“It’s a round trip. Getting to the summit is optional, getting down is mandatory.” Ed Viestur
As I wrote in Part 2 of Summit Day, I can’t honestly say that I felt a lot of excitement upon reaching the Summit. Relief perhaps, and a sense that it was about time!!! As my team and I passed each other heading up/down I obviously knew I was behind, but I later learned that I summited over an hour after the others.
Now ready to depart Uhuru Peak, I thought in my mind they were likely already at Crater Camp, relaxing and rejoicing in their accomplishment. I just didn’t know how I was going to get myself back down to join them. Also, I was completely exhausted, and my legs were quivering with fatigue. However, it was literally downhill all the way to Crater Camp and so, if nothing else, gravity and momentum could aid me in putting one foot in front of the other, this is how my mind rationalized the descent. But even heading downhill from the Summit, I found I had to stop to catch my breath.
It was clear to me that the guides and porters were keeping in touch via walkie-talkie, likely monitoring everyone’s progress. To complicate matters, our large support crew had to make preparations for two camps that night: one at Crater Camp and one at Barafu as it was unclear where everyone would be staying that night.
An overnight stay at Crater Camp (next to the glacier) was considered a trip highlight and not extended to all tour companies. The proviso was that anyone going to Crater Camp had to be in A-1 shape and not suffering any ill effects from altitude sickness. Staying overnight at that altitude would inevitably make a climber’s condition (one suffering from altitude sickness) further deteriorate overnight with little option for a quick evacuation if needed. I later learned that another team who had opted to stay at Crater Camp had two members on “dex” (a steroid to reduce brain swelling) and O2 all night.
The previous night, we had taken a vote and at least half the team wanted to stay at Crater Camp and the others were open to being swayed depending on how they felt after the Summit. I had been strongly advocating Crater Camp for yet another personal reason, unbeknownst to the rest. I realized that an earlier youthful fear of heights and steep declines had since rapidly become a near phobia during this climb.
I had fallen once when trekking near Shannon Falls in B.C., rolled downhill and landed on a log with a branch sticking out. It resulted in a head injury that required stitches but first I had to walk out under my own power for about an hour. Boy, do those head wounds bleed!!! On another occasion, I also fell down two flights of stairs which left another permanent scar on my body. So going down stairs even today, I typically grab the handrail and take my time.
During my Kili trip, I realized that this “fear” was manifesting itself daily into something new – was it a phobia or just the combination of exhaustion and physical fatigue. All I knew was each time I worried about the relatively quick descent from the hill, I told myself to simply concentrate on the ascent. One day at a time, one challenge at a time. The advantage of staying at Crater Camp would allow me an extra day’s grace in confronting my fear/phobia.
A wise, but disappointing decision
Upon arriving back at Stella, the head guide, Thobias was there to greet me. This seemed odd as I thought he was with the others but he wanted to inform me that the rest of the team had opted to go down to Barafu and forgo Crater Camp. I was incredulous and deflated. “All of them?” I asked just to be sure. Thobias simply said, “Yes.” I was given the option of continuing onto Crater Camp for an overnight stay on my own or to continue down to Barafu.
Rationally now, I can say that the best decision was to head to Barafu. At the time, all I could think about was the steep descent that would entail a further 4 hour endeavour. How was that even possible when I could barely put one foot in front of the other…. apart from fear which was now becoming a major motivator This challenging day just kept getting more challenging. It just didn’t seem fair… yet what was I to do? The weather was moving in and I was feeling cold. I had been on the hill now for almost 10 hours.
I wasn’t thinking clearly. I just knew that I didn’t want to tackle the longer descent while feeling so depleted, and I didn’t want to spend the night at Crater Camp on my own. Neither option was appealing. I am certain now that Thobias was hoping that I would make the “right” decision and head down and join the others. If I had been insistent on continuing onto Crater Camp, I am certain he would have performed a medical check and looked at my O2 stats. In retrospect I’m sure he hoped that I would choose “well” myself; otherwise he would have likely interceded as lead guide for my safety. Looking back, I was in no shape to spend the night at Crater Camp. I learned later, as it turned out that the other female team member was experiencing issues and that’s why everyone opted to head down.
