Summiting Mount Kilimanjaro aka The Longest Day

I wake in need of a stocked medicine cabinet to begin my day. Generally, I take no medications and back home while packing omitted two medications that I would gladly pay top dollar to have this morning. My rationale was that I’ve never required either Gravol or Imodium and naively believed I would not need it during this trip Luckily, I was traveling with other folks who prepared for every circumstance and were happy to share with me. It isn’t an instant fix but gradually I would feel slightly better.

Each day on the mountain begins at 0600. I spend much time digging through my bag trying to find something that is very important, but I’m not sure what it might be. I continue digging, hoping I will run across the item and then will recognize it as the item I need. This of course does not happen, so I keep digging.

I put the sleeping bags in their bags. This task just a few short days ago would not have warranted conversation, but this morning it’s a Herculean effort as I pause to catch my breath several times. I decide to check my oxygen saturations and heart rate. They are 85% and 80BPM. Normally the numbers are 98% and 55BPM. I’m not surprised, the number change is expected, still I spend a few moments quietly freaking out, then I commence digging in my bag for the critical item whose name escapes me at present.

All of these distractions make me late for breakfast Food holds no interest for me this morning. I pass the eggs just to get them away, their smell offensive. I decide on a piece of toast and happily eat it the African way–dry. Orange slices and tea round out my meal and its an effort to eat as I struggle to keep it all down knowing the calories are important for what lies ahead.

I fantasize about staying here for an extra day, resting. Of course this is not possible. I collect my treated water and add the Nuun tablets to mask the taste. It’s still nasty but I need to drink three litres of water before arriving at our next destination, Kibo.

We begin and hike 5 hours across the saddle between Mawenzi and Kibo. At times this hike is so difficult I shuffle along with my head down, trying to trick my mind into believing I’m hiking on flat ground. Fortunate for me, my mind is not sharp enough to argue that I’m climbing a mountain and therefore it has to be steep. I’m sipping water constantly telling myself as the Guides told us that water has oxygen and will provide what is lacking. I accept this as told and sip away imagining my oxygen saturations rising with each sip. The Imodium and Advil have worked their magic, the nausea has decided to hunker down and take up residence in my stomach. It is my constant companion

One of our team mates turned back today. I was upset for her, but later I was informed of her goal and the distance she traveled surpassed her goal. Each person must decide on their own summit.

We arrive at Kibo. We walk past stretchers on our way in and silently I say a prayer that we will not need them. It’s a busy, happening place with so many people coming and going. This is where three of the routes converge. Until now we have had the mountain to ourselves. We would now need to share. We sign in and look around at our new home. There are more buildings here and places to deal with sick people. I say another prayer that this will not be needed. I find our tent and gear and begin the arduous process of unpacking and laying out my sleeping bag.

John leaves to take pictures I’m glad that he is getting a pictorial record. I have no energy. I rest for awhile but soon it’s time to eat. I eat some despite having no appetite then shuffle back to our tent where I fall asleep. We awake for dinner. It’s my favourite, spaghetti and meat sauce. This is fortunate, as it makes forcing myself to eat somewhat easier. We receive the plan for the night from Brighton. We will be awakened at 2145 for cookies and tea and will begin our final assault on this great mountain at 2230. We are offered the opportunity to start earlier to allow more time, some opt for this option.

We go back to our tent and I’m unhappy to see snow falling. I lay awake wondering if our footing will be difficult and how much harder this will be with snow. We begin the process of laying out our clothes for tonight while we still have light. I had my layers all figured out from hiking in 30 below weather at home. I begin to second guess myself and happily decide that I need many more layers and do not have the ability or neuronal function to argue against this faulty logic. I decide on 7 layers on top, 3 layers on the bottom, two pair of socks and a toque I lay out my clothes, take my last Diamox and visualize arriving at the summit with John.

Seemingly in minutes we are awakened. We dress and arrive for cookies and tea. I sip the tea with sugar and am able to eat a bite of cookie. We gather our water and take 4 litres with us. The water is brought from a great distance by the Porters as there is no water at Kibo. They have told us many times not to worry, there is enough water for us. Later we would learn that the Guides would do the trek with nearly no water. We have not had water for washing at Kibo due to the scarcity of this resource. It matters little as I run my hands through my greasy hair and look over at John whose hair is standing at attention. We are offensive but fortunately so is everyone else.

One member of our group talks about the danger of climbing to the summit and that no one will have oxygen. I cannot engage in this conversation as I’m working at staying positive. Thankfully Brighton tells her that she must not fill her mind with negative thoughts. She seems satisfied

Too soon it’s time to put on our packs and begin. The snow has stopped, the night is clear. We turn on our headlamps and begin. We start off at a slow pace and snake up the mountain. I look up the mountain and see headlamps in the distance. The full moon shines and illuminates the night sky. It’s beautiful. I am nervous and i take deep breaths to force the butterflies away.

