Kilimanjaro: Top to Bottom
We didn't rise to our alarm's shrill buzz at 12:30am. I'd already turned it off an hour or more before when excitement and the noise of other groups departing for the summit woke us. Due to our performance the preceding five days, John and Emmanuel were confident that we could sleep an extra 90 minutes and still reach Kilimanjaro's summit for sunrise. No one voiced any resistance to that news!
Keri remained in her sleeping bag while I eased outside to get a sense of the conditions. Crystal clear, calm, and cold, though not as cold as expected. Merely 4,000ft (1200M) above, moonlight illuminated Kili's silvery-blue summit glaciers. A string of white dots moved upwards like vines climbing a lattice. Travis’ back-end appeared less than gracefully from his tent, soon proceeded by Kyle. Keri roused herself from our fabric home.
“Does this water look funny to you guys?” quipped Kyle.
It was tang colored, i.e. orange, and included a serving of floaties.
“It tastes kinda funny,” followed before any of us could answer, which we did with sardonic skepticism.
Before we gave anymore thought to Kyle’s water, Roi magically appeared from the darkness and we ambled out of camp, our pace controlled from the start by Emmanuel.
Spirits were high. After five days of trekking and months of dreaming, the moment had arrived; we were actually heading to Africa’s apex! There were plenty of lights ahead of us acting as the proverbial carrot on a stick, a visible goal to catch. That first hour or even two were easy. We caught and passed group after group stopping once or twice for a rest and snack.
Then we were in limbo. Lights floated in darkness far, far above us and far below us, but we were suspended in blue-black space. Our world shrank to the bubble of light put forth by our individual headlamps. The moon had set; those interminable hours just before dawn which are the coldest of any night arrived. The Freezing Hours, as they are called on Kilimanjaro. Combined with darkness, an ever decreasing atmosphere and perhaps a headache, fatigue, or wind and the freezing hours can numb one’s motivation to continue. Kili becomes more akin to work. Head down, one foot in front of the other. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Boredom or misery or meditation?
John started singing. Then he started making animal noises. Soon clucking, barking, gobbling, mooing, crowing, roaring were coming out of us all. We stopped and drank tongue twistingly strong ginger tea, produced from our single porter’s pack, lifting spirits briefly until a chill of inactivity wiggled inside our clothing. This scene played out repeatedly, each time our spirits gained ground until suddenly, the pitch eased and our headlamps illuminated a sign.
Stella Point, 18,885ft/5756m
Our pace quickened, knowing there would be nothing keeping us from the summit!
I repeatedly sprinted ahead, turned to frame a photo, and laugh. John leapt into a snowbank, doing a somersault, leaving behind a Rastafarian snow angel. Dawn was rising. The jet black ribbon of trail threaded it’s way through summit snow fields, giving the feeling of walking a tightrope floating in space. We were on a ridge with nothing to block our view for 270 degrees. Ahead, filling the remaining 90 degrees was the summit, just now starting to glow orange.
Having stopped to take a photo, I found myself alone a few hundred meters from the summit and fought back tears. I was shocked. I never thought I would be tearing up on a mountain top, yet here I was. Months of planning, day-dreaming, uncertainty were about culminate atop Africa’s highest point.
I ran the final short distance to the summit sign, eager to catch my wife. I first ran into Travis and Jon, our porter who supported this final hike up, and he grabbed us in a hug, pushed his forehead against ours and we all jumped up and down in heartfelt celebration. Choking back tears once again, I scrambled to find Keri and we shared a summit kiss.
Reminiscent of a college party, the summit was a swarm of people speaking different languages who swirled and mingled in hypoxic, fatigue riddled chaos. Shortly before, we’d all been within our own heads, isolated by darkness, and now we were all on top of Kilimanjaro sharing the sunrise. Except for one vocal Frenchman, who seemed upset that others were in his summit photo, everyone was full of joy.
It was stunningly beautiful.
Kili’s shadow reached to the horizon, where Earth’s curvature was visible within layers of blue and purple and orange. Our time there was too fleeting.
We had over 9000ft/2800 to descend by day’s end. We nearly sprinted down the mountain. What we had ascended shortly before in darkness was wholly unrecognizable and bleak. Soil that was frozen solid during our ascent was now soft, cushioning dirt. Despite this absorbent surface, I could feel a pulse in my skull with each foot fall. A massive headache greeted me at camp, where we had an hour and a half to nap before eating lunch and departing for our final camp of this adventure. Keri force-fed me some Aleve and water. I woke feeling groggy, but better. After lunch and a few heaping spoonfuls of Africafe instant coffee, we all felt rejuvenated.
Our remaining 5000ft of descent passed quickly. In some ways, it felt as if we were in a time machine. Beginning at the primordial summit, devoid of life and utterly barren, eventually we would camp in a vivid rain forest full of diversified life. Darwin accelerated.
Hours of the hike down were spent in a downpour that nearly had us wading portions of the trail. I think I even saw a fish jumping its way upstream, no doubt having fallen from a porter’s kitchen basket.
We crammed our soggy bodies into the mess tent, instantly filling it with steam and gorged on popcorn and still hot, fresh roasted peanuts. Our flasks of whiskey and brandy were passed around the group, including our porters, and eventually returned drained by smiling, glassy eyed faces.
That next morning Kyle told us he hadn’t slept much. Why?
The BIG D
Revenge of the orange water. He toughed it out for the last few hours of hiking back to the park gate and our time on Kilimanjaro had come to an end. Kyle spent the remainder of that day in bed, miserable. Travis, known to have a history of “bad guts,” hid in our room fearing that the liquid misery might be contagious.
That evening, we met John and Emmanuel for dinner and celebration. Still our guides, hearing of Kyle’s health, they summoned him down from his room and whipped up “special local’s medicine.”
John’s wisdom came out with a toothy smile once again, “Don’t worry so much brother, you give yourself bigger headache than on the mountain.”
Their cure worked and just as on the mountain, because of their wisdom, compassion, and experience, Kyle, nor any of us, never had reason to worry.