July 17-18 – Summit Night and Day

Jul 18

We have dinner at 5:30 with the final instructions on tonight’s climb. Eric says there will be three groups. We are surprised that he doesn’t assign people to groups rather letting them select for themselves. This leaves us with only Sarah in our group as everyone else selects group B or C. At first we are a little sad at our small group -there are people we have climbed with most of the week that we were hoping would be in our group for the summit. In the end, it is only important that we are together as we struggle to the top. Eric checks everyone’s oxygen saturation – I think there are some people who should go ahead and take the Diomox but he doesn’t tell them to so they don’t. I wonder later if this affected some of the group’s ability to make it to the top. Would they have made it with the Diomox – I think maybe so. I’ve still been taking the 1/4 of the 250mg and I feel great with oxygen above 90. I think the Diamox has got to have something to do with that.

We head off to bed with little hope of falling asleep at this early hour. But first we have to make sure all our gear is ready for the climb. This will be the first time climbing at night and with all our heavy jackets, balaclava, extra hats and gloves. We go through it all a couple of times just to make sure we have everything and know where it is. We close our eyes and try to rest whispering to each other off and on about the climb. John gets up to go to the bathroom after a while. He hears rumblings in one of the tents – we speculate about who it is. Later we hear that Daniel heard it too and he thought is was us. We drift back and forth into and out of a half sleep. Finally we hear some rustling around. Group C will leave at 10:30, an hour 15 minutes before our scheduled time. They are up and getting ready but we can’t continue to rest with the bustle and excitement. We get up and start getting ready. By the time we are ready to head to the breakfast tent Group C is getting ready to launch and Group B has just finished breakfast and is heading to their tents for final prep. I grab my camera and head out to take a few pics of the group as they leave camp. The excitement is palpable. Off they go, ready for the final assault.

I force myself to eat some porridge and a piece of toast. My stomach still isn’t great and I am worried about having to go #2 on the way up the mountain. Eric told us at last night’s meeting that he shit in his pants on the way to the summit once. You can imagine how comforting that was! Finally, its our turn – just John, Sarah and me, along with our trusted guide, August, at the front and Aloise at the back. We had been with August every day and I knew that he would get us there. I was ready. We walked outside. I was taking a bottle of water to the tent because Eric said we only needed two. August stopped me and took the bottle and put it in his pack. Then he lifted my pack and said, “too heavy”. He looked inside and took one of my two waters to lighten my load. I hoped someone was doing this for the others but I doubted it.

We loaded our packs on our backs making all the necessary adjustments to get them on over the additional bulk of the thick coats. It was actually a surprisingly warm night. However, we knew as we climbed higher the temperatures would drop and the wind would start to blow. It wouldn’t be this nice all nice and it was still cold. We started up the mountain. We could see the headlamps of the other two groups ahead of us on the trail. The guides from the three groups call out to each other. Its strange how close they look when you are looking straight up – but they aren’t really close. Group C had already been going for almost an hour and half when we left camp.

Not sure how long but not long after we leave camp we find Brandis sitting on a rock trying to drink water. She doesn’t look well. She’s had the toughest time with altitude of anyone on the trip. She hasn’t been able to hold down food or liquids for three days. I wonder how she managed to have the strength to get up and try. That takes a lot of courage. Later in the day we will hear her saga. What a tale. She really wanted to go but her body just would not let her. I think she will go back and try again and make it.

We plod along at a very good pace. August and Aloise sing softly as we ascend. This is actually very helpful. I know they will reach a point where singing won’t be possible – not enough air. I want to get a recording of them singing or at least find a recording of it after I get back home.

Before too long we pass group C at one of their breaks. Lori asks us to think of a team name because she doesn’t like the letter names. We say the “cheetahs”. The group seems to be doing well at this point. They’ve been at it for a maybe a couple of hours. I am not sure what the altitude is at this point but its the highest any of us has every been in our lives – so that’s already a big accomplishment. At this point Jeff, our wonderful photographer, joins us. He will try to leapfrog around, if its possible, to get pictures. Right now its just too dark. So now we are four in our group with our two guides. We continue up the mountain and my stomach starts getting angry. We pass group B. They all seem to be doing well too. I ask if we can stop to go to the bathroom. Not sure if I can do it but my stomach is telling me I have to. I have major issues with going #2 if anybody is around but we’ll see – this seems to be at a critical stage. We all head over to the rocks. John and Sarah finish and head back to the guide. Jeff finishes but stands not far away looking up at the beautiful stars. My body won’t cooperate with his close proximity. Oh well, I am just going to have to tough it out all the way up the mountain wrestling the tiger in my stomach all the way. What fun!

