Kilimanjaro: To the summit we go!

Directly from my diary as logged on August 15 at 1:10pm

Just back from the summit. I made it!

I’m sure a few days from now I’ll feel good about my accomplishment, but right now I’m just feeling sick, tired and miserable. In 15 minutes we HAVE to get up for lunch after a one-hour nap (I only slept for 30 minutes), pack, then walk I don’t know how many kilometers back to Horombo for the night. I don’t know if I even can. My muscles are completely spent and my head feels like heat is coming out of it. I’m checking my temperature as I write.

The summit hike started last night at 11pm. Peter woke us up (we slept from

Hiking to the summit at midnight

Hiking to the summit at midnight

 6 – 10pm) and we put on all our layers and gear.

I had on thermal underwear top and bottom, fleece top and bottom, winter pants bottom, and on top two more fleece, a down jacket and a wind jacket. On my head I had a semi-ski head cover thing, and a baklava on top of my hair cover and triangular scarf. I had two socks on, two gloves, gaiters, and boots. Inside both socks and gloves were these cool hand and toe warmers Amy gave us. I THOUGHT I’d be warm with all that on. I was wrong. VERY wrong.

We had a small breakfast and left immediately. Peter led with Alphonce holding the rear. We stood outside and Peter led a small prayer as we held hands asking God to help us on our journey.

And we started.

The first few minutes were fine. Then POOF! We were basically climbing a 90 degree incline. It was horrible. Amy and I were terribly cold and we had trouble on the way up. It was hugely tiring. Amy’s fingers froze early on – she has Raynaud’s disease – so much so that she was crying in pain. Renate gave Amy her really warm mittens and she spent the rest of the hike without gloves at all! She is one of the strongest women I’ve ever seen. Because Amy had clenched her hands around some hand warmers inside Renate’s mittens to get some kind of warmth to her hands, she wasn’t able to hold her trekking poles, which made the hike up for her extremely difficult. I have no idea how she did it.

The way up starts as a dusty, sandy, pebbly trail that is sharply inclined. So we switch-backed for awhile. Since the incline was sharp it was hard but it was doable. About a fourth of the way up the scrambling starts. That was awful and miserable. Along the way, we met a German woman returning (we were the first group to start that night but because we were going pole, pole a couple of groups passed us). The German woman wasn’t feeling well. Both Alphonce and Peter told her we were close (they were lying) and she should continue trying. I told her to join our group of women because we go slowly. She said she really couldn’t and continued down the mountain with one of her group’s guides.

We also saw another fellow sitting on the side along the way, clearly not feeling well. It looked like he needed a rest before he could continue. And of course we saw vomit, which made me nauseous most of the way up (that and dehydration and altitude).

We made only one real stop in some sort of a cave and drank and had snacks and I peed. We could see below us the headlamps of other climbers slowly making their way up in a trail of lights from our route and another route.

And we started again.

Our goal was to reach Gilman’s Point at 5685 meters. Peter had told us that getting to Gilman’s was the hard part and the rest was a semi-straight walk along the crater to the summit (he wasn’t lying here).

The climb was so miserable that Amy and I both told Peter and Alphonce not to stop for any breaks and to just go on. We were both afraid that if we stopped we wouldn’t be able to continue.

I asked the question, “Are we almost there?” a gazillion times, just like a child. Each time, Alphonce, who was now in the lead, would give me a number of minutes that sounded doable so I’d persevere. Then after that number of minutes I’d ask again and he’d give me the same number or more and I’d realize he was lying to keep us going.

Once, when I told him, “You’re not telling the truth!”, he said, “Twenty minutes on the mountain is 40 minutes in real time.” Ya salam! But I continued, hoping all the time we were almost there.

The cold was horrible and bone-chilling. I had snot running down my nose with no way to wipe it away because my double-layer of gloves made my hands useless. So I’d do as Arab men do and blow the snot out onto the ground and wipe the remnants off on my arm. My nose felt like it would fall off. There were times when all I wanted out of life at that stage was to be able to wipe my nose.

