Contrary to all expectation, I managed 4 hours sleep with a brief interlude as usual for a loo break. I couldn’t possibly contemplate the descent to the toilet tent in the dark with a howling wind and temperatures well below zero, so I hoped that for once the night watchmen and/or porters and guides (who had a tendency to pop up at unexpected moments in the dark and scare me to death!) would not make an appearance while I was peeing outside my tent. No doubt there would be an interesting patch of ice marking the spot in the morning, but to be honest that was the least of my worries.
At 11pm we were woken by the guides and it was a tremendous effort to wriggle out of my warm sleeping bag, put on several layers of clothes and emerge into the freezing midnight air. My summit attire consisted of:
- compression leggings, thermal leggings and softshell trousers
- liner socks plus thick Bridgedale “Summit” merino socks
- two thermal base layers, a thich fleece jacket and my down jacket. I may or may not have put on also my thin fleece jumper under the jacket – I deliberated about it and can’t now remember the decision I made.
- balaclava and woolly hat
- hand warmers in both my boots and my gloves (as advised by Abraham, although what I didn’t realise is that because these work on the oxidation principle, they rapidly lose effectiveness the higher the altitude)
- Smartwool liner gloves and thick ski mittens
For water, I had a 1 litre thermal drinking bottle in my rucksack, and my 2 litre bladder which I had cunningly managed to fit into the inside map pocket of my fleece jacket (since water would freeze very quickly in the tubing otherwise). Since we had been given warm water this time to fill the bottles with, this made for a very cozy hot water bottle (though it was actually a little bit too warm for the first hour or so of the trek). It was also very tricky to have to undo 2 sets of zips in order to retrieve the mouthpiece to drink, necessitating the removal of at least one mitten and a full stop rather than drinking on the move as I was used to. However I was determined not to let my water bottle freeze and risk becoming dehydrated, so this seemed like the best solution. I think everyone else was slightly jealous of me as they tried various tactics – some more successful than others – to keep their bottles from freezing.
After a cup of tea, a spoonful of porridge which I managed to force down despite feeling rather queasy – whether from altitude, apprehension, or just getting up at 11pm, I’m not sure), and a couple of ginger biscuits , it was time to move. We set off shortly after midnight and I soon realised this was going to be far more challenging a start than I had anticipated, as we set off up an incredibly steep and rocky path. I started out at the front behind Abraham and was a little dismayed that, having been promised that Joseph would walk with me, he was nowhere to be seen. Our chests were heaving, but I managed well enough for the first hour or so.
After a brief stop, long enough to check my blood sugar (a perfect 7), drink some water and eat half a cereal bar, we were on the move again and I now found myself at the back. At least Joseph was accompanying me this time and I felt very relieved that he was close beside me. Soon I felt myself falling behind the others and my torchlight appeared to grow dimmer and dimmer until I could barely see anything. I asked Joseph if it was working and, puzzled, he told me it was fine. It seemed rather odd but I shrugged it off. Gradually my legs became weaker and I fell flat on my face after tripping over a small rock that I hadn’t seen. Joseph and Lazaro picked me up and I continued, but I soon realised I was fast losing coordination. They began to encourage me and we reached an easier section of scree where I didn’t have to concentrate quite so hard on where to put my feet. My spirits rose as Joseph in front of me, and Lazaro and Saidi (who had somehow appeared out of the blue) started to sing and I found the energy to join in. Surely I could make it now! But this was shortlived, and we soon reached another section of steep rock, where I struggled to put one foot in front of the other. Saidi had disappeared and Joseph and Lazaro continued to encourage me, but my legs wouldn’t do what I wanted and I soon found myself unable to think, coordinate my limbs, or even speak. Joseph was asking me questions but I couldn’t produce words. By now I was repeatedly falling over, which sapped my energy further, although Joseph managed to catch me several times, and we had to keep stopping. He suggested more than once that we quit, but I was determined to keep going. Every time we sat down, I would literally collapse, and several times nearly fell off the rock I was sitting on, only saved by Joseph’s quick reactions.
