Kilimanjaro Hike: Day 6 – Reaching the Summit: Uhuru

Here we go, the BIG day.  Day 6.  The day we reach and pass Stella Point on the rim of Mount Kilimanjaro and get to Uhuru Peak, the highest point of the mountain – the highest point in Africa!!!  I should say, the day we attempt to reach Stella Point and Uhuru Peak.  I will do my best to convey how this climb feels like on Day 6 but the physical and mental efforts are hard to put in words.

You will notice how the middle of this post is photo-less.  First, do not worry, there are pictures towards the last third of the post!  Secondly, that matches what happened for me in the ascent:  Much of what happened in the middle was not captured by a camera because I was too focused on going up and, for part of it, even my mind didn’t capture any images…

 Uhuru Peak in Kilimanjaro

The goal: Uhuru Peak

Day 6 consisted of four parts – it was to be a LONG day:

  1. From Barafu Camp to Stella Point (expected to be about 7 hours)
  2. From Stella Point to Uhuru Peak (expected to be 45 mins to 1 hour)
  3. Coming down from Uhuru to base camp (Barafu) for a brief rest and lunch (about 3 hours)
  4. Arriving to Mweka Camp where we were over-nighting (about 4.5 hours)

I will cover here only the ascent on Day 6 (#1 and 2 above) and not the descent that happened that day.  I will cover the descent on Day 6 (#3 and 4) with the final descent of Day 7…

Leaving Barafu Camp to hit Stella Point

Barafu Camp at 15,100 ft (4,600 m) was a hard camp to like.  But I could have stayed there a few more hours sleeping that night…  Four of our group left at 11 PM to have an extra hour to reach the summit.  The rest of us saw them leave camp and finished prepping and having a snack prior to heading out.  At midnight, we left the relative comfort of this camp to do what we came here to do:  tame Uhuru!

I was pumped even while wondering what would happen, how it would end 8 hrs later (ah, the fool… the end was NOT reaching the summit, but reaching our camp for the night).

What did I wear on the way to Uhuru Peak?

I wrote about the particular items here but as a quick recap:  Though it was very cold at camp given the altitude and the time of day, we were instructed to dress such that we were slightly cold since we would warm up during the climb.  So, I wore my two tight woolen tops, then my Merino wool light jacket, and my hard shell jacket (protects against wind and water though, mercifully, we didn’t have precipitation).  The synthetic down jacket would wait until the breaks (when, since you are at rest, you don’t want to lose the heat your body has generated) or until it finally got too cold even while walking (which it did).  In terms of my legs, I wore my long wool underwear (all the wool layers by the skin helped wick moisture away from the skin) under my convertible hiking pants and then my hard shell pants.

The only place I felt really, really cold was my toes though I was wearing sock liners and the thickest wool socks REI had.  I think we had milder temperatures, if that’s possible up there, than normal as I had been told I would be exceedingly cold.  Whew!

Time is a funny thing

During the climb up to Stella Point, it is amazing how time flowed.  The hourly 5-10 minute breaks (a lot shorter than the breaks on prior days) provided respite from the effort and allowed for drinking some water (in one break they surprised us with hot tea! one of the happiest moments in those 7 hours!), eating a little something, and handling nature calls.  That last one was a little more of a pain than it had been before because it was dark.  But when nature calls, it calls.  And no pee bottle here.  In any case, I worked my way up by focusing on each hour’s walk.  I was not looking at my watch much but when the break came, I knew an hour had passed and that was an hour off the 7 hour count…

And who said it would be a piece of cake?  No one.  They were right.

After the first hour of the climb, my heart rate starting racing and I was out of breath a lot like on Day 4 after we had passed the Barranco Wall.  We had been climbing bigger rocks (requiring big steps) which was exactly what had caused my troubles on Day 4.

That was going to slow me down and, tonight, falling behind could mean being turned around.  The guides had been clear with the first subgroup that if we got to Stella Point at the same time as them, they would have to turn around at Stella Point.  It meant they would take a lot more than an hour reaching Uhuru and, having already been at that altitude an extra hour than us, it would have been too much time up there.  So, I knew that if I fell behind too much in my group, that I could miss getting to UhuruThat realization really hit me hard.

