Day Eight – 5th Febraury 2013
Jump Day! Or not….
After my rock and roll evening I awoke feeling more in control, a little sheepish but still pretty weak. Matt, full of energy that I would have happily bought, jumped up throw on a few more layers and checked what the g.o. was. He came back a couple of minutes later and reported that a thick fog hung over the camp and to chill out in the sleeping bag and take it easy for a little while yet. My bladder had different ideas so I threw the tent flap open and was met by a world of muted colour. My orange sea of tents had been reduced to icy, snow covered white tents, with teasers of orange sneaking through the cover. It was beautiful and daunting. The heavy fog, low dense cloud cover and strong winds were also whispering a forbidding story in my ears.
I still had some of my handy Uncle Toby’s porridge left so brought that with me to the cosy warm (relative) mess tent. I shared out my remaining packets to grateful diners and actually ate the entire bowl – maybe because there was no chewing required! It was by now no camp rumour, but blatantly clear, that there was barely any food and no water in camp. The water in the thermos was boiled snow and people were being encouraged to defrost their own snow in water bottles and put in some puri tabs for drinking water.
Under the instruction of my pilot, Phil, I had packed a very light day pack to carry in the glider and left everything else in my backpack to brought down when camp was dismantled. My day pack carried items that would assist me in flight and upon landing in the designated field and then driven home. I spent some time sorting this out and packing up bedding, feeling hopeful, particularly after hearing that the weather was much clearer at the landing site. Our two safety crew, whose decision it was to say yes safe to fly and or no unsafe, were already up at the take-off point taking observations and talking to the ground crew on conditions lower down. One main fear was that weather conditions over the rainforest would cause the gliders to sink, resulting in us going down in the forest. We all wanted to avoid that.
Finally the call came and Phil and I started trudging up the path to the take off point – which was Stellar Point. At first, on the flat ground, I kept up with Phil and his porter, but as we started to walk up that slippery slope of yesterdays cursing I fell behind. Once again, only after someone questioning my well being – the wonderful ever present Dr Aussie Matt – did I finally break down and then actually fall down, unable to draw in oxygen and finally having to use the ventolin that I’d been disdainful of when presented it eons ago back at the lodge. I sat there in the snow, wheezing and crying and feeling utterly pathetic. Luke whipped out some little plastic shelter that we all huddled in to protect us from the estimated -20 windchill factor that was trying to rip into us.
Eventually I got myself under control and struggled to the top where I was ordered to sit in the shelter while flight conditions were discussed around me. Sharing the little shelter with me was Jane, who was also feeling poorly and ordered in with me.
Before being quarantined away in our shelter I had managed to observe that the conditions looked positively putrid for flying though I really don’t know anything about flying conditions. There was a lot of milling about and discussion going on, but it wasn’t looking too positive.
Then came the moment of my heartbreak. The doctors all popped back in the shelter, looking grim, and told me that they were sending me down the mountain. They weren’t taking any argument about it and insisted that no-one was flying today. Oh there were tears, sobbing, deep, gulping tears coming straight from a broken soul. The doctors looked miserable but were adamant and in between broken hearted gulps I told them I understood their decision and had no issue with them. In an attempt to lighten my own spirit I suggested to them that those concrete pills they had been dying to hand out now be administered to me to shut me up. They wanted me to get moving pretty quickly as there were a few other people choosing to leave and they wanted us to head down as a group. In between sobs I said farewell to my now bereft pilot, I hoped that one of the camera crew or one of the guides would take my seat in Phil’s glider. Another few sobs and I said farewell to Adrian who told me then that he was worried no-one would fly off the mountain, reminded me of the achievement so far and to shut up or he’d give me something to cry about.
With that admonishment I set off down the scree slope. I think I must have stopped and looked behind me every 5 minutes for the first couple of hours of that descent, until I could see the take off point no more. I truly expected to see brightly coloured wings, gleefully flying down between the two peaks and I knew that if I had seen that I would have just sat down on that mountain and sobbed my soul dry. It took me another few hours to decide that I wanted to see that image, I wanted to see others achieve the dream that I hadn’t been fortunate enough to experience.
We all saw nothing. Nothing but a steep descent laid out before us. The first part down the scree slope leading to summit was absolutely horrid, I will honestly admit that I preferred walking up, to tripping, sliding and falling down. At the first hut, Barafu, we had been told that water and food would be waiting for us. Of course it wasn’t. At the second hut, 4 hours into the descent and no food or water there was still no food or water. Luckily one of my fellow descendees had a UV light steriliser and there was water in a nearby water tank so we filled what we could. The climb now started to get quite uncomfortable for me. I had gone to the take off point intending to either fly or head back to crater camp. My fellow descendees had gone to the take off point intending to fly or walk down the mountain, hence they carried and wore the appropriate gear. I was wearing snow boots, thermals and a mid layer of other various woollen products. I hadn’t packed a proper water bottle and had left most of my snacks in the backpack as my day pack, as mentioned previously was packed light for flying. It was also starting to get very warm. I had foreseen the warmth issue upon landing but didn’t expect to be dealing with it for too long before we were put into our buses and sent back to our lodge. The only concession I had made to warmth was to put a sarong in my day pack. Thank god I did! After about 3000m my walking attire became my black thermal leggings, my thermal singlet with sports bra underneath, white and black fluffy snow boots and a bright orange and blue scarf tied discreetly around my waist. One of my biggest regrets of the entire trip is not getting a picture of me in that getup. I know I looked ridiculous. Though it was potentially the sort of Paris Hilton wears to Paris nightclub type of ridiculous – well that was what I told myself to appease the humiliation.
