Summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro 19,341ft, 3.66 miles up!

Trip Start Jul 23, 2010
Trip End Apr 17, 2011

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Mt. Kilimanjaro, Barafu Camp
Mt. Kilimanjaro, Mweka Camp

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Saturday, January 1, 2011

Midnight was departure time for our summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. We'd had an early dinner last night in order to catch a few hours sleep before rising for the last approach to the top.  The noise in the camp, mixed with the loud wind, made sleeping difficult.  In fact, the wind also made me much more anxious about the ascent, thinking about how cold it was going to be.  Richard had prepared us for the worst, but with heavy winds, it could be unbearable.  My stomach was tied up in knots.

As it turned out, the winds stopped before midnight, and while it was still cold, the evening was very pleasant.  The sky was clear, and the constellations were close enough to touch.  By midnight, there was already a trail full of trekkers with their headlights on, illuminating their way.

Richard had estimated our ascent at 6 hours, which would coincide with sunrise – the same idea everyone had, to summit with daybreak on January 1st, welcoming in a new year at Uhuru Peak on Mt. Kili.

The 1st 15 minutes of the climb were supposed to be the worst, according to our guide.  He was partly right.  Getting started is always hard on the body.  I found out pretty quickly I had overdressed.  The recommendation was four layers top and bottom.  I had four on top and three on the bottom, but before 15 minutes was up, I had shed 2 layers on top.  I should have known better… I generally am never cold on top.

My feet started sweating almost immediately, so they were adversely affected by the cold, and turned out to be my biggest obstacle.  I tried everything, from constantly moving in place even while standing still, to banging them until they hurt to get the blood to rush to my toes to warm them up.  It wasn’t until we got to Stella Point near the top that I felt some semblance of warmth, and my fear of frostbite was quelled.

My hands really never got too cold, thanks to the great gloves Jim sent me, which were a combination mittens with integrated gloves that looked like snowmobile gloves.  They kept my hands comfortable, and still enabled me to handle my sticks.

The pace was slow and unsteady, primarily because of the altitude, the cold, and the number of people on the trail.  Some had started before 11 pm, others later.  The variety of people by age, nationality, shape and size was so interesting.  We passed people that looked like zombies, as if they were so incapable of trekking, they had to be pulled up the mountain.  We wondered about the wisdom of that, and whether it was the trekker or the guide that had the determination to continue on.

It was an incredibly hard 5 km up rock and gravel in low oxygen.  It took me over three hours to find a comfort level with my breathing, then it was like I turned the corner and found the rest of the way a little easier.

Dear Anna had found herself without energy as we worked our way up, but somehow pulled every ounce available out to complete the task at hand.  Most people would have turned around, but not Anna… she persevered.  Richard was there with her every step of the way, warming her hands, and just providing that extra level of support. We trekked as a group, stopping frequently (albeit short) for water breaks to stay hydrated and to catch our breaths. Breathing was a lot faster at this altitude.

About 5:15 am, we could spot Stella’s Point at over 18,000 ft.  While not the top, it’s a milestone, and made it possible to imagine that we would actually make Uhuru Peak.  It was at this point, I found myself getting very emotional.  I started crying – happy tears – knowing I was about to accomplish something that I never thought I could do; I did it for Bill Klein, a very dear friend who exposed me to hiking and camping in high school, God bless him.  I’ve never been one for physical stamina; I was a sprinter, not a cross country runner.  Physical endurance is something I equated to work, not to sport. 

Somewhere in this time frame, Richard pulled us all aside and pulled out a thermos of hot tea and sugar.  It was just what the doctor ordered for me; I used it to visualize the heat from the tea warming my toes, and it worked.  And the sugar gave me that extra spurt of energy to make the rest of the summit.

I had heard enough stories up to this point to know that it wasn’t over until you were smiling in front of the sign at the top.  I kept waiting for a sign that the altitude was getting the better of me, but it didn’t come.  Richard kept us moving at a pace that was good for us, and all his prep work during the week to acclimate us was paying off tonight.  None of us took the altitude medication, at Richard’s suggestion, because of the negative side effects many people suffer when taking it.  We all chose Lemosho to give us the best chance of making the summit, and here we were, about to achieve our goal.

I think about Anna and her struggle and have the greatest respect for her diligence.  She had little strength at the beginning of this summit climb, but was still able to push herself to make a 5 km climb, 4,000 feet.  Now that’s an athlete!

