Day 280: Freezing in House of the Rising Sun

We started up the mountain at 2am. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli

Daily Updates are not edited and function more as daily journal entries – so if the plot seems to be all over the place or missing entirely and the tenses changes faster than a kaleidoscope, well, that's just the way it is.

ANXIETY sets in as I dive into the rank stench of warm farts captured in my sleeping bag. Is it possible that Leana Point on Mount Kenya is going to be too much for me? Can you get frostbite in three hours? Can you get hypothermia that quickly, even if you have some warm clothes?

Last night, sitting at the long dinner table dimly lit by a bare florescent bulb, I turn to hear what Joseph is saying. His voice is hushed. His tone serious.

“I will not say I am the best. There is God. We will leave it in the hands of God, but we will do our best to get to the top,” he says. “If you start feeling anything, a headache up front, a headache in the back, a stomach ache, let me know immediately and we'll see what we can do.”

Altitude sickness occurs when you fail to absorb enough oxygen from the air at high altitudes. It usually sets in at about 2,400 meters. Shipton's Camp sits at 4,200 meters, the peak we're taking in the morning – the tallest we can reach without technical mountaineering equipment – rests at 4,985.

Joseph double checks that we have headlamps and gloves.

After Joseph is done talking, Patrick saddles up next to me.

“Do you have a hat?” He asks. He should know that the baseball cap I'm wearing is the only hat I have, because I told him so before I signed up for this.

“Okay, I'll organize one for you. Do you have a coat?”

No, I don't have a winter jacket, I tell him. I only have what I'm wearing, a long-sleeve undershirt, t-shirts and a hoodie. I also have a rain jacket and rain pants that might help.

“I know it will be cold up there,” I say.

Our dorm room is haphazardly filled with bunk beds that allow a single path to the bathroom, which is next to my bed.

It's dark, but early, yet most people are already in bed. Those of us headed to the peak tomorrow are waking up at 2:00am and getting on the trail by 2:30 in order to meet the rising sun at the top.

In the sleeping bag, the back of my knees are sweating, but when I touch my knee caps, they're ice cold.

The cold is deep. It's a cold you don't feel, yet is inside you.

I'm blowing hot air as I play the anal trumpet in my sleeping bag. My stomach is turning, I'm letting the farts out slowly, to ensure I can distinguish them from a sneaky shit. The mummy bag is zipped up so tight that I don't worry about offending anyone else with the smell. However, when I unzip the bag to go to the bathroom, which seems like the only way I'll fall asleep, the stench leaks out. I feel bad for the guy trying to sleep in the bunk next to mine.

The icy cold porcelain of the seat-less toilet is sharp against my bare ass I relieve my self. The water dripping from the tank with clock-like rhythm is collecting in a small bowl. There's no toilet paper, so I cup the cold water in a hand and splash my crack clean.

The climb is only a few hours away at this point.

Back in the sleeping bag, I do my best to salvage what sleep I can before the hike.

In the dark, people are rustling out of their sleeping bags, head lamps send bright beams of light across the room. The air outside of my sleeping bag is cold; inside, it's toasty. Carefully, I migrate my clothes into the bag to warm them before putting them on.

Wrapped up in all the clothing I have, which isn't much, I find my Norwegian friends sitting at the long table where our table cloth is spread out. There's tea and coffee and coco.

“It's 2:28, where's Joshua,” Tore wants to know. He's always at the front of the charge, chewing on the bit and ready to go. This morning, he's concerned about Sven's ankle slowing us down to the point that we can't make the peak by sunrise.

Moments later, Joseph's tall figure appears heavily bundled alongside us. He quickly pours himself a tea, as the Norwegians stand up to go. A few more guides are sitting at the table with for their groups. There's a hushed shuffle as those preparing for the final ascent attempt not to wake those trying to sleep.

Outside, the mountain basks in the glow of a nearly full moon. The pale, cold light casts dark shadows on the far side of the ridges. A smattering of the thick-headed giant groundsel quickly disappears behind us we begin the ascent.

“Are you cold?” Patrick asks.

“No, not at all. In fact, I'm thinking of taking off a layer,” I say, with too much bravado, given that the coldest part of the morning is still to come.

The the icy dirt of the steep slope crunches beneath our feet like cookie crumbs as we plod forward.

Joseph is up front, setting the pace, fast enough that we can reach the summit by sunrise, but slow enough to minimize the chances altitude sickness. Behind him is the ever energetic Tore, then Sven and Patrick. A little lost in my own world, I'm happily bringing up the rear.

