Friday, 12 November 2010

Summit Night - Kilimanjaro

Summit Night – Kibo Camp 4,700m to Uhuru Peak 5,895m

It's about 10.30pm. Dozing is about the best I've managed. Now, it is time to get up for a last check of the gear and a quick coffee. Definitely a different attitude amongst the troops. Focused apprehension is a good description. This is what the trip boils down to. Of course, having had a six hour trek earlier that afternoon and only a few hours rest, means we aren't as fresh as we might be. But then again you could never feel 100% at 4,700m anyway, unless you're a mountain porter!

I have one last Cadbury's Wispa bar. I vow to save it for the summit where I think I will appreciate it most. I have stripped down the backpack and minimised the gadgets. However, three litres of water is still the heavy item and that isn't an optional extra.

Extra warm gear has been brought out now, gear that has not been used so far on the trip. 'Photo' our guide, tells us that the second part of the night, (the three hours before dawn) will feel colder than the first three or four hours. It could get to about -15 degrees C. Again, we are warned to take it slowly.

Just before departure to the summit (Jacko, Emma and Geraldine)

11.30pm – We are stood outside the hut. Already, Mum, Dad, Nick and Debs have ditched the ruck sacks and found a willing porter to carry it for them. This isn't cheating, it is simply a very smart move. Missed that one. 'Photo' arranges us in line order. I think he has a theory, but he isn't sharing it with us. 11.52pm and we depart...

The first half hour we scurry towards the mass. So far, it isn't much steeper than we have experienced so far, but it's coming. Suddenly we are at the start of the 'snake' paths. They have to 'snake' because it is too steep to go straight up. From this point, we are to embark on a 6-7hour slog up a 70 degree gradient, in the pitch black of night, at -15 degrees C. Our immediate target is Gilman's Point, which isn't the summit, but at the top of the ridge that faces us. It is the equivalent of three Empire State Buildings in height away. Oh..and in case you'd forgotten, we are already at about 4,800m and Gilmans point is at 5,631m. So the air is thin and the oxygen content is about half that it is at sea level. Whatever has gone before this moment is simply child's play to what is about to follow. Anyone that says Kilimanjaro is a 'play-thing' is saying it out of bravado. This bit is hard for any human being, bar none!

Of course, the biggest issue is how each individual has acclimatised so far. Altitude Sickness has no respect for age, fitness, waist size or any other physical parameters. The 15 of us are all at different points on the scale. Some have already had headaches for several days, but how well we have acclimatised overall is about to be put to the test. 'Photo' has told us that if someone is sick more than three times and there is no sign of improvement, he will not let them go on. It is simple really. Altitude Sickness isn't really that dangerous, unless you continue to keep going up!! Then it can get very serious.

Time became a blur. I cannot tell you more than a couple of key statistics from the moment I left Kibo camp, to the point I returned to it. I do remember the seemingly endless trudge. The feeling of making hardly any impact on the progress needed. It was a clear night and again the stars were bright. Unfortunately, the head lamps of the people way ahead of us also looked like tiny stars, and like the stars, also light years away. They only sought to act as a reminder how far there was to go. Periodically, we'd stop, have a drink. Not a lot to be said. A bit like 'night of the dead'. Dozens of zombie-like humanoids walking slowly towards a goal. I am sure I call out to our party when we passed 5,000m, but if I did, I don't really remember it and I certainly don't remember getting a response.

Peter and Richard near Meyers Cave

Some of our group are starting to struggle and we seem to be going slower still. My dad has a bad chest, his mild Asthma seems to have reared its' head and he looks very rough. Mum is fine. Geraldine is also struggling. I've only known for a little while that she has steel plates in her legs after badly breaking her ankles some years prior. To be here at this altitude is already an unbelievable achievement. Bev has suffered from Altitude sickness before and I think she knows it is coming again. There isn't much you can do about it I'm afraid. Richard Milner is of course fine, as indeed are the other 'mountaineers', Richard, Peter and Colin. Debs doesn't seem too happy, but is holding it together and Nick isn't saying much, so its difficult to tell. Myself, I feel ok. Tired, but better that I expected to. For the guides, it's like an every day task, like shopping in Meadowhall. They've seen it all before.

Eventually, we reach Meyers Cave. It is about half way up the difficult bit. The realisation of that is a fairly difficult concept. From this point on it gets steeper still. Weirdly, the ipod hasn't come out. As much as it helped earlier on the trip, for reasons I can't explain it doesn't seem appropriate now. Like it might take me away from the reality of the situation or something. At Meyers Cave I am concerned about my Dad. He looks 'broken'. For the first time, I wonder whether he should call it a day. It's about to get much much harder and we are dropping badly behind schedule. I know that if he turns back, Mum will probably call it a day too and I wonder whether others will seize the opportunity and follow. Richard Milner reminds me that if we are to see the spectacle that is 'day-break' from Gilman's point, we have to pick up the pace. We are also getting colder as our pace is slowing waiting for those with worse symptoms. He has a discussion with 'Photo'. 'Photo' decides that it is appropriate for Richard to press on. He assigns 'Julious' as the lead team guide and asks who wants to go with Richard? I find myself stepping forward, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I brought Richard on the trip with me and despite him not at all needing my help, I feel I should attempt to stay with him. Secondly, I feel relatively Ok and don't know how much longer this will last and making ground while the going is good seems a good move. Thirdly and perhaps a little unfairly, I am concerned that the life-long competitive spirit between my father and I, could get in the way of him turning back if he feels he should. If I am gone, he will make the choice without me being a factor. So, Richard and I leave with Julious. I don't know the time.

