Conquering Kilimanjaro (Day 6: Summit Night, part II)

The sun rising over Mount Kilimanjaro

Distance: 12 km
(from the summit to Mweka Camp)
Date: Feb. 2, 2018

I read the yellow words carved out of its wooden planks: “CONGRATULATIONS, you are now at Uhuru Peak… Africa’s highest point …” I am speechless and, surprisingly, emotionless. Time slows down and everything but the sign becomes a blur as I stare at it in disbelief. The sounds from my group begin to muffle, as if being underwater, as I become lost in my thoughts. Wow … we did it … we actually did it. This all seems so surreal. I slowly turn to Sieu, who I can easily spot by his bright orange Arc’teryx parka. He is hugging Paul, one of the guides who had kept a close eye on him during the hike. I look around in the dim light of the early morning to see the silhouettes of my group celebrating this tremendous accomplishment. Time suddenly warps back to normal speed as these thoughts are interrupted by Albert telling our group to move quickly so that we can get a picture in front of the sign. We cannot spend much time lingering at the summit, as the available oxygen is approximately half of what it is at sea level and there are already a few people suffering the effects of the extreme altitude.

Sieu and I sit together on the boulders that are used to secure the Kilimanjaro sign. As the remainder of the group squeezes in, someone hands us a G-Adventures flag to hold. Our guides surround us like the paparazzi while juggling all the cameras that we have given them. As I take a quick look around, I am astonished that all eleven members of our group are here and standing around this sign. Even those two members who were severely nauseated were able to persevere forward to the top. Although still looking rather ill, they did it! We all did it! Six days ago, the eleven of us started this journey as strangers from different corners of the world but today, we stand united with a newfound sense of comradery.

Our G-Adventures group standing, breathlessly, at the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro

As we are rushed to begin our descent, the horizon suddenly lights up in a blaze of fire as the sun begins to peer over it. This gives shape to the jagged mountain peaks that we have recently ventured across. Leading my eyes to the sunrise is a thin dirt path that is worn through the snow by the hundreds of footsteps before us. We file along this path, one by one. To the right of us is a giant glacier, as if placed to challenge the mountain for the title of the highest point on the continent. It stands alone, off into the distance, like a single bookend with nothing to support. Beyond that, lays a blanket of clouds, which hugs the mountain and stretches far into the distance; the bright morning sun causes these clouds to glow with various hues of yellow and orange. As I stare at the horizon, I am amazed that I can see the curvature of the earth – making it feel as though we are standing on top of the world!

Beginning our descent from the summit

As we pass Stella Point once again, we take a different route to descend. As opposed to the meandering trail that led us to the summit, this trail seems to have no apparent route – just down. I stand there calculating my approach to this. I study the ground. It’s approximately a 45-degree slope covered in scree. I take a step to test the terrain. My foot slides under the loose stones, searching for some traction. I am alarmed at how physically demanding it is to descend; ascending to the summit was not a physical challenge, but merely a battle of your lungs against the altitude. William shows us the proper technique to descend without causing injury to our ankles or knees but this method causes my quadriceps muscles to ache and burn. I develop my own technique that I use when William is not looking. I skip sideways down the hill – step, step … step, step … step, step … Every hop I make, I can feel loose rocks sliding underneath my feet, causing them to sink deeper into the scree like quicksand. As I descend, alternating between sideways hops and forward steps (when William is looking), I can feel the oxygen becoming richer. Although the air is dusty, it’s very quenching.

Our group has gradually broken off into smaller clumps and there are currently four of us following Paul and William. They pull us off to the side to find a place to sit and give our legs a quick break. As I sit on the loose scree, I stretch out my legs and watch as the pebbles race down the steep slope. It feels so good to sit! I lean back and embrace the warm sun burning through the thin atmosphere. The thought of putting on some sunscreen occurs to me, but it is quickly dismissed as I am too tired to care. Turning my attention to Paul and William, I notice that they have no snacks or water; then it dawns on me – none of the guides carry personal gear so that they can carry our gear if needed. I share my water, which is flavored with Lime Gatorade, and hand them some Clif bars – I always bring way too much food in fear of starvation.

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After approximately two hours of descending, we reach basecamp and take a quick nap. When it is time to continue our journey, our guides wake us up to pack our gear and move onward to Mweka Camp, where we will be spending our final night. I am not sure if it’s having more circulating oxygen going to my brain, or just the exhilaration of conquering this mountain, but I feel incredible! I have an extra bounce in my step, despite my shaky legs from the brutal descent. I spend most of our walk chatting with Lukie. We share stories about our personal life, our family, our ambitions, and so on. He speaks with such warmth and enthusiasm as he tells me about his first time seeing snow.

