All of Day 6 is spent with one word hanging in the air – “summit.” We only had a short 2-3 hour walk to save our energy for the summit. We had the whole afternoon to rest in order to save our energy for the summit. We would have to repack our bags for the summit. All the talk about the summit brought our collective nerves to a fever pitch.
What was worse, the easy 2-3 hour walk they promised us was actually really difficult. It was a long slow slope, crowded with other climbers for the first time, and less than beautiful. We were done with the climb soon enough and made it to the Barafu base camp.
People are taught that if you don’t have anything nice to say, then say nothing at all. Barafu Camp is a shit hole. The whole camp is on a very steep slope that probably covers about 100 vertical meters so even when you make it to camp, you still have to climb to the top for registration. The camp floor is comprised of loose shale that makes it hard to walk and the whole camp is dirty. I don’t know if it is porters or tourists but people seem to be given free reign to litter all over the camp. It was nothing like the picturesque camps we had been accustomed to.
I spent the afternoon packing my backpack to get ready for the summit climb. It turns out that my backpack that I have been using for a 6 month trip around the world was just a hair smaller than everyone else’s day packs (my day pack was a small drawstring backpack, always stuffed to the brim). I refit the big backpack for the summit climb and took a nap. We had an early quiet dinner, dreading the night’s climb. Helen told us then that she would not be joining us. Lucky her.
We went back to sleep, or tried to. I probably only got a couple hours of sleep before they woke us up at 11 to start the climb.
Day 7 – Summit Day
We woke at 11PM and were in the mess tent by 11:30, ready to go. We ate a final meal of porridge (what else?) and waited for the porters to boil enough water to fill all 5 of our water bottles with water that would keep warm during the climb. Yes 5. From 9, we were down to 5 and we were determined to make it up. Jen, Geetha, Richard, Richard, and myself.
If you’re unfamiliar with what summit day on Kilimanjaro entails, let me enlighten you on what we willingly signed up for. We would start at 4,600 meters and climb to 5,895 meters – nearly 1,300 meters of vertical climb. We would start at midnight, hoping to reach Stella Point, at 5,700 meters by sunrise at 6AM. Then, we would have another hour walk in sunlight around the crater rim to Uhuru Peak, the tippy top of the mountain. The whole night is below freezing cold so I had to rent a down jacket from the hiking company, just for the occasion. Let’s review: 1,300 meter climb, middle of the night, freezing cold, at altitude, no sleep. We called it vacation.
To make matters worse, our guides told us that they were a respectable company and would not physically push us up the mountain, but we would see others doing that. We had heard horror stories that it was perfectly normal to make it to the top, feeling miserable, throwing up, and then not remember a thing about the experience for whatever altitude related reason, looking back on your pictures as a chilly reminder that you made it.
We set off at about 12:30AM, a little late, but not our faults – we were waiting for the water. We thought we would be going “pole-pole” but Simon had us going at a faster than usual shuffle. Simon led and Nelson and Freddy, a temporarily promoted porter, took up the rear. We zoomed past the “High Barafu” camp at 4,800 meters and passed a few other groups of walkers going at a much more appropriate pace. One hour in and I had already lost all of my adrenaline rush. I tried distracting myself by naming states, capitals, Oscar winners, places I’d been on my trip so far, but it was useless. My mind kept repeating the words “cold” “cold” “cold.” Jen, who had been one of the strongest and most positive people on the whole trip, faltered first. She slowed down and God bless her. The pace was really taking the wind out of me. I hadn’t noticed before the thinner air, but up here, I was finding myself gasping for breath. We took our first break, and took a picture, mostly to prove we were stupid enough try this.
Soon we were shuffling pass all sorts of sick people. One girl was chugging an energy drink, surely a sign of desperation early on, we passed many people just wiped out and exhausted, gasping on the side of the path. People were wretching and throwing up all around us in the darkness. Scariest of all, we passed two porters who were sprinting down the scree carrying a possibly unconscious man from higher up. And it was only 2:30. We still had a long night to go.
Soon after, I began to start feeling a little sick, but our head guide Simon started feeling dizzy. Nelson took over the lead, going at a proper slow pace, and as we would climb, Freddy took care of Simon, always 10 meters behind us. It was terrifying to watch our guide, who had done this 100 times, succumb to the altitude. No one was safe.
Least of all me. Probably around 3:30AM at 5,300 meters, it was my turn. Since I am a self-proclaimed “good vomiter” I excused myself to the side of the path, purged and moved on. Since I was the first to get sick and the porters expect everyone to get sick, Freddy took my backpack. I instantly felt better, but something else was making it harder to walk. The rain pants that I had bought in the market in Arusha were big enough over a couple of layers, but not over everything I was wearing for warmth on summit day and my pants began to fall down. It was not a dignified moment in my life, but I had to stop, and the porters, God bless the porters, insisted on helping me readjust my pants. A new low for sure, but I was back in tip top shape.
The next hour was the coldest. The winds had picked up. All of us were convinced our toes, our fingers, or all of our extremities had turned blue from frostbite. My hands had fortunately frozen around my poles so I was forced to keep using them. We were just going higher and higher, to colder and colder, with less and less air. The landscape had changed from a rocky slope, to just a scree path of loose rocks that offered no traction.
Finally, at about 5:30AM, the sky started to change colors. We were about 100 meters from Stella Point and this was just the inspiration we needed. The reds and orange lit up our path so we were no longer walking by the narrow beams of our head lamps. On the final push up, the group surged ahead, I threw up bile dyed pink from pepto bismol, and our head guide Simon continued to languish even further behind. Honest to God, I was so driven to make it up the mountain I was walking and heaving at the same time. I had to make it up. I was so close. Freddy asked, “Are you okay?” to which I responded, ”I’m walking, aren’t I?” I would not show weakness.
