DAY 5 ascent


Stella Ascent Point 18,652 ft/5,685 m. the crater rim:

the fifth day of the machame route begins at 11:30pm the night before.

Bariki, the cook, pressed chai and cookies upon us.

we got out the ski suits and, for extra measure, beneath the ski suit i wore 3 pairs of pants, 3 shirts, a fleece, thin and thick socks, a neck warmer, an ear warmer, a turtle (a ski mask that covers your whole head), and 2 pairs of gloves- the last pair so large that my hands rested in the palms like mittens. this perhaps sounds like overkill, but i cannot take the cold. i would rather look absolutely ridiculous than give up because i am freezing.

 my backpack carried my camera, 2 canteens of water, my "despair chocolate," and hand and feet warmers- chemical miracles that when subjected to air, emit heat, though only for a good 20 minutes instead of the promised 7 hours.

we climbed barely 20 minutes before my doom set in.

all of my american stair climbers, my daily training running along the base of killi, not to mention swimming and weight lifting and hours of fitness at school... all for naught.

scrambling up the rock wall in the pitch black, the pitiful glow from my headlamp allowed only the smallest beam. 
the ascents are always attempted at midnight supposedly so you can see the sun rise from the mountain peak. 

but in truth, i think if you could see where you were being led,  the climb would be much harder. scaling cliffs is easier when you can't see the drop to either side. and the fact that there is not a clear path up, just your guide's chosen rock, well that is hidden when all you can see are his feet in front of you.

i could've cared less about any of that. 

 a step in the wrong direction meant little to me when i could barely bring one foot in front of the other.

 i couldn't breath. my layers rendered me a moon man, adrift on an inhospitable moon, my space suit weighing me down. 

i struggled for breath, sweating even while my toes froze. i thought nothing could be more horrible- if only i could take one good deep breath. 

my book bag was quickly taken from me- only my walking stick and a single canteen left to manage. 

i had been told to bring "despair chocolate" - chocolate carefully broken into bite sized pieces so as not to break your teeth when frozen, that you could pop in your mouth when it seemed you could go no further. the chocolate was to give you a spurt of sugar induced energy.  the idea had delighted me, sparking my Harry Potter/dementor fantasies. but up there, the chocolate immediately turned my stomach, threatening to come right back up. i abandoned my despair chocolate. worse, our canteens froze quickly, leaving us only ice to suck.

i had also been told to think of your "happy place" but forgot all about any happiness in my life.  and when Julia kept announcing "i'm thinking of eating NeoChina with Allison" i thought she had lost her mind. 

i was living solely in the present. no past, no future. nothing outside this moment. before long, i could only manage a handful of thoughts at all and none of it was inspiring "get-me-up-this-freakin-thing"-- only a bit of iambic pentameter, then finally just counting my steps: 1, 2, 3, 4... 1, 2... 1... 1,2,3,4,5,6... 1... 1... 1...

i hardly noticed when we reached the dreaded scree- the loose volcanic rock that slides you back for every step forward. 

 it is hard to describe just what it was like. the burning cold, the nearly vertical path, the ground that slipped away so you never seemed to get any closer- the unbearable weight of someone sitting on my chest refusing me any air. 

my mind lit upon the image of Frodo, making his final ascent to Mount Doom to toss the One Ring- sweating, sick, crawling forward with agonizing slowness, too burdened to even claim failure. and Sam, at his side urging him forward, promising, 'just one more step.' like Sam, who picked Frodo up and carried him the last steps- our assistant guide Abde, wrapped his arm through mine and urged my pace forward.

hours earlier I had stopped talking and it didn't occur to me to tell anyone when i began seeing stars or when the snow seemed to be green, then purple. 

i didn't notice the sun rising, or julia and john posing, blessfully unharmed by the altitude. 

there was nothing left in me, no where to draw from, no reserve untapped. i was haunted by the empty void inside, but had nothing left even to beg for relief- easier to keep going then to quit. I do remember Abde suggesting they leave me behind, go on to the top while he and i continued. but Julia tells me now she would have drug me up herself, that she could see the top and by god we were going to make it somehow.

brainless yet? reviving with chai, the monster rests:

and she was right. 8 and a 1/2 hours from when we began, we made Stella Point. 

it was beautiful and cold and i sat right down in the lee of a rock. i pulled my gloves off and shoved my hands through my clothes to my belly. someone handed me chai and tried to give me a cookie. i took a picture through people's legs and began to feel normal.

But Stella is not technically the top. the top is Uhuru Peak, the tallest point on the African continent. 

 it appeared deceptively close, and Julia and John-they tell me now- were experiencing the opposite of me- a rush of adrenaline, the feeling of flying, they would run to the peak! 

we waited too long for my breathing to slow, 20 minutes, a severe error. then began the walk to the top. i started a few paces ahead, even cheered enough to congratulate a man coming back from Uhuru whom we had crossed many times in the last few days. 

 but the cheer was short lived. julia and john quickly overcame me and went on, while Stanley and Abde kept watch. there was no pain in this step though. slow and breathless, my brain turned off. the sun was blinding on the snow, my goggles gave everything a pretty golden hue. within an hour, moving one foot then the next brought me to Uhuru and i was allowed to rest.

success! swollen in sweatshirts, fleece, turtlenecks, long underwear, sweatpants, yoga pants, and skisuit, looking totally shangalabangala next to the rest:

from here, reality and my memory do not seem to mesh. 

 i know we took pictures. i know i had to pee and Ernest scouted out a spot from which we wouldn't fall, but was just over the other side of the peak for a bit of modesty. i had to take off my jacket and wrestle with layers to bare my ass to the mountain. yes, i took my clothes off on the highest point in Africa.

as i struggled, exhausted, to pull them back up, i remember julia sitting on an ice "toilet." i remember being told we must leave, that "the altitude is not good." i remember thinking over and over "just a little bit of water."

if left to me i would have just stayed up there, as demonstrated when i sat down on the ice, unconvinced that moving would do any good. 

 Julia, overcome with sudden nausea and threatening to pass out, was brilliant- she rushed back to Stella point and, with Stanley, ran down the mountain. John suddenly felt the same urge but when i pulled back my layers to breathe easier, he saw my dark blue lips and my spacey eyes. he says he asked me questions and at first i responded that i should like to lay down and brush my hair. he yelled at me to get moving, but the ice had melted and refrozen during our long stay at Uhuru, making the climb back to Stella unbearably slippery and difficult.

i wished to slide down the ice, but john, envisioning me flying off the side of the tallest African peak refused.

finally, making no head way, i ignored him and sat on the ice, slowly sliding from one level to the next. by the time we made it back to Stella, he says i had stopped responding at all, though i seem to have memory of responding, perhaps only in my head. 

 after confirming that Ernest would get me down quickly, he took off alone.

there is no time for "rescue" off the mountain for altitude sickness. no sudden helicopters to bring you down quickly, not even stretchers. 

you must get yourself down on your own feet. for the able bodied, the scree is like skiing. the 8 hours up should take barely 2 on return. Abde wrapped his arm through mine again and began to run. i tried to help. my feet slid through the scree, and i tried hopelessly not to fall. Ernest took all Abde's things and my jacket and layers- i contemplated stripping off my 3 shirts, but thankfully didn't.

I left my goggles on, fiercely protective of my eyes if nothing else. 

 at one point i rested on a rock, but slid off to the ground, unknowingly ripping a long tear through the whole backside of my skipants. Julia says she looked up and it appeared Abde was pulling a crazy blind person, as I gazed through my dark goggles into the distance and he jerked me from side to side, my clothes falling off. 

Permanent brain damage, she thought.

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