Upon arriving at Mweka Camp, our porters are waiting to celebrate our success with us. We sing, dance, laugh, and cry as we say our final goodbyes to these amazing individuals who have devoted themselves entirely to us for the past week. I am amazed at the bond that can be formed in such little time with complete strangers who cannot even speak the same language. Willie, my porter, has shown me such genuine kindness and care. Although this is his job, his actions were never fake or forced and he never asked for anything in return. He just came into my life for one week with the sole purpose of helping me achieve my goal of summiting Mount Kilimanjaro.

After supper, we sit around the table in our mess tent for one last time. I reflect upon how this trek to the summit of Kilimanjaro was so much more than I could have ever expected. Like childbirth, you need to live through it to truly appreciate the experience. I had read some books and blogs about Kilimanjaro but nothing can fully capture the beauty and essences of this experience. As I look around the table and see our group laughing and sharing stories with our guides, I am reminded of a saying that I had once heard: It’s the friends that we meet along the way that help us appreciate the journey. It is astounding to think that such an adventure can create and strengthen such bonds between strangers. I have formed such a strong attachment and will truly miss these people who were merely strangers that I was sitting on a bus with seven days ago. Albert, Brunno, Lukie, Paul, and William, our guides, will always have a place in my heart. While we were in our most vulnerable states, they protected and cared for us. They shared their personal stories and culture with us as they took us on an adventure of a lifetime. Each of them will play such a critical role in the stories that I tell my children about the time that I climbed to the rooftop of Africa. 

The next day, we pull into the parking lot of the Stella Maris Lodge. As I step off the bus, I see a group that is nervously waiting. They are frantically adjusting and weighing their bags, ensuring that they are within their 15 kg allotment before they depart for their journey. This makes me reflect upon when this was us. I remember sitting there with seven new strangers and nervously making idle chitchat. We all watched in desperation as a G-Adventures bus pulled into the parking lot and offloaded its dirty passengers who had just finished their trek. They were all surprisingly smiling – which I assumed was because their dreadful hike was finally over with and that they were back to civilization. One by one, they disembarked the van laughing and sharing stories with each other. One taller man was limping but other than that, they all seemed okay. As I watched them, I remembered feeling so jealous that they were done. All of their pain and suffering was over, while ours was just about to begin. I wanted so badly to be them and for all of this apprehensive nausea to be gone.

Today, I step off that very same G-Adventures bus, as a dirty passenger just finishing my trek. I look over to that group, who is staring at us with envious eyes. I smile at them, as I collect my orange North Face duffel bag that I have been living out of for the past week. I smile at them because what they don’t realize now is how badly that I wish I was them. As I am about to part ways with my new friends, they are about to begin their journey with theirs. A pang of sorrow overcomes me as I realize that it is all over. I want so badly to trade places with them as they are about to embark upon the greatest adventure of their life.

Conquering Kilimanjaro (Day 6: Summit Night, part I)

Distance: 4 km (to the summit)
Altitude: 5,895 m
Date: Feb. 1-2, 2018

As the cold wind beats against the side of our tent, it is 11:00pm and almost time to begin our ascent. I slip into my base layers and am astounded that we are about to attempt something that nearly 50,000 people attempt annually – summiting Mount Kilimanjaro. We are told that the average summit success rate is around 65 percent; however, it greatly depends on which route you climb and its duration. We chose the Machame trail, nicknamed the Whiskey Route – despite it’s difficulty, it is one of the better routes for acclimatization.

I squeeze four layers of clothing on my bottom and five layers on my top; our guides recommend wearing six layers each due to the extreme cold but this is the best that I can do comfortably. I often find wearing multiple layers very daunting but tonight I am distracted by the anticipation of what’s to come. I zip up my parka, turn on my headlamp, and head to the mess tent for our final briefing. Our group sits around the table, listening to the violent whipping of the wind on our dimly-lit tent. The only light available is offered from the two flashlights that are hanging from the top of the tent frame. Unsure of how long the batteries in our headlamp will last in the cold, we try to conserve them as much as possible.

Brunno speaks loudly over the deafening wind, while another guide hands us snacks for the long journey ahead. Our group seems to be nervous, but generally ready to tackle this challenge. There are a few members who have some lingering altitude sickness, masked as extreme fatigue; I hope this will not prevent them from reaching the summit.

As you can tell, I am eager to get going!

