Friday, May 25, 2012

To the Summit of Mt Kilimanjaro

Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro Part three... To the summit and back again.

Whether to refer to this day as Summit Day or Summit Night is tricky. For many, the journey begins sometime around midnight and can last as long as 15 to 20hours.  In describing my experience, I’ll refer to everything that happened prior to the reaching the summit as Summit Night, and everything thereafter as Summit Day.

Summit Night
Start: Kibo Hut, 4700M
Finish: Uhuru Peak, 5895M
Distance walked: approx. 6km
Time trekking: 8hours

We're headed to the top of that!
After nearly four hours of frequently interrupted sleep we awoke to begin our summit attempt around 11:00 pm.  You wouldn’t think it would take more than about 10 minutes to get up, get out of bed, change around your layers a bit and get going. However, getting out of a sleeping bag when it’s dark, nearly -5 C., and that extra layer of clothing you need was not in your sleeping bag with you – well, let’s just say it’s one of the few things in the world that actually is harder to do, physically, than to think about. I needed a little more than ten minutes!

pre-climb tea. We could not stop smiling!

Shortly before midnight, Michelle and I were layered up, enjoying some tea and snacks and staring at each other with ear-to-ear grins, still in disbelief that we were about to go to the top of Mt Kilimanjaro. At midnight, on the dot, we set out, the beginning of our final ascent.

It was cold. It was dark, and an odd mix of something between rain and snow was falling from the sky. Our goal, obviously, was the top, but a secondary goal was to make it to Gillman’s Point for sunrise. Gillman’s Point is at 5681 meters. It’s the point at which climbers first reach the crater rim.  It’s the point where the extremely steep climbing ends and where, for some, the hardest part begins.  In order to get to Gilman’s Point by sunrise, we needed to reach a landmark called Hans Meyer Cave, roughly 5100 meters, by about 2:30 am.  Our game plan called for short stops for water and to catch our breath every 20 minutes. Remember, our starting point, Kibo Camp, is at 4700 meters.

It only took about 45 minutes before whatever had been falling from the sky quit falling.  The clouds cleared, and we were hiking up by the light of the moon, only one day short of the full moon.  At altitude like this and even with head lamps turned off, there is plenty of light here.  About an hour in, the reality of our “stop every 20 minutes” plan had actually become one of stopping every 5 to 10 minutes for water, snacks and a pee breaks.   Upon realizing how slowly we were moving we asked Johnnie, just as we had asked a million times on previous days, “How high are we now?” The response, “Umm, we are at approximately 4800 meters.”

Nemiendoka! We’ve gained only 100 meters in one hour??!  Time to step it up, step it up AND not be attacked by altitude sickness.  Michelle put on her headphones, a small thing that had proven very helpful to her in the past as a distraction from how difficult and strenuous trekking can be at times.  I followed suit to see whether doing so would be helpful to me as well. I can only guess that Michelle had Coldplay blasting into her head… seems to be her music of choice on the trails. For me, it was Great Big Sea.

Things looking a little lunar in the dark under the moonlight

So, with the help of the music, step it up we did. By 2:00 am we had made it to the 5000 meter mark.  Here, we got a little excited because everything from here on was uncharted territory for us. Neither of us had ever been higher than 5000 meters. When it comes to 5000 meters and the adventures of Katy and Michelle, it happens to be the exact altitude to which we hiked the first time we did any altitude hiking at all.  That was at Cotopaxi, in Ecuador, in 2010.  A barrier?  A landmark?  Call it what you will and know that 5000 meters is a rather important number for us.

Fast forward a few breaks and bit of even brighter moonlight later, and we made it to Hans Meyer Cave.  It was 3:00 am!  Hans Meyer Cave is approximately half-way between Kibo and Gillman’s Point. If I remember correctly, Johnnie said that Hans Meyer cave was at about 5100 meters, though some books have marked it as high as 5200.  We had started at 4700 and Gillman’s Point is at 5681.   We’re about  half an hour behind our goal time but still making more progress than we had in the very beginning of the night.  When we asked Johnnie how we were doing and whether he thought we were going to make it to Gillman’s Point by sunrise, his answer was as honest as it gets, “There is a chance we can still make it, but only if we reduce the stops.” Michelle and I looked at each other, took as deep a breath as possible, and said okay, time to reduce the stops.  And we carried on.

Taking a break at Hans Mayer Cave
A look back at Mawenzi while resting at Hans Meyer cave
Look closely and you see Kibo camp down there!