We continued our scramble for what seemed like forever and then suddenly, at 5:30 am, Alphonce said we were there. Of course I had stopped believing anything he told me by then. But I looked around, saw Alphonce doing a happy dance, and sure enough a sign said “Gilman’s Point: 5685 meters”. I couldn’t believe it! I cried like a baby. I sat down and purified myself quickly tayamum with gloves and jacket on and all and prayed fajr as I could see the line of coloration between black and white in the sky. I prayed sitting down where I was and didn’t even try looking for the correct direction of prayer toward Mecca. While I was praying, Alphonce and Peter both rushed us to get up and continue. They wanted us to stay on the mountain for as little time as possible to avoid altitude sickness. I was praying but they didn’t notice and they continued to urge me on. Amy yelled at them, “She’s praying. Just leave her alone!” I finished and got up, hoping we could now make it to the summit.

The hike to the summit from Gilman’s Point wasn’t too horrible. It goes up and down in small hills along a crater. The ground has frozen crystals all over and Renate realized our own clothes did too. I looked at my clothes and sure enough everything was crystallized. I was literally freezing! I was starting to feel really miserable. I hadn’t eaten or drank hardly anything since our cave stop and felt I couldn’t. We hadn’t slept well, we were at very high altitude, and I was exhausted from the climb. I was starting to feel sick but the hope that we were almost there kept me going.

On the way to Uhuru Peak, we started seeing people who made it there coming down. One had a lot of energy and said, “You’re almost there. You’re almost there! 15 minutes!” It wasn’t 15 minutes. Awhile later (you lose sense of time up there) we met two other guys who said it was about 45 minutes to summit. That was closer to the truth.

Eventually, after about forever, and amidst a thick cloud covering, we saw people stopped on the peak, gathered taking pictures.

I reached the peak, threw myself down to the ground actually completely lying down, and cried. I couldn’t believe I made it. They weren’t tears of joy, mind you! They were tears of: That was so hard and now I just want to go home!

I forgot to mention on the way up, Amy said: “This could be one of the worst days of my life.” I said, “I have no idea what made me think of doing this for a holiday. I must be sick.”

Also on the way up, we stopped Alphonce several times: “Alphonce, please put my gloves under my jacket sleeve for me.” “Alphonce, please buckle my day pack.” “Alphonce, please get me my water.” “Alphonce, please put my water back in my day pack.” Alphonce, Alphonce, Alphonce, na na na na na na na.

Back to peak: immediately after I lay down Alphonce came and picked me up, forbidding me from sleeping on the mountain explaining that I would get sick that way. So I just sat there for a few minutes catching my breath and crying.

I then bent my head to the ground in sojood, thanking God that I made it to the summit. And I started looking for my flag and my wreath. “Alphonce, can you get those out of the bag for me?”

I then slowly got up and headed towards the signpost on the peak for my

At 5895 meters on Uhuru Peak

At 5895 meters on Uhuru Peak

 peak picture. “Peter, can you please take my picture with my camera?” He tried but it had frozen and wasn’t working. “Renate, can you please take my picture with your camera? Mine isn’t working.” To which she responded by giving her small camera to Alphonce. I dutifully waited my turn in line while other hikers took their pictures next to the signpost. I then stood next to it, tried to hold out my flag, but the wind was blowing it away so I wrapped it around me. I have no idea if I even attempted a smile or cleaned the tears from my frozen face and I then had my picture taken. I never looked at the signpost to see what it said. I could really care less. I was miserable. I can’t say that enough times. But I did assume it said Uhuru Peak and its altitude (5895 meters).

I then went back and sat down for awhile, ate a couple of dates and drank some water that I asked Alphonce to get me, until Amy asked Renate and I to get up and take a group picture. We did; one with Peter and the other with Alphonce.

I saw one man getting his picture taken with the glacier as the background. It really was amazingly beautiful and it’s such a shame I was feeling so awful that I couldn’t fully appreciate it. But I did have enough presence of mind to ask Renate to take a picture of me with her good camera, which she had taken out. I then asked Peter where the “Internet cafe” was. This was our code word for bathroom. He pointed to a spot just beyond the peak so I asked Amy to come and guard the way while I marked my spot on the roof of Africa. It was pretty flat there so if not for the clouds everyone could have seen me. I was probably partially seen with the clouds but I really didn’t care. Putting on my three layers of pants was LABORIOUS. It really felt like hard work up there.

