Day three – more of the same. Spectacular views. Good company. Step, pause, step, pause, step, pause. The need for speed. Patience. I have no arms. Shall someone carry your pack? No. It does sound like endless complaining. I did hate the camping, the cold and the lack of shower. But, I was never sick – clear headed, breathing easily, no nausea. The walk was beautiful, incredible views, walking above the clouds. The company was great. And watching the people who were sick, I took my hat off to them. The courage and determination to keep plodding when your head is pounding or you are projectile vomiting is quite something. The speed did begin to make sense – hurrying caused an oooh, it’s not so easy to catch up on air that doesn’t exist, moment…. Maybe Pole pole, slowly slowly like a chameleon….
Lava tower was the next aim. At 4,642m it was the first time we were heading into serious altitude, the whole thought plan is that you climb high and sleep low. Meaning, you climb to a higher point. Your body goes Oh My, and starts to make a plan (or panic) at which point you then drop right back down again. 12 hours of sleep, your body says hey now we can cope, and next time that you start to climb again, your body is more prepared. Climbing to Lava Tower, I was – still not sick. Which started playing with my mind – would I suddenly be sick at the top? Lava Tower is very cool – originally a lava stopper, or cork if you like, it would have been chucked down the hill, and then, because it is so hard, as the rock around it slowly erodes, it stays as is. A stroll up, and can you believe, our porters had beaten us there, set up dining tents, kitchen tent, made a hot lunch, boiled water for hand washing, set up the Wi-Fi tents, and were welcoming us with hot tea and our daily popcorn.
I now hit my first snag. (Other than cold camping.) You have to go down. An interesting little side effect of my neck, is that part of the compression issue is a fairly dramatic loss of depth perception due to the compression of the optic nerve. Which means that when I am putting my foot down, I can’t see how near or far the surface is – I can hit it hard and fast if closer than I gauge, or it can be a long way off…. Who has been around as I dither at the top of a downward escalator, debating the speed and drop of the step? (Is why I don’t jump horses anymore – where is the jump?) So, with my neck already coming up with new and interesting twists, coming off a very steep hill with a fair amount of loose shale took some girding of the loins and gnashing of the teeth… “Would you like a porter to take your day pack?” No. Every step was a bit of a lurch into the unknown, but I am here, so clearly survived…
Camp at Barranco, 3,950m. A beautiful camp, with the mountain behind and around, and a stunning view out and down over Moshi. You realise just how far up you are, looking out and down, thinking of all those people down there, tucked up in their houses, totally oblivious to you perched up there on the side of a mountain. The milky way and stars seem incredibly bright and close – whether those few hundred metres actually make a difference or if it is just the lack of light pollution, who knows, but you sit up there feeling very small. And the other thoughts trespassing through my mind – one, was I going to get really sick all of a sudden, and two, I had to GET BACK DOWN….. Bugger it, go to bed, count the stones, and think of getting down when it happens… (Anyone with a helicopter – oh wait, they can’t come that high…)
Now, every walk so far had been reasonably gentle – a stroll along, little bit up, little bit down. Not so much climbing a mountain as walking up a hill. Barranco Wall was the first time that there was some climbing, or at least scrambling along. It is a 257m of very near vertical climb – easier than it looks once you get going, but lots of crawling along on your hands and feet, “kissing the wall” as you go. There is only one path, so many groups, with many climbers and even more porters, all going up the same path. A fair amount of hurry up and wait queueing, although Ben had called it exactly right, us being pretty much the first group and so leading the way without many breaks. For most of our group, this was their favourite day – me? Not so much. The whole thing of not being able to see my where my feet are going meant the scrabbling down bits are difficult, and the hauling up and down on my arms, especially with a pack (should someone take your pack? No), meant that my arms and shoulders took more of a hammering (damn bladdy stubborn….)
