I woke up nervously at 11:30PM to an alarm that frightened me. It was still dark, cold, and drizzling snow or sleet outside. It had even lightly hailed throughout the late evening’s darkness. We all met in the mess tent where I showed each other all the layers were assured ourselves with and I showed off my 3 layers of socks, 5 top layers, 3 leg layers. Then with headlamps on alit on our heads, we set out in a single-file line through the still dark camp. We were setting out a bit early to beat the crowd. We were in complete darkness, the air was very cold, but luckily not too windy. As we ascended up through the night, we eventually reached a point where from then onward there was snow on the ground and on the rocks that we stepped over. Because we were already at above 4,000 meters and ascending to ~ 5,986 meters it was difficult to breathe. looking all around me was just darkness, cold air, and occasional chilly gusts of wind. My fear of cold was near my heart.
I had to continue to think of something positive to keep positive, and distracted enough to keep my loud breathe on track as my foot barely moved in front of the other. I continuously thought about my childhood dog, Sage, who throughout my childhood was only a positive force. She is a memory that has no shades of gray. To focus on Sage, I kept thinking about her swimming at Upper Shawme Lake in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. I imagined her webbed paws moving through the water, and just as the imaginary movement of her feet moved through the water, I kept my feet going the same.
As we ascended higher, I was getting really cold and sweaty – dangerous combo for a cold-o-phobe. The cold made me feel like I would panic. Samwele didn’t allow us to stop for long breaks, because if our bodies cooled down we could freeze. When we did stop, Samwele and the two supporting guides (Faraji and Manase) distributed hot tea to warm us up with us. During one of our breaks, Mikyung became very cold. Samwele took out his heavy coat from his backpack and give it to her. Vulnerable to the cold myself, I thought this was extremely kind of him to share his coat. During that same break, I tried to throw up, because throwing up would cure my nausea, but alas nothing came up when I wretched.
I remember how my heart broke when at one tough break when we nestled close to rocks to stay warm, they told us it was another four hours before Sunrise and we’d have to keep climbing. From then I climbed not to reach the top, but to stay warm until sunrise.
I had to slow down and take half steps and so I was separated from the group and I was accompanied by Faraji. Faraji was crucial to supporting my mental resolve. At the very beginning of the hike, he traded his professional headlamp with my Made-in-China replicate- which made a world of difference. As we slowly progressed up the straight upward section before Stella Peak. Faraji would say encouraging things to me like, “Don’t give up!” , “Slowly Slowly”, and “I’m here for you”. These encouragements were so important, without them I was just alone on a freezing mountain in the dark. Faraji and I went slowly up the steep incline to Stella point to the rim of the volcano.
At one point during the last steep climb toward Stella Point, I felt a brief sharp pain in my chest/heart. despite this moment of pain, there was no turning back. Turning back would not protect me from the dark or the cold, and going downhill on that slippery slope of snowy rocks would be dangerous and slow. It was better to continue moving upwards and stay warm.
When we got to Stella Point, Mikyoung and Joakim were sitting in on the ground struggling to breathe and stay warm. Joakim had a momentary sensation that he couldn’t breathe. We all recovered with another hour and 400 meters up along the rim of the volcano to go before sunrise. Getting to Stela Point was the real hard accomplishment, the remaining hour would just be traversing around to another side of the volcano rim to reach the technically highest part Uhuru Peak.
Eventually, we saw the orange lights of the Sun soon-to-rise spread out and upward along the horizon. We could see the lights of Arusha and Moshi Town down in the distance. With a light gradually brightening, I noticed that there were glaciers the size of stacked shipping containers all around us. The traversing was encouraging to walk on a flat earth and I was emboldened by the light and the visibility that exposed the moon-like soot, ash, and cold around us. The very high altitude made it very hard to breathe and to take full steps, but we kept walking onwards.
The guides began to sing the Kilimanjaro song and cheered us to walk on for the final 30 minutes. When we finally approached Uhuru Peak for the photos next to the iconic sign, I really was happy and exhausted. I even awkwardly said that I loved my dog, despite her having died eight years ago.
After a few well-deserved photos on the top and a few moments of soaking in the atmosphere, as the sun crested over the horizon and exposed the crater of the volcano. We quickly headed down the beautiful moment the Sun came up. I felt much better psychological on the way down. Many other hikers were coming up to the peak as we were going down. Since we had gone up early to beat the crowds, there was a steady procession of hundreds of hikers moving up to the peak. The way up took us about six hours and for me the way down to another 3 hours.
On the way down the snow had melted and I realized that we were just “falling” down a slope of volcanic ash. I was so exhausted and slow that I separated from the group and dragged patient Manasseh to chaperone me down. The funny thing was that Manasseh would run ahead of me and then sit down on a rock and wait for me it gently descends. It was tough to go diagonally downward across the volcano’s tiny pebbles and ash. When I finally got to my tent it was 11:30 AM, 12 hours after we had started. I crawled into the tent and passed out next to Joakim I had an hour and a half of sleep before lunchtime.
I remember that I was so exhausted and happy that I started fantasizing and laughing to myself about a suburban father who antagonized his wife that the kids like his cooking more than hers because he cooks with my beloved Acetazolamide. I mentioned this to illustrate my burnt mental state. I guess deep down in my soul there are family sitcoms ready to be played out. We were all happy to have all made it and we had a large lunch. My face and my brain were ringing, I walked to the bathroom and my pee burned because I was so dehydrated that I was feeling the acid burn as it passed out of my urethra. Then against our tired bodies’ best interests, we set out for another four-hour hike downward- out of the high altitude zone.
This part was nuts because we descended out through an alpine desert, down a foggy hailing shower, on a trail that was used as an emergency exit for people and supplies. This route was only used to supply the camps or an emergency to send hikers down quickly. The route ascended too quickly for anyone to ascend up it safely.
Actually, if someone takes a helicopter to the top of Kilimanjaro and gets out of the helicopter they will die within half an hour from the altitude shock.
On this backtrail, I saw many porters carrying up heavy gas tanks on their heads, and some kinds of bicycle-like emergency stretcher device for feeble. For this part, I was also so slow that I got separated and it was just me and Samwele going down together. We descended rapidly and dropped into the moorland and then into the rainforest zone. I made it to our final Camp Mwe’ kaa Camp and had a nice final night re-adjusting the tips we would give to the team. We decided that we had to give the guys who took us to the summit more money. As we all agreed we wouldn’t have made it without them.