Posts Tagged stella point
By Nora Mortagui
“Technique and ability alone do not get you to the top — it is the will power that is the most important. This will power you cannot buy with money or be given by others — it rises from your heart.” Quote by the first woman Everest climber, Junko Tabei 
On September 17th at 11:20am, I stood at arms length to a wooden post that congratulated me on being at the peak of the highest free standing mountain in Africa. Congratulations to me indeed, but it was not a walk in the park getting there. In fact, it took me 12 trying hours instead of the designated 6 or 8. Whatever the duration was, I was slow, very slow. I will not recount the glorious 5 days preceding this point since there are more affluent writers who will portray expressed accounts of that in generous details. Instead, I will share my humble stream of consciousness solely on my 12-hour attempt to Uhuru peak.
Barafu Camp, the last camp before the summit on Machame route, is nestled at 4800m. I was placed amongst those set out to attempt the 5895m summit in the slowest paced group. The slowest group initiated the summit attempt in an almost zombie-like march a little after 11pm on September 16th. I was placed 3rd behind the guide. My placement left me content because the footsteps of the guide Baraka, and Arwa’s in front of me, comforted me and helped me focus. But ten minutes into the ascent my heart began to pound, no surprises there when my heart has been faster than a speeding bullet with a resting rate starting at 120bpm on average. Up to that point, I prided in the fact that I managed to avoid altitude sickness and took no painkillers since we started 5 days ago but I had no concept of the physical aftermath.
Earlier this day, I experienced the worst calve cramps I could have ever been subjected to. The pain in my calves could possibly resemble small pieces of sharp objects of various forms that have exploded, many times over, in my muscle fibers, leaving my basic lower body movements to near paralysis. So early into the ascent, with so much pain, I wasn’t confident on how I was going to cope with myself mentally and emotionally. Yet so untrue to my nature, I was still a little hopeful.
Somewhere an hour or a little more into ascending, I had to answer nature’s call. I stopped the group and headed to a nearby rock. I did my business and it was a messy one that left me hygienically violated to the point of de-motivation. I must have kept the group long and realized that I was leaving them in the cold which worried me. I haphazardly recollected myself to head back and hadn’t placed myself in the group line yet when the group had already begun to move. By the time I reached the trail, the group was already quite some meters away. Those meters felt like oceans between us. There was no way in hell I could have caught up with them by skipping or walking a little faster because the pain in my calves would make my heart race and that would ultimately make me weaker. I couldn’t afford that right then so I had to keep at my own safe pace and accept the reality that I cannot catch up. I finally succumbed to the cosmic irony behind all those months of physical training that I thought prepared me for this moment but in effect proved otherwise. I began to feel like a bead that was swinging last in a thread of beads. But this particular bead was heavy, so heavy that it started slowly slipping away, thinning the thread that kept itself connected with the rest, until the thread finally dissolved into nothingness and the bead rolled rhythmically backwards while the rest of the beads faded ahead into the distance and their glimmering lights could be spotted no more. I knew then and there that my ascent would be a solitary one. This was going to be a long night.
The scene was set. More than a couple of hours had passed and I was somewhere in the middle of the mountain with a guide I could barely recall his face from the previous days and had just learnt his name when we got stuck with each other because I separated completely from the group. We had no emotional bond or earlier conversations of informal introductions. I was concerned. I didn’t know his movements, his pace, he didn’t know about my heart issues or cramps or my pace, he didn’t know when I last ate or drank, he hasn’t seen me climb at all. But I had no choice. He was mine and I was his. I looked back down the mountain to determine where I was and where the 2nd group was. I saw a trail of headlights below, for a moment I felt like I was above the stars, it was a soothing sight but they were coming up fast and it made me slightly intimidated because of me being so slow. I turned around towards the mountain, dismissed these thoughts and put a foot in front of the other.
