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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.

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