Trekking for charity
After 6 days of trekking through amazingly varied landscapes and practising walking ‘pole, pole ‘ which means ‘slowly, slowly’ we were about to embark on the final ascent of Kilimanjaro to a height of 5,895 metres above sea leve
We set off at 00.30 bathed in bright moonlight from the huge full moon; the massive silhouette of the mountain rose in front of us and tiny specks of light twinkled on the path ahead from other trekkers already on their way up. By now we automatically walked ‘pole, pole’, but tonight it was because we just could not go any faster. The pace was very slow but steady, and when the guides suggested a rest for a few minutes one immediately felt cold and limbs began to stiffen. Some of us did not want to stop but rather go on ‘slowly, slowly’ making progress. However the guides were strict and we all moved together and all rested together. When some of us found it hard and tried to rest longer they chivvied us and would not let us sit down. ‘Don’t sleep. Don’t sleep. You die!’ I heard them say to someone squatting by a rock with his head in his hands. It was steep and hard and slow, but when i had the energy to look back I could see that we were making definite progress. We trudged mainly in silence; each of us wrapped in our own determined worlds, shrouded in our own thoughts. One step at a time, each step one step nearer the summit, one step nearer our goal.
For my water supply I had decided to use my ‘Camelbak’ first as it had an insulated cover and then the ‘platypus’ that I carried wrapped inside my rucksack. I thought that this should last me well into the ascent. I had managed, with a great deal of difficulty, to acquire an insulation cover for the pipe but still had to remember to blow back into the bag to clear the pipe after every drink to prevent the liquid freezing. I had not appreciated quite how hard this would be and how breathless I would become after each sip. However, despite the preparations, within minutes the duckbill mouthpiece froze making sipping difficult and within half an hour both water reservoirs were frozen. My insulated pipe had lasted no longer than anyone else’s with no insulation! All this meant that rather than sipping as I walked I had, at each stop, to take off my rucksack, unscrew the pipe which was freezing and drink the semi frozen water directly from the bag. The icy water struck my warm stomach like a knife but I knew I would need to go on drinking if I was to make it to the top. We rested for a few minutes quite frequently and sometimes I nibbled a hard cold cereal bar or crunched on a semi-frozen jelly baby.
The air on my face was cold but I was toasty warm so long as I was moving; in fact after a couple of hours I was too hot and took off my waterproof jacket and undid the side zips of my waterproof trousers. Being slightly too long the trousers flapped around my feet and I kept standing on them. I stopped to take them off. It only took a few seconds and I quickly stuffed them in my rucksack but when I looked up the person I was following had got a fair way ahead. It was probably only 20 yards or so but they seemed miles away. I tried to quicken my pace slightly to catch up and immediately was gasping. I was probably walking slower than I had ever walked and yet I was gasping for air. There was nothing I could do but just plod on ‘pole pole’ and hope they did not get further ahead. Eventually they stopped to rest; I was tempted to speed up but knew I couldn’t. It seemed like minutes before I reached them and as I got there, wanting to rest, they were ready to move on as they were starting to get chilled. I felt better though without the constriction of the extra layer of my waterproof jacket and felt pleasantly warm rather than overheated. We trudged on and on; up and up; so, so slowly but always onward. I felt strangely happy, and at peace. The moon was so bright it was almost like the watery sun on a winter’s day and you expected to feel its warmth rather that the steely cold. Walking became automatic, almost trance-like. I was so tired, totally exhausted with limbs so heavy I could hardly lift them and yet I felt like I was drifting along. It was a strange experience as if I was drifting upward in another dimension watching my bodily self struggling. It was as if those exhausted limbs were not part of me. Random thoughts flitted through my mind. I must try to concentrate. Was this a sign of altitude sickness? Was I becoming confused? Was this dissociated state real or imaginary? I looked around me. Upward the shadowy mountain still loomed, downward a long trail with small head torches glinting along its route and around me the rest of our team all totally absorbed in their own worlds, all plodding on like old tired machines. They looked how I felt. Were we all feeling the same I wondered? I wanted to ask but I felt I did not want to intrude. I was completely happy in my little world and did not want to share it. I assumed everyone else felt the same.
Wet and limestone not being a good combination we decided on grit-Cratcliffe. Neither of us had been before and it would be a second new place for Simon this weekend. At 8am it was still not looking promising but then suddenly the sun came out and in a matter of minutes summer had arrived.