As it nears 11:30pm, it’s time to go. I take a deep breath, plug in a single earbud into my right ear, and press play on my Ipod Shuffle. I have been saving its battery the entire hike for this very moment. I had anticipated that it would be a long and grueling night so I prepared a playlist specially designed to keep my moral high. “For the Girls” by The Fratellis, a Scottish indie rock band, came on first. The fun and upbeat tune was literally music to my ears. I forgot how much I missed music in the background of my day-to-day life.

We line up in single file, as we normally do. I file in behind Sieu and slide my giant mittens into the handles of my walking poles, ready to go. It seems like it was just yesterday that we were passing through those metallic gates to take our first steps on to the Machame trail and now, here we are, departing basecamp for the summit. I am finally able to let go of the apprehension that I have been carrying around this entire hike and only feel the excitement now. I feel ready to do this!

As we begin our ascent, we are followed closely by nine guides – nearly one for each of us. I look back toward basecamp and see the glow of multiple headlamps from the other groups who are about to embark upon their final adventure as well. We continue forward, one step at a time, into the quiet darkness of the late night. It will take approximately six hours to reach Stella point and from there, an additional hour to Uhuru Peak – the summit of Kilimanjaro.

After an assumed hour of hiking, we take our first break. We collapse on the nearby rocks to catch our breath but the guides quickly pick us up. “Don’t lie down. Sit. Rest. Get some food and water into you quickly and we will leave in a few minutes”. The breaks are short to avoid succumbing to the frigid temperatures of the mountain. As I sip on some water, I notice that a buckle on my gaiter has come undone. As I begin to fumble with it, Paul comes to my aid. “Rest! Let me help you. You will need your energy to get to the top” he says. As he is finishing up, Brunno tells us that it is time to get going again.

The abyss of time eludes me; the only means of measurement is by counting the amount of breaks that we have taken – I think that we have taken four so far. Into the black night, I cannot see much beyond the light of my headlamp but I can clearly see the fatigue of our group. Everyone is taking long, slow steps up the sandy trail that zigs and zags into the infinite darkness. We take one breath per step, to avoid suffocating from the thin air of the high altitude. My nose is cold but I feel too smothered if I wear anything around my face. This breathlessness makes me wonder if this is what it’s like to have an asthmatic attack. We continue to persevere forward, one step and one breath at a time.

The closer we get to Stella Point, the closer the guides seem to follow next to us. We have already lost two members of our group, who were vomiting from the affects of the altitude. If we show any signs of staggering or struggle, the guides take our backpack to allow you to put the remains of our effort into summiting. Looking forward, I can see that there are only two of us left with backpacks: myself and Fabie. Fabie is the second youngest in our group and a solid mountain climber. She has literally handled the altitude like it was a walk in the park … which I guess, it technically is: Kilimanjaro National Park.

We come to a sudden stop and I look around to see what is going on. From the back of our group, I can see a few members in the front crying and hugging each other. I look past them to a large sign with the words “Mount Kilimanjaro” carved out on its wooden planks. Are we at the summit already?! My concept of time is completely warped. Wait a minute … this is only Stella Point! I lean over to Sieu, “Uh … this is only Stella Point … do people realize that this is not the summit yet?!” I ask. He replies, “The guides say that if you reach Stella Point, then you’ll make it to the summit” I notice that he suddenly gets quiet. “Are you okay?” I ask, concerned that he is not feeling well from the altitude. “I’m leaking”, he says. Uh… what? I shine the light from my headlamp up to his face to see what he’s talking about and see that his nose is running.  “Oh, yeah! My nose keeps running from the cold too … I just wipe it on my mitts”, I reply as I wipe my nose with my oversized mitt. “No, no. I’m … I’m leaking, Amanda.” I shine my headlamp higher so that I can see his face more clearly. Under his eyes are moist. I have never seen my husband cry … ever. I’m not sure which seems more implausible: climbing to the highest peak in Africa … or seeing my husband “leak” tears of joy. Sieu had planned for over a year now that IF he could make it to the summit, he would put on his ‘dear friend’, Leonard Cohen’s song, “Hallelujah”. Emotionally, he explained that as he was crossing over the crest of the mountain and the sign came into view, his song just happened to come on by chance, creating a euphoric surge of emotions. My husband had never thought that he could make it to the summit so at this very moment, he felt like he was achieving the impossible. Albert then yells out, “1 hour to the summit! We need to move on if we want to make it for the sunrise”

One by one, we continue along the thin, worn path carved through the snowy crest of the mountain top. The trail is more horizontal, providing a relaxing coast to the finish line. Paul, who is carrying Sieu’s backpack, instructs us to remove our headlamps. “Look up!”, he says. As we remove our headlamps and look up, we can clearly see the millions of star that are sprinkled throughout the galaxy above, which shine bright through the thin atmosphere of the high altitude. It’s a sight like no other that would be impossible to capture by film, so instead, I pause for a second to fully immerse myself in the moment. Absolutely stunning.

