Milky Way by W
Our climb yesterday was exhausting. We had no sense of time. I don't know how or when I slept, but I do know that with the heat packs in my bag, I was out like a rock (on a rock).
The other camps started to head out about 11pm, but we laid around for another couple of hours. The anticipation at 2am felt kind of like Christmas morning. I was already awake when Ebrah came around, "Karibu, dada, kaka."
We got ready in a couple of minutes. I had gone over the gear a million times in my head, and anyways there were no choices. I was wearing everything I had. My main concern was clearly the cold, given that I wear a scarf and bomber jacket around my house. But the hot packs were doing a standup job. I shook them all open and placed them strategically all over, like a sock with burrs.
What I wore to stay warm:
Head: balaclava (not to be confused with baklava,) fleece neck wrap, heat pack wedged, my favorite scarf, the heavy wool hat
Torso: two thermal shirts, one zip fleece, heat packs in the pockets, one down vest, one wind/rain shell
Legs: two thermal pants, magic hiking pants, heat packs in the pockets, Hashim's wind/rain pants, wool leg warmers that I got from a Mexican market years ago, just waiting for their day to shine.
Hands: wool liner gloves and Gore-tek gloves. I couldn't fit them both on so I just put a heat pack in the Gore-teks and then later switched to the liner gloves when the sun came up. I was able to regulate temperate quite well by placing the hot packets inside my gloves and taking them out as needed.
Feet: REI wool socks and hiking boots. I had a heat pack in there, but it didn't work, the socks were good enough.
We stumbled with our headlamps to the mess tent. Everyone looked like they'd been run over. There wasn't a whole lot of chit chat, just a couple of groans about being cold or achy or tired. My situation had drastically improved. My headache was gone and aside from the usual morning grog, I felt great. I was surprised and paranoid by my state. You shouldn't be too jolly, because that's when crap happens. But I couldn't help it, I never thought I'd be here. Under my 20 layers of clothes, I was happy as a clam. I felt like a character in a National Geo article or a David Roberts book. The feat we were about to undertake was huge (for amateurs at least.)
Getting up in the middle of the night to climb seemed in and of itself romantic. We were just giving ourselves time to make it back down to a reasonable altitude by nightfall. But on the big guns like Everest and K2, they get up at this hour because late morning and early afternoon is your only window to reach the summit. If you get there too late, the weather will most likely be a blizzard, and you won't make it back alive. So I kind of pretended this was why we were making a “push for the summit” at such an hour. Our window to summit was small, danger imminent, eat your porridge.
For some reason, every other day we had a huge breakfast with more food than we could stuff: soup, eggs, crepes, tomatoes, hot dogs, cucumbers, and fruit, but today it was only porridge which I burned off walking to the bathroom, still on that bloody hill. I told Raymond I would meet the team up there, to save myself some leg work in light of the mound ahead.
Alone at the top of the hill, the headlamps below looked like little stars and with the long exposure of my camera, we were definitely on the moon.
It was a meditative time, waiting at the top of the hill. The stars were an arm's length away and the Milky Way stretched above like a bed canopy. Unfortunately, it's taboo nowadays to talk about God, but I did feel very close to the essence of what is within and what is the heartbeat of the earth. I thought about myself as a little grain of sand blending in to the miles of peddles around me. A spec lost somewhere on the continent of Africa. Africa, such a magnificent place! All was as it should be. I was ecstatic and felt immense gratitude to have made it this far, to be in such good shape, and to be warm of all things.
It was strange to be so happy and so completely daunted at the same time. I 'd heard many people describe the next few hours as the hardest of their life, which made my mind swirl with anticipation. Did I have it in me? Would all of us make it? We couldn't do much to help each other now. (So forgive me for this portion of our story, I can only really report on myself.) We would have to fight the last battle on home turf, in our own head, which was well insulated. I felt like an island up there on the hill, partitioned off from the world with pounds of clothing and gear and in complete dark, save for my little beacon.
Raymond came to get me, the bathroom was not en route, so I followed him quickly back to the group. I always knew who was leading. If we were moving like snails, it was Venance. Hashim was usually in the back. If we were flying up the mountain, it was Raymond. I don't remember him ever saying polepole, (we joked that he should say haraka haraka - faster faster instead.)
Venance took the lead, and we set out at a crawl, which was the only way to go. The first stretch was actually a little bit of rock climbing, which made us all sweat like hot pockets in plastic wrap. ..I take my analogies seriously. Ray said it would get colder, so we stayed zipped up. We had already covered some vertical ground when we reached the switchbacks. And the altitude was working us. Some of us tried to stop. Even though we were actually overheating with the physical exertion of the wall, Hashim said we'd get too cold if we sat down, so we kept moving. We had no way of knowing how cold it actually was. The national park log said it is usually between 0 and -15F. With all of the layers on, I haven't any idea. My head was covered, but I could feel the small sliver of exposed skin on my face tightening. Still despite the inherent conditions, we were actually very lucky: no snow, no rain, no heavy wind, no storms, just cold thin air.
