Monday, March 26, 2012

Day 10 - Tanzania - Sixth day on the mountain - Summit Day!

This is it. It's midnight and the culmination of the last 6 or 7 months of my life. I know I've been driving my friends crazy talking about this adventure almost constantly and now here we are leaving our camp to head for the summit of Kilimanjaro. It's a bit surreal being here. It doesn't even seem like it's possible that I'm here. In fact, it almost feels like a dream or a documentary I'm watching of someone else.

As I mentioned in my last post, I've made the decision to leave my DSLR behind and only bring my P&S camera so the first hours go undocumented on camera. The P&S is stored deep inside all these layers I'm wearing and next to my body to keep the battery warm.

 Zach lets us know that he's going to keep a close eye on us and that we have nothing to worry about. If he thinks we are having any problems he will ask us simple questions we should easily be able to answer. Don't answer correctly and you may get sent down the mountain. As we head out from camp we can see a large group of people, 10-15 or so starting out at the same time. Just ahead of them we can see another group of people. As we look up much further ahead we can see the headlamps glowing of other groups that have left camp much earlier then us. They clearly have at least an hour head start on us. Everybody that I hike with knows I'm not the fastest hiker in the world so I'm a little concerned that maybe we are getting too late of a start but Zach assures us that we are just fine. Pole, Pole - Slowly, slowly. That's going to be our mantra all the way to the top as we very slowly leave camp.

An hour and forty-five minutes into the hike at around 1:45am local time we pause for a brief break. At the time I have no idea what our altitude is but later learn by looking at the GPS log that we are resting at 16,530'. I look out on the trail and looking back down at people that started later then us coming up behind.  Some move faster and pass us and some never catch up to us. If I had to guess, looking up and looking down there are probably 100 other people visible and we are in the middle of the pack.  By this time we've adjusted to the full moon light and headlamps are not necessary.

 Now two hours and forty-five minutes into the grind we take another short break and we are only at 17,100'. It's taken us a full hour to climb 600'. Man it's gonna be a long night. The breaks only last a few minutes and then your body starts cooling off. You can't let your body get a chill so we push upward. And upward. And upward. As long as we are moving it feels just fine. We are fortunate to be climbing in about the best possible weather conditions. Zach tells us of recent trips with blasting winds and snow falling. This morning there is just the slightest of breezes and clear skies with fresh snow on the ground. We are fortunate there is snow on the ground because it actually makes the climbing much easier. As it turns out, the entire top of this mountain is just one big pile of loose scree or talus. When there is no snow on the trail it is a royal pain to hike up. You end up taking two steps and sliding back a half step. Imagine trying to climb a huge pile of gravel. That's what it's like, except at extremely high altitude where I'm sure the sliding back part must be very annoying. We have no problems this day kick-stepping into the snow and placing our steps right behind Killian's.

About three hours into the climb just past 17,400' and we seem to not be moving any significant distance. This is where the mental portion of the climb really starts kicking in. An area I like to call "Switchback Hell". Zach told us that this climb was 80% mental and now I'm starting to see what he's talking about. Physically I feel fine. I'm amazed that I'm really not having any signs of AMS other then the fact that it's a bit hard to breath. Not bad considering the oxygen level at this altitude is roughly 50% what it is at sea level. You have to just keep telling yourself you can do it. At first you start looking for a point out ahead as a goal. If I can just get to that big rock. Then it gets to the point where you forget about such lofty goals as the rock that's maybe 50' above your current point. You start thinking about the next turn in the switchback which may only be 10' away. For those not familiar with what a switchback is, the trail is just too steep to climb in a straight line so instead what you do is cut a path at an angle and then every so often reverse your direction forming a zigzag pattern up the mountain. Sure it means more steps and overall more distance walked but at least you are doing it at an angle that your body can handle. We are climbing through snow at an angle steeper then your average set of stairs. Forget about the next turn in the switchback 10' away, now I'm just thinking about the next step. I really can't believe we have 5 or 6 more hours of this but I refuse to admit that out loud. Once or twice Colleen expresses a bit of frustration with the fact that it appears as though we are not moving. I try to encourage her by telling her not to think about the crater rim far above but to just think about the next step. Of course on the inside I'm feeling the same frustration.  That Mountaineering Step we learned yesterday is coming in handy now. Take one step, rear leg straight, lean all the weight on it for a micro-second, take another step, rear leg straight, lean all the weight on it for a micro-second. Repeat a million more times and we'll be there in no time.

