Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The light snake winds its way to heaven

Five upper garments on my torso, two buffs, a beanie and a hoodie on my head, four pairs leggings, two pairs of socks under my extra-thick hiking boots; two pairs of gloves and a set of thermochemical handwarmers on my cold-prone paws.

This is how I will summit Kilimanjaro. Along with my 17 companions. This I deludedly promise myself, as if my fate were actually in my hands.

The truth is, none of us know if we have what it takes to make it to the summit. From Barafu camp to Uhuru is 1 300m – almost the altitude rise from PE to Jo'burg – and we're going to do it on foot. In five hours. 

Last night's O2-sat readings have qualified us for the attempt. "The science says we should all make it," says our leader. "I know we're gonna do it."

We gather in the mess tent for a last tea or coffee, stamping our feet and breathing steam like packhorses in the marketplace.

Over the past five days, we've all fought our way through headaches, nosebleeds, nausea, insomnia, loss of appetite, wet, scary coughs, wipe-outs, bizarre eyeball haemorrhages and insane breathing difficulties to reach 4 600 metres above sea level.

"I'm not gonna lie to you," says John, as he tends to at the beginning of his sentences. "This is definitely gonna be the hardest climb of our trip."

Too soon after that, we've skulled our coffees, blearily chanted, "Uhuru" a couple of times and begun our assault on the summit. It is 12.30am.

The world shrinks to universe the size of a headlamp beam. The heels of the climber in front of you. The growl of loose scree beneath our boots. The shriek of breath through your tortured lungs. 

The shattered rockfield is a maze. Only our guides could possibly know the route. But it's so hard. After half an hour I look back towards the lights of Barafu and realise that we've barely left the camp.
And we are not alone. At least a hundred climbers are summitting tonight. Up ahead a silver snake of headlamps slithers up Uhuru, up to heaven. 

We stop every hour to hydrate, eat and rest. But soon the pipes of our water bladders are frozen. "Minus twelve," recites one of our number from his wrist gadget.

After the first stop I find I'm staggering a little and feeling lightheaded. I stuff a length of frozen droëwors down my neck and soldier through it.

After four hours the back-up water stashed in the warmth of my backpack is finished. A glacier is just visible to our left. I'm starting to lose feeling in my hands…

It's around five when things start getting truly surreal. 

Silence, just the gasps.

The oke in front of me starts stumbling worse than usual and groaning like he's having a nightmare.
The other guy starts lying to his wife, "Kom, ons is binne twintig minute bo."

The guides at the back and the front of our party start hollering at each other. Something's gone wrong down the rear of the company. After another exchange, John the Head guide gives us the report-back: "Our party is now fifteen."

Three people have dropped out. Or been evacuated. As we speculate, they're probably being wheeled down the mountain at pace on one of those stretchers with the bicycle wheel on the front of it.

There's barely a grunt of acknowledgement from the rest of the company. We just keep on keeping on. The sound of boots on scree is like a spade shovelling limestone. 

Chests burning, hearts pounding like never before, we take the 6am break in absolute silence. "Forty-five minutes to Stella Point, " says John. 

There's an orange rim on the horizon now. It's just so cold, bru.

The last of the droëwors sticking like something you choke on, I put my backpack on again, take up my trekking poles and start marching. If I delay another second, the shiver that's taken hold of me will click into hypothermia.

There's ice on both sides of us now. Still the silver snake winds its way to heaven up ahead of us. The sound of shovelling gravel…

And then we're there. We've crested Stella Point. We're on the crater rim! We're as good as there! I crawl over the edge and collapse into a sitting position. The orange glow is phosphorescent now, and the climbers behind me are silhouetted against the sunrise as they summit. Some raise their hands in triumph, others kneel down and start retching.

I turn to my fellow climber Jacques. We share what's meant to be a laugh, but we both just start sobbing.

It's the hardest thing I've ever done.

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