Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Longest Day.

Our summit attempt on Kilimanjaro really started at Horrombo Camp at 8am on Saturday tenth of January. Packs on and the snowy peak of Kilimanjaro beckoning, we started out on the trail to Kibo Camp. Inside each of us, a kaleidoscope of emotions flickered from elation to fear. Our personal acclimatization experiences hadn't been too difficult to date, however listening to the horrendous accounts from descending climbers at supper the previous evening had demoralized us and indeed had done us a great disservice.

The 10 Km (7 mile) route to Kibo Camp took 8 hours to accomplish, at our extreme "pole, pole" pace. We walked through the desolate alpine desert where only occasional words spelled out in rocks by the side of the path, and the infrequent splash of yellow Asteraceae broke the monotony of this high altitude landscape. We ate our packed lunches at around 2pm in a rocky area which would have been a welcome wind-break, had the anticipated wind materialized. However, once again, fortune smiled on us and the weather conditions proved excellent.

We left the giant white necked ravens and striped field mice to squabble over the crumbs of our lunch and continued on, happy in the knowledge that the larger part of this hike was behind us.

At 4pm we rounded a rock outcrop and there was the large silver and green Kibo Hut surrounded by smaller huts for reception and porter's quarters. There were also the tents of hikers on the Rongai Route and off to the right a new dormitory building under construction. We signed in at reception and then received the great news that we would have one of the 12 bed bunk rooms to ourselves. This meant that (a) we had space to spread out our gear for the climb, (b) we wouldn't be disturbed by 'revolving door' of 12 people making bathroom pilgrimages (for a variety of reasons - from benign to extreme!!) and (c) we could leave our window wide open to promote the inflow of whatever scant oxygen there was at this elevation - without recriminations about it being too cold.

Supper was to be served at 5pm and we had barely started sorting through our porter - bags (white feed - sacks that the porters carried our gear in) when "tuna surprise on pasta was served at the table in our bunk room. The meal was excellent, as always and our respects go to Christian, the cook, for producing such tasteful and varied meals in what can only be described as primitive conditions.

The next couple of hours were a frenzy of sorting and searching, lost and found, who's got this, who's got that....with the nagging reminder that every minute spent organizing was a minute less sleeping.

Ellen crawled into her sleeping bag at about 7:30pm, while Sarah still sorted through gear, Susan prepared water containers with Iodine and Gatorade, and I worked on spare SideStix tips - epoxying and screwing more studs in the tip soles. I also disassembled the snowshoe tips we had brought, taking the ice - tips with us as a possible alternative in the frozen scree.

By 8:30 pm I had completed the tips and assembled a repair kit. Sarah and Susan went to bed and I spent the next half hour putting my cold weather gear into an assembly line that I hoped my half - cooked brain could cope with - a mere 2 hours hence.

By the time the 11pm wakeup call came, Sarah and Susan had got about a half hour sleep each, Ellen had spent her time meditating and I gave up the pretense after an hour and wrote some text messages, which I hoped would get transmitted further up the mountain, cause there was no cell reception at the Kibo Camp.

Chai tea and digestive biscuits were served by Octavian, the assistant guide and at 11:30 pm the main guides (Sosta, Simon and Ernest) came in to check on our progress.

The previous evening at our pre - climb briefing, the only definite guide assignment was that Sosta, the head guide would lead Sarah, and the remaining guides would be with the rest of us. The extra challenges facing Sarah - including the lack of Diamox, meant that the best guide needed to be at her side.

I gave Sosta the spare parts bag and the spare crutch tips (for which I had given HIM a pre - climb briefing!) he and Sarah walked out of the bunk room and Susan, Ellen and I followed shortly behind. I wanted to take a photo of the team however one quarter of it had already left! Sarah and Sosta were already heading up the mountain, so I took a photo of the three remaining guide, Susan and Ellen, then we were off.

The full moon lit the mountain with a surreal glow and provided enough light to make head lamps unnecessary. We caught up with Sarah and Sosta within a few minutes and then in our typical fashion, we snaked "pole, pole" into the night.

My only real recollection of the next hour and a half was of planting one foot in front of the other and "pressure breathing" - a peculiar double intake somewhat reminiscent of imbibing illicit substances (I've heard!) none of us had any headaches or inclination to vomit - breathing was our only focus.

