Hello! It has been a while, so I’m finally getting around to finalizing my story of Kilimanjaro. This part won’t have many pictures, for reasons you’ll soon understand. So you’re left to my description of it, and I’ll do my best.
I left off last time just as we were to “sleep” all afternoon, then be awoken at 11pm for a meal and a midnight hike. As I explained, I was nervous. I had been working toward this for over a year. I raised over $8000, bought and organized gear, got quite a few shots, selected plane tickets, broke in gear, trained…It was an odd feeling. Never in my life have I worked SO hard for something with such a culminating, focused ending that I didn’t already know! College, sure, but I knew I’d graduate. Having Audrey, of course, but that was “only” 9 months, and I was confident in her arrival. But this? Failure was possible. But alas, there I was.
I think I slept some, because soon I heard Godson gently saying “hello….it is time” or some such gentle thing outside our tent. Instead of the usual groggy lollygagging, it was business. Anne and I both arose, almost robotically gathering our gear, cramming water bottles into dirty socks, putting on layers. I was anticipating the cold, and it was crisp when I (again) stumbled ungracefully out of my tent. We ate, but I have no recollection of what. I’m not sure there was even much talking other than when we gave our breathing rate. It’s a blur, as is much of the next 12 hours.
After eating, we got our packs and left. It was different, with the porters all still sound asleep. There was no noise other than the crunch of the rocks under our feet and our breathing. Maybe some sloshing of a water bottle. The dampened, quiet of the night was very much present. We got in line, in some order. I remember debating where to keep my camera. It needed to be accessible, but also needed to stay warm as to not drain the batteries. I finally shoved it into my coat pocked and hoped. We headed off in the pitch black. Our headlamps illuminated a small circle ahead of each of us. I felt like my world consisted of my breathing and the few feet in front of me. Aware of others, but focused on doing everything I could to get up that mountain. I snapped a quick picture, and realized how hard night pictures are, and that I needed to focus on climbing.
Beginning of Summit Night
My headlamp was AMAZING, by the way. This picture is a glimpse of the hike just as we left our camp. It wasn’t all like this, but it gives an idea. Some people used poles, some didn’t. Some struggled more than others, but as usual, we were going pole pole. Once we got out of the main campground, I looked up in the direction we were going. I saw black, with a brightly lit trail going what seemed to be straight up a very steep wall. The headlamps of all the hikers ahead of us. I felt disheartened, wishing we were already that far up. The dark can be deceiving, as they truly weren’t that far ahead of us, nor was it straight up a steep wall. But at the time, I felt a bit let down.
We climbed up. It was dark. Things went ok for a while, with a few tire pressure breaks (not me!! too cold!), layer adjustments etc. It was chilly and noses were running. The guides were all so good at the “Farmer’s Blow” technique. This is where your nose is running, you close one nostril with a finger, then blow out the other, shooting your mucus out. I can’t do it, and mostly used my gloves (gross, I know). I remember Anne had a water bottle on the outside of her pack and one time we stopped she nudged me and had me drink some of her water as it was rapidly turning to slush. The temperature wasn’t as cold as I expected. When we stopped I’d get a bit chilly, but when we were moving I was fine in the layers I had on. Hike, stop. Hike, stop. I have no idea how long this went on. Funny how your mind works at midnight at 17,000 feet.
At one point, Tanya and Sean fell behind. I remember wondering if they’d make it, but the guides kept us moving (no worries, a guide stayed with them!). I remember feeling tired. Sleepy. When we stopped, I started to consider just laying down on a rock and taking a nap. Now, the high-altitude mountain girl that I grew up being KNEW that this was a) caused by lack of oxygen, and b) NOT a good idea. But oh, it was tempting, and I’m pretty sure my thoughts were verbalized at least once. Hike, stop. Then it started getting harder. Moving my legs was hard and I had to focus on moving them, the lure of a nap still growing. Jessie was ahead of me, and I remember her collapsing and vomiting a bit. I thought, “Oh. Poor Jessie. I should help her, but I just can’t get there”. Now keep in mind she was literally 3 feet ahead of me, but the effort it would take me to get to her and help her up? No way could I do that. Goddy, a guide, quickly came and helped her. That moment is vivid in my memory because it made me realize how I was struggling, how the altitude was affecting me.
