Climbing Kilimanjaro — Summit Day!

by Elizabeth

[I kept a daily journal of our Mt. Kilimanjaro summit attempt along the Machame route on my phone. That summary from our summit attempt, along with some of our photos, is below.  The summary of the first four days of our climb can be found here.  We’ll post a separate description of how we chose a climbing operator and our post-trip reflections.]

Day 5 (Aug. 12): 

5km ascent plus 22km descent, Barafu Camp (4681m/15,357ft) to Summit (5895m/19,340ft) to Mweka Hut (3090m/10,138ft) to Mweka Gate (1641m/5384ft)

We did it!  We both summited Kilimanjaro!  And we are never doing that again…

We got up at 11pm, after only a few hours of “sleep.”  Of course, I had a hard time sleeping due to noise from people around us and the fact that we were on a slope and I kept sliding down my sleeping pad.  After tea and cookies, we put on all of our rented cold-weather clothing and got ready to start climbing.  I was wearing five layers on top and three on the bottom!  We were surprised to find that Alfred and George would be carrying our packs for the ascent.  Before starting out, I was already too warm in my rented jacket and had to stow it away for the start of the climb.

We started climbing up out of camp just before midnight.  The lights of the many climbers that had left before us were already visible going up the mountain.  As we started walking, I felt pretty good.  We went pole pole (even more so this time), but I quickly found myself overheating from the rented pants (which, incidentally, didn’t fit me well and made it difficult to raise my legs up for big steps up rocks).  Stopping to take clothing off is when I realized how much our guides were going to do everything possible to make sure that we didn’t expend energy on anything other than climbing — they helped me get the pants off over my shoes and packed away while I just sat there! 

The first couple hours of climbing were fairly uneventful.  Both Michael and I were feeling pretty well and, if anything, the climbing was sort of boring because I was walking slowly with only a view of the feet in front of me illuminated by my headlamp.  Despite going pole pole, it seemed that we passed several groups of climbers. 

Time was difficult to measure walking up Kilimanjaro in the dead of night.  I didn’t have a watch handy and my phone was stored away in an interior pocket to keep it warm.  Slowly I started having additional layers added to my clothing as the temperature dropped further and further.  First I added the extra pair of heavy gloves, then the heavy jacket, and finally I gave in and put on the heavy pants.  Each time, Alfred did all of the work and made sure that I was also drinking water.  It’s a good thing too — because after a while, it felt like all that I could do was walk slowly up the mountain.  Focusing on anything else was too difficult.

Then the effects of altitude hit me.  I started to feel nauseous.  Then it got to the point that I felt that if I didn’t sit down immediately I would puke.  After a couple minutes of sitting, I felt better.  Twenty minutes later, the same would occur.  I don’t recall how many times I felt that I was on the verge of puking.  Michael also started having difficulty with balance and was getting really tired and needed frequent breaks. 

At one point, Michael told me that he’d looked at his Strava app and it said that we’d already walked two miles.  I knew that it was only 5km total to the summit, so I figured that we must be two-thirds there!  A while later I asked Alfred how much further to the top.  He told me that it was two hours to Stella point, and then another hour to the summit.  Not the answer that I was hoping for…  By that time, I was feeling pretty miserable and the ascent was no longer fun.  But I wasn’t going to turn back to avoid three hours of pain!  We kept slowly slogging up the mountain.  At times, my hands and feet felt like they might stay frozen — it was so cold!  Our breaks became more frequent for Michael to catch his breath (and I wasn’t going to complain about stopping, although I wanted to keep the stops short because I was getting cold).  Finally, Alfred told us that it was only 2 more minutes to Stella Point.  Since it was still dark, it had been difficult to tell where the top of the mountain was, so this was awesome news!  Alfred also told us that the steep approach to Stella Point would flatten out on the way to the summit — more great news!

In the dark, Stella Point didn’t seem like anything special.  I’m not sure that Michael even understood the significance at the time, but reaching Stella Point meant that we had reached the rim of Kilimanjaro’s crater!  The hiking did get easier after Stella Point, although by that time Michael was walking at a snail’s pace — unable to go any faster due to the altitude.  I was feeling relatively okay, but only in the sense that I didn’t feel like I was going to puke anymore and could manage to slowly walk behind Alfred.  As we walked along the rim, the sun started to rise.  I could see the glaciers off to my left and they were amazing.  Bigger and more beautiful than I had imagined they would be! 

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Sunrise along Kilimanjaro’s crater.

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Kilimanjaro’s glaciers are amazingly beautiful and much larger than I could have imagined.  I have heard that they may be gone within the next 20 years, so I wasn’t expecting anything quite so spectacular.

When I finally saw the summit in the distance it was surprisingly emotional.  I stopped so that Michael could catch up to me and we could walk the final distance together.  We summited at about 6:30am — more than 6.5 hours after leaving base camp.  

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We made it to the summit!  I swear we were happy… but also exhausted and a bit overwhelmed!

The summit itself was a bit of a blur… between the emotions, being exhausted, and only having 5 minutes on the summit before needing to descend in order to reduce the chance of altitude sickness.  We battled the crowd to get our picture with the summit sign, enjoyed the view, and then started to head back down.

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As we descended, the clouds and mist was already moving in to obscure any view of the glaciers.

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The inside of Kilimanjaro’s crater was covered in a layer of frost and was beautiful in the morning light.

I hate descents and this one was no different.  It took about 2.5 hours for us to get down.  Luckily, much of the way down was on an alternate path that was composed of loose dirt/rocks that we could quasi-run down.  With each step we could control-slide down another half step.  It wasn’t long before we could see base camp in the distance, making us feel like we were closer to the end than we actually were — it seemed to take forever!  It was weird to see the trail as we descended because we could see that a large section of the trail wasn’t very steep, although it had certainly felt that way in the dark on the way up.

When we arrived at base camp, we were greeted with mango juice and then relaxed at our tent for a couple hours before we had to continue heading down to the next camp in order to avoid altitude sickness.  While waiting, we decided that instead of stopping for the night at the Mweka Camp, we would continue all the way down to the Mweka Park Gate so that we could shower and sleep in a real bed tonight instead of spending another night in the tent (with dinner in the tent…).  We reached Mweka Camp at about 1:45pm, and although our knees were killing us from the descent, we continued on for another couple hours to the gate.  The final section was through the cloud forrest again, which was beautiful but slippery.  We even managed to spot a few monkeys!!

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Disappearing into the cloud forrest.

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A monkey!

Once we reached Mweka Park Gate, we signed the park register for the last time, collected our certificates for summiting, and distributed tips for our (oh so many) porters and guides.  We were back in Moshi by about 5:30pm and ready for a quick dinner at our guesthouse and well-deserved rest.  It’s hard to believe that all of this happened today! 

Michael and I agree that, although we are happy that we climbed Kilimanjaro, we are done with tall mountains.  At almost 20,000 feet, getting through the final ascent of Kili was exhausting and miserable — and the descent was horrible on our knees.  The allure of the sunrise ascent is just not enough for us anymore.  I think we’ll stick with smaller peaks and the valleys between tall mountains in the future!!

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