Thursday, November 14, 2013

Summitting Kilimanjaro - Part 3

After lunch I climbed into my sleeping bag for warmth.  I was absolutely knackered and had very little energy.  The smallest task seemed like such a big effort.  My hands weren't working properly and I was getting a little confused about what day it was.  I was tired but I knew I probably wouldn't sleep.  There was too much happening at Kibo camp, my anxiety pumping my blood full of adrenalin.  The best I could do was rest.

I took this video when I got into my tent.  I'm glad I did these videos because they show how my personality was changing.  This is what the guides are trained to recognize which could indicate cerebral edema, which could result in death.  If they see a dramatic personality change they would need to get that person down to lower altitude fast! 

Notice how small my pupils are.

I rested for about 7 hours, until 9:30pm when we got up to have something to eat and get ready  for the night summit which began at 11pm.

It was a cold, crisp, clear night.  It stopped snowing, there was a bright moon and millions of stars in the sky.  The perfect night for our ascent.

There are a few reasons to ascend Kibo at night.  One reason is mental - if you can't see where you're going, you are less likely to talk yourself out of it.  It literally tricks your mind into thinking, "it can't be much further".   It forces you to be the moment, walking one slow step in front of the other, thinking only as far as your head torch can illuminate.  I knew we would stop every hour so I kept walking, focusing my gaze down on the person's feet in front of  me.  There was no point looking up because there was no telling whether you were looking at the stars or the headlamps of other climbers.  Focusing on the person's feet in front of mine was my walking meditation.  The guides were watching for obvious signs of edema and asking, "You okay Mama?" satisfied when they got a nod and a fake smile.  They were marvelous.
Forcing my fake smile at around 3am
Another reason to climb at night is that although climbing up a mountain at night is hard, scrambling down one in the dark would be worse.  If you climb Kilimanjaro during the day in 8 hours and something went wrong, you run the risk of coming down when it's getting dark.  That's far more dangerous.

I saw a woman who had fallen when she got to the top and took quite a tumble down, leaving her face gashed and bruised from the jagged rocks.

It was very cold.  I had hand warmers in my gloves and boot warmers at my toes but they were useless.  I thought I was going to get frostbite.  Our guides and porters often didn't have gloves and if they did, they gave them away to one of us and jammed their hands in their pockets.  I even saw a porter wearing sandals on his feet without any socks.  I don't know how on earth he did it.  Those guys are the true heroes.  They climb that mountain for us and to ensure we make it to the top.  They sacrifice anything and everything for us for just a few dollars a day.  I watched one of our guides walk backwards in front of an older member of our group, giving her encouragement the whole way up the mountain.  He took personal interest in her.  It wasn't until later that he told us that she had the same name as his wife.  He was her hero on that mountain.  The thought brings a tear to my eye.

I drew within myself even more the higher we climbed.  At high altitude your body goes into survival mode.  Beyond irritability, empathy and compassion fades.  We've all heard stories of people dying on Everest and the body gets left behind.  I could never understand how anyone could do that - until now.  Of course this isn't Everest but altitude is a strange thing to explain.  When you see a person struggling and there is a guide assisting them, you carry on.  The moment you stop to put your energy into them, you compromise  your own chances of succeeding.  I found it very odd as I'm normally such a compassionate person.  Maybe it would have been different if I was climbing with someone I knew.  But as it was, this was a very private internal journey for me.  I was on this mountain for a reason.

It brought me back to being a 10 year old in the hospital where I'd lose a friend every week.  I got good at knowing who was next, just by the way they stopped fighting to live.  Once someone gives up, there is no pulling them back.  They have to have the determination to survive.  It is a harsh lesson for a 10 year old to learn but it made me understand my own fighting spirit when I re-lived that same experience on Kili.  I kept my distance from the kids that were giving up on life because I knew it would be too easy to get pulled into that negative space.  I refused to see myself as sick.  I was in the hospital to get better, not to die.

Death is easier than any of us realize - until you come so close to it you can smell it.  We all have the capability of choosing to die.  For me, that was never more evident than on Kilimanjaro.  The fatal combination of lack of oxygen, freezing cold temperatures and physical exhaustion is enough to make you close your eyes for one minute too long and slip away into unconsciousness, never to wake again.  I came close to that point up there and I was at peace with death.  It happens more often than people realize.   But this is what our guides are for.  They don't let us sleep.

I had angels looking after me.  I continued on the climb with Macon Dunnagan and his porter William who constantly encouraged me to keep going.   I was not a happy camper but William paid no mind to my mood and did his best to get a smile out of me every so often.  It was impossible to resist his charms.  We were so close to Gilman's Point as the sharp rock turned into big boulders which made for tricky manoeuvring.  I wanted to cry but I didn't know whether it was because my body was sore, tired or happy.  I felt nothing, not even excitement.  I was stoic.  

But I was also determined.  I set my mind on a task - to reach Uhuru.  When I say I'm going to do something, I do it.  I was climbing for all the women who fought for their life and didn't make it and the women who would be diagnosed with ovarian cancer in their lifetime.  This wasn't about me at all.

Sunrise on Kilimanjaro
I reached Gilman's Point at 5:30am.  Uhuru was still another 2 hours away along the crater rim.  It was bitter cold, the sun was yet to rise through the blanket of  cloud that nestled the mountain.  Macon, William and I forged on.  The sky turned orange as the sun peaked it's rays up over the clouds.  It was a majestic sight and I stopped to smile as it hit me.  I was standing on the roof of Africa and I was alive. 

To be continued...

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