Tuesday, February 24, 2009

My Summit Climb

From Kilimanjaro Climb

Our little group arrived in Kibo hut early in the afternoon. Our guide told us to relax for the afternoon and that we would be fed at about 5 pm. After that we should try to sleep as we would be up again at 10 PM for the summit climb. I don’t remember what we had for supper. I do remember that after supper, the eighteen hikers in our room of the hut, about to embark on the biggest climb of their life, all keyed up and rustling around in nylon sleeping bags in a small room, and early in the evening, attempted to sleep. Speaking for myself, at best, I rested in a horizontal position. Judging by the amount of tossing, turning, whispering in a variety of languages, etc I think I was not alone. If the whole group of us got an hour of sleep in total I would be surprised. At approximately 10 PM our guide entered the room and “woke” us. They brought us hot boiled water to which we added lemon lime Gatorade powder.

He fed us hot tea and sugar cookies, and told us to get ready. Fifteen minutes later the three of us were outside ready to go. Our guide and assistant guide were waiting and we set off almost immediately. The trail leading to the summit from Kibo hut climbs a scree slope in a series of about a thousand switchbacks virtually straight up from the hut. The night was pitch black and the only lights visible were stars and the headlamps we and the other hikers wore. The guides did not use them. I don’t know if this was simply due to a lack of equipment or if it was to save their night vision. They did not seem to get lost! It seemed like every 15 minutes or so our guide Sam would stop and spend a minute studying our faces and asking us how we were doing. For the first couple of hours we all were doing fine. However after a while we stopped for drinks and to adjust our clothing. It was amazing how difficult little tasks like getting something out of your backpack can be on a cold dark night at 18000 ft. After about ten minutes we resumed our climb. By about 3 AM, and I really don’t know how far up we were, I was getting cold. My feet were cold and my hands were cold. I really couldn’t do anything for my feet except for more headwear. I might have already been wearing all the headgear I had. I really don’t remember. My hands were also cold. I was wearing thick fleece gloves that were always warm enough in Canada. The guides were barehanded!!! I changed to a lighter pair of fleece gloves with a large pair of mitts over top. I also dug around in my pack to find my chemical hand warmers and put one of them in each hand. Both Ray and I offered our spare gloves to the guides but were both refused. Diane also put her hand warmers to use. Ray had packed his the previous evening, but on the mountain that night he could not find them in his pack. Off we went again and after about fifteen minutes the hand warmers started to work. Our feet were all still very cold. I remember thinking about both my feet and hands at one point and telling myself that no mountain in the world was worth losing a finger or toe. All along the guides would stop us and look at our faces to see if we were alright. Ray and Diane were both breathing quite hard and Diane was having some dizzy spells. At one point Ray (he is a Doctor) gave Diane a dexamethasone pill. Diane, who is pathologic about not taking medicines, just happily swallowed it. All during the climb we would stop and drink from our Camelbak. We each had a hydration bladder full as well as a 1 litre Nalgene bottle. Eventually the bladder tube froze up so we drank from the Nalgene. The frozen bladder thawed out during the late morning descent to Kibo after summiting so it did not go to waste. It is amazing how good warm Gatorade tastes at 19000 ft. However we never seemed to have enough patience to dig around in our packs for food. This would come back to haunt me!
Suddenly it seemed the sun was coming up and we were at Gilman’s point. There were quite a few climbers here resting and taking in the view. For the last hour as Ray and Diane had struggled with breathing, etc, I had been mulling over what to do at Gilman’s. If the two of them decided to call it a day at Gilman’s point should I go on to the summit alone. I was feeling very strong at that point but had almost decided to go with whatever they decided. At Gilman’s Sam told us it was about a mile walk to the summit and that it would take about an hour. Diane suddenly seemed to come alive and said “let’s go for it then”. Ray and I were game so off we went. Here on the crater rim we were in snow and ice. The trail to the summit itself was not steep by any means. Also it was now daylight so we could see where we were stepping. However we were now in snow. One interesting thing that I experienced was that my feet which had been cold all the way up the scree slope were suddenly quite warm as soon as we reached snow. I might have thought it was a mental issue except that when I commented on it later Ray immediately stated that he had experienced the same thing. The trail at this point became quite icy and slippery. Sam our guide slipped and fell face first onto the trail. Due to the cold however he had his arms inside his coat and his hands in his crotch to keep them warm. When he fell he was not able to get his hands out to break his fall properly. In fact at first it looked like he had broken his wrist and dislocated some of his fingers. Ray, being a doctor immediately began examining him and found that there was no real damage, other than his hands being stiff with cold. At this point we forced our spare gloves on Sam and John, the guide and assistant guide. Sam, Ray and Diane were now all moving very slowly and John and I were moving well. John suggested that we move on ahead to the summit and let the others follow at their own pace. It seemed that the mile or so to the summit went on for ever and the trail was very icy. I wished for crampons of some sort as there were spots where a slip would have meant a long slide off to a hard landing a thousand feet below. As we got nearer to the summit the weather started to deteriorate until we were in a blizzard with about fifteen feet of visibility. As well there seemed to be more people around as the various routes up the mountain merged on the final summit trail.
With about a hundred yards to go I felt as if I had “hit the wall”. At first I did not understand what was happening until I realized that I had been climbing for close to 12 hours and, other than a few sugar cookies at 10 the previous evening, hadn’t eaten since 5:00 the evening before. I staggered my way the final 100 yards or so and had the energy to take the required photos. There was no view whatsoever due to the blizzard. In spite of my state of exhaustion and the lack of view the sense of accomplishment was amazing.
From Kilimanjaro Climb

