Thursday 28 November 2013

o : Kilimanjaro, Day 5 (Summit)

Uhuru Peak
5895m above sea level
Kilimanjaro National Park

Dear o,

I write to you from above the clouds.  The brilliant, sharp blue, almost humming early morning sky suggests nothing of the wicked night it has just emerged from.  I am seated in the snow by the tall set of green signs which tell me I have climbed to the top of Africa.  My beard drips with icicles, my heavy breathing fails to slow down, and after much clenching on the final ascent my hands are barely warm enough to write.  We passed through a storm of ice to get up here, and many didn’t make it.  Some were hit by dizziness and nausea, some by a crushing malaise, and some by the headaches.  One man we’ve traveled up Kilimanjaro alongside, a solidly-built and tough-minded veteran in the Swedish air force, experienced a headache for the first time while climbing instead of the usual 20 minutes after stopping.  At 5500m, just below Stella Point and about an hour an a half from the summit, they got so bad that he had to stop and go back down.

I did have to get up to pee again since last writing to you, but that was it for the night – a deep sleep ushered me to the morning.  The peak above was just as clear as during the cloudless night, just as tranquil, just as inviting.  When the dawn illuminated the valley in which we camped we could discern no trail up or through the wall that hemmed us in, no way to get us any closer to our goal.  And yet the top of the mountain-on-another-mountain was right there, seemingly within arm’s reach.  If we could walk straight up as fast and easy as we could walk straight ahead on flat ground, we’d be there in minutes.  Then again, if you could drive straight up into the sky as fast as you can drive on a highway, you’d be in space in one hour.

After pushing our feet through our wet socks and shoving the breakfast porridge into our gullets we started the second-longest day of this journey, next only to today.  After crossing a creek which cuts the valley in two we found the hidden switchback trail up Barranco Wall and began our ascent – not up to the peak, not yet, but continuing in a rising spiral around it.  The climb was the most technically challenging of the Machame route, and required gripping hands on more than a few occasions.  By the time we reached the top for a spectacular view of our camp the night before the clouds had already started to creep in from the valleys and chasms which slice out Kilimanjaro’s sides.  We descended into the mist, perhaps half as much as we had come up from Barranco, and then reached another creek and high wall to climb – last chance to get fresh water.

As we took a breather and looked around, no longer able to see the summit, I saw some porters going up the scree, deliberate and pole-pole with duffle bags on their heads, past a sign which read, “trail prohibited”.  They were taking a shortcut around Karanga, the camp at the top of the wall in front of us, and heading straight for Barafu Camp.  We were to have lunch at Karanga before moving on to Barafu – I guess the porters weren’t having lunch.  Now that I think of it, I haven’t once seen the porters take lunch.  A quick break here and there, sure, and a good laugh at camp – but not lunch.  Meanwhile, there wasn’t just food at the top of the wall, but a tent to shelter us from the misty rain in which we were served popcorn, hot soup, fried banana and big legs of chicken.  And, a waiter to bring it all in.  This is the way Kilimanjaro is done, and if you want it differently, you’ll need to do your research and find the rare company which breaks the mould.  Of all the people we climbed alongside, and all the people I’ve spoken to from this route and others, nobody has done it another way.  Yes, having a ‘waiter’ up here is absurd and even insulting; but not to him.  He’s got a job, he’s practicing his English, he’s getting experience to be a guide, and he’s getting paid.  I’ll serve my own popcorn to myself when I get down.

After Karanga we trekked on a gentler but seemingly endless upward slope through the mist, step by step and hour by hour, cracking pebbles underfoot.  We all wanted to get to camp fast, to lie down and shut eyes immediately upon arrival in anticipation of the 11pm wakeup, and midnight departure.  We saw Barafu Camp perched on a ridge an hour and a half before getting there, and that made it even tougher.  We descended again into a plain, climbed another wall, and blazed ourselves in the newly broken-out sun just meters away from the first tent.  The Swedish air force officer offered $50 for anyone who might have a Coke.  No one did, at least within earshot.

A little snowfall under the sunshine got us moving again, and camp wasn’t actually that close.  The first tent wasn’t part of the camp, and the real campsite was behind another rock, up another ascent, just a little bit further.  That last little climb to a destination we could see was interminable, but we made it in the sunshine, and once again Kilimanjaro’s peak made an appearance.  It seemed no closer than the night before, and again, we could discern no way up and through the rocks to get to it.  When we did get up to try, it would be dark. 

Sleep yesterday afternoon and evening wasn’t easy to come by.  Perhaps because it was so early (we put our heads onto the clothes-bunch-pillows at 4pm or so), perhaps because of the altitude (Barafu is 4600m up) or the intense alpine wind, or perhaps because of the excitement.  I didn’t have to pee, but couldn’t much shut my eyes either.  At 10:55pm I heard my watch go off and I ignored it.  At 11pm, sharp, the waiter came by with a hot flask to get us up, and we both ignored him.  Not to sleep.  Just to wait.

At midnight the first climbers departed camp, and within minutes a long, scattered train of white headlamp beams shining through the mist formed on the ridge leading from Barafu towards the final wall of ascent – not straight up, of course, but continuing in the spiral.  The moonlight from the night before did not recur, and the air was much, much colder.  The wind had torn down the food tent while I was trying to sleep, and now it was gnawing at our exposed flesh.  I dressed down before we departed, ready to make all my heat on the hard legwork of ascension.

We followed the stretched and jumbling train of lights in silence.  Even going slowly, at the behest of our guide, we overtook several groups in front of us.  It felt good, and the wind calmed to a breeze by the time we reached the first height of land, though we couldn’t see that at the time.  Nothing of the route or the mountain was visible, yet it felt like we were moving well, and that in no time we’d be stepping up to where I sit now.

