Thursday, 22 September 2011

Day 7: summit day.

We were to be woken at 11pm. By 11:15 we were still in bed. I could see teams of climbers marching out of camp towards the summit. I had meticulously arranged my gear so that there would be no fumbling in the weariness. I had double checked my equipment and taken my last Diamox (altitude sickness preventing) tablet at 6pm. I was as ready as I was ever going to be.

I took no chances. My summit gear consisted of underwear, long johns, trousers and salopettes for the legs and baselayer, powerstretch fleece, normal fleece and down jacket up top. I pulled on my shrunken wool mittens for the first time since Iceland with their goretex covers and had two thick pairs of socks on. I also had a buff for the neck and my ugly hat on the head. I also had three backup hats.

Nine of our group made it to Kibo hut, Ishtiaq was now at Horombo. Most of us went to sleep feeling ok. I had a slight oncoming headache which was quickly beaten to the ground by a couple of tough nut painkillers. However, when we woke up again it was quite a different story. Some of the group were starting to feel a little bad. Adnaan, went to sleep as strong as a ox but woke a different person. The nausea set in and he couldn’t stop vomiting. Ray also had a splitting headache.

We saw more and more groups of people get in line, say a few lines to psyche themselves up and march off with their head torches ablaze onto the moonlit slopes towards the summit. Yet there were still straps to be adjusted, equipment to be organised and leaking water bladders to be sorted in our group.

Finally, the group all mustered in a small and nervous crowd outside our hut. We said a small prayer led by Adnaan, formed a single file with the three girls, Maryam, Safiyah and Sab at the front followed by me, Harune, Ray, Fakarul, Adnaan and Nissar… maybe not in that order.

We marched off pole pole towards the summit.

We quickly realised that the weather conditions were greatly in our favour. There was little wind, it was cold but then it’s always cold and the moon was full, it lit up the whole mountain to the point that we no longer needed out heard torches, in fact, I didn’t use my head torch for the remainder of the walk.

Super pole pole was not quick enough for this ascent; we had a slightly quicker pace, set this time by Patrick our chief guide. As we meandered our way out of the Kibo hut area, the path became noticeably steeper. As the incline continued to increase, the path began to zigzag. The ground also became looser and turned into fine scree. Not only did we now have to put up with tiredness and thinner air, we also had to bear the frustration of the path beneath our feet giving as we tried to step up. It would slip a little each time, slowing our ascent but we pushed on with grimaced faces. Nobody spoke. Every ounce of energy was reserved for making oneself go forward and up. There were no wise cracks and not even one of Fakaruls crazy statements we all grew to love!

Patrick began his song. It was a slow smooth calming song that was very repetitive but it was almost like a marching song that got us into a zone and droned us into hypnotically walking behind him.

After some time, Sab suddenly pulled out of the path from in front of me. The nausea had set in so she stopped to contain it but joined the group somewhere close behind me. Much of the group had started to suffer now. No longer was it still a tight formation, it had spread out somewhat as people stopped to catch breath, fight nausea and probably throw up too. Hydration hoses were also starting to freeze now. Even though we were instructed to blow any water back into the main bladder, any remaining drops would quickly freeze to render the system useless. The electrical tape Harune had wrapped over his hydration hose didn’t work, the water froze. I had invested in a neoprene lined hose for my bladder which was holding off any freezing pretty well. You don’t want to run out of water here.

We all made it to the memorial plaque for the Alpine club member and then to the 5000 metre marker. Then it all turned pear shaped.

Fakarul started to get very cold fingers and toes. He complained that they may be frozen and frost bitten. Though it seemed a little far fetched, he decided to turn around and abandon his summit attempt. It was a shame considering he was climbing so strongly. A short while later, Saf really wasn’t looking too great. She began suffering quite a bit. Though it seemed to me that Maryam looked okay, she had obviously also been affected as both were turned around and escorted back to safety (we later found out from Patrick that they are incredibly well trained to spot any signs of acute mountain sickness which is why they spotted the effects in Maryam before we did!). The mountain was also taking its toll on Ray. His condition was deteriorating as we ascended and at one point he fell to the ground. Our guides didn’t take any chances, when he woke, the ground was rushing past beneath him. He was held aloft by a guide who was literally running down the mountain side! That to me sounds scarier then the toilets at Kibo Hut! Probably the saddest news I learnt on the mountain was the turn around of our group leader Adnaan. He was formidably strong on all the previous days and up until we went to sleep at Kibo, but since waking his condition had deteriorated and continued to do so. He put up a monumental fight, as did all of the others but alas the mountain claimed another victim. I wasn’t even sure when this was as I always assumed he was somewhere behind me. We were now down to four: Nissar, Harune, Sab and myself.