One of guides, Said, told me to give him my daypack.  My heart sank.  As soon as the path became less pronouncedly rocky, I told Said I could take my daypack back because I was back to “normal.”  He shook his head and said he would keep it.  At first, with pride stepping in, I said no, I could take it.  And then I realized that it may be the worst thing I could do.  I needed to save my energy for the big rocks ahead.  I resumed my climb, daypackless.  Boy, am I glad I did…

I believe I was the second or third person to lose their daypack.  I felt this would take away from the feat should I reach the summit.  I had nothing to fear.  Within a few hours, more than half (including the 4 guys in this subgroup) had lost their daypacks too, including our star athlete who had run across deserts and had been carrying a daypack every day of this climb loaded at 30-40 lbs.  I have to digress and mention that this guy, a dentist from northwestern Canada, would carry all  sorts of candy in his daypack and, all throughout the week’s hike, would pull out a DIFFERENT bag of candy (gummy bears, sour patches, etc.) to pass around at breaks.  Needless to say, Stan became everyone’s friend fast!

It is worth pointing out how carefully our guides were watching each one of us even after we surrendered our daypacks.  Clearly, ensuring no one exhibited dangerous signs of altitude sickness (the ones that represent life-threatening danger).  But they REALLY wanted us to make it to Uhuru as long as we were not exhibiting the serious symptoms and did everything they could to assist us.

The lights are not always at the end of the tunnel…

Though we had a full moon, we still needed to illuminate the path ahead by wearing headlamps.  I remember that I would look up ahead on the trail and see what was becoming a downer for me:  a long trail of headlamps zigzagging the slope of the mountain.  And then you didn’t see any.  That point would get closer and closer, and it felt good to know we were reaching a “milestone” of sorts.  But once we reached the milestone, I would look up and see, yet again, another LONG trail of headlamps going all the way up to a point far up the mountain.  After this, I decided not to look up anymore…

Sleep and memory loss – all in a Kili climber’s night!

Maybe halfway up to Stella Point, I was dozing off.  No, not during breaks.  This was as I moved my feet up that mountain and as my arms moved the hiking poles.  The lack of oxygen and being tired had everything to do with that.  And through chats post-facto, I learned others were also dozing off as they walked up.  It was insane.  I decided that I needed to occupy my mind but I was too tired to alphabetize countries or come up with some other mental activity.

Looking at the Southern Cross, which someone pointed out, gave me something think about (or try to look at without tripping).  Some folks had music in their portable devices but I had not brought mine.  I actually wanted to listen to the folks stepping on the mountain, focus on the quietness of the surroundings.  I like not feeling “trapped” within myself when it comes to sounds.

A “happy” place.  Say what?

Towards the end of the third hour, our lead guide, Luis, told us that we needed to be sure we were not spending our every last drop of energy in the remaining part of the climb.  I thought to myself  “huh?”.  He said that coming down would be very hard too so it was important we managed our exertion level.  I was not sure how we would do that but then I started thinking maybe he was trying to subtly tell some people to give up their daypack…

Then, he said, “guys, the next few hours are going to be very hard; find your happy place because you are going to need it”.  I remember thinking, in my tiredness, “my happy place?  my happy place?  what IS that??  a beach?  no.  wine?  no, wine is not a place.”  I had no energy to conjure a happy spot I didn’t have previously.  And then, all of a sudden, the faces of my sister’s, cousins’ and friends’ kids came to mind.  Their smiley, happy faces.  So I started calling roster on all of them seeing those smiley faces.  I had found my happy place.  And it kept me distracted easily for another hour.  I say “easily” because I think it is after an hour of that that my memory goes blank…

Yes, what happened in the last 2-3 hours prior to Stella Point are a big blank.  I have no idea what happened, when we stopped, what was I thinking, nothing, nada, nil.  Comparing notes with others later, I am not the only one to whom that happened.  We had been told the last bit before reaching Stella Point would be scree (small pebbles) so for every step forward, there would be a step back.  I have no recollection of scree, of steps forward, or steps back.

