Our hike began around midnight under a moonless, windless, cloudless African sky. After hot beverages and biscuits (the English variety) we started out with headlamps and every single piece of cold weather clothing we brought.
The dark mountain rose in front of us, illuminated only by the stars and the procession of the lights of hikers winding their way up its slopes. There was little conversation, as most people concentrated on the circle of light on the ground in front of them. The slope itself consisted largely of loose rock that crunched and moved underfoot.
Our guide Filex led the way at a slow pace, and the assistant guides were scattered throughout our group. I brought up the rear, and in the early going, it became apparent that Aran was not feeling well. He had suffered some gastrointestinal unmentionables yesterday from which he had not fully recovered. As the rest of our group crept farther away, I stayed behind with him and two other assistant guides.
Our base camp was at 15,100 feet, and the summit was 19,340 feet. At those heights the lack of oxygen affects a healthy person; for a sick person it is a struggle just to move or breathe. Aran’s progress slowed, and more and more people passed us. Hour after hour he trudged on, taking breaks to rest and catch his breath. We encouraged him and lightened the load in his pack, but still his steps were slow and short.
I have never in my life seen someone push himself like Aran did. Each step required great effort, yet little by little he inched his way up the mountain.
Unfortunately, time was not on our side. We were supposed to be near the top by sunrise, but the yellow orb had already shown its face when we were still far from the summit. It broke my heart to do it, since Aran was being so valiant, but I started to suggest that he might want to turn around. Ultimately it was his decision, but I wanted to make sure he still had enough energy to make it down the mountain. Not only did we have to make it back to base camp, we had another three hours of hiking after that.
In the end, he just didn’t have enough energy to continue. He told me to go ahead and try for the summit with one of our guides (Jeremiah), and he would go down with the other guide. We bid adieu and I started up the mountain. After a short while, I got warm from the quickened pace. I stopped to take off several layers and dump out the water in Aran’s water bottles that I had unburdened him from earlier.
When Aran and I had parted, Jeremiah offered to carry my backpack, especially because he didn’t have one. Of course I had refused initially, but now I decided to take him up on his offer. I had also not wanted to take any medications, but ever since we left Aran my pulse quickened along with our pace, so much so that I could feel it in my brain, even along the back of my head. I learned later that was a bad sign (duh), but surmised then that it might be a precursor to cerebral edema. Taking 400mg of ibuprofen definitely helped, as did lightening my load.
Not too much farther up I ran into the rest of our climbing party. Everyone had made it! I was really psyched to learn that, especially because there were guys who, like Aran, had been ill on this trip. What a bummer for Aran that his body simply chose the wrong day to be sick. The guys told me how they fared and what I had to expect from the rest of the route. A little while later I ran into Filex, who told me I could attempt the summit as long as I hurried down.
The emotions of this final day were not what I had expected. At first, hiking slowly with the energy-deprived Aran, I was really bored. Since he was quite ill and I was not, the pace was easy for me. Now that I had reached the hardest part of the journey, up at 19,000 feet and the steepest trail yet, my only thought was “Get me the heck off this mountain.” Well, I used another word besides “heck,” but again, my mom in going to read this.
The hike up to Stella Point, about 200 vertical meters shy of the summit, was by far the hardest part of the trip. It was up a steep slope of scree (loose gravel that was, in this case, volcanic and therefore sharp) that seemed without end. Once on top of that, the trek to the summit was much easier. Still, it wasn’t exactly a walk in the park. Doing anything at that altitude gets you out of breath if you’re not used to it like our guides. After a couple of false peaks, stopping only for a few seconds here or there to catch my breath, Jeremiah and I made it to the top.
It was a good feeling, to be sure, but not as good as one would think. At that point you are so tired of not being able to breathe that all you want to do is go back down. For me, the thought of spending that night at 10,000 feet was wonderful. I took a couple pictures, drank some water and stomached half a PowerBar before starting our journey downward.
I don’t care what people say; going down is much, much easier than going up, especially if one is experienced at picking the way among the rocks while going fast. Thanks to all the trail running I did up in San Francisco with my buddy Jim, I’m very comfortable going very fast on trails. Add to that the fact that Kilimanjaro is just one big pile of gravel, and going down is that much easier, not too different from going down a sand dune.
Jeremiah and I literally ran down the mountain, glissading through the scree. It took us about nine hours to make it up the mountain, but only one hour to make it down. We would have gone even faster, but we ran into one of our party on the way down and walked with him a while.
When we got back to base camp I immediately went to check on Aran. He was crashed out in our tent. Poor guy. When he woke up, we talked about what happened after we parted ways. He said his guide encouraged him to rest a bit before trying to make it up to Stella Point. Aran said he rested fifteen minutes, took two steps up the mountain and knew there was no way he was going up. He came back down the mountain safely and rested.
He had a wonderful attitude about the whole thing, which made me feel relieved. He was still happy with his accomplishment (one that I feel was much greater than the accomplishments of the guys who made it to the top), and took it all in perspective. To me, that is the essence of mountaineering: pushing oneself to new limits in the world’s most beautiful places. The summit is never physical, and sometimes the greatest feats are when one turns back before reaching the top of the mountain.
Copyright Axel Schwarz 2005