Suck it up and Summit Already!

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Hello fellow adventurers! Strap yourselves in, because we’re finally there. Summit day on Kilimanjaro. Today you will finally find out how Cantrailia fared on the roof of Africa. Now, admittedly, this post is likely going to run long. I’m just going to start writing it up, and see how lengthy it becomes. I may in fact decide to break it into two posts: up to the summit, then descending from the summit. That’s just the way I roll. However, in spite of whether I split it, there remains only one map of the day’s hike, as well as one set of pictures on flickr. But what a splendid map and set of pictures they are 🙂 For in those, you will see that we made it all the way to the top, at 5,895m AMSL. The roof of Africa. The top of Kibo, Uhuru Peak. Any way you slice it, and by whatever name you refer to it, there is no higher place in all of the continent of Africa, and it is the world’s tallest freestanding mountain! Not a bad accomplishment I’d day. Read on to find out more.

As I spoke about in yesterday’s post, our actual climbing was to start around midnight. And guess what? That was the start of December 31st, 2009. So in fact, we would be getting to the summit on New Year’s eve. What a way to say goodbye to 2009, and what I’ll call the end of a decade. I knew before even taking a step that day that this would be a long day of reflection and looking back on my life, as well as looking forward to the future, whatever it may hold. Quite heady things to have in your heart as you set out, but that’s the sort of things that happens on a trip like this. so with that in mind, I now present you the tale of getting to the top.

As per the plans, we were awake shortly after 11pm, and set about fiddling with our cold weather gear and headlamps. There was some debate over what was the right clothes to start out with, and I opted to keep the down jacket packed away for the start, knowing full well that it would get even colder as we climbed higher. Most of the others opted to bundle up right away, but I know me and my thermonuclear heating capacities as I’m moving. After a quick and standard ‘breakfast’, we were off. It was about 10 minutes after midnight when we left the relative comfort of our tent to fact the unknown high up on the mountain. Before getting too far up the trail, we could already tell that we were by no means the first up on the trail. High above us, strung our along the initial slopes, we could see plenty of little headlights bobbing.

At Kibo, there is a confluence of a couple of the routes leading up to the summit, so the number of hikers taking a crack at Uhuru peak was quite high. All hikers were going at pretty much the same pace: dead slow. However, that didn’t stop us from passing a couple groups early on (which was unbelievable considering the actual pace). The other good thing about this time of the month in particular was the fact that it was nearly a full moon, and the sky was cloudless. So in fact, we pretty much all turned off our headlamps as we got further up the slope, because the moon was spectacular. It was sort of eerie, but also very beautiful to be climbing such a beast by only moonlight.

The terrain itself was basically hard-packed and frozen scree. We were told that the trip back down would be a lot different than the hike up, as the scree all thaws out in the morning sun. In order to make our way up, we took a zig-zag, switchback path across the scree slopes. However, we could clearly see the faint outline of the path which led straight back down, which we’d take upon our return.

Our route for the day had a couple of stop and checkpoints along the way, where the guides would be checking our condition. We had all four of our guides with us, and I remarked early on that Naiman had no pack or water with him, which I thought was either foolish or poor planning. However, not too far up the mountain, I learned the reason why. One person in our group was already feeling a little exasperated, and that they wouldn’t make it. Naiman stopped and had a talk to them, taking their pack at the same time, and convincing them to keep going. As he walked back up to where I was, he just smiled and said ‘Now you see why?’. Touche. After all, these guides had been climbing this mountain for years, and knew exactly what they were doing. No sense in carrying two packs, especially when the other 3 guides could split all the medical and first aid stuff.

The three ‘gut check’ stations on the route to Gillman’s point (which is at 5,681m, and is considered by many to be the ‘peak’, but it isn’t the summit) were William’s point at about 5,000m, Hans Meyer cave at 5,150m, and finally Jamaica Rocks, which are the start of the final push up to Gillmans, and where you are presented with a few additional challenges as far as rocky terrain goes. We didn’t specifically stop at any of those points, other than Hans Meyer, as we would sort of take little breaks all along the route whenever anyone needed to rest a moment. However, we could never stop too long. Also, on this summit day, the entire group stuck together, no ‘fast’ group. I certainly wasn’t going to push and ruin my chances 🙂

All along, I had hoped we’d actually be at Gillman’s before sunrise, but we could see early on that we may fall short of that goal. However, this time, I just accepted it. When we stopped at Hans Meyer cave, I decided that putting on the down jacket might be a good idea. It was pretty frickin’ cold, and with the slow pace and frequent mini-breaks, warming up wasn’t really happening. I also suspect that at high altitude it is more difficult to stay warm. With my big poofy jacket on, I felt like a real mountaineer, especially with my nice trekking poles, the GPS, and the view of a trail heading straight up a big mountain.