Usually we chat with each other to pass the time. There is no energy for chatter tonight as we stick to the task at hand. We are treated to the Guides singing the songs of their youth and of this mountain and Brighton dances under the light of the moon. I cannot believe that he can, as everything I have is going into my slow crawl up the mountain. I play my home movies and replay our wedding day. It’s difficult to stay with the memories of that day as my mind drifts into the abyss. Still, I feel pleased with my effort and in no time we stop for our first break.

We begin again, a huge effort to get started again. I struggle with my breathing and then settle into a rhythm. I begin to play the movie of our honeymoon in Hawaii. In a short time I abandon this home movie as it is too difficult. I concentrate on walking and stare at the ground in front of me. At times for variety I look up to stare at the pack in front of me. I struggle with my breathing and stop to catch my breath. I start again and in minutes I stop again. John stays with me as does a Guide, Godwin. After many stops and starts another Guide, Damien takes my pack to lessen my burden. This helps and shortly I catch up to our group.

I begin to think of strong people in my life, past and present. I line them up in my mind and one by one they join me on this incredible night. It helps, as I imagine how they would deal with the hardship. Some say nothing but their quiet presence helps. Others’ are encouraging and offer words to motivate. Still others express no doubt of my abilities and urge me onward. I comply and am thankful for their company.

I remember being about 5 and walking in Miles for Millions. This was a 42km event which offered no training. Towards the end, limping with a Charlie horse my father arrived and asked me if I wanted to quit. I said I did, but he convinced me I could make the journey. He believed in me and since, I’ve always believed in myself. I completed the walk that day and knew I would complete this hike tonight.

There is power in our group, camaraderie and strength in our numbers as we adopt a rhythm, step step, pause. I love the short pause, it all seems possible. Not a word is spoken and yet I know we have each other’s back. John has mine and has hiked behind me the entire time up the mountain. I think about a gift we received from one of our team mates. It was a stone with a inspirational word. Mine was love and I’m understanding it’s meaning as John stays with me while I struggle.

It’s time for another break. My pack is delivered and I drink water and take a small bite of a power bar. Too soon it’s time to go. I’m tired as I put on my pack. We begin our pace again, step step pause. In no time, I struggle to breathe. I wonder about all my layers and the tightness of my top layer and whether it’s impeding my breathing. This is a fleeting thought. I can’t contemplate or analyze. I stop to catch my breath again. My pack is taken and once again I fall into line with the group. When I’m with them it’s easier but quickly I stop to rest and they are ahead. John and Godwin stay with me and the goal is to get us back with the group. There is no pause as we seemingly hurry to reach the group. We finally reach them and soon begin the process again.

I look down the mountain and see the lights snaking up the mountain,each light a person who will soon stand where I am now. I look up and see the lights in the distance and think that soon we will be stand where they are now. I wonder where we will have the tea that is to be served to our group. I concentrate on that and continue.

The group gets away from us as I find a pace that works. I can see our group ahead making their way to Gilmans. I know that I will make this climb it is only a question of how long it will take. I continue my slow ascent, a pace so unlike my usual speedy race at lower elevations. I encourage John to go ahead, apologizing for my pace but he is content to stay with me and I am grateful.

Soon we are at Gilman’s. The moon is starting to descend as we make our way over huge boulders that guard its passage. I’m breathing quick, am exhausted and my headlamp stops working. It’s difficult to navigate in the darkness and I worry about a break or sprain. Finally we climb over the last boulder to stand on level ground at the sign that marks this place. Our group is there though they are getting ready to leave. John and I stop to have our picture taken at the sign and then we are off again.

We look around at this other world place. We are standing at the crater rim. I have no energy to take photos but quickly I fire off several to keep in my internal memory forever. No photo could do the place justice as its beauty could not be contained in such a manner. Off in the distance I can see our final destination, Uhuru (Swahili for Freedom) It appears to glow in the distance. Our next destination will be Stella.

The deep crater is beautiful and as the light wakes, it touches and gradually the scene is revealed to us. It’s beauty would be too much at once but the gradual unveiling has me marvelling for the duration. We have been told to be in the moment, to linger, to take it in. There is no danger of going to quickly as I trudge along, pausing to breathe but loving the scenery and knowing I’m seeing a place that few see.

The books all say that the trek from Gilman’s is easier. I look forward to the gentle hike that never arrives. The terrain is up and down and while that is a break from the relentless up hill struggle to Gilman’s, the increase in altitude overrides the gentle terrain. Initially, I move quicker, though in moments I’ve adopted an even slower pace. We arrive at Stella just as the sun rises. We can see the moon and the sun at the same time. We take a quick photo at the sign and are off again.

