Climbing Kilimanjaro: Day 7
We emerged from our tents at 11:30 PM on Day 6, suited up, and were on the trail by 12:15 AM. Our route would switchback up the ridge line for 4,054 feet to Stella Point, where the grade mellows out and the going gets easier. The climb typically takes between four and six hours depending on your pace. Thousands of people attempt climbing Kilimanjaro each year. Approximately 20% succeed. After six months of training, 36 hours of flying, and six days of hiking we were finally going to find out if we had what it takes to summit. Brace yourself, this is a long post…
We had barely left camp and I was already cold. The previous nights around camp and in bed I was toasty warm, however that night even after ten minutes of hiking I felt an icy chill. My feet in particular couldn’t warm up—even prior to waking, in the sleeping bag with a hot water bottle on them they were still ice cubes. Other than that, I felt good.
Not long after I began fretting over my cold feet, Heidi snacked on a dried apricot and promptly vomited. She looked at me and said, “I guess I’m doing this on an empty stomach. FML.” Despite taking her Cipro the night before, she was still suffering from her gastrointestinal distress. I could see the pain and misery on her face, but I also knew that once she says she’s going to accomplish something there is no weakness. We were going to make it to the top. I had the trekking poles out and settled into a robotic rhythm of one foot in front of the other. It doesn’t show in the imagery, but the moon was almost full, and much of the time we didn’t even need our headlamps.
The air was crisp and still. Ice crystals formed over our packs and outer layers. The digital thermometer’s battery died from the cold, and I was too miserable to pull my analog one out. It felt like it was in the single digits—which is actually pretty good weather for this section of the climb. As the hours ticked by we could see the dark shape of Mawenzi that once pierced the horizon slowly get closer and closer to it. Finally sank beneath the horizon. And I knew we had climbed higher than the sister peak.
We were now at 16,890 feet and climbing. Our guides yelled for us to pull off the trail as it was time for tea. We all laughed at the joke, but then they started handing out mugs of hot tea! In these conditions, being handed a hot beverage felt like winning the lottery. Never the less the experience was pure suffering. Periodically the self doubt would migrate from the back of my mind to the front and I would wonder if I had the fortitude to keep pushing.
During the tea break, I popped off my boots and inserted foot warmers. To this day I swear they didn't do a thing to warm my feet. However, despite the lack of warmth, they made themselves known by pressing uncomfortably into the bottom of my feet with every step. I seriously don't know how anyone comfortably uses them. The team was climbing again, and it would be too easy for us to get separated if I stopped for a 5 minute fiddle with my boots. Frustrated that my feet were more uncomfortable than before, I was now stuck with the current set-up.
We reached Stella Point right as the sky began to lighten. I took a quick break to rejigger my layers and we were off again. From this point on, I knew the summit was in the bag. Stella Point is a critical milestone in the climb. Once reached, the trail takes a less steep angle and with every passing minute the environment warms with the rising sun and reveals the mountain's splendor. The lingering doubts and concerns melted away and the realization that we were about to succeed began to sink in.
The group presses on, slowly climbing around the crater rim toward the summit. One-third of the way around the rim and headed for the summit we were able to look back toward the East and Stella Point. A trail can be seen coming out of the crater bowl and heading up the snowfield to Stella Point. The snow and rock on the backside of the crater rim reminded me of some Lord-of-the-Rings shit.
Here comes the sun! We slowly crept around the crater rim, inching ever closer to the summit. The rising sun revealed that what we perceived as the horizon was merely the early morning cloud cover around 10,000 feet. We could see the sun through the clouds, and the true horizon still occluded part of the sun.
The light as the sun rose was just insane. And the way this glacier just sort of clung to he slope was fascinating.The euphoria was intense. Can you tell from the big-ass grin on my face? Heidi was exhausted and hardly wanted to stop for the photo, but she was also digging deep and finding some crazy strength and determination to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
With summit in sight, we made the final walk toward the sign and the gaggle of climbers crowding around it. This was an extremely emotional moment for me. I was overcome with a profound sense of accomplishment and euphoria. A year of planning and training was about to finally pay off. I was so proud of Heidi for digging deep and fighting through pure misery to make it to the top of this massive mountain. The moment was somewhat bitter sweet though because my trail buddy Jon Dobbs (the 65 year old who had never hiked before coming to Kili) was really hurting. I had been helping him and providing encouragement but as he began to fall behind and I had to make a choice. I left him with a guide and stuck by Heidi's side. This trip was her idea, it was her dream for years, and I wanted to be right next to her to see her complete one of her life's goals.
