Eyes on the Prize

It’s hard to know where to start with a blog post about last week’s climb.

Perhaps the obvious place is the fact that I got to the summit.

with Bill, Mairead, Sue, Ken & Trevor

When? 9.35 am on Thursday 19 January (the National Park gives you a very impressive official certificate confirming all the details). In the hour leading up to 9.35am, my brain was fried by oxygen deprivation and my body expected to give it all up at any moment. And I mean “it all”.

How? That may explain the slight difficulty in covering the last 200m in elevation and 2km in distance.

The summit climb was prefaced by 5 days of trekking to get from the Rongai Gate of the National Park – at about 7,000 ft, if I remember well – to base camp at 15,000 ft. I don’t know how many kilometers we covered, but it was quite a few.

We stayed in tents, and the higher we got the colder it became. Cold enough for snow one night. Yes, in Africa. On the Equator. And well below summit level – maybe 14,000 ft.

Dawn, after a cold, snowy night

With increased altitude came more difficulty in sleeping, and a loss of appetite. Not good, because your level of energy reserves is a key factor in whether you’ll succeed on that final climb.

We started the summit climb at 11.30 pm on the Wednesday. You climb in the dark because for most of the way you’re walking on volcanic ash or scree. It’s frozen by then, so it’s possible to walk uphill on it. When it has defrosted after the sun has come up, it wouldn’t be impossible to climb on, but infinitely more difficult.

view from camp 4

So for 6 hours we plodded away in the dark, finding it ever more difficult as the oxygen decreased. At dawn we had almost reached the crater rim – at Gillman’s Point. From that position it was a 2km walk (rising those 200m on the way).

One of our porters had to drag me and bully me those last few meters. I wanted to sit down, try to get my breath and descend. The chief guide would have seen all this before, would know I didn’t have symptoms of altitude sickness, and just needed to be kicked up the backside until I reached the summit. That’s what happened.

More blogs on this little adventure may follow, once I have gathered my thoughts. What I’d add right now is that this climb is often touted as something “any tourist” can take on.

Maybe so. Certainly you don’t have to be a mountaineer to get up there. But it is very, very tough. People die on the mountain every year.

At one point it is also dangerous. For a few meters along the ridge formed by the crater rim the path is just frozen snow or ice. You have a sheer drop down a snowfield into the crater on one side.  A slip at the wrong place and you’d be gone. And of course by then you’re exhausted, so much more prone to mistakes.

Sadly, I don’t know that porter’s name. He was just plucked from a team of 20 by Jonas – the chief guide. 6 of us did the climb, and each of us was assigned a “supporter”. Three were the guides themselves, and the others were just chosen from among the porters. Either he didn’t speak much English or his eyesight was poor. Several times he told me

“Good girl. Well done” 

I didn’t have enough breath to argue.

celebrating with Jackson, Jonas & Prosper – the guides

© iain taylor 2012


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