In indeterminate amount of time later (it turns out that it was 90 minutes, one and a half miles, and 1,000 vertical feet, but time and distance seemed to have a strange, elastic quality that night) I heard a curse ahead of me. Sarah had felt her left SideStix cuff slip and assumed that it needed tightening. I turned on my head lamp and in its harsh LED glow we realized the full enormity of the situation. Sarah's left SideStix had snapped at the handle/forearm bend.

Sarah, devastated, saw her hopes dashed and cried in defeat and frustration. She was comforted by Susan and Ellen while I continued to kneel on the ground, spinning possibilities through my mind.

This break had happened in the worst possible place - where the aluminum tube was bent to make the ergonomic shape of the SideStix. I had brought a steel reinforcing pipe and clamps - with the idea of being able to repair the aluminum tubes if they were damaged or broken, however the plan wasn't so great if I couldn't get the steel reinforcing pipe into the aluminum - due to the bend.

However, giving up wasn't an option so we quickly hatched a plan. Susan and Ellen would continue on with Simon and Ernest, Sarah would remain at this location with Sosta, and Octavian and I would head back down to Kibo Camp to attempt to repair the SideStix. If I couldn't fix it, then I would signal from the Kibo Hut with repeated flashing of my headlamp and then Sarah and Sosta would have to come down.

We parted company, numb from this unexpected outcome of two years of planning. I indicated to Octavian (who spoke as much English as I spoke Swahili...) that I wanted to hurry, so throwing altitude sickness cautions to the wind, we ran down the mountain. We arrived at the camp at around 2am, with my heart trying to leave my body - it was pounding so fast. Octavaian woke Christian, the cook, who was also guardian of the room key, and while I considered repair options, I sent Octavian in search of a (pantomimed) hammer. He came back, smiling happily - as he always did - with a rock.

So, with a rock as a hammer, the room padlock as an anvil and my trusting Luxembourgish pocket knife as a saw and chisel, I knelt on the concrete floor of the bunk room for 2 hours fashioning a repair that I hoped would enable Sarah to walk off the mountain under her own steam.

My 'safety check' comprised walking 2 lengths of the bunk house with one leg and the SideStix and declaring success (cue - big smile from Octavian) I threw on my coats and we left.

Once again "pole, pole" had no place in this particular time frame, and we charged up the mountain fuelled, in my case, by adrenaline and very little else.

After about 15 minutes we saw a guide coming down towards us. He asked in broken English if we with the Marangu Hotel. I nodded (too winded to speak) and he said "They coming down - too cold". Waving thanks, we set off again and in another 15 minutes we had reached the rocks (at 16,500 feet) where we had left Sarah and Sosta.

I was confused because unless they had taken a completely different route off the mountain, there was no way we could have missed them. I had a whistle with me and blew a long single blast and then called Sarah's name. There was no response, however, after the second attempt I heard what I thought was a faint answering call from UP the mountain.

So, onwards and upwards...until a short while later we came across Naresh - a friend we had made on the trail, coming down the mountain with a guide. He had an awful flu just before beginning the climb and his overtaxed lungs had called it quits just before Gillman's Point. He gave me some astounding news - that he had passed Sarah hopping up the mountain with the assistance of Sosta, and was about an hour further ahead!

With my eyes full of tears, tears of love, admiration and awe, at her shear determination and audacity, we carried on for a further 30 minutes, until from up ahead we heard the voice of Sosta calling down to us.

It was 5am and Sarah had hopped - with Sosta's assistance - for 2 1/2 hours, covering one and a half miles and 1,000 foot vertical gain. Sosta came down from the small bluff where he and Sarah were sitting and gave me a big hug and I felt a huge strength that this small man had inside him and thanked "all" that was to be thanked , that he was there for Sarah - and all of us, that night.

With tears of joy freely falling, I explained how I'd fixed the SideStix and what it's potential limitations were and how the 'safe' course of action would be to descend. But Sarah would hear nothing of it. She felt strong, she felt determined, she wanted to go on.

So, with the sky lightening over the jagged peak of Mawenzi and my fingers brutally aching from the cold - having just updated the blog via SMS, we inched upwards, and time once again slowed down to the mountain's natural rhythm, “pole-pole, pole-pole.”

