Kilimanjaro: Day 10
"I'm on the roof of Africa, ma!"
Sunday, October 3
A minor miracle: no water issues this morning, and with our 6am and in-the-dark start it couldn't have come at a better time.
Kibo - The Kibo summit is the best-preserved crater on the mountain; its southern lip is slightly higher than the rest of the rim, and the highest point on this southern lip is Uhuru Peak, 5,895m, 19341ft, the highest point in Africa. Kibo is also the one peak that really does look like a volcanic crater; but in fact there are not one but three concentric craters on Kibo. While eruptions are unheard of in recent times, Kibo is classified as being dormant rather than extinct. Within the inner Reusch Crater (1.3km in diameter) one can still see signs of volcanic activity, including fumaroles and the Ash Pit, 130m deep by 140m wide. A strong sulphur smell still rises from Reusch Crater, the earth is hot to touch, preventing ice from forming, while occasionally fumaroles escape from the Ash Pit that lies at its heart.
As predicted, we set off in the dark, with Wilson setting the same steady shuffling pace we'd used to visit the ranger station the previous afternoon. My thermometer read 18°F (-8°C). Simba seemed to have set off even earlier than us, and as we cleared the camp we could see their line of headlamps way up in front of us.
It is interesting hiking in the dark, but I'm very glad we didn't do that all the way up as all the day-trippers were obliged to do. In fact sun up is 6:30, so it did not take long for the horizon to start to brighten, giving us this beautiful view of Mawenzi as we passed slowly by.
Separating Kibo from the second peak, Mawenzi, is the Saddle, at 14sq miles (3,600ha) the largest area of high altitude tundra in tropical Africa. This really was a beautiful, eerie place: a dusty desert almost 5,000m high, featureless except for the occasional parasitic cone dotted here and there, including the Triplets, Middle Red and West Lava Hill, all running south-east from the south-eastern side of Kibo. Today's march was right up this saddle to its top at Stella Point.
Soon after sunrise, and with Baranco camp still in view below us (a little depressing since we'd been on the trail for the best part of an hour already) I snapped this portrait of Mick sucking wind. I've apologized many times to him for how often I've shown it to people, but it is one of my favorite shots from the trip. It shows precisely how everyone of us was feeling at this point.
Little by little the landscape became more and more alien, more barren, and it was hard not to compare it to the moon, right down to the dust we were walking on. Many descriptions of the route complain of sliding backwards with every step, but I found that the slow pace gave me the time to place each foot carefully, and then gradually increase the load until the leg was taking all the weight. This technique seemed to bed the foot in the dust and I had no problem with slipping. It looked to me as if everyone was doing the same thing, because I didn't see them slip either, and I surely would have noticed because by now we were walking so close together we were in lockstep like a centipede, or goslings following mother goose, aka Wilson.
We'd been warned that we would be making minimal stops but with a 5 or 6 hour climb to Stella Point, we were definitely going to need lunch. Wilson helped me struggle out of my pack. "This is way too heavy." He silently unclipped two water bottles and clipped them to his own pack. We were a long way from the point where I might have argued with him. The conversation was over already so I just sat down for lunch.
Spencer spent most of the lunch break filing more paperwork behind a convenient rock. He'd only just reappeared and got his lunch plate in his hands when it was time to suit up. He seemed completely unfazed by the calls to get ready, and in the end we set off without him (leaving a guide behind of course). Stacy seemed to have no problem leaving him. "Spence marches to his own drum. I call it Spencer-time."
It was a very sad moment when we caught up and overtook Nick. This did not bode well, and he did not look well either. He was, of course, resting at that moment, as he must have done often for us to have caught him so quickly.
But we kept moving. In fact despite our shuffling pace, we eventually overtook simba too, and a couple of other groups, one of which had blasted past us once, but now looked in very different shape. They were from Kazakhstan. I might have been hallucinating by then but the image I remember, truth or fiction, is classic movie-definition iron-curtain stuff: scruffy old men in scruffy old overcoats with pints of vodka sticking out of their pockets. CHI-D: "Do you know Borat?" Old man with vodka: "If you come to Kazakhstan I introduce you to his sisters."
Then suddenly the "snow capped peaks" we'd been staring at and photographing for days were fully revealed as glaciers. These were also clear in the satellite shots, and map very nicely to our own (proving that the images were relatively recent?). If I have my geography correct, the one we're walking next to is Decken (the right hand of the two fingers of white descending from the summit.
The documentation says that on Kibo, almost nothing lives. There is virtually no water. On the rare occasions that precipitation occurs, most of the moisture instantly disappears into the porous rock or is locked away in the glaciers. We can attest to that. A brief flurry of snow left small pellets on the ground which as we watched were absorbed, creating a damp patch for a few moments then even that was gone.
The point of Stella Point is that it is not a point, it is a pass. For some reason this shot doesn't really look like a panorama, but it is. We're finally at the pass, the crater opening out in front of us. The path down to the crater floor is clearly visible on the left, heading straight to the horizon just to the right of the packs, but on the extreme left are the folks staying on the rim, and making their way to Uruhu peak, another 40 minutes away.
Stella Point (5756 m) is a resting place for most, and a final destination for many. It is the small pass that marks the top of Kibo, but not the peak, Uhuru, which is 120m higher and 30 minutes from here. There is a splendid satellite image on the maps page which shows pretty clearly where we were, and where we were going (I've traced the route on one of the images.)
Being able to see into the crater is good enough for the many who have battled fatigue, nausea, and/or skull-splitting headaches to get this far. So popular a final destination is this that it is actually marked on the climb certificate we will eventually be awarded. As if to prove the point, "the communists" indeed turn back here.