And then it happened… Steeeeeeeellllllaaaaa!

So I was in some zone when all of a sudden, to my right, I see a glimmer of light on the horizon.  Sunrise is beginning!  It was like an injection of adrenaline straight to my heart – and mind.  Watching the sun rise and trying to take good pictures became the priority as we continued walking up.  I was awake!

Sunrise from Kilimanjaro as we neared Stella Point

Glorious!

The sun finally broke through the horizon and we could see that Stella Point was just like 20 minutes away.  It was one of THE most incredible moments in my life.  You see, at that moment, I had no doubt I would make it (though how could I really tell how the higher altitude and serious lack of oxygen would hit me 20 mins later?).  It didn’t matter, I just knew I was A-OK!

We hit Stella Point and I couldn’t believe how quickly it came upon us (I don’t think I could see it from the final approach).  This was unbelievable.  I was at over 18,000 ft and would only have one more hour up to Uhuru Peak after a short break at Stella Point.  We laughed, hugged, and even teared up some.

Some of the trekkers and guides at Stella Point on Kilimanjaro

Some of the trekkers and guides at Stella Point (I am on the far left)

My eyes couldn’t believe the view outside of the mountain and INTO the mountain.  Remember the top of Mount Kilimanjaro is a crater from a long-extinct volcano.

Kilimanjaro crater

Looking around the top of Kili

Immediately the picture-taking began in front of the brand-spanking-new green sign with yellow letters (TERRIBLE design… you had to be RIGHT IN FRONT OF IT for the letters to show well in a photo).  In any case, pictures were taken and then we proceeded to get to Uhuru Peak…  Time was of the essence as, at that altitude, you do not want to linger despite the fact that we noticed tents in the crater.  In any case, we had to mosey to the peak and we couldn’t dilly daddle.  We had to move.

Uhuru Peak, here we come!

Mt. Kilimanjaro used to be covered in glaciers.  Today, the glaciers are there but they are not as dominant as they must have been.  They are expected to disappear completely in a few decades.  Still, seeing them from a distance was impressive with the African horizon behind them.

Glaciers atop Kilimanjaro

Glaciers atop Kilimanjaro

The hour walk (or maybe 45 mins?) up to Uhuru was much easier and less steep than the prior few hours though we still went up 660 feet (200 m) or so to reach it.

Trekker and guide walking up to Uhuru Peak in Kilimanjaro

Said and I headed to Uhuru Peak

Everyone was in great spirits and then…  we saw it – the big green sign marking Uhuru Peak!!!  WE WERE THERE!  Laughter, smiles, even some jumping-for-joy all around.  We caught up with the first group and it was so awesome to see all of us together at the peak – the probabilities were that they would be already on their way down when we got to Uhuru or (hopefully not) that they wouldn’t reach it.  So the fact that we all were there together, this group that had been together for about 10 days, was truly priceless.

At Uhuru Peak

One of the many celebratory photos taken: here with Liz and Len Stanmore

Immediately we got close to the sign to wait our turn to stand in front of it and capture the moment in a photo.  Phenomenal moment of joy for all of us.  And just as happy as we were, our guides were beaming that we had all make it – asante sana, guys!

And so reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro comes to an end

The story of the descent is for another post – and the descent was painful.  However, I will share one reflection here about having reached the summit…  Even if I had surrendered my daypack no one moved my legs forward and upward for me, as Luis our lead guide told us once at base camp.  Every step I took on that blessed mountain was my own.  That is the real achievement here for each trekker:  the strength of will and of body to push forward and upward when you think you don’t have it all together, when you feel the next big rock may be the one that tips the climb over for you and sends you back to camp, when you don’t know what is your “happy place”.  I will treasure what I learned that early morning the rest of my life.

At Uhuru Peak, the summit of Kilimanjaro

A very happy trekker at Uhuru Peak!

Back to Day 5

… On to the descent

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Other posts about the Kilimanjaro trek:

–  Preparing for the hike is more than training and gear

–  The Machame Route:  our way up

–  7 things you will not see me without as I climb Kili

–  Day 1 of the hike (starting the climb!)

