A little before noon, we zag under red cliffs and pass through a notch in a vertical rock wall. It’s as though we step through a portal into another world. The landscape tilts back to horizontal and we enter Kilimanjaro’s sprawling, beachlike caldera, the ground covered in sandy black ash, the Furtwangler Glacier’s alabaster face rising in front of us like a monster wave.
The summit looms a tantalizing 800 vertical feet higher, a ragged knob at the eastern edge of the caldera rim, but we’ll hunker down here for the night, at a woozy 18,500 feet. Not many teams sleep up here. The more conventional approach is to place high camp at around 15,500 feet and conclude the climb with an epic 15-hour summit push, hiking through the night in a conga line of trekkers. I’m glad we’ve come this way, even though I dread the discomforts of the hours ahead.
It is, as expected, a night of Job-like suffering during which my teammates will report hallucinations, nightmares, out-of-body experiences, headaches, vomiting, diarrhea, and, for one or two, a deeply held conviction that this is the last place they’re ever going to see.
At our 4 a.m. breakfast, I sit across from Kelly Carpenter, the colon cancer survivor, as she stoically spoons up a few mouthfuls of porridge with a trembling hand. Saying something to Foley, I inadvertently blast my voice into Coondog’s ear. He has such a severe headache he can’t turn his head, though he’s able to grab my arm and squeeze. “Don’t talk,” he whispers. “Just don’t.”
After we’ve choked down what few calories we can, we huddle outside. It’s a bracing 15 degrees Fahrenheit. Overhead, diamond rivets punch through an obsidian sky. When everyone is present, including Glenn Tilbrook and Carrie Marzolf, we head up, miserable and silent, but moving under our own power. We’d been slowly coalescing as a group, and now, tribulation the great equalizer, we creep upward in an unbroken line–not musicians, trekkers, survivors, or guides, just a single goose-down-wrapped centipede inching over the scree.
Two hours later, we turn onto the final low-angle ramp to the summit, the sun breaching in the east. The shadow of Kilimanjaro stretches west, a massive black triangle extending to the horizon. Above it hangs the moon’s fading sphere, the sky painted in striations of gold, green, and turquoise.
The centipede breaks apart as we approach the top. Leaning on each other, we lurch through the last steps until everyone has made it–sobbing, laughing, both at once. It’s one thing to endure difficulty when the outcome is assured, I realize. It’s another thing entirely to persevere through the anguish of uncertainty, and then to reach that point, at last, when weakness becomes a wellspring of strength.
“There’s this funny parallel with music,” Peters tells me later. “You live for this moment when you’re on stage, playing your instrument in front of the crowd. But there’s all the practice and hard work and doubt leading up to it. Then, you have this moment, like when you reach the top and you have that incredible feeling that you did it, you made it, and you know what all the torture was for.”
If there were fantasies of a full-blown summit concert, they are squelched by the realities of complete exhaustion, crippling cold, and various degrees of illness. With what little moxie remains, we gather for a group photo, pulling strings of prayer flags from our packs, 6,000 in all, each bearing the name of someone who’s been afflicted by cancer. I’ve written my mother’s name on one.
By nightfall, we’ll be luxuriating in the blessed comforts of lower altitude, but before we stampede off the top, Peters pulls out his guitar. He begins to strum in fingerless gloves, wool hat yanked snug, arms stiff under multiple layers of clothing. The other musicians join him and, hunched together, they eke out the Love Hope Strength theme song. It’s barely an echo of earlier performances, but still, somehow, they sing. For a few moments, in the dawn light, everything turns bright red. Then it’s done and we start down, the last notes swallowed in the wind, the music as brief and fleeting as we are.
Nick Heil is the author of Dark Summit: The True Story of Everest’s Most Controversial Season. For LHS events, go to lovehopestrength.org.