In yesterday’s post, Emily Kelting trekked, in the middle of a vicious storm, as far as the dangerous switchbacks leading up to the crater rim.
By 5 a.m. we had reached Gilman’s Point (18,763 feet), on the edge of the crater rim. It was still pitch dark. Quickly posing for a group photo in front of the sign, we couldn’t stop for long. It was supposed to be another 90 minutes around the crater rim to the summit.
All night we had seen the headlamps of two other groups behind us. Now they were gone. They must have given up and gone down. “One reason that we start at night is so that you don’t see the switchbacks,” guide Billi said. “If you had seen how steep it is, you wouldn’t go up.” I’m glad she told me that after we had gotten to the rim.
Now that we were up on the rim, the wind hit us full force, 40 to 50 miles an hour, driving the snow into our faces. We couldn’t see a path, nor how close we were to falling down into the crater below.
Snowdrifts reached to the top of my thighs. I put on a balaclava (head and face mask) and pulled down my black hat to leave only my eyes exposed. I looked like Darth Vader, but I didn’t care. This wasn’t a beauty contest. I was now in survival mode.
I gave silent thanks to Renuka, a lovely Indian lady I had hiked with about two weeks before leaving for Africa. She had climbed Kili two years before. “Bring your warmer snow boots for the last day,” she advised. My feet, I now realized, would have been completely frostbitten if I had worn my regular hiking boots. As it was, my hands were trying to extract the last bit of warmth left from a hand warmer, and were quickly going numb.
Holding one mitten to the side of my face, I tried to walk sideways so the wind wouldn’t drive the snow in. We stopped and rested, leaning against a huge boulder, temporarily out of the wind.
I kept praying that the snow and wind would end. But it hammered us for nine hours. The night before, we had watched a Discovery Channel documentary called Gridlock in the Death Zone on Billi’s iPad about her ascent of Mt. Everest. Because there had been bad weather for days, when a window opened up to go, all the groups at Everest base camp decided to ascend at once. Near the summit, 30 to 40 climbers reached the steep and narrow Hillary Steps at one time, and couldn’t move forward or backward for hours, she said. That was a nightmare. But so was this.
What if one of us falls and twists an ankle? I wondered. Even though I had trained for months with this goal in mind, I couldn’t help but ask myself, “What is a 60 year-old Connecticut suburbanite doing in a place like this?”
We slogged on. The snow-filled sky finally began to lighten at about 7 a.m. My friend Sally was suffering. She couldn’t feel her hands, her legs were shaking, and she said she couldn’t go on. Ice clung to her hair and hat. “We are going to continue,” Ian, the other lead guide, said in his quiet, confident way.
Off on the left, we could see huge rectangular slabs of blue/green ice—the glaciers. Ian pointed down into the snow-filled crater, where we could just make out the tents and campsites of people who had slept there the night before.
The trail became wider. We passed people coming down from the summit. “You’re close,” they said, their faces as blue/green as the glaciers.
We weren’t close.
One group coming down included a woman who had only one leg, and was using crutches. Then came a man with two prosthetic legs. Was I hallucinating? “They’ve come up from the crater this morning,” Ian said. “They haven’t come as far as you today to get to the summit.”
Yes, but they somehow had made it up to the crater, which meant at least four days of hiking. Seeing them gave me new strength. If they could do this, so could I. And now we really were getting close.
I put my arm around Sally to keep her steady, as we counted our steps, heads down.
And then, at 7:45 a.m., I spotted the green sign: “Congratulations, you have reached Uhuru Peak.” I went up and kissed it, breathing a huge sigh of relief. The walk around the crater rim, which should have taken 90 minutes, had taken almost three hours.
I didn’t leap joyfully into the air, as I had the previous July when I reached “Deadwoman’s Pass” the highest point on the Inca Trail in Peru. But Lauren, Sally’s daughter, and I danced, singing “Pole, Pole” to the old Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs song “Woolly Bully.”
Ian, who had gallantly carried my heavy Nikon camera during the ascent, snapped several photographs. I hugged dear, sweet Benson, who had taken my backpack when I had felt sick at the beginning of the climb. “You need water,” he said, coming up to me so that I could sip from my CamelBak. He held my poles so I could take photos. He tenderly unzipped my jacket and base layers when, on the way down, the skies finally cleared.
Out of my backpack, I grabbed my sunglasses and sunscreen—which I never thought I would need. But we were above the clouds, and the sun at 18,000 feet was scorching. All of us burned our lips, and mine were the worst. If I looked frightening in my Darth Vader mask, I really looked awful for the next week, with blisters swelling my bottom lip to twice its size.
Strong winds still whipped up the snow, and now we could see how close we had been to the crater’s edge. It was a miracle that none of us fell into it. The top of Mawenzi Peak appeared on the right, emerging from a bank of clouds below us. I truly felt as if I were on top of the world, or at least on the rooftop of Africa. I had reached the summit under the harshest of conditions. I had climbed Kilimanjaro.
Lauren climbing to the summit.
Despite my early setback, I was the first of our group to reach the summit and the first to return to Kibo camp, more than 13 hours after we had left. On the way down, I could finally see the 37 switchbacks from Gilman’s Point to Hans Meyer Cave. Billi was right—if I had seen it in the light, I probably would have given up.
After lunch and a short rest stop at the Kibo camp, I literally skipped down the “Marangu Route” (known as the “Coca Cola route” for its wide path and popularity) for four hours to the Horombo campsite (12,200 feet) where Sally and I would spend our final night in our cramped tent, happy not to have to perform acrobatics any more just to get our aching bodies out through the front flap.
On summit day, we had ascended almost 4,000 feet, and descended another 7,200 feet—hiking (with only a break for lunch) for close to 19 hours on no sleep. I was never so glad to see my sleeping bag. I popped an ibuprophen and was out like a light.
“Jambo, jambo bwana” (“hello, hello good friend”), the 23 porters and guides sang to us the next morning, our last on the mountain, as Billi handed out the gratuities. We shook hands with each of them, looking into their eyes, and saying a heartfelt Asante sana (“Thank you very much”).
We still had another seven hours to hike through moorland filled with wildflowers and then a lush tropical rain forest, through mud-and-stone-filled gullies, down, down down the Marangu route to the gate at the bottom.
We bought Kilimanjaro beer (“Refreshes a Tanzanian Thirst)” and T-shirts and postcards in the gift shop, piled into the land cruiser, and within an hour we were back in our hotel in Moshi. A hot shower (after a week!) never felt so good. Then came a celebratory dinner. Ian handed us certificates and Billi threw her arms around me and called me “The Comeback Kid.” Benson, who had been a guide for 95 trips up the mountain, said he had never seen a storm like the one we encountered.
“What’s next? Everest?” my friends at home asked.
“No way,” I quickly replied. “Well,” I pondered, “maybe trekking with Billi to Everest base camp.” In the meantime, I’ll keep on doing day hikes with my Appalachian Mountain Club friends every Thursday. And stare at my photos from my week on Mt. Kilimanjaro, still not quite believing that I climbed it.
Mission accomplished: The last morning, with porters. Kelting is in the kneeling row, on the left.