(The day that wouldn’t end.)
6:30am I gradually become aware of the sounds around me – of the cooks out in the cookhouse and the other chaperons stirring in the bunks.
Bill: “Is it that time?”
Bill: “Do you want to get them up or should I?”
I wiggle around in my cocoon, slipping back on the outer layer of clothes that I had shed last night. Swinging my legs over the side of the bunk, I almost knock out Wendy, the trip doctor, below me. The three-foot aisle does not leave a lot of room to pack. I do my best to return my pack to yesterday’s organized state and lug it outside into the crisp morning. It had rained hard during the night. The air catches my breath and in the distance there is fresh snow on the peaks. They look close but I know it is an illusion – today will be a long day and we are only going as far as base camp.
We hustle the kids through breakfast and pack-organization as the guides hand out sack lunches. Everyone looks perkier than the night before. “How many kilometers today?” they ask. The head guide looks into the distance. “Oh, maybe thirteen.” Not so bad – right?
8:15am Hit the trail. For the first few hours, we ascend gradually over the shrub-covered hills under a bright blue sky. The group spreads slightly as the kids chat, only to re-consolidate when the front end pauses for a breath.
“Ms. Lillis, is this the lunch spot?”
“No, just the snack spot. We’re having lunch at the half-way point.”
“Ms. Lillis, I have to go to the bathroom. Do you have tissue?”
“Yes, but you know you can’t leave the tissue here right?”
“What do you mean? What do I do?”
“Put it in plastic and take it with you.”
“Um, I think I can wait.”
“If you wait too long we might get to where there are no bushes, so think about it.”
12:30pm The group has spread out significantly. The slow ones have gotten slower and the fast ones keep pushing ahead. Standing on the ridge of a hill I can see the front of the group far below in the valley and a few have begun climbing the next hill. I start down the hill with my small group and wonder how Jon is doing with our two slowest girls, Sasha and June.
1:00pm I reach the stream in the valley where a handful of students and porters are resting, and pull out a snack. A few minutes later, Jon comes across the bridge and sits down beside me. “How are the girls doing?” I ask.
“Sasha is doing okay but June’s really struggling, and I think I’ve run out of conversation tactics.”
“Sure, I’ll take over. I think I can power talk her over this next hill.”
Both girls come across the bridge with the guide and sit down for a break. Everyone snacks for a bit and then Jon takes the group I was with up the hill. I wait just a little longer for the two girls to be ready.
1:15pm Sasha, June and I start up the hill, followed by a couple of guides and the trip doctor. June looks pained and thumps her chest.
“I know it’s harder to breathe up here. Take deep breaths to your toes – like this.” I demonstrate a deep breathing pattern and she tries it half-heartedly. “Come on June, we’re going to make it to the top of this hill. The others have stopped for lunch there already.” She continues thumping her chest and shuffles her feet. “Long strides June. Not faster, just longer. Stretch out the legs and breathe deeply.” Sasha goes ahead a few steps as I try to coach June along. A third of the way up, she’s still panting, shuffling her feet and looking even more pained. “You’re going to make it June. You’re doing great.” She begins to cry and I wrap my arms around her and her pack which has been mostly emptied by the porters. “It’s okay. Just a little bit more. We’re almost there, see?”
2:00pm We reach the top of the hill and June collapses on a rock. The temperature has dropped and the front half of the group has already continued. Two of the other girls are starting to feel the altitude and are taking a longer break. The doctor and I try to coax all three girls to eat and drink something. Irene, one of the other chaperons, is also there waiting for me. “Would you like me to hang back with June while you go ahead with the sick girls?” she asks. “Would you?” I hate to admit that I’m relieved by her suggestion, and am suspicious that Jon had something to do with it. The guide points down the valley and says the the rest of the way is mostly level. We will follow the river around the bend to the base of the shrouded peaks. As soon as the girls are ready, we start down the path with one of the guides.
4:30pm We’ve been hiking for eight hours and camp is nowhere in sight. Every so often I catch a glimpse of a few kids far in front of us, but I can no longer see June and Irene behind us. The girls I am walking with both say they are feeling better, but I can tell that fatigue is beginning to take over.
5:30pm We’ve caught up to a group of exhausted kids and I still can’t see the camp. When I ask the guide, he points to a hill about a half mile away. “See that cliff? Camp is just on the other side there.” Right. That means we have at least one more uphill climb. The sun is beginning to set and will soon go behind the ridge. I begin to worry that June might not make it in before dark. These kids and I might not even make it before dark.
6:30pm We reach the top of the cliff face and camp finally comes into view. Relief and disappointment flood the faces of the kids – we can see it, but it’s still about another mile away. I pull myself up and do my best to cheer them on. “Long strides, deep breaths guys! We’re almost there. You’re doing great Robert. Come on Ann! One step at a time.” I think we only have another 45 minutes of light and I still can’t see June and Irene behind us.
