Kilimanjaro, Day 6
Barafu Camp (4673m) - Uhuru Peak (5895m) -
Millennium Camp (3950m) - Mweka Camp (3100m)
One hour. That's all the sleep I achieved. Thousands of thoughts danced around my mind, most notably:
Danny. The anxiety of not knowing how he is, and contemplating every possible outcome.
Wind. It is so strong up here it sounds like a tornado is blowing through the camp. It repeatedly knocks over the condiments on the table inside the tent.
Voices. I hear porters talking to each other at one point, their torches flashing past my tent. I presume it must be time to get up soon, but there's no wake-up call. I discover later that they had just returned from taking Danny down.
My feet. They are frozen.
1 a.m. eventually arrives. I jump up and dress quickly: five layers on top, four on the legs. two pairs of thick socks, two pairs of gloves, two beanies, a buff for the face, plus hand and feet warmers in my pockets and shoes. I look like an inflated snowman. Popcorn is provided as a pre-trek snack, and it disappears within seconds. I then sit impatiently, eager to start the hike to the summit.
As we head off, FC reports that Danny made it down to the next campsite, Millennium Camp, and his condition started to improve. He and the crew stayed there in a hut overnight. My relief is palpable.
The hike commences over large, uneven rocks, some with angles so close to perpendicular I don't know how my boots stick to them. I'm relieved when the volcanic gravel starts half an hour later, which carries me most of the way to the top. The gravel causes me to skid occasionally, but in general it's a fairly solid surface. I was expecting to find the type of loose scree where you take two steps forward and slide back one, but it didn't materialise. I have no idea where the path is, or how FC finds it by torchlight. It all looks the same to me.
FC regularly asks how I am feeling, enquires about the pace and begins conversations to check if I'm coherent. It's comforting to know that he is looking out for me. For once the pace is acceptable, and possibly even a tad too fast. I find I can't wear the buff over my face, as I need to suck in all the oxygen I can get. It sits around my neck and chin for most of the trek.
Not wearing a watch means I have no idea how long we've been walking, how much further it is until the top, or when the sun will start to rise. FC gives me occasional elevation updates, which are the only way I can mark my progress.
Patches of snow appear around 5200m, which is ironic as this is when I start peeling off layers. I'm surprised and relieved by how warm I'm feeling, but it's only 30 minutes later that the cold sets in. The layers go back on, the zips go back up. My lips dry out and my nose runs, and I'm fairly certain snot has frozen to the end of my nose, like icicles (or would that be snotcicles?). At least the snow is hard and compact, making it easy to walk on. We have to be vigilant to avoid any slick ice that has formed alongside the snow.
Halfway up we pass a group of four hikers and their crew. Apparently they arrived at our camp late last night, undertaking the six-day Machame trek. Their guides sing a rhythmic chant as they make their way up. I'm glad FC isn't doing the same.
At 5400m the water in the hose from my water bladder freezes. I have a bottle in my bag, but I can only access it when we stop for breaks (which, at my request, are few and far between). At one rest point, FC offers me ginger tea. The hot liquid is comforting, but as soon as I stand still for more than a minute the cold reaches all the way through to my bones. I tightly grasp the hand warmers in my pockets, providing a small comfort. The only effective remedy is to continue moving.
I battle between wanting to go faster to warm up, and having to put the brakes on to get enough oxygen in. I'm acutely aware of how laboured my breathing is becoming, so oxygen ends up winning this contest. My pace already feels extremely slow, but I end up slowing down even further. I think I would struggle to beat a sloth in a race right now. It's a complete U-turn from the rest of the week.
Slightly below 5500m, FC announces that we have hit the point of no return. He explains that if you make it this far, you will almost certainly make the top. I'm not sure if this is an actual point that all guides know about or just a theory that FC believes in, but it fills me with confidence.
Several times my thoughts wander to memories of overnight ultramarathons I have completed. This experience is similar in many regards: I can't see what's ahead of me, I'm exerting myself to a slightly uncomfortable degree, my breathing is heavy but manageable. Just like in ultras, I know that as long as I keep putting one foot in front of the other, I will make it.
Times flies, and before I know it the first hints of light are appearing on the horizon. Looking up I'm surprised to see we are close to Stella Point, a landmark that indicates we have reached the crater rim. Now the gravel has turned into a fine sand, where our footsteps kick up clouds of dust. As I stop to watch the streaks of colours forming across the sky, I realise I haven't eaten anything on the entire trek. I pull out an energy bar from my bag and discover it is frozen solid. I have to snap pieces off with my teeth and warm them up in my mouth before they become chewable.
