The Travelling Trooper Takes on Kilimanjaro: Days 6 and 7

This was it. This was the big day. We’d arrive at base camp in the afternoon, and at night, we’d start our final ascent. The schedule looked like this:

– Leave camp at 8:30 and arrive at base camp at noon.
– Eat lunch and rest until 5:00.
– Eat an early dinner at 5:00, have our briefing, and sleep until 10:45 with all our layers on.
– Eat a quick meal at 11:00 and head out at 11:30
– Climb from an elevation of 15, 000 feet to 19, 000 feet, reaching the summit in six hours–just in time for sunrise.
– Descend back down to base camp at 15, 000 feet in three hours and rest for another hour.
– Descend another 5, 000 feet in 4 hours and reach our final campsite.

Things didn’t quite go according to plan.

Well, the first part did, at least. The hike was mercilessly easy.

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At one point on the hike, JM and I joked that it looked like the remainder of the human race that had survived an apocalypse of some sort was looking for salvation somewhere, looking to start their new lives. The piles of rock looked like rubble following a tragic and cataclysmic catastrophe, and the cloud coverage just added an ominous touch to everything. Plus, the porters looked like survivors carrying all of their belongings. So I guess what I’m saying was that we were in good spirits, complete with positive thoughts!

We saw the ridge that we’d be climbing that night. The end was literally in sight.

W e arrived at camp at noon on the dot and had lunch, but nobody got any sleep afterwards. Everybody went into their tents and disappeared into their respective thoughts.

Everybody emerged again for dinner at 5:00. In the briefing that followed, they informed us that the first hour would be steep and rocky. The following four hours would zig zag back and forth on loose rock and dirt before becoming steep again for the final push to Stella Point. From Stella Point, it becomes a flat walk to the peak.

The goal would be to stay together for the entire climb. To do so, we’d be going pooooooole pooooooooooooooole. Usually, we would just naturally break off into different groups over the course of our hike, with some people taking more breaks than others, but not tonight.

On top of going extremely slowly, we were going to take few breaks in order to reach the summit in time for sunrise and before the rest of the groups started arriving.

They warned that drinking bladders would freeze to ice, so people should drink from those first before turning to their water bottles. (Though my water also started freezing over.) They also told us to keep our water bottle in a sock in our bag for extra warmth to ensure it wouldn’t freeze.

This was our not-so-brief briefing. After being given all of this information, and being on the verge of summiting, naturally, none of us got any sleep. We all got back to the mess tent at 11:00 looking and feeling like death. A whole week of not sleeping soundly was finally catching up with us at the worst possible time.

I might have slept the last half hour or so, but in that short sleep, I joined the weird dream club, which up until that point, had consisted of Brandon, Rich, and the club leader, Kate. Kate’s dreams apparently read like a Darren Aronofsky script, while Brandon’s seemed to lean more towards the Tarantino type.  Rich had a dream where he was in a cab being driven by Rush Limbaugh, and another where he entered a room filled with toilets. My dream had something in common with that last one. I was visiting Mary and Rich in their futuristic condo apartment that was almost entirely automated. Then to my surprise, when I went to use their washroom, I opened the door and discovered they had a Wi-Fi tent. Then I woke up and had to use the washroom.

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It was so surreal to hike under a star-filled sky with only our headlamps to light the way. Above the large shapeless black mass that stood looking smugly down on us like we were a bunch of tiny little ants lay infinite stars, pulsating in a beautiful silent cacophony. Part of me actually wanted to worry about my headlamp because the light seemed very faint; I was worried that it wouldn’t have enough juice to last the whole way. But I just couldn’t be bothered with worrying with that view above me. Every time I looked up I would invariably trip on a rock–but it was totally worth it.

Back on Earth, everybody was quiet and tired. The first hour had us scaling large rocks. Sometimes guides had to help us by pulling us up to the next rock. Other times, we were walking on slanted rocky surfaces. It was a quick and steep ascent.

August 1–our lead guide–and the rest of the guides kept us entertained with call and response songs. Vincent, aka Birdman, was Birdman, making hilarious bird sounds at random times. Even after seven days of, it still made me laugh every time.

The path became easier to navigate after the first hour. It went back and forth in a zig zag almost all the way up, just as August had said it would.

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I believe at this point, the temperature was about zero degrees Celsius. My water bottle was starting to freeze. In typical Canadian fashion, I refrained from putting my thick jacket on. I was rocking a toque, two short sleeve shirts, a long sleeve shirt, 2 fleece sweaters, 3 pairs of long johns, hiking pants, waterproof pants, thin gloves, thick socks, and my hiking shoes. Alright, so I wasn’t exactly wearing shorts and a T-shirt, but I was the only one not wearing a jacket!

With a much clearer path ahead of us, I dared to look up again and saw our shadows stretching up, almost as if daring to reach for the stars. The shapeless black ridge still stood there unfazed, though.