Sven calls for a quick break. He leans over his hiking pole, catching his breath, fighting with the pain in his ankle. Everyone silently stands there on the leeward side of the ridge. I plop down onto the frozen ground. I can feel the cold seeping up through the extinct volcano, kissing my flesh. Standing is a better way to keep warm, but I hate standing. Once the team is in motion again, I pop up to me feet and trudge along behind them.

I'd forgotten to replace the batteries in my headlamp when it started to fade in the Vieng Vang cave. So, I leave it off. The moon provides more than enough light. Three headlamps in front of me bob on the shadowy bodies of my companions. After seeing that I wasn't bothering with a headlamp, Patrick also turned his off.

There was more than enough moonlight to hike. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli

My brother, sister and I grew up on the outskirts of a large forest in Indiana. The woods, pocketed with water-filled quarries was hemmed in by Highway 37 and corn fields. When the moon was large and bright, as it is tonight, our father would lead us out on the paths we knew by heart. We never brought a flashlight, and this was long before everyone had a mobile phone with a torch on it. Walking slowly, but confidently, we'd make our way through the better lit paths into the thick of the forest, were the dirt trail was obscured by darkness.

“Your eyes will adjust,” our father said.

He was right. Our eyes did adjust. More importantly, that lingering fear humans have of what hides in darkness, what exists beyond where we can see, adjusted.

Up on the slope, our footfall have the surety of mountain goats as we see the world by moonlight. However, even with the brightness of moon, it's hard to comprehend our path to the peak.

(It's not until we're coming back down that Joshua admits that most tourist are brought up at night to stop them from giving up at the daunting sight of what is ahead.)

We break again.

The camp lodge stands in a small clearing in the valley. We've been hiking for more than an hour yet it refuses to fade into the distance. Laying there on the ground, waiting for Sven to recover, I scan the landscape behind us. Other groups, headlamps lit, are marked only as three or four stars of a constellation as they slink along behind us.

I wonder if the Kenyan mother and her daughter who we met earlier are going to make it to the top. The mother had tried once before, but turned back. Her daughter, ready for a break from the beach and party scene was effusing how she was ready for adventure travel.

The silence of the mountain wraps us up completely, yet provides no warmth.

Warmth would be nice at this point: the cold has crept in through my gloves, which remain shoved into my hoodie pouch, like a stubborn kangaroo who just spotted her date walking into a restaurant an hour late.

Our breaks are becoming more and more frequent. Sitting on the ground, I realize that the toes on my left foot are completely numb. The toes on my right foot are quick to go the same way, like a married couple after the loss of a child.

“Can we stop for a minute? I'm sorry,” Sven says. Sven has been apologizing at every possible moment, his voice riddled with sincerity and guilt.

“It's fine. Every time you ask for a break, I think, 'good, I need to take a break',” I tell him, though it's not entirely true.

Beyond the couloir, we make our way up a talus composed of lapilli and lava bombs that have been shifted by the cold and water during the last three million years. Then, we work our way along the shoulder of Leana Peak, toward the dark side of the mountain.

With a Sherpa hat that Patrick lent me pulled down over my baseball cap, I breathe hot air into a super hero balaclava. The warm, wet air catches in the fabric pressed against my cheeks, nose, lips.

“Think of it this way. All the groups behind us want to reach the peak by sunrise also. So, we don't have anything to worry about until the last group passes us,” I tell Sven as we take another break. The breaks are becoming more and more frequent. We've gone from stopping every 100 meters to stopping every 50 meters. The trend can only continue in this direction as the slope becomes steeper and the air thinner.

Laying on the cold ground, attempting to find shelter from the wind alongside a large boulder, I take two deep breathes. It's the first time I can feel that lightness of the air – my full lungs expect more. The sensation fades. Every break I find myself watching the groups behind us, trying to determine if they are catching up or not. Everyone is fighting their own battle on the climb up.

“I surrender,” Sven says, defeat shaking his voice.

“No,” the guides and I say. “You've got it. Take your time. We're in no rush.”

“This is the hardest part,” Patrick tells Sven. At the time, we don't know he's lying. There's harder climbing ahead of us.

Sven agrees to push on.

Up on the shoulder, we leave the talus behind, making our way onto a gendarme. With smaller rocks and boulders washed away over time, all that is left is the bare, jagged phonolite, porphyry and trachyte rocks of the mountain and larger boulders that were broken free by the freezing and thawing of water.

