22 September 2017, 22h00 – Some parts I recall clearly, others not at all, here’s what I remembered and what I thought happened.
Leonie whispers in my ear “Wake up, it’s time…” I must have fallen asleep for a short while. I sit up straight and feel around for my headlamp. I make a conscious effort to move slowly and to think clearly. Now is not the time to forget stuff. I pull on my boots, it’s a snug fit wearing two pairs of socks. (Tip: your toe nails should be short, on the descent your feet will slide forward in your boots and with long toe nails you are certain to experience painful discomfort.) “How are you feeling?” I ask Leonie. She replies that she’s OK. I’m glad to hear this. Apart from not having slept much I’m also feeling pretty good. Excited even. I stuff an energy bar into my top pocket and make sure my water bottles are filled to the brim. My backpack is ready, I unzip the tent and crawl out into the cold night air. We gather in the dining tent and Mark briefs us on what lays ahead. A local guide will lead us out. There will be guides spread out evenly in between with Mark in the middle from where he can keep an eye on most of us. Mark again goes through the symptoms of AMS. We’ll be using a scale of 1 – 5 to rate the severity of our symptoms. A 4/5 headache coupled with a 4/5 for nausea will send you down the mountain. There will be an emergency supply of oxygen. You are responsible for the well being of your partner. We are also encouraged to constantly check-up on whoever walks in front or behind us.
It is somewhere between 22h00 and 23h00 and we’re eating oats and cookies with tea and coffee. It doesn’t feel right. At 22h55 we start the climb. It’s totally dark. Over the last week the group settled into an order. Usually we’ll have the French leading the way followed by the Brits in the middle and us “Africans” bringing up the rear. It’s no different on this occasion. Fanie and Anneke are in front of Leonie. I’m right behind her with a couple of guides behind me.
First up we’re traversing solid rock formations, layered at steep angles making the progress slow. At the steeper sections, requiring both hands and feet, guides appear like ghosts out of nowhere to lend a hand. The bouldering quickly saps the energy out of me. My heart is racing and my breath comes in quick, short gasps. I’ve felt like this before. Cycling up the Kupferberg Pass outside Windhoek is similarly stressful for us folk coming from the coast. It usually takes an hour or two for my body to adapt to the heat, altitude and terrain before settling into a manageable rhythm and pace. I’m hoping this will also be the case up here.
Time goes by slowly. My hands are cold. Colder than I have ever felt them, my fingers are burning. I retire one trekking pole to my backpack in order to a have a free hand which I can open and close in the hope of getting blood to my finger tips. Somewhere on our way up I lose track of time. I used to constantly look up at the string of headlamps slowly making their way up the mountain ahead of me. I no longer do that, lost interest in the progress of others, concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. It’s a stop-start affair. At one of the many stops I remember asking Gary to give me a hand with the zip on my jacket, my fingers unable to do what I ask of them. Eating and drinking becomes a hassle. My water is half frozen anyway and the sweet energy bars makes me feel like puking. By the way I’m moving (or rather not moving) I can tell we’ve gained altitude at a quick rate. It’s as if my body is going into “crawl home mode”. Everything happens very slowly and requires significant effort. Leonie is still in front of me and she’s doing well.
A couple of hours later and I’m only focusing on the feet in front of me. If they move, I move. If they come to a halt, I stop, grateful for the chance to catch my breath. I try to ignore my racing heart, my bitterly cold fingers and the suffocating tiredness that descended over me. Then Leonie’s feet are gone. Replaced by feet double her size. I look up and recognize one of the local guides now walking in front of me. I know I haven’t passed her so she must still be up ahead. As long as she’s in front of me I’m happy.
Somehow Chris ends up behind me. Mark comes past to ask Chris how he is doing. Headache 4/5, nausea 4/5, dead tired. Mark does not have to tell Chris that continuing up would be a bad idea. Chris decides to call it a day and to descend to Barafu. As quickly as they appeared, the pair of feet in front of me is gone and are replaced by a set belonging to Jedd. The firefighter from Scotland is now in front of me. He is moving very slowly and for that I’m grateful. I haven’t been this tired in my life, ever. The group comes to a halt. This time it is Larissa feeling unwell. After a brief discussion the decision is made. She’ll head down to Barafu. Her dad Eric does the honorable thing and decides to go down with her.