The long way down
Once again, it was Pastori, the porter (whose name I believe was roughly “Poal”) and me. Thobias left quickly to rejoin the main group further down. Realizing my state, Pastori took my backpack, adding it to his own significant load. Leaving Stella Point, we were back in that wretched scree. Some who were more confident on their feet, could almost ski through it and make fast progress, but I didn’t enjoy the movement under my feet as I tried to brace myself for a controlled and steady descent. There were also large slabs of rock jutting through the scree which could make for a nasty gash.
My progress was very slow. I could read Pastori’s concern as the weather was moving in and it would not be too long before dusk. While many begin their ascent well after dark, it’s not good to be on the mountain during nightfall while so fatigued. As one of the guides had said a day or two before, Tusker’s responsibility was not just to get us to the summit but also to get us back safely. Careless accidents can easily happen on the descent.
At some point, another porter appeared. He had been sent by Thobias, perhaps in response to an update via walkie-talkie. My left hand had become increasingly useless as it had swollen up significantly. It looked comical to my tired brain, like a clown hand. I’d seen this happen to my Mother’s hands and feet when she was immobilized in ICU so I knew it was significant and I understood it to be a circulatory problem. In talking to the cardiologist on our team much later, I learned that my swelling was indicative of significant pulmonary pressure stresses which meant that my body was operating under considerable strain. He also said that had I stayed at the high altitude of Crater Camp it would have further degraded and been a critical concern. Yes, heading back down to Barafu Camp was the right decision even if I did not know it at the time.
Fighting the urge to stop
The new porter linked his right arm around my left arm and took one of my poles while I held the other in my right hand. Together, we trudged awkwardly down the scree, each sliding at different points but holding each other up. Still, when we came to boulders which required lowering my weakened body down to another ledge, I was unsure whether my legs would cooperate and not collapse under me. We adopted a new approach. While the new porter steadied me by holding onto one arm, Pastori would stand below and put his arms around my waist to lower me down. It was slow and tedious.
I could see that Pastori was concerned. He wanted to get me down as soon as possible but also wanted to be reassuring and not push me. At one point, I know I was contemplating just staying on the mountain, finding some shelter and lying down to rest and regain my strength. I even tried to convince myself that I could manage a night outside as I was used to the cold of Nunavut but I knew the guides would never allow it. It was just my irrational thinking but the option seemed appealing.
We proceeded at a slow pace for a couple hours. Each time, I stopped I could tell Pastori was increasingly on edge. I saw it in his eyes. I simply had to keep going as best as I could with all the assistance they were providing. 12 hours after the team had initially set out to summit together, I finally spotted the familiar yellow Tusker tents in the distance. I suddenly started feeling some rays of hope that perhaps I could make it after all.
Then, with just a few minutes from Camp, Pastori stopped and turned to look me directly and asked whether I could walk into Camp under my own power. I did not quite understand why he was asking and thought possibly he needed to rush off and check on other priorities now that we were close to Camp. However, I soon realized that his gesture was very gracious, allowing me the dignity to walk into Camp on my own to reunite with my team while he and the porters hung back. Finally, I had made it. I was completely exhausted in every way of the human body and spirit.
Settled in camp, I managed to barely focus enough to get a quick text message home of my successful summit. Given only a few minutes to myself to let family and friends know I made it – I too, along with another team member found ourselves being administered O2 to aid our recovery. My last text home that night after breathing in that wonderful O2 into my lungs was simply: “I am feeling better now, I will be ok”.
As I reflect on the last week upon my return home yesterday, I can hardly believe all that I’ve had the opportunity to experience: What an incredible adventure.