Making it to Stella Point is a huge relief. The hard part is done, now it's just a gentle incline around the rim to Uhuru Peak, the official summit. I peer over the ridge and I'm astonished to find the crater full of snow. When I think about it, this shouldn't be that much of a shock, but climbing several volcanoes in the past and never seeing a snow-filled crater has skewed my expectations. Here is my first chance to pull out the camera and, even though the sun hasn't risen yet, I make up for the last five hours by taking hundreds of shots of basically the same view.
As I'm taking photos, a large group of a dozen hikers arrives from the Marangu route (a.k.a. the "coca-cola" route, as there are huts available to sleep in each night. No roughing it like we are in tents). FC suggests we make a move, so I can reach the summit (still an hour away) crowd-free.
The sun finally emerges as we circumnavigate the crater rim. FC points out various glaciers of all shapes and sizes, but I don't remember any of their names. Mt Meru, a 4565m volcano 70km away, stands proud in the soft, dawn light. I am impressed by all the natural wonders, but my mind is preoccupied with reaching the summit.
As we approach the "roof of Africa", Uhuru Peak, we pass the German woman, the first to arrive this morning. After her, there is no one else. Walking up to the official signpost I make a short film for Danny, to show him what he is unable to see. I spin the camera 360 degrees, where there is not a single other person in sight. Emotions overwhelm me - elation that I have achieved my goal, sorrow that Danny isn't beside me, awe of the white wonderland that surrounds me.
My celebration is short-lived. I only have the summit to myself for a few short minutes before the Marangu group arrives. My hands have started to freeze and become incredibly painful (although this doesn't stop me from taking photos), and I know I need to start moving again. The climb took me five hours and 45 minutes, but within 10 minutes of arriving I turn around to commence the journey back around the rim.
Overall 18 people ascend Kili today, which is more than I expected but far below the usual 200. For the thousandth time, I am grateful that I can undertake this expedition without the massive hordes that normally occupy the mountain.
It comes to my attention that there is a distinct lack of wind, both on the ascent and the rim. After listening to the gales that blasted through camp last night, I was certain I was in for a blustery climb. FC says that more often than not there are fierce winds up here, creating unbearable snow storms that whip across your face. I feel very fortunate for the peaceful conditions.
Once we hit Stella Point again it's straight down, first through the sandy scree. FC politely suggests I pull out my poles after watching my independent efforts on this section. They stay out for the remainder of the descent. Downhills are clearly not my forte. As I inch my way forward, FC points out lakes, the Kenyan border and natural features that weren't visible on the way up, but I can't concentrate on anything but my feet. Even with the poles I am slipping with every step. FC ends up supporting me by cradling one arm, allowing me to lean on him for stability. I still slide continuously.
A small ledge appears in front of us and FC tells me to jump down. It'll be okay, he says, I will catch you if you fall. I jump. I fall. He catches me only inches from the ground, but not before I bang my elbow on the rock behind me. I suggest no more jumping. He agrees.
Going down seems to take longer than going up with my cautious progress (in the end it takes half the time, but it doesn't feel that way at the time). Every time I look up, Barafu Camp is way off in the distance. After an eternity I make it back to the rock section, from where it is a semi-easy climb down to camp. By this stage I am sweltering in the sun, and as soon as I reach Barafu I remove 80% of my layers. Our camp has packed up and moved down to the next campsite, leaving me to change my clothes in the gross squat toilets, but I am so hot I don't care. I then quickly brush my teeth, repack my bag, and we immediately set off. After nine hours on the move, I thought I deserved more of a break. Apparently not.
FC receives an update from Manyama: Danny has hiked down to Mweka Camp and is feeling a little better. He will wait for me there. This spurs me on, giving me the motivation to carry on despite my exhaustion. (I find out later that Danny and the crew left Millennium Camp at 3 a.m. as Danny wasn't improving. His wheezing and coughing were keeping everyone awake anyway, so they made the wise decision to move him to a lower elevation.)
The trek down to Millennium Camp begins on the same rocky path we arrived in on yesterday, but then diverts off in a different direction. It's a straightforward, moderately steep descent that thankfully does not require the use of poles (or FC). There is little variation for the entire journey, and the only point of interest is the view of Kilimanjaro behind me. Wildflowers and shrubs increase in number, breaking up the mundane scenery. My stomach grumbles and my energy fades, having not eaten anything all day except for popcorn and an energy bar. I munch on peanuts to hold me over until lunch.
Along the way I see stretchers beside the path, the same type used to transport Danny yesterday. They are comprised of a basic metal rack balanced on a single small tyre, and it does not look at all comfortable (Danny tells me later it isn't too bad once they place a thick sleeping mattress on it). FC says it takes six people to steer it, and I am not surprised. The route is extremely rocky, and full of twists and turns that frequently cause me to skid or come close to rolling my ankle - it would be a nightmare to try to manoeuvre the laden vehicle down this path.
