Africa blog part 2: Kilimanjaro Climb -- Day 5 & 6 - Summit Attempt
Day 6: High Camp to the Summit and then Mweka Camp (10,500’)
Summit time: 7 hrs, Elevation change: 1300 M
Estimated distance: 5km, Final elevation: 5895 M
Descent time: 5 hrs, Elevation change: -2800M
Estimated distance: 12km, Final elevation: 3100 M
We will start trekking early before sunrise (1-2 am) as the walk today will take 10-14 hours. We will avoid the mist that sets in later in the day; the scree and snow will still be safely frozen. The 1,100-meter (3,600’) ascent in just over 3 km (1.86 miles) will take us about 6-8 hours. After a brief stay at the summit of the highest point in Africa, Uhuru Peak, at over 5,898 meters (19,340'), we descend via the Barafu Route roughly 2,500 meters (8,200’) in 12 km (7.44 miles) in about 4-7 hours to Mweka Camp.
Donovan woke me up sometime around 11pm, New Years Eve. Between dinner and the time he woke me up, I had barely slept a wink. It had only been a few hours since dinner, but I had so many things on my mind, so I tossed and turned for quite a while. I slept with all of my summit clothes on because I knew that waking up at 11...I would be so tired, and surely, would take forever to get ready.
I reached for my headlamp, turned it on to gather my things while trying not to wake Sean up. I was going to be part of the "slow" group, whose ascent was to begin at 11pm, New Years Eve, Dec 31, 2005. Sean was part of the main group, whose ascent was to begin at midnight, New Years Day, Jan 1, 2006.
I put on my boots then clumsily stumbled out of my tent, in what felt like an altered dream state, dragged my pack and trekking poles out. I walked a few feet away from the tent, turned my headlamp off, pulled my pants down, squatted, and took a piss underneath a blanket of stars, so many that I could not even recognize one constellation. I put my pack on, held on to my trekking poles, and proceeded to do the upward hike to the meals tent, where we were to have biscuits and tea. The hike to the meals tent alone was hard enough to do during the day, but to do it in the middle of night, no moon to guide you, shattered rocks everywhere, fatigued as hell...surely, it seemed like it would be disasterous.
Fuck, it was cold!!! The slow group gathered in the meals tent. The group consisted of me, Daisy, Cindy, Madhu, Teresa, Sara, Donovan (but he's not slow), and assistant guides of Ulrich, Godlisten, and Emmanuel. Donovan briefed us a bit on how things would go, if someone were to descend and whatnot. We were all fatigued. Still, many thoughts in my head. Some..."I can't believe this is the summit push", "I can't believe I made it this far!", "Oh my god, what the hell did I get myself in to?"
Because of my bout with altitude sickness on night 3, I decided that I would be happy to make it to 17,000 feet. We were ascending about 3,600 feet in the summit push alone, and every foot gained in altitude, the farther up you go, seems to have more of an effect on your body. So I set my expectations low so that I wouldn't be disappointed. And if I felt fine at 17,000, then I would push on and see how far I'd end up. But not risk my life at the same time. If I were 100 feet from the summit and had to descend because of altitude sickness, I would...
I was wearing everything I owned and was loaned to me except for a pair of warm weather pants (ie. day 1 pants) and my rain jacket. Everything.
It was time to start our summit attempt. Ulrich lead the group, Emmanuel stayed in the middle, and Godlisten was the guide at the end of the group.
The hike was difficult. A lot of big steps on rugged terrain, and not knowing whether or not there was a cliff beside the boulder you're using to bring yourself up. It was pitch black except for the headlamps of our group and the stars in the sky. We trusted Ulrich with our lives, to guide us to the right path.
- "What time is it?"
- "Just past midnight"
- "HAPPY NEW YEARS!!!"
Yeah, happy fucking new years. Only an hour on the mountain and my feet were already frozen, my hands already numb. What the hell was I doing to myself?
I carried my pack for over an hour, refused Emmanuel's offer to carry it. I wanted to do this on my own. Then it came to a point where I said screw it, and handed my pack over to Emmanuel. I'd been carrying 25-35 pounds all the way up the mountain thus far. If this is my chance to make it to the top, damn it, I don't need to carry about a third of my own body weight as well. I gave in. So call me a wimp. It was definitely *a lot* easier not having to carry my pack.
We took frequent breaks. I tried to find boulders to huddle by to block the gusting winds that felt like I was in a Category 1 hurricane..okay, well maybe a tropical storm. But regardless, the winds were very strong. It was a bitter cold out and with the wind, it felt somewhere in the negatives. We stopped for water breaks, where Emmanuel would hand me the insulated tube to my camelbak hanging out of my pack. I took sips, then blew air back in the hose to prevent freezing in the hose. With no luck...on a later water break (I want to say not even 2 hours on the mountain), it was frozen. I chewed at the mouthpiece to dislodge ice, to try to suck on it, but there was no luck. My insulated camelbak had frozen. Many more hours at altitude hiking, without water...
