NB For all the pictures associated with the Kilimanjaro climb click here. There are some specific links in the text below and I will add more over time. If any are not working then the album is chronological and pictures are prefixed with ‘Day1_…,’Day2_…’ etc.
Day 6 – Barafu to summit and back. In fact technically it is still day 5 as there is not much sleep and we are awoken around 11pm. We have ‘breakfast’ of porridge, toast and coffee. It doesn’t feel that cold but is expected to get significantly cooler as we climb. So I start with the full works of 4 layers on top, 2 on bottom and both my inner cycling gloves and outer skiing gloves. Despite the recommendation of two pairs of socks I go for just the one pair of walking socks. I’ve never been someone who feels the cold and am pretty confident I’ll be OK.
We are underway around 00:15. It’s a pretty straight forward route – simply keep going up. We can see quite a few groups of nodding head torches ahead of us, but also plenty still getting ready in camp – we will not be the last up there. The full moon is up and we barely need our head torches. Very quickly it is apparent I, and others, have too much gear on – the outer coat comes off and goes round the waist. This whole thing about “It will be cold!” feels over blown. I am glad I made the decision to go with multiple layers rather than some of the arctic type gear recommended by others.
Yesterday we had walked the first hour or so of the climb as both a further acclimitisation walk and a chance to see what it is like in daylight. This is the most technical part involving a steepish scramble over uneven rocks – it definitely helps having pre-walked it. After this first part of the climb from Barafu camp it’s just a case of walk, walk, walk. We are starting off near 4,600m ultimately heading to Uhuru peak of 5,895m with a major milestone of Stella point at 5,700m. The target is to get to at least Stella point by sunrise near 06:15 and then allow another hour to reach the Uhuru summit. Setting off at 00:15 gives us about 6 hours to climb 1,100m. On previous days we typically ascended around 225-250m an hour. So basic maths shows we have a fair bit of contingency to go slower overnight and still make good time. As we walk the guides seem reluctant to have too many breaks. Their preference is to keep to the Kilimanjaro mantra of ‘pol-e pol-e’ to keep us moving and stop getting cold.
So on we go – checking my altimeter periodically shows we are making good progress. Everyone appears well and in good spirits. Even going relatively slowly we are overtaking some people ahead of us. We see the odd person stopped on the side looking ill and preparing to descend with a guide but more than 95% are fine. We pass through 5,000m near 02:15 – well on course. As we continue to climb it does start to get a little colder. The water bottles carried outside the day packs are showing signs of freezing, though no problems yet for those using Camelbaks. Body temperature is good and there is very little wind chill factor. From 02:15 to around 05:15 is a bit of a blur – we just continue on climbing at a steady rate. Conversation is diminishing as people get more tired and more effort is needed to simply concentrate on walking. For me I keep going by having songs like “You’ll never walk alone” and composing alternate words to “My Way ( “We climbed Kilimanjarrrr-oooo etc. etc… ). Some of the porters/guides are still chatting/singing away in Swahili. Normally just a pleasant distraction but as we get more tired and a little stressed it becomes a bit of pain to be honest. At one point an animated discussion breaks out prompting someone (who? me?! ) to call out “Will you two shut the $**! up!” which to be fair they do after this is translated into Swahili by one of the guides. I might have mumbled under my breath for a while before eventually calling out but I know at least some others were thinking the same thing. As I say just a symptom of being tired, cold and wanting to just concentrate on putting one foot in front/above the other one. At some point in this period it is getting cold enough to go back to 4 layers. Around 05:30 my altimeter shows us to be near 5,600m. So 1,000m climbed in 5 overnight hours is more than good enough – just 100m more needed in 45 mins to reach our target.
There is however a problem – I have drifted to the back of our group and am slowly coming to a near standstill – in running terms I have hit ‘The Wall’. Nothing to do with altitude sickness, I have just run out of energy and am dead on my feet, the body is saying “Stop!”. In hindsight this is probably a combination of not eating and sleeping enough over the previous 5 or so (more like 10 allowing for Mt Meru climb) days. While previously various electrolyte drinks, energy bars etc. had got me through it is now too late for those. This hour or so before dawn is/was always going to be the hardest part. However the sky is now beginning to brighten in the East and I know if I can somehow get up the next 100m to the ridge I will have an acceptable accomplishment of reaching Stella point. Will is a few metres ahead of me with Larak pacing him. They are regularly stopping and waiting for me but everytime they get moving again I can only shuffle forward through the shale for maybe 30 seconds or so before stopping and am quickly dropped. There is nobody near behind me so while Will and Larak were probably no more than 5-10m above, it feels like I am on my own. I am not of course but psychology is everything at this stage. To emphasise again, unlike some others I have seen I know this is not altitude sickness or other illness – I am simply exhausted. I have been in a similar position twice before on long distance bike rides and know it is just a case of keeping going, no matter how slowly. At some point (guess near 06:00?) darkness has lifted to the point where looking up I can see the top of the ridge at Stella point with people mingling around. This is maybe 10-20m above me – I have an attainable goal – there is no chance of me stopping now.