Ben and the porters often offered hands to help – when you are trying to reach across a little ravine or find a foot hold, an extra hand can be what is needed. Awesome. And at times excruciating when they would put a little more upward pull pressure on an arm than my neck approved of – I think they thought I was ignoring help at some moments, where in reality I was having to focus on breathing and not either passing out or sitting and crying with a little jolt passing through. Shall someone take your pack – No. I took on a challenge, my body would damn well play ball… (Crash through a boundary? Me? Never.) A couple of hours though, and you are clear and have the most spectacular views, somewhere where there is a lot more air than at the top, so lots of photos opportunities. Hmmm, will admit that my world was mainly in black and white at that point, or shades of grey. Alex chatted about taking a moment to stop and think about why we were all there in the first place – rather an emotional place it turned out to be… Hmm, don’t dwell too long there…
Camp at Karanga, 3,960m. A short walk after the big wall, only taking the rest of the morning, and so allowing time to chill in your tent (counting the rocks under your sleeping mat), potter, chat, soak up the scenery, look at the mountain and mentally prepare for the next day. A spectacular view again, down towards town, but, for a lot of the day, only cloud behind. Suddenly, at about dinner time, the clouds blew clear, and there was our little hill, much clearer and more detailed than before. Still a long way to go, but suddenly seeing the route and what and where we were going to tackle made it more doable than the big hunk of rock in the distance. Again, an amazing moon and a sky that reminded me of a field full of wild flowers – just so many stars that were so close. Really felt that if you just reached your hand a little further, you could pick one. Because we were actually closer? The air was thinner? We were oxygen deprived? Stunning. And cold. And, did I mention that I don’t do camping? I think that about this point I started popping Dr Kate’s little helping painkillers. Took the edge off, but still rather, um…. Interesting…. Still no sign of altitude sickness either, which was playing a bit at the back of my mind – with no understanding of what it would feel like, what if it suddenly raised its head?
Next morning, the start of another short – long day. Confused? So were we. A short walk, only a few hours in the morning, followed by lunch, sleep, dinner, sleep, but then we’d be moving out in the middle of the night. Generally, the base camp is at Barafu camp 4,645m. However, on the leaving side of Barafu is an almost vertical bit of rock which is really not very user friendly – except to our guides who scampered up like it was a wide, smooth flight of stairs. If you camp at Barafu, then you have an extra 1 – 1.5 hours on your night time summit push, which is even less user friendly. So, the UK organising company had put in a special request for permission to camp at Kosovo (or Beirut as it became known) instead. This is a little higher 4,800m, which meant better acclimatization, and that tricky bit was done in daylight. The main drawback was that there was now no water supply – every last drop was carried by our porters, so no water for wasting on such things as hand washing. Make full use of the anti-bacterial hand gel, wet wipes and Dettol wipes. Plenty of water for our 6 litres of sippy sippy and our two, three-course meals with gallons of soup though. Amazing porters. Final summit briefing – what to expect, what may or may not happen. Our lofty plans of being a 100% successful group came crashing down on us, when our youngest (and fittest???) member suddenly got really sick really fast and was whisked away at speed, ending up in hospital in a very short time, where one of our assistant guides stayed with her for a couple of nights until she recovered enough for discharge. Really can’t say enough about how good the guides were, as well as how amazing Kate and Ben were at picking it up, making the decision and getting her out.
Finally, summit night. We had – as planned – hit camp at lunchtime, so it was afternoon sleep, get up at 5 for dinner, go back to bed. For the first time, rather than being a team, we were split into 2 groups, one group having dinner at 10.30pm and leaving at 11pm, the rest of us eating at 11.30 and leaving at midnight. The plan being we would catch up half way. Do you know how hard it is, trying to cat nap knowing that time is limited and just what is coming up? 11.30, finally time, trying to force down pasta with veg sauce, feeling vaguely sick with nerves and excited and terrified (where is that altitude sickness???), and very much like a snowman with all the clothes you own bundled on at the same time…
The final putting on of fluorescent safety vests, two pairs of gloves, shoving one of your water bottles inside your coat (your water bladder in the back pack, with a long flexi straw freezes as you summit, meaning no water. So, by keeping an insulated bottle inside your jacket, you keep it liquid, in theory). The dawning that it is very hard to zip you jacket up over a water bottle. And how the hell do you get two pairs of gloves on, when they are thick and bulky, and then manage to hold walking poles as well? Slowly pull out, very much in single file – pole pole – head lamps on, shining on the pair of boots in front of you, Lead on MacDuff, one foot, pause, one foot pause. That night – I am not sure how to describe. If you told me that it took 10 minutes, I would believe you. And, if you told me that it took 24 hours, I would believe you too… It actually took 6.20 – we left at 12 midnight and summited at 6.20am.
Again – those porters. Start climbing – I’m too hot, pulled down the zips on my rain coat and down jacket, as we had been told. At some point I vaguely remember saying “I’m so cold” but by then, in a weird, sleep walking, whingeing child type of place, the “I’m too cold” comes out as a temper tantrum since you are not able to organise yourself, and the nearest porter patiently comes along and zips up jackets…. Stop, sippy sippy, walk (twendy?).