There's more snow at this altitude, yet it fails to cover our path, hiding where shadows will dominate once the sun rises.

We are stopping every ten meters now. It's painful – not the hiking, but the stopping. By the time I stand up to start walking, the group is nearly ready to stop again.

I shuffle my feet to make the sound of walking in hopes that it will set the group marching again.

It's past 5am. As Joseph promised, the intensity of the cold is at its peak. It bites through my rain jacket, sweater, t-shirts and undershirt – none of which were made for this kind of weather.

We are so close, Leana Peak is within reach, yet we keep pausing. The stops are necessary for Sven, but not good for my battle against the cold. I shift weight from one foot to the other, bouncing in place to keep warm.

A long steel capable running along bolts in the igneous mountside appears several meters below the peak. We follow it to another one, which cuts back a little higher on the cliff. There's a sign: Via Ferrata Olonana. Highest via ferrata in the world: 4,985 meters.

The via ferrata, Italian for iron road, allow for untrained hikers, such as ourselves to make it through a dangerous stretch of mountain. The iron roads are mostly associated with the First World War to help move troops through mountainous regions of Italy. However, as in this case, they're now used to promote tourism.

We sit near the sign, a short ladder climb from the peak, waiting for the sun to start to rise before facing the wind and the cold at the top. Far below us is a corrie loch, its water completely still, yet unfrozen. Above us, on the far side of the lake is the Mount Kenya's summit: Batain Peak, classic triangular peak jutting straight into the sky. There is the light of someone's headlamp between the lake and the summit. They are preparing to make the technical ascent.

An young Asian American who works at the US Embassy in Washing D.C. arrives at the ledge short of breath in a puffy orange jacket. Chatting in the cold, I hound him with questions, then apologize. He's struggling to get his barrings.

We arrive at the peak for sunrise. Video: Isaac Stone Simonelli. Music: Glenn Simonelli

Up the eight or so bent rebar steps, we take the peak. A bubbling cloudscape unfolds in front of us, dark blue below a startling-blue sky. Only directly east, where the sun will rise, are the clouds painted shades of lavender. Looking down on the clouds, we wait for the orange glow of the sun to break through and rise above them. The clouds flow below us, slowly, steadily taking on new colors as the minutes pass and a few more climbers reach the top.

A single plume rises up from the lumpy surface, like someone below the water of a bubble bath has slowly exhaled. Then, there is another, smaller one, they seem connected, more like the bubbles from a giant hippo swimming beneath the clouds too shy to surface.

The sky grows light, turning the blues to grays. Then, with blinding brightness, the sun appears. Its warm light flaring across the landscape filling the world. It's an explosion of tangerine light so bright that it distortes the outline of the circular shape we know. Batain Peak catches the sun, the warm glow flushing her face like the first nip of brandy when you return to the lodge from a morning of skiing black diamonds. Point Lenana casts a dark shadow halfway up Batain, as she too basks in the warmth of the sun.

Dorsey II was not excited about the cold or the magnetic field. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli

My numb, un-gloved fingers struggle to set up the drone. Dorsey II starts, then turns off. The batteries are too cold. I jam one battery down my pants. The cold lump of energy presses against my balls. Even once the batteries are warm enough, Dorsey II isn't happy with the idea of flying, as the magnetic field from the extinct volcano toys with her sensors.

I look around. Everyone is gone. Everyone but Patrick.

At some point in the few moments that Dorsey II was in the air, the mountain top cleared. The sun crested the clouds minutes ago, yet no one else is joining the mountain as it basks in the glory, waiting to see the full miracle of high-altitude, first-light unfold. The better part of an hour could be spent up here as the sun shakes off the cold. However, it's only Patrick and me, and Patrick is ready to go.

The world is buzzing inside me as we start the descent.

I am high.

With numb fingers I got the phone out for some selfies: Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli

Past the ragged, rocky edges of the extinct strattovolcano, we take quick, small stutter-steps quickly descending. My toes bash against the front of my boots with each step.

It's a shorter hike down, but not a short hike.

“Let them pass us, they're making me nervous,” Nancy says, her tone accusation. She and the Austrian woman made the peak shortly after sunrise. Though a runner and not a smoker, she was struggling with the altitude. She was not inclined to chat at the top. The Kenyan woman never made it to the peak.

