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THE CLIMB (brought to you through a cunning feat of internet time-doctoring)

26 Mar

Sistas to da Summit

Sistas to da Summit

On Sunday March 24, 2013, while sitting on the Piccadilly Line, I came over all pensive, philosophical – spiritual, if you will. For the first time since I was 14, I jotted it all down – not in a padlocked, brother-proof diary, but in a small pocket notebook that had been with me to Tanzania and back. Luckily it had been packed in my hand luggage rather than in my suitcase, which was still languishing in Nairobi airport (explanation to follow).

“My hands are icy with the grey, rising-damp cold that London alone knows how to breed. Sleet is slicking the grimy windows of the Tube. I feel vacant – the people and carriages and concrete walls lined with mossy pipes and lagging slide past distantly, as if on a stage. Acton Town – we’ve just had to change because the train broke down. My thumb is white on the pen.

“When my bag didn’t turn up, all I could do was dissolve into floods of tears. It wasn’t because I didn’t have all my mouldering clothes and pants that had donned my unwashed bod for eight days. It was because I had had to wait and watch the conveyor belt while everyone else said goodbye to each other, and I couldn’t properly join in. Laura, Ann, Erica all jostled to buy Sasha and me conciliatory coffees – they’d lost Sasha’s bag too – before Sasha’s dad beat them to it and got us all vast vats of frothy cappuccino that has never tasted so good.

“When her dad asked us how the climb had been, all we could talk about was how funny it had been that we’d got so sunburnt and all had red noses in the photos from the final dinner. It was as if we decided that was the only thing someone who hadn’t done the climb could relate to.”

So what, dear reader, was the ten-day epiphany, the trek through Hell, Heaven and back via Horombo huts, that led to this rhapsody?

Through a cunning doctoring of the dates on the blog, I shall reveal, correctly dated to each date on the climb…

– The location of the Seventh Circle of Hell – and how to survive the toilets there

– How a tiny, skinny 27-year-old charity coordinator from Watford, with next to no climbing experience, who has not managed to hold in a morsel of food for six days, can climb for 11 hours solid to nearly 6,000 metres above sea level to reach the summit of Uhuru Peak

– Why turning over in bed can make you feel breathless

– How to suffer the worst hangover of your life without touching a drop of alcohol

– The poems, the songs and the chants to take you up thousands of feet

– Swahili, EB-style

Read on…

Day 6 to 7 There and Back Again

22 Mar

THE END!

THE END!

Alcohol! Cheese! Flip-flops! SHOWERS!

Yes, dear Sistas, they do exist! All those days of fantasising about clean hair, odour-free feet and fragrant armpits… all that time spent concocting the ultimate booze-laced beverage for climes not laced with altitude… all that WALKING… it came to an end at about 5pm today in a haze of sunshine, singing, dancing and… OMG… CHAMPAGNE.

Less than 30 hours before, we had descended from the summit at alarming velocity, forced down a lunch of sorts into our appetite-free stomachs, then barrelled on down the path as fast as our legs could carry us.

They say Hell is a place from whence no man doth return. Clearly that doesn’t mean woman though (lolz), because The Sistas escaped The Satanic Death Hole of Kibo and made it to Horombo Huts.

God knows what we did when we finally arrived. I remember bowls of warm water and soap being brought to the front steps of our huts for us to wash our feet, but I frankly couldn’t be bothered – it would take more than one bowl of water to rid me of that eight-day pong. Supper was optional, and obviously I took the option, but have little recollection of what I ate (it may have involved pancakes and chicken, though of course, that might have been another day).

I remember curling up in my sleeping bag, feeling warm, looking forward to my first diamox-free night… and then waking mere hours later. The diuretic effects of those damn pills actually been on hold all this time, apparently. My bladder reserve tank was now trying to empty itself of the urinary equivalent of three Grand National winner. Also a thunderous tropical storm had started outside. I was drenched as I wizzed behind a bush.

Unsurprisingly, I felt pretty rotten the next morning. But I was buoyed by the fact that the other Sistas, most of whom seemed to have managed a good night’s sleep, were back to their bouncy, pre-Kibo selves. Down the hatch went my final two-bowl helping of Kili porridge, we limbered up with a final Henk-style warm-up (including appropriate noises to accompany the squats), there was a final disinfection of water bottles (oh, to be back in the land of taps) and we were on the road… the road to civilisation… albeit a road that had turned into a river in the previous night’s rain.

