Friday, September 24, 2010
I knew from all accounts that day 6 was going to be tough but hadn't thought I'd be doing the hardest thing I've ever done. We began the hike at a little before midnight under the most brilliant moonlight. It sure was dreadfully cold, but the excitement of scaling the summit kept us from noticing the frigid temperatures and we marched on with loud fervor. After an hour's walk we could see the shining peak that gives the mountain its name; kilima for mountain, jaro for shining. The guides were making vuvuzela noises with their mouths almost to suggest that the celebrations could begin already. Until that point, it seemed like yet another stroll in the park just as the previous 5 days had been, but that optimism was short-lived. After about 3hrs of walking a lot had changed; the weather got harsher - the temperature was 10 below zero - and the terrain got frustratingly hard to navigate because we were walking on a gravel slope that slid us back a step for every two we took forward. By now, the water in my bottle was too cold to be ingestible and I didn't drink anything for the next 3 hours.
The exhaustion crept up on me almost unnoticed and strangely it was all mental. Sleep deprivation, hunger, dehydration and high altitudes; that's a terrible mix. I was even hallucinating mildly. I distinctly remember thinking that it was a great idea to take a 10min nap while walking. Later, I learned that a lot of people felt drugged while they approached the top. I was continuously telling myself to take it one step at a time. I tried to make small talk with my teammates but nobody was in the mood to indulge me. It was nearly 6 AM when we reached the crater rim to a place called the Stella Point. Now, the peak was a little over a kilometer away but even that distance seemed overwhelming. Richie served us some tea that refreshed me instantly. Despite losing its warmth before I could lift the cup up for a second sip, the tea encouraged us to get going again. Besides, the cold was really punishing inactivity. We trudged along on the ridge and the sun was peeping out of the horizon behind us, spilling some unreal colours on the skies. When I reached the Uhuru peak at 5895m it wasn't like I imagined it. There was no tumult. I felt relief and only relief.
By the time we were done with the pictures there was a nice warm sun. The gravel slopes that had made the climb so irritating made the descent equally easy because we pretty much skied down the gradient. I was still only sleep walking and I didn't feel great, but the thought of reaching the camp made it easy to shut my mind to all negativity and I kept gliding down. Even after I got to the camp at around 10, I was telling myself that all the exhaustion was only in the mind. The body replied in the negative immediately. The retching that began then didn't stop even after every bit of solid or liquid I had consumed had been thrown out. Richie immediately ordered me to start walking to a lower camp. I left the team behind and started walking down at a comfortable pace, stopping only for some violent empty retching. I reached the lower camp, Mweka (3100m), and almost miraculously felt completely back to normal. Only, after walking for nearly 14 hrs without any nutrition or fluid, I felt like I could eat anything I could lay my hands on. The taiwan-made green-tea-flavored oat meal that Sin gave me is a snack that I will never ever forget. The early dinner that evening was special not least for the Kilimanjaro beer that Richard served us. At the end of the meal I finally felt human. I finally felt what I thought I'd experience on the peak, that flooding sense of accomplishment.