It doesn't take long for Patrick and me to catch the rest of our group on one of the moraines created by the recently lost glaciers. Perhaps the glaciers still exist somewhere among the alpine peaks, but if they do, we didn't see them.

The plodding pace that Sven is forced to take as he eases his way down the steep, gravely slope is painful.

I sit on a rock, head in hands, waiting for them to get to the bottom so I can run down. I doze off for a moment, my mind dancing between this world and another. Patrick's voice somewhere below brings me to.

Near the cirque where the lodge is located, I take off ahead of everyone. It's time for a piss, breakfast and nap.

By the time I'm out of the bathroom, have my boots kicked off and my sweat-drenched socks drying on a rock in the sun, Sven arrives at camp.

“Thank you all for the encouragement and getting me to the top,” he says in his Norwegian arctic accent.

“I'm pretty sure you did all the walking,” I say.

“But the encouragement helped so much. I was in so much pain,” he tells me, eyes moist behind his thick glasses. “The pain tolerance would go up to a level. I would say okay, I can do this. Then it would go up another level. At several points I had tears in my eyes it hurt so much.”

Standing barefoot next to Sven, I can't imagine the mental fortitude it took him to press on. It was not an easy hike and to be pushing through pain barrier after pain barrier to make the peak is incredible.

“I'm impressed. Even without the injury I'd be impressed. We made good time too,” I say, giving him a pat on the back.

Moments ago, Tore and I were talking inside. He was worried about Sven's ankle. Worried about the long hike ahead of us back to Old Mose's Camp. When Sven was ready to surrender, he'd thought it was a good idea, but the guides and I hadn't noticed his silent hesitation.

The picnic table outside the lodge has our red table cloth spread over it and breakfast on top. I pour Sven and myself tea as we wait for Tore to join us. It's past 9pm and everyone else has cleared out; thousands of dollars of outdoor clothing and gear has been packed up thrown onto a Sherpa's back and hauled off. One live-in employee of the unheated lodge sweeps out the dorm rooms.

Feet curled up on the bench, I dig into a pancake and an egg.

“I want your honest opinion,” Sven says to Joshua. “Could I do Kilimanjaro?”

At one point, Mount Kenya was taller than Mount Kilimanjaro and completely capped with ice, glaciers carving its ravines and valleys. However, its peaks were eroded, leaving behind what we now see.

“Yes, but...” Joseph says. He is cut off by Tore.

They disagree about the matter to the point that Tore won't even let Joseph finish his sentence.

I'm with Tore on this one though. Sven made a legendary effort, but could he keep it up to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro? It seems unlikely. In addition to the weakness in his ankle, being laid up for the last five months means he's nowhere close to the level of fitness he's use to from cross country skiing and dog sledding.

After breakfast, I curl up in my sleeping bag. We've got a few minutes to rest before getting back on the trail. However, if it was up to Tore, we'd start hiking immediately. How he manages to have so much energy with no sleep at all – last night he couldn't sleep so he “rested” – is beyond me.

Sven and I come out of our half hour naps tired, but feeling better.

Having seen everything there was to see on the way up without flying Dorsey II I know what I want to capture on the way back.

“So, I'll just fall behind and then catch up when I'm done shooting,” I tell Patrick, who is still packing up the cooking supplies. Tore, Sven and Joseph are already on the path back, Tore leading the charge.

“You can't be alone and I can't wait for you,” Patrick says.

I hiss at him. I'm not really sure where the hiss comes from, but it slips out from between my lips. What was the point of me lugging this drone all the way out here if I can't film at all?

“Okay, fine. I'll just go ahead and let you guys catch up with me,” I say, charging off.

I explain the plan to Joseph in passing.

Up ahead, Dorsey II takes off. It was hard to get far enough ahead of them to fly, as Tore is keeping them moving at a serious pace.

Dorsey II ends up crashing into the trees somewhere ahead. By the time I get to the area she crashed, Joseph, who went ahead, has recovered her. There's some damage to her body, but she boots up just fine.

During our packed lunch on a grassy mountain ridge overlooking the moorland of the u-shaped valley that leads directly to the foot of the peaks, Dorsey II comes back out to fly.

The sun is warm on our backs, easily cutting through the sky at this altitude.

Joseph, Tore and Sven are off again before I'm ready to go. Patrick waits for me to pack up and then starts huffing down the grassy slope, picking is way along a rocky path that cuts through the tall grass and thick shrubs toward a small stream below.

I fall behind.

