Elevation begun: 4550 meters – base camp
Highest elevation reached: Uhuru peak, 5895 meters
Distance hiked: 36km
Night 6: Mweka Camp (on the descent) 3100 meters
At midnight (not 11:30pm as planned…the only time on the entire climb we didn’t hear the alarm, figures) we finished layering and gathered in the mess tent for tea and biscuits, and at 12:30, headlamps firmly in place, we set off.
How to describe the hike to the summit? Let’s see – utter darkness, raging 50+mph winds, sub-zero wind chill, 45 degree+ angles up the mountainside, rocky unstable terrain, less oxygen with every step you take = scariest environment imaginable. That’s all you had to say, scariest environment imaginable. (Anyone remember this line from Armageddon? Went through my head loads on summit day.) I think it’s fair to say that what scares Africans most about climbing Kilimanjaro is the cold, which turned out to be the only aspect of mountain climbing that I could call myself reasonably prepared for, having grown up in Buffalo and now living in Chicago. The only skin I had exposed was right around my eyes, and occasionally my nose and mouth, though about every 5 breaths I’d feel like I was suffocating in my balaclava and have to pull it down…and then would immediately feel so slashed and torn by wind that I’d take a quick breath and pull it right back up.
Besides that, I was so crazy-layered that I was actually hot for the first 2 hours of the climb: 2 pairs of long underwear, 1 pair fleece leggings, rain pants, 4 shirts, down coat, Gore-tex shell. The only thing that was not well cared-for were my fingers since my ski gloves are circa 1995. Somewhere around 18,500 ft. a layer of frost forms on everything. It’s almost instantaneous – you look down and suddenly you resemble the kid in the Campbell’s Soup commercial who’s been engulfed by a snowman, only there’s no warm soup on the summit, trust me. I had one of those self-heating warmers in each glove which clearly do not work since they weren’t even warm enough to melt the snow on my gloves. (I do NOT understand why they say not to put them directly onto skin. I would have cut open my hand and inserted the thing inside if I had thought it would warm up my fingers.)
I wish I could have taken a picture. It was a clear night – behind us we could see the lights from the city of Moshi 17,000 feet away at the base of the mountain. Ahead of us we saw a small intermittent line of headlamps like a string of dying Christmas bulbs from those who had trekked out ahead. Up we hiked, battling the elements in the inky blackness. From base camp on, more than anything, it is a mental game.
At about the 5-hour mark, just when you start thinking that even though you are now less than 2 hours from the summit you’re so miserable you almost don’t care if you reach the summit, the sun comes up. For us it was accompanied by – surprise! – clouds, so it was more of a bright milky aura than the sun, but it was light. And then I heard some people ahead of us cheer and I thought, “if they are at the summit, and they are close enough that I can hear them cheer, I can make it to the summit.”
Well they weren’t at the summit. They were at Stella Point, the lower point on the summit ridge and still an hour’s hike from Uhuru Peak, our ultimate goal. But again, at this point you are playing mental games with yourself. If I had known then that I was still 2 hours from Uhuru Peak, I shudder to think of how dejected I would have felt. But I didn’t know, and so I kept walking. Shuffling actually, like my grandpa used to, one or two deep, desperate breaths for every miniature half step I took. And as we got higher, the sky got brighter and the clouds disappeared, and then you can see it. You can see a sign in the distance, and a tiny cluster of people who reached it before you. And as those people turn and pass you on their way back down the mountain they smile encouragingly and say “You’re almost there. You’re almost there.”
And then I was there. And I cried, because what else was I going to do?
But then I figured I should stop before my tears froze.