Dawn. Kids stirring in their bunks. Cooks in the cookhouse. Porters arranging equipment. Nathan moaning? No.
A few minutes before six, I opened my eyes. Not enough sleep, but it would have to do. Jon was already up – or perhaps still up – and Bill had just joined him.
“How’s Nathan?” Bill asked.
“You missed a lot last night. Helicopter should be coming in two hours.”
“Oh really?!” We gave him a quick update on the night before and the plan ahead.
“If anything happens tonight, it’s all you.”
Bill just chuckled.
Memories of the next hour and a half are lost in a groggy blur – gather stuff, grab a bite to eat, check the status of a few mildly sick kids, gather some more stuff, try to pack, get the girls to take their packs outside, grab another bite, do one … no, two … no, three final sweeps of the girls’ room, finish packing my own stuff, drop the packs outside, grab one last bite … through all of the buzz, Nathan lay quietly on his mat and people walked around him. I think that exhaustion and the relaxation exercises had temporarily overcome the pain and he seemed to be sleeping lightly. At least, I hoped it was sleep and not a deterioration in his condition.
Outside, sunlight flooded the high peaks. The kids that were well enough to continue stood chatting and stomping their feet in the cold.
Each hiker would carry only a day-pack to the top and the porters would take the larger packs around the mountain to the next camp. After two days of hiking with a bulky pack, the day-pack felt like a feather. Only four hours to the top, the guides say. Only four hours … and what’s four hours after all? Jon and Wendy wished us luck, and we were off!
The air was much thinner and the path much steeper, so we stopped to rest about every twenty minutes. Within thirty minutes we had left the low shrub of the alpine zone, and within an hour we hit snow.
Every so often I looked back down in the valley to see if Nathan had been flown out yet. The sun was getting higher and still no aircraft. The kids didn’t say much about it, but I could sense their concern. At one point I found myself behind two boys who were discussing whether or not, and how quickly one can die from appendicitis. I tried to reassure them that it might not be appendicitis, but they didn’t look convinced. About half-way up, we finally heard the pulsing of the helicopter’s wings. It was late, but was it in time?
Only two more hours to the top. The snow became thicker and slicker, and I began to get a little nervous. Some of the kids didn’t have good tread on their shoes or boots. I was surprised when I passed a few of our stronger boys resting on a rock.
“You alright guys?”
“Yeah … just got a headache that’s all.”
“Drink some water.”
A bit later I caught up to a small group of girls. Alli was in the middle, clutching her stomach and crying. Next to her Seeta was crying too, though less noticeably.
“Oh girls, what’s wrong?”
“My stomach,” Alli sobs. Uh oh.
“Is it a general ache or sharp pains? Do think you’re going to throw up?”
Sharp pains but not going to throw up. Great.
“And Seeta? What’s wrong?”
“I have a knee problem. It really hurts.”
“Do you have some Ibuprofen with you?”
I gave Alli a hug. “So what do you girls want to do? If you want to go back down, you still can. You see the way we’ve come, and a guide will go with you. But if you keep going, you’ll have to go all the way to the next camp. It’s up to you and what you think you can do.”
Looking back down the path and then at the road ahead, they decided to try and push through. Is the devil you don’t know better than the devil you know?
We stopped for an extended snack break next to a snow-fed lake. The guide joked that if anyone wanted fish for lunch, there were trout for the catching. Trout up here? Really? How do trout even get up here?
As we got closer to the top, the climb became more technical. I settled my body into a deep-breathing pattern and tried to coach a few a few girls through the same. The kids marched on in near silence, each one focused on the summit and his or her own pains.
SUMMIT! My head was throbbing and my body was spent, but wow what a view. The kids collapsed on various rocks. Some tried to nap, others took out lunches – each one eager for a few moments of relief. We had made it to the top of this sliver of world. I tried to feel the exhilaration of achievement – instead I felt like a cat up a tree. What climbs up must find a way down, and this down looked a little less than safe and a lot less than easy.
I don’t have many pictures from the descent. Within the first hour, my headache doubled and the nausea set in. As we groped and slid our way down icy paths, I was awed by the skill of our guides. With their full packs on, they would perch along the edge of the trail, help us around rough spots, and keep us from sliding down towards the glacier below. They kept reassuring us that the physical effects of the altitude would wear off as we descended – Lord, let it be true. When we took our first extended break at a sheltered camp site, I sat with my head resting on the end of my walking stick, every inch of me focused on not throwing up.
“Mwalimu … mwalimu … we must be going.” I must have lost consciousness for a bit. The voice of one of the guides cut through my upside-down dream world. Still slightly green, I joined the kids and we continued: four more hours of almost straight down-hill trekking through a freezing fog.
About 6pm, the last of us reached the bottom of the scree and the beginning of the green. The scene vaguely reminded me of one of the great American-frontier paintings: sun setting between the rolling hills, the fog behind, and camp in the distance. It was still a mile off, but we could see it. Though the remaining path was almost level, my reserves were spent and it was all I could do to put one foot in front of the other. Fighting jelly-legs and a lingering nausea, I kept my eyes fixed on the rocks just in front of my feet. As I rounded a bend, a familiar voice greeted me.
“Hey! How are you doing?” Jon had made it with the porters after all.
“… I think … I’m going … to make it.”
“Great! Considering your options, that’s good news.”
I managed a laugh.
“Camp is just another 15 minutes away. Looks like you got some sun!”
“Yeah, forgot to put on sunscreen today. Scorched my face on the way up.”
I updated him on the status of the kids behind me, and he gave me the news from the other side.
“The helicopter came for Nathan around 10:30 – almost two hours late. I talked with our admin just a bit ago. The paramedics took him straight to a hospital …”
“Which hospital?” I interrupted.
“They didn’t go to Nairobi. Just here to Nanyuki.” The city at the foot of Mt. Kenya. “They decided he needed immediate surgery so his parents drove up here. He had his appendix out early-afternoon.”
“Wow.” I was too tired right then to contemplate the “what-ifs” but they were there. Nathan had first gone to the nurse with a stomach-ache not last night, but the night before. Only last night had it become unbearable. What if his appendix had burst early last night? What if the helicopter had been more delayed? What if a kid had died on our trip?
Jon went on to encourage the last group of kids and I continued towards camp. I didn’t eat much that night, but at least my heart rate was back to normal. Sleep came quickly.