We are once again looking forward to running our first Pre-Expedition Training weekend of the year later this month. The following blog is taken from one of our regular challengers, Heather Bentley. She has completed the 3 Peaks, the Welsh 3000’ers and attended 2 x Pre-Expedition Training weekends with us in the past . She has now climbed Cotopaxi and Kilimanjaro on charity challenges and this blog is all about the summit night on Kilimanjaro. It is very accurate and evokes all the emotions of that last night trekking towards the summit.
After 6 days of trekking through amazingly varied landscapes and practicing walking 'pole, pole ' which means 'slowly, slowly' we were about to embark on our final ascent of Kilimanjaro to a height of 5,895 meters above sea level.
At 12.30 we set off. We were bathed in bright moonlight from the huge full moon, the massive silhouette of the mountain rose ahead of us and tiny specks of light twinkled from the path from other trekkers already on their way up. By now we automatically walked 'pole pole' but tonight it was because you could not go any faster. The pace was very slow but steady and when the guides suggested we rested for a few minutes you immediately felt cold and your limbs began to stiffen. Some of us did not want to stop but rather go on slowly making progress. However the guides were strict and we all moved together and all rested together. As some of us found it hard and tried to rest longer they chivvied us on and would not let us sit down. 'Don't sleep Don't sleep You die!' I heard them say to someone squatting by a rock with his head in his hands. It was steep and hard and slow but when you stopped or had the energy to look back we were making definite progress and the disjointed train of lights behind us got longer. We trudged mainly in silence each of us wrapped in our own determined worlds, shrouded in our own thoughts, one step at a time, each step one step nearer the summit, one step nearer our goal.
For my water supply I had decided to use my camelback first as it had an insulated cover and then the platypus which I wrapped inside my rucksack and as I had managed, with a great deal of difficulty, to acquire an insulation cover for the pipe, I thought that should last me well into the ascent. I also remembered I had to blow back into the bag to clear the pipe after every drink to prevent the liquid freezing. I had not appreciated quite how hard that would be and how breathless I would become after each sip. However, despite the preparations, within minutes the duckbill mouth piece froze making sipping difficult and within half an hour both water reservoirs were frozen. My insulated pipe had lasted no longer than anyone else’s with no insulation ! That meant rather than sipping as you went, at each stop you had to take off your rucksack, unscrew the pipe which was freezing and drink the semi frozen water directly from the bag. The icy water struck your warm stomach like a knife but I knew I would need to go on drinking if I was to make it to the top. We rested for a few minutes quite frequently and sometimes I nibbled a hard cold cereal bar or crunched on a semi frozen jelly baby.
The air on my face was cold but I was toasty warm so long as I was moving. In fact after a couple of hours I was too hot and removed my waterproof jacket and undid the side zips of my waterproof trousers but then they flapped around my feet as they were slightly too long for me and I kept standing on them. I stopped to take them off. It only took a few seconds and I quickly stuffed them in my rucksack but when I looked up the person I was following had got a fair way ahead. It was probably only 20 yards or so but they seemed miles away. I tried to quicken my pace slightly to catch up and immediately was gasping. I was probably walking slower than I had ever walked and yet I was gasping for air. There was nothing I could do just plod on 'pole pole' and hope they did not get further ahead. Eventually they stopped to rest. I was tempted to speed up but knew I couldn't. It seemed like minutes before I reached them and as I got there and was ready to rest, they were wanting to move on as they were getting chilled. I felt better though without the constriction of the extra layer of my waterproof jacket and felt pleasantly warm rather than overheated.
We trudged on and on, up and up, so, so slowly but always onward. I felt strangely happy, and at peace. The moon was so bright it was almost like the watery sun on a winters day and you expected to feel it's warmth rather that the steely cold. Walking became automatic, almost trance like. I was so tired, totally exhausted with limbs so heavy I could hardly lift them and yet I felt like I was drifting along. It was a strange experience as if I was drifting upward in another dimension watching my bodily self struggling. It was if those exhausted limbs were not part of me. Random thoughts flitted through my mind. I must try to concentrate. Was this a sign of altitude sickness? Was I becoming confused? Was this dissociated state real or imaginary? I looked around me. Upward the shadowy mountain still loomed, downward a long trail with small head torches glinting along it's route and around me the rest of our team all totally absorbed in their own worlds, all plodding on like old tired machines. They looked how I felt. Were we all feeling the same I wondered? I wanted to ask but I felt I did not want to intrude. I was completely happy in my little world and did not want to share it. I assumed every one else was the same.
