Part 2 of Ray Baker’s blog on reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro:
We’re cold, questioning life and why we are here, but determined to make it.
Ascending at the rate of 250 metres per hour, plus rest stops, means that we can expect to be on top about 7a.m. and that’s all I’m focussing on… well that and the cold.
Plod on to the summit
Check the time and altimeter…1.00a.m…4900m… ahead of schedule. The summit is at 5895m. Plod on.
Three a.m.… 5200m… the pace has slowed… we are all feeling the cold and the altitude.
The trail emerges from the lee of a ridge and you’re exposed to a strong, freezing blast of air. Pause to answer a call of nature. The darkness provides privacy so take only a couple of steps off the trail… fumble with zips… dexterity is required so mittens off… cold fingers… mittens back on… fingers remain cold.
It’s about now, when fatigue kicks in, that the guides strut their ‘we’re here to help you’ stuff. Those of us struggling have been buddied up by a guide who gives support and mouths encouragement; they carry packs if required, they place your hands between theirs and rub vigorously to restore warmth, they dig into your pack to fetch food and water.
You’re never alone on Kilimanjaro.
Frozen man walking
Four thirty am… 5500m… bitterly cold… the wind is steady and flurries of ice particles light up as they flicker across the beam of your headlamp.
The blood has drained from the capillaries of your extremities to keep your vital organs warm and functioning, leaving your fingers and toes stinging with cold. Stop, rest and wolf down an energy bar.
Try to drink but the mouthpiece of your water bladder tube is frozen. Thankfully, you remembered to upend your water bottles in the side pockets of your backpack. Ask a guide to drag a bottle out for you… sure enough, half the contents are frozen but not the half you need… the water though, is so cold you can only sip through pursed lips.
Six am… 5700m… the summit is 185m away. We’re now back in the lee of a ridgeline, the air is still but frigid.
Glancing up, you see distant figures atop the crater rim, silhouetted against the sky. To your right, a faint light appears on the horizon as dawn approaches. Your mind is fuzzy, fingers and toes are numb and your pace is laboured, but the guides gently usher you upward.
Stella Point 5756m – we see the light
As you step up to the crater rim at Stella Point you notice that it’s light enough to turn off your headlamp.
You’re re-exposed to the cold wind. In front of you is a sign board:
CONGRATULATIONS – YOUR ARE NOW AT – STELLA POINT – ALT. 5739M A.M.S.L – TANZANIA – WORLD HERITAGE SIGHT.
…only 139m more in vertical elevation to the summit.
Turning around and looking over the trail which you’ve just walked you can see the curvature of the earth and a few remaining stars rapidly fading from view as the sky lightens.
A guide tells you the steep climbing is over, now it’s an easy walk to the summit.
You’re now walking around the crater rim; down to your left is the vast plateau-like expense of the caldera. To your right are the massive cliffs of ice that cap Kilimanjaro.
A trickle of trekkers, returning from their successful summit attempt, pass by and offer encouraging words. You plod on for two kilometres, cold and tired but with growing confidence of success; if they can do it…
The trail gradually ascends until, a few hundred metres ahead, you can see trekkers clustered around a large signboard.
The mob moves as one mass, then fragments, then unites as figures leave and others join. People—singles and groups—manoeuvre themselves in front of the signboard for a photographic memento of their triumph.
We’ve arrived, we’re on the summit
Now you’re one of the mob on the summit. What’s happening to you? You’re crying and grinning at the same time. Tears of joy and relief. Hugs, handshakes and backslaps.
Cameras appear and gloves come off to take pictures… who gives a stuff about the cold? Selfie time. Amateur filmmakers and photographers make their directorial debut as people are placed here and there as photographic subjects.
How long are we on the summit? Ten minutes? Fifteen? Very soon the realisation kicks in that it’s bloody freezing. The guides indicate it’s time to leave and receive no dissenting arguments.
One last look
I walk 100 metres, stop, turn around to stare at the summit, reflect a few moments then turn and continue.
You’ll pass trekkers still on their way to Uhuru. Now it’s your turn to offer words of encouragement, which you do willingly, and particularly, to those who appear to be struggling.
Return to Barafu
It takes six-to-seven hours to trek up from the high camp at Barafu to Uhuru and about three hours to trek back down.
Underfoot, on your ascent, the frozen, compacted surface is much easier to walk on than the soft, powdery scree you’ll sink into during your descent.
As you pass Stella Point, the temperature will have risen and if the sun is out, you’ll be keen to shed some layers.
No prancing, no dancing, just relief
Returning summiteers don’t prance and strut triumphantly into Barafu. After 10 or so hours of very tough trekking, one tends to be in a state of extreme fatigue so all you want to do sit down and rest.
Hopefully you’ll arrive at Barafu around 10am because you’ll have time to crawl into your tent and crash out for about an hour.
We can’t remain here and camp for another night at Barafu because more groups are heading here enroute to their summit attempt and they’ll need the campsite. So, a snooze, pack up, have lunch then head off is the agenda.
You have been to the summit
It’s a further 1300m descent over about four hours to our next camp (hello knees).
The return to the world of warmth and oxygen only partially counteracts the mega level of tiredness that overwhelms you. You struggle to make tonight’s dinner and although there is a compelling reason to stay up and celebrate your achievement, sleep beckons.
That feeling of euphoria that’s experienced when reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro—a feeling not easily put into words—is only understood and felt by those who have lived the dream.
Usiku mwema* and congratulations! (*good night in kiswahili).