Oct 28 – Day 4
Last night our lead guide Ema gave us the option to summit in five days instead of six. I am tired of being cold and sleeping on the ground, so I’m all for getting out of here a day early. But this would mean a double hike today, with a stop for lunch where we would normally camp, then continuing on to our highest camp and waking up at 11PM to begin the summit attempt. So this morning we set out to climb the Barranco Wall, which was my favorite part of the trip so far. It was a near-vertical scramble the whole way up, over loose rock. I was amazed at how the porters could do it with their heavy loads. At lunch I started feeling really nauseous and had diarrhea. I didn’t eat much and felt weak during our afternoon hike, which was uphill over rocky terrain through mist and rain. We are now at Barafu Camp, perched precariously on an exposed ridge at 15,200 ft. It is the coldest, most desolate camp yet, and I start to question why I ever wanted to do this. My body is completely physically exhausted; my mind just feels numb. My only consolation is that no matter what happens, tomorrow we will be heading down.
Oct 29 – Day 5 (Summit Day)
Today we were awakened at 11PM to find the entire ridge and camp blanketed in snow. After a light breakfast we set out at 12:30 into the darkness and falling snow, for our summit attempt. The trail was steep, rocky, and icy, and I still had an upset stomach, but I kept climbing, climbing, one foot in front of the other, sometimes slipping back a step, sometimes nearly falling from dizziness. There were hundreds of others on the mountain trying for the summit, some of them collapsed on the side of the trail. Soon I became very weak and the rest of my group moved ahead as I stumbled and gasped for breath. I was left in the hands of our most experienced guide, Damien, who has summited more than 250 times, once in only two days. If anyone can get me to the top, it is Damien, and he takes my pack and encourages me slowly forward. Hours pass and I concentrate on placing one foot slowly in front of the other, in Damien’s footsteps, trying to take in a deep breath with each step. Music on my iPod keeps my mind occupied but my body is completely drained. There are times when Damien must drag me up a rock face with two hands because I cannot climb myself.
In my full winter gear I am completely useless and Damien stops me every so often to pour water into my mouth and feed me nuts from my trail mix one by one. At one point he sat me down and cleaned my face with a baby wipe because I had neither the energy nor dexterity to wipe the dripping snot from my nose. I want to stop so badly, but every time I sit on a rock to rest, I start to shiver violently, and I fear that my fingers and toes are getting frostbite, even with the warmers inside my gloves and boots. My choices are to sit and freeze or to continue walking. So I walk. After five hours of this, a sliver of bright pink sunrise streaks the sky and I think that I must be almost there. Soon it’s light enough to see the trail ahead and I want to lay down and die. We are about three-quarters up the steepest slope I have ever seen, with much, much more to go. If it had been light when we set out and I had seen the trail I would never have attempted it. It is time to dig deep, to reach down into my soul and give everything I have. I asked myself if I wanted to remember this as the day I gave up or the day I accomplished something of my dreams. And I kept repeating that thought with every painful step.
The view was breathtaking though, high above swirling clouds, pink and orange streaks in the sky, the jagged Mawenzi Peak in the distance, and ice blue glaciers on both sides. Soon we were at the top of the switchbacks and I thought we were almost done. Damien sat me down on a rock and began to feed me again, and I asked how much farther we had to go. When he said another hour and a half I almost fell off the rock. I didn’t think my body could endure even five more minutes. But the trail from here was less steep and we made the summit in good time. As soon as I saw the summit marker I collapsed to the ground and cried with all my heart. Damien picked me up off the ice and held me steady while I bawled like a baby. We took a few pictures at the summit then turned to face the descent.
There are a lot of stories of how difficult an ascent is, but no one talks about how hard it is to come down. Our route is the most difficult of the descents, and I am already completely spent. My legs feel like they are not working properly, and every step is torture. Looking down, I can’t believe what I had just climbed. Steep, steep switchbacks that continued forever into the abyss below. When we reach the switchbacks I sit on the ice and slide on my butt. I race down the glacier, controlling my speed with one foot outstretched, and steering with my gloved hand behind me. It is a bumpy, rocky ride, but so much fun. Finally ice turned to rock and I had to stand and walk. My North Face rain pants were completely shredded and my butt was bruised, but walking was much more painful than sliding. After an hour at that incline, my knees and ankles were in serious pain and my toes were being crushed in the tips of my boots. The downhill part was brutal and it seemed to last forever. I was happy to not have altitude sickness, though, as I passed people vomiting on the side of the trail. I finally stumbled into camp at 11:15. We had been hiking for 11 hours, to 19,340 ft. in elevation.
But the day was not yet over. We still had another camp to make before dark. After a short rest and hearty lunch, we packed our things and headed down even farther, to Mweka Camp at 13,000 ft.
Oct 29 (Day 6)
At Mweka Camp I collapsed in my tent but had trouble sleeping. My mind was wide awake and my body was in a lot of pain. In the morning we had a long downhill hike to the Mweka Gate. I went very slowly down the thousands of muddy, slippery stairs, every step excruciating. I stopped halfway to watch colobus monkeys playing in the trees above, and then later a pair of blue monkeys swung through the branches nearby. I was last to make it to the gate, but thankful it was all over and my goal was accomplished. I hope I will never want to do something like this again, but the climb has changed my life and I am grateful for all I have experienced.