With mere feet to go toward the summit, I looked left at a peculiar sight: The peak of Mount Meru was poking out above a glacier, and to the right, the shadow cast by Kibo was so large it pierced the horizon.
The summit. We arrived at Uhuru Peak, the highest point on Kibo, Kilimanjaro, and the entire continent of Africa. And I am depressed. The euphoria gave way to frustration. At least 100 climbers were crowded around the sign, jostling for their chance to take a summit photo, and generally being rude and obnoxious to one another. I am so tired I almost want to skip it. Our group patiently waited our turn and once we got to the sign and in position other climbers behind us kept pushing in front of our guides who were trying to take a group photo. That's when Heidi came alive. Without missing a beat she shouted to a particularly rude climber that she was ready to 'Sparta kick' him off the mountain if he didn't behave. My warrior woman. We all got a good chuckle and the rude dude shaped up.
The summit. 19,341 feet. We did it. I remember thinking it was harder than I expected, but as I write this, the memory of the misery and pain fades, leaving nothing but the thrill and satisfaction of accomplishment. Even Heidi was feeling better. As I basked in the joy, I reminded myself that today was only half over. And the descent is where the accidents happen. Gotta stay sharp.
The whole climbing team including Jon Dobbs made it. This made me extremely happy. Heidi and I had each other to offer support when the going got tough. It was a huge help. Jon was climbing alone. All the doubt and hardship he bore alone. Even in a group as close as ours got—and we really did look out for each other—there are still barriers and boundaries. Going solo is tough. I am really proud of Jon, he did an awesome job. It's amazing how close you become to total strangers when you spend 8 days with them non-stop and endure challenging ordeals. I miss all of them immensely.
After summiting, some of us made a slight detour and went down to the glacier to actually stand on some snow and ice. This is the dry season. The wet season has more snow and ice, but it is definitely in decline.
It isn't every day you have an opportunity to stand on a glacier near the equator and it is unclear how much longer they will be present. Some day soon Kibo may just be a giant brown rock. Getting to the glacier was easy. It took approximately 3 minutes and we practically bounded down the soft ashy slope. When we turned around to head back up I was shocked to find that it was immensely difficult. Between the altitude sapping our strength and the loose volcanic rock/ash we struggled to make our way back to the top of the crater rim. Every time we planted our feet to take a step we sank back down hill half a step. It took almost 20 minutes to make the climb.
With the peak in the bag and the sun overhead it was now time to descend. The weather and the clouds would be along in a few hours and we didn't want to over stay our welcome. The descents are where the majority of accidents occur. So, while elated, I 'harshed my mellow' so that I could be 100% focused. I took one last look into the crater. I was frustrated that I hadn't been able to spot the crater hole itself and was wondering if the basin beneath me was it and it was just filled in. It wasn't until I was back home editing photos that I realized the scale of this view. What looks like the rim on he other side is actually the hole. It is conjoined with the rim on the far side and elevated from the crater floor. It is simply massive. (I had to use Google Earth to figure this out.)
If you've been following along on the journey so far, thank you for your attention and interest. Stay tuned: The descent is spectacular and there are still exciting and tragic details ahead.
Descending from the summit of Kibo, the highest peak on Kili, one is treated to a gorgeous view of Mawenzi, the youngest peak of Kili’s three summits. It is a striking silhouette with multiple jagged spires of volcanic rock. I already have dreams of coming back to Tanzania in the future for more adventure. Will definitely want to add Mawenzi and Meru to the itinerary if I’m ever able to make it back.
In the day light, we could finally see our starting point over eight hours earlier. Barufu Camp is divided into two main areas and sits atop a ridge that runs from Stella Point all the way down into the rain forest ecosystem. The plan for the rest of the day was to hike back down to Barufu, rest/nap for a few hours, eat lunch and then pack up everything and race down the ridge to Mweka Low camp another 5,000 feet lower on the mountain.
