The push for summit begins amid the falling snow as we start our climbing just prior to midnight tonight. I am bundled like the pillsbury dough boy, and I am actually warmer than I anticipated. But granted I am wearing 4 pairs of pants, 4 shirts, 1 fleece, 1 down jacket, down mittens and two pair of socks and technical shells, I should be warm.
The light snowfall has lasted for several hours tonight as we zig-zag uphill scrambling on the frozen scree fields. Other climber’s headlamps dot the mountainside ahead of me as all are slowly making their ascent towards the summit. Everyone is moving slowly uphill and as the early morning hours approach, the skies have begun to clear and we are all treated to a rare spectacle of the Geminid meteor shower with shooting stars streaking through the night skies. It is a remarkable spectacle to watch as the galaxies above just pulsate in stars amidst the crisp night air.
The distant echo of porters singing Christmas songs is a subtle reminder that it is the Christmas season, a short distraction from the intense climb is welcomed, but short lived. We have walked for hours already, eventually I pass other climbers who started trekking hours ahead of us, they are just two of 43 that will fill the intense effects of the altitude as they continue to climb higher. Some will yield to the symptoms and turn back, others will push on until their bodies fail them. Tonight, 44 of us are living our dreams to climb Kilimanjaro, but at first light will tell the tale of those who managed to surpass Kilimanjaro’s first real test. The altitude.
As I look ahead towards the summit in the night sky, the mountain outline gives a false sense of distance. You think you are closer to the first peak than you really are. Willard’s point, a small rock cave is a welcoming stop on the climb for a short rest, but at this temperature, stopping for more than 5 minutes can be detrimental to your ascent. Your body just can not recover from a stop and go movement, you simply have to keep moving. One foot in front of another, one small step at a time.
I have been walking for hours and at Willard’s Point, my guide tells me it is still 4 more hours just to Gilman’s Peak. The first of three peaks we must climb. After little sleep and days of intense hiking, I am physically exhausted and for the first time I met my moment of questioning my ability to really fulfill this dream. All I could think of was at one step at a time, and each step, the altitude would get higher and the air would get thinner. If I turned around now, I could be back in a sleeping bag in 4 hours or I could be standing at Gilman’s Point which puts me past the most difficult part of the Kilimanjaro climb. But 4 hours in this harsh environment, is a long time. I can barely feel my fingers or toes they are so cold, even with heat packs, the cold is intense. But, it’s a simple decision. I have come too far and waited to long to be where I am standing, so, STEP FORWARD. SHUFFLE FEET. REST. CLIMB HIGHER…
At 5:58 AM Greenwich Mean Time on December 13, 2012 I reached Gilman’s Point as the first light of day appears. A light dusting of snow is on the ground and from here I can see Uhuru’s Peak as the sun begins to rise above the horizon. My first views of the crater and the reality of standing at Gilman’s was extraordinary and far beyond my expectations. All I could think of was I am living my dream every step of the way and now the summit is in sight, and right now, I am less than two hours away from standing on the Roof of Africa. It really is within my grasp.
I look down and for first time I realize my gloves are covered in blood, it’s so cold that any exposed skin harshly reacts to the temperatures and your body rejects the the altitude with extreme reactions. My face is so numb that when I put my gloves on my face I can’t feel them even though I know I am touching my face. Onward we push, one small step and stumble at a time. We cross the narrow ledge between the crater wall and the drop to the crater floor. The once frozen scree in the night is beginning to thaw causing us to carefully place each foot before stepping forward then carefully placing trekking poles on the ground ahead to test the next spot to step to. Almost at Stella Point, almost at the second highest point on Kilimanjaro.
I reached Stella point and now Uhuru has vanished from sight. The air is thin at this altitude and oxygen is less than half of what we are accustomed to. Climbing Kili is a test of will more so than athleticism, it simply is determination to reach it’s summit. I step forward, right then left. I slowly move my feet from one spot to only inches ahead of the last and every four or five steps I have to lean forward on the trekking poles to catch my breath. Look up and begin the same process over again.
At 7:54 AM, on December 13, 2012 I reached the Summit of Kilimanjaro’s Uhuru Peak at 19,340 feet. The highest point in Africa and the 4th highest of the Seven Summits of the World. Today, I am among a select few who stood on the roof of Africa. It is a beautiful day standing here and we can see for miles amidst bright blue, clear skies and 23.4 degrees F at summit. The glaciers are pristine and enormous in size and the crater floor is equally as impressive. Standing at the summit looking out across Africa is beyond words. It’s AWESOME!