8 billion miles to 19,000+ ft. - forever and a day
We can never describe in words how difficult it is to move and to breathe as you gain altitude at this point. Several times during the night, we would reach a point where I felt if I kept breathing as deep as I was, I would still suffocate. This happened three times as we ascended but the feeling would subside to a partially asthmatic feeling where you know it is uncomfortable but survivable.
We moved at a snail's pace. One step for a breath in and a breath out. Move the next foot while breathing in, then breathe out when the foot hits the ground. "Polé polé" - slowly slowly.
After having been sick 4 out of the 5 days on the mountain, only our camp coordinator and guide Walter probably believed I would make it to the top. We hope he bet money on this and won big. We think he must have because he carried my daypack and handed me my water bottle along the way. He helped me adjust my poles and mittens as we kept walking. Other group-mates had their own person to help them along, holding their camel backs while they drank from them; adding or removing a hat, but my personal guide for the morning was Walter. Bill had help from Benson, who we give all the credit in the world for getting up to the crater rim. He was phenomenal. It was like being a little kid and your only job is to keep moving forward while someone else monitors your state and adjusts you when neccessary. They reminded us you can cry and hike at the same time. No excuses for whimping out; they were focused on helping us succeed.
It felt like walking in a dream. The sky felt so close that in a few more steps I could touch the stars. I could make out the edge of the land above and it felt like I could reach out and touch it. It was like being in a planetarium where the edge of the rock was the sides of the seating area and the stars were little bulbs in the ceiling. The city lights down below looked like a miniature display made for a Disney ride like Peter Pan's Flight. Nothing felt as what it was.
As the sun started to rise, we were very behind schedule which was routine for this group. Thank you slow-starter-of-the-group, we will never forget you or your sequined climbing apparel. We stopped to see the sun rise over a smaller peak named Mawenzi Peak and to take a few photos and drink some water. The air finally started to warm up.
People ask if it was cold on this day. For us the answer is no. If you live in a place like Michigan or Vermont, this is not colder than that; it is what you may be used to on a warmer winter day. If you are from Texas or Florida, you may think this is terrible.
I wore a thin long sleeved polypro shirt, a thin Bergoline top, a thin fleece, and then my regular fleece pullover. I did not wear my jacket and I have been far more bundled for ice climbing in New Hampshire than this required. Of course for the first three days I wore a tank top and occasionally put a shirt on over that in the mist. I only wore my rain jacket once for about 20 minutes. If you hike this and a tank top does not work for you on the first few days, I would bet you should dress warmer than I did for the summit or you will be cold.
Very little snow exists up here. A few patches of white in one area against the black rocks took me by surprise. I had to ask one of the guides if it was snow or toilet paper thrown all over the rocks by careless tourists in Yosemite. It was little patches and lines of white all over. He assured me it was snow and even brought a rock over with the flakes on it for my close inspection. I had to laugh - kind of like a little kid seeing snow for the first time, inspecting each flake for authenticity. It passed the taste test. I can't answer as to why I did it. It just happened. I best admit it and get it over.
All nine of us made it to the crater rim. There are a lot of people who never make it that far. Even with the health considerations in our group: a diabetic, one guy was 67 years old, I had been very sick for 4 days leading up to it, we all actually succeeded. It is very unusual to have an entire group achieve this - we were pretty special. Maybe we were all to embarassed to quit because others people with harsher problems kept going, or maybe it was the phenomenal support of the A&K staff who cared for us and encouraged us throughout. The never let us quit. Or actually when I did quit each of the 5 days, they made me continue anyway. Maybe I did not have a choice.
From that point you can see the sign marking the top. Some people opt to sit, relax, and return to the camp at that point. Others opt to make the trek to the last grain of the trail. The decision is pretty personal at that point and there are no right answers. Of course the photographic opportunities along the ridge to the sign were too tempting so if you had wondered where the trail ended for me, you do not have to wonder any longer. Besides, I always have to have more. I was not "done" yet.
Getting the photo of myself was a little challenging unfortunately. When I finally made it to the sign, I waited in line like everyone else (yes, there is a line) and when it was my turn, I asked someone if she would not mind taking my photo. Her response was "As a matter of fact I would mind". At that point was done waiting for her and her partner patiently for 40 minutes every morning from that point on.
I was soon rescued by Moses who found a volunteer - another A&K representative to snap my photo. He, Walter, and Remid then posed with me and after 4 minutes of interruptions from one of my favorite group members who wanted the guys to look at her shoes (I know it was 4 minutes because I had to restart my camera for the volunteer photographer 4 times due to the 1 minute time out shut off feature). We finally were able to get the photo taken without her strappy high heels in the way. And if you are thinking - "oh, did she hike in high heels?" - the answer is no, she made a guide carry them so she could wear them for her photo. And my photo. And a group photo of guys from Korea. You get the picture. Ah, group tours!