Rome was calling breaks from the back. He was struggling without a substantial breakfast. My stomach was growling and aching too, so I pulled out a food bar. Can I tell you how hard it is to eat a power bar while walking at that height. I'd never thought about it before, but you have to hold your breath to chew. I was chomping like a woodchipper, trying to swallow fast so I could breath again.
Staying hydrated was complicated too. I was drinking a steady stream of water, but to keep the tube from freezing, you have to blow the excess back into the tank. That's not as easy as it sounds. You can't take a deep breath, and you can't go without air for the time it takes to blow. A formidable feat. The mouth piece was full of ice which made a fun crunching sound as I chewed on it.
We moved in slow motion as if we were at the bottom of the ocean. Weighted down with gear and trudging alone in a abyss along the ocean floor. All I could hear was my own muffled breath, and the only evidence of life was the light weaving around in the soupy darkness.
We didn't pass anyone else, but we could see the tiny trail of headlamps far above us. I didn't look at them. The rocks had disappeared, and it was just dirt. So I turned off my lamp, put in my headphones, and followed the light in front of me. It was zen to get lost in the steady plod of my feet.
Olga and I breaking. Thanks Wallace for the photo, at this point I couldn't take out the Goliath camera.
It was getting colder, but the steady activity kept us warm. We weren't out of breath, though. I found that, you can't do anything that might make you out of breath at this altitude. You wouldn't be able to "catch your breath" even if you needed to. Some might think, why on earth would you want to deal with that, but it's an interesting challenge and can be very calming actually, because you have to move slowly even if you have the energy to move quickly. You have to take your time, even if you really want to run. It was alarming at times. At certain points it was as if we met a threshold of thinning oxygen. Breathing got noticeably different. At that point, I would try to get a full breath, and unable to, would go into a slight panic. I'd have to pause and try to force air down into my chest. After a few minutes my lungs adjusted well enough, and I was able to carry on with no problems. It's amazing how fast the body can adapt.
We stopped several times against the urgings of our guides. Olga sat down, "this sucks." That was the first gauge I had on how the others were doing. It was hard to know how they were holding up. We couldn't see each others' faces, or read body language, or even hear very well. So Olga was not happy. Rome was lagging behind. He was adamant about carrying his pack, so when he let Hashim take it, I knew he must be having a rough time. All we could do was give an imperceptible pat on the shoulder, a muffled word of encouragement. And then we were back on the move.
A couple of times, we passed sick climbers accompanied by their guide making their way back down the mountain. The sight was chilling, two faceless forms stumbling in the shadow of a headlamps, one slumped down.
The horizon was bleeding into a purple line. The sun would be coming soon. The thought made me slightly sad, like there was a time constraint. Perhaps because the motion of the earth is barely evident in the night, possibilities seem endless. Time almost doesn't exist. Now that the sun was coming, we had a deadline; we had to make quantifiable progress.
As we plodded on, the sky grew pinker and pinker and then finally orange. We had been inching up for hours, for the most part without stopping. It was absolutely meditative. I couldn't tell you if we had been moving for half an hour or 7 hours. You could've said either, and I'd believe you. Judging by the hour of sunrise, we were probably 4 hours in.
When the sun finally made its appearance, it was incredible. There was no need to be at the top of the mountain. We could see all of its glory from our post along the slope. The sun instantly gave us warmth and a different perspective. We all relaxed a little bit. Hashim broke out a thermos with some tea and sugar and for the first time, we could see each other.
Checking in with everyone was like a 50th school reunion. Oh hey, it's been so long. Who are you? Oh right, we used to slurp porridge together at basecamp. Are you hanging in there okay? Well, I've got this back pain, and this headache. Yeah, me too, things don't hold up like they used to, but I'm getting by. Well, it's good to see you.
The guides probably knew that sitting down was a bad idea, because getting back up was a monster. It was later reported that most everyone was considering turning back at this point. I consider myself very lucky, because I was still feeling healthy.
Now we could see the top and that made the whole thing a lot harder. I tried to ignore the path above us.
The way the mountain is shaped, we climbed up for about 6 hours and then across for another hour. The up, of course, is the hardest part and ends at a marker called Stella Point. So for six hours or more we were just trying to get to Stella Point. Thinking: Stella. Almost there. From Stella, it's easy. Just get to Stella. Of course that mindset came back to bite, because Stella is 18,600 feet. Walking another hour and ascending another 700 feet is not something you want to forget about.