–  Day 2 of the hike (getting to Shira Camp)

–  Day 3 of the hike (the Lava Tower and hail)

–  Day 4 of the hike (Barranco Wall)

–  Interview with fellow Kili climber and Ultimate Global Explorer

Kilimanjaro Hike: Day 5 – Rocks Everywhere

Ah, the final day before summit.  Day 5 was taking us to the promised land of summit base camp for the Machame Route.  Not a day too soon.  Sure, one more day of acclimatization would have only helped.  But after four spectacular days, now I was beginning to crave reaching the summit.

Hiking the Machame Route from the Karanga Camp

The day began as all the days with the morning routines that set us up for the day’s hike.  The tedious, the necessary, and the helpful all were taken care of and we took off from the Karanga Camp at 13,800 ft (4,200 m) for a seemingly short 3.7 miles (6 km) hike up to the Barafu Camp at 15,100 ft (4,600 m) (at that altitude, short walks are challenging!).  Did I mention that after all these days of sleeping bags, tents, daypack, large backpack, jackets, zippable hiking pants, rain gear, etc. one gets REALLY tired of zippers?  Velcro all the way, bay-bee!!!  (Thanks, Sarah for your help fixing zippers!)

Rocky terrain on the Machame Route headed to Barafu Camp on Day 5 of the Kilimanjaro climb

Me helpfully pointing the way, like a modern Columbus. Rock on trekkers, so to speak  (Photo courtesy of K. Shuman)

Day 5 Headed to Barafu Camp on the Machame Route over rocky terrain in Mt. Kilimanjaro

Happy that I showed them the way (lol!), I trail with the stylish plastic bag over my daypack. Not sure why. Not a cloud on the sky.  (Photo courtesy of K. Shuman)

The route was devoid of vegetation.  Rocks everywhere.  Small rocks though.  Like debris almost.  And some neat views, as usual on this mountain!

Great view of Mt. Meru, close to Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania

Great view of Mt. Meru as the group treks on.  (Photo courtesy of K. Shuman)

Mt. Mawenzi, one of the 3 peaks on Kilimanjaro

Mt. Mawenzi, one of the 3 peaks on Kilimanjaro; it peaks at over 16,000 ft.

Our time at the Barafu Camp

The Barafu Camp was a camp of sorts for us:  we were setting up as usual except we were NOT going to spend the night at this camp.  You see, at night, midnight specifically, we would we leaving this camp to summit.  But that, my friends, is Day 6 so out of scope for this post!

Approach to Barafu Camp in Mt. Kilimanjaro

Our final approach to Barafu Camp (Photo courtesy of K. Shuman)

Signing in at Barafu Camp

At the camp hut to sign in. The stylish looking guy with a plastic bag, an orange jacket, a buff sipping water through a hose… That’s not me…

This camp was VERY rocky.  I had to mind almost every step to not trip or step on a rock that would give way from under me.  To walk around our tent to reach the vestibule on the back (vestibule is a generous term; it was a place to put our bags zipped away and protected from any rain), we had to be extremely careful.

Barafu Camp in Mt. Kilimanjaro

Me trying to make my way around all the darned rocks! (Photo courtesy of K. Shuman)

I woke up in the middle of  one of my naps once it was dark to go to the toilet-tent and, though there was a full moon (it was beautiful especially on summit night), while minding the rocks, I missed noticing the cable holding another tent down and I almost had my face meet a rock that would have likely broken my nose or jaw (and end my attempt to summit).  Luckily as I started falling, I caught my balance and didn’t hit the ground.  BIG whew.  And added respect for the camp…

In any case, this camp was a little bit surreal because of the landscape.  We were also on a steeper slope than we had been at any other camp.  However, always looking for the bright side, some of us concluded that at least we were towards the “exit” of the camp on the way to the summit so we would save, oh, about 4 minutes once we started heading up to the summit…

Barafu Camp in Mt. Kilimanjaro's Machame Route

Barafu Camp – see what I mean about the slope??!!

