Monday, February 2, 2009

Sarah's Account of the Summit Night

I feel double my age as I lay here careful not to exert any energy while staring out of my bedroom window at the carefully manicured English gardens that surround the Marangu Hotel. I am convalescing from my climb up Kilimanjaro. Less than 24 hours ago we returned from our expedition, celebrating our success with two rounds of beers with the guides and porters. We also received our ‘Certificates of Achievement’ and enjoyed the “Mt. Kilimanjaro Song”, marking the success of our summit attempt. I must have been propelled by adrenalin to have the energy to engage in such festivities. Right now, I feel sucked to the bed’s mattress holding enough edema within me that one could mistake my body for having birthed a baby and not climbed a mountain.
Climbing Kilimanjaro was not what I expected. I had primed myself for the walk up a variety of terrains (rain forest, heath, moorland, alpine desert and summit), and knew we needed to walk slowly. But, our “pole pole” pace was truly a slow heel to toe march. Ellen made the metaphor, “the pace of a patient right after major surgery, towing his/her I.V. pole down the hospital corridors”.
Right from the start of the climb, I felt at home on this expedition. Although it had been 25 years since I had done any type of high altitude climbing, it felt comfortable to return to such an intense-focus, single-task activity. Climbing has always given me the ability to free my mind of the internal and external busyness of everyday life.
Thinking back to yesterday afternoon, I had felt a bit jealous of my team mates. Susan, Ellen and Kerith had all made it to Uhuru peak (the ‘official’ summit) and received a colorful certificate to mark the occasion. My green and black, somewhat bland certificate, indicated I had made it to Gilman’s Point – on the crater’s edge (this was considered the summit in bygone days). But, Gilman’s is 600 (vertical) feet short of the highest point on the rim. Sure, I felt tired when I got to this Gilman’s, but still thought I could muster up some energy to go to the “summit”…with encouragement. However I was told after 9 a.m. no climber is allowed to proceed past Gilman’s due to safety reasons. Kilimanjaro’s weather often changes for the worse around 10:00 a.m., something we had all witnessed since arriving in Moshi, a small town, 45 minutes from the base of Kibo. Most days the mountain seemed to drape itself in clouds from mid morning till early evening. Because of this, I knew I would have to be satisfied with my accomplishment to this point.
Today, that thinking seems so petty and I am overwhelmed emotionally as to how lucky I was that summit day. Kerith and Sosta (my guide) enabled me to go on after my left crutch broke at 16,000 ft, just one and a half hours into the climb. Their know-how, brute strength and encouragement allowed me to continue up the mountain against all odds and still manage to reach the rim of the crater.
[Kerith just arrived in the bedroom to check on me. Of course I started to cry in gratitude for his love and support. He is not sure what to do. I am not only looking like a puffer fish in full volume, but I’m an emotional train wreck! This is going to be a long day of sorting things out both physically and emotionally. Kerith gives me a hug and I continue to write on.]
To say I was shocked when my crutch broke is an understatement. I immediately felt defeated and started to quietly cry, while saying goodbye to my teammates. Catastrophic equipment failure had never factored into the equation of the summit bid. Whether over-confident, or over-sight, we did not take a spare set crutches with us (against my 85 year old father’s good advice!) and although we had spare parts with us, and even a repair kit for the eventuality of a broken crutch, repair on the mountain was not an option.
(Should I have been surprised? Equipment failure had happen to me on Mt. McKinley. I didn’t have time to stress test proto-type 2 and the polypropylene basket shattered in the extreme cold conditions on Denali. We were already above 14,000 feet and the slopes were windswept, so the loss of baskets didn’t pose any real problem up to the summit of McKinley. The problems arose when we started to climb down in soft snow!)
I started to really test SideStix in mid December. The SideStix were being submitted for Patent, and we were advised not to bring them into the public domain prior to filing. Although we hiked extensively in the mountains around the Sunshine Coast, two weeks was not long enough to reveal the hidden weakness.
The break on the SideStix was at the forearm tube just above the handle. We used high grade 6061 aluminum tubing (good enough for aircraft and high-end mountain bikes) however it appears that the fabrication process caused the forearm tube to be weakened. It cracked and then snapped immediately above the welded handle-tube which indicates that stresses introduced into the aluminum from the welding (or bending) were not adequately annealed. As if to corroborate this, the second SideStix broke in exactly the same place, five days later, while on safari in the Ngorongoro crater.)
To say that SideStix failed is inaccurate. The crutch forearm handle did break, but the purpose of testing a prototype is to reveal strengths and weaknesses. This test revealed a weakness in one of the components, and showed enormous strengths in the shock absorbing system and changeable feet, which gave me the cushion and purchase to get up the mountain efficiently without joint pain and blisters.
It was 1:30 a.m. and we were all standing on the slopes wondering what to do with my situation. Kerith, who had been studying the break said, “I think I can fix this.” I must say, I didn’t initially hear him and then when I did, I didn’t believe him. But, he took the broken crutch, leaving at a run with Octavian, his guide (to my great surprise at this altitude.) Sosta and I sat at a nearby rock to wait. The signal we arranged was a flashing light by the Kibo hut. This would indicate that the SideStix was beyond repair and we would need to proceed downhill, back to camp.
I said goodbye to Ellen and Susan without regret. We had made a pact with each other; if one could not continue on, the others would proceed up the mountain with their guides - without guilt. I did however have a heavy heart. How I wanted to continue on, but couldn’t.