Shortly after, the group that I looked down on earlier was not the 2nd group. They shot right passed me with such ease and rhythm. I thought that I could join and follow that group just to be part of anything but I contained no vigor or truth for being any faster. I let them pass with the sadness of a lost puppy. Then another group passed, then another. But still no sign of the 2nd group yet. When I looked down the mountain again I could figure out 2 different groups from the collection of headlights. I thought that must be them. When finally Adel’s group arrived and there I was inching my way up while Adel’s group also shot passed me. Naturally I felt jealous, I wish I could have been faster but the pain didn’t permit me. The pain was my new best friend and forced me to do as it pleased. Then another group passed, then another. It must have been over 4 or 5 hours since we started, I had no idea of how much time passed but Omar’s group finally arrived to where I was. It was a relief to speak with Omar briefly as he told me I still had time when I complained to him about my slowness and cramps. Omar replenished my hope and he and his group went passed me. I looked behind me again and there weren’t many headlights left. I felt embarrassed being this single person going up the mountain like an old woman with silly cramps to complain of while close to 40 people of different sizes, shapes, heights, ages, share relatively the same pace. I gulped my state and watched as their headlights danced all along the top of the mountain way ahead of me. It was very challenging now to keep my levels of hope balanced. About an hour later I heard a very loud cheer of song and hoots. I figured Adel and Omar’s must have met, even though I wasn’t sure. Knowing the Egyptian charisma to be loud, cheerful and united, I understood it might be them up in the distance. My eyes welled with tears. I wanted to be part of that. I’d never felt lonelier.
“You can do this, Nora, you can do this. One step at a time, one step at a time. Will power, will power.” I tried vaguely to remember the quote by the first woman that ascended Everest and all I could bring out from the quote was “will power” and something about how nothing or no one else mattered. “I will make it, I will make it.” Pole stomped in the ground, one foot follows, other pole stomped in the ground, other foot follows, all in languid slow motion. “I will make it, I will make it.” I was obsessed in my inner dialogue and repeated those phrases in numbers to infinity. I never perceived in my entire life that I could discipline myself to a particular set of movements and a single mindset for so damn long. God knows how many hours had passed in just that state. In the crux of these intense emotions, images circulated manically in my head; random, thoughtless images, the Indonesian flag in my backpack, the summit picture on my phone, The Right to Climb, my mother cooking in her restaurant; I cannot fail her, I cannot fail all those people that had faith in me; 44 sessions at Anna Louise’s, my Egyptian family, my Indonesian family, I cannot fail myself; the silent poundings of my heart reached my ears. “I can do this, I can do this, I’m not sick, just tired, I’m not sick, God, my muscles hurt and yet I can barely feel them, but I can do this, God is Great, God is Great, thank you, Arwa for telling me about that, it’s ok that I’m so slow, my own pace, my own pace, no one else matters, my own pace, it’s not that bad. I will make it.”
The sun woke up and people continued to pass by me. Someone told me we’re almost there and that I should just keep going. I gained some much needed encouragement. I had no idea where I was until the guide finally mentioned, after hours of silence between us, that we were close to Stella Point. With the sun coming up, my sense of hope doubled. I was pleased because it meant my body will soak in some warmth from the sun and my numb fingertips will experience life again. I must have been about 20meters away from Stella Point. I was absolutely, miserably, pathetically exhausted. My only gratitude was that there was no sign of altitude sickness. I joked with myself, “I have been between 5000m and 5700m for so long, I should damn well be super acclimatized!” I thanked my lucky stars for that indeed, but certainly not for the persistent pain. It was around 8am and I had asked the guide whether he thought the group summited. He opened his walkie talkie, which I discovered was closed all along, that yes the group probably summited. Suddenly he suggests I just make it to Stella Point and go back since I can still get a certificate for Stella Point. I was offended and with an expressionless face I answered “No, I want to make it to Uhuru, you have to help me make it to Uhuru.” I understood that I subjected the guide to myself as a slow-moving burden but I never expected he’d suggest I give up altogether in spite of my lack of sickness but obvious pain. I supposed he suggested that out of good intentions and quickly I managed to disallow his suggestion to deter my determination to make it to Uhuru and continued to inch my way up the merciless scree and sharp incline a little before Stella Point.
The sun was rising high and people were beginning to come back down. I was possibly 10meters away from Stella Point and I met Lubna, the first one to descend. I was refreshed to see a friendly familiar face and had asked her how much was left for me and how easy or difficult it was. She reassured me that it’s not long anymore and the scree part is almost over. Finally I met Omar who also reassured me of the remaining part to go and I learnt from him that it was around 9am. They had summited 2 hours ago! The realization of how slow I was began to sting me personally but that was a fact I just had to stomach. I finally met every single climber of our group and was encouraged and cheered to go on. I was touched. I needed that. I was also anxiously waiting for Arwa. I couldn’t stop thinking about her and was hoping she’d wait for me at the summit for us to take a picture together but calculated the feasibility of that was non-existent. As everyone kept going down, I was eyeing out for her. I was so proud of her and proud of our friendship. I really wanted to just see her and cry and congratulate her on making it to the summit. I wished dearly we were together but understood we had to part ways from early on. Finally, we met, she was one of the last that descended and I just felt all the grace and comfort of heaven falling upon me. Seeing her was a major boost to continue and when I asked her to hand me her camera, since I didn’t have one for my summit picture, it felt like she was passing a baton of success. I tucked it in my side pocket and hoped for the best. I was on my own from now, quite literally.