There are so many people on the mountain. We can see them climbing from Barafu and see the camp below. I look at people and assess their color as we pass and wonder how we look. I adopt a new pace, step, step, lean on my trekking poles as I tripod like a COPD patient to decrease my work of breathing. Some people are being ushered down the mountain very quickly as their bodies cannot adjust to the altitude and they are in danger.

I don’t say much, though at one time I ask John why this is so difficult. He has no answer. I ask our Guide if he believes I will make it to Uhuru and he says I will. Later he checks me over closely and just in case there is doubt, I tell him I’m fine. We continue.

We see some of our group coming down. We all hug and they wish us well. They tell us we are very close. This is so emotional, I start to cry thinking of what it took to get here. I think of my daughters, grandson and our unborn grandchild and hope that this example will have them searching for adventure in their lives. This emotion proves too much and I struggle to breathe again. Soon I can see the sign and am emotional again.

I think of being a young girl and learning to spell this mountains name as we studied about this dormant volcano so many years ago. I share this with Godwin and he is interested and surprised to know that we study this mountain.

There are so many people at the sign. There is much pushing and shoving and jostling for position. Godwin takes us to the front of the line. He shouts at someone, they shout back and soon we are standing at the front of the line getting our photo taken in front of the sign that has been my work computer wallpaper for the last year. I cry again. We get our photo taken in front of the glacier. I smile for the pictures but do not feel elated, relieved or euphoric with this accomplishment. This would come days and weeks later.

Godwin tells us we must do three things before descending. We must put on sunglasses, sunscreen and eat something. I comply with the first two requests but cannot eat We begin the climb down. It’s easier though still a struggle. We walk faster with fewer breaks but my breathing remains difficult.

Soon we see the rest of our group making their way to the top. We stop to hug and let them know they are close. This is very emotional as we know that all who attempted the summit from our group will make it to Uhuru.

We stop at Stella and Gilman again to take photos with better light. I dread coming down from Gilman and having to negotiate the boulders again. Soon we.arrive and they are as difficult as I remember and in full light no easier. In fact I can now see the possibility of a break or sprain is quite real and I wish for darkness.

We can see Kibo in the distance and it seems so close, yet perspective only makes it thus. We continue our descent. I continue to take breaks to contend with my ragged breathing and our pace is slow. We reach scree and are told to ski down on our heels to speed the climb down. We do, it’s fun but tiring too. Soon I just want to walk again but do enjoy descending quicker. As we get closer to camp we are brought cold juice on the mountain and the taste is heaven. I’ve drank very little as I’ve not had my pack with me. The juice is exactly what is needed.

We arrive at noon and after chatting with some of our group I crawl into our tent for sleep. It’s hot inside and sleep is disjointed. Soon it’s time for lunch. I’m not interested but arrive for lunch and pick at the food. I’m not alone as all of our group has some effect of altitude sickness. It was not easy for anyone. I go back to our tent and rest some more. We are not done for the day. In just a few short hours we would begin hiking again. For now I lay in the tent and rest. We pack our bags and then line up to hike to our final destination and our camp for the night, Horombo.

We start and gradually fall into a rhythm. We do not stop for any breaks. I sip my water and ignore the nausea. I take Gravol and Advil and continue. Soon a teammate passes in a stretcher. She assures us she is fine and that the Guides want her to arrive before dark. She is raced across the rocky landscape.

We are amazed at the scenery and cactus like trees. It does seem as though we have been hiking forever. As we stumble into Horombo under a cloak of darkness, navigating our way through rocky terrain with boulders, we calculate we have hiked 23 hours since our start at third camp yesterday. We find our tent, I unroll my sleeping bag and crawl in. It’s heaven to rest my legs.

Soon we are called for dinner. The thought of dinner makes me more nauseous. John goes and I hide out and pretend I’m not home when the Guides come to our tent twice to let us know dinner is served. I fall into a deep sleep, too tired to dig through my bag. My body demands sleep and I know it’s not in my duffle.
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Published by

cherylsmit

Writing and photography are my first and second loves and thanks to technology I have the ability to share with a larger audience, including family and friends. Gone are the days of lugging around photo albums after a trip and of keeping a written journal of the experience that only I would view. The days of the handwritten letters are gone, but blogging provides a chance to share ideas, thoughts and photographs with a few mouse clicks and to receive instant feedback from around the world. It provides an opportunity to research a new place and to see that place through the eyes of a multitude of people each with their own unique way of viewing and experiencing the world. It opens the world wide and allows us a front row seat. Blogging connects us and creates a family of support. It provides an outlet and a chance to perfect the craft of writing and story telling. When I sit in my living room drinking my coffee and see that someone from another part of the world has read my words, and then I read theirs, the world is much smaller and more attainable. We are more alike than different as we share uniquely human experiences. Once I had a dream of becoming a Journalist, but somehow life got in the way. I currently have a fantastic career in healthcare and know that I have made a difference so I have no regrets. Still, I wonder if there is time to explore the road less travelled?

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