Lunch was at Mandara Huts. I unfortunately missed the monkey that ran out to chat to everyone else as they chilled on the grass outside the huts – I had been dithering at the back and chatting to The Incredible Henk. But there was an even bigger TREAT in store for us in the dining hall – a bottle of COCA COLA each and CHIPS. Healthy, omega-3-loving young lady that I am, I would have course shun either of these sinners on a daily basis. But on that mountainside, the shot of sugar and salt were better than a quinoa steak and a goji spritzer, I can tell you.

Back into the rainforest, back under the lush creepers, back onto paths where occasional hawkers tried to persuade us to part with a dollar to have a chameleon crawl on our sleeves. Occasionally we passed a fresh-faced Kili newbie, to whom we offered the encouraging words: “You all look so lovely – just you wait! – give it three days and you’ll look and smell like we do!”

A mile or so away from the exit arch was a bridge over a sun-speckled river, where we all convened so that we could “summit walk” slowly in one big group towards the finish.

And suddenly…

There was the arch, with its somewhat disappointingly small words painted in fading yellow: “Thank you for visiting Kilimanjaro”!

There were our porters, dancing and singing to welcome us.

The bubbles, the bubbles, the bubbles! Hannah gets her reward

The bubbles, the bubbles, the bubbles! Hannah gets her reward

There was the banner, “SISTERS TO THE SUMMIT – FINISH!”, and a table already set up with bottles and glasses of champagne.

We boozed and snapped photos and danced and haggled and piled back into our minibus to  the hotel, where we collapsed onto confusingly fancy metal chairs around posh glass-topped tables to swig yet more booze.

We spent so much time slurping Kili beer that we didn’t realise the time passing. Suddenly, Laura and I – who were sharing a room together – discovered that we had only about half an hour for both of us to wash away eight days worth of dirt before we had to put in an appearance at our celebration dinner.

Drunkenly, we cantered to our room, I nabbed the first shower (accompanied with loud

Fee Fi Fo! Porters get their groove on

Fee Fi Fo! Porters get their groove on

groans of pleasure as I soaked my hair and shaved my legs), dived out and had just begun to bury my face in make-up, when a howl came from Laura in the bathroom. The hot water had stopped working.

Out I ran to the reception, hauling a skirt on as I did so (a skirt… i.e. NOT a pair of minging, sweat-encrusted, zip-off-to-turn-into-shorts trousers!). The manager ordered a gaggle of hotel girls to find Laura another room where she could use the shower, but they seemed much more intent on laughing hysterically as they slapped my stomach, then rolled up their t-shirts and slapped their own stomachs at me. Since one girl was very skinny, one fairly chubby, and one sort of in-betweeny, I couldn’t quite work out what point they were trying to make with this display, so I chuckled stupidly along with them.

The red noses are sunburn. Honest.

The red noses are sunburn. Honest.

And then – well, there’s little else to say. Dinner was a fairly average buffet menu served with vinegar-flavour wine, which became a fabulous gourmet banquet in light of our euphoria. Laura and I made it to about quarter to one in the morning, then conked out on our beds within a matter of seconds.

Hannah (who, just to remind you, had been found passed out in the snow at Kibo huts just two days before) managed 4am, along with Henk and Jenny, which made me feel like right wuss.

Day 6 The Story of The Summit

21 Mar

in which ALL the Sistas reach The Summit (and I disgrace myself on Uhuru Ridge)…

Hannah, me, the porters who hauled us there and back (Eli far left, Eduardo far right) and some random dude who got in the shot

Hannah, me, the porters who hauled us there and back (Eli far left, Eduardo far right) and some random dude who got in the shotL

I know some readers may be thinking: “Way to go, Ellie, killing the suspense. I can’t be arsed to read this boring blog bilge now you’ve already TOLD me you got to the top AND showed me a picture, which proves Sickie Hannah managed to get there too.”

I pity such fools. I don’t want or need their Unique Visits or their Facebook Likes or their presence among my web clientèle  to boost my SEgO (howzat for nerdy net punning?).

Rather, I wish I could send them up to Summit of Mount Kili now. Because those 11 hours from Uhuru and back again are, I promise you, enough to transform even the most cynical, hard-hearted person.

At 5 o’clock on the night of March 19, we rallied in the Kibo hut dining block – a room containing two long tables with benches and a rattling water heater in one corner. Despite the dank cold (we wore jackets and windproof trousers inside), there was laughter, loud chatter, and considerable wolfing of spag bol – our last meal before the Summit.