We started seeing people who had summitted and were coming back down. Some people reached the summit while it was still dark and were coming back down as the sun rose. I don't really get that, you might as well start up the treadmill in your basement and turn the lights off. Some fellow climbers were prodding us on, saying you're almost there. The intentions were good, but I think it's better not to think about it. Just stay in the zone.
One group coming down were making jokes. I guess they could see the strained look on our faces and thought it was funny. “You're not even halfway there... nowhere near the top,” followed by laughter. I was ready to fight on behalf of myself and my friends who were struggling with every cell to continue up. For a long while, I was irrationally consumed with how I should've verbally bashed them, but of course in hindsight, it was harmless and trivial, and I was obviously channeling excess energy.
The sun was beginning to beat down, so we stopped to swab down with some sunscreen. At our stop, we could see Stella. I couldn't believe my eyes. The green sign was within view.
Everyone was elated when we reached it, high fives, and hugs, and pictures with the Stella Sign. We were subjected to a basic health assessment by the guides to make sure we were fit for the last leg. Last leg? Oh you mean we have to keep going? Despite our lethargy, we were all in decent health; they didn't even check me.
The panorama was magnificent. We were standing on the backbone of this gigantic beast, with slopes straight down on either side. We could see into the pit of the mountain and then across to the caldera filled with ashes.
After trying to take in the scope of everything around us, we gathered our things and set out along the rim. This part made me laugh. I had lost much of my mental fortitude and was not nearly as focused. Meanwhile, James limping along the entire climb with food poisoning, was so close to the top, he could taste it. We could see his little hat and poles bobbing way ahead of everyone. It made us laugh. We kind of lazily enjoyed the glacier shelves as we made our way up.
The rim came to an abrupt end, and there it was, the sign at the top of Africa!
Back: Venance, Hashim, James, Wallace, Olga; Front: Ray, me, Rome
I thought about Shibat. I thought about my Uncle who passed away a few weeks ago. The last thing he said to me was, take a big breath for me when you get up there. Well Hugh, not that you'd "give a sh*t" about this kind of thing, but if for some reason you do on the other side, this lung full is for you.
SUMMIT: 19,340 feet / 5,895 km
Rome could barely stand up, but somehow it didn't look like he was tired; it looked more like he was posing for a Renaissance painting.
Renaissance, gangster style.
I had to get a shot for Shibat’s birthday! He would've been proud of us right now. I was happy to be carrying his pack and poles and camel and.. well, pretty much everything. I can't say how special and serendipitous it is to make the top on his birthday.
We all got our limelight with the sign
We couldn't stay on top off too long. The headache had returned, and we had lounged and photographed, and lounged some more, so we gathered up and took off back down to Stella. The sun was scorching our faces and with the ice facial earlier in the morning, it felt like we had been sandblasted.
I was dreading the downhill more than anything. My knees had completely given out on a training hike in the Sierra Madres a few months back. Rome had to carry me down, because I couldn't even stand up. I'd never had that happen before. He wanted to cancel this whole trip, because he thought I wouldn't be able to climb. So I thought about the miles and miles of steep switchbacks awaiting with a lot of trepidation. I had some knee braces in my pack on standby.
Most of the climbers were following the switchbacks down the mountain. We followed haraka Raymond off path into a river of loose rock flanked on each side by heavy formations. It was beautiful; on the left a gigantic cliff towered over us. The footing was really slippery. Raymond was sliding a little bit, so I took his cue and started sliding too. Pretty soon, we weren't walking anymore. You could jump and plow for a meter or more. With the poles, it was just like skiing, except a lot messier. We could barely see in front of us, there was so much dust and dirt flying everywhere. The verdict was clear: Screw the switchbacks, this is the way to get down a mountain. We covered over a thousand feet in less than an hour. The only drawback was that it took a lot of energy. My headache was terrible, but trying not to fall was all I could think about. Seven hours up, one and a half down.
The crunching of the downhill again wrecked James' stomach, and Olga was dehydrated and beyond exhausted. You could see it in her face; she wanted to lie down on a rock and go to sleep.
And she did!
We were met by several of our porters about half-an-hour outside of camp. Ebrah came running to us like a mom at graduation with his arms wide open. “Hongera, dada!” Congratulations, Sister. He said hugging me. I'm going to miss this nut. He and Baraka brought biscuits and juice.
Everyone laughed about the morning, our angst, and the mental apocalypse that had now blown over. We waited for the others to appear. I had no idea what time it was. It felt like 3pm, but in reality it was more like 11am. The most work I'd ever done before noon.
Ebrah in his mountain uniform with Rome and og
Kicking on the dirt like it's a plush couch
On the way back, we crawled over boulders that looked totally different in sunlight. Raymond and Hashim gave us another Swahili lesson. Most importantly: choka sana (very tired)… mimi taka lala (I want to sleep)… totaonana baadaye (see you later.)