However after a couple of minutes I asked John (the asst. guide) whether he thought we should wait for the others or head back down. He must have known what I was feeling as his answer was simple “you go down now!” As I started down I began to realize how little strength I had left in me. I began to think that I was in serious trouble. In fact after about fifteen minutes we met Ray and Diane and apparently I stated something to the effect that ‘They would never get me to climb another mountain again as long as I live’.
The icy stretch proved to be a real challenge. In my weakened state and feeling the effects of exhaustion the process of each step became a major decision. I seemed to take minutes deciding where to put my foot for each and every step. The trip back to Gilman’s point seemed to take forever but probably lasted about forty minutes. When John and I arrived there it was bright sunshine and when you got out of the wind it was quite warm.
The first thing I did was dig around in my pack to find some chocolate bars, one for John and one for me. Then we got into the Powerbars and any other goodies we could stomach. We drank the last of the Gatorade from the Nalgene. I felt better after that little meal but still completely drained. My brain was functioning well enough to know that if I sat here too long I might never get up. The view here was magnificent. We could see far into Kenya and down the mountain past Kibo hut. The descent seemed quite daunting as I started down on rubbery legs. On the way up the scree had been frozen but now it was loose and it was like walking down a sand dune at the beach, a four thousand foot high sand dune! I had to stop and rest about four times on the trip down. At one point while I was stopped I could see Ray and Diane above me but they were a long way up. On another occasion I heard shouting up above me and I looked up to see two guides from a British group running full speed down the mountain with a women draped between them flopping about like a rag doll. When I say running I mean it. At the time my first thought was that they were likely to tumble and break numerous bones at any second. I really don’t know how they did it. They stopped about a hundred feet below me for a breather. I caught up with them then and found the girl slumped against the rock while the guides caught their breath. I tried to talk to her and offered her a drink but got only glassy eyes in return. I really don’t think she was conscious at that point. Within a couple of minutes the guides had hoisted her up again and were resuming their breakneck run down the mountain. Watching them go it took another twenty minutes or so for them to reach Kibo hut while it took me well over an hour to reach the same point. At one point a young couple caught and passed me on the way down. He was a nurse practitioner with the British group and explained that the woman had collapsed unconscious at the summit. He had immediately injected her with Dexamethasone and the guides had carried her off at that pace. I think they got her from the summit to Kibo hut in about an hour, an amazing feat.
John let me go at my own pace and I really don’t remember him on the way down but I know as we neared the hut he went by and then met me with a drink of juice and as I crawled into my bunk brought me a steaming hot bowl of the most delicious stew I have ever experienced. I remember being cold and yet I didn’t have the energy too get properly into my sleeping bag. Every couple of minutes someone else would straggle in and let in the cold wind. Every one was in a state of exhaustion. After a couple of hours I got up to go the washroom and was waiting in line when I realized that the girl standing next to me carrying on a lucid conversation was the girl I had seen carried down a couple of hours previously. She seemed to have made a complete recovery and had no recollection at all of getting from the summit back to Kibo.
Soon the guides had us pack everything up and got us moving down the trail to Horombo hut where we would spend the night. We arrived there in about three hours compared to the four and a half it took us on the way up. Dinner was at about five but none of us had the energy to eat and in fact went to bed by seven and slept straight through till six the next morning Diamox or no Diamox. See the effects of Diamox on sleep in another post.