7:00pm The day is fading quickly and the mud under our feet is slick. Ahead of us, a light appears at the top of the hill and we hear a familiar voice. “Alright guys! Great job – you’re almost there. Keep going, don’t stop.” Jon is waiting at the edge of camp with his head lamp, cheering on the stragglers. About fifteen minutes later, as the last rays of dusk disappear, we reach the flat hilltop and the lights of camp. I give Jon the scoop on June and then go in to take off my pack and get warm.
7:45pm I put on a second jacket and go back out to join Jon on the rocks.
“You know, something tells me that today’s hike was a bit more than 13km (8mi).”
“You’re right,” he replied. “I checked it with my GPS when I was here three weeks ago. It’s closer to 16km (10mi).”
June and Irene still haven’t arrived. Three of our stronger boys had volunteered to go back out with the guides to take flashlights to the group and I can see their lights in the distance.
8:20pm The final group drags in – cold, exhausted and tearful, but safe. We go inside to warm up over dinner, but many of the kids are discouraged and don’t have a strong appetite. The girls room has twenty bunks and we have twenty-one women, so I claim a bunk close to the door in the guys room and unroll my sleeping bag.
9:30pm We have hustled most of the kids to bed. They are so exhausted that they don’t chat much in the rooms. Bill, Jon, Irene, the doctor and I discuss tomorrow’s plan with the lead guide, then we head to bed. Inside my sleeping bag, I strip down to my thermals and pull the hood of the bag tight around my head. I check my pulse – still racing. Will my body be able to fall asleep at 12,000ft?
10:30pm Most of the boys seem to have fallen asleep, but I’m still awake and I can tell that Jon and Bill are too. From somewhere across the room we hear a weak voice.
“My stomach hurts.”
Jon pauses. “When was the last time you went to the bathroom?”
“I don’t remember.”
“Try that first. Then let me know how you feel.”
We hear Nathan shuffle to the bathroom and come back a few minutes later.
“Mr. C? It hurts really bad.”
Jon gets down from his bunk to get Wendy, the doctor.
12:30am I lay in my bag, still wide awake, pulse racing. Bill is snoring lightly in the bunk below me. Jon, however, has gotten in and out of his bunk at least five times in the last two hours. Nathan is on a mat in the common area moaning, and Wendy is trying to coax him to relax. Jon comes back in and gives me the latest update.
“We’ve tried to contact the doctor on the other side of the mountain for a second opinion but no luck. Seems their phone is off. Wendy thinks it may just be intestinal blockage, but isn’t convinced. The next step is probably to call our insurance company but I’m not sure what they can do.”
“Has the school ever had to fly anyone out on one of these trips?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Hmm … hate to be the first.”
1:00am Jon comes back in again. “Okay. Called the insurance company. At least they are aware that we are having a problem.” He gets in his sleeping bag. “Now I have to sleep.”
2:00am Both Jon and Bill are asleep. I am still wide awake, Nathan is still moaning and Wendy is still sitting with him. I decide to give Wendy a break. I slide out of my bag, pull on my extra layers and slip out to the common area. Wendy looks miserable.
“How’s he doing?”
She sighs deeply. “I just don’t know. My hands are cold, his abdomen is tense, and he keeps moving. I just can’t tell whether or not it’s appendicitis.”
“There’s nothing else you can do for him tonight. Why don’t you get a couple hours of sleep?”
3:00am Nathan’s moaning has gotten loud again and a woman comes out of one of the other rooms. “Is there anything I can do?”
“Are you a doctor?”
“No, I’m a psychologist.”
She goes over to him and begins to distract him with some breath-relaxation exercises. Thankfully it calms him down. Jon has woken up and comes out looking for me. “Okay, we need to get him out of here. I’ll get Wendy and call the insurance company again.”
I stay with Nathan and the Danish psychologist. A bit later, he comes back.
“They’ve authorized a helicopter, but they can’t come in the dark. Too dangerous. Soonest they can send one in from Nairobi is 8am. We called the principal and the parents. They know what’s going on.”
We talk through the options for tomorrow’s climb. Someone has to stay with Nathan until the helicopter comes. June won’t make it to the top, and there may be a couple of other kids in the group who have altitude sickness and need to go back the way we came. Finally we decide that I’ll go with Bill and the kids to the top in the morning. Jon will stay here until the helicopter comes, then go with the porters on the low route and meet us at the next camp. Wendy will go back with the sick kids, and we’ll meet the other doctor on our descent.
4:15am I slide back into my sleeping bag. This time exhaustion overcomes my heart rate and I drift off. Less than two hours ’til sunrise …