20 April 2016

The Up's and Down's of Mt. Kilimanjaro - Part 9

13 February 2016, Saturday
Day 6
Summit Day

Barafu Camp – Uhuru Peak – Barafu Camp -  Mweka Hut
4550m (14 920ft) – 5895m (19 341ft) – 4550m (14 920ft) – 3100m (10 170ft)

About 7hrs to the summit, gaining almost 5000ft
Then 3hs back to Barafu, and a further 3hrs to Mweka Hut

I hardly slept a wink. And when I did doze off, I had very weird dreams.
11pm rolled around far too soon. I got up, kitted up, and managed to force down a cup of tea and a biscuit.

Midnight. Let the summit begin!
It was cold, and there had even been a bit of snow. The tents were covered in a layer of ice, like a sparkly scene straight of the movie Frozen.
My ice-covered tent
Leaving camp, we could see trails of headlamps winding their way up the mountain, disappearing into inky blackness. Gulp.

The sky was clear and there was hardly a breath of wind.

Having slept at 4600m, it wasn’t long before we were out of breath because of the altitude.

The ascent was a steep zig-zagging path. As we got higher, the dirt was frozen solid and the rocks glistened with ice. Gone was the smell of freshly-trodden soil that I had come to love.

It wasn’t long before I was completely out of breath and questioning why I was up there. I managed to make a joke, saying that all the frost and ice on the ground made it seem like we were in a giant disco-ball-like world. Umtsss, tsss, tsss. Lame. But I figured that if my sense of humour was intact, I would be okay. I was wrong.

I struggled not with the steepness of the path; that is a simple case of putting one foot in front of the other, but stepping over or on to rocks got to me. I needed a break after each section of rocks, and as we climbed higher and higher, I got more and more winded.

In the beginning, my guide said my backpack was too heavy. Stubborn that I am, I said that I could handle it. Not too long after that, I asked for help and we put 2l of my total 2.5l’s of water in the guide’s backpack.

I felt a little better, but my shoulders hurt. I think it was a combination of fear, stress, and not using my hiking poles properly, coupled with the cold creeping in to all of my joints. I couldn’t take it. I don’t know how long it was, but I swallowed my pride. I needed help. Badly. I asked the guide to carry my entire pack.

With a weight off my shoulders, literally, I could enjoy the view every now and then.
Moshi town was far, far below us, lit up like a Christmas tree. No load shedding there.
And above us, in the ink-black darkness, was the Universe. Thousands and thousands of stars with no discernible horizon making it seem as if the sky and the Earth were one. The sky was so clear that I felt as if I could just reach up and grab the stars.
Magical, surreal, otherworldly… that doesn’t even begin to describe it. It felt like I was hanging in the balance, floating in the middle of the galaxy.
And I had it all to myself, as I stood there in my own little world, gazing at the Heavens above, and the Earth below.

3 hours in.
I’m half way.
I was huffing and puffing and wheezing. My buff was frozen across my mouth, and moving it to my chin made the rest of my face too cold.
Maybe I didn’t eat enough. Or maybe I didn’t drink enough water. Either way, my body didn’t like the lack of oxygen and I was taking breaks more and more frequently.

The guides keep telling me to relax, that we would summit at sunrise, that I was strong.
My mantra became “Pole Pole, Hakuna Matata. Pole Pole, Hakuna Matata.”Over and over again. It helped me to shift the focus from my fatigued muscles, but I was falling behind, and getting slower still.

My shoulders were killing me, even without the weight of my backpack. I kept thinking about the hiking poles, adjusting my grip, pushing differently. It didn’t seem to help. Every time the guide asked how I was, my response was the same- “Tired. Sore shoulders.” I couldn’t muster enough air to say anything more.

I remember sitting on a rock in an effort to catch my breath. I was cold and sore, and closed my eyes. It was comfortable, almost. I didn’t feel happy, but I felt… okay, I guess. And then I felt the guide’s hands on my shoulders, and thought he was trying to warm me up. But he was shaking me awake, and my oxygen-deprived brain managed to make out the words “Wake up! Don’t sleep! Keep walking!”
Oh, okay.
I opened my eyes and nodded that I understood the words. He gave me a shoulder massage and I felt a little better.

From that point on, every time I stopped to rest, I got a shoulder massage. Whether it was to alleviate the pain, or keep me awake, I don’t know. Either way, my guides went above and beyond the call of duty.

