Kerry’s climb

A very moving and emotional article last week in the Dom Post by former Mayor Kerry Prendergast. A couple of extracts:

I’ve thought long and hard about where the idea to climb Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania, came from. It has been on my bucket list a long time. I’d wanted to do it before husband Rex and I turned 70 and 60. Time was running out.

What turned this into a passionate desire to do it this year was the death of my lovely 30-year-old son, Andrew, in March 2011. Andrew, always mad on – and very good with – horses, was just beginning to retrain a difficult horse. The horse shied while on a lunge-line and Andrew was thrown off, on to hard and rough ground, sustaining what subsequently proved to be a fatal head injury.

I was a religious person until the loss of my first son, Paul, at his birth in 1979. His loss fundamentally challenged my beliefs. Logic tells me not to believe in heaven, but if I’m wrong, then climbing to 6000 metres might bring me a little closer to Andrew’s spirit. It’s irrational, I know, but there you have it.

And the climb itself:

This morning we descend off the edge of the lava sheet with high valley walls around us, swirling cloud below us, the mountain above us, a perfect sunny morning, and what appears to be a cliff in front of us. For the first two hours we climb the 200m-high Barranco Wall, poles clipped to packs to free our hands for this steep hand-climbing section. Challenging, but satisfying and fun. Fortunately there are frequent rests on tiny ledges and steps as porters move past, one hand balancing the load on their heads – while we hold on tight with both hands. Amazing. ACC and OSH would be most unappreciative but we are thoroughly impressed.

Having climbed the wall, we descend a steep, slippery stream bed. But up the next heavy climb is the promise of a cooked lunch – carbo loading for our ascent tomorrow. The last water on the mountain is in this valley so our porters traipse back with large containers for our lunch, and then on and up to base camp. Water-purifying tablets cater to our pampered Western stomachs.

After a relentless three hours of steep uphill climbing through swirling cloud, we reach 4600m Barafu Camp about 4pm. This is base camp for the ascent. It is cold, bleak, and cloudy, with the imposing, somewhat daunting, snowy slopes above us. The long drops here are hung over a cliff!

Sounds an amazing experience.

Then the summit:

We set out at midnight, pitch-black and minus-12C, but mercifully without wind. Our headlamps blazing, we obediently follow Thomas; there are cliffs on both sides in places. A string of headlamps weaves ahead – it is a seven-hour, 7km slog up 1300m to the rim. Walking is extremely slow. We are told to breathe really deeply and this helps. The frequent stops are welcome.

We are supposed to drink two litres of water on the way up – containers are cosseted under jackets to prevent freezing. We also have energy bars, jelly beans, chocolate, but I refuse it all as I’m so nauseated. I am bitterly cold, my fingers numb.

And then I notice, 5cm above the top of my left pole, an oval white light hovering. If I look it goes away, but it is there in the corner of my eye and I’m convinced it is Andrew – my fairy – keeping his eye on me, encouraging me, guiding my every step. Later, when I swap to a lighter headlamp the “fairy-light” effect goes away, of course, as the sceptics among you would expect.

We had been told to empty our minds and think only of each next step but my ascent continues to be a time to relive the last days we had with Andrew, and I shed many tears.

For 18 months I have pushed the memories of those last 10 days of Andrew’s life to the back of my mind. Even though it is not easy, I now try to remember them in detail in the hope that my nightmares will go away, probably a false hope … I remember the first panicked call about the accident, the rush to A&E, the bad scan results, the experiences in the ICU, decisions and advice from the experts, our hopes dashed as Andrew doesn’t regain consciousness. Then the agonising decision to turn off life support, followed by six days caring for Andrew at home with the support of family and friends, Andrew lying deeply unconscious in our midst, then that last morning as Andrew took his final breaths.

I find it comforting, though others don’t, when Rex tells me we are halfway, then three-quarters. I begin to feel it is possible to make the top. Then, about 5.30am, as the sky begins to lighten and we can see the lights bobbing up to the rim of the crater, I know I can make it. The last 500m is a bottleneck. People ahead exhaustedly stop, and then start slowly off again. The rim finally arrives at 6.40am and the relief manifests in different ways to each of us; for me, hugging and crying.

But Stella Point is, unfortunately, not the real top! After a brief pause to see the sunrise completed, we set off for Uhuru Peak. At 5895m (19,340ft) this is the summit, and it takes us more than an hour to reach it. Not a hard walk but that last 150m vertically is dreadful. We shuffle past wonderful views of the snow-filled crater on our right and a magnificent 30m-high glacier on our left. The combination of tiredness, altitude, a migraine and vomiting make this last hour almost impossible for me. With 200m to go I have to be cajoled by our guides to continue.

We queue to get in front of the sign for photos, proudly holding up our Kiwi flag.

Well done Kerry and Rex – a great achievement.

So what have I achieved? We have ticked off a large item on our bucket list – but have also discovered the limit of our endurance, physically and mentally. Rex and I decide four items are now off all our future plans: tents, sleeping bags, mountains, and, for me especially, long- drops!

As for Andrew – have I found him? Was he up there with me? I believe I can answer “Yes”. But I also know that for every step I take forward in my grief pathway, some days I feel I fall back two.

If there is any place you can feel close to a lost loved one, up the top of a mountain like Kilimanjaro would be it.

I’m glad Kerry shared her story. I think I may have just added Kilimanjaro to my own bucket list!