Then we’re moving again, slowly upwards. Sunrise and Stella Point are the only two things I’m focusing on now. Make it to Stella and I’ll make it to Uhuru. Then Mark appears next to me. The exchange is brief:
“How are you?”
“OK, thanks, just dead tired.”
“Glad to hear that, thought you’re never going to get tired.”
It’s been a while since I talked to Leonie, in fact its been a while since I last saw her. I can start to make out the horizon, soon the sun will rise. Stella Point should be close. It motivates me to take another few steps. The incline is steeper than ever and again I grind to a halt to rest. Then a voice in my ear: “Keep moving, you’re nearly there. You’ll make it…” Its a girl in a pink down jacket passing our group. At first I get crossed. Of course I’ll make it. And then I appreciate the encouragement and continue my struggle. Stella Point is at 5 756 m (18 885 ft) and reaching it becomes my sole mission. My steps get even shorter and slower and after every three or four I stop to rest. I’m not sure whether I have a headache or not. I’m definitely not nauseous and that’s a good thing. For a second time Mark appears next to me. “How are you doing?” Again I reply that I’m fine, just so very tired. He then puts in a couple of big strides onto a little plateau. This must be Stella Point. Mark is standing next to Leonie who is encouraging me to take the last few steep steps. Up and to my left I can see the sign. It is indeed Stella Point and a sense of relief washes over me. I’ll make it to Uhuru from here. And then I’m there. Into my wife’s arms who quietly congratulates me on my 43rd birthday. “Happy birthday, how are you feeling?” “Thanks, now I’m all good.” The view is simply breathtaking, one of the most stunning sights I have ever laid my eyes on. The sun is peeping over the horizon turning the sky into a collage of purple, blue and bright orange. It is as if we’re looking down on the sunrise. A local guide hands me a cup of warm ginger tea. Awesome! Reaching Stella and watching the sunrise quickly erases the suffering of the last 7 or so hours from our minds.
Mark and Leonie looks worried. Mark wants to know whether I have a headache or not. I can’t remember my reply. He also asked me about my vehicle’s registration number and some other questions to check if I haven’t lost my marbles. After a quick discussion with Leonie he tells me to get to Uhuru and not to waste time there. He wants me to descend as soon as possible.
After taking pictures, sipping tea and catching our breath we again fall in behind our local guide and start the last section to the summit. We still have to ascend another 140 meters to Uhuru. Leonie wants me to walk behind the lead-guide, wishing for me to reach the summit first, it being my birthday and all. My head also thinks it is a good idea but my body would have none of it. Never in my life have I felt this tired. I simply can’t keep up with the guide (who is literally going at a snail’s pace). It’s not long before everyone passes me and I’m once again at the back of the group. Going that slowly at least afforded me the time to marvel at the sight of Kili’s ever-shrinking ice-cap. A spectacular sight indeed. It takes me a little over an hour to reach the summit. It’s a quarter past seven on the morning of my 43rd birthday when we take the picture we came for.
We did not spend much time on the summit. A guide took my backpack from me (despite my protests) and we hurried down to Barafu Camp. Shortly before reaching Barafu I remember stopping and sitting down on some boulders. Mark took out his satellite phone and called a doctor in the UK and then gave me some pills to swallow. At camp I spend 15 minutes or so on oxygen before continuing down the mountain. The lower we went, the better I felt and somewhere on the way down I took my backpack from the guide. We reached Millennium Camp (3 820 m / 12 530 ft) sometime during the early afternoon. All I wanted to do was to fall asleep.
The descend was much harder than I thought it would be. A never-ending rocky trail hammers your knees and feet and the fact that you’ve been awake since 22h00 the previous day doesn’t help energy levels either. Leonie stumbled and fell a couple of times on the descend.
On the morning of the 24th we excited the park at the Lemosho Gate (1 990 m / 6 530 ft) where we received our certificates and thanked the porters. We reached the Hotel in Moshi a little before lunch. a Beer never tasted that good!
My last post on our 2017 Kilimanjaro experience will be dedicated to the lessons learned on the mountain. I will also give you an idea of my preparation and training before we left and lastly a few words on what worked and what not in terms of gear etc.
PS: I’ll try and convince my wife to give us her version of the Summit night and the descend. It should be considerably more accurate!