We figure out before too long that taking breaks is a challenge. The temperatures are getting colder. It takes to long to take off packs and get water out and then you start getting really cold. If you take your gloves off to open the water then its hard to get your hands warm again. They won’t let you use a camelback because the tubes freeze up. There must be a better way. I will have to think about that – later. Somewhere between 16,500 and 17,000 I hit an emotional wall. Not sure why but I started wondering if I was really going to make it to the top. We stopped for water and honey stingers. I think the food help but I was really starting to get emotional about this climb. My stomach was also in knots and I was really doubting I was going to make it without going in my pants. Every 20 minutes or so a wave would hit me and I would say, “oh please, dear God, please don’t let me poop in my pants.” I wondered if it was appropriate to pray something like that but it seemed to work every time so he must be listening.

As we press forward my doubts loom larger. I decide to call on the spirits of my dead parents to help me up the mountain and I ask each of them to take one of my arms and carry me up. My eyes fill with some badly needed tears – the air is too dry – as I feel them each by my side lifting my weight so that I feel lighter. I feel a sense of relief. I remember this prayer my mother used to say all the time, “I can do all things through him who comforts me”. I think its from Matthew but I don’t know. Anyway, I decide to recite that little prayer in my head with each step. It takes my mind off the difficulty ahead and amazingly makes it much easier to go on. I am not that religious in a formal sort of way. I am blown away at how much this simple prayer, along with the visualization of my parents, is able to lighten my burden and get me up this mountain. Each step gets a little closer and little bit better. We are getting close to Stella Point now.

We reach Stella Point at 5 am. This is where we are supposed to have hot drinks. I think we should have opted for cocoa but we only asked for hot water. We sit down on a ledge while August gets the hot drinks. I am overcome with emotion and say to John, “Did you ever think nine years ago when you were diagnosed with PD that we would be here on top of this mountain?” He says no and we both cry at the enormity of the accomplishment and the hope it represents. We aren’t even there yet but we feel as though we’ll make it now.

Sarah’s foot warmers are wearing off and she decides to put a new pair in her boots a this point. In retrospect it seems a little bit nuts to take your boots off at this point but she only had 5 hour foot warmers and she really needed the warmth. One of her MS symptoms is cramping feet so keeping them warm was going to be critical. We don’t drink as much fluid here as we should since we are taking some extra time. We should have been chugging the liquids.

Live and learn.

We get back started toward the summit. It is still pretty dark but the sun will rise in a little over an hour. We want to make it to the top for that. This last 1,500 vertical feet take about an hour to an hour and a half depending on your pace. We left Stella around 5:15am. As you make the turn you can faintly see what you think is the peak in the distance. This is deceiving as there are about 3 false peaks ahead before Uhuru. Most of the time I am never looking up to see what’s ahead. My eyes are steadily focused on August’s Viking boots and each plodding step. I walk directly in his foot steps mirroring his gate and pace exactly. He keeps a perfect rythym just as he always has throughout the last 6 days. But as we rise higher I notice that his usually steady pacing was wobbling a bit. At one point he lifts his foot and then puts it right back down. I wonder if the altitude is affecting him too. It must be. But he recovers and goes on. Finally, Sarah begs for a water break. I don’t want to stop because I don’t want to get cold – the wind is blowing terribly and the moisture from my breathing and my nose is freezing around the edges of my nostrils. I just want to get there but I know that we need water. We stop for a minute for her to drink but I don’t drink at this stop. We keep getting to these false peaks and John is cracking jokes – sort of – about it. It seems we will never get there. Finally I can’t go on anymore without a drink and I have to stop. Sarah and Jeff go ahead the 300 yards or so to the summit. I drank a little – the water was really getting frozen in the bottle. Feeling a little bit quenched we head forward to the summit. I am shocked at the overwhelming emotion I feel as we arrive with the sun just edging up to the horizon ready to burst forth. I begin to sob uncontrollably. I can’t stop myself. This really isn’t good for breathing. Jeff already has his tripod set up and Sarah is sitting at the edge waiting for the sunrise. John and I are standing arm in arm looking out at the sun rising. Mu eyes are filled with tears. Jeff takes a photo. I hope it will come out. I think it would really capture the essence of what I am feeling.