And so as the clock ticks round to 06:15 I gain the ridge, literally throw my walking poles to the ground, dump my backpack and collapse onto the ground sitting cross-legged facing the East awaiting the sun as if it was midsummer dawn at Stonehenge. The sun is within a few minutes of rising and despite the last desperate 45 minutes or so I have made Stella point :-). I have no memory of emotions at that time – just too tired. It’s a case of sitting facing the sunrise in a world of my own. I have no idea about anyone else in the group, other than being pretty sure they were ahead of me so are presumably nearby.
In probably no time at all, as the sun comes up Larak comes over and says “Come on – we are going to the summit!” “Give me two minutes!” I reply. He picks up my day pack and maybe a minute or two later we are underway. At this point quite a few things have changed for the better:
- Although in theory there is still 190m of climbing to go, it is a gradual undulation around the crater rim rather than the side of the ridge – much, much easier then the steep ash climb to the ridge – no problem
- Daylight has broken – we have passed the pre-dawn psychological lull
- Larak is carrying my day pack – cheers Larak!
- There are a lot of people around
- Reaching Stella point is an achievement in itself – there is no real pressure of ‘failure’ remaining
- I have got past ‘The Wall’ and am feeling much better
All of the above means as we set off I now know nothing will stop me reaching the summit. It’s no longer a case of “I should be able to do this”, but “Bloomin’ ‘eck – I am going to do this”. However tired I have felt in the last hour, this has become irrelevant. It is now me that is cheery and encouraging the others along – I am back in ‘assistant guide’ mode. I even have enough wit about me to take some photos and a short video. It truly feels like the home straight.
So 7 hours after setting off from Barafu camp at 07:15 we reach the summit :). There are lots of weary but happy people queuing up for pictures under the signpost. To all our delights the whole group has made it up. Our group picture might be a bit haphazard, but who cares?
I had previously been told you spend maybe 5 mins at the top and then head down. In practice the timestamps on my camera show we spent around 40-45 minutes in the general area of the summit. A lot of this is literally waiting to have our pictures taken under the signpost and just admiring the view. The sun is up, I do not remember any wind and there are a lot of happy, if tired people around. Other than the glaciers to the sides, there is barely any snow on top – absolutely nothing on the track we are walking on. Apparently a lot of this has disappeared in the last 5 years or so.
We start our journey down near 08:00. Firstly back to Stella Point then down a slightly different part of the shale and scree back to Barafu. From Stella point we can actually see the camp site 1000+m below us (You have to zoom the picture a lot – in real life much easier to see). It’s a lot of work on the knees but we eventually get back to camp near 10:30 – a round trip of 10 1/4 hours is more than acceptable. The next 3-4 hours is a mixture of sleeping, eating, reflection but we are not finished for the day. We have a further 2,000m to descend to our last overnight stop at Mweka camp. This is not fun – the path has been cut out of the vegetation and has a lot of awkward steps going down. I particularly sympathise for those of the group struggling with their knees. It is just a hard, sometimes painful slog and it takes us around 4 hours to get to Mweka at 3,000m. The irritation of a long queue to sign in doesn’t help the mood but we eventually reach our tents, eat dinner and all of us hit the sack to end a 20+ hour day.
So what to reflect overall. A very long day but one that will live in the memory. Would I change anything? Not really – other than trying to eat/sleep better before hand and maybe saving a few more energy gels for the critical moments. I can confidently say the 45 pre-dawn minutes leading up to Stella point is now officially the most exhausted I can ever remember being. And yet within 5 minutes of reaching the ridge I am up and (more or less!) raring to go. For me the mental preparation/researched knowledge of route was at least as important as any physical/acclimitisation work. Will later told me that he thought looking back on that pre-dawn section I might not make it and that “you showed a lot of heart” to get there. Cheers Will :-). Knowing my altitude/timing so that ‘there’ was so close enabled me to continue. I know some of you reading this tease me about some of my over-planning but on this occasion it made the difference between success and possible disappointment.
So if any of you are planning on climbing Kili or similar efforts my advice is to understand what motivates you as an individual and make sure you can draw on it mentally when the going gets tough. For me it might have been inspirational music and knowing my facts for you it will be your own thing – perhaps following some of Franks advice and getting to change the final words to:
“The record shows, We took the blows – we climbed Kilimanjarrrrrr-oooooo!”