Some members of the group had started to fall behind at this point–or perhaps they had already fallen behind, and I was just caught up in my own head to notice like everybody else. Regardless, Rich and Mary weren’t with us.

It got colder. I pulled out my jacket and my thick gloves. My heart was pounding, working triple time just so I could continue at my snail’s pace.

Suddenly Nancy showed signs of serious fatigue. She cried out that she couldn’t go on and that she had no energy left. In tears, she hugged somebody–Vincent, I think. August gave her words of encouragement and urged her to continue on. She nodded feebly and pressed on.

Unfortunately, she didn’t last much beyond this point, and she turned around soon after. We were all already very proud of Nancy. She’s turning 50 years young this year, and though she was regularly in the back of the pack with Mary and Rich, she kept up with the rest of us. Even more impressively, she was always one of the loudest and most positive spirits in the gang, always shouting out, “Is everybody having a good time?!” She was our very own cheerleader. I think that speaks volumes to her kind and loving nature.

What shocked me to the core later on, though, was that this was Nancy’s FIRST EVER ATTEMPT AT HIKING OF ANY SORT! And here she was, mere hours from the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro! That’s like somebody who has never driven a car getting behind the wheel of a Formula 1 car and just narrowly missing the podium. What an amazing human being!

Trying to keep the rest of our spirits up, August sang more call and response songs with the remaining guides, including the Kilimanjaro song–though their numbers were shrinking along with ours, because Max was with Rich and Mary, and I think Jerome headed back with Nancy.

I asked August what he was singing quietly to himself, and he said he was singing gospel songs in prayer to God. He was asking God to give us strength to make it to the summit. I got lost in his singing even though I had no idea what the words meant. It was a hypnotic trance, distracting my brain from the pain my body was feeling. My body kept moving on auto pilot. I would go in and out of these hypnotic states throughout the night.

Now it was Kate’s turn to waver. She was looking really bad. Her eyes were closed, and she looked like she was ready to collapse at any second. August was trying to say positive and encouraging words to her, but it was like she was a million miles away. Eventually his words must have reached her, because she somehow found the energy to continue on. August wouldn’t let her, or any of us, quit. He kept repeating three phrases over and over again. I couldn’t quite make out the first one, but the other two were “Don’t stop moving!” and “One step at a time!” There’s a soothing quality to his deep voice, like brushing your hand against velvet. I asked him what the other phrase was. It was in Swahili. It meant, “Get energy!”

We started taking more breaks. Whether this was a part of August’s plan all along at this point on the hike, or if it was just to give Kate a fighting chance, I’m not sure, but he kept calling back to her, saying, “Where is my Kate?” I think he was trying to make her laugh, but she was completely out of it. If Yoti–a porter August had asked to accompany us on this last leg of the hike just to give us more bodies–hadn’t been supporting her, I’m fairly sure Kate would’ve been on the ground.

I want to emphasize that this part of the hike was not any steeper or physically more challenging than anything else we’d encountered at any time. It was just that the elevation factor had finally kicked into high gear. I was worried about this in the months leading to the hike. I thought I would be the one being supported by Yoti because of various breathing issues I’ve had in the past. Seeing Kate in that state was terrifying because I knew just how easily that could have been me. I wanted more than anything for her to make it to the top. Her struggle was our struggle. We were all in this together.

We somehow reached the final ascent towards Stella Point, but we still had another 1, 700 feet to go, and this was a very vertical stretch. August kept repeating “Last-uh push! Last-uh push!” over and over and over again. I don’t think everybody knew that we still had so much to go, though. I only knew because Gene the Weather Machine had his handy doodad that gave him an elevation reading. I think it’s probably good that not everybody knew just how long this last-uh push really was.

Suddenly I heard August say Mary’s name into the walkie talkie. He’d been talking to one of the other guides for the past several hours in Swahili. I had assumed he was checking in on Mary and Rich, but I had no idea where they were or how they were doing. But now August was talking directly to Mary–and then I heard Mary’s voice for the first time in what felt like a lifetime. She was still with us! I couldn’t believe it! Hearing her voice gave me goosebumps! She and Danielle weren’t too far behind us. I hadn’t even realized Danielle wasn’t with us anymore. The group had become a collection of shadows. Aside from JM and Gene who were directly behind me, I didn’t know who was who.

My thoughts turned to Rich. He must have turned back at some point. I still couldn’t believe a 61 year old man with Diabetes had made it so far. I learned later that he came on this trip against his doctor’s wishes. The man was determined to climb the mountain, and he came pretty damn close to doing just that, carried by sheer strength and probably a little dose of stubbornness. But hey, now he could turn to his doctor and say, “Hey! Guess what I did this weekend!”

We reached Stella Point as the first rays of light poked over the horizon. Kate showed Yoti her gratitude in the form of hugs and the tears streaming down her face. We were all so proud of ourselves. We marvelled at the blue and red and orange and yellow beam of light that stretched along the entire horizon. We took pictures in front of the Stella Point sign. This was what the whole fight was all about! This moment!

