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.
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.
Day 3 of the climb: Ups and downs
Shira Camp (3,890 m/ 12,760ft) to Lava Tower (4,630 m/15,190 ft) to Barranco Camp (3,950 m/12,960 ft); 18 km/ 11.2 mi
Crossing Shira Plateau
We set out from Shira camp under slightly overcast skies. After an hour or so, drizzle and hail set in. We kept on through a moonscape of lava boulders and sedge grass. Nothing much growing up here. Although we began in the lush tropical rain forest just a 2 days ago, any signs of plant life are starting to disappear fast. Not to put too fine a point on it, we are about to spend time in areas not meant for either plants or animals to stay very long. Plants can’t thrive and the only animals are some insects and small rodents and in another day even they will disappear. Spiders are sometimes seen quite high up, but how they survive with almost no water around is a mystery. The only constant is the ravens soaring high up in the sky, and scavenging at the camps.
Today is an acclimatization day. Meaning we climb to a relatively high altitude and then descend to sleep low. It helps the body adjust for the days to come, where the air pressure will be progressively lower. As the air pressure decreases, the fluid balance changes. Blood thickens and fluid leaks into the tissues. This can cause headaches, nausea, and swelling in the extremities. In extreme cases, acute mountain sickness can lead to fluid on the brain or in the lungs, which can be fatal.
Anyhow, as we climbed in the hail, I began to feel the altitude. I was queasy by 4,300m and feeling pretty awful by 4,500m, when we stopped for lunch. I had no appetite, so I pressed on toward the Lava Tower. I just wanted to get to a lower spot! It was amazing how descending just a couple hundred meters made all the difference. I was almost euphoric and ran down the slope into the valley below the Lava Tower.
We continued on up and over a series of ridges and valleys before reaching our destination, Barranco. The Barranco Valley was magical. As we descended to the valley floor, we were greeted by a magical forest of giant lobelia and Senecio. These hardy plants are among the few that can survive in the harsh environment. And looking up, we were below Kibo, with great views of the glaciers.
We are now circling around to the east of the mountain, below the summit. Some people climb directly from the west side–but our longer route will give us more time to acclimatize. Today, we actually climbed almost 700 metres to get to the tower and then descended just about the same amount to get to Barranco. Why gain all that altitude and then go back down, you might ask? This is part of the “climb high, sleep low” regimen. When you sleep, your metabolism (respiratory rate and circulation) slows down and because of that your body suffers more from the thinner air and lower air pressure at altitude than when you are awake and moving. So they try to get a day of climbing higher to acclimatize, but then let the body recover by sleeping at a similar altitude to the night before. Of course you ultimately have to climb and sleep higher, but this helps and is one reason taking a longer route to the top (as we did) can improve the chances of making it.
To be continued…
Day #2 of the climb
Machame camp to Shira Camp (3,890 m/12,760 ft); 10 km/ 6.2 mi
No one slept terribly well last night. The first 6,000+ ft gain in altitude from town to Machame camp made many of us a bit breathless and nauseous. And the excitement of the first night of the trip, anticipation of things to come, didn’t help. The night sky was clear with thousands of stars, and Kibo‘s snow cone almost glowed in the dark. Dawn brought warm sun and we basked for a while during breakfast before setting out.
The weather didn’t last for long! As we set out through the exposed in the heath zone (an area of mostly shrubbery) and began climbing, the clear sky turned to rain and hail. By the time we reached the lunch stop, many were soaked (despite Gore-Tex and all the high-tech gear). Leonard was almost hypothermic and Sylvia pretty much resolved to abandon the climb and return to the hotel. Fortunately, a little food, some dry clothes salvaged from the bottoms of our packs, and some hot tea lifted their spirits. Everyone pressed on and as we reached the Shira Plateau, the weather began to clear.
Shira is the smallest crater of Kilimanjaro. Shira Cathedral and Shira Needle, among other stunning jagged peaks, are separated from Kibo by a saddle called the Shira Plateau.
To be continued…