Hans Meyer Cave is where things began to get very VERY difficult.  The moonlight remained bright, but the terrain seemed to get steeper, the switchbacks got more frequent and stumbling on unseen rocks became more common.  There was no question the air was getting thinner by the step as well.  It was also in the steps beyond Hans Meyer Cave that the separation between Michelle and I began to get a little larger.  We were both struggling some by now.  But I think we had also a silent understanding that if we were both going to make to the top, we had to do what we had to do.  And right now, that meant trekking with about 100 steps of separation from each other in order for each to keep going at her own, personal “perfect pace.”

Around 4:00 am we found ourselves resting on the same rock again.  When we asked Johnnie the familiar question: “Where are we now?” we learned we were at about 5300 meters.  Okay. That means we’re currently climbing at a pace of about 200 meters (in altitude gained) per hour. That pace will get us to Gillman’s Point shortly after sunrise. I’m okay with that, too.  From the large rock we were sitting on at 5300 meters, an obvious ridge is visible in the distance.  We asked Johnnie how high the ridge was, and he said it was at 5500 meters. Fine. New goal: get to the ridge by 5:00 am.  We stood up, and we continued on. Michelle and I soon were separated again, and as time went by it seemed more and more as if my muscles were suffocating.  It seemed also as if that 5500 meter ridge was moving farther and farther away with each step I took trying to get closer to it.

It was somewhere between the hours of 4:00 and 5:00 am that I started to question whether I was truly going to make it to the summit.  With every rock that caught me off guard my breathing pattern got a little confused, and I had to stop for 10 to 20 seconds to catch my breath again.  The same thing happened each time I took a step that was as little as one millimeter higher than anticipated.  It felt almost as though I was being punched in the stomach every time I needed another gulp of air, more than I thought I needed. 

This was also the part where the nurse in me started to get stir crazy.  Every time I had to spit I got nervous that I was starting to go into pulmonary edema.  Then I’d begin to wonder: “If I’m going in to pulmonary edema, am I going into cerebral edema, too?”  Then I would spit on rock, confirm it was white and Johnnie would quietly remind me I was fine and then I would remind myself that if I was into cerebral edema, there is no way I would be having such clear, medicinal, thoughts about it possibly happening in the first place. 

Soon enough, 5:00 am came and went, and that ridge at 5500 meters remained oh, so very far away.  When I asked Johnnie how much further to the ridge, he told me it was 20 to 30 more minutes, then about two more hours.  Trying my hardest to remain tough I said, “Okay, let’s go.” But I also said to myself, “WHAT?!?  Two and half more hours to Gillman’s Point!”  Well, so much for the sunrise.  The disappointment brought another new goal: Just get to the top without any permanent damage.  Here,  Johnnie asked me how I was doing. I answered, “This is the hardest thing I have EVER done.”  He smiled at me, smiled that wonderful smile I’d first seen at our meeting days before back in Moshi, and said, “That is what makes it memorable.” It was one of the most calming and at the same time encouraging things anyone has ever said to me.

Shortly before 5:30 am, I began needing a stop every 10 to 20 steps.  This was getting rough, and Gillman’s Point was nowhere in sight.  The elusive ridge still appeared to be miles away.  Johnnie asked me again how I was doing.  I think this time I gave him the most honest answer of the night. “I’m okay,” I said. “I’m just really really, really tired.”  His response: “Give me your backpack.” I looked at him like he was nuts and said, “No.” He reached out and again repeated, “Give me your back pack.” I tilted my head,  furrowed my brow and said, “Are you sure?” feeling as though I was about to make his morning worse. Johnnie replied, with his hand still extended to me, “When I asked how you were feeling, you underlined the ‘really.’ Please.  Give me your back pack.” Reluctantly, I gave him the bag.

Michelle taking pictures at Gillman's Point
Less than 15 minutes later, I heard a delightful, almost giddy shout from Michelle, “Katy! I’m here, hurry up, we’re here!”  The delight and relief I felt at realizing how close I was to the 5500 meter mark is better imagined than described.  But it wasn’t the 5500 meter mark after all.  About two minutes and two big boulders later I joined up with Michelle again only to find ourselves under the Gillman’s Point sign!   I cried like a baby.  Not only had I made it to Gillman’s Point, but we’d made it in time for sunrise, too!  When Johnnie said, 20 to 30 minutes and then two more hours, what he was referring to was Gillman’s Point and Uhuru peak. That lame 5500 meters had been lost in the climb somewhere. We smiled. We laughed. We cried. We hugged. I was so happy I wanted to do a cartwheel, but I wasn’t sure such an attempt wouldn’t kill me, and we hadn’t reached Kilimanjaro’s summit yet!

One of the most incredible sunrises I've ever seen...

Ash pit and some of the remaining glaciers...

