Monday, 25 August 2014

Summit to be proud of

“At midnight, we walk,” said our 70 year old guide, Fataeli, last Tuesday evening.

Over the course of 3 days, we had trekked with our leader and his team of guides and superhuman porters through lush rainforest, across moorland, and up to sparse alpine desert to reach an altitude of 4700 m above sea level and a hut where we could rest for 4 hours before the final ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

We had been given three main pieces of advice before we left days earlier: “Drink lots, apply sunscreen, and go slowly”. Dehydration can contribute to the effects of altitude sickness but, sticking rigidly to the first piece of advice, I was beginning to think someone was having a joke as altitude increased but vegetation cover and temperature decreased. A man of few words, Fataeli didn’t labour the point, he just pointed out suitable rocks and waited patiently as we disappeared to pee again.

Porters walk towards the Alpine desert as Kilimanjaro's Kibo peak lurks behind the clouds.
















The idea to climb Kilimanjaro came from my friend, Hong, earlier this year. She’s one of those friends that gets out and does stuff. I like people like that. There’s nothing more flattering then when they ask you to join them; it makes you realise that they think you might be capable of doing it too. As my friend Laura says, “if you want to do something amazing, surround yourself with amazing people.” So when Hong asked me if I’d like to join her on this adventure, I jumped at the chance.

We left Kibo Hut at midnight in total darkness: 10 other inspiring people who say “yes” to things in life and a team of 6 talented local guides there to help make that happen. With over 300 ascents of Kibo peak to Fataeli’s name, a dodgy knee and laboured gait belied a wealth of experience, total respect from each and every guide on the mountain, and a steady pace that would maximise our chances of successfully reaching the summit. I tried to stay in line behind him, following his torch as he picked out the best route through the volcanic rocks.

Looking up the steep scree climb ahead, a zig-zag of head torches stretched above as far as I could see, making it difficult to tell where the mountain stopped and the stars began. Warned that this would be a mental challenge as much as physical, I opted to look instead at the feet of the person in front and just keep moving forwards. I counted 20 steps at a time and, when I reached the target without vomiting from the altitude, I grinned with triumph; when that became too difficult, I mumbled with each individual footstep, “I can... I can... I can..."

Fataeli’s pace continued like a train. Becoming dizzy and fatigued from the altitude, I could only take two steps forward, before slipping backwards one on the scree, or lurching precariously to the side as I lost my balance. I thought that coping with the mental challenge would be my strength, but when you feel sick as you walk, yet even sicker from cold when you stop, it started to feel like my stubborn streak had met its match and I began to fall behind. When I finally came to a standstill, wondering how I was going to carry on, I felt two hands clutch my shoulders and steady me. “Slowly slowly, take your breath,” came a voice, singing gently behind me. One of the guides, Augustin, had hung back to walk with me and didn’t leave my side again.

We reached Gilman’s Point, the summit of the Marangu route, at 5685 metres at about 6 o’clock in the morning. I flopped down onto a rock next to Fataeli and groaned; giggling, he handed me a cup of tea, nudged me in the ribs and pointed to the sun rising behind us, and then to Augustin who was encouraging me to stand up and push on for another 2 hours towards the Uhuru summit, the highest point in Africa. My stubborn streak might have been wavering but theirs certainly weren’t.

Yes we can,” said Augustin, seeing the look on my face, “Obama said that, and now so do we.” Maybe he’d heard my mumbling earlier, or maybe only this kind of positivity can survive above this altitude, but I liked his attitude and I stood up again.

Thawing slowly as the sun rose, we stopped every few minutes for me to catch my breath or drink water, while Augustin took photos on my camera. I normally prefer to hide behind the lens but he was keen to ensure that each moment was captured and, among some stunning landscape photographs, I acquired a fine collection of altitude-induced gurning shots that will allow me to relive the suffering more accurately than any description here could. “Even at our pace, the top is only 10 minutes away now,” he reassured me, taking me by the hand and leading me along the final climb to the rooftop of Africa at 5895 metres above sea level. He took a few more photos before asking, “you know how to ski, right?”; it seems that the descent down the volcanic scree slope of Kibo peak is actually more fun than the climb.

Scree descent back to Kibo Hut (Mawenzi peak in the background)

We met a lady in the airport on the way home wearing her Kilimanjaro souvenir t-shirt. She and her son had climbed the same route as us and summited on the same morning. When I asked how their climb had gone, she said she would display her Uhuru photo on the wall at home but would never tell the real story of how she made it there: how she was helped to the summit by her guide; how he carried her bag; how he held her hand; how he hugged her when she cried. I was saddened to hear this. Reaching the summit may have been my aim at first but the kindness, patience and persistence of a relative stranger made this challenge more memorable than any bragging rights.

We should appreciate the people around us that help make amazing things happen. Whether you watch their footsteps in front of you, or feel their hand on your back. Whether they nudge you in the ribs and point out a sunset, or hold your gloves and rucksack while you wee on a mountain. Whether they hand you a cup of tea when you feel rougher than you ever thought possible, or make you snort it out of your nose with laughter moments later. Whether they invite you on their adventures, or listen to your stories when you get back. As Laura says, “if you start hanging round with people who think that your dreams sound like a great way to spend your time, rather than those who question why you’d want to do such a thing, you’ll find those dreams become a reality a lot sooner.” The summit photo that I’ll hang on my wall at home has two people in it; I'm grateful for that and proud of the story why.

Kilimanjaro guide, Augustin, and me at Uhuru Peak, August 20th 2014
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