After a violently interrupted night our morning activity is close to zero. Feeble movements, along with efforts not to vex Pavel too much by our early get-up mean that for the climb to Batian (5199 m) we set off almost an hour later than planned. It’s past 05h30 and we are trying to find the right trail. In other words this means that we are willing to jump the stones like fools only to avoid losing but one altitude meter.
If we weren’t so lazy yesterday afternoon, we could have easily walked those 500 meters from the camp to have a careful look at the access path. Instead, we have to crawl around the rocks and drag in difficult gravel fields. But in the end we are forced to lose some metres anyway only to have to climb up again in unstable gravel fields.
Along the way we pass two flashes that indicate our direction is good. The starting point could be easily missed in the morning twilight and we would end up in a different step groove.
We're there. Exactly when the sun sets light on a plate honouring the memory of two young boys for whom it harshly did not work out. It doesn’t lift our spirits at all. We are too late! The plan was to hit the route at five o'clock and it’s coming to half past six now!
A circle with a cross painted on the rock indicate the direction. North Face Standard Route - by African scale of difficulty - is grade IV+. According to our notes, there might be a place worth five (5 UIAA). I put on our backpack. We carry only one. We have our climbing gear fixed on the harness but the bag is still bloody heavy. I do not understand why? We decide to climb in normal shoes. That means one “normal” kilo on each leg. Beautifully sunlit area and surprisingly difficult first steps. I attack the first full length headlong, but enthusiasm then fades out of me at an incredible speed together with rapid loss of strength. I work like a dog but in the vertical, with the backpack, I can barely stick to the rock.
The next lengths are a bit easier. The altitude is there and in the more difficult passages we get out of breath. Lada honestly secures the way by friends (camalots) and stoppers. Not a single sign of a fixed protection. Our hopes point to the big rocky amphitheater somewhere above us. From that point on it should be ok. You just pass round the Firmin Tower (5045m) and continue along the ridge trail to Batian (5199m).
We gradually overcome at least three difficult or “critical” points. If I were to judge, I would continue to claim that it must have been worth at least of 7 (according to UIAA scale) – but Lada very soberly assessed them as fair fives. In combination with the altitude, backpack and heavy clumsy boots these are simply spots that I am not able to pass neatly. Falling rocks is a bit of a problem too. I got hit by several pieces – fortunately, I have my helmet. The worst hail of stones I survive in a relatively good hideaway.
After nine lengths we are in the amphitheater. A great stone auditorium, from which we have a magnificent view to the northeast, towards our Chogoria Route. It is 11h00. We climb, now with no protection, to the upper edge of the amphitheater, the decision had been made.
“I know that yesterday we agreed to continue climbing up until 14 hours, but we're too slow. I'd prefer to go back”.
Lada is visibly very sad when pronouncing those words. I feel guilty. I am the one who drags and with the fuc…backpack I am not able of a solid and long-lasting performance. I am fed up with myself…that I screwed it up all like this.
That’s all I can say. We both know that we would have got to the summit by crawling somehow. We are at 5000m. Only 200 altitude meters remain and in a substantially lighter terrain than up to now, the difficult is already behind us but when would we get there? Late in the afternoon? What then? We decided not to take sleeping bags. And what about Pavel? He would be terrified that something happened to us. What is certain is that if we continue, we do not have a chance to be back by daylight. Here in the amphitheater there are two perfectly adapted spots for bivouacking. One down right at the entrance and another at the top right. It would be possible to stay there during descent. Under the Nelion Peak (5188 m) there’s even a bivouac hut – Howell hut - comfort for four people. But it’s impossible. We go down and know too well that we had only one shot. Tomorrow, we will descend down to the town, so as not to miss Kilimanjaro. We do not want to lose it.
We look at Firmin Tower (5045m). Being beyond it by this time, we would have carried on. Clouds begin to appear around the peaks of Batian and Nelion. Our gut feeling grows that we made a right decision. But inside we still haven’t come to terms with it. It’s not easy to accept it, be humble and wait for a second chance. Will it come at all?
At about noon we start to abseil. It is not entirely smooth. Falling rocks, little streams of water, mud…the wall is in the shade now and the air is pretty cold. After less than two hours we are back at the commemorative plate.
Sad and tired we slowly glide down to the camp. There’s nothing to talk about. We hope that Pavel was more successful and is all right. Today was the most hazardous day of the entire African trip. We had to split and leave Pavel on his own. We all know why!
Back in camp, we learn all the good news. Pavel made it to the top of Point Lenana (4985m) fairly easily and enjoyed it greatly. Without crowds, calm and cool. He even managed to get some helpers to carry down our baggage.
The three guys come before 17h00, just as a brief shower starts. Hailstones are falling from the sky as we discuss plans for the following day. After ten minutes we have a deal. They will come tomorrow morning at seven and we will go down to Shipton using the Sirimon Route. The price is 1500 KSH per person.
Packing our chores, hanging out and contemplating about the failure. Sure, we were too slow, meaning not sufficiently acclimatized. At least one day was needed to rest. And then the heavy backpack full of useless stuff. We didn’t even pull the climbing shoes out, same for all the back-up stuff (jackets, gloves...) and food. And unfortunately, around noon the weather got much worse. Actually, we observed this almost every day that after midday the peaks get veiled by clouds…but frankly, today I wouldn’t like to be up there.