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Or so we thought…

August got our attention again and told us we had another 45 minutes to the actual summit. Well then who gives a crap about Stella, August?! Why does Stella even have a sign?! Why?! That’s just a big fat ugly tease! And while we’re at it, why does Stella even get a sign in the first place?! Why does some European woman get a sign on the tallest mountain in Africa?! Name it after an African woman who climbed it! After all, we did see one female porter on our hike! Name it after her! Or name it Porter’s Point after all the porters who have hauled spoiled tourists like yours truly all the way to the top! I hate Stella! I spit on Stella! I’m never drinking a Stella Artois ever again!

Alright, I’m done.

We started moving again along the final stretch of the ridge towards the summit, and as we did so, I let out an initial laugh of disbelief at what I was seeing to my left, like a burp that creeps up on you. The combination of red, blue, yellow, and orange that glowed from the horizon, and the mountain peak that poked out from an ocean of clouds beneath it–the scene was breathtaking.

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But as we continued walking, the view quickly became too much for me, and that innocent laugh snowballed into an avalanche of emotions. (For those keeping score at home, that’s one time that Uri almost cried like baby in the past week, and two times that he did in fact cry like the big fat soft mushy baby that he is over the past week.)

I think the tears were brought on by an enormous level of gratitude that flooded my heart. Not only was I grateful to be able to embark on such an outrageous trip like this, but I was grateful for all of the opportunities I’ve had in my life. A lifetime of remarkable moments and achievements raced through my mind in a blinding flash, and they culminated in the glorious sight that lay before me. This was not the first time I’d experienced this feeling. It happened in Iceland as well, at the summit of another hike. I’ve thought a lot about what these emotions mean and what I intend to do about them, but I’m going to keep those feelings to myself for the time being. All I can say is that this trip has been life-changing.

I thought I had my emotions in check when we stopped for another break, and so I tried to get a picture with August. Oh, how wrong I was.

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Thankfully, I was fine by the time we made it to the summit of Uhuru’s Peak–the actual summit.

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Hugs were shared, high fives were shared, pictures were taken–all the usual stuff.

My attention turned back to Kate, though, when I heard her ask for water in a voice that was alarmingly soft and weak in contrast to her usual boisterous and playful voice. I gave her some of mine, grateful to have both her and Yoti up there with us.

I can’t imagine how ecstatic she must have felt. She must have been riding an emotional high so high it could’ve rivalled Kilimanjaro itself. I think climbing Kili meant more to her than it did to most of us. Apparently not too long ago Kate had been crippled by back pains. Back then, she probably never would have even fathomed the idea of an undertaking like climbing 19, 000 feet to the highest point in Africa. But she did it, with a little help from Yoti, her guardian angel. I’m sure she’ll never forget him.

We made sure to get all our pictures in before the wave of hiking groups started rushing in, and we started to make our way down. That’s when we saw Mary and Danielle! They were closer behind us than I’d thought! We were all ecstatic to see them both! Sixty is the new 30, right, Mary?!

And as for Danielle, she deserved to make it to the top. She’s pure awesome. She’s like a mix between Amy Schumer and Mother Theresa–dirty mind, but pure heart. The most unlawyer-like lawyer you’ll ever meet. She does a lot of inspirational work to help those who need it most. I’m glad she kept climbing.

I was also happy to see Kate and Danielle reunited. They had endured this journey together up until this point, both the highs and the lows.

We continued on, and Sarah popped an innocent question that left me completely dumbfounded: “Did you take Trevor’s picture at the top?”

Son of a gun! In all the excitement of having made it to the summit, I totally forgot all about Trevor! Thankfully, he was okay with taking a picture with ol’ Stella on the way back.

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The trek down was killer on the knees. It was also super slippery because of the loose rocks. We were practically skiing down to camp.

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Of course, nobody slept. However we did get a longer break than initially planned on account of having to wait for Mary and Danielle. Thank God for Mary and Danielle! That extra hour was aaawesome!

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We lunched, and then hiked four brutal hors down to our last camp. My right knee was starting to cry two thirds of the way down. By the following morning, it turned into a straight up my-girlfriend-broke-up-with-me-and-my-puppy-got-run-over-on-the-same-day ugly cry.

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We made it to what would be our last campsite together, and everybody headed straight for their tents. Well, I know I sure did. I needed to get off my feet ASAP. I did some writing and some reading and managed to doze off for a bit. After dinner, the guides and Mr. Spice surprised us with a congratulatory cake that had the number 5895 written on it. (That’s the height of Kilimanjaro in metres.) Sadly, Brandon missed it, as he slept straight through dinner.

On the other hand, that was probably the best sleep of his life. I arrived at camp with him in the afternoon, and I didn’t see him again until the following morning.

Mary gave me some Benadryl that night, and I, too, slept like a log for a change. Sweet, merciful sleep.

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