Though we were not staying overnight, this camp was very important.  We were to have a nice late lunch and then do two very important things:

1.  Pack/Prepare for departing for summit at midnight.

2.  Resting/Sleeping whatever we could to have more energy for the climb that night and to also allow our bodies to get as used as possible to the higher altitude.

Trekkers happy in Mt. Kilimanjaro

Three very happy -if tired- trekkers at Barafu. Myself with the awesome Laura and Kristin!

Being active after getting to camp was not the best thing to do as the body would not get to recover.  So we were advised that whether we napped or not, that we lay down for as long as possible.  Not being one to ignore advice from experts, after lunch I did all I could do to prep for that night’s departure (we were stopping at this camp after coming down from the summit) and proceeded to get comfy and lay down.

I was very pleased that I napped (can’t recall how long a nap but it was long) not once but twice with the final one leading me to wake up around 10:30 PM which was great!  I was able to say bye to the first group of 4 from our group to depart (they were leaving an hour early to be sure they had ample time to make it to the summit by sunrise).  Then I took care of a few things before sitting back down at the same mess tent where I had just said goodbye to our first group an hour before to wait for our own departure.

I couldn’t wait to get going… – but, wait, that’s midnight so that story is part of Day 6!

Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania

The summit beckons…

Back to Day 4

…  on to Day 6 – summit night !

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Other posts about the Kilimanjaro trek:

–  Preparing for the hike is more than training and gear

–  The Machame Route:  our way up

–  7 things you will not see me without as I climb Kili

–  Day 1 of the hike

–  Day 2 of the hike

–  Day 3 of the hike

–  Interview with fellow Kili climber and Ultimate Global Explorer

The Machame Route: Our Route to the Top of Mt. Kilimanjaro

 (At the end of this post, see the series of posts written post-climb about this route!)

I am a few days away from leaving for Tanzania to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, the rooftop of AfricaEager anticipation and a modest level of anxiety are my constant companions these last few days before the trek…  How fun will it be to finally see the mountain?  Did I have the right pieces to deal with the extreme cold?  Will my body cooperate?  Will I summit?  etc.

As I do a final review of the gear list, I am checking against the hike itinerary to be sure I am accounting for the right number of pieces given the varying climate zones we will encounter.  Let me share with you what the climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro looks like.  Mind you, this itinerary is based on going up the Machame Route (one of several routes available).  The Machame Route is known to afford better altitude adjustment, offer better views, and typically have much less trekker traffic.  All of these make it -ding, ding- a winner for me.  Especially the better altitude adjustment since it increases the odds of summitting, something that is not assured even with a good fitness level since the lack of oxygen at high altitude can hit every person very differently.

Here is a view of the routes to climb Kilimanjaro to which you can refer as you read the day-by-day breakdown below.

Routes to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro

Source: apartmentinlakeview.com

Itinerary to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro via the Machame Route

Day 1Adrenaline day!!  Start at the Machame Gate at 1,800m/6,000ft.  Head up to Machame Camp at 3,100m/10,200ft.  It should take anywhere between 5-7 hrs depending on the number and duration of stops along the way.  We should be covering around 18km/11miles.  The habitat will mainly be forest.  I am praying that adrenaline will carry me through the mud or whatever we encounter on this part of the hike!

Day 2 “I can’t believe I am here” day.  Continuing the climb, we go to the Shira Camp at 3,840m/12,600ft.  This day we go for 4-6 hrs covering about 9km/5.5miles.  The habitat here is moorland.  You may ask what “moorland” looks like (like I did).  So here you go, courtesy of http://www.africaimagelibrary.com.  The landscape looks surreal, doesn’t it?

Moorland on Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

Day 3Reality check day!!  We leave the Shira Camp and move into semi-desert habitat.  We head to the Lava Tower at 4,630m/15,200ft but descend to 3.860m/12,700ft to camp overnight at the Barranco Camp at 3,860m/12,700ft.  As you may notice and wonder (like I did), why if we go up do we go through the effort of going BACK DOWN??!!!  Seems counter-intuitive but after hearing the explanation, it makes perfectly good sense:  you want to climb high to force the body to exert itself at altitude but then climb down so you can sleep at lower altitude (which means more oxygen) to help the body adjust better.  OK, maybe also just the lay of the route contributes to this approach.  This is the type of factor that helps improve the odds of making it to the summit.  This hike will take 5-7 hrs and cover about 15km/9miles.

