Altitude: 4600m – 5000m? – 3100m
(This entry is light on pictures and heavy on words…sorry!)
We woke up at 10:30pm, and I was a little tired, but excited. I tried to wear as much as I could, and ended up in:
- Short-sleeve t-shirt
- SmartWool Baselayer top
- Long-sleeve t-shirt
- Ski jacket (with hood)
- Long-john bottoms
- Hiking pants
- Thick SmartWool socks
- Knit cap
- Ski gloves
To save on weight, we removed everything from our packs but water, snacks, and rain gear. We kept our CamelBaks completely in our backpacks, because as we got higher and the temperature dropped, the water in the tube would freeze. Instead, Richard told us he’d stop us for periodic water breaks. After some tea and cookies, we were off, right at 11:30.
It was, of course, pitch black, so we wore our headlamps and hiked single file. Richard led, then came me, then Amanda, and Filbert brought up the rear. Richard carried nothing, but Filbert still carried his large backpack. The trail was immediately steep and switchback-y, but I started out feeling really good. I was most worried about being cold, and I was actually hot, so that was reassuring. As before, I had to keep myself from looking up, and just tried to keep my headlamp trained on Richard’s heels, and just took one step at a time.
The terrain was all steep sand, rocks, and scree, and really seemed neverending. At each water stop, the instant I stopped moving, I’d immediately get chilled, and even after we continued, I never really felt like I warmed up. My steps got slower and slower, and eventually I fell into a lumbering rhythm: breath in and move a trekking pole forward, breath out and take a step. Over and over. Every so often I’d sneak a glance up at the sky, hoping to see the beginnings of sunrise, but the sky stayed dark.
After a while, my stomach started to feel strange, and I thought I might be getting hungry. I made a note to myself to eat a snack at our next water break. Even though I was wearing ski gloves with handwarmers in them, the wind bit right through them, and my fingers started to hurt, so while I was gripping my trekking poles, I was wiggling my fingers to get some feeling int them. Eventually, Filbert took our trekking poles, and I just balled my fists in my gloves in a vain attempt to keep them warm. All the while, the wind was blowing so strongly that it would occasionally make me stumble backwards or to one side. My jacket proved itself to be insufficient for blocking out the wind, and I started to shiver.
At our next water break, I mentioned that I thought I might be hungry, though at this point it has morphed into some unholy hunger/nausea hybrid, so I really wasn’t so sure myself. I drank some water (and sucked some ice into my mouth, despite the CamelBaks being inside our packs), and got out a ‘fun-size’ Snickers bar. When I put it in my mouth, I realized two things: 1) It was frozen, and 2) I was most definitely not hungry. As soon as I bit into it, my stomach churned, and I gamely tried to swallow it, but eventually decided to spit it out instead.
We continued on, and although I had spit the Snickers bar out, there was still bits of chocolate and peanut in my mouth, and every time I swallowed, I would gag a little. Eventually, it was too much, and I bent over and retched. Nothing really came out, but I took the opportunity to spit out the remaining bits of chocolate and peanuts in my mouth, and I actually felt better. Richard immediately was at my side and put his hand on my back and asked me if I was okay. I told him that I was feeling okay, but that I was very cold. Amanda took her rain jacket out of her bag, and Richard and Filbert helped me put it on, in hopes that it would block out the wind. Richard also took my backpack from me.
We continued on, but I knew I was going at a snail’s pace. I was still shivering quite hard, and my stomach had started to heave again. I also felt an odd sort of tired, where I just wanted to lay down and sleep. I even felt my eyes drifting shut as I walked. We walked for another 30 minutes or so, and I had stopped to rest, and Richard turned to me, and asked me what I wanted to do. Amanda asked how far it was to Stella Point, the first major landmark on the way to the summit, and one that would earn you a certificate upon leaving the park. Richard said it was pretty far still.
I looked up and couldn’t see the peak, and I looked out at the sky, and could still see no sign of sunrise. I stood there shivering for a few moments, and I eventually turned it Richard, and said the words that I had been dreading:
“I don’t think I can do it.”
