Saturday, March 10, 2007

Eszter's summit night

After Neil's horror story, I thought that in the interests of balance I should post my experience of the summit night, as I felt relatively ok.

My general approach to the whole trip was the traditional "pole pole", ie, to take it slowly. Except that my "slowly" was a lot slower than other people's "slowly". I was one of the few people without a Platypus hose to enable me to drink as I walked, so I had to stop to get my bottle out of my bag for a drink of water. I also had very frequent "pee stops", which is supposedly a good sign that your body is adapting to the altitude*, although it just meant that I had to stop all the more often to drink... So overall, I tended to be towards the back of the group faffing about with my stuff and tiring myself out in the thin air.

* Note: "clear and copious" does not apply at altitude, where your body is just dumping water due to the lower pressure, so you must keep drinking even if it seems like you've got more than enough fluid in your system.

There were a couple of occasions when I got very angry about all this – I felt it was unfair that people weren't waiting for me, as I needed time to take my backpack off, find a big rock to hide behind, have a pee, go back, have a drink, wrestle my bag back on and not even have a spare minute to have a rest, as the rest of the group had already set off and left me behind with a guide. To be fair, the guides were obviously used to this and had no problems waiting for me, but under the circumstances, you can't help but feel that you are holding the group up, so invariably I would rush after the rest of the group and get myself totally knackered in the couple of minutes it would take me to catch up.

From about 2,500m onwards, I got occasional mild headaches. They tended to get worse with more physical exertion, which was another reason why I preferred to walk slowly and why it was so frustrating to be lagging behind.

However, by summit night, I was used to being at the back and I decided that this was the only way that I had any chance of reaching the top – just keep going at a slow, steady pace and don't let myself be rushed.

I managed to get a few hours' sleep before we set off shortly after midnight. My tummy was a bit gurgle-y as my guts were trying to equalise with the pressure outside my body, but the Loperamide we took before starting the ascent obviously helped settle things down. For the rest of the night, I had no altitude sickness symptoms at all, not even the headaches that I had before, which was surprising, as I expected it all to just get worse. Maybe the extra day of acclimatisation had its intended effect.

The climb up to the summit was fairly steep (a gradient of about 1:5), but in the cold of the night, we didn't have too much of a problem with sliding back on the frozen scree, so at least it was possible to make steady progress. I stuck to my plan and took things slowly, but realistically, I really couldn't have gone much faster, simply because I was just so out of breath. I was taking very small steps – maybe about half a foot's length – and these got even shorter the closer I got to the summit. I got into a good rhythm of taking maybe 5 or 6 small steps and then stopping and resting for about 5 or 6 deep breaths and taking another few steps.

The group broke up into several smaller groups and Hellen had a difficult job making sure that there were enough guides with each sub-group to ensure everyone's safety. However, in the last couple of hours, I did end up being by myself somewhere in the middle of the scattered group, as I slogged away at my cycle of climbing and resting. It really worked for me and I was able to carry on like this for hours. I didn't even really notice the time – to me it didn't feel like an endless night, as I thought it would, but the sun started coming up all too soon and I was worried that I still wasn't near the summit, which just spurred me on.

In the end, I had to admit that I wouldn't reach Stella Point by sunrise, so I did have a little sit-down, dug my camera out and took some amazing pictures of the peak of Mawenzi. I definitely enjoyed that moment.

After that I continued my climb and in the growing light it was now possible to see the summit very clearly. It was tantalisingly close, but my painfully slow pace meant that it took forever to reach Stella. There were several times when I nearly burst into tears – I just felt like a child who couldn't get her favourite toy. I just wanted to be at the top, without the hassle of actually having to climb up. It reminded me of the final mile of my half-marathon, when I had the same feeling – when is this ever going to end?

Strangely, I don't really remember how I felt when I actually reached Stella Point. I was more grateful for the opportunity to rest than anything else. I was impressed that I still felt ok apart from being out of breath, so I considered whether to attempt Uhuru. The more I rested, the more I wanted to do it. My sensible side kept telling me that Stella already counts as the summit, so there's no need to push on, but my slightly more adventurous side (yes, I have one!) said – why not? You're here now and you feel ok, so why let this opportunity pass? It's not like you're coming back here any time soon!

When Hellen and the last few members of our group also reached Stella, we were treated to a nice hot drink. Hellen worked her magic with organising the guides, so Anne and I were allowed to attempt Uhuru, even though it was already relatively late in the day. We were amongst the very last people to go up that day, as on our way back down, we only saw one other small group of people coming up.

The way up to Uhuru was much better for me. There was good grip on the fresh snow, so it was easier to walk. It was also a much gentler slope, so it was possible to make faster progress. Poor Anne though was extremely tired and there were several times when we both thought we'd have to turn back.

On our way up, the view was superb, and we met many of our fellow group members on their way back down. In particular, we bumped into Jon and Andy, who explained that their camera didn't work at Uhuru, so they had no pictures of themselves (or Piglet or Poohlet, who I took up with me for a second chance) at the peak. After some emotional blackmail from me, Jon decided that he'd turn around and come back up to Uhuru with me! It was wonderful to have finally reached the top and I was so pleased that we got some pictures of Jon and me together at the summit.

By this time it was around 9:30am, so the sun was getting very strong, and with the white snow everywhere, it was impossible to see anything without our sunglasses on. It also meant that the frozen scree was starting to melt, so our way back down the mountain was very hard work, as we had to slip and slide all the way down. I think I found the way down even harder than going up, because by that time we'd been exerting ourselves for over ten hours, with relatively little food, water or rest breaks. Our progress was very slow, as Anne needed to stop many times because of sheer exhaustion, while I started feeling sick from the sugary drink I'd brought along to give me a boost of energy later in the day.

When we eventually made it back to Barafu camp shortly after 2pm, it was really disappointing to find that the rest of the group had already got there, had a rest, had some food and set off for the final descent to Mweka camp, which was another 3 hours away. However, after some hot soup we felt much better and the way down to Mweka was much easier. The air was noticeably better, so by the time we got there shortly after 5pm we felt reasonably good, apart from having very achy feet. We both slept very well that night.

Overall, for me summit night was very difficult, but only because of being so out of breath and needing to have the sheer dogged determination to carry on when you really just want to sit down and say "sod it, I don't care any more". But, I was very lucky as I didn't suffer from the altitude or the cold (it was a balmy –7C) so I could just focus on putting one foot in front of the other. It's definitely not easy-peasy, but it's doable. I am really pleased that Jon and I got up together, as I think I would have been very disappointed if we'd come back with just a picture of me by myself at the summit. It was a really amazing sight and I still have this happy glow that I've done it.


Blogger Andrew said...

Eszter....Doggedly Determined indeed - well done for hanging in there. And for encouraging Jon to re-summit with you, Anne, Tiglet and Poohlet. And thanks for being an integral part of The Kili 6...where next??

4:38 AM  

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