An hour and a half after leaving Barafu I enter Millennium Camp, where I can at last rest. Over half the crew are there to greet me, and they all crowd around to shake my hand, fist bump and congratulate me. Escaping the fanfare I retreat to a seat in the shade, glad to be finally sitting down for the first time in almost 11 hours. Weariness overcomes me and all I want to do is lie down, but first, I must eat. An immense spread is laid before me, including piles of pakodas, gigantic samosas, noodle soup and fruit salad. There's enough food for two people but I shove the majority of it down in record time, partly because I am famished, but mostly because I'm eager to see Danny.
Once I am stuffed full, we hit the trail again. White, jagged rocks form uneven stairs for the entire journey to Mweka Camp, the surrounding short trees forming a gully for me to walk through. An occasional lookout reveals green hills nearby, which is a welcome change of scenery from the grey gravel I've been staring at for days. However, despite the return of the vibrant vegetation, the repetitiveness becomes exasperating. There's no flat section, no smooth sections, not even a different coloured rock - just thousands of white stairs, kilometre after kilometre. The stony steps aren't easy to navigate, and coupled with my fatigue it results in an exceptionally slow pace by my standards. I should be a master of stairs after living in Hong Kong, but right now it's a mental and physical workout I don't need. Every step is calculated, and I can't concentrate on anything else. I am on autopilot, with one aim in mind: Mweka Camp.
Towards the end the trees become taller, providing some shade against the burning sun. The old man's beard moss returns, signalling a significant reduction in elevation. It's quiet except for our footsteps; even birds don't live up here. The path suddenly turns upward, and FC turns to me to announce that there's a 30-minute uphill trek to reach camp. My heart drops. I already feel like I am sleepwalking and I can't fathom the idea of a half-hour climb. In the end it's only 50m. If I had any strength left I would have punched FC for his cruel joke, but I have other things on my mind.
I spot Danny across the campsite and half run/half power walk over to him. I'm overjoyed to see him up and about, until I get close enough to hear him. He is entirely coherent now and much more interactive, but his breathing continues to be audible and strained. Both the wet cough and headache haven't subsided, he feels dizzy and he hasn't eaten. He managed to sleep in the hut beside the campsite this morning, and has been given oxygen from the oxygen cylinder, but he doesn't feel significantly better. I'm in shock that he is still on the mountain.
Danny and I discuss his condition, but for me there is only one option: going down to the town of Moshi. I do my best to convince him that it's too dangerous for him to stay here, that this can be fatal if left untreated. Eventually he agrees, and we talk to the guides about how this would be possible. They make some calls and talk to the porters, and it is decided that he will return to Moshi today and go straight to the Altitude Clinic at the hospital. There is usually a rescue team on Kilimanjaro but they have finished for the day (apparently no one needs rescuing after 3 p.m.), and the emergency helicopter isn't operating due to the low number of tourists on the mountain. A stretcher isn't available due to a lack of porters, so Danny has no choice but to walk the 10km to the gate. I have no idea if he has it in him, but it's safer than staying here.
At 3.30 p.m., Danny commences the final journey with Manyama and three porters. I hate saying goodbye again, especially as we have no way of contacting each other directly, but my only care is that he receives the help he needs. It's an enormous comedown from the high of this morning, but I'm hoping we will be reunited tomorrow.
After a thorough wash wash to remove all the grime from today, I collapse into bed but sleep doesn't come. My mind races through everything that has happened in the last 24 hours, and all the possible outcomes for Danny. The daylight and noise outside my tent also aren't conducive to napping. An hour later, I give up, and seek out FC to go through tomorrow's briefing. It's relatively straightforward: hike 10km to the gate then drive back to Moshi. It's hard to believe that at this time tomorrow, it will all be over.
No one else is camping with us tonight, the German woman having stopped at Millennium Camp, but there is a group staying in the hut. I wonder how much more comfortable they are inside solid walls with enough space to stand up straight, but then I learn that they have to use the same crappy toilets as the campers. Apart from the bitter cold, I haven't minded the tent option.
By 7.30 p.m. I'm in bed, barely able to keep my eyes open. Danny's sleeping bag wasn't taken with him, so I unzip it and spread it over mine. It's by far the warmest night I've had all week. I calculate that today I hiked 17.5km, with roughly 1200m of ascent and 2800m of descent. Generally this wouldn't be a demanding day out, but when it was coupled with high altitude (the entire day was spent above 3000m), one hour's sleep, unstable terrain and over 12 hours on my feet, it made for a gruelling workout. Utterly depleted doesn't even begin to describe how I feel.