We want to get our picture at the summit sign and get the hell down off the mountain. I am just to cold and emotional to truly savor the moment and linger. I put down my pack and dig for the ETA flag. John gets out the PFP flag. We head over to the Uhuru Peak sign. Its a little crowded but not bad. After a minute or two we get our shot. Sarah doesn’t want to get up yet because the sun hasn’t broken the horizon yet but she comes over for the photo – Me, John, Sarah and August are holding up the ETA flag. It is emotional again. Then John and I hold up the PFP flag. We wrap them back up and put them in John’s pack so that we can had off the ETA flag to the first person we see on the way down. We turn to see the sun breaking the horizon. It bursts forth across the horizon in glorious brilliance but there is no warmth with this light. I start to shiver and think it is time to start moving again. I realize I haven’t taken any pictures with my camera so I take a quick photo of John with the sunrise in his background and one with the peak sign in the background. He quickly takes the same two photos of me. I think we’ve been here for about 10-15 minutes. It hard to say but I can’t stay longer. Sarah wants to stay and Jeff will stay to photograph the next round of the team. Aloise is instructed to stay with them and come back when they are ready. I don’t think he is crazy about hanging around at the top too long. Who would be?

I turn around and August has already picked up my pack and hooked it on to his own. He will carry it down for me. I think he’s not sure what to make of my sobbing off and on. Up to this point I have been totally unemotional in my climbing. He probably thinks I am crazy. Oh well. He says we will feel much better after dropping down just 500 meters. We start to walk down quickly. Honestly, I just want to run but I can’t. To our right is the beautiful glacier. Its majestic and I wish I could take a picture but I can’t. I just want to get moving down. We quicken out pace. Somewhere about halfway back to Stella Point we see Sean. He is leading Team B – which has broken in to two groups. We congratulate him, get the flag and pass it off. We are thrilled for him. Next we see Nathan, Daniel, Tina, Stephanie, Suz, Gina and Paula. We congratulate each of them and are thrilled they are going to make it too. Tina says that she thinks Inez will make it but she was getting to cold at that pace and had to go on in the first group. We are so excited for them and we are starting to feel better. John tells them about the “3 false summits” ahead. I tell them they are almost there. Then we see Monique and Sierra. We can tell they aren’t feeling very well but they are going to make it. We hug them and cheer them on.

Going on a bit we see Susie Weber trudging along like the walking dead. John sees the guide and tells him to take good care of her. I start crying again knowing that she is going to make it. She brushes us away – doesn’t want her concentration or pace broken. She is determined. You can see it on her face. Her lips are bluish – lack of oxygen, I guess.

We make it to Stella Point and there is plenty of light now. We see some of our team just below the point but can’t make them out. At first I think its April and Jeanne but then I realize its not. It in Inez and Connie. We cheer them on and continued our trek down. In just a few minutes we ran into Lori and Nan. Lori told us that April and Jeanne and her Dad turned back. She also said that Doug had turned back because he was having trouble breathing – I think that’s what she said. His cold had really not gotten any better and that was surely a factor. It said at the bottom of the mountain in the rules not to go above 3,000 meters if you had a cold. He made it way above that. Lori said her father probably could have made the summit but she was worried about whether or not he would have the stamina to make it down the long decent past high camp. So he turned back. Nan had clear determination on her face and I knew that she would make it. I was so proud of her. She really has a lot of internal strength. Amazing. She was carrying a hand-made banner of encouragement that was beautiful. She was determined to carry it to the top and have a photograph taken. Jeff had been waiting at the top for over an hour at this point. He had decided to go back down. We heard that when he got close to Stella Point and heard that there were still team members coming he turned around and climbed back up to get their photos. What an incredible guy. I can’t say that I would have had the stamina to do that. He said there was one point while he was up there waiting that he was the only person at the top of Africa. It was amazing in the silence and enormity of it. I wish I could have experienced that but it was enough just to get to the top.

