12 March 2013

Conquering Kilimanjaro

We made it!

I’m at the top of Africa.  This is the highest point on the earth between the Himalayas and the Andes.  This is Uhuru Peak on Mount Kilimanjaro.  The sun is rising over the horizon, which looks endless from this elevation on the highest freestanding mountain in the world.  Taking my camera out of my bag requires extra concentration from my oxygen-deprived brain and extra effort from my fingers that have been numbed by the bitterly cold wind.  I’m nearly overcome by emotion as Aloyce, my guide, hugs me and says “Congratulations!”  I made it!

* * * * * * *

Aminieli, one of our porters, shakes my tent at 10:35pm.  I’d barely slept in the last four hours after dinner; my mind was filled with anxious thoughts about making it to Kili’s summit.  After all, yesterday when we arrived at the Barafu base camp, we watched as several dazed-looking people, barely able to walk on their own, were being led down with arms over the shoulders of their guides and assistants.  One relatively fit-looking guy in his 20s or 30s was even being led down with an oxygen mask over his nose and mouth.

My Kili Trekking GroupMy group gathers in the dining tent to drink some tea and eat some biscuits (or what we Americans call cookies) prior to setting out on our all-night hike to attempt to reach the summit at sunrise.  Besides myself, there’s four Canadians in my group:  Dave, a 32-year old engineer from Edmonton; Craig, a 50-year old IT consultant from Regina; and Stacy, a 40-year old airplane mechanic, and his wife Christine, an airline pilot, from Toronto.  

Aloyce informs us that coffee is off limits.  He is afraid it will make our hearts beat too quickly.  He’s probably right, since the strain on our hearts will already be increased due to the increased exertion by our bodies walking up the last 1262 meters (4102 feet)  of the mountain while only getting about half the amount of oxygen with each breath as we would normally get at sea level.  However, it’s dark outside, and I just woke up.  I’d really like some coffee, but reluctantly settle for black tea.  The camp waiter, Abraham, gives us each a juice box and two chocolate bars to take in our backpacks in case we need some extra energy along the way.

As we set out from camp, Aloyce tells us that Samuel, one of the assistant guides, will stay back with Craig, since he prefers to walk slower and to take more frequent water breaks as we hike.  Aloyce will lead us others, and Obadia, another assistant guide, will follow behind us four.  Aloyce insists on carrying Stacy’s backpack and asks Stacy to carry Christine’s much lighter backpack.  Although this is their first high altitude trek, they are both in fairly good shape, and Stacy initially refuses to let Aloyce carry his pack.  Eventually, Aloyce convinces him that it’s for the best.  He also tells Samuel to carry Craig’s pack.  Then we are reminded that a successful attempt at the summit requires determination, a positive attitude, good teamwork, and pole pole.

Pole pole” is a phrase you hear often while climbing Kilimanjaro.  In Swahili, it means “go slowly”.  When hiking at high altitudes, it is one of the most important keys to successfully making it to your destination while minimizing the chances of altitude sickness.

Here we go.  It’s 11:30pm and we are on our way to Uhuru Peak.

* * * * * * *

We are definitely going pole pole now.  I feel like I’m walking in slow motion, just one foot in front of the other, pause a second, then the other foot, pause, and repeat.  I’m wearing a headlamp and all that I can see is the back of the person in front of me.   I’m not sure how I’m going to make it through the next six hours or so of this.

My fingers are numb from the cold wind, despite wearing two pairs of gloves.  I keep flexing them around my trekking pole handles to keep the blood flowing.

I wasn’t sure how many layers of clothing to wear, but decided to err on the side of wearing too much. On top, I’m wearing an REI synthetic base layer, an Icebreaker wool t-shirt, a thick Icebreaker 260 wool pullover, a Marmot Windstopper fleece, a Marmot down jacket, and a Marmot Goretex Pro shell.  For bottoms, I’m wearing a pair of polypropylene underwear, REI long underwear, Patagonia capilene long underwear, some Marmot soft-shell pants, and a pair of Marmot wind/rain pants.  My extremities are protected by two pairs of socks, including an extra thick pair of SmartWool mountaineering extra heavy socks; gaiters; Goretex hiking boots; a balaclava and hat; and two pairs of gloves.  Right now, I’m thankful for each and every layer I’m wearing.

About once an hour, we stop for short break. Each of us drinks some water and maybe takes a bite of a snack.  Dave smokes a cigarette.  Aloyce also checks on how everyone is doing.  He doesn’t say it, but I can tell that he’s watching us closely for signs of altitude sickness.  He doesn’t let us linger long at the break spots.  He says he doesn’t want us to get too cold or to get too sleepy.

We continue.  Up and up some more.  Step by step.  Pole pole.  