After five hours and 40 minutes of hiking, I turned around and could see the first rays of light on the horizon. It was absolutely beautiful and breathtaking, as the sun was going to rise from behind Hans Meyer peak on Mount Mawenzi, and light our path with sun on our backs up to Gillman’s point. For the next 30 minutes, as we slowly made our way up, I kept snapping pictures of that magical sunrise. It was an amazing feeling, and completely changed the feel of the hike to me. While we had just been trudging in the dark, we could now see sharp features and feel the warmth of the universe around us. Yup, pretty damned special to be there.

By 6:40 (in other words 6 and a half hours), we finally reached Gillman’s Point in full sunlight. It was actually a good thing, as it meant we wouldn’t freeze our asses off while we hung out there for a little bit. It also allowed us to be able to see better into the actual crater of Kili at the top. I should also mention that while we had definitely been hiking through ‘snow’ on the way up, it was really nothing more than a dusting and thin layer everywhere. However, up here, we could now see much more significant snow, and indeed glaciers that were around this area. Of course, we took a lot of pictures at Gillman’s and we were all extremely happy, because all seven of the group had made it here. However, the effort and altitude took it’s toll on Mike (who had stopped taking diamox due to effects). To make the final steps to the top, it took him a pretty big effort, as he was apparently seeing double and was dizzy. It was determined that he would in fact not continue with us, and instead go back down to Kibo camp in the interest of safety. Remember that point for later on. I had though Sarah might choose to turn around as well, but was impressed as we started making our way to Uhuru, as she was with us, meaning 6 of 7 of us were shooting for the summit.

We’d each had a nice cup of hot tea at Gillmans before heading off, and I think that was great thinking by the guides, for the next section had us dipping down into the crater a bit, which is totally out of the sun and quite snowy and icy. Brrrr! However, this coldness was easily erased by the majesty of the terrain we were crossing. We took back to the trail around 7am, and would have about another hour and a half before getting to the penultimate goal. Similar to the day before, we could actually see Uhuru peak for much of our trek, as we were following the crater rim around to it. We would only be gaining a little over another 200m to get there, but when you’re at 5,600m+, that’s not trivial 🙂 Our little group soldiered on pretty well. We were down to 3 guides now, as Naiman had returned with Mike. On this leg of the hike, we started spreading out a little bit, but not terribly much. Basically, we all were confident we’d make it, so we were able to be a bit more loose with our pacing and bunching. For the most part, we were never spread out more than 50 or 100m.

Along the way, we started passing people who were already coming down from the summit, or who had taken another route and wanted to go to Gillman’s Point. Those who had peaked were all smiles, and kept encouraging us saying that it wasn’t far, and was totally worth it. No one needed to convince me of that. Pretty much right on schedule, we reached the summit. 8:30am on New Year’s eve 2009, the final steps were walked. The summit seemed pretty crowded, but no one stays very long at that altitude, so by the the rest of the group arrived, it was getting less crowded, and at one point, we actually had the place to ourselves, which was quite nice, and allowed me to use my tripod to snap some shots of the group at the sign. Words can’t really describe these moments. I felt no pain, didn’t notice the altitude, didn’t feel tired. I just felt alive. I strolled around a little bit, observing the glaciers around, as well as casting angry glances over to my nemesis, Mount Meru, which was very clearly visible from here. I also wandered close to the rim, and saw that it was actually a pretty hairy drop if I walked too far!

Although I was surrounded by our entire group, as well as other hikers, there were moments that I felt quite alone up there as well. It was an odd feeling. I was really happy to share the moment with Jody and the entire crew, but I just sort of got lost in my own mind a few times. After spending about 25 minutes at the peak, it was time to head back down to lower altitudes. However, I wouldn’t do that before I made my offering to the mountain Gods. This is of course a tradition I’d picked up in Peru, carried on in NZ, and now brought here. I had brought a stone from Gatineau Park near Ottawa, and it had been with me every step of the journey, as well as a rock from the base of the mountain. I left both stones at the summit as an offering. I wonder how long they’ll stay there. I put them in an obvious spot, so I’ll be checking pictures online to see if I can see them 🙂

As important as climbing the mountain was, getting down from the summit safely was just as important, so we had to make haste. After all, we’d been up at this altitude for quite a while now. My next post will pick back up here, and take you back down, since this is long enough already! Read on for that post!

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