We pushed on relentlessly up the zigzagging path. The time was pushing on, I could see first light at the horizon but similarly, I could also see Gilman’s point where most stop to see the sunrise. I could also hear some cheering and wailing coming from that direction, probably from the crowd as another mortal stepped onto the small landing from the rock below. As we made our way up, the top didn’t seem to get any closer. The sky behind us got redder and brighter. The ground beneath us changed from the zigzagging scree path to a rocky muddle that took effort from both hands and feet to negotiate. Each step was an effort of gargantuan proportions that left us gasping for breath. At this point, it was getting ridiculous; surely humans are not meant to be at this place, we were not designed for this.

The sky got lighter still and as we got very close to Gilmans Point, we stopped for a break and faced the horizon. The sun finally burst its light forth and produced a dazzling spectacle for the many climbers perched on their respective rocks hither and thither. All the previous suffering vanished into a moment of pure delight as we soaked up this very special moment.

Our work was not yet complete though. The four climbers, guide and assistant pushed further on. We each used the progress of the one in front to push our own selves forward. To fall behind here meant many minutes would pass before you caught up. Finally at somewhere close to 7am we met with the sign that read “You are now at Gilmans Point, 5681m AMSL”.

We had done the hardest part of our journey. Many stop at this point and call it a day. We were shattered beyond comprehension and our remaining guide Mahmoud didn’t look much better either. He hadn’t climbed in weeks and so the altitude seemed to be affecting him also. It seemed to us that Mahmoud did not want us to continue further, he pointed out that the summit was a further 2 hours trek around the crater rim. This was greatly undulating and so we needed to be very sure that we were able to continue and also make a return journey.

Personally, I didn’t know how I made it this far, whether I could make it there or even make it back. All I did know is that I had dragged myself this far and that I didn’t come here to see Gilmans point. I had an appointment with a few planks that read “Uhuru Peak” and that was where I was heading. Fortunately for me, I was with some fully loaded sons of guns that were as determined and stubborn as myself. We found some new energy from the deepest darkest corners of our souls and turned to the summit.

As we peered across, it was possible to follow the trail along the crater rim to the very end where a massive crowd of people were gathered around what was the summit sign. This massive crowd appeared as a tiny dot amongst the vastness of the crater!
We made good speed on the downhill sections and then back to pole pole on the uphills. The views became incredibly good into the crater and we also caught sight of the first of the summit glaciers. As we moved closer, we passed decending parties whom we congratulated and who wished us well. After an hour or so of trekking, we reached Stella Point, the sunrise viewpoint of all the other routes. There was a hustle and bustle of people climbing up, resting and climbing downwards. Here we removed our down jackets as the sun was starting to warm us up considerably and I added on my waterproof, just to keep the wind off.

We set off on the final push to the summit.

We passed many a descending climber, each was wishing us well, some already congratulating our efforts. It seemed that most people were on their way down and by 0830, this was very true. We were heading to the summit quite late. However, the weather was so good, it didn’t seem to make a blind bit of difference and to us, we were past caring. To think that we were now almost there was good enough for us.

Finally, at around 0900, we caught sight of the Summit sign. There was a very small crowd now… it was the Irish group that we walked up with, taking pictures with the sign. We walked up to the people and absorbed the majestic view that surrounded us. The summit sign, the glaciers on all sides, the rising sun, the horizon on all sides, it was a sight beyond description. As a climber, to say that the emotion got to me would be an understatement. Tears were streaming down my face as I stood on the summit of my first high altitude peak, the first of the seven summits. The culmination of months of planning, training and preparation. We congratulated each other with a triumphant hug and proceeded to the sign armed with cameras ready to fire. Needless to say, as we had the luxury of time, we took group shots with and without guides,

family shots,

shots with flags,

shots with cigars

and even shots with Superman T-shirts! (see above) We also met Alex, the Romanian climber whom we met at the previous huts. It was good to catch him here so we took a picture with him…

and the glaciers.

Yes, this is a time to capture moments and so every opportunity was milked.

Our time at the summit had come to an end. It’s a great place to be, but not a great place to stay. We turned to the way we came there was only one way to go now… down…

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