The final installment of my Kilimanjaro trip, summit day! Previous posts: Overall trip & Climbing how-to! The summit day of Kilimanjaro deserves a post all on its own, largely because I think the sheer amount of time, energy, and willpower necessary to climb it belongs in its own individual category.
On one of our acclimatizing strolls during the trek, our guide John shared with us a story that Kilimanjaro wasn’t always named Kilimanjaro – it used to be Kilishansharo! I can’t find any verification of this story on the internet, so I’ll just have to take his word for it. The second part of this story is much more believable – the missionaries who arrived in Tanzania simply decided to rename the mountain Kilimanjaro (of course they did, because they did it all over the world). However, no one can really agree on the origins of the mountain’s name.
As the world’s largest free standing mountain, Mount Kilimanjaro has three peaks – Shira, Kibo, and Mawenzi. Kibo is home to Uhuru, the peak that trekkers try to scale. I remember on the first day when we arrived, I saw Mawenzi in the far distance. I freaked. Actually, most of us freaked. We mistook it for Uhuru, and started questioning our ability to summit. Luckily, Uhuru is the much flatter peak featured at the top of this page. Our guide said that very few people climb Mawenzi – it’s too difficult. The ground is too loose to climb, and without substantial experience, it should not be attempted.
Kibo has two base camps: Kibo Hut and School Hut. We arrived at Kibo Hut (~4,700m) around mid-day, after a 3-4 hour hike from Mawenzi Tarn Hut (~4,300m). It was an easy walk – almost entirely flat the whole way. However, the area known as “The Saddle” is also entirely alpine desert, devoid of vegetation and animals. There are also very few rocks along the route, so it’s difficult to find a place to pee!
Breathing is not easy at Kibo – the short additional 400m in altitude made us all pretty miserable. They recently constructed a new toilet next to the original outhouses, but it requires a 1-2m walk down a slope. I don’t think I’ve ever hated having to go to the bathroom that much in my entire life.
The rest of the day at Kibo:
- Nap (must sleep!!)
- Tea / Dinner
- Nap (sleep more!!!)
- Wake up and go: Our guides woke us up at midnight (some of the other groups departed camp at midnight), fed us some more carbs and hot tea, and hustled us out the door
The horizontal distance from Kibo Hut to Uhuru Peak is only 6km – but an altitude change of 1,295m. It is, however, also the most difficult hike of the entire trip. See the white line about 1/3 from the left of the mountain that reaches the top? That’s the path up to Gilman’s Point (5,685m). Kibo Hut is that cluster of specks on the bottom left. For us, Kibo – Gilman’s Point took from 1am to roughly 7am.
Thoughts along that walk:
- It’s really really cold. The walk is done in the dark, and while we had sufficient moonlight, we used our headlamps. The guides walked up without headlamps
- Breaks don’t really help. #thestruggleisreal. It becomes increasingly hard to breathe, and the water tubes freeze
- Bring enough energy bars, because we got really hungry
- I don’t think we would have made it in daylight, because not seeing the top helped us keep going
- For every 3 steps up, we sunk back 1 step
- A backpack with just water, some food, and a camera can be a ridiculous burden. I didn’t feel the bag any of the other days, but close to the top, I had to hand it over to my guide
At Gilman’s Point, the first point climbers touch of the crater rim, you realize that there is still so much more to do. At this point, my entire face was pale – I felt like I had burned all my blood sugar, and there was a very real struggle to breathe. The remainder of the walk was really just a blur.
My mind tried to reason with itself – slow down, take deeper breaths, almost at the summit! Or as my friend J likes to say, pain is weakness leaving the body. It doesn’t work. Frankly, the only thing you can think about is the peak. Nothing else. To be honest, I don’t really remember much of how I actually got to Uhuru. Somewhere between Gilman’s Point and Uhuru Peak is Stella’s Point – there’s not much reason to stop here or really do anything there, except maybe take pictures of the little bit of glacier still visible. Our group got to Uhuru between 8:30am – 9am.
I don’t really remember the first 30 minutes of my descent – I remember trying to run, because I really, really need oxygen – but your legs don’t move when they’re filled with lactic acid, no energy, and no oxygen. I do remember “sand skiing” up that same slope it took 6 hours to get up. The flying dust and sand make you resemble a bit of a survivor of a collapsed building, but it really is the fastest way down the mountain.
I loved the whole team the entire trip, but I have never in my life been that happy to see Twahilu and Alex at the foot of that mountain. They held this bottle of bizarre pineapple juice and several cups – and the 3 of us who had made it down first toasted with them. Such wonderful sugar rush! Anyways… we somehow stumbled into our campsite – our entire wonderful team was there to congratulate us, and then we passed out in our tents while waiting for everyone else to get in.
In sum –
- Sugar is wonderful
- Carb load. No joke.
- Lack of oxygen is a painful, painful feeling
- Mind over matter! We passed this Japanese woman on our way up the mountain walking very, very slowly with her guide. On our way down, she was almost at the summit. It’s not an impossible mountain to climb, it just requires a real mental commitment.
Don’t forget – getting back to Kibo Hut is not the end of the day. Depending on which route you are taking, you still need to descend to the next camp.