As we rested we talked a little, sometimes we shared snacks, sometimes we changed our order but when we were moving we all retreated into our private worlds and slowly, slowly the summit got closer. I could not remember ever being this tired. Once I was desperate for a drink and throwing off my rucksack said to Lee 'I'm giving up'. I meant just for a short time for a drink but he immediately retorted 'No, you're bloody not! ' At one point Kay was struggling and started dropping back, at first others encouraged her but within a few minutes she was feeling really ill and vomiting. It was a shock, jolting me back to reality. Kay had always been one of the fore runners on every trek and of all of us seemed to have been one of the best prepared. How could it be she was now ill? Would she have to turn back? How disappointing would that be especially as it was soon going to be dawn. Surely it could not be that much further. We were getting cold and needed to move on. The rest of us set off again passing Kay who was with a porter and Matt. I felt a pang of guilt but deep inside we all knew we could only help each other so much and at the end of the day each of us could only get to the top on our own personal inner strength. However after a few minutes Kay was on her feet again and at the back of the group was still striving for the summit.
I had lost all concept of time and suddenly a faint orange glow began to form in the sky and it rapidly grew and stretched across the purple, grey sky. Dawn was breaking. My heart leapt at the thought of sunrise. I suddenly realised it had been a long, long night and now the sun was rising, it was a new day. A bright new day, the day on which we would reach the summit. I looked up and realised the top of the ridge was not far away. It really was attainable. We were almost to Stella Point.
We almost fell to the top of the ridge at Stella Point. This was a significant landmark. We had reached the top of the steep face. We had done the most difficult bit, now we just had to walk around the crater rim and we would be there. We rested a while in the shelter of a large rock, drank some strong warm tea from our flasks and prepared for what I thought was a gentle walk around the rim of the crater. Sure it was still uphill but you could see the ridge ahead of us. It did not occur to me I could not see the rickety sign post of all the summit photos I had seen. It was tempting to set off quickly, after all the end was in sight but immediately we realised 'pole pole' was the only way. So we began again, one step after another and so, so slowly the ridge got closer. I was with Steve but we walked in silence and finally reached the ridge. As we stepped up onto it at the same time we realised it was a false horizon. Far far away in the distance the summit taunted us. We had really believed we were almost there. A string of expletives filled the air, we threw ourselves on the ground, I was crying. I couldn't go on. I didn't even want to go on. I wanted to stay here lying on the ground. For me this was the top. I thought Steve felt the same and later he admitted he just wanted to stay there and everyone leave him alone. Scott had joined us now. He too had thought this was the top. All three of us stared in silence. Then Scott was speaking to us, encouraging us. I don't know what he said. I don't know if I even heard him. I just heard his voice not his words.............. then I was walking again. Walking very slowly and deliberately but walking. Walking to the summit. And Steve was too and Scott, we were going to make it to the summit.
The view was amazing. The glaciers were stunning, standing serenely with the sun reflecting off them and a blanket of cloud behind them. We walked between ridges from frozen snow and looked down towards the snowy crater. It was fabulous. All around us were the most marvellous photo opportunities but I was too tired to notice, too tired to get the camera out. All I wanted now was to reach the crooked old signpost.
I reached the summit alone. Gordon was already there sitting alone on the rock beyond the signpost. I took off my rucksack, laid down my walking poles and sat on the rock. I was here. I had made it. Suddenly I was crying. Sitting on a cold rock on the tallest free standing mountain in the world almost 6 kilometres above sea level staring at the amazing scenery through a veil of tears. I don't know how long I sat there. I don't know how many people will get their summit photos back and see a pathetic women in a green down jacket huddled in the corner crying.
After a while I realised I wasn't tired now and I wasn't crying. I was at the top of Kilimanjaro I needed to take photographs. I needed to find the rest of the team. We needed to be together. I took a photo of the sign and of my rucksack propped up against the rock even remembering to check the 1000 mile logo was visible. Then I walked over to Gordon. We didn't speak at first, we just hugged and then we were both crying. We went back to the signpost and started meeting the others, Dave, Scott, Paul, Steve. We were all hugging each other, most of us were crying. It was such an emotional experience. I do not know if it was happiness or sadness, relief, elation or just total exhaustion. The rest of the team were joining us now, we were jousting for chances to get photos at the summit of each other and trying to get everyone together for a group photo. Dan had removed his shirt and was smoking his victory cigar.
This was it, this was what we had come for. For some people they had waited two years for this moment. We had reached the summit of Kilimanjaro. I wanted that moment to go on forever.