Saturday, September 12, 2009

day #5: summit and descent

Months earlier, at Patagucci in Georgetown, I told the sales guy what I'd be doing and the usual temps on the mountain between the hours of 12 am and sunrise (usually about 15 degrees below Celsius). He introduced me to base layers, mid layers, down vests and shells... and I borrowed a pair of ski gloves and went merrily on my way, thankful that each layer can be used separately even in Uganda (rainy season actually brings on some chilly nights here). Several hundred dollars later, I was "well-equipped" for the summit.

We headed off in the darkness, starting the immediate steep ascent up the scree, joining the twinkly zig zag of headlamps in the darkness. My headlamp illuminated the frozen scree on the earth below me. The only sound was that of snot blowing freely from my frozen nose and James and Danforth softly singing "Jambo, jambo bwana." My hands quickly froze, even in the ski gloves with the hand warmers. I started to wonder if I'd be too cold to make it up. We'd only been moving for 2 hours. We stopped; Dan felt drunk and I was so cold. James rubbed my hands and fed me frozen chocolate goji berries. I wiped my boogers on his towel. I couldn't feel my face.

We kept moving and I kept looking up and down the mountain, confusing the headlamps for stars. I felt distended in space, hanging onto this mountain that didn't want me there at all, moving ever so slowly up the scree one slow and pathetic shuffle at a time.

Finally James whipped out his bright yellow Helly Hansen down jacket and insisted that I put it on. I came back to life.

Just as the scree turned to a scramble over boulders, a thin red line appeared on the horizon. The boulders took on an eerie-Mars-like shimmer. We clambered over the top rim. Gilman's Point. We celebrated; our first glimpse of a glacier, the wide sky putting on a show as the horizon changed from a deep red to orange to yellow to blue. Six hours in, we'd made it to the rim - now it was a ridge climb - 2 more hours around the crater to Uhuru, the highest peak.

gilman's point, giant yellow coat saved my life, glacier in the background

I pushed on, reminded of cross country races in high school. Saving it all for the end. In truth, I had very little left to give. When we got to Stella Point the ice fields were in full view. Tears started flowing uncontrollably down my face. My chest heaved. Ice on the roof of Africa. I took my last few steps to Uhuru and looked around. A couple right behind me collapsed in tears and kisses at the bottom of the sign post. I simply sighed, over and over.

the snow on the roof of africa

I sat down, the morning sun burning my cold cheeks; my nose hurting from the altitude and the cold. I looked at the glacier, the clouds, the earth. All I could think of was my brother, and how much I wished he was there to experience this summit with me.

And just then, we turned around and started our descent.

I surfed down the scree, churning up the rocky dust in my wake; eating the dust of those descending before me. Dust, relief and joy filled my eyes, my nose, my mouth. The scree wall that took us 6 hours to ascend - I came back down in 1.5. And then across the saddle again, just as windy, arriving once again at Horombo, where a couple of days before I'd clutched the doorstep and puked up my hope.

I slept, a boiled Kili Sigg of water at my feet, a smile on my face.

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