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Watching the Boots in front of Me

Maintaining Sanity by Watching the Boots in front of Me

THERE is nothing more insane than trekking up a mountain in the small hours of the morning in subzero temperatures.

We left Kibo hut just before midnight, entered the frigid cold and commenced our ascent along the steep trail. Ice condensed from the air had frozen the particles of dirt together accentuating the crunching sound of the sand and gravel beneath our boots. Perhaps the still ice air had also improved hearing transmission in this otherwise deathly silent alpine desert too harsh for any life to exist.

We followed the stream of lights of people silently climbed the mountain – well silently apart from the crunching of the icy sand and stones. The air was surprisingly still. I would have expected strong winds up here at these altitudes far higher than I had ever been before. The still air at least was one thing we didn’t have to contend with.

The track began to steepen, and with it my will to go on started to wane. At other times during the trek we had been talking as we had walked. Now we were all silent. I was second in line at the moment with Jaseri about two metres in front of me. I watched his boots taking one slow step after another. I kept pace with him, and imagined everyone else was doing the same behind me. Or perhaps they were all fine and I was the only one suffering at the moment.

First resting place
First resting place

About an hour and a half after leaving Kibo we briefly stopped at a large rock under which were the first small patches of snow on the ground. This was the first time I had seen snow close up within touching distance since last climbing Mount Taranaki six years ago.

It was very painful getting up, and Vicky quickly took the spot behind Jaseri. She really liked that second spot and seemed very uncomfortable in any other position in the group. Maybe it was a self-confidence thing so prevalent in Australian society. Dawn was now directly behind me.

We were just ten minutes from the first stop when I started to feel sick to the stomach – and very sick at that. I thought I was going to vomit. Some people can vomit and it hardly seems to affect them at all. Other people vomit and they think they are going to die. Unfortunately I am the second type. Last time I vomited was about three years ago when I got food poisoning thanks to buying some junk food from a fast food outlet. I had only vomited twice that evening, but I had felt so ill that I had seriously rethought my life. It was that bad. Otherwise I had only ever vomited after eating chicken flavoured potato chips (which I am apparently allergic to), or in one case when I was a kid eating without washing my hands after touching some deadly hemlock.

I couldn’t throw up tonight. As far as I was concerned vomiting would cost me the summit, and I wasn’t willing to let that go at any cost. Well almost not for any cost. I recalled the story of the Japanese woman who had been so determined to get herself to the summit that she had paid the guides a large sum of money to get her up there. On the way up she had actually passed out. Her well paid guides carried her to the top and photographed her before carrying her down where fortunately she did regain consciousness and lived to tell the story. I’m sure though they wouldn’t be allowed to do that these days – Jaseri certainly wouldn’t allow it. If I were to pass out I’m sure they would carry me straight down the mountain no matter how close to the summit I got. Right now that seemed like a good idea.

Right now though, I was feeling seriously sick to the stomach. I had climbed to some four thousand nine hundred metres above sea level completely drug free, having only taken my gingko biloba and tried some of Dawn’s magnesium powder. At the time I had actually forgotten about the Imodium tablet I had taken yesterday. Everyone else was on Diamox and had suffered some form of side effects. For a while I thought I was going to complete the entire trip drug free, but now I had to make the decision whether to take a nausea pill and give myself a good chance of staying healthy to the summit, or not taking it and spewing everywhere and potentially losing the summit.

Losing the summit was not an option now, so I reached into my pocket, found the bottle of nausea tablets and took one. Now I was officially a druggy, but by this stage I really didn’t care.

Within four minutes my nausea had completely subsided and I was feeling much better. No more sickness! Now nothing was going to stop me – or so I thought.

The climb up the frozen rubble became steeper and slower as the temperature continued to plummet. Finally at 1:45 AM we reached a small cave where Jaseri told us to rest again.

At Williams Point - 5000 metres above sea level
At Williams Point - 5000 metres above sea level

There was a small faded sign beside us saying that we were at exactly five thousand metres – a place called Williams Point. The sign was old and unreadable, but I still posed next to it. I was now 662 metres higher than I had ever been before this trip. They say that altitudes above five thousand metres are extremely dangerous. Well I certainly didn’t feel safe up here clinging to the side of the mountain in minus fifteen degrees in the dead of night. Fortunately the air was still calm.

I pulled the water bottle out from inside my polar fleece top. The water was very cold, but thankfully still liquid. We rested for a few more minutes before I could feel the cold creeping in though all my layers. Fortunately Jaseri told us it was time to continue our climb up the side of the mountain.

The slope got steeper and steeper, and suddenly we were crossing from side to side along a loose switchback track across scree. About half way across each crossing of the scree slope the track became almost non-existent as we passed the steep downhill route down the slope. At those points it became rather precarious. I didn’t even think about the downhill. After all I hate downhill with a passion, and had to fully focus all my efforts on reaching the summit at this stage, and that was still a good five hours away.

I looked up ahead of me. There were quite a few lights ahead of me all rising very steeply. I felt dizzy and disoriented, so I looked down at the stream of lights below me, and then back up at the boots of Vicky. She was very comfortable in second place behind our leader. It seemed to be her nervous way of coping up here. She didn’t like following me obviously, or anyone else for that matter. Dawn was immediately behind me. Later she would tell me that she had kept her sanity by spending the entire way up the mountain watching and following my boots. She had focused on them so much that she had occasionally banged her head against the back of my daypack. With two cameras in the pack, that couldn’t have done her head much good. I have no recollection though of that happening.

I was settling into the routine of walking up the crossing over the slope although the middle of the trail was worn from what was obviously the downhill route. Then Ashley suddenly burst into tears and sobbed that she was feeling very sick and couldn’t go on any further. All she wanted to do was to head back. One of the assistant guides Azaan agreed to stay with her and head down with her. I had remembered what Desmond had said during the briefing, that some people only make it up with the encouragement of the guides, but I thought she was now a lost cause. Perhaps she may even have to be stretchered off the mountain.

That being said, I certainly felt like turning back myself, and I’m sure everyone else was thinking Ashley was the only sane person in the group. For me though, failure was not an option. I had travelled half way around the world to do this and the weather up here was perfect – well as perfect as you can get at minus fifteen degrees in the small dark hours of the morning over five thousand metres above sea level.

The rest of us (apparently of lesser sanity) continued ascending the mountain in the total darkness of night in single file following the boots of the person immediately in front of us leaving Ashley and Azaan behind.

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17 August 2011


Mount Kilimanjaro



4700 - 5000m ASL


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