Kilimanjaro Day 6. Summiting, Part II

I cried twice.

The “small cry” where no one hears you or knows how emotional you felt except for yourself. The only evidence are hot tears of victory welling up, sweet relief, and a memory physically imprinted of 6-8am on January 5, 2020.

The first time: seeing the first shard of daylight illuminate the snowbanks ahead. It’s been at least six hours since I began the 4.5k ft ascent from basecamp at midnight. Stopping for breath, I turned around. I couldn’t see the sun behind the clouds, but the darkness had turned a pale white. Morning had come.

The second time: when I spotted the wooden signpost marking Stella Point. Stella Point is approximately forty five minutes from the peak and marks the edge of the crater comprising the mountain top. It means you’re close.

To think that the worst of the ascent was ending got me bounding up the last 50 feet of this segment with unbridled joy. I turned around a second time, whooped out loud, and hugged every teammate who trudged up in relief.

Six hours of darkness in the bag!

Daybreak w ith Essau and Fusso at Stella Point, 5,756 meters (18,885 feet), an hour and 400 ft of elevation gain from Uhuru Peak

By the time we ascended the final trail to finish officially at Uhuru Peak, my emotional high had subsided behind sensations of cold and fatigue. However, my awe for the whiteout at the top of the mountain was not diminished.

I’ve never seen an alien world like this. Ice etched into the ground like white, three feet tall coral reefs defined our entire surrounding. Unforgiving, blisteringly cold, and hard against the pummeling winds.

Otherworldly whiteout at the top. Cold? Just a little.

The winds up here were unrelenting in their aggression. I found out later that we had spent at least two hours in -20C (-10F) weather, excluding wind chill. These were not normal summit conditions. And they tinted all of our photos real blue.

It was stressful for our guides because our group had dispersed into three sub-groups as people reached the summit at difference paces. Individual reactions to the altitude, cold, and nausea varied, but I felt beyond proud that…

Uhuru Peak,  5,895 m (19,341 ft).

Everyone made it.

We slipped, we fell, we paused for huge breaths. “Don’t SLIIIP!” (sleep or slip? same thing, right Anna?) our guides laughed and warned for the past six hours. But we made it!

You will (hopefully) have a different (read: sunnier) summit experience than I did. But trust me, the sheer relief and joy you feel will make EVERYTHING it took to get up here worth it. Our guides were so, so happy for us, and we for them.

I cannot re-live this memory without closing my eyes and breaking into a wide smile.

The peak of 2020: Uhuru Peak at 7am on Jan 5.

I so badly wanted to document these ten minutes at the peak and took off one glove to expose my right hand for photos with my friends. My hand turned blue within three minutes, and I gave up.

After shuffling awkwardly into a penguin-like group shot and celebrating our victory with cheers muffled by our balaclavas and winds, our head guide Saidi prepared to shepherd us off of the peak ASAP.

We were one of several hiking groups celebrating our summit during this whiteout. It was time to go.

My summit porter Essau from Everlasting Tanzania had taken my daypack off of me some four hours ago. I couldn’t have done it without him. Our summit porters attended our every need during this humbling ten-hour roundtrip– unpacking juice boxes, zipping up gloves, buckling our backpack straps, shaking us out of deathly pale shivers. My teammates can attest.

Going down to basecamp only took two hours, whereas coming up took six to seven. The trail from Uhuru Peak to Stella Point was relatively flat. Most of it was dirt covered in snow. The powder made it slippery.

In the trail segments patted down more firmly, I indulged myself and ran down the trail at a moderate clip. Snow running is so fun. I eventually stopped myself from being an idiot because running up here is a poor use of energy.

In hindsight, I find it hard to believe that I wore only three layers for the majority of those ten hours on the mountain. My body must have converted into a heat generator.

Past Stella Point, the remaining 90% of descent was on rich, thick red soil and at times highly slippery rock and ice. When the soil got deep enough, I landed on my heels versus my toes to let my feet slide down first. It wasn’t great on my knees no matter how you approached it.

Glacial panorama one hour down. Remember we came up this way in pitch black roughly six hours ago.
Stopping for breaks.

The landscape remained glacial, turning sandier and rockier the closer we approached Barafu basecamp. We took several breaks along the way. Breathing definitely got easier in the second hour. I half-walked, half-ran with Rob and Nick toward the end.

This is my favorite video by far which shows how dramatic our surroundings were.

Less than 30 minutes to Barafu basecamp. Does this feel like a video game or what? And Salomon, will you sponsor me one day?
Lightly jogging down the mountain with my friends
See the colorful dots on the far right? We were SO close to basecamp. Finally!

Just past 10am, I arrived back at Barafu camp. We had completed our summit of Mt Kilimanjaro. I sat in my tent for an hour, sipping on juice and processing what just happened. My IT bands and quads will not feel soreness until lactic acid hit twenty four hours later.

Back at Barafu basecamp post-summit. Sheltered and 30% replenished after our midnight to 10am roundtrip. Only four hours to go.

The next four hours: We barely rested for an hour before we packed up our belongings to embark upon another four hour descent from Barafu camp (4645m, 15k ft) to Mweka camp (3200m, 10k ft). The goal was to “sleep low” to minimize altitude sickness and take advantage of our heightened adrenaline to cover distance before sleep deprivation started to kick in.

Leaving Barafu Camp in early afternoon. The sky had cleared into a brilliant blue.
The second half of those four hours toward Mweka transformed from arctic desert to lush rainforest, complete with sporadic thunder.

This segment was pure mud and rock, complete with flashes of lightning and gentle rain. Yes, bring a backpack with a rain cover. To be honest, it was harder than the two hours down from the peak because we were worn out and the trail terrain was significantly muddier.

If you think about the number of biomes traversed in these fifteen hours, it’s pretty amazing: from arctic, to alpine desert, moorland, and rainforest, borderline agriculture.

One guy in our group wasn’t feeling so hot and needed to be carried down bound to a stretcher. I can barely imagine how the five porters took him down on this wet, slippery route.

I felt a weight come off my chest when we laid down to rest tonight. The mission I had come to accomplish was done.

Mweka Camp around 7pm on Day 6. I was ready for rest after 20 hours awake and moving.

As I admitted in Kelleigh’s video “confessionals” later, reaching the top had been non-negotiable for me, but I kept my mind open to the possibility of a variety of outcomes in the six days that had passed. From here, I relaxed a little while focusing on staying injury-free until we arrive at Machame Gate, the mountain base, tomorrow.

High on adrenaline and dirty from a week without showers, my teammates and I processed our individual experiences over dinner that night. I was ready for bed not long afterward.

It took a village. Lifelong gratitude for the friends, porters, laughter, and collective persistence that pushed me to the top of Kilimanjaro.

Thank you for re-living one of the highlights of my life with me.

I hope this gives you a sense of what to expect on summit day. Please tag me if you experience a whiteout like this – I wouldn’t have had it any other way, but I warned you!!!

Three posts to come: Day 7 (final day) descent, three safaris I recommend in Tanzania, and how to pack for the Kili summit.

Warmly (in contrast to the blue-tinted photos above) and Goodbye May 2020,

Melissa

P.S. I’d like to thank my friend James for proofreading this post and reminding me that I omitted the letter “c” in “coral reef”…

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