Mount Kilimanjaro, Part 3: the summit - a blog, in 1000 Words or Less
The mess tent was unusually quiet. Normally after dinner and a briefing detailing the next day’s trek, our group of nine passed around an oximeter. There’d be some light, competitive cross-talk as each of us called out our blood oxygen level and pulse rate. Regan, the head Chief Experience Officer, would dutifully record each person’s values, along with the amount of water we claimed we drank that day. Then he’d tell us our group’s numbers were perfectly normal, “…solid summit material.” Tonight though, his message and tone were a little more serious than on previous nights. He’d said, “The summit is five kilometers from here. It’ll take between six and eight hours to get there.” CEO David added, “Stay positive. Pain and discomfort are temporary. The summit is forever.”
Banter was the last thing on our minds.
To this point, I’d found the Kilimanjaro hike difficult but not overwhelming, certainly not harder than I expected, although I realize that’s a difficult benchmark to quantify. I didn’t feel I could run an ultra-marathon alongside the athletes we’d crossed paths with three days before...
...On the other hand, David told me some people quit the Kili hike on day two, a fact I found ridiculous and hard to believe. I mean, do people actually travel all the way to Africa intending to climb the continent's highest mountain and then say, “I thought it would be easier? Like a lap around Stanley Park?”
My dad said the hike felt harder than expected, mostly because he was having a difficult time breathing through his nose. He blamed the relentless dust. As difficult as he may have found the hiking however, he hadn't experienced any altitude sickness, nor was he slowing down our group of nine, a fact I found impressive considering he was more than two decades older than the next oldest person in our group. One of the CEOs said the dust probably wasn’t the culprit. Partially blocked sinuses and constantly dripping noses were common with increasing altitude...although I noticed many in our support group wore bandannas over their mouths and noses.
The temperature had dropped while we ate dinner. I guessed it to be six or seven degrees when I flipped open the tent flap and stepped outside, into a campsite lost under a thick layer of fog. With the geography and landmarks all but invisible, I had to search for the number stitched on the corner of our tent to determine if it was ours or not. Climbing a mountain under those conditions seemed problematic to my mind, but the CEOs were unconcerned and with several hours to go before departure, I felt the time for “What if,” questions hadn't yet arrived.
Inside the tent, I put fresh batteries into my headlamp; I didn’t want it going dark three or four hours before the summit. I emptied my backpack and then re-filled it with what Regan called the essentials: rain gear, mitts, hat. The CamelBak and water bottle would go in later. I pulled on my base layers (top and bottom), stuffed the rest of the clothes we were told to wear into the foot of my sleeping bag and then slid into the bag myself. Beside me, my dad went through similar preparations, only he layered all the way up, telling me, “It’s easier if I put it on now.” He asked for what he called a, “Dry up pill,” and I gave him an Allegra; throughout the week the allergy medicine had given his running sinuses some partial relief.
Falling asleep at 6:15 PM seemed unlikely but I lay down, stared at the ceiling and wondered how demanding the summit hike would be, considering the guide’s grave tones and the fact we couldn’t see the trail leading out of the campsite, never mind the top of the mountain.
Shebi woke everyone at 11 PM.
Reluctantly, I unzipped out of my warm sleeping bag and started donning layers according to Regan’s earlier instructions: three on the bottom (a base layer, long johns, and heavy fleece pants), and four on top, (a base layer, a long-sleeved tech shirt, a fleece and a winter jacket). My rain gear would serve as a final, windproof layer, should I need it. He made a point of mentioning that the Canadians in the group couldn’t claim, “We know what cold is,” and then refuse to wear the requisite layers.
I removed the fleece almost immediately. For the time being, it would stay in my backpack beside my hat and mitts. I know what cold is and four upper body layers was too many.
Thankfully the fog had disappeared while I slept. Now, a million sparkling stars and a brilliant half-moon shone overhead, and Mount Kilimanjaro’s dark silhouette towered over the campsite. In the mess tent, Shebi served a snack of broken cookies. We picked at them but nobody ate with gusto, maybe because our only interest was the hike to the top, but more likely because the altitude had taken away our appetites. We filled our CamelBaks and water bottles. I jammed my bottle into a sock to add a layer of insulation against the cold and stored it upside down in my backpack. Apparently a water bottle freezes from the top down.
