***This is part two of the Kilimanjaro series. Catch part one here.***
We were in the tent getting our oxygen saturation reading on the evening of day four when I snuck a look at the monitor on Eric’s finger. Most of us were sitting comfortably around 90.
60 was acceptable but low, and I saw his reading was in the 30s. This was altitude sickness creeping into our team.
Eric is the manager of Rafiki Mwema and Rafiki Familia. He was a true gift because as a Kenyan man who spoke the lingo he was often the link between our crew and us. He joked and chatted in Swahili, his gentle voice and easy laugh often at the back with the guides.
He was dangerously low in oxygen. He couldn’t get warm, he couldn’t eat. They sent us all to bed saying they’d check on him soon. I knew his saturation was also low the day before because we would all triumphantly share our scores but the guides and he were somber at his turn and they just quietly wrote it down. Also, I snuck a look.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. It was around day three when a few hairline cracks began to appear in the team.
Everyone is encouraged to walk ‘pole pole’ (pr: poly poly – slow slow) because it gives your body time to acclimatise to the altitude. The universal suggestion is to walk as fast as your slowest person.
The slowest person alternated a bit but one dude was obviously on struggle street. He began the trip with suspected gout, he had some balance issues due to being deaf. Don’t get me wrong he was trooper, but he appeared to struggle from early on and it only got harder as the days went on.
Sometimes staying together made our team get back to camp an hour or more after the recommended time each daily hike should take and this could be frustrating for some.
Inevitably, the group would often split into the faster and the slower and we’d all eventually meet exhausted and dying for a cup of something hot. I usually stayed behind, for a couple reasons.
One of those reasons was because I left Nelly behind on the first day and she walked alone (with a guide of course) in the dark and I felt like a shitheel.
Nelly was my Mum’s friend in high school. I wonder if I’ll set such lofty physical challenges for myself 25 years from now. I reckon I’ll be whittling on a porch somewhere watching my home brew bubble away. When I took this photo I had no idea what this woman was made of. Now, I think she’s incredible.
The other reason I stayed back, was because of Eric.
He was adamant he would not leave the slower of the pack behind no matter how long it took. That’s pretty much Eric in a nutshell. His life is about quietly helping those who need help. The street kids, the abused, the unfortunate and the broken.
I reckoned I could learn from him. I reckon we all could.
We’d already been told what the evacuation process was if we fell. Basically, if you break a leg or your neck someone carries you in a fireman’s lift until you reach a helipad at a camp. The general drift was don’t break anything important because you’re up shit creek if you do.
Which was comforting.
The scrambling up that insane wall was actually my favorite day. Instead of one foot in front of the other for hours, it was stepping, lifting and pulling ourselves up in what was the closest to rock climbing we would get on this trek.
The Massai Wanderings team of 40 Herculean men, each of which made this trip possible, were incredible. The guides were smart, funny and caring, the waiters and cooks who would greet us back to camp with smiles and mountains of food to eat were our best friends, the “wagumu” or strong men who carried our shit were always so helpful but our favorite dude?
Sebastian, the dunny man.
He lugged that shitter up the mountain for us and every morning and evening there was a clean, fresh toilet with ample paper and not a smear in sight. The other option, the public loos which were compulsory to use at camp sites, were so evil you could smell them from miles away.
Yeah, Sebastian and our clean loo were such a welcome luxury. I told him effusively too.
The guides were clever in that they would chat with all of us as we trudged up the never ending mountain. They were getting to know us. Getting to know how we spoke and interacted so they could monitor us over the coming days and know if we stopped behaving normally.
Most of us were behaving somewhat normally for people who had had multiple wretched night’s sleep and walked for three days straight, but as we went higher and higher the altitude started to claw her fingers into a few of us.
Day four was an acclimatisation day to get our body ready for summit day. We went up quite high for a lunch stop and then back down a couple of hundred metres to sleep… this is where shit got real. I felt chipper so I was still Captain Smug pants, but a few of my team got clubbed over the head by the little 4200m no oxygen situation.
We saw brain splitting headaches, a vomit and our dear Eric had begun to go very quiet. He started complaining of a wet cough and no desire to eat or drink.
It was later that night when I was in bed that Krystal, my roomie, heard them next door and went to see if she could assist. She called to me across the freezing darkness, and upon arriving it was announced that Eric had to leave the mountain immediately.
He would walk through the night to get to the lower ground because his lungs were filled with liquid – pulmonary oedema.
It was bad.
We all gathered outside his tent to say goodbye in the freezing cold. It was the night of day four. Tomorrow night we would be attempting the summit. He was so close on such a big adventure but his journey was over.
We cried for him, and then he left. And we went to bed to toss and turn for another long night.
It was not so much the days that got to you. The walking was just a constant rhythm. The walking was fine. It was the nights.
They were so incredibly long. The confinement of a slippery, rustling sleeping bag, albeit a snuggly warm one, thank christ. The discomfort of sleeping on the ground. The night sounds of 100 people camping in close quarters. Tent zips, and shuffling to the toilet, low chatting, snoring and the occasional strange bird sound.
Shoulders, hips, shins quietly whispering to you just to let you know they were there in case you’d forgotten about what you’d made them do all day.
It was a somber breakfast then next morning. My porridge tasted a little more gluggy, my eggs tasted a little more oily. My heart was leaden, I was bone tired but it was time to walk again. A short walk of only four or five hours of down then up then down then so so very UP again and then we were there. Base camp.
I walked with Bahati, one of the guides – a cool guy. As we entered the desolate moonscape, a massive crater fell away to our right and a huge bird rose up from it and soared above us before diving back down.
This bird rose and fell and glided on the wind up there at this incredible height above the world.
“A lammergeier,” Bahati said pointing to the swooping bearded vulture, beaming at me.
“They are very rare. It is a good omen for you.”
So we become Team Lammergeier. And tonight we would discover if this lammergeier had our back.