We continued on, following Ulrich who was leading the person in front of the person in front of the person in front of me. I followed behind Cindy, following her dark blue Summit backpack cover for a while, while Emmanuel followed behind me. One time, Cindy's backpack cover flew off, but Emmanuel caught it right then and there. Then later it flew off again (the winds), I thought it was a goner because it had flown over a set of boulders, which, who knows what was behind them. Emmanuel ran after it like a crazed man..uh..disappeared, then came back with the backpack cover in hand.
On a break, I looked at my compadres to see Daisy's balaclava freezing with ice crystals where she breathed, Cindy's hair as icicles, frost on Sara's trekking poles, frost on everyone's headlamps. We had only been on the mountain for a few hours...
Looking down, you could see the lights of Moshi as well as the headlamps, mere white dots, of the hikers below. The large group must have been our main group. Looking up, you could see headlamps of hikers far ahead, the enormous amount of stars, and you could somewhat make out where land met sky by where the stars ended. It was a far way up still.
Some hours on the summit attempt, and our main group caught up to our slow group. There were other groups going on the trail as well. There was mass confusion, at least to me, there was. I somehow got separated. Emmanuel was there. Emmanuel said, "Twende" (Let's go) to me. I understood. I had assumed that the rest of my group was ahead. An assumption I made because these were assistant guides leading our small group, and I thought they would know what they were doing.
Emmanuel lead me alone for a while. Then I asked him, "Where is the rest of the group?" He looked at me confused. I repeated myself. He shook his head. He said something to the effect that he didn't understand or speak English. Holy fucking hell. What the hell am I doing..I'm here with an assistant guide? who cannot understand me. What if something happens? What if I feel like I need to descend? How am I going to communicate this with him. I was worried, but pushed on because he was persistently pushing me on.
Emmanuel walked some 10-15 feet in front of me, without a light, and without even turning around to acknowledge where I was. I could have fallen off the moutain, and had I not made a sound, he would not have even known.
He seemed so eager to get up to the summit, he pushed me way to hard, making me hike beyond my capabilities, speedwise, at this altitude. I was worn. Fatigued. Luckily, I know how my body reacts to altitude, so I made sure to stay in tune with my own body's signals. We passed group after group after group after group. I panted heavily. I grew frustrated with this guy. Where the hell was my group???
The higher and higher we got, I grew more worried for my own safety. Because it seemed obvious that Emmanuel did not care about it. I wanted to go down. I was tempted to go down and meet the big group then hike back up. But what? Am I crazy? I'll have to re-hike all the way up! So I devised a plan. Lots of long breaks so that the big group could catch up with me and then I could finally have comfort of mind. Time to put this plan in action...
It seemed like such a lone mountain, just me and Emmanuel. I would stop, hunch over by a boulder that protected me from the wind. Emmanuel understood, "coldie" and "tiredie". Those became my catch phrases to take breaks. It was frustrating because the way to keep myself warm would be to continue moving, but I forced myself to take breaks, saying, "coldie, tiredie". Yes, I was cold, frigid, frozen like a popsicle. I was tired from fatigue, not hiking. I would look down the mountain to look for a large group of headlamps walking one by one. They were way in the distance. Whenever Emmanuel would see any headlamps approaching us, he would force me on, "Twende". Shit. I would hike a little more. Find a convenient boulder to huddle by. This game continued on for hours. The group had not caught up with me. Surely, they were not too far behind?
Emmanuel and I passed a group of about 7 hikers and a guide huddled together by a group of boulders. I heard the guide say that we were at approximately 17,400 ft. Yes!!! I had indeed surpassed my personal goal. No altitude sickness. I will keep on going.
I tried to make a pitstop, but Emmanuel said, "Twende", so I continued for a bit. I looked up to see the line where the stars ended...it didn't look too far, yet it was deceiving because it was in the dark. About 2,000 more feet in elevation to gain. I looked back down the mountain, saw a huge group of headlamps. It *must* be them!!!
I took enough rest breaks for the huge group of headlamps to catch up with me, only to find that I did not recognize anyone. No one...
- "Coldie, tirdie"
I started to become stubborn, so I refused to budge, as cold as I was. I let the large group pass, then continued on for a bit.
What I could see with my headlamps was that everything had a fine layer of frozen ice on it. I was frozen. My trekking poles were frozen. My backpack, that Emmanuel was carrying, was frozen. Every rock I sat on was frozen. The pathway was frozen.
I took another break and just sat down on a rock. Emmanuel continued on, looked back. "Twende". Argh!!! I was wondering when the big group would catch up. I got 'lucky' this pit stop because one of my (Zamo's, really) poles collapsed. I continued to sit on the boulder that was freezing my ass, and fiddled slowly with the pole. Looking down the mountain. Looking up the mountain. Wondering..what kind of a fine mess have I gotten myself in to? A large group of headlamps was just behind us. I fiddled with the pole more to buy time. "Twende" When they neared, I got up and started off slowly. I recognized the colorful purple, yellow, red, and black ski jacket approaching me. I cannot even remember who it was, which guide, but finally, this was the main group. Emmanuel and the guide talked to each other in Swahili. I breathed a hugh sigh of relief.
