Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Day 4 -6,000 Meters – Midnight Summit Attempt

This was the hardest thing I will ever do in my entire life.

I managed to get 1.5 hours of sleep – which after the exhausting climb up to this altitude is not much at all. We woke up at 11pm and were outside at midnight this morning. The only thing we had for breakfast was tea, biscuits, and a slice of bread. No one is hungry anyway.

Conditions are miserable, but oh you should see the stars. There is no light pollution out here in the middle of nowhere, and we’re so high up that there isn’t much atmosphere getting in the way. You can see the Milky Way so clear…and the planets are so bright they’re like spotlights. Any other time of the year I would pay anything for a view like this and an hour with my telescope, but tonight I can only muster a passing glance.

The climb up to the crater seemed as though it would never end. It was just switchbacks back and forth for six hours. I collapsed into the rocks and snow three times. Every person in the group has an assistant guide with them so that if some of the climbers don’t make it, the rest of the group is not compromised. We were told how the guides would check you for symptoms of altitude sickness, but mine would just let me lay on the rocks for ten to twenty seconds before poking me with my walking stick to tell me I need to get up and keep going. Sarah had almost no problem at all, and we’re not sure why. She was able to breath reasonably well, but apparently my body is not suited to mountain climbing.

Reaching the crater brought sheer euphoria. The sun was just beginning to rise, and one side of the mountain was on fire (the mountain burns easily and has frequent forest fires). There were so many opportunities to take pictures of a lifetime, but I just couldn’t muster the strength to get the camera out of the bag and take a picture, so I missed a lot of them. I just didn’t care about pictures anymore. At about 18,000 feet the oxygen content of each breath you take is only half what it is at sea level. When you walk up here, you walk heel-to-toe, and at this altitude you run out of breath after taking just three steps as if you had just sprinted a quarter-mile.

The crater rim was amazing, but it is not the highest point in Africa. That is Uhuru Peak, and it is another two-hour hike from there. After the climb to the crater though, it almost seemed easy. The final part of the climb up to the crater (called Gilman’s point) involved a lot of rock climbing.

The final hour or so was all scaling over icy boulders, which I did not see coming. Every so often, you would encounter someone easing their way down, having failed in their conquest, their bodies giving out. A few would not be able to stand on their own, and you could see their legs dropping out from under them as they tried to hang on to their guides.

This is us after completing the six hour climb to the crater rim. Sarah tried to combat the extremely dangerous situation of having all of your water bottles freeze up by keeping one of hers around her neck and under her ski jacket, but the lid froze onto her canteen anyway. Unfortunately at this altitude water bottles freeze, so I couldn’t pack them on the outsides of my pack.
This made drinking water even more of a battle than it already would have been at 5,000-6,000 meters. As a result, I didn’t drink enough and was starting to feel the effects of dehydration.

The hike from the crater to Uhuru Peak was beautiful. I went for a walk on the equator and walked by glaciers. That will stay with me forever.
I would say that of everyone who had made it to Kibo Huts and made the summit attempt, half or less made it to the peak.

You can’t stay up this high for long without oxygen, so we stayed at the summit for perhaps five minutes, took our pictures, and started descending to safety. We made it.

On the way down, the dehydration continued and I ran out of carbs. This happened to me on my 2005 Ride for the Roses 100 mile bike ride as well, and it was just as painful this time. I just can’t keep food down when my body is working this hard though, and we had almost no breakfast (and it wasn’t lunch time yet) so I hadn’t eaten enough even though I was fully aware of the situation. I almost couldn’t make it off the summit. I finally arrived at Kibo Huts at about 10:45 am (having left at midnight). Sarah had arrived a bit earlier. She could breathe better and keep food down, but her feet were starting to swell.

The last time I felt like this was after the Ride for the Roses, and Sarah had to help me do everything – down to opening the car door and fastening a seat belt. Today, we were both suffering, and yet we still had a four-hour hike to go. Remember, we can’t sleep at Kibo. I collapsed into a bed at Kibo and begged my crew for twenty minutes. They gave me a bowl of warm soup, which I couldn’t really eat, and then despite the fact that neither Sarah nor I could hardly walk, we started our hike. I threw up 45 seconds into the hike. Our assistant guides ended up taking our daypacks and carrying them on their heads while we hobbled part way down the mountain.

We finally arrived back at Horombo at 4:10 pm – 16 hours straight of hiking on little food or water. I got into my sleeping bag and stayed there until 7am the next morning.

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