Friday, December 25, 2009

Day 4: Summit – the death zone

We are woken at 11:30 that night. Nonto; in the bunk above me leaps out of bed. I am delighted to see her keen to continue. Nettie also feels much better and is ready to have a go. My headache is gone and I find that the few hours of rest have allowed me to acclimatise – I can breathe normally! Then it dawns on me – the wind has died down too! I go outside and it looks perfect. It’s warmer than when we arrived here; there is a layer of thick cloud to stop radiation and there is a full moon above, just casting some light through the clouds.

Back inside, I continue dressing. I decide to go with the maximum gear anyway – here’s what I wore; from the bottom up; inside to outside:

CUM inner socks
CUM outer socks
Hiking socks
Hitech hiking boots

Boxer shorts (I wish I did not bother with these)
Rapid Sports thick neoprene / lycra tights
CUM trousers
Rain pants
CUM gaiters

Rapid Sports wicking undervest
Capestorm WPASS long sleeved lycra top
Long sleeved tee shirt
Capestorm Pufadder fleece
Thick Swazi Frontier First Ascent fleece
Rapid Sports skiing jacket
North Face Gore-Tex weatherproof jacket

WSP scarf
Cape Epic buff
First ascent beanie
Jacket hoodie

Woollen gloves
Skiing gloves

Underneath the outer jacket I wear my Karrimor 6 ℓ rucksack, now only containing my Platipuss hydration bladder which is filled with hot water, some medication and spare batteries. These have to be insulated otherwise they freeze. I run the hose inside my clothing so the water in the hose will not freeze. In addition, I have insulation for the hose. I need to take an additional 1 ℓ and fill a water bottle. I don’t have space for this and Kunda, one of the guides takes it for me.

I carry my camera inside my inner jacket pocket to prevent it freezing.

I have a quick cup of tea in the dining area and some cookies, then head back for the dorm to get the last few things ready. I find Nonto back in bed! (her earlier apparent enthusiasm was based on diamox / bladder demands) She explains that she knows she will not make it is not going to try for fear of holding up the others. I persuade her that she only has to get out of bed; make it out the door and try a few steps outside before making such an important decision. She can’t argue with that logic and is soon ready.

In the dining area, Techno Dave leads the team in prayer. We gather outside and set off. All 12 of us and 6 guide. Once again we are encouraged to go slowly. The scree and ash slopes get steeper as you go and your steps tend to make deep tracks and slide considerably. To ease the situation we follow a zig-zag route


It is manageable, but somehow still extremely difficult to walk. After a while my headache returns. I am dosed to the max and can’t take more Panado. Even the slightest change of pace makes me pant for breath hopelessly.

Lynne and Dumi

At 5000 m it starts snowing. There is still no wind and the gently swirling snowflakes in the moonlight are too beautiful. I can’t resist sticking my tongue out and trying to catch snowflakes on it. The snow lifts my spirits and I happily declare to the others that it will now be warmer and the snow will soon pass after which it will be a beautiful day. They don’t all share my optimism.

The snow on the ground makes the ash slope surface crispy and our boots have better purchase now. But soon the wind returns and what was a gentle snow becomes a proper snowstorm. All is not well with Nettie. She is sick again; way behind and hypothermic. The guides are used to people whingeing and do their best to encourage them to keep going. But they take one look Nettie and decide to evacuate her off the mountain as fast as possible.

We reach the Hans Meyer cave and shelter from the storm for a while. We were encouraged to drink a lot and I find the hot water in my backpack comforting. From this point my memory is vague and the story is pieced together from flashes, photos and accounts from others. I remember getting a bag of Mars Bars out; dishing them out in the cave and that they did not agree with all! I remember Tessa producing a Mars bar coloured technicolour yawn later; and Peter (or was it Lazarus) also getting nausea after eating it. Note that nausea is a symptom of altitude sickness and quite normal. There was nothing wrong with the Mars Bars. (provided they serve pan galactic gargle blasters there) (sorry – in joke)

Sheltering in the Hans Meyer cave

Kirsty looks in bad shape. She begs to be taken down the mountain. No Kirsty, carry on; you can do it.

