Transcribed from the journal I kept during the trip with additions and edits made after, this is the part 1 of the summit day:
So I’m on this flight from Addis Abeba in Ethiopia to Kilimanjaro International Airport, or KIA as it’s called when you book, and I’m doing my best to forget where else I’ve heard those letters spelled out. I’d rather relax. It’s tough going. This lady in the front has had enough of her kids and so she gives them free reign of the airplane. They’re running back and forth between the aisles, hitting us all and kicking and giggling and even worse, screaming whenever they feel they should, which is often. The flight attendants sigh but don’t do much about it.
My boots are too big to pack and so I’m wearing them during the flight. Big green waterproof Hi-Tec’s I’ve spent the last six months breaking in. I stretch my legs. My laces reach so far they rest up against my neighbor’s feet across the aisle. The kids come running and clip my foot and the first one trips but because he’s a kid he doesn’t fall down and barely notices that he lost his balance. The whole plain sighs. A bunch of sadists, all of them.
That’s my neighbor across the aisle. He’s this big white Englishman. One of about 24 who have booked a trip to climb Kilimanjaro. He’s got a big round face like an oversized pumpkin and a belly that’s an enlarged duplicate of his head. He’s a big guy, round all around. with a brand new pair of hiking boots, brand new pants, brand new shirt, and a pack that certainly wasn’t on sale at REI the last time I was in there.
And there’s no way he’s going to make it up the mountain.
“I was thinking,” I tell him, “You could hold up my laces and when that kid runs by again he’ll fall on his face.”
“He’ll start crying.”
“Yeah, but ya know, at least we’ll have had something to do with it. Plane’ll give us a standing ovation. Flight attendants will probably give us free drinks.”
“I’m not ordering a Coke on an airplane.”
“You from the United States?”
“You from the UK?”
We don’t shake hands, don’t even share each other’s names. But the connection is made and we talk a bit more the rest of the flight. He’s the first of four Brits who will make me laugh over the next three weeks. He’s going up the mountain tomorrow morning with the rest of his group–also from the UK. He’s never hiked before. Never camped. Never been anywhere over six thousand feet, or about 1800 meters. I like the guy. I do. But no matter how much I like him I can’t shake my judgement.
No way you’re making it up the mountain.
It’s the fourth day when you really feel like a mountaineer. First day you hike slowly through a rainforest and though the hiking is long it never gets too strenuous. You start at six thousand feet and end up at 10, high enough to feel the altitude, but not quite high enough to get really sick. The next day we hike up to around 12 thousand and we don’t sleep that night. The complaints are minimal but across the board, none of the 10 people in our group has a good nights rest.
The third day is the rough one. The hiking is slow and steep and steady. The first goal is the Lava Tower, a brick of igneous rock a hundred feet tall, formed from an eruption I don’t know how far back. It sits at about 15’000 feet above sea level. Halfway up the trail my head starts to hurt. A combination of congestion and some big strong man pressing his hands against my temple. Nothing I can’t tolerate. I ask Haji, our head guide, what the elevation is and when he tells me I smile and squeal and tell the rest of our group that this is officially the highest I’ve ever been–no pun intended. It’s enough to get me through the pain. I look back behind us though and Ellen has dropped back with her husband. Modi, one of the assistant guides–and the most soft spoken and kind–is with them. She’s keeled over the side of the trail, coughing and spitting and throwing up. It doesn’t sound good. It doesn’t look good. There’s no way she’s going to make it up.
We get up to the Lava Tower and I’m smiling once again. Someone in our group snaps a photo of me smiling with my tongue out like an asshole.
The Lava Tower is packed with people. This is a camp for trekkers taking the Western Breach Route, a ridiculously hard trail that shoots straight up the side of the mountain. Safety is not guaranteed as there are glaciers and falling rock. One of the girls from our group is complaining about her head and she sits down as quickly as possible.
“It’s rough,” I say, “But, ugh, I can’t believe we have to go up that tomorrow.”
I point at the thin steep trail leading up to the Western Breach.
“What?? Are you serious? That??”
“No, no, just kidding. We head back down to 12 thousand feet soon.”
She slaps me in the arm and calls me an asshole. When I have energy and I’m happy it is true. I become the biggest asshole I know.
You’re told by the guides that this isn’t a competition. Pole pole they tell you. Slowly slowly. Yet as you’re passed each day by other groups you can’t help but feel like you can do better. Not pole pole but haraka haraka. Faster faster. I want to be better than others. I can’t help but compare myself to those around me. I can do better. I will do better. Everyone else is sick. But not me. I’m fine. I’ve trained for this. I’m a camper and a hiker. I was in the freaking Boy Scouts–though I don’t advertise this. My body is ready. My mind is ready. I could keep up with the guides if I wanted to.
My braggadocios halts for a moment. I need to use the bathroom. There’s a rock ridge a few dozen yards away where I’m told there are some outhouses. It looks like a good spot. I skip over there, trip over a few rocks, before I settle into a nice smelly wooden stall.
I skip over there.
Three days of pole pole, that skip is the fastest I’ve moved in over 72 hours.
I walk back to the tent where lunch is waiting for us.