The sun rising on Uhuru Peak

The Kilimanjaro sign is scarcely visible in the dim light of the early morning. As the darkness of the night begins to fade, I begin to realize that we are truly on top of the world. Below us, there is a blanket of clouds covering everything that we have left behind. It reminds me of when I would take the plane as a child; I would sit next to the window and watch as the plane pierced through the clouds during take off. I would imagine what it would be like to stand amongst those rolling hills of clouds. Today, I stand as a mortal in that heavenly abode of the divine.

As we approach the sign for the summit, I feel slightly torn between watching the beauty of the sun rising on the horizon behind us and taking in the victory of reaching this sign, which symbolizes that we are standing at the highest peak on the continent of Africa. For years, I have seen pictures of this very sign but never in my life did I think that I would have the opportunity to stand in front of it. My thoughts are interrupted by someone grabbing me around the waist! I look down and see Sieu, in a drunken, giddy state. Although, the lack of oxygen from the high altitude is getting to him, he is also exhilarated that we have actually made it to the summit. Together.

Uhuru Peak – the summit of Kilimanjaro


To Be Continued in…
Conquering Kilimanjaro (Day 6: Summit Night, part 2)

Conquering Kilimanjaro (Day 5: Barafu Camp – Base Camp)

Distance: 4 km
Altitude: 4,673 m
Date: Feb. 1, 2018

I woke up early after a restful night of sleep, feeling ready for the day ahead. We were told last night that these next two days will be the most difficult but our guides feel confident that everyone in our group will be able to make it to the summit … I wonder if they say that to all of their groups?

Ahead of us today is a simple 4 km hike to basecamp; however, it will feel more challenging because of the high altitude. Once we arrive at basecamp, the plan is to eat lunch, take a short nap, eat supper, take long nap, and then awake at 11pm to begin our hike to the summit. I can’t believe that it’s almost here! I’ve been thinking about summiting for nearly a year now and tonight is the moment of truth! Tonight I will see if I become one of the few to conquer this great mountain, or one of the many to become conquered by it. I feel quite confident but I don’t want to become overconfident. I’ll just continue to take this journey one step at a time, carefully.

Sieu enjoying his coffee & the view from Karanga Camp

After preparing my gear for the day, I roll out of our tent and am astonished by the beauty of the mountain. Every morning, I think that the scenery can’t get any more breathtaking … and then it does. Today, I woke up on top of the world! To the left of us, is a magnificent mountain with a snow-covered peak; to the right is a panoramic view of the entire city of Moshi.

We sip our morning coffee and breathe in the cool morning air. It’s a quiet morning. I think this journey has made everyone more zen and has given us the ability to enjoy the tranquility of the moment. After a few days on the mountain, my mind has become more quiet; I am not worried about the past or anticipating the future … I am just enjoying the present. Sometimes by trying to control everything, we actually lose that very moment. I have now surrendered and allow myself, instead, to be controlled by the moment. I am enjoying the opportunity to go on this incredible adventure with my husband and I am also enjoying the company of our new friends. Life has been very kind to me and I am grateful for this.

Leaving Karanga Camp

As we begin our hike, I start to feel slightly suffocated. I haven’t felt like this before. I don’t feel bad … but I don’t feel quite good either. It’s a very puzzling feeling. We are walking at a very slow pace but I can’t seem to catch my breath and feel very tired. I begin to question if this is the beginning of altitude sickness and if I am becoming the next victim. I don’t have a headache or nausea but I really can’t seem to catch my breath. I can feel my body teetering between feeling well and feeling ill.

It’s a chilly morning so I’m dressed in many layers, which all of a sudden feeling quite bothersome. I quickly remove my buff from around my face and unzip my inner and outer jacket to have less restriction around my neck. I take a couple of deep breaths and drink water. I don’t like water and I’m not thirsty but I do this every time I worry about altitude sickness.