Richard nodded, and said a few words in Swahili to Filbert, and handed him a headlamp. I told Amanda that she should go on, but she said she didn’t want to summit without me. So without much more than that, Filbert looped his right arm around my left, took my hand in his, and we started descending. Fast.
The terrain at this point was all sand and scree, and he took large steps down, doing something inbetween running and sliding, while I slid down on my heels beside him. It was still pitch black outside, and all we could see was what was illuminated with our headlamps. Eventually, he took my headlamp off my head and held it in his left hand to use as a flashlight. I had no idea where we were going, and the combination of the dark and the incredibly fast descent was disorienting. Every so often, he would pause, unsure of which direction to go, so he’d shout up a question to Richard, who was descending with Amanda behind us. Richard would shout down an answer, and we’d keep going. A few times, I asked to stop and rest, and each time we did, Filbert put his arm around my shoulders, and said only, “Breathe. Breathe…”
We must have gone higher than I thought we did, because even as fast as we were going, the descent took much longer than I expected. Eventually the terrain got a little rocky, so Filbert would lower himself down, then reach out his hands to help me down. We walked, and walked, and walked. My knees ached and my stomach turned, but suddenly I looked up, and we were at the back side of our tent.
Filbert sat me down on a rock in front of the tent, and I looked at my watch. I thought that no more than 2-3 hours had passed, so I was surprised to see that it was 5:30am. Filbert brought out a thermos of hot water from his backpack, and made me tea. I drank it, and my stomach protested, but only a little. After a bit, Richard and Amanda arrived. I thanked Richard and Filbert, then we got inside the tent, where I crawled into Amanda’s sleeping bag.
To say I was disappointed would be an understatement. For whatever reason, I had always assumed I’d reach the summit. When Amanda and I talked, we’d always come up with contingency plans for if she got sick and couldn’t summit, and I didn’t, but rarely the reverse. When Amanda zipped the tent flap closed, everything that had happened – and not happened – over the previous six hours hit me, and I cried. Probably partially in frustration and disappointment, and from some part of me, in fear of what could have happened. Eventually I fell asleep, and stayed asleep for a few hours.
When I awoke, I was feeling physically fine, but the disappointment was crushing. I hadn’t made it to Stella Point, much less Uhuru Point. I hadn’t even seen snow. I beat myself up and second-guessed myself. I probably wasn’t that sick, right? I wasn’t hallucinating. I didn’t have a headache. I only threw up once. I was weak. I told myself over and over that I should have just kept going. The logical part of my brain was pretty convinced that it was the right decision to turn around, but the stubborn emotional part of my brain knew that I really wanted to summit. And I didn’t. There were a lot of tears.
Eventually, Richard came by and told us that we should try to eat. We made our way to the mess tent and I had some soup. Richard came by to check on us, and Amanda mentioned that I needed some cheering up. I started to cry again. He put his arm around me and said, “It’s okay, Sha Sha. It’s just a mountain. It will always be there. Life is more important than climbing a mountain.” I pulled myself together, and told him that this just meant I’d have to come back some day and try again. He smiled and said, “We will wait for you.”
After packing up, we started our descent to Mweka Camp, our last campsite. I was feeling better, but still somber, and the descent was absolute murder on the knees. But we followed Filbert down and made it to Mweka without incident. This camp was back in rainforest territory and at a (relatively) low altitude, so that picked up my spirits a bit. I was also glad to be out of the hell hole that was Barafu Camp, which at that point we had renamed ‘The Deathly Hallows.’ Even the porters seemed to be in high spirits, and there was a lot of talking and laughing.
We passed most of the rest of the day by reading from The Little Stranger. While we were in the tent, it started to rain, and we heard one of the porters approach the tent, and dig a little rain trench around it. Just a small reminder at how well taken care of we were. At dinner, Richard came by and we decided to set off the next morning at 7:30am.