On the way down we were able to pause at Stella Point to snap a few photos now that there was enough light to make a moment out of it. Still, we tried to be expeditious about it, as we had already spent quite a bit of extra time at up top with the detour to the glacier.
Around 16,000 feet on the way down I spotted one of our avian friends perched on a rock. It surprised me to see animal life at this altitude. There must be more creatures up here as well — possibly that chipmunk-rat hybrid I saw at Barranco. I still am stumped as to how they would hydrate. The ice of the glaciers usually sublimates (turns directly to vapor) before it actually melts.
The sun, now fully in the sky, warned the barren landscape. Layers of insulation needed to come off and get stowed in the pack. For my legs, I could only remove my shell layer without a time consuming stop, so I resigned myself to be a bit toasty and uncomfortable. As if he could read my mind, the team's waiter, Dickson was for the descending Duma climbers with thermoses full of ice-cold Tang. I think this was even more welcome than the hot tea on the ascent!
Our porters Omben and Elibarrik hiked at least an hour up the ridge and met us to help with our packs (unnecessary, but a sweet gesture). I felt bad they had made the trek so I decided to let them have my pack and enjoyed the last stretch of downhill unencumbered. It was around this point when we passed two Tanzanians slowly heading up with what looked like a portable stretcher. Our guide Michael stopped to talk with them briefly. More on this sad news later.
When we pulled into camp we had an hour to nap before lunch. In the sun our tent was like an oven—even with all doors and flaps open. My head was pounding. Unsure if it was from the altitude or simple dehydration I tried to nap but found it impossible to sleep in the hot tent. Instead, I wandered around camp until lunch sipping water with Drip-Drop powder to try rehydrate. Then we had lunch. It was so good! Fried chicken, home fries, noodles, hard boiled egg on tomatoes, and my favorite: fresh chapati! By the end of the meal I felt right as rain. Probably because of the Drip-Drop. (Editorial note: Back in 2016 I loved Drip-Drop. These days I prefer to use good old gatorade.)
With food in our bellies and having rested for a short while, the whole crew packed up the camp and headed down the ridge toward Mweka Low Camp. We were that special kind of exhausted that you get when you're miserably tired but on an emotional high from the joy of having accomplished something amazing. As we descended, the day that started so beautiful clouded over. For hours it looked and felt as if it were minutes from raining, but thankfully the rain never came.
Our guide, Andrew, showed us a stretcher that rangers cache on the mountain. These are used to wheel injure climbers and staff down and off the mountain to the park gate for evacuation. Unfortunately accidents can happen on the mountain and we learned on our descent there had been an accident that morning. We passed park rangers carrying up a portable stretcher (canvas between two long wooden rods). They weren't climbing with any expediency. Not a good sign.
When we pulled into Barufu, Michael overheard guides from other groups coordinating on the radio with the rangers to find volunteers to climb back up to assist. Apparently a young woman in another tour group passed away on the summit. We weren't able to get the full details, but the theory is that she was stricken with high altitude cerebral adema (HACE). It's a lethal condition where in which the brain swells with fluid because of the physiological effects of being at high altitude. The only fix is to descend as quickly as possible. It cannot be self-diagnosed because it results in cognitive impairment, bad judgment and slurred speech.
Two of our guides, Michael and Andrew, were very upset by this news. They pointed out that the weather was uncharacteristically perfect: Warm, dry, and without wind. There was no excuse for the guides and fellow climbers to miss this woman's symptoms. They felt this was an error on the part of her tour company's staff.
This highlighted how professional our guides were. Twice a day they would log our blood oxygen measurements in a notebook. They monitored us from day one to understand our baseline and then scrutinized how we responded to the altitude. They engaged in conversation with us to suss out our mental state along the journey. They educated us about the dangers and encouraged us to watch out for each other. This is the kind of responsibility and professionalism that you get when you select a company that respects their staff and pays a fair wage. I am grateful we chose well, and deeply saddened by the news of the tragedy that morning.
Welcome to the seventh day of our eight-day Kilimanjaro climb. If you’re just tuning in, you may want to start at the beginning of the adventure.
If you're interested in someday climbing Kilimanjaro, check out the main Kili trip page which has links to additional information and resources.
If photos are your jam, head over to my Google Photos gallery.