At midnight the nine of us, along with eight guides including the four CEOs, started walking, past campsites other tour operators set up for their guests, past the sign that told us we were at Barafu Camp, and then onto the winding, uphill trail. Our group moved slowly; “Pole, pole,” was the night’s pace. Occasionally someone stumbled on the rocky, unstable ground. At one point we scrambled up slabs of inclined granite, at another we shuffled through sand that had become ubiquitous over the previous week. If three short steps would take me around a boulder, as opposed to taking one large step over it, I took three. My heart rate, already high thanks to the medication, spiked with even the mildest amount of extra exertion. Now and then I sipped water from my CamelBak, holding the hose above my head with the nozzle pinched open to drain the water back into the bladder after I’d taken a mouthful. Eventually, water froze in the hose, despite this preventative measure. Early in the trek, I listened to podcasts with a single earbud installed until (as silly as this sounds), I had to remove it in order to concentrate on regulating my breathing. With my heart working hard and the blood moving fast, I found myself sweating under all those layers, even without my hat, mitts and fleece. The climb was eerily quiet; there wasn’t enough oxygen in the budget to spend on conversation. Once or twice we passed a hunched over shadow behind a boulder and heard the unmistakable sound of someone puking. A guide (working for a different tour company than ours), walked a step ahead of one of his guests: she was tethered to him with plastic tubing that ran from her nose to the oxygen bottle in his backpack. It didn’t take long before our always hard-working porters began volunteering to carry our packs, a service many in our group gratefully accepted. With my headlamp shining on the boots or backpack in front of me, there wasn’t much to look at going forward but now and then I paused to look back at the campsite we’d left far below, and the tail of headlamps snaking single-file up the mountain behind, all clearly visible under the stars and moon.
As we’d been warned during the briefing, rest breaks were short, lasting only two or three minutes. Any longer and the cold night air attacked, and the CEOs didn’t want to risk anyone cooling down too rapidly and having the sweat freeze on our bodies. On one of these short breaks, my dad and I rested side by side on a rock while the rest of our nine, some bent over with hands on their thighs, others leaning against boulders, also struggled to regain their breath. When I asked how he was doing, he told me he felt good, but his nose was running freely and he couldn’t clear his sinuses, even when one of the guides held alcohol pads under each nostril. He was still panting heavily and not yet ready to continue when the guides said it was time to move. In a whisper my niece told me he needed a break several minutes ago but wouldn’t ask. I told her to speak up for him, assertively if she thought it necessary, and from that point on, I started paying as much attention to his progress as my own. When we spoke at the next break, I realized he was becoming mildly hypoxic. I recognized the symptoms from a course I took at work and although the symptoms were (perhaps) not a huge concern individually, combined there was no doubt they’d prevent him from reaching the summit. The only cure for hypoxia is more oxygen and according to the guides, we had at least another two thousand feet to climb.
I told Regan my dad had to descend to base camp.
Regan didn't hesitate. He told me not to worry, promised he’d take care of him and then he, along with one of the eight guides, retraced their footsteps with my dad between them. My niece and I turned in the opposite direction and continued toward the top.
At some point the moon disappeared and a light wind began to blow, probably no more than two or three miles per hour but enough that I needed my hat, mitts and windbreaker. My legs were so heavy I couldn’t lift them. Every step was more of a scuffing motion than an actual walk. I mumbled a silent encouraging commentary to myself: “Small steps,” and less civil statements when faced with yet another steep switchback or pool of particularly deep sand. Later, laughing, my niece told me I wasn’t as silent as I thought I was.
Eventually, off to the distant right, a razor thin horizon line appeared. At about the same time, CEO Tony pointed upward and said, “That’s the top. That’s Stella Point. I can congratulate you now!”
Twenty minutes later, the sun broke the horizon and we switched off our headlamps.