Everyone from my group descended while I paced on. The guide also brought 2 porters to accompany us. The terrain after Stella Point was a lot more forgiving. But at that point, my muscles were failing pretty badly. Challenging another incline no matter how easy it looked was sheer agony. I was confined now to experience pure human misery and physical feats completely alien to me. The early bouts of mental and emotional breakdowns were slowly, but surely, creeping in. I finally saw the summit, sitting patiently at the top of a curving elevated land that looked like a jetty sticking out of the mountain. God it felt so far. But there is no stopping now. “I will make it, I will make it.” But then at one of the inclines, I just fell on my knees and started crying in front of the guide and porters. “I’m so tired, I’m so tired,” I exclaimed with child-like sobs. Out of desperation, I thought that maybe I should tackle this incline by crawling. So I started crawling on all fours, sobbing, and the guide immediately patted me on the back and said that I can’t do that. Seconds later, he pulled me up to my feet. At last we began to bond and I surrendered myself to him completely. We were so close to the summit now but I was extremely physically futile. I hung on to him like a crippled child. I was exchanged then with the two porters to help me up those nasty inclines. The glaciers slowly began to unravel themselves, I saw some ice on the ground, the summit was getting closer, I could hardly believe myself, I was dumbfounded but I was so alert. “I’m going to make it. I’m going to make it.”
“There it is,” I muttered in breathless whispers as I internally sobbed with my head rested on the side of the porter’s shoulder. Under 5 meters towards the summit, I freed myself from the porters and told them I had to get there myself. And so I did, in my graceful slowness, digging my poles in the ground and dragging my useless legs like an old lady. There I was absolutely solitary on the summit, the guide and the porters seemed to vanish in the background while I stood for a moment in respect towards the wooden post and was shaken into realizing that I had the roof of Africa all to myself. There wasn’t another soul in sight. My dream finally materialized into reality and I was not comfortable in bed flipping through pictures on the internet and fantasizing a great success at the summit. I was there! I was miserable, exhausted, confused, and worn down, absolutely defeated by my physical self yet wholly elated and triumphant all at the same time!
This ascent taught me a few things. It was an ascent to my own soul, my own inner summit. It taught me weakness and strength, sadness and happiness, failure and success, hate and love, compassion towards the frail human condition and the power “between your ears.” Probably what resonated in me the most is the sheer irrelevance of the scheme of things because we human beings are eventually lonely creatures. My ascent was in essence a lonely one, with no group hugs, or group photos, a cheer, a song, a guide who knew me well nor I him, or a personal exchange of memorable words and smiles. But how could I be lonely now when I was so much closer to the heavens and to myself and that I made my parents proud?
There is a fine line between loneliness and solitude. And this mountain, as it has stood freely for all these centuries in all of its vast glory, finally taught me that solitude is a not such a bad thing after all, solitude is freedom.
As the hour got closer, Nora and I put on our basic layers and tried to sleep in them. We had to move at 10:45 pm sharp. They were going to wake us up at 10, enough time for us to put on the extra layers and head to the dining tent for a snack or coffee.
Getting dressed for that night was easy. It was simply about wearing everything you had which you knew would keep you warm. I put on both my wool liner pants, both my wool tops, hiking pants, shell pants to break the wind, fleece jacket, down jacket, liner gloves, mittens, and a balaclava for head, neck, and breath warmth.
Looking like astronauts headed for Mars, Nora, Lubna, Coucla, Nehal, Sarah, Corey, Ian, and myself said our prayers and set out to the summit behind Baraka’s careful, patient steps.
The silence overwhelmed the place and filled our hearts with humility. All I could hear was the crushing sound of the pebbles under our boots, Baraka’s walkie talkie, and our heavy breathing. We could not see anything beyond our flashlights, except for the glaciers at the top of our destination. The fear, the excitement, and the freezing temperature put us all in a state of extreme focus. Each one of us was living their own, private experience with the mountain. Each one was silently hoping and praying to make it to the top. It was a surreal experience.
This was the first time for all of us to make it to such a high altitude. None of us had ever been higher before. We also hadn’t acclimatized to this altitude yet. So I tried to cut all fearful thoughts out of my head by focusing on Baraka’s slow, small, and monotonous steps. They were to me an acknowledgment of man’s smallness. They were a sign of respect to the might of the mountain, a recognition of the tough journey ahead, and a symbol of the perseverance required to reach a goal. I knew they were the steps I needed to get me to the top.
Going slowly was also helpful in that our breaks were as short and as few as possible to avoid the cold. The minute we stopped, quite literally the minute we stopped, my toes began to freeze despite the thick socks and liners I was wearing under the boots. There was also a high probability that our muscles would almost instantly begin to cool down, which would make it very painful for us to get them going again.
Those breaks, as few and as short as they were, were still life-savers to me, because no matter how slowly I was going, I felt extreme exertion all over my body and mind. I kept drinking water as often as I could. We were advised by Adel, our trip organizer, to blow the water back each time we drank through the hose and into the reservoir to protect it from freezing. I did as he told us, but the higher up we went the more difficult it became to sip. It began to freeze slowly.
Soon the terrain gave in to a series of rocks on a cliff. At this point I had parted from Baraka because some in the group requested another stop that I could not afford. So I walked on with Lubna and Godfrey, her guide. Godfrey was a big man with long strides, no matter how slow he tried to go, he remained three or 4 meters away from me. That was enough to make me panic, because that took him out of my flashlight zone and I had to look up to find which way he was going. That automatically meant lack of focus on footsteps and more sighting of horrendous cliff and enormous distance that still laid ahead. I found myself calling out to him, “You’re too fast. Too fast!” And the poor man didn’t know what to do to get slower than he already was. So I decided to stop and wait for Baraka again.
By then I had started to feel dizzy again. My eyes were beginning to close and my entire system wanted to shut down. That’s when I remembered Nadia’s comment: “GO gels saved my life!” I quickly reached into my pocket for my power gel and began to suck on it for dear life. I continued to drink water as I waited for Baraka to catch up.
Climbers were passing me by, and I saw a guide holding on to poles and bending down. A blind man was holding on firmly to his back and he was leading him up to the summit. I immediately remembered the one-legged man. My friends later told me that they did see him on his way back from the summit. He made it there before us.
I was then too tired to contemplate on anything.
The minute I saw Baraka’s red and black gaiters I felt my life coming back to me. I was back into my comfort zone. I looked at him with tears in my eyes and said the most ridiculous thing I believe I ever said to anyone: “Baraka where are you?? I can’t do it without you!”
He pointed to his back and said, “Follow me.” What a pathetic creature, he probably thought.
There was a lot of scrambling involved. My weakness would sometimes give in to the weight of my backpack and I felt my backpack pulling me down and again sweeping me off balance. Some cliffs were less than a meter away from me, but I simply did not care anymore. This was such an extreme situation to me that all my fears seemed like an imaginary monster in the closet. This pulling force of my backpack was a wake up call. I did everything I could to rest my weight on the correct foot before I took each step up. This was the only way I could stop Baraka’s persistent offers to carry my backpack. I wanted to see how far I could go.
Ian was the only one who seemed to be at relative ease. I guess his desire to film everything for the documentary he was making on our charity climb helped him focus.
Corey was extremely cold he couldn’t bear to stop for long. To keep himself warm he kept talking and moving each time we stopped. In one of the breaks he looked at Baraka and said, “How are you doing Baraka? Just another day in the office, huh?”
Nehal, Sarah, and Nora were mostly silent, they were concentrating on their breathing.
Nora’s crazy heartbeat made her slow down further and separate with another guide. There were times when she said she felt her heart was going to burst out of her chest.
Coucla began to lose coordination and doze off. That worried Baraka, so he kept her immediately behind him and spoke to her to keep her awake. He would interrupt the silence every now and then and call out to each of us by name to make sure that we were awake, drinking water, breathing, and able to carry out a conversation.
I have no clear idea of the temperature as we were climbing, but I know it was a kind of cold I had never witnessed in my life. I covered my mouth and nose with the balaclava to warm up the air that got into my lungs. The minute I would expose my mouth the coughing would begin like mad, so I tried to keep it covered as much as I could.
