Mount Kilimanjaro: Summit Day!
All photos for this post are at the very bottom. There was no appropriate place to add them in, and I apologize if you’re not a fan of the wall of text, but it seemed like the most logical way to structure this very long, physically and emotionally draining (both then and now) post.
Titling this post so bluntly is both exciting and scary. And that accurately describes my feelings about summit day when we got started, so it is very appropriate. I also felt like the best header photo of this would be from the plane window when we flew from Nairobi to Kilimanjaro airport. We never reached a flying altitude higher than the mountain itself, which is 19,341 feet (or 5895 m) above sea level. That’s high/tall/big/scary, whatever you want to call it.
So I left off with saying we had an early dinner on Friday evening and our guides told us when they’d be waking us up, what to dress ourselves in, and what we’d be eating before leaving at midnight on Saturday. The lights were out in our bunk around 7:30/7:45 that evening, but then the Germans (Swiss) came in a little later than us and lights were on and off and they were rustling around going to bed. So maybe all 6 of us in our bunk room (Me, Zoe, Karlie, Lisa, Greg, and Mark) slept two hours-ish? If even that! Also, Mark and Greg were not snorers but some of those Swiss dudes were, insert judgey face here. At 11:15 Jimmy came in and flicked on the lights (Entschuldigung, Germans! It goes both ways, shrug) and started setting up hot water and plates of very plain shortbread cookies for us to munch on as our pre-climb snack.
When Jimmy came in, I think most of us were awake anyway and started to put on our layers. Rashid had told us, 4 layers on top, 3 on bottom! I thought that was nuts but I am glad that I listened. How do you wear three pairs of pants, you ask? I wore my warmest merino wool baselayer, hiking pants, and rain pants that I borrowed from my friend’s husband. He wore them to hike the Appalachian Trail and told me “It’s our own sisterhood of the traveling pants!”. And that will crack me up for the rest of my life. I think a few people wore lined ski/snowboard pants and base layers and were comfortable, basically, we all needed a wind and water proof top layer and warmth close to the body. There were no trees at that elevation, obviously, and there was a lot of wind. Four layers on top for me was baselayer top (I’ll link all of these in a later post because I was so comfy with everything I bought and not cold at all), fleece zip up, lightweight down jacket, wind/waterproof rain jacket. We also all had to have: a winter hat, sunglasses, ski gloves or mittens, headlamp with extra batteries, our boots (duh), enough water, a snack, our hiking poles, and the lightest pack we could carry. We had our four guides that day and a few porters with us. The porters, bless them, carried hot water, cookies, ginger tea for our sensitive tummies, A STRETCHER, and oxygen tanks. I will just go ahead and tell you that thankfully, no one needed the last two.
When we started eating, I slowly sipped ginger tea and water and tried very hard to eat cookies but just was not in an eating mood or state. My stomach was feeling unsettled and I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen later on the mountain but I knew that I was going with the entire group and not staying back at the stuffy stone huts!
We got packed up and were outside and ready to go at midnight and started up the mountain. It was completely dark and all you could see were stars and headlamps. And sometimes you didn't know which was which. We walked very pole pole and were walking switchbacks with our headlamps the whole way up, in a line of 12-15 people. We stopped every 15-20 minutes for water breaks and so they could ask how we were doing. Since it was in the middle of the night, everyone was quiet and I don’t know if that much stopping is normal, but probably, because we were hiking from 15,000+ feet that day to 19,341 feet, that is a large elevation gain. And even though we were walking switchbacks (traversing the mountain, if you don’t know what a switchback is) it was still a steep hike and tiring.
Once we started walking my stomach grew more and more unsettled. I hate to be so graphic but I feel like this is information that is part of this journey. Every time we stopped, I felt worse and worse and was looking for a hidden rock to use the bathroom behind, in the dark, but then the feeling passed. It was extremely frustrating for me. I was communicating this to Rashid, our head guide, and they kept giving me hot water to drink, which was somewhat settling. I drink hot water with lemon every morning because it gets things moving so I know why they were doing it. Finally, sometime around 2:30/2:45 am and 17,000+ (thanks to Mark for his watch and for calling out this info every so often) I stopped, threw down my poles, ripped off my gloves and tossed them aside and dropped to my knees and started vomiting. Immediately, I had all four guides plus a porter, holding my hair, rubbing my back, and holding me up so that I didn’t fall or throw up on myself. It was the nicest experience that it could have been in such a situation. Quite honestly, not much came up, but I felt a tiny bit better. Part of me wanted to tell them to go on without me because I felt icky and my stomach was still turbulent, but then I realized I’d be sitting in the dark for a very long time or walking down the mountain with a porter or a guide who also probably wanted to go to the top, and duh, I also wanted to get to the top! I’ve had to give myself many pep talk during a particularly difficult half marathon or full marathon and I had to push myself to keep going. However, this was a very simple pep talk, I pretty much told myself “CLIMB THAT GODDAMN MOUNTAIN.” (thanks, Jack Kerouac)
So, I apologized to everyone because we’d just had a break before I’d stopped us. But my apology seems so silly in hindsight, because I can’t help that I got a tiny bit of altitude sickness, and they’d all stopped a bit ahead of me and were probably also happy for the quick break since the hiking was getting steeper and we were all tired. But Jody said “no, no apologies, this is a team effort!” So I stood up and we all kept going. I was told later that John was also not feeling great at this point and that he quickly passed by me so as not to witness me vomiting because he felt it would have triggered him to do the same. I can sympathize.