My spirits were lifted, I felt reenergized. I was ready to tackle this mountain, summit this volcano, get to the highest point in Africa, do my first of the 7 summits, see the sunrise over Africa, see what is left over of the glaciers...I was ready.
I found Sean and hiked with him. As I hiked behind him, I looked at the thermometer, covered in frost, hanging off of his Old Navy backpack. It read about 18 degrees Farenheit. Someone else had a readout of about 15 degrees Farenheit. The winds were still extremely strong, knocking me off balance. It still felt well, well below 0 F.
At a rest point, I took some of his water which had not frozen in the Kilimanjaro bottled water plastic bottle. I was desperate for even a sip because it had been hours since I had had any water.
The sun was starting to rise so that you could look back and see the sky, a dark orange color, fading to black as the horizon hit the land near Moshi. We continued on as the sun was rising. We were getting close to Stella Point (19,000 ft). We started walking up pure scree. Scree -- "Loose rock debris covering a slope". That seems like an understatement. Picture walking on fine rocks at a steep incline where with every step you take up/forward, you fall back down half a step. The scree was torturous with progress. Stella Point, I can see you.
The sun rose, the sky grew more orange. We passed Zamo, with his black solar powered backpack, sitting down on the scree. He looked pretty worn down. We continued up in the scree..one step forward, a half step forced backwards...
And finally, we arrived at Stella Point, 19,000 feet. Extraordinary. We took a group pitstop there to rest, rehydrate, regroup behind a huge boulder. The sun was rising higher, part of the sky turning blue. Inspiring.
Sunrise from Stella Point (19,000 ft) - by Jonathan Lieberman
We only had 340 feet in elevation to gain, a mere step in the 13,000+ feet we had already hiked over the past 5 days. I heard someone say 20 minutes to Uhuru peak. 20 minutes, bah, I better make it now!!!
The 'twenty' minutes turned out to be a Kilimanjaro twenty minutes, which meant about an hour...
We left Stella Point and pushed on to Uhuru Peak. To the right of us was the ancient caldera of Kilimanjaro. Once active, now dormant. A huge crater filled with ash and frozen ice pellets. The trail in front of us, a well worn dirt path to Uhuru Peak flanked by frozen land. And to the left, magnificent glaciers. We had to pass by the Rebmann Glacier, Decken Glacier, and the Southern Icefield to get to Uhuru.
Hikers -- somewhere between Stella Point and the Summit - by Chuck Beauzay
The last push from Stella to Uhuru seemed to take forever, deceivingly close, you think it would be around the corner..yet you reach the corner..to see the pathway continues...It was extremely windy, so windy that the ice pellets were swept from the crater up the peak, and repeatedly hit my exposed face.
We admired the massive glaciers to the left of us, while the morning sun lit them up. It was relatively cloudless for the moment. A fleeting moment on the mountain as the clouds would soon roll in.
Hiking from Stella Point to Uhuru Peak -- Glaciers on the south side of the mountain - by Jonathan Lieberman
Sun rising over the glaciers - By Jonathan Lieberman
Glaciers - By Jonathan Lieberman
Glaciers - By Dillon Mosnot
Clouds rising up Kili, near Uhuru peak - By Dillon Mosnot
On the way from Stella Point to Uhuru Peak, I was overcome with emotion. I teared up. It was uncontrollable. I don't know why. Perhaps it was the achievement, although I had not yet summitted. Maybe it was the beauty of the seeing the sunrise over the glaciers. Or because I honestly did not think I would get this far due to the altitude. The anticipation of getting there, knowing that at this point, there was no turning back, I will make it. I sniffled, smiled from ear to ear behind my thick balaclava, occassionally wiped my eyes with my gloves. I couldn't believe I was almost *there*. No words could describe what I was feeling at that moment...
Hikers on the summit trail - by Jonathan Lieberman
What the roof of Africa looks like -- trail from Stella Point to Uhuru Peak
We rounded a corner, climbed higher, and was finally able to see the famous wooden sign atop Uhuru Peak. It was obvious that we weren't the first to make it. I was surprised to see as many people there as I did, crowded around the sign. But it made sense as it was New Years day. To summit New Years day would be popular.
And within minutes, we were there, at the roof of Africa. Unbelievable. We all exchanged hugs, wiped the tears of joy. And as my friends were celebrating the turn of New Years day back home, clinking champagne glasses, here I was, half way around the world *at* the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro at about the same time, experiencing a New Years that I will never forget...
Me and Sean at the summit sign, celebrating our 5 year anniversary together, to the day
The BnA gang at the summit - Cindy, Emmanuel, Megan, Freddy, Sherry, David, Mary, Tracy, Court, Sean, me, Donovan, Soyan, Dillon, Lara, someone with a beer, Alexa and Brian kneeling
Silhouette of lots of people at the summit
Me, Emmanuel, Brian, and other unidentifiable frozen people at the summit
Icicle growing from the bottom of Sean's balaclava
View of Mawenzi peak from Uhuru