I woke up at 11 pm with a dry and sore throat, but feeling very positive and ready for the summit climb. My thermometer said -5 C, but it felt colder. We had some tea and biscuits at the dinner tent. Nobody said much at the table. I suppose everyone felt a mix of excitement and nervousness.
At 12:20 am, the porters sang us a song in Swahili, and we were off. The sky was pitch dark, but not many stars were visible. The half moon was glowing brightly in the sky. The air was calm, with not a hint of wind. The hail and freezing rain had stopped. The scree below our feet felt solid to walk on from the freezing temperature.
The team lined up in single file and followed the lead guide. For the 11 climbers, we had one lead guide, and 4 assistant guides. One of the assistant guides stayed in the back of the line, and the other 3 spread themselves out to ensure all the climbers are together.
Everyone has different expectations of themselves. I expected that I will go slow, carrying my own load, and eventually make the summit. So even though my backpack was heavy, I strapped it on and began the hike. I have always believed that if you want to play the game, then you have to be able to carry your own toys.
In a single file, I was right behind Cliff. The LED bulbs from my headlamp illuminated the ground in front of me, and the back of Cliff’s legs. He was wearing his gators, making his calves look so skinny. That amused me for a long minute.
The air was so thin, every step required a breath. I looked up the mountain, but could not make out the peak. I could see other teams ahead of us, forming a line with the bright dots of their headlamps, slowly snaking up the hill. The guides start singing in a soft, low voice in Swahili. Their soothing voices distracted me from wondering if I was sane for signing up for this.
I sucked on zinc lozenges to sooth my sore throat. The air was very dry and cold, irritating my airway as I breathed. The lemon flavored lozenges tasted awful. I swore to never take another lozenge again for the rest of my life.
In 40 minutes, we stopped for a quick break. I took a few sips of water from my drinking tube, and made sure I blew the water back into the pouch afterwards to prevent the tube from freezing. The team reshuffled a bit to ensure an even pace. Cliff seemed to be doing fine. No one was really talking, as if we were all deep in thought.
At 2 am, the wind picked up a little. My fingers were so cold, I couldn’t bring myself to take off my gloves and use my camera. It was -5 C. We were on a series of switchbacks, winding up the mountain.
I thought it was unbelievable that I was climbing Kilimanjaro. Everything seemed surreal, like a vivid dream. Two years ago, I didn’t even know where Kilimanjaro was. My friend, Brandi, who climbed it showed me her slide show of the climb. It took very little convincing for me to sign up for it.
I synchronized my breathing to each step, going slowly up the hill, feeling positive and focused.
Every 30 to 40 minutes, we would stop for a few minutes for snacks and water. A few people started complaining that the pace was too slow and the breaks too often. Around 4 am, as we were at the half way point between Kibo Hut and Gilman’s Point, someone made a decision to split up the team, so those who want to go faster could go up ahead first.
One’s mental capacity really diminishes with the lack of oxygen. I was aware of my own thoughts and decisions, but I really had little comprehension of other things going on around me. I remember thinking that splitting up the team was a bad idea, because this climb is a team effort. The split irritated me greatly. But I was one of the slower ones, and I really had no mental capacity to figure out what else to do.
The faster team went up ahead. I grumbled a little under my breath. I was really starting to feel the effect of my 22-lb backpack and the inefficiencies of my lungs. An assistant guide offered to take my backpack for me, but I refused politely. I said I was doing fine, and I’ll ask for help when I need it. I lied. I wasn’t doing fine, and I will not ask for help when I need it.
The slower team pushed on, at a pace even slower than earlier. The distance between the two halves of the team grew bigger and bigger. The temperature dropped to -6 C, but I felt colder than ever. It felt like my internal furnace was turned off, and I ran out of positive energy. I felt cold and exhausted.
An assistant guide put his hand on my backpack, gesturing that he would take it for me. I said no, I’m fine. Another guide said I should let him take my pack, because we’re only half way up the mountain and I looked tired. I was annoyed that they could tell I was struggling. But can’t they tell I was determined to carry my own load? I had no energy to preach to the guides about carrying my own toys. Instead, I just lied some more. No, I’m not tired. Yes, I can carry my own pack.
As we continued up the switchback, I forced myself to think about positive things and good memories. I thought about my dog, Sam, and how he loves putting his head on my laptop keyboard when he wants attention. I thought about my friend, Jacqueline, and how she laughs so hard sometimes she couldn’t catch her breath. I thought about how grandma will be proud of me when I tell her that I reached the summit.
I turned my attention to encouraging my team. “Come on, you can do it!” “You’re doing great!” “We’re all going to make it!” I spoke as if I was chasing away the demons in my own head.
Around 6 am, the sky finally showed a sliver of light on the Kenya side of the horizon. The sliver turned pink and purple, and finally brightened up with the sun. As the sun crept over the horizon, the coldest and darkest hour of the hike was finally over. I sat on a rock, and enjoyed the warmth of the sun for a few minutes. It was almost 7 am when the sun was fully up in the sky. It took us another hour to reach Gilman’s Point, where the faster team was waiting for us.
At Gilman’s, the guides served us hot tea from a thermos. I wrapped my cold fingers around the mug, and drank the best tasting tea in the world. It warmed my core.
Two of the team members decided to turn back to Kibo Hut at this point. The team doctor turned to me and said, “you are going down with them, right?” He wasn’t giving a direct order, but he wasn’t really asking for my opinion either. “No way, I’m going up to Uhuru!”, I replied. He didn’t seem convinced. He reminded me that it’s another 500 ft in elevation gain and we’re only staying up on the summit for a few minutes, as if to discourage me from going. I didn’t really understand why he thought I should turn back. Regardless, I was determined to go up to the summit. He asked to carry my backpack for me, and I almost lost my cool. Damn it, why does everyone want to carry my backpack? I refused, and tightened the hip belt a little more around myself.
The last 500 ft of elevation gain was where the air was the thinnest. At this elevation, we were only getting about 50% of the oxygen compared to at sea level. The gradual climb left me breathless. I stopped quite a few times to lean on my hiking poles and wait for my breath to return. A guide offered again to take my backpack. This time, I looked him straight in the eyes, and pleaded with frustration, “Please, just let me carry my own backpack! If I’m tired, I’ll ask for help.” I’m an Aries–impulsive, single minded and very stubborn. I felt like my backpack has somehow become a symbol of my ability to climb this mountain. If anyone was to take it away, I would have failed, then I might as well pack up and go home now.
At about 9:30 am, Cliff and I finally reached the wooden sign that said “Uhuru Peak”, at 19,340 ft above sea level. This was the highest any of us on the team has ever been. Reaching the summit was quite anti-climatic. There was no contemplation of the meaning of life, no taking in the view, and no sudden enlightenment of any philosophy. We congratulated each other with hugs and high fives. Then we were rushed to take some photographs of various banners we brought, and a few team photos, and were herded to go back down the hill as soon as possible.
In the dense fog, we made our way down the scree slope that has now thawed out. It was like walking down a slope with deep, dry snow. It took only about 1 1/2 hr to return to Kibo Hut.
Upon reaching the camp site, we had been hiking for almost 11 hours already. But the day was not over yet! We ate a quick lunch, and started heading down to the next camp site at Horombo. It was another 3 hours of hiking down a gentle slope. By the time we reached Horombo, I was exhausted from the 14-hour hike. I missed dinner and fell asleep without inflating my Thermarest.
Hiking in darkness:
The sun finally came up:
Finally reached the peak:
Looking down into the volcanic crater: