Day 8: June 17th, 2009
Today is going to be a very strange day. Technically speaking, this is the day that we will begin our assault on the summit, but we are going to trick our bodies into thinking that it's all happening tomorrow instead. Like I said, it's odd.
After our last washy-washy for two solid days, we begin trekking up the Barafu Ridge. The ascent looks relatively simple at first but the altitude means every step takes twice as long as it should. Then three times longer. Then four... By the time we reach 4,600 meters (15,000 feet) I'm finding it difficult to draw breath. I am also afflicted with a persistent stitch in my side that makes walking for long periods very uncomfortable.
Along the way we encounter a young porter, no older than 16 years old, who has collapsed on a rock. He looks terrible and as we approach him I honestly believe that he might be dead. It's a blessed relief when he eventually opens his eyes and takes some water from us. And then James starts to suffer. Poor James. Every time I see him he seems to be in some sort of trouble, be it a raging headache or a camel back leak. I seriously begin to doubt that he'll make it.
Today's walk is mercifully short - only five hours - and then we reach the largest camp that we've encountered on our trek so far. It sprawls across a plain of uneven rocks and it's packed with other climbing groups, all waiting to make their push for the top. A quiet, tense atmosphere permeates the camp and it's become so difficult to breathe now, I don't even manage a celebratory cigarette.
Back in my tent, I watch a video that the wife made for me before I left. It's pretty pointless really because I only spoke to her a few hours ago, but it's nice to know that she's rooting for me. I give Palma some letters from home and I rub some deep heat into my stitch.
At 5pm we gather for an early dinner. Karsten mumbles something vague about not feeling well. "Don't worry, Karsten, we'll get you to the top," someone promises. We all laugh.
"You don't understand!" yells Karsten. "I am a professional guide and I am having a cerebral edema!"
Trust me, whenever somebody mentions the word 'edema' on a mountain it's not good news.
Karsten believes that he is starting to lose his mind (starting?) and if he doesn't improve soon he'll have to descend immediately. This is not the confidence boost that I was looking for with less than six hours to go. He confers with the doctor who tells him that he hasn't displayed HACE's most classic symptom yet - he hasn't fallen over. Well, that's alright then.
At 6pm I follow Palma back to our tent. Paul comes with us and we spend a good hour winding ourselves up into a frenzy of self-doubt and paranoia. I am convinced that the stitch I have in my side will never go away and I am doomed before I start, Palma is convinced that her nose and brain will explode with snot, and Paul is worried that we'll end up at the back of the group and if we're not careful we'll reach the summit a couple of days after everyone else.
We work out a complicated series of signs to help us communicate with each other in the dark (one tap for "you are doing great!", two taps for "I'm in trouble, help!", three taps for "kill me now, please") which we forget almost immediately. We make a series of pledges about what the protocol will be if either one of us should collapse on route and then Paul leaves and we settle down to contemplate our personal fears in silence.
At 11pm we are woken by the porters. I calculate that I've had approximately 13 minutes sleep.
Getting dressed in the dark, and in and sub-zero temperatures, feels wrong. My body is screaming at me to get back into my bloody sleeping bag but I press on regardless, piling on my thermal underwear, my extra-thick summit socks and my bulky down-jacket (which, because it's hired, is literally spitting feathers). At least I look the part, even if I don't feel it.
Palma and I make sure we have enough energy bars between us to survive for several days on the mountain, and then I begin strapping spare camera batteries to my thighs. This is it. This is really it.
And then we head for "breakfast". I open one end of the mess tent and discover that it's full, so I walk around to the other end (a simple act that leaves me feeling exhausted) and I discover that this side is full too. What the hell is going on?
It turns out that Palma and I are the last to arrive and the only vacant seats are in the middle of the tent. As I shuffle slowly down the non-existent aisle, trying not to spill anyone's tea with my flailing elbows, I am utterly convinced that the group has done this to me on purpose. Consumed by aggressive paranoia I slump into a chair and scowl. I'm in a dark and dangerous place. I should be excited about what I'm about to attempt but, bizarrely, I want to murder everyone in the tent with my leki poles instead.
I try to eat something. I manage a slice of dry toast and a thin sliver of mango. I know it's not enough but my stomach has shriveled to the size of a walnut. And besides, it's difficult to eat anything when you are contemplating cold-blooded murder.
Karsten, to my surprise (and relief, it has to be said) is still with us. However, I can't tell if his maniacal laughter and enthusiastic back-patting is a genuine attempt to galvanize us into a fighting force or he's just gone insane. It's a tough call.
And then we huddle together in the freezing darkness. The hardest night of our lives is about to begin...
Barafu Ridge Camp Altitude: 4,600m (15,000ft)