured they wouldn't be as cold as I wanted. Mweka camp is usually packed with climbers, but again, we were the only ones there.

We walked and walked, trying to reach the Mweka Gate. The guides kept telling us we were nearly there. Dave grew irritated with them for saying that because we were never "nearly there". He and I both would have preferred that we be told the pickup van was still several hours away rather than raising our hopes that we'd see it around the next corner. The road, even though it smoothed out into a legitimate, unpaved road, was still endless. Our group spaced out again as everyone settled into their personal pace. Dave was a speed demon and I followed, anxious to get this over with.

At long last I descended a hill where porters were climbing up with gear. We greeted each other, "Jambo!", and then I saw a parking lot and a First Aid van, and I knew it was over. I emerged from the jungle only to be accosted by a dozen or so hawkers trying to sell me Kili T-shirts, patches, flags, carvings, you name it. I was a bit incredulous-- did they honestly think I'd just emerged from the jungle with my wallet handy? I brushed them off and located Dave resting in a gazebo by the ranger station. I bought a Sprite, but it wasn't cold enough and residual Diamox in my system made it taste funny. Then I negotiated for a T-shirt, patch and bracelet. The others slowly trickled in and were likewise assaulted. At the ranger station we signed the ledger for the last time and received our certificates for climbing Kili. We distributed tips to our group, took a group shot with them, and had a final fun dance together. We'd been generous with the tips, going on the high side of recommended amounts, so everyone was in a good mood. We crammed into the van for the drive back to our hotel and oh, was it nice to sit down and have the road travel beneath us without us having to move.

Back at the lodge, everyone draped their clothes over the railings to dry out or because they were caked in so much dirt. Everything, including us, was disgusting. Looking into a mirror for the first time in a week was nerve-wracking. Everyone took the longest showers they could since none of us had showered in 7 days. The water that streamed down the drain was pure brown. At dinner, we studied the photos of Kili on the dining room walls. There was a great picture of the crater and we tried to figure out where we had topped the ridge. It was still difficult for me to believe I had been on the top of the mountain.

Did we really climb this?

I wouldn't do Kili again, but I would be open to trying another mountain. I lost 7 pounds in the course of climbing Kili and I feel more in shape now than when I'd begun, so I think if I trained even harder, the next climb will be noticably easier. Maybe. Even the guys, who were super fit, struggled with physical exhaustion on Kili.

The best part of Kili was learning how much I could endure and overcome. And it was wonderful sharing the experience with my brother. As we tackle new challenges around the world, something like a bucket list feels less like a list of aspirations and more like a list of inevitable checkmarks.

-- Tricia, May 20, 2011


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