Lava Tower in Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

Lava Tower (Source: scottkress.com)

Day 4“OK, how much worse can it be compared to yesterday” day.  This day we cross Alpine desert to go up to the Karanga Camp at 4,200m/13,800ft.  This day we go up, and stay up.  But we are not camping at the maximum height reached the day before so we are still sleeping lower than our maximum exertion the day before.  Total time climbing should be around 4-5 hrs covering about 7km/4miles.

Day 5The “are we there yet?” day.  Continuing to climb without descending, this day we move to 4,600m/15,100ft going for 4-6 hrs and covering 6km/3.7miles which seems a cake walk compared to the prior days given the shorter climb and duration but I am sure it will be anything but (you will see why as you read day 6)!  We will stay at the Barafu Camp this night.

Day 6 The big day!!  This day we actually wake up at midnight (midnight between day 5 and day 6 – which means little sleep which will make ilivetotravel a little cranky – if he can muster the energy for that!).  Why do we barely sleep this night?  So we can see sunrise at the summit!!!  It will be a long hard night for most of us as you can imagine.  My headlamp will absolutely be my second best friend after all the layers of clothing that will keep me warm.  Uhuru Peak (the tallest peak on Mt. Kilimanjaro) sits pretty at 5,896m/19,340ft.  It will take us 7-8 hrs to go 7km/4miles.  Yes, twice longer than the same distance on Day 4.  Why?  Well, it will be slower going due to the altitude.  Pole, pole (slowly, slowly in Swahili) will rule this day.  There will be ice/snow towards the summit and I hope to see the glacier that, it is said, will be gone in 30 years or so at the current rate.  Stone scree will also be present so our gaiters will play an important role in keeping stuff out of our boots.

On this same day, of course, we have to get off the summit.  So on to 7-8 more hrs. of descent to the Mweka Camp at 3,100m/10,200ft to what it will feel like drowning in oxygen!

Day 7The happy day!!!  OK, Day 6 will be a VERY HAPPY DAY for those of us who summit.  But Day 7 is happy in other ways – we get to celebrate our climb and we get to shower!!!  We climb down to the Mweka Gate which sits at 1,830m/6,000ft, walking down for 4 hrs and covering 10km/6miles through a forest habitat.  A beer will never taste as good as the one I am planning to have that night at dinner!

Again, another view of the route (there were a few good ones so I couldn’t just use one…).

Machame route to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro

Source: apartmentinlakeview.com

Climbing Kilimanjaro is not without risks

The key to a safe and successful climb is to be aware of what is ahead of you (literally and figuratively).  Going slowly, staying hydrated all the way, minding where you are walking, and very important:  listen to the lead guide and his aides.  We are lucky to have a veteran of Everest, Kili and the rest of the Seven Summits (tallest peaks in every continent) which makes me feel much better.  Able to detect altitude sickness early, knowing the landscape well, supportive leadership, etc. are very important traits in a lead guide and we have that in our lead guide, Luis Benitez, one of the leading high altitude mountaineers in the world.  In addition, I have been on a prior trek with Trekking for Kids and everything is well thought through and planned.  So Luis and TFK are what make me feel confident that I will have a safe and successful climb regardless of the highest point of my climb:  at the summit or somewhere on the way there!

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I have added to this post the writeups for each day AFTER the climb so you can read more about each day!  Also here is a post about the actual clothing I took to climb Kilimanjaro item by item with the corresponding explanations in case it helps you plan your own hike!

Day 1 – Getting Going

Day 2 – The Moorlands and Reaching the Shira Camp

Day 3 – A Lava Tower and then All Hail Broke Loose!

Day 4 – The Barranco Wall and Its Challenges

Day 5 – Rocks Everywhere!

Day 6 – Reaching Kilimanjaro’s Summit:  Uhuru Peak

The descent from Uhuru Peak

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