Mark's Kilimanjaro Trip

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Chapter 7: 
Kibo to Summit and Descent

The guides explained that we would all go as one big group, all 50-60 people staying in the hut. The moon had risen and it was still almost full. The snow had stopped, but it had left a white coating on the otherwise black boulders around us. The patches of snow reflecting the moonlight amidst the black broken rocks was, again, surreal. It felt like the moon.

We all lined up in the moonlight. We had flashlights and headlamps, and some of the guides had lanterns, but we didn't really need them in the moonlight. We began filing up the trail in the dark. I walked slowly, somewhat near the rear. Overdressed as I was, I quickly began overheating. I stopped once to rest and ventilate my clothing, and I noticed that a guide stopped with me. They didn't want anyone getting separated.

Not long after I stopped again, this time to strip off my fleece pants. In order to do this, I had to take off my boots and outer pants. It was cold, but my brain was already fogged from lack of sleep so I didn't notice much. The guide held my pack while I got myself back together, and when I reached for it he waved me off and shouldered it. I felt a little like a wimp, letting someone else carry my pack, but I realized that I had a long way to go before reaching the summit and I was already weak.

At this point we were still moving through a boulder field at the base of Kibo cone. I couldn't see very far in the dark, but that's what it seemed like.

At some point in here I had my first hallucination. As I mentioned, the rocks all had a light dusting of snow. At one point, I noticed a coat draped across a rock. I assumed someone else had gotten hot as well and left their coat to be picked up on the way back down. On the next switchback, I noticed a backpack by the side of the trail. I figured that not everyone had a guide to carry their packs for them if they got too heavy, and we didn't really seem to need our packs anyway. After awhile, I began to see a lot of packs. I began to wonder if people weren't leaving their packs to be picked up later, but were instead leaving clothing as some kind of offering to the mountain goddess, or something. Later, on the way down, I didn't see any packs. I also realized that all the packs and coats I'd seen had had a light dusting of snow on them, just like all the rocks. But, it had stopped snowing before we'd started climbing, so that was impossible. Back at Kibo Hut, I asked if anyone else had seen these packs and coats. No one had.

At some other point in all of this, I finally asked my guide his name. He said it was Jackson. I thanked Jackson for carrying my pack. He did not seem to think it was a big deal. He had a great deal of patience, did Jackson. I occasionally would have flashes of energy or impatience and pick up my pace a little bit. He would always slow me down with a murmured "pole, pole", and I put the brakes on. He was right, of course. Slow and steady wins the race.

We eventually reached Hans Mayer Cave, which is considered the halfway point. I don't know what time it was, but it was probably about 3-4 a.m. A couple of the guides had a fire going there for anyone who got cold. I knew that some of the trekkers weren't experienced winter campers and only had cotton sweatshirts for heavy clothing. Silly as I was about clothing, I'm glad I was overprepared instead of underprepared.

We stopped at the cave for a break. I sat on a rock and rested my head on my hands. I must have drifted off, because I had two intense dreams or visions. The first was that my sight had gone black, but in the center a white circle opened, like a fuzzy camera lens. Through the view I could see a short section of street with horsedrawn carts and Model Ts, all in black and white like an old movie. This vision was replaced by a vision of a bright orange and yellow surface. In the middle of the surface was a hole, like an orifice. An adult male figure, completely hairless and with the same computer graphics yellow and orange coloring as the surface, was stuck waist deep in the hole. His hands were below his waist, so they were stuck to. In the few seconds of the vision, the man's face turned from facing down to up towards me with his mouth wide open in a soundless howl. His eyes were closed, and the cry seemed more of frustration than pain. It was almost as if he was trying to be born. I'm sure there's something Freudian about it, but I have no idea what.

Jackson woke me up, although I don't think I really went to sleep, and said we had to get moving again. Even in the weirdest parts of the dream I knew I was actually sitting on a rock in a cave at night in winter conditions and that I had a long, steep walk ahead of me.

Jackson didn't want me to get too cold, though only my feet and butt felt any cold. The other thing was momentum. It was easier to move if your were already moving, hard to get started again once you'd stopped. If I'd stopped for too long, I might not have kept going up.

After awhile the trail reached the cone section and began to wind back and forth across a scree slope, heading up toward the crater rim. It was too dark too see very far, so there was no way to tell how far I had to go. I just had to keep slogging through the darkness.

We eventually caught up with someone else. A guy who was sick and moving slower than I. He was with a guide from another outfit named Peter. Peter was from New Jersey. This was interesting because all the guides in my party were native Africans, so it was understandable that they had the jobs they did. I was curious about Peter, though. How did he get his job, and why? I was too tired to ask much, but I did learn that he had come to Africa two years earlier and had just stayed. Even in my fogged state I found that fascinating.