Around 4:20am we pass the 18,000' mark and I slip and face-plant into the snow right in front of me. It startles me a bit and the snow on my bare face is a wake-up call. I roll over on my side and Zach is right there in my face to make sure I'm OK. He looks at me and ask me a strange question. What's 4 + 3?  I'm puzzled for a second by the question then I remember he told us he will quiz us with very simple questions if he has any concerns. Apparently he's concerned. I wait a beat and then answer "7" .  I guess my pause in answering has him concerned so he ask me if I'm sure about that. "It's hard counting fingers when you are wearing mittens" is my response and he realizes that I'm OK. Math never was my favorite subject. Zach tells me to just make sure I stand up slowly and we continue on through these never-ending switchbacks. Why would anybody want to do this for hours on end? We are never going to get to the top. Stop thinking like that Greg! Just keep thinking about the next step and that's what I do. One step at a time. Over and over again until finally around 5:45am we reach the crater rim and Gilman's Point.
Gilman's Point, as you may remember from an earlier post when I was talking about the three significant spots on the mountain, is sort of the bronze medal of the three. It's still dark here so we'll get our shots in front of this sign on the way down. We continue on and somewhere between Gilman's Point and Stella Point we stop to have hot tea and Killian breaks out an old school thermos and four ceramic mugs so we can enjoy the warm break. Can you believe this guys is carrying all this weight just so we can have a civilized break? Just past this point we witness the most beautiful sunrise. We can't actually see the sun at this point because we are just slightly inside the crater rim but we see it hitting the glaciers on the opposite side of the crater. I have to stop and take pictures and this is what we saw.
 Sunrise on the crater rim. As great as this photo looks, it just doesn't do the real scene justice.
 As cool as this picture looks, and I am actually quite impressed with my Canon S100 P&S, they simply cannot convey the beauty of the sight that is unfolding before us. Maybe I'm just getting all emotional because I finally realize I'm gonna make it but I like to think it really is because the view is just indescribable.
A minute or so later I turn south in the direction we still have to travel and I snap this shot.
Another shot of sunrise along the crater rim. Uhuru Peak, the highest point is the furthest high point visible in this shot.
The highest point that you can see in the far distance is our goal. That's Uhuru Peak, the true summit of Kibo at 19,340'. Right now we are one mile and about 750' in altitude away from our final destination. So close and yet so far away.

We must continue on, no time to rest. A short while later we reach Stella Point at 18,828' and break once again for photos. First it's a clean shot of the sign to check my exposure and make sure there's no reflections on the shiny surfaces of the sign.

Stella Point! 5,739 Meters Above Mean Sea Level. That's 18,828'

Now it's Colleen's time in front of the sign.
Colleen at Stella Point! 5,739 Meters Above Mean Sea Level. That's 18,828'

And finally I turn the camera over to Colleen so she can grab a shot of me.
Stella Point! 5,739 Meters Above Mean Sea Level. That's 18,828'

We spend a total of about five minutes at the sign and Zach tells us it's time to get moving if we are going to make it to the top. Really? At this point I didn't even think that not making it to the top was possible. Then I remember that many people never make it further then where we are currently standing. Some just can't muster the energy for the last 3/4 mile and 600' or so in elevation. That's simply not an option for me at this point. WE ARE GOING ALL THE WAY.

Onward we go and I begin to understand why some people turn back at this point. The air is so thin and there are several sections that just make you want to puke. Colleen and Killian pull out ahead of me as she is having no trouble at this point keeping a slightly faster pace then me. After what seems like an eternity we start passing people on the way down. They've already made it to the sign, taken their pics and are now headed down. Eventually Colleen pulls up to the sign a few minutes ahead of me and I pull up the rear with Zach.
My official time for reaching the summit is recorded as 8:04am!
A bit later then I had hoped but still ahead of many people. And even more that turned back and never made it this day.
There's a large group from New Zealand gathered around the sign taking photos with a huge blow-up alligator so I use them as another test exposure. I can't screw these photos up!

I never did speak to the group to ask the significance of the alligator. We just wait our turn for the sign. While waiting I pan around and snap a few photos of the nearby glaciers. They are amazingly beautiful and huge.  It really is hard to believe something so large will be gone in the next 15-20 years but that's what the science says. Notice how far above the cloud layer we really are at this point. The tops of the clouds are probably at 13 or 14k'.
Another shot of the huge glaciers along the crater summit. They seemed close enough to walk out to and touch yet they are very far away. Their size confuses the distance.

Another shot of the huge glaciers along the crater summit. They seemed close enough to walk out to and touch yet they are very far away. Their size confuses the distance.

Notice this glacier appears to just slip over the edge of the mountain and fall off into the clouds. It sort of does in fact slope over the edge and disappears.
This glacier appears to just drop off the side of the mountain. I guess it really does.

Now it's our time in front of the sign and we get the camera ready. First again I shoot Colleen.  A wide shot with nearby 14,977' Mount Meru dwarfed in the background.

Colleen standing at Uhuru Peak, the summit of Kilimanjaro. 19,340'

Then her close-up.
Colleen at the top!

Now it's my turn. Time for the money shot. The end result of the last seven months and here it is.
That's me standing on top of Africa. Uhuru Peak, the summit of Kilimanjaro at 19,340'.

Another slightly wider shot showing Mount Meru.
That's me standing on top of Africa. Uhuru Peak, the summit of Kilimanjaro at 19,340'.