Meanwhile, John and August and I continued down the mountain as fast as we could. In the daylight the trail seems daunting. I think this may actually be why they start you out in the dark. Otherwise, you might see it and say, “no way am I going to make it up THAT” About an hour from the bottom the trail down branches off from the main trail up and there is a lot of deep, loose scree. After a few tries I figured out that the best way to navigate it was to pretend like I was skiing and just glide down like I was on the ski slope. This worked great and I actually started liking the scree descent. Anyway, it was much better than the packed dirt, steep descent into Barranco that I had hated a coupled of days ago. I was very dehydrated and reaching the point of exhaustion. In the last 30 minutes or so we saw porters carrying stuff up the trail. I asked August what they were doing. He said the Lomosho Trail climbs to the Crater at 18,000 and spends the night, going the last 1,500 vertical feet the next morning. He said its a very expensive trip because the porters who carry to the crater get $50/US a day. This is way more than they get for our entire trip. I imagine how crazy it must be carrying up the tents and food to Stella Point. Nuts – there is no way I could do it. We looked up behind us several times and could see some of the folks from Group B coming down. They looked so close but I guess they really aren’t that close. I kept thinking the were right on top of us but it was probably an hour or more before they came in to camp behind us. It is really deceiving how close people look when you are looking straight up.

We finally make it back to high camp to ZERO FANFARE. I was really expecting some singing at this point but there was none. There were some porters sitting around on rocks waiting for us to get our stuff out of the tents I imagine. Ramso was there with some juice but there wasn’t even any applause. This was a little bit disappointing but I was too tired so I didn’t really care. I went to the tent chairs and just sat down and took my boots off. I started drinking fluids and realized out dehydrated I was. I only drank about a liter on the trek up and down. We made it up in 6hr25 min and down in just under 3. It was about 9 o’clock but it felt like it was late in the afternoon. There were seven who didn’t summit and some of them were sleeping in the tents. After a few minutes April came over and told us about her ascent. She had to turn back at 16,500 but she was genuinely thrilled to have made it so high. She and Jeanne were together and Jeanne had bad nausea from the altitude. She said they looked at each other and nodded that it was time to turn back. April’s shots had started to wear off and she was starting to feel a lot of pain. Jeanne was resting in the tent. Mickey, Neil and Doug came over and sat down with us. Mickey had just had trouble breathing and one point and had to turn back. I wondered if she had taken the Diamox if she was one of the one’s that could have made it. I think so. I am not really sure how Eric decides to tell people to take it or not. I took it and am sure it helped. Maybe I would have been alright without it but I wanted to make sure I could tell the different if I was having blood pressure issues. Doug was visibly disappointed. Its too bad he caught a cold on the trip over. I wasn’t sure if it was the cold or his knee that ultimately did him in.

We continued to sit around in a circle outside our tent waiting for others to come in. Kristy was having some severe problems with her asthma and Mickey went to help her. We decided that it would be better for her to sit up in the dining tent than to lay down in her warm tent with no ventilation. They gave her oxygen off and on but were waiting for Eric to come down to make the call on what to do. I personally thought they should have gotten her down the mountain ASAP. I know how scary asthma is because my son, Jack , has it. The Docs made it in – feeling rotten but headed in to the tent to help Kristy. Sierra had caught Doug’s cold and her lungs were killing her all the way up the mountain. She was feeling awful but her sheer determination got her there. Monique is severely dehydrated – much worse than I am and she doesn’t have any treated water ready. I give them some of what I have left with electrolytes until theirs is ready. She is laying down in the hot tent and I think that’s not a good idea.

