Kilimanjaro-Day 6: Ascent

September 24, 2007

Barafu Hut to Uhuru Peak

Total Distance: 4.00 Miles
Total Ascent: 4,1,40 ft.
Ending Altitude: 19,340 ft.

I was awake before 11:00, so I got up and got dressed, a slow process in the cold lying down in a tent. By the time Zuberi came with hot water, I was dressed and ready to go. I was glad I had organized my gear the night before as it made things easier to manage in the cold and dark. I double checked everything and went through my well rehearsed mental checklist one last time. By midnight we were in the meal tent having breakfast. Everyone was excited. This was the big day. After a year and a half of anticipation and preparation it was time. We sent off our first group under the leadership of Godfrey. We anxiously passed the time talking until it was our time to leave. Then when it was time, with Kambona and Zuberi as our guides, we began our summit bid.

We made our way quietly through the dark tents sprawled out over the ridge. Not far out of camp, as we had expected, the trail quickly grew steeper as we made our way. Ahead of us was the lofty silhouette of the peak surrounded by a perfectly clear, intensely starry sky. Above us we could see headlights of other climbing groups snaking their way up the slope. Earlier in the trip, Godfrey had told us a story from a past group that climbed for hours watching the headlights of climbers above them, never seeming to get any closer. Finally one exhausted member of the group pointed up steeply at a light in the distance and asked if they still had to climb that far. Godfrey looked up and responded, “No sister. That is a star.”

As we plodded along Kambona would frequently turn to check to see how we were doing. Occasionally he would alter the order of the group to move someone to the front so he could listen to their breathing. In this way he regulated the speed of the group. Around three o’clock I looked at my thermometer which now registered 20 degrees Fahrenheit. The climbing was hard, and breathing was becoming more difficult. Slowly the playful banter of the group waned, and we lapsed into longer spans of thoughtful silence.

Occasionally we would stop for a rest, which I greeted with mixed feelings. It felt good to stop, but it was very cold, and I didn’t want to cool down. In addition, I was unsure which hurt worse, never stopping or stopping and then having to start again.I had in my pack two one-liter water bottles and a two-liter camelback bladder. I had heard that water bladders were no good during summit day as the water in the tube would freeze.

I had also read that the solution to this problem was to blow the water back into the reservoir after taking a drink. Overall this worked great, and the tube to my bladder never froze enough to block it. However, I did notice that as we gained altitude blowing the water back became more difficult. At each rest stop we would take the opportunity to eat something, but this became harder as we got higher. I knew from past backpacking trips that I had the tendency to loose my appetite at altitude. So I forced myself to eat when I had the chance.

Diana had started to feel sick after 1,000 or 1,500 feet of ascent and was doing worse. She finally vomited, something Kambona had been encouraging. Earlier in the trip when I was feeling poorly, he had told me that often, once someone actually throws up, they feel better immediately. After doing so Diana was still determined to continue, so we slowly continued the climb. The hours passed, the incline became more severe, and the footing became more unstable. The higher we climbed, the fewer places there were to duck behind. During our rest stops privacy became largely dependent upon two things; the dark, and courtesy.

Occasionally I would look around me and think how amazing it was to be on Kilimanjaro on summit day. This thought seemed to temporarily take the edge off the growing fatigue. I realized I was now feeling the cold in my fingers and my toes. I put on my mitts and began to practice a habit I had picked up during my snowshoeing trips. I would rub my toes against each other with each step. The friction helped the cold from getting too uncomfortable in my feet.

Shortly before sunrise I looked at my thermometer, which rested at 0 degrees. Some of the group were really feeling the cold and this point, and we were anxious for the sun to rise. My gear was working superbly, and I was particularly happy I wasn’t in borrowed clothing. I asked Kambona if we could time a rest stop around sunrise so I could take a photograph. As we walked we watched the light slowly grow brighter along the eastern horizon. Then finally Kambona stopped us. From about 17,500 feet we watched as the sun slowly appeared above the horizon. It was an exhilarating sight from this altitude. To the East were two layers of clouds, one far below and the other high above, both catching the orange rays of the sun. The distant horizon was broken only by the dark, jagged silhouette of Mount Mawenzi.

The flood of sunshine was a welcome improvement. It quickly took the edge off the cold and made the march a little less difficult. It was also good to finally be climbing in daylight and see farther away than the beam of a headlamp. The illuminated landscape provided a welcome mental diversion as we climbed. In the flood of morning light I felt a renewed excitement to simply be on Kilimanjaro on summit day.

Soon after sunrise Kambona began to point out climbers that had reached the crater rim at Stella Point and Gillman’s Point. It didn’t look that far, but I’d learned that lesson already. We began to see the glaciers and snow to the right of our track. The trail itself was now covered with sand and gravel, which made gaining traction difficult. Trekking poles helped with balance, but progress was excruciatingly slow. The temperature had warmed back up to around 20 degrees, and we could now see people returning from the summit back down the Marangu route from Gillman’s point. We could also see the rest of our group (except for Tad) ahead of us. They were close enough that we could shout to them, and I waved to Godfrey who returned the gesture. Kambona’s plan to stagger our start times to converge at the summit seemed to be working.

Just below the crater rim the trail became unbelievably steep and slippery. Each step was a chore. Then suddenly I looked up and we were at the crater rim. I stood and peered down into the volcanic crater from an altitude of 19,000 feet. We had achieved Stella Point.

Kambona suggested that we stop and take some food and water. I took out a Sweet-N- Salty almond bar began to eat it. Blowing the water back through my Camelbak tube was now noticeably more difficult. I assumed the food would help, but it actually made me a little queasy. I looked around trying to spy the familiar sign that would indicate how near we were to the actual summit, but couldn’t see it. I asked where it was from our position. Godfrey pointed to a point of rock that looked like it was miles away. It looked much farther than it had on the map. In fact it was so far away I couldn’t even see the summit sign. I decided that I would be better served by getting to the top than resting for very long at Stella Point. I asked if I could go on. Kambona nodded, so I put my camera away and started the final stretch. I was joined by Bill and we labored along the final approach.

Prior to Stella Point I was only noticing the fatigue of the eight-hour climb. But at the rim I started to notice the effects of the altitude. We proceeded slowly, and I kept looking for the famous sign. It seemed as if we walked and walked. What looked like a simple and easy circumnavigation of the rim was turning out to require more endurance than the push to the rim. As we walked we passed stalagmite-like formations of half melted snow that were the remnants of a storm that had dropped three feet of snow the previous May. I kept searching the ridge ahead, but each time Godfrey pointed forward and said that we’d be there soon. Finally after what seemed an eternity the sign came into view, and then we were on the summit. I suddenly realized that there was not another place on the African continent was higher than where I was standing. Every step would be down hill from here.

We had expected to be on the summit with other groups and had discussed strategies for taking the photographs of our banners at the summit if there was a crowd of other climbers. But the summit was deserted except for us. We ended up having it to ourselves for about a half hour. We took our official group summit photo then quickly began taking photos of our sponsor banners. The sky was deep blue with wispy clouds. The weather had been perfect.