Start height: 3995m
End height: 4600m
I woke at 5am, listening to the sounds of the camp, before plugging in my audio book in an attempt to drift off again. I couldn’t. Although it was only Friday morning and we were only due to summit on Saturday morning, summit day would be starting on Friday night. We were in the final stretch.
I assessed the hygiene levels of my smelly clothes, shrugged and opted for breakfast instead. The usual porridge greeted us along with a jazzy new addition of Vienna sausages stuffed with vegetables. Eating is hard work. There’s lots of passing of cups and plates. The chairs either list dangerously as they’re set on uneven ground or slope backwards, ready to tip you out the tent. Someone acts as mother to help everyone else from having to get up, slopping ladles of porridge into tin bowls. The pill popping commences. General discussions about how everyone is feeling do the rounds. And then it’s time to head out again for another day of walking.
Standing on a rock, brushing my teeth before leaving, the clouds swirled around me, occasionally clearing to reveal the spectacular views. I was reminded of just how lucky I was to be doing this incredible challenge. It’s not glamorous. But it makes you feel alive. If you ignore the bustle behind you, it’s just you and the clouds on the top of the world.
The walk was a short, but steep one through the strange alpine desert until it kindly levelled out for a while. Rocks, dust, stones that sound like shattering glass, a few scrubby plants and very little air kept us company as we walked. Despite the ever-thinning oxygen, it was a jovial walk full of banter and laughs as we tried to take our minds off any nasty side effects. Cheese jokes. Debates about Wookie genitalia and indeed whether Wookie’s were male or female. It kept us smiling all the way up the steep climb to base camp.
We arrived at Barafu Camp, a barren, inhospitable place full of rocks and tiny patches of cleared ground for tents. Situated at 4600m, everything takes effort. Unpacking your sleeping bag, taking off your boots, trying to walk the 15 metres to the loo – it is all hard work that leaves you panting.
I had yet another toilet disaster upon arrival. The toilet tents hadn’t been set up yet and there was nowhere even remotely private to pee, so I raced into my tent and grabbed my urinal (a spare given to me by a friend). I had used it effectively for the last two nights so had no qualms about using it now. Except I forgot about the pathetically weak plastic which had obviously reached the end of its life. Cue pee all over me, my clothes and the inside of the tent. When you have very little air to breathe, trying to mop up pee with wet wipes and change out of wet clothes is exhausting. Such fun.
The weather at base camp is something out of the Book of Revelations. One minute it is so hot you can feel your skin frying. The next the clouds roll in, the winds blow and it is freezing. Hail is hurled down, thunder crashes below you and lightening zig zags the sky. It’s easy to believe you are losing your sanity.
Lunch was pasta, veg and fresh pineapple washed down with a briefing talk that made all of us wish we hadn’t eaten. Our resident medic explained what would happen on summit night. We could expect to vomit, get raging headaches, suffer from hallucinations, battle to breathe and potentially suffer from High Altitude Cerebral or Pulmonary oedema. So that was comforting. We were also told to expect 25km winds, temperatures of -15c and up to 20cm of snow.
We were advised to rest all afternoon. We didn’t need to be asked twice. Stumbling to our tents we noticed a stream of people who had obviously summited and were on their way down. Not one of them was smiling. Where was their elation and whooping and air punching? They looked like walking zombies. It didn’t bode well.
After ‘sleeping’ through thunderstorms, snow showers and melt-your-face off heat for a couple of hours, we had an early dinner at 5.30 and were told to get to bed as we’d be woken up at 10.30pm. You try and sleep when you have a carnival of emotions jostling inside you...
After zero sleep, we got up at the allotted time, got dressed into as many layers as we could and got ready to face the summit.