We made it back to camp and beelined to our tents. I just collapsed on top of everything. It was a peaceful delightful nap and could've gone on for hours, but we were rallied for a bite of lunch and an order to pack up. No one wanted to go, but Hashim told us that we were only allowed to stay one night at 15000 feet. There was some hemming, but eventually we gathered our things.
It was colder now that our heart rate was back down, so I put on the rain pants again. That was not a good idea. Ray escorted Wallace and me out to a shortcut. We found ourselves behind the camp where a few emergency wheelbarrow stretchers were lying around like waste in the ditches. Who could've known they were so vital to the mountain. With Ray in the lead, we were cruising. I was trying to wait for the others, but he was on a mission. The afternoon clouds were moving in and making a pretty dramatic sky as we crossed a long plain of pebbles and rocks.
My mind kept shifting to a wistful now what? I realized I didn't really want to leave the mountain. I knew that this was possibly an insane sentiment, and definitely not held by my fellow climbers. But I felt like the mountain suited me. I suppose climbing is in my blood. My headache was gone, and I felt great.
The now what feeling led me to think about my next task which was to navigate Arusha tomorrow. I picked Raymond's brain for phrases. I've found you can bargain in a market much better if you do it in the native language. It's tough starting from scratch, but the merchants are usually very happy that you are trying. Raymond was vigilant in giving us phrases. I laughed as he marched in his peppy step and then jolted to a stop to come back and write another phrase on my scrap of paper. Punguza Bei! He declared (make it cheaper!)
The plants slowly started to emerge. We made it down to a hut called Millennium Camp and waited for the others. We saw some of the other climbers, including the guide who taught me Swahili on the first day. It seemed like ages ago.
Now mid-afternoon, some of us were trying to get hard word on how long it would take to get to camp. Sleep was all most of us could think about. Venanace said three hours. Someone said maybe an hour and a half. The discrepancy was causing some stress in the ranks. Wallace and I tracked down Raymond to get a new ETA. He said that we wouldn't make it before dark, unless we go like this, and he started running. Wallace and I looked at each other and then followed him, partly amused and partly trying on his real pace. We flew into a riverbed cobbled with rounded boulders. We didn't have time to look behind us and see if the rest of our crew was following.
I didn't think we would run the whole way. In the beginning, it was a game to dodge holes and bounce from rock to rock. That was in the beginning. We. Did. Not. Stop. This is how fast the porters go, Raymond called back to us. We kept pace and passed a few porters headed uphill. Pole pole, one said. The happy porters were back, yelling Mambo! Poa! Jambo! Unanguvu! Haraka!
Then I started to sweat really badly under the rain pants. They would not breathe. I didn't have time to take them off, though I should’ve made time. We just kept flying downhill with gravity for miles. Could we make it before dark, it was a challenge that began to turn sour. My legs were literally drenched inside the rain pants. It was the nastiest feeling ever. We had been running for an hour and a half when we got to the last hill. Raymond told us that the camp was at the top. So he and I raced up it. After the climb, I don't pretend to know how that was possible. Maybe we were just delirious.
At the hut an older guy was asking about the infamous coca-colas. I'd heard about them at every camp, but hadn't seen one yet. The porters standing nearby said, “oh no, there's no coke here.” Venance told us that it was illegal for companies to sell on the mountain. I don't know if they were selling or not at Mweka, but if they were, apparently you needed to know people.
Obama gets lots of love here.The pen we used for the registrar was a brand called Obama Smoothline. Whenever porters asked where we were from, and we answered America, they would happily come back with, "Obamaland!"
The camp was set up like one long hallway, camps on either side of the road, tucked into the woods. We were at the very end. Raymond was right, we made it to camp at exactly sunset. I went in the tent to peel of the soggy pants, when I came back out, it was dark. The rain pants that I had borrowed from Hashim were white with dirt. I started washing them, but Ebrah and Raymond physically grabbed them out of my hands. I was laughing, like you can't have one clean leg and one dirty one. They were really adamant.
I was in the mess tent early with Ebrah and Baraka. They gave me another Swahili lesson naming everything on the table:
fork = uma
table = meza
bottle = chupa
plate = sahani
I’m going to miss them when we are gone.
James, Olga and Rome made it to camp about and hour or so later. They were not happy campers, especially Olga. I'm not sure what went down, but they were all in a bad mood. It was the longest day ever. Everyone tried to get Hashim to talk during dinner, rather than in official capacity afterwards. All items were obstacles between us and the sleeping bag.
Tonight will be blissful sleep. Rock ground ain’t a thing.
MWEKA CAMP: 10,065 feet/ 3068 m
Total elevation covered today: 13,286 feet / 4045 m
Total distance covered today: 10 miles / 17 km