Lessons learned

Really this section could be called “what I would do differently if I did it again!” and it really only refers to the summit climb itself. The trip went beautifully as far as I was concerned with a couple of minor “I should have dones!” that will be mentioned in another post.

The first thing I would do differently would be to eat. I am referring to eating before we set off at 10 pm for the summit. I am referring to every couple of hours on the trail. The only real discomfort I felt on my entire climb had to do with “hitting the wall”. I had the feeling of fear that I had got my self into trouble and would not get down in one piece on my own. I really didn’t like the light-headedness and lack of ability to think clearly. This may have been altitude related, but it did not manifest itself until the other effects showed up. So what do I mean? Before you leave home decide on some food such as power bars, chocolate bars, peanuts, whatever you like and pack them as your meal for 10 pm on summit night. This starts your summit climb with a good base. Then before you set off pack a number of snacks such as power bars, peanuts, whatever in your coat pockets, not in your packs. Rooting around in your pack in the dark on a freezing mountainside was a big deterrent to eating. I would even go as far as unwrapping the snacks and putting them in a baggie with no tie so that you don’t even have to take off your gloves to eat. I think eating every few hours on top of a base meal at 10 pm would have made all the difference. You have to plan this in advance, because when you get to Kibo the atmosphere isn’t conducive to planning. There are a hundred keyed up climbers all excited, and planning your menu will fall by the wayside. Do it at home, and do the unwrapping etc, the night before Kibo.

As to drinks definitely take Gatorade or equivalent and have the guides bring you boiled water just before you leave to mix it up in. It is remarkable how appetizing hot lemon lime Gatorade is at 18000 ft and freezing temps. The tubes on your hydration packs will freeze so pack a litre size Nalgene as well for when the tube freezes. What is left in the pack you will drink on the way down after it thaws again.

The next thing I would do slightly differently would be to break out the chemical hand warmers sooner. As soon as my hands started to feel cold I would get them out. They were still working when I got back to Kibo the next day so length of time isn’t an issue and warmer hands would have made me a lot more comfortable.

I would also take something called YakTrax with me for the icy trail at the top. I saw a few people with crampons on, but that seems kind of overkill. Surer footing would have been welcome especially when I was feeling as I was and YakTrax are small, light and cheap.

I wouldn’t do much else different if I was to climb again. I was lucky in that my fitness or genetics helped me avoid altitude sickness. I was well equipped and as a Canadian I was somewhat prepared for the cold. If you are fit and equipped you should enjoy your climb as much as I did.

Top of Page

1 comment:

  1. Massive congrats. Great article. I really enjoyed reading it. I always get pumped for people when they reach the summit. I run a site which helps aspiring climbers prepare for climbing Kilimanjaro. Check it out. It might bring back some cool memories. http://www.climbkilimanjaroguide.com/