* * * * * * *

Kili's Kibo Crater At around 2:30am, Dave starts swerving back and forth like he’s drunk.  Aloyce notices and stops us.  He tells Obadia, “Take his backpack,” and to Dave in a stern fatherly voice, “No more cigarettes for you on this climb!”  Dave hands over his backpack and sits down.  His eyes look lost.  I’m worried for him, but after drinking some water and resting a few minutes, the glaze in his eyes starts to disappear.

We continue on.  I’m the only one carrying my own backpack now.  I hope I can make it all the way.

* * * * * * *

It’s harder to think straight at the decreased oxygen levels of high altitude.  To keep my mind going and to minimize the monotony of one slow step after another in the dark, I try calculating the Fibonacci series in my head.  

1 1 2 3 5…

After getting stuck at the number 5, I try to count in Bahasa Indonesia, the language of the country where I work.  

Satu, Dua, Tiga…

I make it to Tiga, or three, and can't remember the next number.  

Then, I start repeating the ABCs.  This is I can handle.  I make it all the way to Z.  Great, my mind is operating at the level of a five-year old at this altitude.  Oh, well.  I keep repeating, ABCDEFG….  At least it keeps my mind off my numb fingers and toes and the fact that we are only about halfway to the summit.

A B C D E F G…

Most of the walk consists of zigzagging through volcanic scree up a consistent incline of about 10-20 degrees.  It’s not steep, but at high altitude everything seems more difficult.

…H I J K… 

As we get higher, it feels like our pole pole pace keeps getting even slower.  My toes are getting numb now too.  I wish we could walk faster just to increase the circulation to my extremities, but I know that our heart and lungs probably can’t handle going any faster.  Each step seems to take extra effort just to make it happen.  I’m not sure if it’s the lack of oxygen or lack of sleep, but I’m getting sleepy and starting to get intermittent headaches that only last for a minute or two each.  

 “We’re almost there,” says Aloyce, as our pace slows to the point where there are sometimes what feels like minutes passing between each step.  And then, around 5am, we reach a flatter area and a large sign denoting Stella’s Point, the rim of the Kibo crater.  Aloyce gives us quick congratulations.  I’m surprised that we’re here already and the sun hasn’t even risen yet.  Based on Stacey and Christine’s reaction, I think they are under the impression that this is the summit.  I know it’s not the summit, but I’m wondering how long the walk takes to Uhuru Peak.  I have a feeling that it’s further away than I think.  I grab a quick drink of water, and Aloyce tells us we need to continue before we get too cold here.  We still have 156m (512ft) to ascend.

Pole pole, we continue along the crater rim.  At least the incline is a gentler slope now.  

I'm beginning to see the light Just before 6am, we take another break.  Aloyce tells us to look behind us.  Sunlight is beginning to trace the outline of the horizon.  From this height, you can see the curvature of the earth.  It’s a beautiful sight.  My cold fingers fumble with my camera case.  It seems like I will never get the buckle undone.  Eventually, I get it and quickly snap a few photos, not paying any attention to what settings I’m using on the camera.  I’m too deprived of oxygen to think that much.

…L M N O P…

Uhuru Peak can’t be too far from here, I think to myself.  I really wish the sun would rise faster and warm up my fingers and toes.

There are a few times when Christine’s pace slows to a stop.  I’m behind her and am secretly thankful she’s slowed down so I can catch my breath.

Christine sounds exhausted as she asks, “Stacy, how are you feeling?”.

“Okay,” Stacy barely mutters in response.

Pole pole, we carry on.

…Q R S… 

My eyes open suddenly.  

Wait, was I sleeping?

Yes, I was.  I fell asleep standing up!

It’s a good thing I have these trekking poles to lean on.

Hmmmm…. Did Aloyce or anyone else see me?

Christine is still stopped in front of me.  I’m staring at her shoes.

Whew!... I don’t think anyone noticed my little standing nap.

I’m so cold and tired.

But really…. when is someone going to offer to carry my backpack?

I just want to get to the summit and be done with this.

…T U V…

Christine says she needs a break.

Aloyce tells Obadia to go ahead with Dave and me.

I just hope we’re close.  I no longer care about the sunrise and summit.  I just want to get this over with and return to an altitude with more oxygen and warmer temperatures.

…W X Y Z

A Glacier and My Shadow Some glaciers are visible off to the left side, as the sky is slowly becoming brighter.

And then, there it is….  I see the sign up ahead marking Uhuru Peak, Africa’s highest point.  I made it!  

The only thing with which I can compare this feeling is the feeling of finishing my first (and only) marathon.  And this might even surpass that on the scale of elation and feeling of accomplishment.  It pushed limits of determination and physical ability.

* * * * * * *

Just like that, the sun rises over the horizon.  Perfect timing!

I suddenly forget all about my cold fingers and toes.  Even my mind seems to be thinking more clearly.

