Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Mt. Kilimanjaro: Summit Night: Night 4 into Day 5

The porters woke us up around 11:30 at night. We scrambled into our boots and gaitors and up to the mess tent for some oatmeal and hot tea. Then we went back outside and saddled up for the climb. Headlamps were key as we started out for the summit at 12:30 AM. I'm amazed that the lead guide could follow a trail as you see almost nothing except the rock at your feet and the person in front of you. If you are summiting from Karanga Camp then the hike will start by climbing up on a huge rock lava flow. It’s good that it’s dark because out of the corner of your eyes, you can tell that the drop off on either side of the lava flow is steep and fast. Once off that, the hike turns into a long, increasingly steep climb on dirt, scree and a few patches of ice. Its all frozen on the way up so the footing is firm.

This is where it gets tough. I really struggled on summit day. My heart was racing perhaps as much from the diamox as from the steepness and thin air. Breathing feels the same as when you are at sea level, you just don't get the energy you need from each breath. I have asthma and while I was on Kilimanjaro I never got that gasping for air feeling asthma gives you... only an absence of stamina. At one point, I had been struggling... breath, step, pause, breath, step, etc. and then I felt like I was getting my "second wind". I felt energized and set out with new found strength. But the second wind literally lasted about 4 steps before I was right back in a mental struggle.

Around 4:30 or 5, you start to see the sun coming up. It's silhouetted against the horizon and Mewenzi Peak... the mountain's sub-peak / crater. This gives you something new to look at and lets you know that you're making progress. The peak is still another four hours away so even though you’ve been hiking all night you’re only 1/2 way up.

As the sun comes up, the switchbacks get tighter and more frequent and you can see the rim of the crater above you. Feeling the altitude fully for the first time, it all started to look like something I was watching on TV. You see people above you and remember later that they were in your group but at that time, they seem like strangers in a TV movie. I also remember thinking that they looked so far ahead of us and doing so much better. But they were just a few minutes ahead and struggling just as much as us. You just feel a bit clueless. Alan, one of the climbers in our group was also struggling. He and I were bonding without anything more than looking at each other. We were both too tired to talk. Anne on the other hand was strong, lucid and focused. She had toppled slightly once or twice (as we all did) but was now really strong. She became my coach and without her I might not have made it to the rim. She was strong enough to also be attentive to me. She got me my water bottle when we stopped to drink, made me eat some energy gel and gave me words of encouragement.

Every adventure we've ever been on has exposed the strengths and weaknesses of the group. What is usually nice about this is that everyone becomes a coach one minute and the coached the next. This is definitely true of my relationship with Anne. Anne was an inspiration and my lead guide in getting to the top. Her friends know that she is stronger than she seems at first. She is a fighter and a true adventurer.

Its 8:15 and we are just below the rim. The trail is getting incredibly steep but we’re so close to the top. It looks like the top of a steep bowl at a ski resort. One that you would never think of climbing back up once you had dropped in. A final hard push and we are up and over the rim. I'm feeling really bad at the rim. I get some hot tea from one of the porters which I force down. I sit down and crash. Traci from our team is asleep in Alan's jacket which he had given her halfway up. She was cold and couldn't stop shivering. Evan was up or came up with us, not sure.

After about 10 minutes, Jonas starts to rally the group for the final push to the summit. I knew that I was done climbing. My heart had been beating so fast that I was worried that I had reached my limit. My head was in a fog and I was dehydrated so I told Anne that I was done. In hindsight, I question my decision. The crater rim still counts as a successful climb but I regret not continuing to the summit. At the time, I was really certain that I was in bad shape and needed to get down. But everyone felt like crap and yet most continued except for the 3 of us who stopped at the rim. You also recover relatively quickly as you descend that it becomes hard to recollect how bad you were at the summit. I was so close and most likely won't be back. I'm very proud of Anne for making it but I'm jealous at the same time. I also wish we could have made the final push together. In that sense, our story is probably fairly typical. In every group... some make it and some don't. I felt great everyday but the final day and that is really the nature of hiking at such altitudes. Kilimanjaro is much easier than Everest but I suspect that Everest climbers are also much more fit and experienced. Yet every year some make it and some don't... often some of the fittest. It must weigh on them too... especially when you get so close and have to turn back. Anne continued on with Jonas and four others and made it to the summit about 45 minutes later.

The descent was relatively easy but not without its drama. A few of us were hanging at the top when the first group to summit came back to the rim. We took some photos and then all decided to go down with the one guide that was available. This descent is probably the one time you need gaitors. The dirt and scree free up with the sunrise and become loose. Plus the fastest way down is to run and slide down through the scree. We started down as a group but quickly separated. The whole trip, Stefan seemed to seek out one-on-one attention from the guides. He seemed to have trouble understanding that with a group trip there are fewer guides than climbers and you have to work as a group, not an individual. So Stefan, in his rush to get back to the camp to see his wife (who had to be taken back to camp ½ way to the summit) kept urging the guide to rush, leaving the majority of the group behind. The guide should have known better but he was a very junior guide / porter and allowed himself to be swayed by Stefan. What made this more frustrating is that since his wife Joy had been taken back to camp by another guide. That meant that we had already lost 2 of the guides for the summit so he should have been able to see the importance of allowing the 2 remaining guides (the other went with the second summit team) to work with a group. Luckily this doesn't happen too often and I think most guides know to look out for this behavior. We see it happen at a summer camp that we volunteer at. But if you are reading this and planning a trip, I would watch for signs of this happening and let a guide know of your concerns. Later, when we were hiking to the next camp, Stefan tried it again and I let him know he needed to choose between hiking ahead of us alone or with us and the guide and he finally got the message.

The trail down from the summit back to camp takes about 3 hours. It’s a braided trail that continually divides and reconnects. So as Evan and I descended without a guide, we were never sure if the fork we were taking was headed to a different destination or not. A third of the way down it got very hot. We had been walking continually and still had warm clothes on so I finally realized we needed to stop, drink and shed some layers. We finally made it back down and went immediately to our tents and crashed. I knew I was still dehydrated so I got my camelback out and forced myself to sip water for the next hour even though I didn't feel thirsty. Anne finally got back about 2 hours after me. She was still looking strong but was tired too. None of us wanted to make the remaining 4 hour hike down to the next camp. It just felt like chaos at camp... there were still 3 or 4 climbers on their way down, we were all feeling weak and tired and there was no radio or lead guides around to clarify the plan. I never slept but Anne crashed for about an hour. After that, we grabbed a light lunch in the mess tent, packed up our stuff and then started down for Mweka Camp. It was long and tiring but you feel better and better as you go down. You don’t really notice the air getting thinner going up but you definitely notice it going down… and it feels good. Your energy comes back and you brain comes back online. We arrived at camp just after dusk about 7:30PM. We had been hiking about 28 of the last 36 hours. I passed out in our tent before dinner. Despite the fact the camp was crowded and noisy, I fell asleep shortly after climbing into the tent. I would have slept through the night if Anne hadn’t woken me for dinner. In the morning we would start to appreciate our accomplishment but right now, we were just tired.

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