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Kilimanjaro Retrospective Part 6: Summit Day!

Full moon ascent
Barafu Camp (4,450 m/ 14,930 ft) to Stella Point (5,695 m/18,684 ft) and Uhuru Peak (5,895m/ 19,340 ft)

It’s finally here, the moment we’ve all been waiting for. The summit climb.

At 11 pm, we were pulling on 4 layers of clothing – both tops and bottoms. We looked like the Michelin Man—that is, if anyone could see us in the dark! It’s cold out. 10F/-10C at Barufu, a little below 5,000 m. It will get colder before daybreak. And so it begins… we set out by the light of the moon. We actually don’t really need our headlamps, its bright enough and we can see the glow on Kibo’s glaciers above. The next 7 hours are pretty much compressed into a surreal fog. Walk, breathe, stop, rest. Repeat. Very slowly. Pole Pole, trudging up, climbing 4,500 vertical feet (1,350 metres) over 7 km is a marathon taken 1 oxygen-deprived step at a time.

People are stumbling about like zombies. Most can’t quite seem to perform simple tasks like open their water bottles or turn on their headlamps. For some, their water has already frozen because they didn’t insulate it well. Others are nauseous and vomiting because of the altitude. Myself, I start to lag behind after the 5,000m point. Breathing is too difficult. Eliakim, one of the guides, takes away my pack to help me out. It helps for a while. But eventually, even with a lightened load, the thin air takes its toll.

It’s now an hour or so before dawn. The moon falls behind Kibo and it gets dark. We must take out our headlamps. And does it ever get cold. My fingers seem frozen to the bone. I have warmer mitts… but don’t have the energy or presence of mind to dig them out. I just whimper and rub my hands together to restore the circulation.

We keep plodding along, and the sky starts to lighten. The sun peeks over the jagged spires of Mawenzi, the 2nd highest volcanic cone on Kilimanjaro. And it warms our spirits and spurs us on. We keep plodding, and soon the crater rim is in sight above us. But it is a steep climb up the scree slope. The last few hundred feet feel like a mile and take the better part of a half-hour, if not more. By 7:30 am, we’ve all managed to reach Stella Point on the crater rim (I think I’m last to arrive).  For this, we earn a green certificate of achievement signed by the officials of Kilimanjaro National Park.

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Everyone is exhausted after 7.5 hours of climbing in the cold, with little or nothing to eat. We take the requisite group photos and rest a bit, enjoying the views of Rebmann Glacier, the crater pit, and the ice fields on the other side of the volcano’s rim. Now we must all make our own decision…. Is the crater rim enough? Or do we press on to the highest point on the rim, the highest point in Africa, Uhuru Peak?  The group is evenly divided on the issue. 6/11 opt for the descent, while 5/11 continue on. Myself, I had enough and decided against continuing, especially because I was the slowest in the group at that point, and didn’t think I could push myself to keep up!

For those who pressed on to Uhuru peak (5,895 meters), it was another hour of “Pole, Pole” (slowly, slowly) at an even more “Pole, Pole” pace.   Kilimanjaro, in the Chagga language, is known as the ‘journey that never ends’.   The air was thinner than at Gillman’s point and although the climb was not particularly steep, it was extremely tiring.    Kilimanjaro boasts five major ecological zones.  The summit  zone (5,000 to 5,895 meters), is just bare volcanic rock and ice.  No sign of life – except for the climbers!

In the late 1880s the summit of Kibo was completely covered by an ice cap with outlet glaciers cascading down the western and southern slopes, and, except for the inner cone, the entire caldera was buried. In the past century, Kilimanjaro has lost 80% of its ice cover. At the current rate, Kilimanjaro is expected to become ice-free some time between 2022 and 2033.

Kilimanjaro Retrospective Part 5: Barufu

Day 5 of the climb
Karanga Valley Camp to Barafu Camp (4,550 m / 14,930 ft; 12 km/ 7.5 mi)

Today is the day before the big day—everyone is a little nervous. We set out after breakfast for Barufu Camp. The landscape is now completely barren. Lava rock, shale, scree, the odd snow patch, and only the ravens circling above. Despite being essentially devoid of life, the rocky landscape above the clouds holds a certain beauty. Much like the desert does. In face, this is a desert—an alpine desert. The views of the Kibo Saddle, and the rugged Mawenzi Peak are breathtaking.  These are both extensions of Kilimanjaro. And the air in thin at this altitude, which makes every step breathtaking as well!

Barufu – Swahili for Ice

We arrived at Barufu Camp around 1:30.  Early compared to the rest of the trip. This is the last stop before the actual summit bid in about 10 hours. People are still coming down from the summit of the mountain, so we have to wait for them to leave before we can set up camp. We wedge ourselves among the rocks and bask in the sun. Despite the spectacular views and the awe-inspiring feeling of being near the top of the world, this is an inhospitable environment.

Once the tents are up, we have lunch and nervously sort out our warm clothes for the summit climb. Then we try to nap for a few hours before dinner. Dinner is carbohydrate overload—pasta, beans, french toast, and fried potatoes. A crazy combination that would have Atkins turning in his grave.

The fatigue we are experiencing is somewhat offset by the excitement level. We try to catch a bit more rest before the climb.  So we crawl into the sleeping bags for a couple more hours and although we don’t really sleep, we get some much-needed rest.  We wake up at 11 pm to set out under the full moon to reach the crater rim—and the Roof of Africa— around sunrise.  It’s cold, dark and windy, making it even harder to get up and out of the minus 20° sleeping bags. But no precipitation now, so the summit bid is a go. Time for an “Alpine Start.”

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“Mountain climbing is comprehended dimly, if at all, by most of the nonclimbing world.  It’s a favorite subject for bad movies and spurious metaphors.  A dream about scaling some high, jagged alp is something a shrink can really sink his teeth into.  The activity is wrapped in exaggerated tales of audacity and disaster that make other sports out to be trivial games by comparison; as an idea, climbing strikes that chord in the public imagination most often associated with sharks and killer bees.

“People who don’t climb mountains – the great majority of humankind, that is to say – tend to assume that the sport is a reckless, Dionysian pursuit of ever escalating thrills.  But the notion that climbers are merely adrenaline junkies chasing a righteous fix is a fallacy, certainly on any high altitude mountain.  What we were doing up there had nothing in common with bungee jumping or skydiving or riding a motorcycle at 120 miles per hour.

“Above the comforts of Base Camp, the expedition in fact became an almost Calvinistic undertaking.  I quickly came to understand that high altitude was primarily about enduring discomfort.”

Jon Krakauer

To be continued…

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