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)