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The climb up Mt. Kilimanjaro

 
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Day Seven - On To The Mountain

   

Up The Western Breach

2/24/10: The seventh day is when our climbing team found out just what each and everyone of us is made of. I do not think I had a full grasp of the challenge ahead. I knew it would be tough but still there was the shadow of unexpectedness. What would it be like? What we knew was that we would awake at 2AM, go through our morning rituals, then set out to conquer the breach beginning at 3AM.

Our start time was moved up one hour from 4AM after Joshua got a read on our group’s speed. He felt we would need that extra hour. It was important. Our team had to make it through the “danger zone” by 6AM, when the sun came up. Once the sun came up, all the softball to basketball sized rocks that were frozen together would thaw, making a landslide a real possibility.

The Western Breach would take us from the 16,000 feet altitude of Arrow Glacier, to the crater floor at ar18,000 feet. We would need to climb up over 2,000 feet, a good portion of that under the light of our headlamps. We would climb past the 5,000 meter mark I left in the snow the previous night when we made our acclimatization hike, that would only be about a quarter of the way we would be going on this day.

Nothing like an early rise morning on Mount Kilimanjaro. We turned in early, right after dinner. We both slept well in our tent, I do not know about the rest of the team. I imagine they slept well, minus Bruno who was taken down the mountain. Angie and I were concerned about Nathalie, who chose to stay and make the ascent. Last night, after Bruno was taken down, I found a teary-eyed Nathalie wondering around outside of her tent. I suggested she go into our tent and speak with Angie, do some “girl time.” I made myself busy helping Marek with the camera settings, preparing for a late-night panoramic photo session of the sky over Kili.
Angie and Nathalie talked for a brief while, before we were summoned into the dining tent. Angie comforted Nathalie with words that would be spoken back to me the next evening as Nathalie comforted me when I was broken hearted cause Angie had to be taken down the mountain. There is an empty feeling that comes when we enter our tent for the evening and the person we have grown accustomed too each night in the tent is gone. At this point I could only imagine what it felt like, the next night, I got to live it. It is not a pleasant feeling. I mean there are two factors in play here. One, of course there is worry about the health of our significant other, then there is also the guilt of staying on the mountain in pursuit of our own selfish goal versus going down and caring for the one we love. I was proud of Nathalie for staying, I thought, “I would stay too.” This is not to be cold or non-caring, this is because I would think that in my case, Angie would want me to make it to the top, for both of us if nothing else. Nathalie was on a mission, she must succeed, and she will succeed!

Nathalie is an amazing person. When I first met her and Bruno, I thought, “What is she doing climbing this mountain, she’ll never make it.” Of course I was wrong, very far from wrong. Once the final scenes were played out in this story, Nathalie would quite possibly be the strongest climber in our party, definitely it was between her and Marek I would say, with David in a close running. It turns out Nathalie is a marathon runner that is familiar with extended periods of pushing the body to its extremes. She is also a very classy lady, in that she is quite, reserved, super-intelligent, driven and compassionate. Nathalie and Bruno moved from just outside of Paris, France to Quebec, Canada in 1996. I wish I made better notes as to why, I recall it was due to the economy in France, and their looking for a better place to start a family. Either way, the two moved to Quebec. Bruno speaks better English than Nathalie, so he pretty much interpreted back and forth for us, but now that he was gone, it was up to us English speaking souls to speak slowly, enunciate properly and use our hands when applicable. We really had no communication issues, we were all able to speak and understand each other, and as it turns out, Nathalie speaks better English than she gives herself credit for.

As we all fell in a single file line after breakfast, we set out for our ascent. Joshua summoned Angie to the front of the line, where he could keep an eye on her, and I was somewhere in the back. Tensions were running a little high; I scolded Angie for not changing her batteries in her headlamp. As I ripped open my pack of reserve batteries, I found out that her lamp took double A’s, not triple A’s. I had triple A’s. Luckily we were able to locate a couple of AA’s quickly enough that we were not delayed too bad, but I could tell Joshua wanted to get going. This was a feeling I was beginning to get each day from Joshua. He hated missing our departure times, you could just tell. And based on our delays all week, and the speed of our group, he bumped up our ascent start time today, one hour to 3AM instead of 4.