Snow boots are not comfortable hiking shoes and I was expecting a little village of blisters to decorate my feet after this descent, though I was being quite particular in pushing backwards as I stepped down to try and prevent such an occurrence. I was actually quite successful and I escaped with nary a blister to whinge about.
Finally after about 5.5 hours of walking we chanced upon a hut where we signed out and then saw a big mess tent with the Wings of Kilimanjaro banner draped across it – food and water finally! By this time I was at that stage after not eating for so long that you don’t think you can actually stomach any food, but I forced some of the pasta down, the guys had a black market beer and I scored some precious water. This was the camp where many people stay the night but we were pushing on. With our campaign over, and a comfortable night’s sleep and hot shower only hours away we decided that descending would hurt us going slow or fast, so we may as well go fast and get comfortable that much earlier. Danny was one of my fellow descendees and made the observation that for someone who looked so poorly the night before and this morning I was all but running down the mountain.
This is the added humiliation of any illness related to altitude, as hours later and a couple thousand metres down you feel like a different person. It makes you wonder if you were being a drama queen or a big sook or both! I know that I was genuinely unwell and that for me to stay I would have drained the medical resources that were needed to provide other people with support and that without food and water my condition would have become quickly worse. However the rapid change in conditions does send your mind reeling and it can be hard to ascertain what was real.
We found out at this camp that the porters were putting a blockade on any food and water being delivered to us. They were protesting about the misinformation and conditions that they were suffering. I can certainly sympathise with their plight and think that the tour company we climbed under managed the whole situation extremely poorly, but they were out of their league with such a large group, as indeed just about any other company would have been, as it is highly unusual – in fact record breaking! To have a group of our size climb. Having said that the porters tactics were extremely dangerous and if they had an industrial relations problem it should have been dealt with after their contracted job had been finished – unless they were in danger themselves. I can hear you saying ‘ah but this is Africa’ and things are dealt with differently. I thought so too but there were many local Africans who suggested to me that the porters should have waited until after our descent. Regardless we walked on feeling extremely concerned about the well being of those left in camp and for the first I realised that leaving the summit was probably the best thing for me.
There is not much more to say about that walk but after about 9 hours of descending we finally came out at the gate, having left our knees somewhere higher up the hill and effectively torn our quad and glute muscles to shreds. There were some pretty impressive blisters getting paraded around also. Thankfully and truthfully a little surprisingly a bus was waiting for us ready to take us to our showers and beds.
I took Danny’s advice and followed him to his cousins accommodation and promptly fell in love with the peaceful surroundings Tim and his family have created over the years. It was exactly the right place to come and recuperate after our adventure.
To provide a quick summary, yes I am so glad I went through this experience.
- I learnt humility in trying to raise cash for charities that I felt were going to have a long term benefit from our input.
- I learnt about loneliness in large groups and how to move outside your comfort zone to dispel that loneliness
- I learnt about my limits and my responses to them
- I learnt even more about my personal support network and how caring they are. My life would be a diminished place without these people
- I learnt about camaraderie
- And I learnt about inspiration and passion and how one man with those qualities can make a huge impact on people’s lives.
It was tough, uncomfortable, exhausting and sometimes just unpleasant. I’m not in a hurry to make the climb again but I concede that there are benefits to putting yourself through such discomfort and the rewards outweigh the negatives.
Postscript: For those of you who haven’t seen the 60 minutes footage the next day a powerful helicopter went to the summit (not many helicopters can go to that altitude) and did a drop of water and chocolate bars. But they still couldn’t fly and more people descended. The next day the weather was horrendous again and still the expedition couldn’t fly. Everyone now had to descend without reaching their goal.
Except one man…. I don’t know the full story but there was a unique individual amongst us, a Nepalese pilot called Babu. He ran ahead of us like a mountain goat and seemed as light and full of energy at 6000m as the rest of do at sea level. He is quiet, unassuming and the epitome of intrepid. He decided he wanted to fly off so he had a chat to his porter who agreed to stay with him. He assessed the weather conditions on his own and after everyone else had left he made the leap off the mountain, unaided by ground support or radioed weather updates. He strapped his porter into his tandem paraglider and sailed off the side of Kilimanjaro, landing safely in a field at the bottom. Hats off to Babu.
Final postscript: Thanks to Danny for many of the photos used in this blog – particlualry all the summit photos!