All five of us made it to Uhuru Peak, in 6 hours 15 minutes, my personal best, by the way..  :)   The final summit was different than I expected.  I had the impression Stella Point was a staging area where you made the final climb to Uhuru for only a few minutes and then descended to Stella Point to avoid the higher altitude.  It clearly wasn’t like that at all.  Stella Point is 45 minutes away from Uhuru, and from Stella to Uhuru, it is a long, gradual ascent.  And lots of room for people to spread out, unlike the trail earlier.

Unfortunately, there were many people that didn't make the peak, and we learned of one porter that wasn't going back to his family.  As we learned later, he and the group he was with stayed in the crater overnight and he apparently developed a pulmonary embolism, not totally uncommon at this altitude.  As we were approaching the summit, he was being worked on, but could not be revived.  It's a known risk, but the sting of death is never something you can logic away.
One of the benefits of the 45 minute hike from Stella Point to Uhuru was the beautiful views of the sunrise which created a beautiful glow on the horizon; the Kibo glacier, my first; nearby Mawenzi Peak (breathtaking, and not climbable), Moshi town, and the clouds.  Another benefit was the slow acclimation to the final altitude of Uhuru at 19,341’.

As long as it seemed to take us to get from Stella Point to Uhuru Peak, it was moments compared to the hours it took to get from camp to Stella Point.  It was a great feeling of accomplishment to stand in front of that sign with my teammates and guide.  I got a second wind along with it.  We were one of the first groups that made it from what we could tell, and so it wasn’t heavily crowded when we arrived.  That certainly made picture taking easier.  We got lots of group shots, with US flags, with Mike’s Texas A&M jersey, with my sign "For Bill", a tribute to my friend, Bill Klein, my reason for climbing.

Of course, as the old adage goes, what goes up must go down, and so did we.  After about 30 minutes at the top, our 6:15 ascent created a 2:45 descent, which was almost as hard as the climb.  We “skied” down the screed when possible, but most of it was tortuous as we negotiated rocks and gravel.  The knees really took a beating, and of course, we just wanted to be back to camp to get some sleep.  Our day would not be over when we arrived back at camp, and we all knew we had a long day yet ahead of us.  I think that’s what made the descent even harder.

And as if Richard could see our agony, he pulled us all aside half way down and brought out some fortified orange drink for us to share.  It broke up the trip down, and gave us an extra boost of energy.  I still say it would be a great revenue generator to put in a zip line in to shorten the descent.

We were back at Barafu Camp by 9:30, and we were all ready for some well-needed and well-deserved rest, knees and calves included.  I heard another guide tell his group not to sleep, as that is when the altitude headache sets in, but that wasn’t Richard’s advice, and Richard had done well by us all week, so we took advantage of the three hours we were given by Richard, in spite of how hungry we were

Lunch was served, along with a big bottle of Coke, courtesy of our thoughtful guide.  Then the call to pack up so we could head to our next camp on the way down to Moshi town. 

We were all pretty beat up from the morning, but it was a nice afternoon, and we were anxious to get to Mweka Camp and sleep!  We put up a pretty good pace, covering 12 km and descending to 5,380’.  Up until today, I had been successful at NOT falling, but today I managed to fall twice, once on the descent from Uhuru Peak to Barafu Camp, and another from Barafu Camp to Mweka Camp, the last being the most gracious face-first into a pile of rocks.  Fortunately my glasses saved my face, but that meant they also took a good couple scratches. No big harm done, just a few scrapes on the nose, and we were back on the trail.

Mweka Camp was busy, and when we signed in (as we did at every camp except one for some unknown reason), we noticed beer was now available.  We caught up with a bunch of fellow trekkers we had met earlier in the week and shared stories about our summits, which made for some interesting stories.  Then to our tents for tea and dinner.  Our dear guide had placed individual beers at each of our place settings along with individual, personalized congratulatory notes.  We made it an early night, and I believe we all reported in the morning that we slept like babies.
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jaynewick on

Ha, John... I haven't had a cigarette in over 6 months. Thanks for calling me out on this, though!! Interestingly enough, the smokers reportedly had an easier time with the altitude, because their lungs are already accustomed to diminished capacity. Many of the porters smoked. Funny, heh?

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