Joshua new what waited ahead on the Western Breach, for when this trip was planned by Barry and David Squires of Team Kilimanjaro, the Western Breach assault was the capstone of the pre-summit climax. David, who is a master climber of Mt. Kilimanjaro likely, told Barry that it was his favorite route up the mountain. In my mind I have painted this picture of a guy who has climbed the mountain so many times, and up every trail that in order to fulfill the adventure in his soul, he personally preferred the extremely dangerous Western Breach. Of course Barry, who respected his British counterpart, said this is the way he must climb as well, therefore mapped out the Western Breach assault as part of the route the group would take. Angie and I, trying to correspond with dates, opportunities, other hikers, and summiting in the daylight, found this scheduled climb on TK’s website and signed on. We were climbing partner’s No. 3 and 4!

When Team Kilimanjaro scheduled our guides and porters for this expedition, they called upon their best Western Breach team, which included Joshua who is a master of this route, his strong and experienced assistant guides and Solomon, the company’s top chef. In addition, they had provided us with the very strongest porters they had. For not only were we going up this route, so where the porters and they carry about 50-60 pounds of gear including not only our stuff but their sleeping gear as well.

Upon studying the daily route schedule more, I began to investigate the Western Breach. Three American climbers were killed on this route not too long ago, it was dangerous. It was so dangerous that there is a website dedicated to informing people about the dangers of selecting this climb to the top. Angie and I are true adventurers, so the thought of the danger lured us a bit. But now we were standing at the base of this beast and thankfully it was dark. I said that for quite a ways up, for if we actually saw what we were climbing, I think it would have been much worse. I remember well after passing our 5,000 meter mark coming upon a ridge that was all glacier. Joshua had to cut foot holds across the face of the glacier to get us up to this ridge. When we got to the ridge, I looked over the other side. It was smooth glacier all the way down the other side, tailoring off into the darkness, which lay beyond the ability of my extremely powerful LED headlamp. Beyond that, I saw the twinkling lights of Moshi seemingly directly below us, like we were high above in an airplane. I remember saying to someone, “Wow, you wouldn’t want to slip off here.” Then we attached our hiking poles to our packs, and began to scale up the ridge, hand over foot for quite a distance. Again, luckily it was in the dark because not only did I rarely look down, I did not want to know what we were doing exactly. I trusted Joshua knew, and that was good enough for me.

This is the Western Breach!!!!

This is the route we took up the Western Breach

We started hiking, up Arrow Glacier, “Polle Polle!” When we reached and passed the 5,000 meter mark I left in the ice, I thought we were actually getting somewhere. We weren’t, we were only a fraction of the way. By the time we traversed a glacier by cutting foot holds, and scaled a ridge on our hands and feet, I thought we were getting somewhere, again, far from it. Then the sun came up, we were short of the danger zone. I kept asking the Peter and Solomon, who were bringing up the rear, if we were in the danger zone yet. They kept saying, “No, keep moving. Polle Polle!”

Sometime after daylight was upon us, I clicked off my first pictures. At this time I also took a video. It is hard to make out what I say in the video but it went something like this: “This video goes out to every person that ever said climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is just a trek!” This route to the top, is anything but a trek. At this point, about half way, I had already classified it as the toughest challenge of my life. We kept pressing forward, upward. We had too, at this point there was no going down. I’d be damned if I was going to shimmy down that icy ridge we scaled hours ago. No, the only way now is up!


Our previous night's camp is just beyond that last patch of snow at the bottom, in front of the big rock tower. That patch of snow is Arrow Glacier, the big ice cube that I lay down on just yesterday.