Approximately 30 minutes into the hike, I am able to tip the scale back to feeling happy once again. We continue our journey along a steep path, which is carved out by the thousands of travellers that have wandered this trail before us. There is no vegetation as far as the eye can see – just rocks and blue skies. Sharp, jagged rocks and bright blue skies. Behind us, a wall of fluffy white clouds are rolling up the side of the mountain, blocking our view of anything that we have left behind.

Once we finally reach the crest of this steep incline, where the earth touches the sky, we can see basecamp just off into the distance on the other side of these deserted lands. The air is so dry and dusty, which makes my eyes feel gritty and my lips feel chapped. With only a few kilometers left to go, we persevere forward as the wind pushes us back with incredible force.


As we arrive at the Barafu Camp sign, I look up at the mountain standing behind it. As I squint in the bright sun, I can see a trail that zigs-zags between boulders up the steep back of the mountain. This is Kilimanjaro and is the trail that we will be trekking tonight. Shortly beyond this is Uhuru peak – the highest peak in all of Africa. I can feel butterflies in my stomach. I take a deep breath. I am filled with excitement, yet still slightly apprehensive.

Arriving at Kilimanjaro Basecamp (Barafu Camp)

We continue past this sign to our campsite, where our G-Fighters have set up our tents on the slope of a rocky hillside. As I take in the remainder of the scenery, I notice how the air is so incredibly thin, not only depriving us of oxygen but also making the sun appear so much brighter. I then spot Willie, who is waiting for me to arrive; “Karibu!” he says as he greets me with a high-five (this means welcome in Swahili). He leads me to my tent and I thank him, “Asante sana rafiki!” As I crawl into my tent, I am greeted by its warmth. It feels so nice to be in our tiny sauna, sheltered from the brutal winds that push and shove anything that gets in its way.

Home sweet home at Barafu Camp

After lunch, I begin preparing my gear for tonight. During this time, we are encouraged to nap; however, I’m much too excited to sleep! I lay out my insulted boots that I have been saving this entire trip just for this cold summit night. Next to them, I set aside two pairs of fresh, clean socks. I tuck my ipod (which I have been saving this entire trip) and my freeze-proof camera in one boot and a handful of hand warmers for me to activate tonight in my other boot. I then lay out my thermal pants, fleece pants, hiking pants, and rain pants for me to wear as my bottom layers and then my t-shirt, thermal shirt, fleece shirt, down jacket, and winter jacket for me to wear as my top layers.

As I am settling in to relax, I remember that I have two letters that I’ve been saving this entire trip for today!! I had asked my parents and a friend of ours to write letters of encouragement incase our morale was in absolute despair. It surprisingly wasn’t though. I feel great, am happy, and am very ready to climb to the summit tonight. Regardless, I am excited to read our letters.

IMG_3547I open the first one from my parents. I read it out loud for Sieu to hear but have to speak loudly to compete against the whipping sound of the wind on our tent. The letter is filled with words of encouragement and inspiration. It concludes with the quote, “Pain is temporary but victory lasts forever”. It’s very personal and touching. The other letter from our friends is more similar to a homemade post-card. It has a drawing of Kilimanjaro with a few words of encouragement. It is simple, beautiful and poetic. Although our morale wasn’t suffering, it was still really nice to sit together and read these letters from home. It also makes me reflect on what kind of state that I thought we would be in at this point of our journey. I am so happy that I was wrong!

We lie together in our tent and drift off to the sound of the wind shaking the tent. The warmth hugs my body but I am refreshed by a gentle breeze through a small opening in our doors …

It’s supper time. We are debriefed on the game plan for tonight as they measure our saturation (mine is 88% and my pulse is 90). Albert instructs us to try to wear six layers and to use a water bottle so that the straws on our hydration packs do not freeze. There will be nine guides accompanying our group of eleven so we are nearly one-on-one. We are also told that we will be taking five minutes rests every hour and during this time, we are not permitted to lie down because it is dangerous if we fall asleep. The hike to the summit should be approximately seven hours.

We return to our tents. The clock is counting down getting us closer and closer to our departure time. The angry winds shake our tent as if to give us our final warning. As soon as the sun tucks away behind the mountains, the bitter cold returns. We know that we will not win the war against the cold during this climb but we strategize anyways.

Three hours before we leave. Three hours for this night to get colder. My body is feeling rested, yet restless. This hike has mainly been physical leading up to this point but now its my mind’s turn to take the lead and bring me to victory. I write in my Midori to pass the time. I know that I should be sleeping but I can feel the adrenaline surging through my veins. Non-stop. To the top.

Mount Mawenzi


To Be Continued in…
Conquering Kilimanjaro (Day 6: Summit Night, part I)