"Hey man, am I still walkin'?" Our original (scheduled) plan was to descend from here to the crater floor where our camp was set up right under Uhuru, then take the peak by scrambling back up the slope in the morning. Andrew suggested that instead, we press on now. Downside: we don't do the summit at dawn. Upside: surely we can't fail from here; the weather is good, not to say warm; we're in reasonable health and spirits (some better than others); at this time of day we'd have the place to our selves. This seemed like such an obvious choice that it is hard to imagine why the itinerary is set up any other way. We're unanimous: "Lead on, McDuff!"
As we girded our loins for the final assault simba arrived, intact, which was wonderful news because it meant that they were all also almost certain to make it all the way. But I think they also brought with them the much sadder, but not altogether surprising, news that Nick had turned back. This seemed to hit everyone pretty hard, but I know I for one was crushed. He'd pushed so courageously and to get so close must have been as frustrating as it was disappointing. There was no small measure of "there but by the grace ..." to be sure, and this made me even more aware of, and grateful for, the luck that had brought the rest of us successfully to the home straight.
Today you will wake up at dawn and set out for Crater Camp, climbing over 3,500 ft with magnificent views of Mount Mawenzi, Kilimanjaro’s second volcanic cone, to the east. In the afternoon, you will arrive at the crater rim to an arctic moonscape. Camp is set in the wide crater atop Kilimanjaro, in soft sand near the indigo streaked Furtwangler Glacier.
I was definitely in no hurry, set off last and got further behind as I kept stopping to take photographs. Sunday, who was matching me step for step, seemed concerned about my condition, and I suppose he had good reason to be. I was definitely extremely tired, and no doubt was appearing somewhat befuddled, but in fact I was not in any serious discomfort head or gut-wise, and was quite clear in my mind that at this point there was no way I was not going to make it. On the contrary, I suspect that the realization that this goal, this dream that I’d held on to for so many years was in a very short time going to be done, completed, checked, and in the past, and it was this that was causing me to slow down. I'd focused so hard on making it, I'd given absolutely no thought to what it might mean to have made it, past tense.
With the probable exception of the night before each of my children was born, which I spent trying to use shear will-power to ensure that they had all the right pieces in all the right places, I can't think of a time—even a moment—when I was so self-absorbed, self-possessed, self-centered, all channels focused on the one target now just a few hundred yards away.
What if it left me feeling like I had nothing left to reach for? It was my mid-life crisis focused right there in one pivotal moment and place. I was completely unprepared for the size of the emotional mountain that I was suddenly becoming aware that I was dragging up the hill behind me. I didn’t want to get there.
Then finally the last few steps were done, and we were face-to-face with that so-famous ramshackle signpost. It felt like a dream, and perhaps it was. I let go of the mental rope I was using to restrain my QE2-sized emotional baggage, and it slid quietly out of the dry dock and floated harmlessly away. The relief was so intense that my knees buckled and I had to sit down. There were some water works I have to admit. In fact it was all rather pathetic—every time someone tried to talk to me they started again.
I dug out the nip I had brought for the occasion. I poured a little on the ground for the gods, and in particular for Murphy, who although he displays his omnipotence by tripping me up a hundred times a day in small irritating gestures, had once again shown his benevolence by allowing all the important things to be accomplished without mishap. I poured a little on the ground for my old friends, present and absent, family and non-family, though I'm not sure where or why I would draw the line to distinguish between the two. I poured a little on the ground for my new friends, American and African, who must have had some inkling of the importance of the role that they played in getting all of us to this point, but who could have no way of knowing how important a role they played in getting me to this point. This left just a dribble in the bottom of the bottle, which I used to wet my lips. Somehow that seemed hugely appropriate.
Time to man-up. Official portraits needed to be taken, with souvenirs and without, and for some with and and without shirts. Needless to say I was not part of that party. It's all a bit of a blur, but I seem to remember that simba arrived just as we were saddling up for a final time.
Usually, like all male brains, at least one of life's essentials (in alphabetical order: alcohol, chocolate, pork, sex and sport) was always somewhere in my consciousness. For several days now I had become so totally focused on the summit that there was no room for any of these other pursuits. With the target now accomplished, there was nothing left in my head at all.
Given that I was not suffering from any of the physical ailments many of the team were complaining about, I think it is fair to say that I was more mentally exhausted than physically. Either way, I was completely shot. Fortunately the soft scree we were scrambling down only required one to put one foot in front of the other, then gravity did the rest. At 3pm we staggered aimlessly into camp, but as usual Danken was there at the outskirts to take up the navigational duties. I told Wayno I needed to sleep, and crawled into my bag, thinking of the poor "regular" saps who at this point would be looking at returning all the way back down the mountain.
Andrew came in to take my vitals and I think I declined Wayne's offer to bring food, but apart from that I slept right through to the coffee call at 6am the following morning. I therefore missed all the excitement going on in some of the other tents, where things were decidedly less cozy.
First up, CHI-D had apparently done exactly what I did, and crawled directly into his bag when we arrived. The difference was that when Andrew went to visit him, he was still cold. Inside your bag, with your coat on, and still cold is not good. After some discussion, Andrew made the call and ordered him off the mountain. Dixon, one of the senior porters and by far the biggest guy in the team, plus two others were roused and they frog-marched Doug back down to Barafu in the dark.
I have no idea how they made it, I was sooo glad to be sleeping. Of course it was a huge consolation to have made it to Uruhu before this, and here was perhaps the best reason of all to summit that afternoon instead of waiting until morning.
Last but by no means least, there was also a disaster in Spencer and Stacy's tent. There was a mix-up, and they had brought up the wrong bag. They had absolutely everything except the only things they really needed: warm clothes, sleeping bags and bed rolls.
Copyright © 2010 Richard Thomson