There are about 20 other people waiting around the sign for their turn to get their photo taken in front of it.  It’s a bit chaotic.  Someone hands me a camera and I take a photo of his group.  While I hand the camera back to its owner, another group butts in front of me and Dave.  Waiting in line seems to be a common courtesy that is lost when people are lacking oxygen.

* * * * * * *

It’s our turn for a photo now.  I hand my camera to Obadia.

“I feel like I’m going to throw up,” utters Dave.

I hope he can hold it in until this photo is finished.

The photos are taken quickly and someone else pushes forward to have their turn in front of the sign.

Dave doesn’t throw up, but he also can’t gather up enough energy to get his camera out of his backpack.

* * * * * * *

This really is an amazing experience to be standing on the top of Africa, and seeing the sun rise over the horizon.

Stacy, Christine, and Aloyce show up.  Aloyce hugs me, congratulates me, and says to me, “Imara kama simba” – a Swahili phrase meaning “strong like a lion” that I had learned along the way and had fun saying to various porters along the way who asked how I was doing.  

Cold and exhausted, but I made it! I’m starting to get emotional, so I step off to the side to take some photos. 

I also record a video on my iPhone.  Later when I watch that video, I notice that my voice doesn’t sound the same.  I guess that was another effect of the low oxygen levels.  Or maybe I was just that emotional at being on the summit of the iconic Mount Kilimanjaro.

Aloyce calls for me to join Stacy, Christine, and Dave for another photo in front of the sign.  I hustle over to join them, even though I feel like running around the rim and snapping photos of every view available in my newfound high altitude euphoria.

* * * * * * *

“We’d better get going,” says Aloyce.  “It’s not good for us to stay here too long.”

Neighbors And with that, we start heading back down.

I hand my trekking poles to Obadia, so I can take some photos as we walk.  I snap some quick shots the shadow of Kilimanjaro, visible close to Mount Meru (the second tallest mountain in Tanzania).

As we approach the glacier, we run into Craig.  He has less than ten minutes of walking now to make it to the summit.  I’m glad to see he’s going to make the summit. I'm glad that we all made it. Before Craig heads on to the summit, Aloyce convinces us to have a group photo of all five of us in front of the glacier.

After the quick photo session, Craig continues towards the summit, and we continue downhill.  I take several quick photos of the glaciers as we walk by.

I still can’t believe how awesome this is and how great I feel now!  I’m probably just semi-delirious from the lack of oxygen, but I don’t care.  At least my head doesn’t hurt, and my fingers and toes aren’t frozen numb anymore.

* * * * * * *

Obadia, Dave, and I head down the scree-filled slope at a fairly quick pace.  On the way down, pole pole no longer applies.

My knees start hurting as they get pounded on some of the rockier parts of the trail, but I don’t care.  My tent back at Barafu Camp is calling my name.  The quicker I get there, the more time I’ll have for a nap before hiking on to Mweka Camp.

That’s right…. Today’s hiking doesn’t end when we get back to base camp.  We still have another 4-5 hours descent beyond Barafu,… but I’ll worry about that after my nap.

* * * * * * *

Obadia, Dave, and I stroll into camp around 9am.  Abraham congratulates us and gives us a cup of pineapple juice.  We quickly gulp it down and then head for our tents.

Once inside, I can’t even gather up the energy to pack up my bag or even change clothes.  I strip off a couple outer layers and then pass out on top of my sleeping bag.

Lala kama simba.

The lion sleeps.

Jambo, jambo bwana
Habari gani
Nzuri sana
Wageni, mwakaribishwa
Kilimanjaro hakuna matata

[Thanks to Canadian Himalayan Expeditions for organizing this Kilimanjaro trip for me.]
Watch my video from the summit:


  1. Wow, I can relate to most everything in your narrative! Falling alseep as I went, looking to entertain my mind, etc. I cannot believe someone is, um, "dense" enough to smoke a cigarette on this climb. The visit at the top was all too brief and though I had my photo taken, I didn't think to review it to see if it came out well. That sign is only made to have a photo taken in one angle so the yellow letters show up on the green background - who came up with THAT scheme?!! But in the end, nothing takes away having made it - congrats to you and your group!

  2. Thanks for visiting my blog and commenting. I'm glad to hear that I wasn't the only one losing his mind while making it to the top. I'd read so much about how "all you need is the ability to walk" to summit Kilimanjaro. After doing it, I think being mentally tough is every bit as much of a requirement.

    Congratulations on your Kili climb as well! I'm glad I stumbled upon your Twitter feed and blog. I'm enjoying reading your blog, especially your post about preparing for the trip.

  3. Interesting read. I am doing my first marathon this October, so I can relate, or will be able to relate once I complete it. Congratulations on completing the ascent.

  4. Ted, thanks for visiting my blog and commenting. Good luck on your marathon!.... if it's anything like mine, it will be one of the most painful, yet awesome experiences of your life.


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