Some might call it Blitz Spirit; personally, I was reminded of Cold War-era singer Tom Lehrer and his blackly comic song, We Will All Go Together When We Go, which he termed “a survival hymn”, as well as the words of his muse for the song, “a fellow named Hen3ry (the three is silent, you see), who said: “Life is like a sewer – what you get out of it depends on what you put into it.” That pretty much sums up the “oh, fuck it” cheer in that miserable stone hut before we huddled into our sleeping bags to try and get a few winks of sleep.

At 10 o’clock on the night of March 19, we were roused from our beds. It was a relief in some ways. None of us had managed to get a single “wink”, not just because of nerves, but also because a party of schoolchildren had arrived and were racing up and down the huts and screaming.*

Now it was a more silent, subdued bunch of Sistas who nibbled on stale rich tea biscuits dipped in powdered milk and watery cocoa. Then we strapped on our gaiters, shouldered our bags, switched on our head torches and began to walk… and walk… and walk…

That is the nature of summit walking. The group forms a one-by-one crocodile. You fix your gaze on the boots of the person in front of you. You start the steady tramp through the snow, very slowly, every pigeon-step needing eight deep breaths. And that is it. For about nine hours.

The air was crisp, freezing, the snow fresh under our feet… and yet it wasn’t snowing. The sky was clear. The blizzard… was gone.

Above us the stars sprayed across the sky. You couldn’t pick out the constellations for their sheer number. The Milky Way cut a thick, speckled belt right through the middle.

The storm clouds were there, but they were beneath us and opposite, circling around Mawenzi, Kilimanjaro’s smaller neighbour.

And from the first tiny step we took, the porters began to sing, dance, shout and – I am not making this up – play vuvuzelas, all interspersed with the continual reminder: “pole, pole” (slowly, slowly).

After two hours, we stopped at the Hans Meyer cave, a rocky incline set aside from the snow. We nibbled chocolate raisins and Haribo and forced ourselves to slurp the rapidly cooling water we had loaded just-boiled into our bottles to minimise freezing. Sinnai (the head porter who had been leaping at the head of the crocodile as if Summit night was child’s play) hassled us all to give up our bags if they were too heavy. I didn’t need asking twice. My crippling millstone of a rucksack that had been wracking my shoulders with agony for days was grabbed from me by Eduardo. He also took it upon himself to put my gloves on and off, zip up and unzip my coat as required and – as shall be made clear – essentially haul me up and down the mountain.

Losing the bloody bag gave me a new lease of life. Despite the lack of oxygen, I belted out a poem or two and joined in with a few rounds of The Kilimanjaro Song along with the porters.

The slope became steeper. Nothing was visible apart from vague shadows of rocks – no path, and certainly no suggestion of a “Summit” anywhere nearby. We began to zigzag across the snow, left to right, right to left, to and fro and to and fro, as the night wore on.

Before we had left, Henk rattled out that cliché “it’s always darkest before the dawn”. As the hours crawled by, those words became a plea in my mind – please, please, let this be the darkest… it has to be dawn soon…

I’m a bit confused as to what happened next – well, I think I remember it as clear as a flashback.

The slope suddenly got very steep and our zigzags became tighter, meaning we overlapped two or three times with the walkers further back. With one accord, the porters all broke into an earth-shaking, four-or-five-harmony hymn. I remember picking up the general words – they involved a lot of “Hallelujah” – and singing along as the chorus rose and swelled. I looked back at the horizon, expecting to see for the hundredth time the eternally black night sky and realised  the stars were finally dimming to a faint glow of red. It was dawn. Somewhat pathetically, I started to sob. All around me boomed “Hallelujah… Hallelujah…”

But when I tried to ask the porters the words of that song afterwards, all of them shrugged their shoulders. Could it be that, metres away from Uhuru Peak, on the cusp of dawn the longest night of my life, I had a genuinely spiritual experience? Did a multitude of the heavenly host descend upon the Sistas as they reached the Summit? Or was it – as Henk suggested afterwards – that the porters prefer to keep that song a secret known only to those who actually manage to survive the climb? Hm…

Anyway, the moment was gone in an instant. Eduardo – who had been walking ahead of me carrying my pack – suddenly grabbed me in an arm lock. He had apparently had enough of group trekking. The two of us (he dragging, me behind, half stumbling, half on my stomach) barged up a sheer incline, over a deathly ravine and up to our waists in snow. I fought a pile of hidden rocks with my legs, face and my one free arm, with Eduardo still (bizarrely) intoning “pole pole” somewhere to my side. My life, I decided, had probably come to an end.

