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…
Day 6 consisted of four parts – it was to be a LONG day:
- From Barafu Camp to Stella Point (expected to be about 7 hours)
- From Stella Point to Uhuru Peak (expected to be 45 mins to 1 hour)
- Coming down from Uhuru to base camp (Barafu) for a brief rest and lunch (about 3 hours)
- 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 Uhuru. That 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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Back to Day 5…
… On to the descent
Other posts about the Kilimanjaro trek: