Kilimanjaro, Day 5
Karanga Camp (3995m) - Barafu/Base Camp (4673m)
I had a wonderful sleep, the addition of extra layers keeping me toasty warm. Danny, on the other hand, was awake for hours, experiencing frequent coughing fits that left him gasping for air. In the morning he says he feels fine, but he can't shake the wet, rattly cough. He assures me he is well enough to hike today.
Just as we are due to leave, I hear gentle rain falling outside. Great. But when I open the tent, I don't find rain; instead, I see snow! Only an hour earlier there had been bright blue skies, but now the whole scene was grey. It starts out light, melting on impact, but it gradually becomes heavy enough to leave white dot paintings on the ground. It's the first time I've seen snow in years, and I am mesmerised.
Our take-off time is pushed back by almost an hour, but the snow doesn't cease. Not wanting to waste any more time, we don all of our waterproof gear and step out into the winter wonderland, watching the flakes coat our clothes and bags. Unsurprisingly, it is bitterly cold and I am keen to start moving to counteract my shivering.
The hill we are climbing up is covered in fog, so I have no idea how far it is to the summit. I spend the entire time looking down at my feet, in an effort to keep the snow off my face. When I look up, all I can see are moss-covered rocks, pale green clumps of flowers and bushes, and the silhouettes of porters slowly ascending ahead of us. I know there should be a peak in front of me but anything more than 20 metres away is lost in a white, empty void. Somehow the gravel seems less slippery now that it's wet, but I still need to focus intently to avoid any slick surfaces. The pace is frustratingly slow, and I can't warm up.
Half an hour later the snow peters out, but rain takes its place. It isn't any better. The wind drives the rain in from the right, drenching that side of my body. The right side of my face is frozen. I walk with my head twisted uncomfortably to the left.
Danny struggles on the trek, and lags far behind with Manyama. I want to slow down for him, but I know if I do I will start to go numb. So I find a middle ground by zigzagging across the path, roaming left to right and back again while only progressing forward a tiny distance at a time. Doing this allows me to increase my speed, and as a bonus it hardly feels like I'm ascending at all. I think I added an extra kilometre to my hike today. Danny catches up and reiterates that he feels fine, it's just his lungs that are slowing him down. FC and I continue on, and within moments we have lost him again.
Two hours after departing camp, the rain mercifully subsides. The sky becomes marginally lighter, and the temperature increases from arctic to slightly above arctic. There are no glistening peaks or sweeping views that I was expecting today, only grey rocks. It's a chilling, lonely, bleak climb.
I realise I have walked for an hour without seeing Danny, and I begin to worry. Is he sicker than he's letting on? Has he turned around? FC suddenly declares that he can see their outlines through the fog, so we stop and wait. It's only a porter. FC asks him on Danny's whereabouts. The porter responds they are coming, that they aren't far away. We continue to wait, and wait, and wait. The swirling fog plays tricks on me, making me believe there are people walking towards us, but I soon discover there is no one. I complete an assortment of exercises on the spot in an effort to stay warm, but the shivering is uncontrollable. After half an hour, worried about hypothermia, we reluctantly press on.
The path flattens out, and we up the pace in an attempt to bring feeling back to my extremities. At the base of the next hill, FC calls for a break. Just as warmth starts returning to my body, it cools right down again. It's another lengthy rest stop. I desperately hope to see Danny, but there's no sign of him.
In front of us is our final ascent, which involves a series of switchbacks up to an unseen ridge. It's more of the same, rocks and gravel, with a couple of narrow ledges and four-limb scrambles to break the monotony. Here the tortoise-like pace is appropriate, given the steepness, wet surface, low visibility and high altitude. If I didn't have FC in front of me, I would probably try to sprint off, causing my lungs to suffer unnecessarily.
Part of the way up we reach a viewpoint (I have no idea how far up we have climbed), which is a massive disappointment. FC tells me that, on a clear day, you can see for miles, and we would be able to see Danny's position from here. I pray that he is still coming, but various alternative possibilities race through my mind.
The top of the ridge eventually arrives, and over the other side I am surprised to see bright blue skies and cloudless views. The side we ascended is still shrouded in fog. How can one valley have perfect weather while the adjacent one is atrocious? From here we trek along the spine of the ridge, a 20-minute plod up to the sign that marks Barafu Camp, our destination. To celebrate this achievement, the clouds shift and present a full view of Kilimanjaro, the snow-capped peak soaring high above me. The route up to the crater rim is distinctly marked in the scree, a path that I'll be navigating in the early hours of tomorrow morning. It's a little unnerving how far there is to go to reach the summit (which isn't even visible from here - the true summit, Uhuru Peak, is located on the opposite side of the mountain).
Across the valley to the east I see Mawenzi Peak, a bare rock with a number of sharp protrusions jutting up along the crest. It looks much less hiker-friendly, and thankfully I don't have to tackle it. Clouds continuously drift in and out over the entire scene, sending my camera into overdrive.
Our tent is set up a fair way down the slope, far from the brilliant Kili views. The German woman is already here, and I spot the Polish man from two nights ago, returning from the summit. We learn that he skipped Karanga Camp yesterday, stayed at Barafu last night and summitted this morning. I guess he is on the six-day trek.
Somehow, through the snow, rain and fog of this morning, my face is burnt. I don't know how I achieved such a feat.
Now that the sun has appeared I am sweltering, especially inside the tent, causing me to rip off half a dozen layers. Then all I can do is sit and wait for Danny. FC informs me he spoke to Manyama and they are still on their way, even though Danny isn't feeling the best. A few porters have run down to assist, however it will be a while before they arrive. I'm overjoyed that he is still coming, but I worry how much he is risking his health.
With time to spare I climb back up the ridge to take another hundred photos, and I am surprised to find the foggy valley I hiked up this morning is now completely clear. The flat section we crossed stretches out in front of me, and the last climb is a vertical wall hidden from view below my feet. In the centre of the flat expanse are several dots, and I wonder if they are Danny and crew. I use the entire 30x zoom on my camera to take a photo, then magnify the photo on my screen, where I can see one of the dots is wearing a red jacket, the same as Danny's. I watch the group for 20 minutes, during which time they only move forward a few steps. I can't begin to imagine what Danny is going through right now.
Back at the tent I see a porter carrying Manyama's pack and I ask for news: Danny is climbing up the wall. I'm so excited that I rush up and over the ridge then down the hill as fast as possible. Danny has reached the top of the wall and commenced the gentler incline, walking independently but surrounded by the two guides, the cook and five porters. I hastily run over to him, but I am shocked by what I find. He is like the walking dead, in full zombie mode. He cannot focus on anything except taking the next step. I try to hug him but he tells me he is okay and pushes on. I fall in line behind him, as silent as the rest of the crew. He manages only 5-10 steps at a time before stopping to rest, his breathing laboured and raspy. A couple of times he sways, and the closest porter reaches out to steady him. We all know he shouldn't be doing this, but when Danny sets his mind on something, nothing is going to prevent him from achieving it. (I find out later that Manyama asked him to go down to a lower camp earlier in the day but Danny refused, saying he was set on reaching base camp.)
A walk that should take 10 minutes lasts an hour. When he finally reaches our tent he collapses on the chair, utterly spent. Conversation is beyond him, and he only responds with single words, grunts or gestures. Any energy he has left goes towards taking his next breath. Never have I seen someone push themselves to that point of exhaustion, or display so much determination (and I have seen thousands of people participate in ultramarathons, the ultimate test of endurance). We measure his oxygen saturation - it hovers around the mid-50s. At this elevation you want it to be at least 80%. Mine is up at 93%, although this is considered unusually high. Ginger tea is brought to him, and he shakily takes a few sips. A stew also appears, but he can't stomach the thought of food yet.
The guides stay with him for some time, monitoring his symptoms. They recommend he eats lunch then lies down for a while, to see if his condition improves. He passes on the food, puts on several layers (with assistance), then rests on all fours on the mattress, the position in which he finds it easiest to breathe. The fluid-filled cough from last night hasn't subsided, and his head is pounding. I wait and watch, but the wheeze persists. He sounds like a person with emphysema has just finished a sprint. These are the classic signs of high altitude pulmonary oedema (HAPE) and there's only one solution.