That was all probably around sunrise. I don’t remember much of that, just that the sky got lighter (as it does), that the visibility started to decrease, and that the guide took my headlamp off my head. By now I had slowed to a snail’s pace, and before I could tell the rest of the group to go ahead, I realised that they had already done that. So it was just two guides, and me, and the mountain.
Almost 6am, and it is getting light. A guide from another group carrying what looks like three packs
The guides were amazing. For our group of 5, we had 4 guides. And as we climbed, one was at the front, one at the back, and the other two were like silent ghosts, paralleling us on non-existent paths. They negotiated the terrain with ease, and didn’t even use torches. Or gloves. Or walking poles. They were always watching, always ready to catch us should we slip or stumble, always willing to help.

I was so tired. I was ready to quit.
No, Heather doesn’t quit. I kept putting one foot in front of the other, moving forward less than 1ft at a time. But at least I was moving forward.
Eventually I caved, and asked “Are we there yet? How far to Stella Point?”

“Not too far. Just around the bend up there.”
Up where? Which bends? All I see are corners? But okay. Let’s get to Stella Point. Then we go back to camp. I hated to do it. I hated to not see my task through. But I was finished. Stella Point was my new Peak. I just had to make it there, and I would have achieved my goal.

As it turned out, Stella Point was still far away, but I pushed on. And I almost cried when I finally saw the sign. I managed to pose and smile for the photos. I had made it to over 18 000ft.
Scrat was there too, of course!

So, I didn’t summit. But I made it here. It’s good enough, Heather. My body didn’t know how to feel. But my mind, while relieved that I had reached this point, felt guilty. All this way, not to summit. I told myself that it was okay, that I had already got far and achieved something great. I was waiting for the guides to say “Come on, let’s get you down this mountain.”

But it never came.
“Uhuru Peak next. Let’s go.”

I was cold, tired sore. I knew I was lucky just to reach this point. I wanted my tent. I wanted to be warm. I wanted air. And yet, my mouth was moving and words were coming out “Is it safe to continue? Okay, let’s go.”
I had no idea how long I had been up there without supplemental oxygen. But my legs were moving.

Uhuru Peak is about 45-60 minutes from Stella Point, when walking at a ‘normal’pace.
But by now, I wasn’t walking; I was shuffling, barely a few centimetres at a time. 45 minutes turned into over an hour.

I was taking a break every 10 steps or so, sometimes just standing there, trying to keep my eyes open. People who had already summitted were coming from the opposite direction, covered in ice.
One of our guides, covered in ice. Visibility was poor
I kept waiting for the guides to turn me around. A part of me wanted them to make that call. But instead they stood by me, motivated me to keep moving, and at one point the one even linked his arm in mine, and supported me as we shuffled forwards. He hardly spoke a word of English, but he kept me upright.

A few more steps forward. My body was screaming NO! My mind said I couldn’t give up, not now. NO! So tired. My muscles didn’t hurt- it felt like they had simply vanished. Those who had summitted wished me luck. A blur. I passed the rest of my group. They had made it. It was amazing. We all hugged.  “You’re 10 minutes away! You can do it, Heather!”

I was starting to choke back tears as I thought about quitting.
10 minutes… one of the other guides who had been with the rest of the group had a flask of warm tea. I managed a few sips, my snow-covered fingertips frozen, despite my two pairs of gloves, and an extra pair that a guide sourced for me just before we left the camp.
10 minutes… come on. Almost there. Breathe. Step. Breathe. Step. Over and over again, for what felt like years. Centimetre by centimetre.

We were in the cloud. Visibility was bad. I felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere. No. I have tried. I have pushed myself to the limit, and then gone beyond it. This is it. I am done. I shuffled forward one more time, and got ready to turn around. I looked at the guide ahead of me, the other was by my side, and he was pointing forward. “Look!”
I looked at him, then followed his arm to where he was pointing, and through the snow and cloud, I could make out a sign. THE sign. Uhuru Peak was just 50 meters away. I couldn’t contain the sob.

I saw the sign...

Eyes focused on that sign and hands buried deep in my pockets to try and keep them warm, I shuffled forwards. 40 meters. Wind whipping across my face. 20 meters. Ice had encrusted my jacket. 10 meters. I couldn’t feel my toes despite wearing 3 pairs of socks. 1 meter.

I looked up at that sign, and was overwhelmed with emotion. I grabbed both guides by the shoulder and pulled them towards me, and cried. And between sobs I uttered “Thank you” over and over again.

I had done it. Thanks to their support, their quiet encouragement, and some willpower buried deep within me, I stood on top of the world’s highest freestanding mountain. I stood on the Roof of Africa, Mt .“Kili”Kilimanjaro.

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