At 6.30am the fiery orb of the rising sun climbed through the pink and purple clouds next to Mawenzi and still we trudged, step by step, through the now thawed scree. Like walking on sand dunes, each step forward includes a half slide backwards.

While Sarah fought for breath, pressure breathing each lungful, and gradually decreasing the step-count between breaks, 25 to 16, to 10, I fought with sleepiness. I just wanted to curl up and nap - just for a few minutes, that's all... But Sosta was ferocious in his insistence - no sleep - people die!

Sarah finally allowed Octavian to take her pack which gave her a much needed respite and goal by goal, target by target we climbed closer to Gilman's Point at the edge of the crater.

By 8am we were off the scree and had started scrambling over boulders. The change of surface was greatly welcomed if nothing else, to break the monotony that had been our existence for the previous 3 hours. Of course the boulders covered with a light dusting of sand and pebbles gives its own particular set of challenges, however the studded SideStix tips seemed to keep good purchase.

In the last hour before summiting Gilman's Point numerous people passed us on their way down. The encouragement they gave us was invaluable and uplifting and certainly played a part in giving us the energy we needed to climb into the small pocket of rocks that makes up the 'Crow’s Nest' of Gilman's Point.

It was 9.30am and we were 18,711ft above sea level. Against all odds Sarah had climbed, hopped and scrambled up the hardest part of Mount Kilimanjaro.

It was a very emotional time for Sarah, she'd had her dreams dashed, then re-kindled. She had been challenged by the mountain, and surmounted everything that came her way. She could see Uhuru Peak and yet knew that although she had the strength to make the summit, she didn't have the time. It was then that she turned to me and said “Kerith, you should go for it.”

Charged with new energy from our brief rest at Gilman's, we made the quick decision that Sosta and I would make a dash for the summit at Uhuru. It was supposedly 70 minutes one way, but I was confident that we could do it in less... (confidence born of a lack of oxygen maybe - however Sosta looked at me with a quiet, long look then nodded.) He gave some instructions to Octavian and then we set off at a terrific pace.

We had barely turned the corner from Gilman's Point when we ran into Susan, Ellen, Simon & Ernest - returning from Uhuru! They had made it! There were tears all round as they discovered for the first time that Sarah had made it to Gilman's. Sosta and I then sped away and I was overjoyed that Sarah & Susan - the twins, would be reunited on Kilimanjaro.

The journey to Uhuru took 45 minutes - the trail following the crater rim. The landscape is quite surreal with its juxtaposition of desert and glacier however there was no time to linger, so upon arriving at Uhuru (now deserted - other climbers having long since left) we hugged, I took some photos, then we sped back to Gilman's Point.

35 minutes of speed-walking brought us to the little crow's nest at the Point, then after a brief SMS update we began our descent. A descent that although not as graceful as a mountain goat - was probably as quick!

We bounded through the rock section and then when we got to the scree... we started running and leaping - splashing through the sand and gravel. We ran and ran, with only an occasional gasping break for me to catch my breath.

At 12.30pm we got into Kibo Camp - speaking for myself - utterly exhausted. Sosta labelled me “Marathon Man”; which coming from him I took as a great compliment!

Back in our bunk-room, I discovered that Sarah, Susan and Ellen had arrived at Kibo about 20 minutes earlier. It was a very happy reunion!

We had an hour and a half to get changed, pack, eat lunch and nap - guess which 'episode' got 'short-changed'?!

2pm saw 4 zombies swaying outside the Kibo Hut preparing to make the 10km (7 mile) hike back to Horrombo Camp. I knew that unless I pushed myself with all the speed I could muster, I would not make it at all, so kissing Sarah goodbye, I hauled out of there with Octavian in tow.

I slipped and slid but refused to slow down and after a while, Octavian in true guide fashion, moved into the lead and led me through safer sections of the pathway. We arrived at Horrombo in 1 1/2 hours - the same journey that had taken 8 hours - uphill, the day before.

Susan, then Ellen & Sarah all arrived within an hour after me and warm washing water and down sleeping bags brought closure to the hardest day any of us could remember.

Post Script:

This entire "The Longest Day" post, was typed out on my Palm Treo 500 (cell phone) keyboard. Unfortunately technology let us down and we couldn't email it directly from the phone. Consequently Ellen re-typed most of it on a marginal Tanzanian keyboard / computer, until the email size on the phone was small enough to send.

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