Walking isn’t quite the right word. I stumble. I lurch. I’m an extra trying out for the Walking Dead. I collapse in the chair and when someone pours me a bowl of soup I want to throw up onto it and toss it outside. Elin who was throwing up earlier doesn’t look so bad but I can tell she’s eager to drop a few thousand feet. Her husband, though he’s sitting up straight and eating his soup, looks like he has a serious cold.
I’m not sitting up. I don’t know where this came from. My head is in my hands. It’s hot in here. Hot in the tent. The actual temperature outside is somewhere north of 40 degrees but inside it’s a hot sticky mess. I’m sweating and can feel the heat from my hands and head. I think back to this time when I was 17 and guzzled some vodka to impress a girl. I think back to college when I drank two bottles of wine in an hour before the big concert on our campus. I think of that time in middle school I was bed-ridden for a week with the flu. That’s what this is. All of those moments compressed into one.
“No food?” Dan asks me. Until now I’ve upheld the States’ reputation for gluttony.
I don’t even bother to look up.
We all sleep that night. Even those of us who felt sick. We sleep and we’re all of us energized and excited for the fourth day. The fourth day has the Barranco Wall, the fourth day has rock climbing, the fourth day has a night that we’ve all decided to forget.
We start early and are on the wall before any of the faster groups can reach us. The wall itself is a blast. It towers up over the Barranco Camp, blocking out all but faint hints of the summit beyond. The trail is narrow and up and beset by large rocks and boulders you have to contest. It’s not the toughest thing we’ll face, but the most dynamic, the one time when your hands and legs are allowed to work in tandem as you maneuver your way up and over and up again. Beyond the wall the trail is a slog. Up a thousand feet. Down a thousand feet. Up and down. Over and over. The final push drags us back up to 15’000 feet. Base camp. The same elevation where the day before most of us felt sick and exhausted and most of all worried. And though some of us are still ill and most of us have at least one or two serious signs of altitude sickness, all of us (I think I can say this) feel better than we did yesterday. It’s amazing what a good nights rest and some acclimatizing can do for you. I’m heaving down food. The boys from Essex are making us laugh, as always. Aaron can’t believe he climbed the Barranco Wall.
“I can tell you I never done anything like that in my life. Never. Maybe I’ll have a good stroll through the park or a nice run at the gym. But that. Everyday is a first here it is.”
“Look who’s back!” Dan says to me. A good appetite is a good sign.
High spirits and chatter all around.
Haji comes in. He settles us down. He makes a few of the standard jokes that he makes each evening. Then he makes his statement and all of us for the first time in the last hour shut right up.
“So the guys will come by your tent to wake you up at 11 o’clock.”
11 o’clock. Eleven.
We know all about the summit day. Departure at midnight. Midnight to sunrise we hike. Midnight. That’s the time we’d drilled into our head. Someone forgot to mention we had to actually get up.
It’s only one hour. But the difference is staggering. Midnight is manageable. Midnight is tomorrow. Midnight is possible after a short nights rest. Eleven is tonight. After a nap if we’re lucky. 11 is four and a half hours from now.
“Well that sure puts a damper on things, doesn’t it?” Aaron says.
Haji tells us it will be cold up there. To expect wind at around 2AM. Test your headlamps. Make sure you have all your warm weather clothing on. Wrap up your cameras. Keep your water pressed tight to your body so it doesn’t freeze during the hike.
Justin asks him, “Are you expecting rain?”
“No,” he says. “If it rains the rain will be snow. So no rain is expected.”
“Minus ten to minus 20 celsius depending.”
That’s between 15 and -5 degrees Fahrenheit, not accounting for wind.
I’d been drinking close to seven liters of water a day but I don’t drink another drop the rest of the night. I pee before bed but 20 minutes later I can feel the urge creep up on me again. Fours hours of sleep, I tell myself. Four hours of sleep and I can make it. I close my eyes. But you can’t will yourself into sleeping.
I get up to pee for real sometime later. I don’t check the time. I don’t want to know. But I’m tipped off by what I see up on the mountain.
A whole trail of them. Snaking up the mountain like a string up Christmas tree lights. There’s nothing but that. Darkness and an endless line of headlamps marching ever upwards towards some unknown. The first climbers have left. We will soon follow.
I drift off into something that resembles sleep. I wouldn’t exactly call it that though. It’s more of a coma. Sleep does something for you. A recharge. A coma is simply a delay. A way to shut off your thoughts before you get to the damn thing. I manage a half hour of this before I’m woken up by Ali, one of the porters, with his traditional chipper, “Helloooooo.”
I open my eyes and stare up at the top of the tent. I don’t blink. I don’t doze in and out of sleep like I don’t want to go to school. I feel like I’ve been dumped into a tub of cold water. A “kick” as they call it in the movie Inception. I slap myself twice. I sit up.
“Okay,” I say. “Okay, okay, okay, okay.”
I’m the second to last one to arrive to the big tent for “breakfast.” I step inside, realize what we’re about to do, and something snaps. I can feel it right away. I’m no longer Chris. Just a body now. Muscles and instincts and residual flashes of my unconscious. And so the first thing I say to everyone is not hello, how are you, are we ready, is everyone feeling okay. None of that.
“Wake up, Hobbits, it’s a beautiful morning.”
Dan says it first. The others agree. “Chris has lost his mind I think.”
to be continued…
© 2013 Christopher Dart