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

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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 a 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 affects 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.

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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 hug the mountain and stretch 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 actually see the curvature of the earth – proving that we are actually standing on top of the world!

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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 really 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 are able to carry our gear if needed. I share my water, which is flavoured 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 to 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 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 really live through it in order to truly appreciate the experience. I had read some books and blogs about Kilimanjaro but nothing is able to fully capture the beauty and essences of this experiences. 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 of 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 ideal 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 among 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.

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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.

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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.

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Uhuru Peak – the summit of Kilimanjaro

 

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