It was not to be so easy.  Not even close.

Snow started to fall by about 1am, and then the wind picked up again a half an hour later.  By 2am we were in the middle of a blizzard.  Our already short footsteps slowed to about one per every two or three seconds, and the deep, biting cold moved from my toes and fingers to my ears and cheeks, then to my neck, and then to my chest.  I was cold in my core, and I recognised the danger.  Hypothermia is a significantly greater risk at high altitudes because the body has a correspondingly harder time making and retaining heat.  But altitude or not, my cold weather training from those teenage years kicked in and whispered.  This was a dangerous temperature with a dangerous wet wind, and I was wearing a dangerously little amount of clothing (four layers on top, two below, two heavy pairs of socks, plus my face, head, neck and hands covered – and still not enough).  I could feel the warmth leaving my legs and my head, despite the fabrics which covered them and my hands which rubbed them.  Unable to pass the guides I started hopping on the spot to manufacture more heat, but it wasn’t working.  When we stopped behind a giant boulder for water, which was on the verge of freezing, I threw down and opened my bag and asked for help to get dressed.  I couldn’t move my fingers well enough to do it myself, and the guides obliged.  Quick, I said, because the pack itself had been keeping some of the heat in.  I felt like I was racing against time. 

The clothes helped, and I found myself ascending more like a big puffy ball of forced deep breathing instead of the breezy low heart-rate mountain climber I wanted to be.  And the climb, and the weather, and the night, continued.  The rocks drifted in and out of view at the beckoning of those with headlamps, and in the interstices of light I saw only the landscape of Mars.  At one point I went off to pee my transparent pee, and went a step too far.  Freddy called out to me and for the first time I heard nerves in his voice.  I looked down and found myself peering and peeing over the ledge of a mountain.  I imagined myself peeing over the peak, but in my headache-addled, dead-frozen brain, I knew better.

Somehow the hours passed, and at 5am a long, thin slice of pale yellow light appeared in the sky directly behind us.  Our footsteps lengthened a little, and quickened a little more, but we could not race the sunrise.  An hour later, as we were still on the wall, the sky turned to blood and the terrible sun poked up from the horizon.  As if in answer, the clouds which had howled at us with snow and frostbiting wind through the night dissipated, and blue sky took over.  By the time we reached Stella Point (5735m), it was no longer dawn, but day.

The final march from Stella to where I sit now at Uhuru, was even more interminable than the final ascent to Barafu the day before – and again, we could see the peak the whole way.  It was a rather gentle climb, and a short distance, as far as our eyes could tell.  But our legs and bodies told a different story, and I felt like a pawn in Zeno’s paradox.  Every step we took seemed to get a little shorter, 99% of the previous step, and always a fraction of the step yet to come – always moving forward, yet never getting to the end.  At least we weren’t turning around.  No, we were definitely not turning around.

The final spiral up to the peak passed alongside the great volcanic crater to the right, and in view of sublime Mawenzi Peak behind it.  Solid, blocky glaciers ringed the side down the mountain, and below them the clouds broke up now and again to reveal plains so far away that it wasn’t possible to see their colour.  At this plateau there is nothing else to match it.  The eyes seek a higher point but are defeated, and the brain struggles to connect this gentle patch of snow with the beckoning, majestic peak seen below.  The sign congratulates us, but there is nothing behind it.  No treasure under the rainbow, no jar in which to shove our Kiljoys-were-here.  Just snow and a few others sitting around, a little breathless, a little shocked, a little too rushed to get all the photos in (and thankfully their batteries made it).

So, what am I trying to say, it’s the journey that counts, not the destination, blah blah?  No, not at all – it is the destination, where I am, that sparks me to write.  The journey fills it, forms it, makes it, but I wouldn’t have written you from the rock I changed my clothes on in the middle of the night, or a patch of snow 20m down the path, or Barafu Camp.  It is stunning here, otherworldly, awesome in the true sense of the word.  It’s just that I can’t stay.  I can’t hang out.  So, if I’m only up here for a matter of minutes, it must be the voyage that is the real end point, or bust. Right?

No, let me try again.  This is the summit of Kilimanjaro, this is the top of one of Africa’s wonders, this is the cap of a continent, and you better feel damn privileged that I stopped to write you a note.

How’s that?  No?  Oh, forget it.  I could keep trying to come to the point over and over again, but it will feel the same as the spiral we took around this mountain to get to its peak, circling and circling, ascending and descending and ascending again.  Maybe I’ll get there eventually, but I’m getting cold, and the air is too thin.  And Freddy, our guide, is telling me its time to go.  According to him this is a dangerous place.

He’s right, of course.  But it sure doesn’t look like it.



Dawn, Barranco (Day 4)
Dawn, Barranco Camp (Day 4)
Looking up at Barranco Wall (Day 4)
Barranco Wall (Day 4)
Halfway up Barranco Wall (Day 4)
Near Karanga Camp, Day 4
Mist coming in (Day 4)
Assistant Guide Victor, break time (Day 4)
Barafu Camp (Day 4)
View back from Barafu Camp (Day 4)
Barafu Camp (Day 4)
Towards Uhuru Peak (Day 4)
Toilets, Barafu Camp (Day 4)
Guide Freddy, beginning of the snowstorm (Day 5)
Growing dawn (Day 5)
Dawn (Day 5)
Dawn (Day 5)
Dawn (Day 5)
Kilimanjaro's Kibo plateau, with Uhuru Peak to the left (Day 5)
Glaciers (Day 5)
Towards Mawenzi Peak (Day 5)
Approaching the top (Day 5)
Near Uhuru Peak (Day 5)
Mawenzi Peak (Day 4),
before the snowstorm
Mawenzi Peak (Day 5),
after the snowstorm