My next memory is of appearing over the top of the mountain. A green metal sign was just ahead of me: “CONGRATULATIONS! YOU ARE NOW AT GILMAN’S POINT!” We were at the summit of Kilimanjaro.

To the east, the sunrise had enflamed the sky, yawning red, gold and purple up and up into the sky, growing hotter by the second. We had bloody done it. But it wasn’t enough for the porters…

“Stella point is there,” said Eduardo sternly, pointing to a spec along the crater. “And there,” he pointed to another spec, seemingly miles away, “is Uhuru Peak. Stella Point – half an hour. Uhuru – hour and a half. Let’s go.”

Off he shot.

A burst of energy hit me. Maybe it was the euphoria of having made it this far, the remnants of my “spiritual experience” still filling me with Dutch courage, or just that I was completely high on the lack of oxygen. But with the snow burning with bright white and pink light, sheer vertical ice floes gleaming like crystal organ pipes down the side of the crater, and everything crackling in the sunrise, I thought: “This is awesome. This is incredible.”

I broke out into a somewhat delirious rendition of “I DON’T KNOW BUT I’VE BEEN TOLD…”, powered off after Eduardo and the rest of the group… and then bumped into Hannah. She looked, to put it mildly, undead.

She grabbed me and gabbled, “I need to get back down, I’m going to be sick, they’re going to make me go to Uhuru Peak, I can’t, you’ve got to tell them…”

Eli, the porter who had been carrying Hannah’s bag, together with another porter, appeared out of nowhere. Between them, they hustled Hannah away – further along the path.

“Noooo, don’t you see?!” I wailed dramatically, as Eduardo joined the party and pushed me back away from Hannah.

“She’s fine,” he said gruffly, adding his favourite phrase: “Let’s go.”

For the next hour and a half, I stumbled after Eduardo and my bag, stopping as often as he would allow so I could turn and scour the path for the tiny black figure of Hannah chugging along behind Eli in his fluorescent yellow jacket, her hands on his shoulders. With her poles sticking up from either side of his pack, they looked like some awkward, shuffling animal – but they were still coming.

Suddenly I was there. Uhuru Peak. Five minutes later, Hannah was there too.

It wasn’t the glorious group photo I had envisaged, with high-fives all round and Sistaly hugs. Thanks to Eduardo’s super-speedy “let’s go” drive, we had left the others far behind. I was freezing, Hannah was barely standing, and it was all either of us could do to pose momentarily at the sign, grin maniacally at my camera, then turn and head back.

As we passed the other members of the group along the path, I was hit with the very painful realisation that I hadn’t peed for about nine hours. The moment the realisation struck, I knew I had to go – right, right now. I rolled off the path into a completely exposed snowfield, dropped my ski trousers, and let rip, uncomfortably aware of the steady stream of climbers passing my open-air toilet.

God, that wee took forever. When I finally zipped up and sheepishly sloped back, there was no mistaking the disgust on Eduardo’s face.

Hannah, meanwhile, seemed to have found a miracle cure somewhere at Uhuru. She chattered away all the way back to Gilman’s Point, where we found Carol.

Carol, who had spent the last few days in the huts throwing up, had managed to make it to Gilman’s Point, and halfway to Stella point. But we weren’t allowed to stay and congratulate her. Three porters surrounded her and began to manoeuvre her down the slope. Eli grabbed Hannah in an armlock, Eduardo grabbed me, and, each of them choosing different routes through unploughed, untrodden, knee-deep snow, they set off.

That, in a nutshell, was how I got down the mountain – running, occasionally falling, dragged behind Eduardo as he murmured softly to himself: “Pole, pole”.

We stopped three times the whole way down – once so I could call my mum; once so Eduardo could send a text; and once (somewhat worryingly) because Eduardo thought he’d gone the wrong way.

We were back before 10am.

*Don’t worry – they got their comeuppance. I passed them on the way down at about 9.45am. They were cowering under a rocky incline, sheltering from the sun and moaning – about two hours into their climb. The teachers suggested they would try and make Uhuru Peak before nightfall. Considering the state of the scree and the slope when I passed them, mashed as it was with the footfalls of only the first descenders, I think the chances of them doing anything of the sort were slim.


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