FIFTH DAY ON THE MOUNTAIN: A DAY OF DECISION
As the sun rises at Karanga Camp, Seattle banker Laurie Stewart and other climbers in her party see the goal of the whole effort: The summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. After a freezing cold night at 13,300 feet, the party was bound for Kosovo Camp, the high camp, at 15,600 feet, that would be the group’s base for the final ascent to the summit. (Photo courtesy Rebecca Lashley, www.fhcrc.org/about/ne/events/climb).
To have attained a height of 13,300 feet above sea level solely on your body’s own power is an amazing thing to contemplate, especially for many of us office-bound Americans who would be winded by more than three flights of stairs (on a good day).
But now imagine standing at that height, and confronting your goal, Uhuru Peak, the uppermost point of Mount Kilimanjaro—and realizing that you have nearly half of your accomplishment’s distance thus far left to make the summit.
Now, consider that larger passenger jets fly in the range of 30,000 feet. That puts Uhuru Peak at about two-thirds of that height.
While some of the team had been feeling the effects of the altitude by this point, Laurie Stewart hadn’t, for the most part. Whether this was due to the pills her doctor had prescribed, or her conditioning, no one can say. Stewart learned that altitude simply affects some folks differently than others, and the same folks differently at different times.
One day during the latter part of the climb, Stewart says, “I got up and headed across the camp at a quick walk to the ‘bathroom’,” meaning the latrine tent, says Stewart. “It was faster than the pace that we had been climbing at, and I thought, ‘The air is a little thinner here’.” But that was the only time she noticed anything.
But she had already been thinking about the summit. And, after much thought and consultation with the expert guides, Stewart had come to a decision.
Climbers are stirring as morning camp routines begin at Karanga Camp. Today’s climb will be relatively easy, putting the team in position for a good shot at the maximum number of climbers making it to the summit, Uhuru Peak. (Photo courtesy Rebecca Lashley)
“Down” can be harder than “up”
After her earlier problem with depth perception, Stewart had begun to have doubts about the wisdom of going all the way to the mountain’s summit. In some ways, she began feeling the summit attempt would be a mistake after the third day, when she had trouble with the downhill sections and had fallen back with the slower teammates.
Stewart spoke extensively with John Hauf, the party’s western guide, and he didn’t pull any punches.
“John told me I wouldn’t have any trouble with the ascent, but he said that the descent would be tough,” says Stewart. “The trail was very unstable ground, and then there was considerable extra descent after that.”
Part of the trail to the summit crosses the surface of a volcanic crater. From the photos one can find on the web, the footing looks dicey.
The chance that Stewart would have issues with the descent couldn’t be ignored.
“He wondered how he would get me down,” on her own power, says Stewart. “It was a combination of not having great depth perception and some fear of the unstable ground.”
While he was concerned, the guide told Stewart he’d do his best to make it work.
“He actually encouraged me, because he said, ‘We’ll carry you, if we have to’,” says Stewart.
But that didn’t sit right with Stewart.
First, “I was very uncomfortable with the idea of being carried,” says Stewart.
Second, the decision, either way, wouldn’t just be about herself.
For a climber to have to be carried, or helped back lower, it means a member or members of the support team must be detailed to leave the group and head back down with the troubled climber. Stewart didn’t like the idea of taking support away from fellow climbers. And she didn’t want to delay the party, especially after they had summitted and would want to begin the long process of getting off the mountain.
“I made the decision that I thought was best for the whole group, not just for me, but for the group as a whole,” says Stewart. “I though about it, but once I made the decision, I didn’t feel sad or frustrated or anything like that. I felt good about how far I had gotten.”
She would soon see proof of the wisdom of her decision. But her climb isn’t done yet.
Heading to high camp
Leaving the Karanga River camp, the party climbs 7 hours to high camp, Kosovo Camp, at Barafu. The area is a high desert plateau and it is littered with volcanic boulders.
From the high camp, the party can see Mowenzi Peak, one of the lesser peaks of Kilimanjaro. Uhuru Peak is the summit the party seeks.
While the cooks prepare dinner, the members of the party get their gear ready. The team members going on to the summit will rise at midnight for a 2 AM departure, in order to see the sun rise on Africa from Kilimanjaro highest points. Everyone who has made it to high camp will sleep at 15,600 feet.
“This is my summit,” Stewart thinks, as she’s reconciled to her decision.
“I read the names that have carried, of people who had been touched by cancer,” she says. She stands on the edge of the plateau at high camp as she does so.
Then Stewart tucked the list of names into the pack of another climber who is most likely to complete the ascent to the summit.
We leave the team now, on the eve of the final ascent, with the final descent—no picnic, they say—to come yet.
Darkness begins to fall on Kosovo Camp, the high camp on the Machame Route for Laurie Stewart’s charity climbing group. What’s left of the day mostly gets devoted to preparing for the climb to the summit, departing in the wee hours of the morning. They’ll be turning on their headlamps when they depart. (Photo courtesy Rebecca Lashley)
Surprising names among the support team
As Stewart’s concerns about taking help away from the team if she tried beyond her ability to summit indicate, the guides, porters, indeed, the whole support staff, proves critical for Kilimanjaro attempts.
Climbers get to know their support team members, and conversations can sometimes lead to surprising discoveries.
“Almost universally, the porters had anglicized first names,” says Stewart. “One’s name was Afrikaans, but that was atypical.” More typical names for guides and cooks were George, John, Peter, and other western appellations. (Augustus you met in an earlier installment.)
Early on, Stewart had been talking to a member of the support team, and they spoke of the naming of children.
“He told me how if people married from different tribes, then typically the first child can have a name from the father’s tribe and the second child has a name from the mother’s tribe,” says Stewart.
Then she spoke to a team member who had a son, and a new baby boy. Stewart asked their names.
“His older son was ‘Moses’ and his new baby was ‘George’,” says Stewart. She laughed at herself when she heard the names. She’d expected to hear tribal names, but the influence of colonization had been seen.
“Apparently,” says Stewart, “the African names that they have for their children they keep very private.”
Part of how Laurie Stewart kept ABA Banking
Journal and friends up to date during her climb was the satellite phone
she lugged along. You’ll get another small podcast update in the next
installment. For a day or two she couldn’t call in.
thought it would work better,” says Stewart. “You are supposed to be
able to point it at the sky and get reception, but often we’d get
kicked off.” Stewart offered use of the phone to her fellow climbers,
so they could call home themselves.
When the phone cooperated,
being able to share the day’s news cheered the climbers. “It was nice
for people to be able to call and say, ‘Hey, I’m at high camp on Mount
Kilimanjaro’,” says Stewart.
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