The old Gillman's point sign resting sadly on the rocks

We took pictures of the unbelievable scenery, and we took a picture under the sign just for good measure. After a short break and some hot water to warm us up (yes, James carried a thermos of hot water for us) Johnnie said, “Let go to the finish!”

I know it’s a short phrase, just five words.  “Lets’ go to the finish.”  But it’s probably one of the most inspiring things anyone has ever said to me.  You see, Johnnie is so amazing. He has a special way of reminding you that you are fine and that you are going to make it without, in any way, forcing you into believing it.  Just a casual “let go to the finish,” and you’re up, one foot in front of the other and on your way again, wondering why you ever had to take a break in the first place

From Gillman’s Point, Uhuru Peak appears to be “just over there.”  A slight hike around the crater rim, and you’re there.  Well, it’s a little bit harder than it looks.  It’s 204 more meters up and 2 Kilometers of walking forward.  Do you remember how much oxygen is in the air at this point? A little less than half as much as at sea level.  What appeared to be a 20-minute jaunt was, in reality, just over two hours.  Two hours of sunshine, fresh snow, and being surrounded by 360 degrees of awe-inspiring beauty. After all, we were walking on the top of Africa!

The "just over there" view of Uhuru Peak

And this was in the opposite direction
The gradient on the crater was not nearly as steep as the trek to Gillman’s Point, but it was no by means a shallow incline either.  It was tough, very tough.  In fact, it’s somewhere between Gillman’s Point and Uhuru Peak that many find they simply cannot go on any longer.  They turn around, head down, and  Gillman’s Point becomes their success.  Each step was more difficult than the one before, but each step was also worth more than the one before.  I probably stopped every 3-5 minutes between Gillman’s Point and Uhuru Peak, taking time for an extra breath and giving myself a small and private pep talk. I would venture to guess that among those small breaks I probably sat down every 20 minutes, each break concluding with “let’s go to the finish,” and a smile.

Onward… on to the finish we went.

Getting Closer
This is Johnnie me catching up to Michelle and James

Once again Michelle and I separated a little along the way. She stopped a short distance from the top.  I caught up with her and at 8:00 am on May 4, 2012 we summited Africa’s magnificent Mt Kilimanjaro together.  Oddly perhaps, I recall those last few steps as the easiest on the climb.  It was emotional, and reaching the top brought on a crazy mix of sharp and precisely focused senses – accomplishment… jubilation… exhilaration… privilege.  There’s more, but mere words can’t do it justice.

The Final Steps...

And yes, making the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

We spent about 30 minutes at the top, congratulating each other and taking it all in, at once in awe and in disbelief.  Oh! Did I the mention the part where we were the ONLY people up there? Yep, we had the roof of Africa all to ourselves.  After about thirty minutes of celebrating at the top it was time to head down again. The clouds were catching up with us, and we still had a long day ahead.

All higher we could get for the jumping shot after the climb

In the Dal Bhat shirts for Bharat, Krishna and all the other from Annapurna

Views inside the caldera from the top...

Our fearless, always smiling, leader - Johnnie

And let's not forget James 

You know that saying, “It’s all downhill from here?”  Yeah, I’ll probably never use that phrase as it is meant to be used ever again in my life.  I think getting down from the top of Kilimanjaro in 30 hours was just as hard as getting up In 5.5 days!

heading back down

Day Six, Summit Day
Start: Uhuru peak, 5895 meters
Finish: Horombo Hut, 3700M
Distance walked: approx. 15.5 km
Time trekking: nearly 6 hours.

Okay, so going down was actually nowhere near as hard it was going up, but the sheer exhaustion that comes upon your body makes it seems very difficult.  The trek from Uhuru back to Kibo took less than three hours.  Despite the fact that it was difficult at times to believe my legs were still attached to my body, going down was actually kind of fun.  We walked back along the crater rim in the snow and under the sunshine.  About half way back to Gillman’s Point we took a long break to eat.  We had barely eaten since dinner the night before because when you’re at extreme altitude the last place you want your body to be concerned about sending oxygen is your gut. You want most of it to be going to other important areas – your brain, for example!   After making our way back to Gillman’s Point and over the crater rim’s ledge it was straight downhill. No more switch-backing nonsense as on the way up! In fact, we practically ran the entire way down to Kibo, bouncing through the scree, heel first with each step.  Once more it was a combination of emotions: partly entertained at yourself, partly high on your recent accomplishment and partly terrified that you’re going to wipe out!