When we reached the actual “danger zone,” Angie had not only given up her pack to assistant guide Peter, she had fallen back to the middle of the line with me. Her steps were slowing, and the look on her face was somewhat… “non-present,” and I could tell she was fading fast. As this happened, Solomon told me, “We are now in the danger zone. Keep moving, quickly!” This was a problem, Angie needed rest and she did not care about any danger zone, or instructions or just basic good ole common sense. She wanted to rest, and she found a big boulder to lean up against to act as a backrest. What happened from here is really her story, I do not know if or what of it she would be comfortable with me telling. Maybe I will update this after I speak with her. From my point of view, my story is this. The group had passed us by and made it to a ridge above, where they watched us and Angie and I struggled to get out of the danger zone. She wanted to close her eyes and rest, and I kept on her urging her to take just one more step. I kept pulling out motivational tactics, stories of her inspiration - her dog Honey – and just kept telling her, “Please keep moving, we are in a very dangerous place. We cannot rest here, please, keep going. Don’t stop, you can do it!”

What is the danger zone? Good question. Basically the danger zone on the Western Breach is a portion of the crater of Mount Kilimanjaro, that has collapsed and is made up of a fallen slope of 8 to 15” rocks, boulders, whatever you want to call them. During the night, they all freeze together. When the sun comes up, they become loose. If just a few begin to slide, the whole face can begin to slide. If someone is on that, they will slide too. I imagined I could handle that if it happened. But then the rock slide picks up speed and catches the bigger rocks below which could then swallow up any riders and cover them in a rock field from above. The last thing someone would want to do is to start that rock slide, so it is best to cross this zone while everything is still frozen together.

We were late, we were slow, and Angie and I were smack dab in the middle of the danger zone with the sun in the sky. There was no time to rest, there was no time to take pictures, where was no time to do anything but keep moving. As the team watched from above, Angie and I made our way. She in front of me with me barking out motivational orders from behind, and just putting the next foot in front of the other, we made it to the ridge above, where our group had been watching from. They all let out a congratulatory cheer and some high fives when we made it. Angie and I rested finally, and the group began to push on. I figured, surely we were getting close, and then I looked up as far as I could see. I had to lie to Angie. We were far from close, in fact at this point I really had little hope we were going to make it but I kept telling Angie that, “We’re almost there baby, almost there.”

What was happening with Angie at this point was the onset of altitude sickness or AMS. I thought it was sheer exhaustion, and dehydration. She had passed her pack along to Peter a while back to lighten her load; unfortunately her camel-back water system was in her pack so she was not getting the hydration she needed. I kept giving her as much water as she would take. I kept reminding her to drink. At this point she was experiencing all the symptoms of AMS except the headache. In fact, she had a headache when we started but it had since gone away so no one really thought she was having AMS, we thought it was just exhaustion. She asked to go down a couple times but I told her there is no way we can go back down what we have just come up. The only way down is up, over the crater and down the exit route. We had to go up, no questions asked, keep moving.

Angie and my time spent between the danger zone and actually making it to the top of the breach was over 5 hours. We would go for a while, then rest a bit, then I would convince her all of the reasons we would have to keep going, and we would go a little further.

We kept moving upwards, slowly but surely. At this point, Peter and Solomon were with us for every step. Pulling Angie’s arms, and me pushing from behind, we kept moving. There was this ridge face that seemed like it was not that tall, and that after we got over it we’d be at the top. This was an illusion, this ridge face went on and on forever and ever. In some of these photos, look beyond the subject at the distance we had to go. It was far, and basically humiliating every time I actually took a look up. I mean, I couldn’t look down, I couldn’t look up, all I could do was focus where Angie’s next step would go, and then mine.