Bouyed by our independence, we picked up the pace. We started to pass literally dozens of other trekkers. In fairness, I probably pushed too hard. I don't know how long it was before I began to feel it, but I recall suddenly feeling sickened by the life juice that had been 'lucozade Isotonic Raspberry flavoured water'. All week it had served me well and now I hated its sickly taste. I then had a desperate need to go to the 'loo' and not just for a wee. Trying to engage in such a normally bodily function at way over 5,000m is not the easiest thing.

I start to feel more than rough. Very rough. Richard turns support group and encourages me on. I plod on relentlessly, but it is becoming more of a trudge and enthusiasm is lost completely. We reach the segment called 'Jamaica Rocks', just below the summit ridge and now, just for an additional challenge, we have to start climbing over boulders. Finally, we see Gilman's Point. I know from my research that to reach this point is to have broken 'Kili's' back. The hardest part will soon be over.

Richard and I at Gilmans Point

Daybreak at Gilmans Point

We sit at Gilman's Point at 6.30am, just as dawn breaks on the horizon. It is an impressive sight, but I don't care anymore. It has taken about six and a half hours to get to this point and I feel shattered, ill and strangely emotional. Despite how I feel, I know I will from this point conquer the mountain. There is over an hour and a half to the summit, but the gradient will be less and barring a drastic further decline in my being, I will make it. Like a genie, Richard pulls out a bottle of Mineral water that he has saved since before the start of the expedition. It is naturally chilled from the cold and tastes better than anything I have ever drunk. I look down over the ridge back towards where we have come from. I see the little 'stars' of the head lamps below and consider my own decline from the point where we left the others. I know in my heart that some of our party below will not make it to this point and being honest, at this moment in time ,I believe my Mum and Dad will be two of them..

We set off. Legs are a little rubbery. In fact, I am aware that from time to time I am swaying a little. Julious is keeping a close eye on me and Richard is too. He is fine. Perhaps feeling it a little bit, but not so you'd notice. He is discussing with Julious whether it might be possible to walk via the summit 'crater' on route to the actual summit. I offer no opinion. I can't speak. I thankfully hear Julious say that we must make the 'summit' marker first and see how we are. I know he means me.

It seems that from this moment on, I am stopping every twenty metres or so to rest on my walking poles to try and get my breath. Richard is attentive and keeps asking me how I am. My one sylable unprintable description of how I feel is the easiest word to say.

I notice the glacier and ice walls, but I am not really taking them in. I see from photographs afterwards how stunning some of the scenery is up there, but at the time it was an irrelvance. How ironic that with all my cameras, video cameras, spare cameras etc the place where you would expect to get the most footage of, is the place you get the least footage of?

About 7.45am we see the summit. Probably half a mile away. Not too many people there, but a little cluster around their prize. As we approach, Richard and Julious are ahead. I'm starting to well up. This has been the most physically difficult thing in my life ever and I can see the post. The end.
We get there. The day is bright and momentarily, I feel better. I ask Richard to video some footage and takes some pictures. We await our turn for our moment of glory. I grab a photograph of my Family from my rucksack and as I stand on the mark, wedge it into the summit post. I had read previously about the romantic notion of Everest explorer George Mallory perhaps doing the same thing in 1924 (29 years before Hillary claimed the summit) and I know that this is the nearest I will get to the roof of the world!

Richard, Julious (guide), Me on top of Africa

I don't know how long we were there, maybe 15 minutes, maybe double that. It didn't seem long and Julious was keen to get me to a lower altitude.

About an hour later as we neared Gilman's point again, I saw a sight I never expected to see. Approaching us was what remained of our party! As we crossed, I was overwhelmed to see my Mum and Dad still trudging upwards. Also, Nick and Debs. Richard and Peter. Colin, Sean and Emma. Unfortunately, Bev had returned to camp, but had made Gilman's Point. Geraldine, her husband Ian and surprisingly to me Adam had turned back after Meyers cave. This brief meeting was for probably a minute at the most, but having come this far I knew they would all make it. However, I had to keep going down. Fortunately, Richard felt like one summit attempt wasn't enough for him, so at this point we parted as he wanted to return to the summit with the second group. I gave him my camera and carried on with my descent. Julious stayed with me.

The rest of the team at the summit

We rest again at Gilmans Point before starting our descent of the steep bit. We had averaged less than 3m climb in altitude a minute during the ascent. I am shortly going to be hurtling down at more than three times that rate as Julious shows me how to effectively 'surf' the shale. Once I get the hang of it, progress is quick, although ironically it is harder on the feet than the ascent.

Just below 'Jamaica Rocks' Julious asked me to keep a look out behind me. “why”I asked without thinking. “Remember the man in the body bag on the 2nd day? This is where it happened”. Mystery solved. I could plainly see how easy it would be to get hit by a falling or dislodged rock.

I continued more apprehensively, but speedily down the 'hill'.

Jamaica Rocks, descending back to Kibo

I don't know what time I made it back to Kibo camp exactly. I think it was about 10.30am-ish. I later noted that my stopwatch, that I think I stopped upon arrival at camp, stated 10 hrs 32mins 48 seconds. It sounds about right. I briefly spoke to Ian and Bev. Geraldine and Adam were already asleep. I heard their tale and they heard mine. Purely because of Richard Milners' second summit visit I had made it back first. I took my boots off. Got into my sleeping bag and went to sleep....knowing that the day wasn't over as we still needed to trek later the 11km back to horombo huts, the camp lower down. Oh..and I forgot to eat my wispa!

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