Summit NightIt was Thursday July 2nd 2009. 19 Orchid fundraisers including myself were walking across what is known as ‘The Saddle”, an exposed alpine desert which could best be described as looking a lot like the Moon. It is cold, and oxygen is intensely thin at this altitude; it was indeed, quite an arduous affair. We were making the final approach to Kibo Camp, which, at 4700m above sea level, is known as base camp; the launch-pad for our assault on the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania.
Having reached Kibo Camp, one’s walking pace is considerably slower than usual. The rate at which the body functions is considerably wearier. Any unnecessary excess of energy or effort exerted is felt quite profoundly within the lungs, stomach and brain. Generally the feeling we had to get accustomed to was continuous lethargy. At these altitudes, depression, nausea, lack of appetite and insomnia are all indicators that the mind, body and respectively the spirit are in fact deteriorating. We had a small lunch and prepared our clothing and gear for wake up call at 11pm that very same night. My tent mate and I tried to put our heads down at around 5pm, armed with ear plugs; the hustle and bustle of camp life resonated throughout the afternoon and well into the darkness. In my sleeping bag my mind was flirting with a paradox - part of me wants to just “Get on with it”, and the other part is asking, “What have I gotten myself into?” eventually managing to talk myself to sleep, even if it were only a few hours of sleep, laden with anxiety. 11pm arrived all too soon.
Bolt upright, and fully awake with a glare of seriousness and dread. I proceeded onto the lengthy process of dressing myself kneeling down inside of a freezing tent; layer upon layer of technical clothing each serving its own purpose. The central purpose however being the protection of my life for what we were about to face. The last stop was a cup of hot chocolate and some soup and a final 500mg dose of acetazolamide (which is a medicine used to aid the body’s acclimatization process). Midnight had arrived bringing with her an arsenal of epiphany. This is what it feels like to walk right up to the edge, and spread your arms wide open, leaning towards the whole thing; that whole unknown, I thought to myself.
That night I estimated there to have been three to four summit expeditions. An infinite train of head-torches meandering as far as the eye could see up the face of this magnificent mountain. It was a spectacular sight; synonymous with a twilight pilgrimage to a religious temple. In many ways it was a pilgrimage for me. In single file we plodded lethargically, in silence we listened intently to our bodies, almost waiting for our bodies to cave in under the extreme altitude and freezing cold temperatures. I was carrying a CamelBak containing 3 litres of water; taking sips every five minutes, blowing back down the tube after every drink so as to prevent the water freezing in the tube itself. After three hours of monotonous plodding, traversing and seeing scores of victims heading back down with numerous altitude related ailments, we reached William’s Point at 5000m above sea level. This was a big rest stop for us, and well needed. I collapsed in a heap on the floor. I sat down, head between my legs, feeling nauseous and tired. I thought the end had finally come for me. I fell asleep.
I wasn’t even startled by the fact that my foot was being kicked repeatedly by one of the guides I befriended on previous days. Richard - a native Tanzanian who’s around my age. I came around deliriously. Richard grabbed my hand and pulled me to my feet. He asked me if I was alright. My hands were frozen and were tingling. I realized that using my trekking poles had exposed my gloved hands to the freezing cold, and so I gave my poles to Richard and continued to walk with my hands in my jacket pockets. By this time I had dropped back from the group following my own pace. The order that the lead guide had set was in disarray. Our group was scattered all over the mountain and our team medic was rushing around to heal the wounded. It really felt like we were a platoon of soldiers. I battled to keep myself conscious. Hours of staring at nothing but feet illuminated by the flashlight on my head had encouraged hallucinations. At one point I remember seeing snakes in between the feet of the person in front of me. To this day I am still bemused by the things that I saw that night. One by one, my teammates dropped back, falling to the wayside.
I wasn’t prepared for my water freezing. I struggled to sip even a drop to quench my thirst and soothe my sore throat. It was agonizing. I managed to find another one of the guides I befriended, Mubarak. He was my support for the remainder of the climb and I managed to share his water.
A further three hours from William’s Point, the time was 6:32am, when I reached Gilman’s Point at 5681M above sea level. A beautiful sunrise chased away the dread of night. It was an emotional moment and a milestone in my young mountaineering career. Gilman’s Point for me was always my target. If I breached the topside there, then I would press on the other ninety minutes to Uhuru Peak with conscious disregard for my health. I would pay any price to reach the roof of Africa.
My mind set had altered considerably now. I could see Uhuru Peak in the distance, and the terrain was nowhere near as demanding as the previous 6 hours, but still my headache was intensifying and I had to reach there as soon as possible because I couldn’t assess how much more my body could take. Mubarak was a guiding light the rest of the way. He took me towards the peak, and together we plodded on, slowly. The air was extremely scarce, and every small incline had devastating effects on my heart, but my will had been reinforced as I battled to hold in the tears while I neared my greatest physical accomplishment. The last few steps were weary and I was stopping every few paces to catch my breath. It was excruciatingly difficult.
If you’ve ever seen me fall apart, it’s a quiet affair – something like an implosion. But Kilimanjaro was the peak of my implosion, and as the inner ruckus unfolded, I knew I had to push on. I don’t know exactly why, but I pushed on.
During the remaining few yards, foggy-eyed I remembered the four intense months of training, research and fundraising which lead me to this point. I looked back to the previous four days of precise physiological self-management. I was distressed by the last eight hours of climbing; Kilimanjaro had brought me to my knees at one point. I lost faith in myself part of the way up, but I finally reached Uhuru Peak at 8:01am on Friday 3rd July 2009. The entire experience is one of the most cherished parts of my life. It’s like when we were children, and we picked and held dandelions in our hands, blowing their petals away into the wind. Kilimanjaro blew me away, and going through it was almost like the actualization of all the dreams I had cooked up for my self exploration. To push yourself, to expand in that way, is indescribable really; it’s inspired me in many ways, no the least of which is to go ahead with more climbing projects for charity. I am now planning to climb Mont Blanc, France in June 2010 and Aconcagua in January 2011, and both I hope, will raise funds to help other people achieve and endure.
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