And finally my close-up. Thanks Colleen for the perfect pics!

Zach tells us it's about time to leave but I don't want to. I've spent the last seven months waiting for this moment not to mention a whole lot of money and I really don't want to go. It's then that I remember the promise I made to myself a couple days earlier to bring Penny and the kids along with me so I've gotta get a shot holding the photos. Here's where I make my first mistake at the top. I bend over straight at the waist to get the photos out of my pack and when I stand up I black out and fall to my knees. Zach is there and ask If I'm OK. Of course, I've just forgotten the golden rule. Do everything SLOWLY.
I stand up and get this shot for my baby.

Now it's time for a quick group shot of the four of us and time to retreat back down into thicker air.
Our gang. Killian, Colleen, Zach and myself.
Hey, that's a good P.R. shot there!

Now Zach is rushing us. It's time to head back down and make it quick. I didn't realize it at the time but they try to limit our time above 18,000' to four hours. It turns out we'll spend 5 hours 20 minutes above the 18,000' zone. Obviously it's not too dangerous, just not recommended. This company, Mountain Guides International, has an excellent safety record and just wants to keep it that way. The more time above 18,000' the more time there is for something to go wrong.
We head down quickly past Stella Point and then on to Gilman's Point now bathed in daylight. I gotta get a shot here too of course. No time even to remove the balaclava, just snap the shot and let's go. We are still at 18,600'
Gilman's Point at 5,681 meters Above Mean Sea Level. That's 18,638'.

Finally we are over the crater rim and headed down. I pause once again briefly to take these three shots as I pan slowly to the right.

Looking down on the path to our high base camp at 15,451'. It's a steep descent and not going to be any fun.
Looking down on the path to our high base camp at 15,451'. It's a steep descent and not going to be any fun.
Looking down on the path to our high base camp at 15,451'. It's a steep descent and not going to be any fun.
It's hard to tell unless you know exactly where to look but you can just barely make out the large building down at our high camp at 15,451'.

Anyway, at this point is where the real fun begins. Those endless switchbacks we climbed coming up are going to be no obstacle on the way down. The best way I can describe the descent is a controlled fall. Zach likes to describe it as barefoot skiing but to someone that has never skied it really is more of a controlled fall for me. And I fall multiple times. I finally reach the point of exhaustion and just want to be left alone but Zach will have none of that. He keeps encouraging me to get up and keep moving because I will feel better as the air gets thicker. I'm sure I will but I just want to curl up at this point and take a nap. I have delusions of taking my cloths off and bathing in the snow. Also I'm believing that if I just sit down for a while a limousine will come and pick me up. I really am thinking this. The descent seems to be as endless as the ascent. The camp just never seems to get any closer. I'm glad that I never expressed my thoughts about the bath or the limo to Zach. He may have gotten a bit concerned over that you think? Still, he never leaves my side on the descent just as he never left it on the way up. Just as he promised, he got us both to the top and back down again safely. I'm reminded sometime around this point that getting to the top is optional, getting down safely is mandatory. As luck and the skill of our guides would have it, we did both!

Eventually we get back to high camp. I'm not even sure what time it is but I collapse into my tent, legs sticking out of the vestibule. No strength to even take off my jacket or boots. Minutes later Gaudy, our fantastic assistant cook brings me a large glass of orange soda, Fanta I presume, and I down it it one gulp. Then I pass out again.

Awake from our short break and I find that David is still having trouble seeing due to the snow blindness. It's so sad that he couldn't make the summit with us but you can tell he's very proud of his daughter for making it all the way. I offer up my glacier glasses and as luck would have it they are dark enough and provide enough wrap around protection that David can see well enough to head down to the next camp. Now it's time to get into thicker air. That's right, it's early afternoon around 2pm and we've been awake since my little snow incident at 4:45am the day before.We just returned from a 3.1 mile climb up 3,889'. That's 6.2 miles total. We just got two hours rest, which I was completely unconscious for the entire time, and now we have to wake up and hike down another 5.8 miles and 3,165'.
That makes for quite the day. If you do the math we've hiked since midnight a total of 12 miles from high camp to summit, (+3,889') back to high camp then on to our next camp site at Horombo Huts at 12,287' (-7.053'). We stroll into our camp ground around 6:00pm and my entire body just wants to melt into a pile of goo. I resist the urge to lay down though because I know we have to eat dinner first. I stay up just long enough to eat dinner and then head to my tent to crash around 6:30pm. I don't even remember hitting the sleeping bag and I'm out. As far as I can remember I didn't wake up all night. In fact I don't even think I moved an eyelid all night. If you did the math you came up with 37.5 hours awake minus that 2 hour break at high camp on the way down. I truly believe the journey would not have been quite as difficult on a full night's sleep but apparently this is the norm for climbing Kilimanjaro.

Tomorrow - our final descent to the Marangu Route trailhead, our park exit point.