Photo of the Week – Approaching Stella Point in Kilimanjaro

Approach to Stella Point in Mt. Kilimanjaro on the way to Uhuru Peak sunrise roof Africa

You may have already tracked my hike of Mt. Kilimanjaro via the Machame Route through my prior posts (if not, you may want to check them out starting with Day 1!).  One of the most spectacular moments in the climb of the roof of Africa is the approach to Stella Point.  See, Stella Point is one of the entry points to the rim of Kilimanjaro from which the final push to the summit (less than an hour away on less sloped terrain) takes place.  For many people, like me, arriving at Stella Point is a moment of celebration even if you are not done yet.  I just KNEW I would make it to Uhuru Peak (the summit) even if there is no guarantee really as you still have to climb 600 ft or so crossing the 19,000 ft threshold along the way to Uhuru.

But not only is reaching Stella Point a key milestone, you also approach it right as the sun breaks the horizon which makes it a priceless moment for sure – one I will never forget…

Approach to Stella Point in Mt. Kilimanjaro on the way to Uhuru Peak sunrise roof Africa

Climbers on the final approach to Stella Point under a beautiful sunrise(Photo credit: A. Ruppert) 

The Real Heroes of Kilimanjaro

Trekkers at Kilimanjaro's Uhuru Peak

Kilimanjaro, while not a technical hike, is still a very challenging climb.  Anyone who has climbed it should be quite proud of the accomplishment.  I am privileged to have had the chance to attempt it and lucky to have succeeded!  And so for the other 15 trekkers in our group who also climbed it.

Trekkers at Kilimanjaro's Uhuru Peak

The 16 trekkers and our lead guide, Luis

The average age of our group of 16 was 42 (with the median at 46, in case that tells you something!).  And we all made it thanks to many factors:  our training, our willpower, our support of each other, the collegiality of the group, etc.  But just as important were the leadership and support our guides provided.  Minding our safety first, they also bonded well with us at different times and in different ways.

With Said, who helped me during summit night and then sped me down the scree field!

With Said, who helped me during summit night and then sped me down the scree field!

With Buga, one of the liveliest of our guides - always smiling, singing and taking care of us

With Buga, one of the liveliest of our guides – always smiling, singing and taking care of us

The trekkers and the guides can certainly call their efforts heroic or near-heroic.  We had a trekker climb with a broken hand for 3 days unknown to anyone but herself.  Another had bronchitis.  And another had severe nausea during the ascent.  They ALL made it.  They -Liz, Laura, and Olivia- are definitely heroes to me.  The guides worked SO hard on behalf of us. Not only minding our safety but also helping us during summit night ANY way they could.  And, for a couple of us, also on the descent through the scree.  They certainly are heroes to those of us whom they helped achieve this fantastic feat!!

Local hike guides Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

The local guides

However, all that said, the real heroes of Kilimanjaro are the folks who make everything happen seamlessly in the background so that trekkers like myself can have a wonderful trek, a comfortable camp experience, and good food and water to sustain us.  The real heroes of Kilimanjaro are the porters.

Many of those porters, we never got to meet.  They worked behind the scenes.  They didn’t hike along us.  They carried our main luggage, tents, and everything else needed at camp.  They brought water to camp.  They cooked our meals.  They set up and took down tents.  They set up and cleaned the portable toilets.  They hauled trash away so we would leave the mountain as unscathed as we found it.

As we walked up the mountain, porters from our group or other groups passed us along the paths carrying their loads.  They moved fast and many did not have the right gear.  These men work hard and do hard work to earn a living.  Many of them are just picked up at the start of the route by the local lead guide to be hired for the trek right before we get going.  Some become part regulars.  And some eventually become guides.

As porters passed us along the path, we always cleared the way so they could pass us and not be bogged down by us.  Partly this was, admittedly, self-serving as the earlier they got to camp, the more ready the camp would be when we arrived.  But when we started doing this, that was not what we were thinking about.  We were strictly thinking about making things easier for them in appreciation for all they do.

Porter carrying load up Kilimanjaro

Porter carrying a load up Kili

The evening after we came off the mountain, after we all cleaned up, we all met at our hotel to celebrate and thank our guides and porters for their great work.  The video clip below is of very amateurish quality but I think the joy these guys live with is self-evident.  We loved their singing during the hike and we enjoyed celebrating!

The porters of Kili are the real heroes for me.  To this anonymous group (we knew some of them but not most), I say ASANTE SANA!  Our Kili experience would not have been possible without you.  If you climb Kili, be sure to clear the way as they try to pass you!!

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Other posts about climbing Kilimanjaro:

–  Day 1 (getting started)

–  Day 2 (the moorlands and my favorite camp)

–  Day 3 (reaching the Lava Tower at 15,000 ft)

–  Day 4 (Barranco Wall and a big challenge)

–  Day 5 (getting to summit camp)

–  Day 6 (summit night)

–  Day 7 (the long descent)

–  The Machame Route

Kilimanjaro Hike: Day 6 – Reaching the Summit: Uhuru

Approach to Stella Point in Mt. Kilimanjaro on the way to Uhuru Peak sunrise roof Africa

Here we go, the BIG day.  Day 6.  The day we reach and pass Stella Point on the rim of Mt. 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?

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 Mt. 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

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

Moorland on Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

 (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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