With every downward step my big toes slam into the front of my boots. Hobbled by the pain, I attempt to find ways to walk down by leading with the sides of my feet, but it doesn't help. Every step down the slope hits me with a dull pain, like jabbing a bruise.

Perhaps my toes have finally thawed out.

The team takes a rest at the cold stream below, but are picking their way up the far slope before I make it down.

It wasn't until the very end that I Iost interest in the beauty due to the pain in my toes. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli

Left behind, I consider taking Dorsey II back out for more shots, but decided it's best to keep trying to catch up.

Up hill is fine. Toward the top, I find Patrick laying against his pack, playing with his phone, waiting.

“It hurts every time I take a step,” I explain.

Though the path has flattened out, I pull off the boots. By this time of the day the rocks and dry soil are warm against the soles of my feet. The pain is gone. There are no acacia trees or other thorny monsters at this altitude, so the walking is better without the boots.

I'm not sure when or how it happens, but Patrick gets ahead of me again. It's some time after he suggests I put my boots back on for a particularly rocky section of hiking.

The long, green roof of the lodge is visible in the distance, while the landscape swallows up my fellow hikers. You could lose an elephant in the creases of this mountain and not even know there was a crease ahead to lose one in.

Exhaustion sets in. My arm are going bright red, burning to a crisp. I take another break. Previously, when I was trying to catch up, I was pushing and pushing. Now, knowing that I'm close, I don't care. I can take breaks.

Though I am close, close is a relative term in the mountains. Close can still be two hours of hiking away. In this case, it is.

What I thought was the lodge, ends up being the meteorological station. The lodge is farther down hill.

I stop. I have reception on my phone. I chat on Facebook.

How a person can get into a Messenger fight with an ex-girlfriend on Mount Kenya is beyond me, yet I manage. This is why technology shouldn't come into the wilderness with us.

I'm up walking. Then, taking another break. Then, another. It's easy hiking, but I don't have the will to continue. Less then ten minutes away from camp, working my way through the shrub land, I give up again and plop down on the ground.

I yank of my boots. The pain is too much.

When I'm less than a 100 meters away, coming out of the shrubs, one of the assistant cooks comes running back to check on me. He's the youngest of the crew, perhaps 18 or 19 years old with a big scare on his cheek and brilliant smile.

“The bongo heard you come and ran into the bush, did you see them?”

The best I can tell, Mountain Bongo are basically over-sized antelope.


“Here, let me carry something for you.”

“It's okay, almost there,” I say waving off his help, but pleased to have a little company outside of Facebook for the final stretch.

Inside, the crew is having tea. I'm too tired for tea. I sit motionless on my bed, recovering.

Then, there's tea, a bit of resolution with my ex and finally dinner.

As we finish dinner, Patrick joins us, dishing up some of what's left into a bowl for himself.

“So we need to talk about tips.” he tells the group. “Not everyone will be going all the way back so tips need to be done at the gate.”

“Okay, we'll talk about tips at the gate,” Tore says.

“Yes, I'm sure they had a great time and will take care of everything,” Joseph says, having a bit more experience with how to handle westerners.

I excuse myself and head to bed. It's still light out, but I'm too tired to do anything but crawl into bed.

“You're going to bed already,” Patrick accuses me.

“Yes, I got up early. I'm tired.”

Laying in bed, I hear Sven and Tore come in; they're talking in Norwegian.

“Isaac?” Tore says, coming up to my bed. “The man out there seems very concerned with tips. We told him we would talk about it and we have. We know you don't have a lot of money, so we don't know what you want to do. If you want to add a little something to ours you can, or if you don't want to tip, that's fine too.”

I'm filled with gratitude. Tore's being so delicate about it, yet straight forward, as well as generous to let me put a little on top.

I explain that I'd been thinking about it and I really can't afford to add more than 2,000 Shillings. They're giving 5,000 Shillings to Joshua and 2,000 Shillings to each of the helpers – there's four in total.

“Okay, whatever you want to do works for us,” he says.

Tossing and turning, I re-think my decision.

I want to tip. I'd like to give them 2,000 Shillings each, especially the larger, soft spoken man in the ragged gray t-shirt who isn't pushy, but started calling me little brother. Him and the youngest in the crew.

Patrick I should tip because he's the one who made it all happen. He went to the peak with me. He hung back with me. He made this incredible trip possible. Before falling asleep, I decided to let the Norwegians take care of everyone else and I'll add a little to Patrick's tip.

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