Miraculously, we made it to Stella Point with perfect timing. We had about 2 minutes to catch our breath and look at the dawn around us. I had never seen a sunrise so complete. It was a whole rainbow. And then the sun broke. No words or pictures can do Stella Point at sunrise justice. It was a deeply personal experience, profound in every sense of the word. I’m sure the beauty is amplified by the immense accomplishment of making it up the hill and the private treasure of knowing that you have to work for the view, but it’s great on it’s own merits too. The sun was so orange, vermilion even, that it bathed everything in this other world light. There was pure white snow and glaciers all around, reflecting the light in beautiful ways. We then had the pleasure of walking along the crater rim to Uhuru Peak.
This was not the most fun hour of my life. I still felt sick to my stomach and I threw up once more, but it was incredibly beautiful. There were hues of pink and purple and orange glistening off the massive glaciers we had seen from below for so long. The whole walk is like walking on an alien planet. It’s beautiful and mesmerizing. It’s the closest I’ve ever felt to seeing a place that looks like what I imagine heaven to be like. Extraordinary colors, fluffy clouds, a feeling of serenity, pride, accomplishment. And then we made it the peak. It’s not more beautiful than any rest of the walk, but it’s the top and we fucking made it. All 5 of us. Our official time was 7:15AM. We were proud of ourselves and spent about 15 minutes rejoicing and taking pictures.
Then began the walk down. I took up the rear as I shuffled the slowest going down; even in peak condition I wasn’t fast at downhill. I took the time by myself to reflect on a lot of things and there aren’t many better places to do it. I had achieved something physically I wouldn’t have been able to do a year ago. I had put a long-term goal into action. I was seeing a dying planet. I was living a dream, doing what others on my trip could not, and it was all worth it.
Simon had turned back at Stella Point and the two Richards and Nelson powered ahead, both feeling fine and making it back to camp in no time. Jen, Geetha, and I, all of us kind of poky on the downhills (but myself especially), we continued down with Freddy. Going up the mountain you walk mostly on solid rock, but on the descent you plow down through the scree, almost skiing your way down. It’s basically a controlled slide and none of us were very good at it. We were slow and I was unsteady. After about 30 minutes, we could see our camp in the distance. It looked like it was years away and built for an ant colony. It was only on the way down that we could really tell how far up we had gone in such a short time. We barreled on downwards and all in all it took about 3 hours.
I was exhausted, sick, and in physical pain. I forced myself to eat a couple pieces of toast before breakfast and then I took a luxurious 45 minute long nap. Then I had to wake up, repack all of my bags and get ready for the day’s walk! It was one of the cruelest ways to set off on the descent! 45 minutes was not enough sleep!
The way down from Barafu Camp to Millenium Hut was only a hour and a half walk, but I’m not sure I could have taken a step farther. Each step on the way down was torture. I had to be the person who kept asking to take breaks, but I was just so beat down and exhausted. When we got to camp, I finally collapsed.
We had the whole afternoon in front of us and for the first time we were at a low elevation with nice oxygen rich air, it was a little warmer, and we had nothing to do. We finally busted out that deck of cards we had been talking about since Day 1. It felt really nice to finally relax with the group, having taken the elephant out of the room. That night, I had one of the best night’s of sleep I’ve had on my trip.
When we woke up, we knew it was our last day on the mountain. Here is a list of things that I missed about life off the mountain:
Beds with mattresses
Dinners without soup
A HOT SHOWER
Footwear Besides Hiking Boots
But we still had another day of hiking. And what we didn’t know was that it was 16 miles, downhill, and the guides wanted to get the fuck out too. This meant we were going fast. The landscape changed quickly from the light forest of our camp to the thick rainforest. It was very scenic, with lots of beautiful flowers and we even saw a monkey, but usually we were going to fast to take any of it in. Part of me couldn’t keep up the pace. I was still drained from the day before. But the other part of me just kept repeating the word “shower” and I managed to keep going down.
I could comment on how you could tell the path was more touristed because of the bridges, and I could comment on a whole bunch of different things, but I’ll be honest, when I look back on the experience, I won’t even think about remembering the way down. It felt trivial even at the time. It’s kind of obvious that once you go up, you have to come down, but that’s not part of the experience. My trip was about going up and the descent, even as I was doing it, just seemed like an annoyance, filler before my hard-earned shower.
We finally made it to the bottom, had a quick picnic lunch, and then boarded the bus for the drive back to our hotel. When we arrived, we had a great reunion with our fallen soldiers and dinner that night was a lot of fun as we heard their horror stories of coming down the mountain and they heard ours about going to the top.
My advice to anyone wanting to climb Kilimanjaro is the following:
1) There is no training worth doing except going to altitude. You can be out of shape and make it to the top or you can be in shape and fail. It’s the altitude that will get you.
2) Leave that pair of shorts and flip-flops down the mountain. Packing lists say you’ll want them but it was never warm enough. Never.
3) Drug up. It seemed like we were a walking pharmacy and everyone was thankful for that.
4) Prepare yourself mentally for the cold. It’s cold every night, and many of the days.
5) You’ll be fine… unless of course you won’t. But that’s part of the fun!
In the end, it comes down to the people. The African Walking Company was great. I need to say thank you to all of the porters, especially Freddy, who are the only reason I made it to the top. And of course, my 8 fellow mzungus, I will never forget the dirty and cold hours we spent chronicling and comparing everyone’s urination schedules. That’s friendship.