After the vomit, I didn’t feel great, but I was drinking more hot water at each break and feeling a wee bit better. I was sighing and making little moaning cat noises of pain or discomfort, because it was impossible to be completely silent considering how I felt. I kept looking above us to see if I could see the top where we would reach Gilman’s Point, the first peak that is a little higher than 18,000 feet. I saw stars and headlamps and they blurred together so that I didn’t know where the sky started and the mountain ended, and I wanted to know. But, I didn’t want to ask anyone where the actual top was because it felt like a kid asking a parent on a road trip “are we there yet?” and I just chose to be surprised.
But we kept walking and gaining elevation. I figured we would eventually be walking on flat land around a crater to get to the last peak once we got to Gilman’s. I don’t know what time it was but at one point, we were doing less traversing and seemed to be flattening out and I stopped looking down at my feet to look outward and saw the faint glow of the sunrise at the horizon line and I almost started crying because I knew it meant it had been many hours and we were close to the Gilman’s point. I tapped whoever was in front of me and pointed with my pole at the horizon and then whoever it was said “you guys, the sun will be coming up soon!” We all perked up a little bit and shortly after that, maybe 30 minutes, we reached Gilman’s Point. Dare I mention that some people thought this was the tip top? I saw the sign and knew it wasn’t, but I repeat that I thought, “hey, this is a dormant volcano, we are walking along the crater, and it will be flat from now on!” Narrator: it was not.
We sat for a bit and had more hot water, ginger tea, and shortbread cookies at Gilman’s Point. Then Rashid announced that we had TWO KILOMETERS until we reached Uhuru Peak, the tippy top that we all wanted to get to. At this point, I thought John was going to die because we all saw his face fall and Karlie was not happy. John thought that was the top and I think he felt as poorly as I did by the time we got to Gilman’s and Karlie was mad that we had another 2 km. I seriously thought to myself, “well, at least it will be flat even though that is far longer than I want to walk right now, but I want to get to the top of this dumb mountain and take a photo with that stupid sign because I didn't work this hard, and feel like shit, and pay all of this money to NOT get to the top.” So on we all went, trudging in a very slow, snow pathway, climbing over slippery rocks at times, in the sun, and with more uphills.
Shortly after Gilman’s they all stopped us to remind us to put on sunglasses. We had all reached toddler status at this point. Just imagine a bunch of pouty, exhausted adults wearing multiple hoods over winter beanies, some of us still in headlamps, giant ski gloves, runny noses galore, we were a sight for sore eyes. Some of us had trouble putting our glasses on and had small hissy fits. I refused to take off my 2 hoods and beanie and just put my sunglasses on over them and tightened the cord and looked like a major dork. I did think about how dumb I would look in any pictures but decided that I did not care. At this point, one of the guides was also carrying my pack, and had been since I vomited because the waist strap was making me feel worse. At one point I questioned if I was really climbing Kilimanjaro if someone else was carrying my pack? The answer is hell yes I was. I don’t know why that thought ever crossed my mind, I wasn’t carried up the mountain on a litter like some princess, I used my own legs. But again, bless those mountain guides and porters, we were a hopeless bunch without them.
From Gilman’s, we walked to Stella’s Point, a completely pointless “point” and source of more angst from some of us who thought it was the final peak (not me). I had seen enough photos of the highest point, Uhuru Peak, to know that it didn't look like the same and as we approached it I knew we had farther to walk. I looked off to the side and saw the last point way in the distance and it was FAR. I kept my mouth shut because I didn’t want to announce how far it was but Rashid let us stop briefly at Stella’s and then pointed at the sign for Uhuru Peak in the distance, and up an incline. I think some of us were ready to cry. I was, but thanks to adrenaline I knew that I had it in me to move very slowly toward the final peak, I mean, we’d made it that far, I would drag myself to the last point if I had to, seeing it in the distance was the only motivation I needed at that point.
The final trudge from Stella’s to Uhuru Peak was slow, Rashid was taking the slowest steps forward and looking back with each step to say something to encourage us. Some people were saying how cold they were, the sun was bright, it was windy, we were practically dragging our poles at that point. Zoe was in front of me and I heard her whimper and wave her poles in an annoyed and exasperated manner and I sped up just enough to get beside her and look and say in the most unsure voice ever “we are so close and we can do it” and I was almost crying when I said it because I was so tired and unsure of whether I actually believed it myself. It seems so ridiculous to say how tired we were, this was not Everest, but it was difficult!
The very last push from Stella’s to Uhuru was 600 feet more in elevation, but it was almost 7 am, the sun was completely out, and we were so tired. It was the most difficult part. When we finally got to the very top and could stop, we all threw our poles down and hugged and cried and were so jubilant. I tear up thinking about it now. It isn’t the world’s tallest mountain and it isn’t like I birthed a child or solved some extremely difficult problem, but it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. More difficult than a marathon, for sure. We reached the peak at 7:15 am after starting at midnight. I’d walked all night and I had barely eaten anything at all the night before, I’d had little to no sleep, and I’d been walking up a mountain at a very high elevation for 7 hours and 15 minutes.
We took our photos, probably over 100 total between all of the phones and the people taking them. We spent a little time taking photos of the top of the mountain from all angles because there are glaciers up there! And we were on the rooftop of Africa and really so excited to have all made it, despite the fact that some of us felt really sick. We spent about 20-30 minutes up there and then were pretty much like, okay, let’s get the hell out of here and get back to camp for more oxygen. We all had headaches and were tired and it wasn’t like some helicopter was coming to get us, we had to come down the same way we got up there.
I thought about adding the descent back to camp to this post, but I really think that was so easy in comparison that I’ll write about it with the descent day post. I also have two entertaining stories from the descent from Uhuru back down to Kibo camp so I realized they will liven up the descent. Plus, this post is long enough and it was mentally and emotionally draining to write. It is the best thing I’ve ever done with a really cool group of likeminded individuals and I am so happy I have these memories of the journey up that mountain with them. They are memories and experiences I will never forget.