Twenty minutes after that, we arrived at Stella Point, the rim of Kibo crater. We’d climbed 3793 feet in six and a half hours, walking not quite five kilometers. It would take another fifty minutes on the wide, slightly inclined path, before we reached Uhuru Peak. We’d pass people travelling in both directions, those who’d made it to the top and were heading down to Barafu Camp, and those still making their way to the summit.
At 7:35 AM we reached Uhuru Peak…and a scene of utter pandemonium and confusion.
Dozens upon dozens of tourists clustered at the top of the mountain in a chaotic pack, everyone trying to pose on the rocks below the sign marking the peak, while their respective guides took photos. One group of at least twenty-five (not including their support crew) monopolized time at the sign by virtue of their size, causing guides from other companies to shout in English, “Hurry up,” and shout something less polite in Swahili, judging from their tone’s. The instant a camera clicked, indicating a photo had been taken, a new group of people surged forward. There was no waiting for a calm moment. You either joined the crowd or you didn’t get a photo; as many people were coming up the mountain behind us as there had been climbing in front of us.
Years ago, I visited the Sistine Chapel. I entered that holy place behind the hundreds who preceded me, ahead of hundreds who were pushing in behind me. While security guards shushed the ceaseless crowd with bullhorns, I stared up at the ceiling, frantically trying to appreciate Michelangelo’s most important work and mentally absorb centuries old frescoes depicting Christ’s life, before the sheer mass of people entering the chapel squeezed me out the opposite end, like toothpaste out of a tube. I had traveled to Africa in order to summit Kilimanjaro. In doing so, I’d overcome the most exceedingly difficult physical challenge I’d ever attempted and ultimately, attained a long-held goal. I’d never before felt the sense of accomplishment that I did when I sat down beside my niece for our photo. But now, as much as I'd wanted to reach the summit, I couldn’t wait to leave. Just as it was impossible to appreciate the Sistine Chapel, the bedlam surrounding us on Kilimanjaro made appreciating this moment of success impossible. Not only that, breathing at 19,341 feet was difficult. I was exhausted but still had a five-kilometer trek to Barafu Camp ahead of me, and a further seven K to that night’s campsite after that. Even with the sun shining down out of an impossibly blue sky, I was cold with the sudden inactivity. I needed to check on my dad’s welfare.
The hike down was obviously much faster than the uphill trek, taking a little less than two hours. Part way down, Shebi met our nine with cold fruit juice, about the best thing I’d tasted on the trip, especially after a long night of dust and effort. At the camp, my niece and I met my dad, who thankfully felt much better than he had a few hours before. After an hour’s rest, and a fast lunch, we continued downhill. As ever, the pace was slow, finally giving me time to think about reaching the summit, and also my dad’s response when I said I hoped he wasn’t too disappointed.
He’d answered, “Yes, I’m disappointed. But not terribly so.” Pragmatic as ever, he said, “This trip was an adventure of a lifetime,” and in that instant, I realized the summit was never the point for him. Everything, from the near catastrophic delay in Vancouver on the day we departed, to his comically shocked outrage at the price of a beer in Toronto on our way home, was the point. The entire trip with his son and granddaughter, from the first day to the last, was the point.
He was right, of course. Reaching the summit in no way defined the two-week journey. There was way more to the vacation than a hectic fifteen minutes at the top, including:
midnight trips to the portable toilet,
runny, tasteless breakfast cereal,
a spectacular sunrise at eighteen thousand feet,
the desolate beauty of the mountain at sunset,
giraffes, zebras and elephants in their natural habitat,
dedicated CEOs and support crew whose job it was to look after our safety and well-being,
friendships forged with people who were strangers two weeks before, amazing people who, despite suffering from altitude sickness and fatigue, didn’t complain but instead found things to smile at throughout the day,
comparing chocolate samples with my niece at the Lindt factory,
and perhaps more than anything else, clinking beer bottles over dinner in a Tanzanian restaurant, commemorating countless, once-in-a-lifetime memories with my dad.
He understood long before I did that Kilimanjaro is about the journey, not the destination. I’m thankful he pointed it out to me.
Sorry for the extra length, folks.
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