With butterflies in my stomach, I left Barafu Hut at about 00:15 to start the summit attempt. It's a 7 hour uphill trek with little to no flat surfaces to rest or recover. We were hiking on Stone scree through the Alpine Desert all the way to Stella Point on the crater rim - the first of the two summits at 18,652 ft/5,685m.
We used headlamps and cold weather gear, despite the near full moon in the night ascent, fatigue and AMS soon force you to draw on all your strength to get through the night. Despite that, it's an amazing experience.
It's a lonely climb; a tiring climb; and a long, hard slog to the summit. You find yourself battling against your fatigue; your AMS symptoms - headaches, nausea and vertigo; your thirst and hunger; and your aching muscles as you push your body to its limits. Add to all of this the environmental factors - the scree, volcanic dust, the night sky, and the bitterly cold wind; and your own slow movements. We were moving forward at a rate of approximately half a foot at a time, or 90 minutes per kilometre.
At this point, your mind can easily tell you to give up - go back to camp, have some tea and get back into bed. Your circadian rhythm is telling you to do the same thing. Our guides kept telling us not to fall asleep, keep moving, 'pole, pole'. You can only describe these amazing guides as your Guardian Angels. They are navigating you through the cold bitter night; through dangerous terrain; ensuring you reach the summit.
Their leadership abilities surpass some of those of leaders in business. The Chief Guide, Raj, believes so strongly in doing everything he can to get everyone to the summit that he stayed behind the group with a single lady who was taking longer to ascend. He did not leave her, or hand her over to another guide. He led from behind - a quality business leaders often lack in today's commercial world. Not only this, but he didn't leave his team to ascend with us - he came along himself.
I cannot recall the whole walk. I think I might have even fallen asleep somewhere along the route and just kept walking, oblivious to the pain, the dripping sweat and runny nose that freezes on your lips and gives you frost bite.
It's at this point your battle of mind over body is at its peak. You shut off all else and focus on reaching the summit. Pain is just a thought; your body can do so much more!
Then, as if just 30 minutes later, we start hearing calls from the top - others have reaches Stella Point. Our guides hold back and tell us to go slow. 20 minutes later we cover 100 meters and reach the sign that says, 'Congratulations' - we're at Stella Point.
We stand up tall and proud after crouching over our walking poles for hours focussing on breathing in the cold icy air. We turn around and see the sun rising from above the clouds. A new day has begun. You stop thinking about what happened yesterday and stop planning for tomorrow. If anyone ever asks me if I have experienced a perfect moment in time; a moment when time seemed to stop and you could live in that moment... it would be this. Nothing more complicated than perception. Watching the sun rise like you have never seen it before - for yourself... and you earned it.
It's not the end of the trip. From here, we now have to continue walking for 40 minutes and reach Uhuru Peak - the highest point in Africa. After the moment at Stella Point and the warm tea served to us by the porters, we felt reborn. We forgot for a moment we had been hiking through the night; tired, cold and hungry. We turned to the path to head up the 170 meters to Uhuru.
We are moving forward so slowly... your brain is telling your feet to move, but your feet are refusing. Then, someone who had reached the summit earlier walks past and says 'you're almost there - 10 minutes'. We can do this. We didn't come this far to quit. It feels as though time is a predator - stalking you like a shadow. Instead, you should be using that time as your companion that goes with you on the journey and reminds you to cherish every moment.
We came over the last horizon and before us was the sign we had worked hard for 5 days to reach - 'Congratulations: you have reached Uhuru Peak. The Highest Point in Africa.' The sun is shining and reflecting off the ice caps and crater.
We took our photos and the guides asked us to move fast to descend. The air is -16 degrees and the wind is strong. It's still difficult to breath and we need to get down before any major AMS symptoms set in.
Not over yet!
We head back to Stella Point and are encouraged by one more story. The miracle of Kilimanjaro. An American climber was hiking up with his father. Earlier in the morning we had overtaken them, as the father collapsed on his side. Some thought he would never recover. As we start our descent, thou behold, here he is... with his son behind him. They made it to the top. Nothing would keep him from reaching his dream. He is 67 years-old.
Abraham Lincoln aptly said, "That some achieve great success is proof to all that others can achieve it as well".
We started our descent to Barafu, which took about 3 1/2 hours. I arrived back at 10:10 - ten hours after I left. Bariki - our server - was waiting, smiling and congratulating me and served me a cold drink. I went to the tent and crashed.
I made it. I reached the roof of Africa. I saw the most amazing sun rise. I experienced the perfect moment. I saw a Kili miracle. I beat body with mind.
Then, at 12:30, we were woken up to begin our immediate descent to the lower camp - Mweka at 10204 ft/3102m. It's important to descent quickly to avoid the onset of AMS symptoms. The 3h15m trip took us through a cloud of fog; hail; rain; and blistering sun - all on hard rocky terrain on a sharp descent angle.
We arrived at the camp exhausted; with sore legs; and in need of rest. Dinner was served early; I washed and went to sleep. Tomorrow would be another day. But today is a day I will never forget.
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