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Any hope of relief presented by the rainbow was dampened by the fears created by the massive Barranco Wall. It was hard to ignore this looming obstacle as it cast a dark shadow over camp.
It’s amazing how quickly an accomplished individual can change from superhuman to ordinary when exposed to heights. Facing us on the start of the fifth day was an 800-ft (245-m) scramble up the infamous Barranco Wall. It wasn’t a technical ascent, but it did involve using your hands and feet on large clusters of rocks over the course of an hour and a half. This scared the shit out of a lot of people.
We woke up on Day 5 to a bitter cold inside our tents. Anything that had been touching the outside walls, like a water bottle, was frozen. By now, I had learned to sleep in the next day’s outfit so that I didn’t have to go through the discomfort of putting on cold clothes in the morning.
During our morning medical checks I was informed that Paul and Neil, the two doctors, would no longer be hiking with me. I had been relegated to the final group, alone, to hike with my guide Urio and my shadow porter, Christopher (he was responsible for carrying the satellite communications gear for which I was in charge of operating).
It’s hard to climb a mountain when you are suffering. What makes it exponentially more challenging is that you start to miss out on the social interactions – and for me, that’s generally where I found my energy. Hiking solo means you walk alone, eat alone, and get to camp after everyone has had time to change their clothes and drink their tea. So you do that alone, too.
Fortunately for me, I was paired with an amazing tent mate. Derek Amery, who had already been a huge help as I suffered through the effects of altitude sickness, offered to stay back and join me in the final group so I wouldn’t have to hike alone. For this, I’m eternally grateful, because his calm demeanour and companionship helped me through some of the most difficult times.
Tusker’s strategy for climbing the Barranco Wall was to let all the other groups go first. By this point, the Lemosho Route had collided with the remaining ascent routes, so a ton of expeditions were champing at the bit to get up and over the wall. While we avoided the gridlock created by other trekkers, we found ourselves caught up in a massive porter traffic jam. This provided for some lighthearted moments while standing around waiting on the wall.
Two moments stick out for me on the wall – the ‘Leap of Faith’ and the ‘Kiss the Wall’.
At one point, you are balanced on a ledge so narrow that the heels of your boots hang out into space. Your only option is to literally kiss the wall while shimmying across the ledge. For those with a fear of heights, this was particularly painful. But by kissing the wall, you also were forced to keep your eyes up and avoid the butterfly-in-your-stomach feeling that takes over and freezes your body in an instant if you had looked down.
The leap of faith came next. This required each member of our team to place their left foot into a crease in the rock and use it as leverage. Stanford, one of our guides, stood on an elevated ledge. On his command, you had to thrust yourself off the rock and reach out and grab his hand. He pulled you up and over the gap, which allowed you to continue on your journey up the wall.
The leap of faith was exhilarating and Derek and I started hooting and hollering and high-fiving anyone in the vicinity once we were safe on the ledge next to Stanford. I excelled at the rock scrambling and also enjoyed it. It sparked my energy and helped get my mojo back for the remainder of the climb.
The remainder of the hike to Karanga Camp was outstanding. Stunning views of Kibo Peak graced one side of the trail while a glance back to the valley exhibited a sea of clouds including Mt. Meru, which poked its head out through the mist.
The flat terrain was a blessing as it helped me continue to recover and acclimatize. However, Kilimanjaro has a way of messing with your body and your mind. Karanga looked close by way of the crow, but as we traversed closer to camp, the route began to reveal itself. We were going to have to descend rapidly on a steep path into the V-shaped Karanga Valley and then climb the exact same distance straight up and out of the gorge to reach camp on the other side.
Everything is further away than it looks on Kilimanjaro – just one of the many torture tests presented by this 19,341-ft beast.
Downhill is often more difficult than uphill because you can’t control the momentum of your body. It becomes more taxing on your leg muscles, especially your quads. Having to undertake this downhill section six hours into the day and moments before having to go straight back uphill was mentally draining.