This fantastic photo taken by Nathalie. Check out Bruno & Nathalie's site

This fantastic photo taken by Nathalie. Check out Bruno & Nathalie's site

This fantastic photo taken by Nathalie. Check out Bruno & Nathalie's site

This fantastic photo taken by Nathalie. Check out Bruno & Nathalie's site

This fantastic photo taken by Nathalie. Check out Bruno & Nathalie's site

This fantastic photo taken by Nathalie. Check out Bruno & Nathalie's site

This fantastic photo taken by Nathalie. Check out Bruno & Nathalie's site

This fantastic photo taken by Nathalie. Check out Bruno & Nathalie's site
This fantastic photo taken by Nathalie. Check out Bruno & Nathalie's site

This fantastic photo taken by Nathalie. Check out Bruno & Nathalie's site

There were ice ridges we would get to where we could rest on level ground, or ice I should say, for a bit. In this picture here, we were on an ice ridge with a sheer drop off on our right, and a rock cliff to scale on our left. I had to take a video, enjoy!

Peter comforts Angie, Solomon looks on.

The porters were beginning to catch and pass us. I could not believe that they were expected to go up this way. After we finally made it to crater camp, I saw a team of porters going back to the breach. Joshua told me they were going to rescue 7 porters that were stranded and had not made it up yet. That is how these porters are though, they look out for each other, and they have a certain pride about their jobs that cause them to not want to give up. They are dedicated, and they look out for each other. And if it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t have sleeping quarters for the night, hot food to eat and water to drink. These men are the true heroes of Kilimanjaro!

This is what we just came up. Wow!

We finally made it to the top, to the Crater. Angie, Solomon and I collapsed, just in time for the group photo. Following which Angie was half-carried to our soon-to-be campsite.

Once the tent was set up, we put her inside and began to try to comfort her. She kept saying her thinking was off, that she felt really strange and that if she went to sleep she didn’t feel like she would wake up. Joshua visited our tent, and upon examination determined Angie needed to go down right away.


Once we reached the crater floor, we would hike over to the base of Uhuru Peak and camp for the night. This day, we actually beat the porters. They were close behind however and we had shelter relatively quick, considering the difficulty of the route.


Here is a shot to the right of the last one (left) which shows the base of Uhuru lofting off the edge of the mountain. Looks like the edge of the world. This ridge is where Joshua could get reception for his cell phone to send the text message update for the web.


Looking the other way you can see across this crater. To the left is the Western Breach which you can tell was a collapse of the crater. The edge just kind of fell away. That is what is happening to these mountains, they are falling down. Shira at one time, 500,000 years ago, was as tall or taller than Kilimanjaro.


This is my first real up close view of these colossal glaciers. They are much bigger in person than they appear in these photos.


This is where our camp would be set up.

I was faced with the same decision Nathalie was faced with just the day before, go with my partner or stay and shoot for the summit. Angie and I had discussed this prior, and both of us said, “If one of us doesn’t make it, the other should go on.” Of course when it actually happens, it is much different. I felt like I should go with her, but I could see the summit now. We were close, really close! I wanted to get up there. Besides, Angie was in good hands. She would be taken down the mountain by Peter, who had actually just spent the past 12 hours helping us get up the mountain, and 3 porters. They would descend as quickly as possible to at least 3,700 meters, or Millennium Camp. To get to the decent route however, they would need to cross the crater, then hike up a big ridge to Stella’s point, then straight down the other side. It would take nearly 6 hours to get to Millennium camp, and they needed to get there quick. Once there, shelter, sleeping accommodations and food would be provided for Angie. Then the next morning she would hike down further to the base camp that we would be reunited in late the next day. She was in good hands.

That is the one thing I felt really strong about, being in these conditions and with the TK team, I felt safe at pretty much all times, minus the occasional ledge that I had to hang off of, for the most part, they had everything under control. I felt safe that Angie was safe too so this allowed me to focus on the summit, though she was always in my mind after she left.