Eventually, however, following slowly behind Peter and his charge began to bug me, so I passed them. I moved more quickly than I should have, but the trail was narrow and I wanted to get past as quickly as I could. I tired myself out so much I almost had to let them pass me again, but I kept up my pace and pulled away.

It started to get light some time later, and eventually Jackson pointed at the horizon and told me the sun was coming up. I had heard that sunrise from atop Kilimanjaro is one of the spectacular sights of Africa, so I glanced to my left and stopped for a moment. Yep, there was a sun over there, but I couldn't make myself care so I put my head back down and started slogging again.

My mind had started to wander again. I'm not sure I can describe what I thought about, except that it got very metaphorical. By this time I was insanely hungry, but I didn't really realize it. I just knew that my gut was in pain. Addled as I was, I started to imagine psychobabble reasons for it. I tried to imagine issues from childhood or whatever that could be holding me back. The idea of simple nutritional need didn't register. I began to imagine each little pain as a separate item in an imaginary child's bedroom. That kind of popped into my head full-blown. I imagined each piece of furniture as a separate issue that I was carrying, and one by one I burned them. Eventually the room was empty and my stomach had receded to a dull ache. I'm not sure what I accomplished psychologically, but I distracted myself for a half hour or so. I felt that each thing I burned had provided fuel to keep me moving. We were in sight of the top, but still a distance away, by the time I felt liked I'd used all the inner reserves I had and some I didn't know existed. After that I had a feeling of being empty, of running on literal vapor. I'm convinced now that if I could have left my mind at one of the huts and just sent my body ahead I would have had an easier time. I turned out to be a lousy predictor of what I could and couldn't do, and my constant worry was the main reason my nutrition had been so poor on the trip.

It's weird, but at that altitude you can't even walk right. You have to take baby steps. A decent step is to move one foot so that the heel of the advancing foot makes it even with the ball of the stationary foot. You only raise the moving foot just enough so that it doesn't drag the ground very much, less than a quarter of an inch at most. Small stones an inch or two in size become obstacles. You have to decide whether to spend the extra energy to lift your foot over it or try to go around. If it's in the middle of the trail, you have to go over. Having to navigate around several fist-sized rocks in a row will make you lightheaded. I'm not kidding. The oxygen level at 18000 feet is 50% what it is a sea level.

Well, the schedule called for me to reach Gillman's Point, the crater rim, by sunrise. I started to get impatient now that I could see further up the trail. Winding back and forth is taking forever, but I don't have the strength to try to go straight up the slope. Eventually I make it.

At Gillman's point I meet a couple of others from my party. Four people have gone around to Uhuru Peak, the actual summit of Kilimanjaro. Everyone else is going back down from Gillman's. Jackson encourages me to scramble up on some rocks to reach the actual Gillman's Point. I sit for awhile, get my picture taken. The guy who takes the picture isn't sure if he heard my autoadvance go or not. I'm afraid it has frozen, so I'm afraid to take any other pictures. As a result, I only have one picture from on top of Kilimanjaro. This is it.

I squinted up at Jackson, the man who got my butt on top of the mountain, and ask him if he thinks I have enough left to make it to Uhuru Peak. He pauses, then shakes his head. I have to agree with him. I am beyond spent. I have a pang of emotional regret, but my body just wants to go down. As we head down the scree slope, I start crying with relief. It hurt that much.

The neat part about going down is that you could go straight down. You didn't have to follow the endless switchbacks. Scree is smaller than gravel, larger than sand. It's kind of like snow, and if you get a good run and jump you can ski in it for a few feet in your boots. Jackson and I started doing a stride, stride, jump, slide routine that had us back down the slope in no time. We got back to Kibo in late morning, and I tried to take a nap but was too wound up. I listened to all the other people's stories instead.

Around 1 pm we packed up our stuff and headed back across the saddle to Horombo Hut. On the way I took a picture of a bench that sat alone in the middle of the saddle. It's the only human-made thing in a wide desert region. I have no idea why it's there.

I don't remember what I did upon getting back to Horombo. Slept, I imagine. My next memory is of Marangu Hut the next day, where I bought the Coke I'd been dreaming about. It tasted funny, as Coke made in other countries always does to me, but I enjoyed it all the same.

Here's me, feeling much more confident on the way down.

We made it down to the park gate and turned in our rented walking sticks. Then we had a final lunch together, got our certificates, and heard a speech from Exhoud. The party had discussed the issue of how much to tip the guides on the way down. We had been advised to give a lump tip to the head guide, who would then distribute it. We all were pleased with the guides, so we gave a higher tip than recommended. I gave Jackson a special tip myself. I thought it was inadequate, but it was a lot of money by local standards. I didn't want to insult the other guides and porters. I hope it did Jackson some good.

From there we went back to the hotel, where I got a mild caseof diarrhea. I was lucky. Several of the party got it hiking down the mountain.

Most of the party flew home the next day. I and one other person flew to Zanzibar for a week of recuperation. But, that's another story.
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