Regarding altitude sickness – everyone is susceptible to it; it is entirely dependant on whether you spend enough time acclimatising. There are 3 types –
§ Regular altitude sickness – shortness of breath; nausea; fatigue
§ Pulmonary oedema – condensation in the lungs; extreme fatigue; bubbling in the lungs when breathing; not enough aspiration
§ Cerebral oedema – swelling in the brain: headaches; irrational behaviour; confusion; dizziness; hallucinations

The latter 2 are serious and cause for immediate evacuation to a lower level.

All forms of altitude sickness improve immediately with reduction of altitude. Even before we reached the cave, we came across several other climbers being escorted down the mountain, the disappointment ubiquitous in their faces

We are already well behind schedule and can’t afford to spend any more time in the cave. We press on – it is steeper now; every step becomes and effort. I come across Dave resting on his poles; looking beat. I have lost the ability to talk. When I try, only a dry croak comes out. I place a hand on his hunched shoulders – he responds; only after several deep breaths; a soft “I’m OK”. I know that he is not; but there is nothing I can do to help and leave him there.

Getting difficult

Dumi. Lynne and Sherif struggling below.

I find Nonto; also struggling; but moving very slowly. I place a hand on her back and push gently. I notice she is giving long steps and suggest to her to try baby stems. It helps. Together we plod slowly up the beast of a mountain. But I can’t sustain the effort and move on; beyond. Again a short rest stop / regroup. I lean on my pole. We were warned not to sit down as we would not get up again. The blizzard is intensifying, but every so often the wind diminishes for a while, giving us hope that it will let up. The Diamox is still doing its thing, of course, and the effort of doing the necessary wearing 2 layers of gloves and 4 layers of pants is ridiculous. For the girls it is of course much worse. We no longer have the luxury of shelter or inhibitions and just go where we are. Lynne copes by giving a running commentary, painting a mental picture so grotesque, that no-one dares look in vaguely in that direction.

Light starts breaking through. I have lost all sense of time but I am aware that there is enough light to abandon the head torch. We are now above the ash and scree slopes and I know it cant be too much further to Gilman’s Point on the rim of the crater. My watch altimeter is giving inaccurate readings. We encounter 2 Americans on their way down, looking beat. I manage to utter “how was it?”

The one responds “terrible….terrible!”

My heart sinks. “Did you make it Uhuru

“Yes – terrible”

This does not help me. “How much further to Gilmans?”

Long pause. “Don’t know - About another hour”.

I am shattered. Can’t be another hour. We plod on; pole-pole. I just place my feet in the footsteps of the climber in front of me, not sure who it is anymore. Then I see another climber, following a different path. Not sure which way to go. I start walking that path, but the person evaporates. This happens a few times. My head is pounding. Every step becomes a monumental effort. After every footfall it takes 10 breaths before I can even consider the next. Rest on the pole. Don’t sit down. Drink. One more step…

We are separated now. Dumi, Lynne, Tessa and Kirsty are somewhere around. Charles is leading. Another step. Another. Rest. Drink.

Slurp, slurp, nothing. Out of water. Never mind; will make it to Gilman’s Point soon and get tea there.

Getting steeper. Plod plod plod, breathe breathe breathe; rest on pole. Problem. Whenever I breathe, glasses fog up. Remove them. Snow stings face and eyes. Difficult to balance. Why is snow pink? Where am I? Oh yes…

Plod plod plod. Baby steps. Pole-pole.

Suddenly a level bit; a sign; people sitting. Gilman’s Point! We are at the rim of the crater. Can turn back now; will get certificate. But I sit down, have a quick rest, some photos. Check out the view – no view – visibility 5 – 10 m. Feeling a bit better. Head count – Charles; Kirsty (looking much better) Peter; Dumi; Tessa (vomiting up Mars Bar), Lazarus and me. “Where are the rest?” I croak. Nettie evacuated; Dave evacuated (Pulmonary oedema); Nonto taken down (exhaustion). The rest still on their way up. We have lost 3 guides along with the 3 evacuees too. The tea still on its way up. Guide Kunda, with my spare water bottle still on the way up.