After a brief rest, I decided to go check out these glaciers up close and personal. They sat just a couple hundred meters away across the crater field. As I hiked towards them, I started to realize just how big they actually were. From the other side of the crater, they looked big but nothing out of the extraordinary. As I got closer, remember everything looks close until you start hiking towards it, I realized just how massive they are. The other thing I noticed was, they were cold and giving off some really cold air. Standing near one of these glaciers felt like being in a freezer when you first open the door and the cold hits you in the face. The cold from the glaciers hit me in my face, and luckily I was wearing my balaclava. I covered up, and continued to look around. I took a few photos when I met a man from another climbing party doing the same thing. I already forgot his name, but I remember he was from California. A fellow American! We briefly walked and talked when we came upon Joshua who had walked over to the edge of the crater, the western breach edge no less, to send the daily text message to TK for posting on Google earth. This was good news as I knew that several of my family and friends were following the climb through these text messages. I would check with Joshua each day to find out when he sent the message and I always asked, “What did you say?” I cannot recall if I ever really got a direct answer, I remember thinking, “Maybe he is not supposed to tell us, maybe we shouldn’t know, maybe he didn’t remember,” whatever. I did not really know what people were reading, if names were mentioned or just “Man goes down,” or “Woman goes down.” At this point, Bruno had gone down, and Angie had just left a couple hours ago. Our climbing party was six!

After we walked around and talked for a bit, I turned into my tent for a brief rest before dinner. Dinner this night would be served to us in our respective tents. I would return to my tent and wait for dinner, though I really was not that hungry. Altitude can have that effect on one’s appetite. It was clearly affecting mine.

 


This shot illustrates the size of these glaciers. Two porters chip away glacier ice to boil for drinking water. Our last two days we drank glacier water!


These glaciers are melting, no question. The sun was beating on them when I was up there, we were well above the clouds. These things melted in the day, and re-froze at night. Standing next to one you could feel the cold radiating off of it.

Upon entering my tent, I was met with a cold blast of reality. The person that I had been accustomed to sharing this tent with, was gone! This is when I realized it, and I became very sad, actually lonely. I missed Angie, and I was worried about her as well. When the porters came to serve tea, I mentioned to them to see if Nathalie would like some company, knowing we were both alone. She came by and visited with me. We talked about what it felt like for our partners to leave, and this is when Nathalie used Angie’s words from the day before and said, “Possibly this unplanned separation will allow our hearts to grow even bigger for one another, and just may be a blessing in themselves.” Those words comforted me. I knew I had to press on, I knew I had to clear my mind and focus, I also knew I’d need to sleep in my clothes cause it is and was going to be extremely cold all night.

We had a nice meal that night, it was pasta with cube vegetables in some kind of orange or red sauce. It was really good but it got cold rather quickly. My appetite was not that strong and I really was not able to eat much of it. I knew these plates would be returned and a report given to Solomon, and I knew this would hurt his feelings. It was mentioned later that Solomon did take this sort of thing personal, and I really felt bad about this. I tried to explain that I don’t even eat this much on a normal day, and at sea level. But still I can understand how when you cook for someone at zero degree temperatures, 19,000 feet above sea level, and after a 12-hour summit climb in where he had to help Angie and I, how he could be somewhat ‘hurt.’

“Solomon, if you are reading this, your food and cooking was outstanding. I truly and honestly mean that.” As Joshua put it, “You are the best chef on that mountain!”

Following dinner, it was time to turn in. I prepared all of my gear so to be ready at the crack of dawn. We were going to hit the southern face of Uhuru peak, and hike straight up these foot holds in the ice. Since it was straight up, and we had the benefit of camping just below Uhuru in the crater, we would be able to beat the masses of hikers as they hike past Stella Point to the top. Their route was a longer walk; ours was straight up, but shorter. We wanted to beat them, so we had to be ready to leave on time. For this reason, and due to the cold, I decided to sleep in my clothing, which provided for a nice warm night’s rest. That decision to wear my clothes to bed, along with the 800-fill down sleeping bag that I rented from Team Kilimanjaro, made the night quite pleasant actually. As long as I was zipped up, I was snug as could be. It was the middle of the night rest room break that would send chills down my spine. Usually it took a little while to warm back up once I rushed back to my sleeping bag. Sleeping in the cold was not really a factor though. I slept very well each night, since taking the Diamox that is. This night would be no exception. I slept like a baby!

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