Strong, slow, and steady: Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro

As the sun warmed our backs, its orange-red glow illuminated our path. Gravel, scree, and boulders were all we could see. From the soles of our dust-covered hiking boots to the white-wispy clouds in the sky, it never ended. We never gave up.

The highest point on the African continent, Mt. Kilimanjaro is one of the seven summits of the world. Standing at 19,341 feet, it has six official hiking routes that take visitors into the clouds and to the summit. Approximately 15,000 people climb it annually and it’s considered to be one of the most amazing mountain summits that you can complete without technical skills.

Acclimation Hike 2

Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro has always been a dream of mine. Some of you may remember the list I made a few years ago of the 10 Hikes I wished to finish in the next ten years. This one was on it. So when the opportunity came around, I couldn’t turn it down. The plan was to approach the mountain from the northeast and follow the Rongai Route to the summit. We had seven days to cover the nearly 50 miles from the Rongai Gate to the summit and back down to the Marangu Gate.

After two months of training, packing, and catching three flights to Tanzania, we did our last gear check with our guides from Kili Base Adventures and tried to get a little nervous sleep before setting out to the base of Kilimanjaro the next morning.

As we started to hike the trail, it was still surreal… and, wow, was it slow going. One step, pause, then another. I knew our guides were preparing us for the pace of the summit, but I didn’t expect it to start on day one. As we rolled into our first camp for the night – our porters beating us there by an hour or two and setting up all the tents, mess-tent, and private toilet – I thought, “this is going to be a long seven days.”

Simba Camp to Cave 1

But each day hiking up Mt. Kilimanjaro flew by. We’d hike between 3 to 5 hours each day, slowly but surely making our way upwards, the final peak still in the distance. We’d break for a hot lunch, rest for a bit in the afternoon, and then go for an acclimation hike for 30 minutes to an hour. By hiking high in the afternoon and sleeping low, we got used to the elevation and were more prepared for the next day’s journey.

As the sun set on day four at the School Hut camp, our lead guide, Sifael, came to us at dinner time with an idea. Instead of hiking the short 30 minutes from School Hut to Kibo Camp the next day and then attempting a midnight summit, he suggested leaving in just 8 hours for the summit – a daylight hike. My travel companions were nervous about hiking in the dark and our guide had sensed that; however, he felt that we were also strong enough to leave for the top a day earlier than planned without our last acclimation hike.

With our full faith in him, we decide to summit earlier that next morning.

At 3:30am, one of our porters woke us up and requested our water bottles so that they could be filled with hot water for the climb. Pulling on my headlamp, rubbing my eyes clear of sleep, and tucking my warm sleeping bag back into my duffle, I climbed out of the tent to a sky full of stars. It was cold, but not as cold as I expected. And it was beautiful.

Mess Tent Night 2

After a breakfast of cold toast with peanut butter and chocolate cookies, we set out for the summit. I wore almost every layer I brought: a long sleeve base layer, my zip sweater, puffy down coat, and hard shell; plus a beanie, ski gloves, and buff. I was content and comfortable as soon as we started moving. While my hiking partners were a little unsure in the dark, I thrived; curious about everything beyond the darkness at the edge of my headlamp’s light. I looked left and right, up and down. You could see the string of headlamps high above us – the hikers who left camp at midnight nearing Gilman’s Point and the summit rim.

After a few hours of cutting across the mountain from School Hut, we joined the regular route to the summit from Kibo Hut. The sun started to rise from behind Mwenzi Peak, a little orange streak on the horizon then stretching to a full array of morning light. We took a short break to watch this very typical morning occurrence; but with cold, deep breathes we could all feel how different and monumental this sunrise was. We were going to reach our goal today. Only a few minutes later, we continued to climb in silence.

Sunrise

The next phase of the climb was the toughest – a massive scree field up to Gilman’s Point. Switch back after switch back, after switch back. By this point, I felt good. I felt strong. I hit my rhythm and hummed a Swahili song to myself to keep my pace. Two hours passed like this.

Large boulders and rocks filled the last pitch up to Gilman’s Point and the rim of Kilimanjaro’s crater. I enjoyed the change and challenge; however the trail also started to get crowded with hikers heading down. Coming up to the rim, you could see the sign welcoming you to the high point, welcoming rest.

But we weren’t done yet. A second, identical sign was barely in sight on the true summit, an hour and a half walk away and 300 meters still to climb.

Rim Hike

This is when I started to struggle. A little above 18,000 feet as we passed Stella’s Point and the trails of the southern climbing routes, I started to get a headache. It started as a gentle hum between my eyes and grew to a deep pounding in my forehead. I knew headaches were common though at high elevations; I had experienced the same issue when hiking in the Himalayas. So I pushed on. Only another 20 minutes our guides reassured us.

Walking the last few hundred feet to the summit was a blur. With so much leading to this moment, each step increased the emotions. Our breathing was ragged. Our backpacks weighed us down. The headache reverberated through my body  with every movement. But as we stepped onto the summit, Uhulu Peak, we went weightless with exuberance. Embracing each other and our guides, we were giddy with excitement and tears glistened in more than just my own eyes. Smiles enveloped our faces as we stared at the summit marker. We’d done it, we’d reached the highest point in Africa.

Summit Photo

All that was left was to get our picture at the top; proof of our accomplishment to be shared with those who cheered us on at home or doubted us. Dumping our backpacks where we stopped, we put our arms around each other, held our heads high, smiled and said “Kili.”

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