Tessa and I at finally at Gilmans

With Dumi

 Kirsty and Dumi. Note icicle hair.

We can’t wait; getting too cold; getting too late. Dumi had plans of going down into the crater to the ash pit. Probably too late for that now. We push on for Uhuru; 6 of us. Walking is a bit easier, now, going downhill, in fact, for a while; then undulating; but not very steep. We come across an ice cave guarded by icicle stalactites. I take a photo of Peter, and then ask him to take one of me, but by then the camera has frozen.

Peter at the ice cave

Then steadily climbing again. Plod plod plod; breathe breathe breathe, pink snow. Fogging up glasses. Remove them, Feeling irritated; remove headgear. Thirsty. Head exploding. (Dark forebodings too)

Kirsty appears like an icicle encrusted angel and I beg water. She obliges. I spill my heart, croaking that I’m sick. Must continue, though.

We come across a sign and another path, where another route joins. Later realise that is Stella Point; but the sign is blown over face down in the snow. Push on; steep climb now on a along icy precipice. Plod plod; half a step at a time. After a while I realise I am alone. Wind screaming; stinging my face; head freezing. Realise I am not wearing beanie, balaclava and hoodie and pull them on again. I feel hands on my shoulders. Charles. “This way”. He turns me around and points out where I must step: “mind – ice there”.

The cloud clears for a moment and I catch a glimpse of the crater on my left. It’s on my left? I realise we are going back. The ice is hurting my eyes. I ask Charles to clean my sunglasses. It does not help. He gives me his.

We reach the others. They explain that we have to turn back. We are more now. I don’t complain. Just want to get off this cursed mountain now. Back at the ice cave; more photos.

Peter, me and Dumi

"Poisoned Chalice"

Plod plod plod – seems to take forever now. Finally back at Gilmans. We are 7 climbers now and 2 guides. Lynne and Sherif had also made it to Gilmans and together with guide Gibson set off for Uhuru. We met them somewhere near Stella point and they joined us in beating the retreat. Theuri had made Gilmans and turned around there, with one guide, can’t remember who. We finally have warm tea, which helps a lot, before starting the descent.

There is some panic when the lucid amongst us realise that one climber; Peter; is now unaccounted for! They conclude that he must have have started the descent without us; without a guide. Fortunately that turns out to be correct - but it explains the nickname Disappearing Peter.

Kirsty, Lynne and Tessa still standing; me defeated. Others starting descent.

Sherif with combo flag

Going down is difficult. I am still wobbly and Charles continues to point out where I should place my feet. But it gets easier as we descend and after a while I am capable on my own. We are the last people left on the mountain now and need to hurry. We reach the ash /scree section now and instead of following the zig zag path we go more or less straight down, sometimes sliding. Tessa gets a skiing action going and makes rapid progress past me. I am still too weak to walk fast and have to watch every step, but I feel stronger with each metre. Finally we reach Hans Meyer cave. The sun has come out now and we have a long rest, languishing in the sun, enjoying the warmth. I lose a few layers of clothing. Guide Kunda is there with my spare water bottle and I drink long tugs, feeling the strength flowing back into me. There is cell phone reception and it is warm enough for the phone to work, so most of us take the opportunity to sms friends and family. Dumi, who was the most energetic of us all, and who has not been taking Diamox because of an adverse effect on his vision, is now beat, and falls asleep in the cave. Some of us continue the descent and it is much easier now, in the warmer conditions and thicker air. I am able to run and also make rapid progress, giving big steps and sliding on my ass in the ash.

Resting at Hans Meyer cave

The last bit of the descent back to Kibo

Kibo when Nettie arrived there earlier

It must have been around 11:00 or 12:00 am when we reached Kibo camp. We took our time resting, having lunch and preparing for the long walk back down to Horombo. Nonto is waiting there, Nettie and Dave having been taken down to Horombo immediately upon reaching Kibo. Now we walk really fast – no need to conserve energy and every need to lose altitude quickly.
By the time we get there, I am feeling fine, so are Nettie and Dave, who have been chilling there since early afternoon. A great dinner; lots of stories told and we hit the sack big time. It’s been a very long day.

No comments:

Post a Comment