Eventually, Joseph made the decision that I could not carry on. We had reached around 5550m and there was still about an hour’s climb to go, but I had nothing more to give. I could clearly not make it any further and I was drifting in and out of consciousness, not to mention feeling desperately sick. I tried to protest but since I couldn’t speak, it was impossible to argue with him. We were all getting very cold with the numerous stops and, amazingly, Joseph had no gloves! Apparently he had some but didn’t like wearing them. Of course, in supporting me, he couldn’t keep his hands in his pockets which made it worse. I gave him one of my handwarmers, as his hands were completely numb, but it didn’t help much. Lazaro left us at this point to continue his ascent, and Joseph and I began the treacherous descent.
By now I could see almost nothing at all, and I realised both eyes were haemorrhaging, as dark flecks of blood swirled around my vision. I was absolutely terrified at the thought of descending this steep, slippery set of rocks totally blind and with so little coordination. We stopped for a moment while Joseph gave me a big hug and we tried to warm each other up. He reassured me that there was no shame in descending, that the mountain would wait for me another time, and that there was no point risking my life, and then, taking my left hand in his, and with his right arm around me, we began the tortuous descentm while he constantly kept me motivated, urging me to trust him and that we would be safe. How we got down, I will never know, but the man was incredible. I fell numerous times, once landing on a rock so hard, and with such a loud snap, that he thought I had broken my leg, but it was no more than superficial bruising. Apparently he also fell numerous times, as he only told me later. I don’t think I have ever been so terrified, but with a combination of his physical strength and constant reassurance in my ear, we gradually descended, passing many others who were vomiting by the path, or descending with their guides like me.
Eventually I realised that the sun had begun to rise and I could see a little. Without even consulting me, Joseph unzipped my jacket, grabbed my camera from the inner pocket, and started snapping photos of the sunrise over Mawenzi, and a couple of me. I realised that my headtorch was still on, although it had been of no use to me at all for the last couple of hours. I felt desperately dehydrated, but at least my legs had started to recover a little. Suddenly, the emotions overtook me. Joseph stood and hugged me as the tears flowed down my face, and we stood on the rocks watching the sunrise. I showed him my dad’s watch I was wearing, and the fleece bag my mum had made me, and we talked about the reasons for my trip. I shall never forget that moment, perhaps more intense even than the moment I would have reached the summit. They say you learn twice as much from failure as from success, and I heartily agree.
As we descended the final stretch arm in arm, we talked about the experience and the possibility of returning another time to make the ascent in daylight, with Joseph as my guide. To be honest, I don’t know whether I want to return. A part of me refuses to admit defeat and would like to come back and make a successful summit, just to prove I can do it. But the other part of me does not need to return. I have nothing to prove, I still managed what I perceive to be a tremendous achievement, and while I’m obviously disappointed, reaching the summit was not necessarily the ultimate goal. As one of my colleagues is forever reminding me at work, “life is a journey not a destination”, and the journey was a momentous one.
In a previous post about success or failure, I talked about Jerry Gore and other people who had not necessarily achieved all they set out to do, through no fault of their own. I think I know just how Jerry and others felt on not quite achieving their goal. Do I see it as a failure? No. It could have had a better ending, and I feel an incredible stab of jealousy that other people who were less fit, less well prepared, and who did not have anything like my mental strength, still managed to reach the summit. Of course, they didn’t have my medical conditions. But that’s no excuse – people with far more challenging problems than I have have made it to the summit. Still, such is life, and I have long had to deal with the limitations of my body despite putting in sometimes twice as much effort as other people to achieve the same goal. What matters most to me is the fortitude to deal with the difficulties life throws at me, to keep trying and not to get dispirited by setbacks. As a teenager struggling with the usual angst, my prayer to God was never for money, happiness or even good health, but always for fortitude. I like to think he answered my prayer at some point. One thing I know is that I shall keep putting challenges in front of me, I shall continue climbing mountains, and overcome as many of the mental and physical obstacles afforded by them as I can. I reiterate Jerry’s words: Bottom line – Diabetes is a real pain in the bum, it can really depress and shut you down sometimes and inhibit you but if you have the motivation and insulin and equipment it is definitely and absolutely NOT an excuse to live an unfulfilled life.
Later that morning, I heard that a man died at the summit the same morning. The others saw his dead body. No one quite knows the full story, but the likelihood was a heart attack and instant death. If I had any qualms about Joseph’s decision to abort the climb and bring me back down, they were rapidly quashed and things put into perspective.