Now feeling devastated, I sat next to Sosta on the rock, with a faint hope that Kerith would pull through and all would be well. Sosta poured me a cup of tea and sat with me in silence. He knew enough English to comfort me, but he chose instead to just pat my arm and look out to Mawenzi (Kibo’s brother). Sometimes no words are the best words and this was one of those situations. The silence felt strangely right, but unfamiliar to me. I’m a talker and process just about everything out loud. The night was calm, but cold. It was beautiful to look down in the moonlight and faintly see how far we had come from the desert saddle (about 10 kilometers away). We were almost above the clouds and the beauty, tea and silence calmed me.
Sosta is a quiet man. Susan described him as the “Zen” of guides. His wisdom seems to create an aura around him. He has been working on the mountain since he was 9 years old and is now 43. He cannot count how many times he has summitted this mountain (I don’t think this matters to him), but is clear he is familiar with every route, in all kinds of conditions. I asked him what it’s like to have this new ‘condition’, an amputee making a summit bid on one crutch. He just smiled and said, “We will continue”. What the heck did that mean! Continue down or up? I took a deep breath and begin to talk non-stop; my way of processing a dilemma (poor Sosta!). I said, “I feel so good, no head ache, no stomach ache, lots of energy. I want to continue up, I feel so good”……just repeating myself.
Finally, after 5 minutes, I said something different, “I’m feeling cold”. Sosta looked at me and immediately stood up. He braced his right forearm and said, “We will continue”. “I must go up” I said, if only to reach Hans Meyer’s cave. Certainly that would bring us above the clouds and Mawenzi, and give me the joy of a well-earned view. Sosta seemed to be OK with the direction. As long as I was feeling well, his job was to get me to the summit and this was also a logical way to stay warm…to hop.
Hopping up the slope in high altitude was the hardest physical thing I have ever done. Sosta may also agree, as he had to shake his arm out every 30 or so hops, due to cramps. But, I wasn’t going to complain. I felt lucky to have a new opportunity to continue on, no matter how dire. It’s funny, how your perspective changes with loss. I had always felt a bit like an under-dog climbing this mountain with two crutches and no Diamox. How I would give anything to have two good crutches right now!
It became clear to both Sosta and I that we would have to have a system to make headway hopping up the mountain. Every 3-4 hops I would stop and catch my breath. We smoothed out the rhythm of our walk together and made a pact. I would take 15 hops straight up the mountain and then traverse for 25 hops. This would certainly keep me warm and make the progress we needed to get to Hans Meyer Cave. Sosta knew how to count to 10 in English. So we counted in sets of 10. The headway we made was giving me hope. I was also feeling amazed at my body’s ability to go on in this fashion. I’m usually fairly optimistic about what my body can do, but hoping up a mountain was impressive to me as well. I don’t know what it is in a human (because I know I’m not unique in this manner), but somehow you find a reserve deep inside and it seems to recreate new boundaries of what you thought you were capable of doing. Kerith says, it’s my stubbornness and determination combined, but this part of the climb felt different. It wasn’t cognitive. It was like a spirit had opened up a new channel within me and allowed me to tap into this new reserve I wasn’t aware that I had. It was fantastic feeling (perhaps I was experiencing an endorphin blizzard within), but my rational side, thought, “You are a crazy girl”.
My feelings towards Sosta can be summed up in one phrase, “deep respect”. He is wise, experienced and understands the language of this mountain better than most. He is aware of his strengths and appears humble enough to understand his weaknesses. I was lucky to be assigned the “head guide” for summit night. Now I could see what this man was made of and I was totally awed that he was enabling me to continue by using his right arm as a spare forearm crutch.
After more than two and a half hours hopping up Kibo, (covering 1000 vertical feet,) passing Hans Meyers cave (which Sosta pointed out after the fact), we could faintly see Kerith and Octavian making their way up the slope at impressive speed. When they got closer, I heard a faint call. Had Kerith fixed the crutch?
I’m not sure if I or Sosta was more relieved when we saw Kerith and Octavian up close on the slope. We had come to the end of our ability to make headway in the soft scree. The sun was just making its way above the horizon and warming the frozen scree to a quick-sand consistency. The timing was perfect because both Sosta and I needed a break from the physical exertion of hoping at this altitude. Sosta gave Kerith a firm embrace of relief and appreciation and officially named him “marathon man”. This nick name stuck with Kerith for the remainder of the climb, and was quite a compliment coming from an extremely fit African.
I started to cry in relief and excitement. My love had pulled it off. This man with incredible strength, determination and technological knowhow had enabled me to continue on by fixing the SideStix. I felt a deep sense of love for this remarkable person. I felt so lucky that Kerith and Sosta had turned a seemingly impossible situation around. I was going to make it to the summit. I now knew this, and the gift of this knowledge gave me all the energy I needed to negotiate the next set of difficulties on this slope.
For the next four hours we made our way slowly, one goal at a time, through scree and then over the rocks to Gilman’s Point. It was 9:30am and we had made it to 18,600ft above sea level. Kerith and I took some pictures and had tea with our guides.
Although I did not continue on, Kerith was able to convince Sosta that “marathon man” could race to Uhuru peak in good time, before the weather changed. I remained behind with Octavian. In less than 5 minutes after Kerith left, Susan and Ellen rounded the corner. They had just bumped into Kerith and the news of us summiting brought tears to their eyes. When I saw them, I just started crying. Now I don’t cry easily, but I think the altitude had something to do with my emotional state. We all hugged, took pictures and made our way down the mountain to the Kibo hut. What took 9 hours for me to climb up, took only 2 hours to climb down.
Perhaps feeling like I’ve just birthed a baby may be quite appropriate. As I lay here recovering, I already know that like having a baby, my life will never be the same. With time I will come to know the true impact this ‘baby’ will have on my life, both as a person and designer of SideStix.

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