Snack break in the sunshine
Heading down the steepness

Still smiling at Hans Meyer cave

Straight down

We arrived back at Kibo around 10:30 am.  That gave us 90 minutes to change clothes and take a quick nap before having some much deserved lunch and hitting the trail again to resume the descent. I’ve never fallen asleep so fast in a tent in my life.  In what seemed like about 30 seconds later, Johnnie “knocked” on our tent to wake us up so we could continue our day. 

Right around the time we finished our lunch the weather got nasty bringing sideways snow and very, very cold temperatures. I’ll take snow over rain any day. The only problem was that we were headed downhill which meant warmer air, and with warmer air the snow turns to rain.  Happily, the weather stayed on our side (even on the wet side of the mountain) and shortly after the snow had become rain it began to slow noticeably and eventually subsided. 

The walk to Horombo Hut was downhill, and it was gradual.  It was long, and it was exhausting.  A few times, both Michelle and I had to fight off some nausea, brought on by exhaustion, I’m certain. Not only had we summited Kili this morning, but also we had not slept more than an hour or two since waking up yesterday.

I was so tired, this was the only picture I took the entire second half of the day.

The trail down follows the Marangu Route, the only route using the same trail both up and down.  So we had a bit of new scenery along the way.  We walked through “the saddle,” aptly named due to the fact the landscape here is a giant saddle sitting on Kilimanjaro between Kibo and Mawenzi Peaks.  Johnnie told us a lot of stories on the way down today, stories about his life, stories about past clients and stories about crazy things happening over the years to him and his clients on the mountain.  The afternoon of good stories was a lovely and welcome distraction from the exhaustion.  

Around 4:30 pm that afternoon we rolled into our campsite at Horombo Hut.  The best part about arriving here was not the fact that we had finally made it and could rest.  No, the best part was the news that we could forego our tents because they were giving us an actual hut to sleep in that night.  The park official on site informed Johnnie that it had poured rain for the past three days, it didn’t appear as though anything was going to change, and it was best we sleep in a hut.  No need make that offer a second time.  A bed and a warm, dry place to sleep?  Score!  Our original plan to be sleeping by 6:30 pm turned out to be closer to 8:30 pm as dinner was a little later than anticipated.  Still, we still managed to get a solid nine hours of sleep!

Day Seven, The final descent                          
Start: Horombo Hut, 3700M
Finish: Morangu Gate, 1920M
Distance walked: approx. 20 km
Time trekking: 6.6 hours.

When I awoke up this morning, I felt a million times better than I had when I went to bed.  Nine hours of sleep of sleep is pretty nice after being awake for 38.  Being a night shift nurse, “days” of being awake for 30 to 40 hours are not uncommon.  However, climbing to the top of the world’s highest freestanding mountain in the middle of such a shift is, in fact, rather uncommon.

We scored another perfect weather day for our final descent.   Johnnie promised it would rain, so we headed out in our layers and rain gear.  15 to 20 minutes later the sky was bright, and we were shedding layers.

So down we went, and down and down and down, through the moorland and heather climates and into the forest.  We stopped only for occasional water breaks and quick inspection to confirm that that my feet were still attached to my legs.  My feet did not hurt the entire trek until that final descent.  It was only in the final hours that I acquired four fine blisters and began to lose sensation in my toes.

Wildlife along the way...

Sure enough, we eventually found ourselves at the Marangu Gate, the conclusion of our 7-day trek up and down Mt. Kilimanjaro.  At the gate people are happy to see you, and they’re fast to congratulate you.  I’m not going to lie, it’s pretty fun to be able to tell people you made it all the way to Uhuru when they ask.

At the exit, park officials have you sign a book, a sort of “sign out,” if you will. It’s here that you not only sign your name and pen in a few other pieces of identifying information, but there is also a spot where you write in what peak you made it to.  It was quite the moment for Michelle and me as we happily wrote in Uhuru!  Even more satisfying… when we turned a few of the pages in this book and saw where other trekkers called home and what part of the mountain they’d reached, I would say about one half to one third of the names on the list did NOT make it all the way to Uhuru.  That made all the more reason for us to be unbelievably proud of ourselves.

And quick as that it was over.  Almost before we knew it, our time on the mountain had come to an end.  There was some lunch and a van waiting for us in the parking lot.  We ate and then took off, headed back to Moshi. 

Yes, we left Kilimanjaro behind, left it there in all its grandeur and magnificent beauty.  And in a way, I think, I even hope, that maybe we also left a piece of ourselves. 

We did not leave empty-handed.  Michelle and I took with us indelible, and almost endlessly satisfyingly, accomplishments of our lives.

Final Group shot.
Back row L-R: Juma, Kasian, Robert, Nyamassia
Front L-R: Katy, Johnnie, Christopher, Aloyce, Michelle
James and Boniphase were off getting food and missed the picture

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