The incline to Stella Point, which sits at 5756 m, was the steepest incline possible for a climber using only his feet and trekking poles. The terrain was all pebbly and slippery. I placed most of my weight on the poles and it still did not seem to be enough. I had to go even slower with much smaller steps. I was almost crawling. At this point suffering was all I could think of, no matter how much I tried to focus on Baraka’s boots. It was an eternity. I started asking him “How far are we now?” repeatedly. This was the longest, steepest, and coldest phase on our summit climb.
We were very lucky that the night was not windy. Yet the higher up we went the thinner the air became. We were now going way above the levels we had acclimatized our bodies to. My muscles began to feel weaker with the decreasing oxygen level. I began to lose grip over my mind. I had never pushed my body or my mind to this limit before. Throughout my training I had always endured what I thought was the maximum for me, but all along I was always in control of how far I pushed. I had the buttons. But in the middle of the mountain at 3 am and at an altitude of more than 5500 m I had no control over anything.
Mind over body my ***. My body was now seriously offended.
I did not have the energy to go back either even if I wanted to. My choices were to either push myself to the target or sit to die on the mountain–a rather inconvenient alternative for everyone.
I continued to say my prayers up the mountain, and Nadia’s voice came back to me: “If all else fails, forget the destination. Look at your own boots. Can you take this step? Now can you take the next step?” That mental trick became my last and only fuel; the water had started to freeze and was no longer accessible, and it was more difficult to reach into my pocket and pick up a snack with my mittens on and I did not want to stop for that. Now my brain was too busy focusing on each foot and ordering it to move. Maybe that was still mind over body, but right then it was too much of a luxury for me to conceptualize on what I was doing. I was just pushing that engine up.
To soothe us, Baraka kept pointing to the sky to show us the break of dawn. Each time I looked to see the color of the sky getting lighter I felt warmer and more hopeful. In this trip, sunshine always made hope run through my veins. And sunshine now meant Uhuru Peak was getting closer.
By the time we reached Stella Point daylight had filled us all with joy. Only 139 m further up now, Uhuru Peak began to show in the distance. The slope was now at a lesser incline, but soon those wooden blocks that marked the summit disappeared again, and the hike up to it was physically more challenging than I expected. Up to Stella Point I was struggling with small steps each at a time. Now each step was an enormous effort to me. I had to stop after each single step, rest my weight on my poles, and breathe heavily.
Baraka kept stopping me for pictures to allow me to acclimatize more and to give a chance to some of the others behind to catch up. I began to feel frustrated with these stops. I just wanted to get there and then worry about the pictures later.
People keep asking me how I felt when I arrived at the summit. No words can properly describe how I felt, because I had never felt that way before. I simply have no words for it.
And I have no words for the beauty I saw up there. I was standing at the top of Africa, I could see the curvature of the earth, a beautiful line of pink colored the meeting point between the sky and the clouds below me, it was reflected in the white glaciers that surrounded me, and it was -18 ºC.
But my lips were caught in a continuous grin that possibly stayed until I was halfway back down.
I don’t recall how many people I hugged when I arrived at Uhuru Peak. I threw myself in every open arm that came my way. Hug first, find out who later.
I took every picture I could near those wooden blocks. After all the months I had their picture on my phone screen, I could not believe that I was finally holding on to them. Like Nora said, “We held on to them because we still couldn’t believe ourselves, and of course to prove that we’re actually there and that it’s not Photoshop!”
So many of us kept asking on our way up why the summit hike was particularly at night? Why couldn’t we start in the morning and be there at noon? Going back down in the light of day I could see why. The guides spared us despair if we were to see just how steep that slope was. Night limited our vision. We could not see the steepness, and we could not see how far up we still had to go. We just had to worry about our boots.
The journey to the summit took 5 days and it climaxed in the early hours of the 6th. I was learning something new about the mountain, about God, and about myself every hour. No person can truly believe what they are capable of until they are on the edge of survival.
By the time I reached the top I did not feel triumphant. I did not feel that I conquered the mountain. I wasn’t battling with it. I wasn’t challenging it. I was battling with and challenging myself, and the mountain was telling me how to win. I felt blessed to have come this close to Kilimanjaro, to have been allowed to climb it, and to have it teach me a new lesson about myself.
“This climb taught us about our weakness, fragility, and about our strength all at the same time.” I could not have put it better than Nora.