As we rested we talked a little: sometimes we shared snacks, sometimes we changed our order, but when we were moving we all retreated into our private worlds and ‘slowly, slowly’ the summit got closer. I could not remember ever being this tired before. Once I was desperate for a drink and throwing off my rucksack said to Lee ‘I’m giving up’. I meant just for a short time for a drink but he immediately retorted ‘No, you’re bloody not!’ At one point Kay was struggling and started dropping back, at first others encouraged her but within a few minutes she was feeling really ill and vomiting. It was a shock, jolting me back to reality. Kay had always been one of the forerunners on every trek and of all of us seemed to have been one of the best prepared. How could it be she was now ill? Would she have to turn back? How disappointing would that be, especially as it was soon going to be dawn. Surely it could not be that much further. We were getting cold and needed to move on. The rest of us set off again passing Kay who was with a porter and Matt. I felt a pang of guilt but deep inside we all knew we could only help each other so much and at the end of the day each of us could only get to the top on our own personal inner strength. However after a few minutes Kay was on her feet again, and though at the tail end of the group was back striving for the summit.
I had lost all concept of time when suddenly a faint orange glow began to form in the sky and rapidly grew and stretched across the purple, grey sky. Dawn was breaking. My heart leapt at the thought of sunrise. I suddenly realised it had been a long, long night and now the sun was rising. It was a new day; a bright new day. The day on which we would reach the summit. I looked up and realised the top of the ridge was not far away. It really was attainable. We were almost at Stella Point. We almost fell to the top of the ridge at Stella Point. This was a significant landmark: we had reached the top of the steep face; we had done the most difficult bit. Now we just had to walk around the crater rim and we would be there.
We rested a while in the shelter of a large rock, drank some strong warm tea from our flasks and prepared for what I thought would be a gentle walk. Sure it was still uphill but we could see the ridge ahead of us. It did not occur to me that I could not see the rickety signpost from all the summit photos I had seen. It was tempting to set off quickly as the end was in sight, but immediately we realised ‘pole pole’ was the only way. We began again, one step after another and so, so, slowly the ridge got closer. I was with Steve but we walked in silence and finally reached the ridge. As we stepped up onto it at the same time we realised it was a false horizon. Far, far away in the distance the summit taunted us. We had really believed that we were almost there. A string of expletives filled the air. We threw ourselves on the ground. I was crying. I couldn’t go on. I didn’t even want to go on. I wanted to stay there, lying on the ground. For me this was the top. I thought Steve felt the same and later he admitted that he too had just wanted to stay there, and for everyone to leave him alone. Scott had joined us now. He had also thought this was the top. All three of us stared in silence. Then Scott was speaking to us, encouraging us. I don’t know what he said. I don’t know if I even heard him. I just heard his voice, not his words . . . and then I was walking again. Walking very slowly and deliberately, but walking. Walking to the summit. And Steve was too; and Scott. We were going to make it to the summit.
The view was amazing. The glaciers were stunning, standing serenely with the sun reflecting off them and a blanket of cloud behind them. We walked between ridges of frozen snow and looked down toward the snowy crater. It was fabulous. All around us were the most marvellous photo opportunities but I was too tired to notice, too tired to get the camera out. All I wanted now was to reach the crooked old signpost.
I reached the summit alone. Gordon was already there, sitting alone on the rock beyond the signpost. I took off my rucksack, laid down my walking poles and sat down. I was here. I had made it. Suddenly I was crying. Sitting on a cold rock on the tallest free standing mountain in the world; almost 6 kilometres above sea level staring at the amazing scenery through a veil of tears. I don’t know how long I sat there. I don’t know how many people will get their summit photos back and see a pathetic woman in a green down jacket huddled in the corner crying.
After a while I realised I wasn’t tired now and I wasn’t crying. I was at the top of Kilimanjaro I needed to take photographs. I needed to find the rest of the team; we needed to be together. I took a photo of the sign and of my rucksack propped up against the rock even remembering to check the 1000mile logo was visible. Then I walked over to Gordon. We didn’t speak at first, we just hugged and then we were both crying. We went back to the signpost and started meeting the others; Dave, Scott, and Steve. We were all hugging each other, most of us were crying. It was such an emotional experience. I do not know if it was happiness or sadness, relief, elation or just total exhaustion. The rest of the team were joining us now, we were jostling for chances to get photos at the summit of each other and trying to get everyone together for a group photo. Dan had removed his shirt and was smoking his victory cigar. This was it; this was what we had come for. Some people had waited two years for this moment. We had reached the summit of Kilimanjaro. I wanted this moment to go on forever.
|The summit (click on image to view in Flickr)|