Susie Weber makes her way down in to camp and a few of us run over to congratulate her. She was just amazing. I really wished someone had been singing to her as she came in to camp. She deserved a choir of thousands. In another 30-45 minutes nana arrived and we went over to hug and congratulate her. She was a real trooper. At this point the camp was all a bustle trying to get packed up. We were set for lunch at 2 but moved it to 1:30, thankfully. Eric said we had 2-4 hours going down to the next camp depending on pace. I was rested as much as possible but not enough – but I really wanted to get down there as fast as possible. I asked August if we could try to go fast. We loaded up and started out with Romley at the front while August finished some other things in camp. The group included John, Gina, Nathan, Daniel, Sean, Jeff and a few others. Gina was at the front full of what seemed like boundless energy. Nathan’s meds had gotten a little out of whack on the overnight saga up the mountain and he was experiencing quite a bit of dyskinesia. It quickly became apparent that he was going to struggle to hold himself back from the force of gravity. Romley dropped back and took his pack and his arm to try and help him. Another guide came to the front with us. We made our way down over the rocks through Barafu camp and off to the side trail leading down the Mweka trail. Not sure of the name of the camp we were going to – its not on the map that I have. Eric had decided that we should stay at this camp at 12,000 feet instead of trying to decide all the way to Mweka. It was a good decision. After seeing the trail the next day there is no way we would have all made it without trouble after the summit day we’d had. August showed up and moved to the front of the group – we splintered off and it was Gina, Jeff and me walking down with August at a pretty good pace. Then Jeff dropped back taking some pictures and it was just Gina and me. We continued on but my legs were starting to need to slow down. The downhill can really be a big issue for me. We are getting close to camp and it won’t matter if I don’t have a guide with me. I let Gina and August go on ahead and I slow waiting for John and Sean to catch me. We walk along together for a bit but my pace slows even more. They go on ahead. The sun is starting to drop lower in the sky and I can see a cloud has descended on the camp ahead. I walk along alone enjoying the solitude and thinking about the amazing day. It is the first time I have been alone in over a week. I savor it. Another guide comes along who has just taken a client across the Western Breach. He stops to talk to me for a minute and ask about our summit. I tell him we made the summit in 6 hrs 25 minutes. He says, “You are very strong.” That makes be feel proud. I come to the bottom of the trail and John is sitting there waiting for me. It feels good to see him there. A heavy fog is settled over the camp. We have to go sign in at the ranger hut. They sell beers here and we decide we’ll come back for one or two. Eric and Brandis were there and he congratulated us on the day. We made our way over to the tents and found the only one that was level. The guides ran over and told us it was taken. August was saving it for Nan – which was a good idea – she was going to need some rest. We picked another tent and it turned out to be right next to Eric’s. I realized at this point that I had never known on any other day where his or Ben’s tents were. I think maybe he told us but I never really noticed.

John wanted a beer and Mickey and I decided to share one. Then we started forming a circle of chairs outside our tent to share beers and talk about the day – Stephanie, Mickey, Brandis, Eric, Ben, Pattie, Daniel, Sean and Nathan – others stopped by off and on. We sat around drinking beers and Stephanie showed us how to use a lighter to open and beer. Most weren’t talented enough to figure it out but Brandis finally got it. Pattie had chex mix so we passed around the bag and pretended like we were having a real happy hour. It was the first feeling of relaxation in many days. It was starting to get cold with the fog and the sun dropping low in the sky. I decided I better get my bag unpacked before dark so I started unloading while John continued to entertain. This is pretty typical – John would have a part at our house every night if he could. I laughed to myself that it was the same on the mountain and wondered if and when he was going to get to unloading his stuff. The laughter and chit chat continued outside the tent and I enjoyed listening from the warmth inside.

Finally it was time for dinner and we headed down – getting there late. We had another great dinner with some traditional Swahili food but I forgot to write down what the dishes were. By this time the journal is really starting to suffer from lack of attention. After dinner they bring out two cakes which a porter has obviously had to drag up the mountain. I don’t think there is any way they could have baked these cakes on the mountain. They are our celebration cakes. There is a fierce wind blowing outside the tent and porters are rushing around opening up the windows to let the tent breathe. I am wondering if its going to blow away. They slice the cake and serve us each a piece. After the second bite the wind picks up so much that I am sure the tent will blow away. The porters rush to the ends of the tent and open up the doors. A huge wave of billowing dust rushes in to the tent making it hard to breathe. Everybody gets up and rushes out of the tent.

Our summit day comes to an abrupt end. Its time for bed anyway. We have what Eric describes as a knee tweaking trail from hell in the morning.

John still hadn’t unpacked and he was a little frustrated rummaging around in the dark to get his sleeping bag and pad set up. Once in the tent we snuggled up to get warm. He leaned over to give me a kiss but his pointy beard was just too painful on my sun- and wind-burned face. So much for the mile high club.

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