Renate asked for my mobile to make a call to her niece so I just gave it to her to figure out how to use. I wanted to get off the mountain as fast as possible.

There was no network so she gave it back. As Amy and I moved just a few meters from the peak I received a couple of text messages and thus discovered there was network coverage at that spot. I quickly write a simple text message and sent it to perhaps five friends who were rooting for me and I called my father. “You are the only person in my life who really deserves this special call,” I told him. “And now I have to shut the line because the altitude is making me sick and I really need to get down,” I added. He seemed genuinely happy to receive that call even though he was never enthusiastic about this trip. I love my dad, if you can’t tell.

And Amy and I headed slowly down with Alphonce protectively behind us. I gave my mobile to Renate and left it with her. No one answered but she said she did manage to send a short text message.

The hike down was arduous. I was feeling sicker and sicker. A few meters from the peak an Asian-looking man was semi-sitting on the ground looking very sick but clearly willing to crawl to the peak if he had to. I told him not to worry. He really was almost there. I as very sick too but I made it, I told him. He nodded and we continued on.

I wanted to rest at intervals because I was becoming very nauseous, but Alphonce pushed and pushed, urging me to move on because we HAD to get off the mountain. “You are just tired,” he’d say. “You don’t have mountain sickness.” He had checked my eyes before for something and did seem to know what he was talking about. “But if you don’t go down quickly you will get it,” he said. I couldn’t.

Eventually somewhere between Uhuru and Gilman’s Point I threw up what little I had in my stomach. Alphonce stood by, rubbing my back. I waited till my stomach calmed down and continued slowly on. But I was just so tired and drained that I could hardly move a few steps without stopping. A short way after Gilman’s Point I just sat. I couldn’t go another step. And by then, of course, daylight had made the trail of our previous ascent clear to me and I just couldn’t imagine how I’d get down. It was almost straight down! It was a horrifying sight. Both Amy and I said that if we had seen that during the climb we wouldn’t have done it. So I sat and rested then decided if I couldn’t walk down, maybe I could just slide down on my butt. So I started doing that. Alphonce looked at me disgustingly. He said, “You can’t go down the mountain like that. If you’re going to do that, we might as well just get you a stretcher.” So I stood up again and tried again. I really could only walk a few more steps. By then Renate and Peter had caught up and Renate got me some gew from Amy and insisted I needed some quick energy. I obeyed but it tasted awful. I managed only a few licks and a couple of sips of water.

Alphonce seemed so fed up with me that he took charge of Renate and Amy and left me behind with Peter. Peter insisted he support me with my arm in his while we continued our way slowly down. It was pretty much a slide down using our heels to support us in the sandy/pebbly ground. We’d slide, rest and have gew and water, then slide again. Peter now had my arm on his shoulder and his arm around my waist so he could support me more. It really did help. Eventually as we descended and as I had more water, electrolytes and glucose in my system I got strong enough to support my own weight. I could see Amy, Renate and Alphonce further down with Alphonce supporting Amy and rushing down the hill. She’d stop every now and then and would bend over. I worried she was sick like me. I later learned that Alphonce told her we must get off the mountain fast and grabbed her arm and basically pulled her down the mountain. This had a bad impact on her toes, which hurt her for the rest of the hike down.

Eventually, I held two trekking poles and started down on my own. The incline now was steep but not as steep as before and I could see Kibo in the distance so I had a goal to walk to.

Eventually I reached Kibo. I was feeling much better. I went into our room where Renate and Amy had arrived a few minutes earlier. I couldn’t even wait for the wash-up water even though we were covered from head to toe in red dust. I took off my boots, gaiters and jackets and gave them to Peter upon his instruction to have them dusted off. So did the others. I opened my sleeping bag and threw myself in. It was 12:15pm. Peter would give us till 1:30pm to sleep then we’d lunch and rush down to Horombo. No one is allowed in Kibo longer than 24 hours for safety reasons against altitude sickness.

I had no idea how I was going to make the four to five hour hike and didn’t care. I fell asleep.

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