Similar to the third day, our spirits were bolstered by the singing of our Tusker team. Again, the songs of encouragement echoed off the walls of the gorge as we approached the top of the hill. This gave us strength with each stride and helped us into camp.
It was at Karanga Camp where we took our group photo in our bright red parkas with the sun highlighting the summit in the background in all its glory.
In addition to Karanga’s stunning views of the summit, it also offered one of the most scenic looks back towards civilization – in this case, the clouds filled the void like water in an ocean. I sat peacefully inside my tent and sipped some tea. My feet hung out the entrance and at this moment, I was in the most tranquil place on earth.
As day turned to night, the sun left a beautiful line of pastel colours across the horizon. All the shades of blue were presented as I tilted my head upwards until finally the blues turned to black. The tableau was capped by the most perfect crescent moon hovering directly above a fading Mt. Meru in the distance.
I woke up feeling much better on the morning of August 11th, our sixth day on the mountain. My outlook was strengthened by the fact that we were facing a short four hour hike to Barafu Camp instead of the usual eight hour days we had grown accustomed to. Nevertheless, it was still an uphill challenge along rocky terrain for a majority of the day.
At 14,950-ft (4,556-m) Barafu Camp is the staging ground for a summit attempt. Based on our itinerary, it would be the final resting place before our bid for the top the following morning, August 12th.
We had been delivered some good news over breakfast prior to our departure for Barafu. Our itinerary had changed. Simon, Eddie’s head guide, was able to secure a special permit for our team to stay at High Camp – or Kosovo Camp as the locals like to call it – that night. This camp is now officially closed, but once in awhile an entrepreneurial park warden will make an exception.
Kosovo Camp is situated at 16,000-ft (4,876-m). This would shift forward about 1,000-ft or 25 per cent of the distance we were supposed to travel on summit day. In addition to shortening the ground we would need to cover on August 12th, this advantage would also help us avoid a tricky rock wall in the early hours of the morning before the sun was up.
The views back towards the valley from Barafu were even better than at Karanga. We paused for lunch and enjoyed a wonderful feast of chicken, fried potatoes, and vinegar soaked veggies. The mood was joyous as we relaxed under the warmth of the strong alpine sun. The day was young and we had plenty of time to hike the additional distance to Kosovo Camp.
But as she always does, Kilimanjaro snapped back once more. Someone on the mountain had gotten wind of our special deal to camp out at Kosovo that night. As a result of “mountain politics” we were informed that we would no longer be sleeping at the more advantageous location. Our day was done. We were staying at Barafu Camp.
Our porters were regularly an hour or two ahead of us on the trail. They are faster, fitter and better acclimatized to the mountain. Unfortunately, that meant disassembling the camp that they had already set at Kosovo and quickly return back down to Barafu to get our camp built before the sun set.
While this was happening, Eddie gathered the troops and briefed us on what to expect the following morning, summit day. For me, it meant waking up around 3:45am and hitting the trail by 4:30am. Groups were scheduled to depart in reverse order – the slowest people left camp first while the fastest people left last. The goal was to coordinate our day so that all four groups would reach the summit together at approximately 2:00pm local time.
Following the briefing, we packed our bags and made sure that we had only what was necessary for summit day. For me, that included five litres of water, three Ziploc bags full of trail mix, and plenty of energy gel packs. I threw in a Snickers bar, too.
In addition to food and water, I was carrying two iPhones, two DeLorme inReach satellite tracking devices, a satellite phone, a Canon PowerShot G15 camera and a Canon 40D digital SLR with a super wide angle lens. And of course, the essentials including several layers for warmth and rain gear. Even thought the skies had been clear for days, one can never be too prepared on Kilimanjaro.
It was a relief to have everything packed and ready to go before dinner. That meant I could relax before bed time. But nothing felt better than having my strength and energy back. After four days of fatigue and stress from altitude sickness, I was starting to feel myself again.
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