Our Forth Evening
I had hoped to spend my time at camp reading my book and generally enjoying the environment, but I was too cold and uncomfortable for any of that. I spent most of my time huddled in my sleeping bag listening to podcasts and trying to sleep. On our forth night at camp, I wore two pairs of socks, four pairs of pants, eight layers on top (including my rain jacket…, anything to trap some body heat), a hat, thick gloves and hand warmers. Wearing all of those layers, I tucked myself into my sleeping bag rated -30 along with a sleeping bag liner which was supposed to add another 10 degrees of warmth, and I also tossed in a hot water bottle near my feet. I still felt chilled - and trapped underneath all of those layers. My lungs gasping in the thin air. I couldn’t wait to get to the summit so I could then head back down to warmer temps where the air was thick and lush with oxygen.
Simba woke us has he did every morning with a cheerful “Jambo” and some hot coffee. We shivered as we changed, packed, and tried to eat some breakfast. We took our Dimox. After our health check (my pulse once again absent), we headed for base camp. It was just a few hours up to BARAFU CAMP (15,331 ft / 4,673 m), also known as base camp for those of us on the Lemosho, Machame, or Umbwe trails. Hiking slow and steady, we arrived around 1 pm. Weather was great most of the way and then just before we got into camp it started to hail and the fog rolled in, surrounding us once more.
After lunch we each took our ‘body wipe showers’ with GoodWipes and quickly changed into warmer clothing, which basically meant putting on every bit of clothing we brought. We huddled in the tent trying to keep warm, crunching on Pepto tablets to keep our tummies calm, and drinking loads of water to help us with the high altitude effects. I was trying not to think too much about what was about to happen in a few hours.
At about 6:30pm we got up again for dinner, it was so cold we could see our breath and the tent had become icy on the outside. The zipper was frozen and hard to maneuver. Taking a trip to the toilet tent was extra tough in the cold, with so many layers to peel back and chattering teeth. Every little thing we did tired us out. Just getting in and out of the tent caused a shortness of breath. We struggled, with zero appetites, to eat dinner. The soups were always my favorite, flavorful and warm but it was hard to get much more than that down.
Our guides Steven and Eli came in to check on us. Their advice was to not worry about the mountain. Hakuna Matata. Polé Polé. Simba wished us a good night with his usual lala salama, my favorite Swahili phrase.
After that we got into our tent, fired up our hand warmers and tried our best to rest.
Simba woke us at 11pm for the final summit climb. Shivering, we peeled off some layers, prepared our packs, and tried again to eat. By 12:15 am we were on our way. The other hiker’s headlamps glowed all the way up the trail in front of us as far as we could see, switch-backing out of sight. The terrain was mostly loose gravel but occasionally larger chunks of shale and big wobbly rocks – in other words, easy to slip in the darkness. It got steep quickly and I began to moan in discomfort. I warned everyone that I’d be vocal but not to worry about my noises. I was just uncomfortable with thin air but otherwise okay.
The steep switch-backs seemed endless and the higher we got the colder it became. I felt a little woozy and was thankful I had hiking poles to keep me balanced. Steven kept us at a fast pace, whenever we met up with another group in front of us, we’d veer off trail and sprint ahead to pass them. Each time we did this I felt like I was going to die. Joel could hear the discomfort in my voice, I couldn’t even form words, my lungs screamed. We did not any breaks until about 4am. Eli had me sit down between a couple of boulders to shield us from the wind and I couldn’t help but cry. I just needed to let it out for a moment. Two minutes later we were back on the trail. I got into meditative state, focusing my mind on my breath and putting one foot in front of the other, each step a little triumph. I thought about my friends, my family, and my colleagues, I thought “do it for them, keep moving”. Honestly though, I never had any intention of doing otherwise.
At one point Eli started to seem a little woozy and he lost the trail in the darkness. We were off trail for maybe 30 minutes or so, it felt like a long time but I was never too worried. Eventually I started seeing trash on the ground amongst the ice, fallen handwarmers and juice boxes, and I knew we had found the trail. Eli stopped to check our eyes for signs of altitude sickness, but we were fine. On we went.
Then suddenly we were somehow at Stella Point, which is the last landmark before the summit. As we crested the ridge the wind hit us hard. It was gusting up there with no place to hide and rest, so we didn’t stop. We were close to the summit now.
The terrain started to change. There was more snow and penitents had formed. I’d never seen anything like them. They were about knee high in places. The air was so thin we had to stop every couple of steps to catch our breath. The air on the summit has 50 percent less oxygen than at sea level. We tried to cover our faces to shield them from the bitting wind but immediately started to suffocate, unable to get enough oxygen through the fabrics covering our faces, we peeled it back off quickly. Steven, impatiently hurried us along. Somewhere along the way we lost Eli and only later learned that he got sick from the altitude and decided not to continue to the summit with us. We pushed on as the sun edged towards the horizon.
We got to the summit at about 6:20am, just as another small group was finishing their photos. It was freezing cold. I couldn’t feel my fingertips. We quickly handed Joel’s phone to Steven so he could take our picture at the famous summit sign just as the sun came into view. It was incredibly beautiful up there. About five years ago when hiking was new to me, I never would have believed that I’d hike it to the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro. Yet here I was at Uhuru Peak (19,341 ft / 5,895 m).
Though we would have liked to linger longer, we had to start heading down. Up there the air is so thin you can only safely stay up there for about 30 minutes. It was very steep all the way back to base camp. Some points felt much like running down a steep sand dune, feet sinking into the sand.
As we got back into Barafu camp the crew handed us welcome drinks and sang us a song. The moment felt so special and surreal. We had lunch and rested for a bit before hiking another six hours or so to MWEKA CAMP (10,402 ft / 3,110 m), our camp for the night. By the end of that incredibly long day, we were beyond exhausted. We hiked a total of 14 hours that day.
But before sleep, we counted out tip money for each of the porters and guides who made it all possible for us. We had it ready for them in the morning, our last morning together. After a breakfast of fries (we ate lot of fries on this hike), we packed and gathered for our final day on the trail which began with another song from our team and words of thanks from us. We never could have done it without them.