Jessie and Melissa were both having a really hard time and the guides were great at helping them. Soon the sun was peaking over the clouds on the horizon and I felt just a wee bit better, like there was hope. The sun was amazing. It looked as if it were a sunrise over the ocean, but it was a sunrise over an ocean of clouds.
Sunrise during summit
Slightly rejuvinated, I looked up. Looked up, only to realize we still had a LONG way to go still. Pole pole, we continued up. Pausing some, but moving steadily. My foggy brain was starting to get frustrated. Frustrated that we weren’t there yet, frustrated that I couldn’t make my legs go faster. Frustrated I wasn’t doing better. Anne, Chris and Donnie all seemed to be chugging up that peak as if it were a Sunday picnic. I didn’t understand. I felt a bit defeated, as if my body were failing me.
Felix and Donnie headed to summit
Time passed. It could have been 30 minutes or 3 hours, I honestly have no idea. At some point, Chris must have figured out we were close to some final point. He came and put his arm around me and said, “We’re doing this together”. Thinking back to it brings tears to my eyes. Such a good friend, and pole pole, we trudged up that dusty mountain.
I paused briefly to take this picture. It’s not great, but it was our first peek at the glacier. I was excited to see it, as many people believe it will be gone completely in the next 10-20 years. Plus, stopping felt GOOD. Chris and I continued, and soon we made it to Stella Point.
Stella Point is at 18,885′. It’s not the summit, but man it sure felt like it should be. There’s a sign, and a big flat spot, and people were resting, shedding layers, hugging, eating. It felt like we had arrived. We all celebrated with hugs and high fives, pictures and snacks.
Stella Point, 18,885 feet
Here’s our group. Goddy, John, Melissa, Anne, Jessie, myself, Donnie, Chris and Felix. Wow did I feel good! No more desire for a nap. I shed my outer layer, ate a Clif Bar, drank water and felt fantastic. Blue sky, friends….what more is there? Felix decided that Melissa and Jessie were to not head to the final summit. Their struggling up to this point was significant, and they were concerned that another 500 feet in elevation and a few more miles might be too much.
I saw Melissa sitting on a rock looking into the sun, tears streaming down her cheeks. My heart went out to her, as I could imagine the frustration. To be so close and to be told to stop. I remember telling her that she made it to 18,885 feet, higher than most people will ever be. 18,885 feet is nothing to sneeze at. We all hugged Jessie and Melissa before they headed down with Goddy. Then Felix promptly moved us along, on a mission. Our group was now down to just Anne, Chris, Donnie and me along with Felix and John. We were headed to Uhuru Peak at 19,341′. We were to follow the rim of the crater to the final point, which in the picture above, is above Chris’ head. It looked mostly flat, open, easy. Yay, I can do this!
Soon after starting up again, I was once again struggling to move my legs. Why was I having so much trouble? Frustration hit again because as before, the other three seemed to be having no difficulties. Then Anne pulled over and threw up. I remember giving her an Altoid. Wow, I had Altoids!!! I may not move quickly, but I have fresh breath.
Next thing I knew, those three seemed a mile ahead of me. I was pulling up the rear, and John was patiently walking with me. I’d like to say I was “taking in the scenery”, but the truth is I was just slow. People kept passing us coming down, having already summited. I remember a pair of ladies telling me I was close. Close? What did that mean, at this point?
Glacier, on the way from Stella to Uhuru
John was amazing. He was encouraging and patient. He told me stories of camping in the crater, of hiking up the other side. I was listening, but mostly struggling. Determined to get there. I was NOT going to quit a quarter mile from the top. No way. Step. Breathe. Step. Breathe. Why are my legs not moving? This trail was never-ending.
Final approach to Uhuru Peak
Then John spoke.
“Suzanna, may I ask you a question?” (yes, he called me Suzanna)
All I could think was, “Dude, NOT the best time for conversation”, but I replied, “Sure.”
“May I hold your hand?”
Now, this might seem odd. Or overly polite. But at that moment, it was the perfect thing. I think I replied with “Please”. So we held hands. It wasn’t romantic or awkward or uncomfortable, but the opposite. It was comforting, strengthening. The power of human touch, human connection. Just holding somebody’s hand was enough to keep me moving. We sped up ever so slightly, but it felt like I was speed racer. Every now and then, he’d give me a squeeze and say, “You are amazing. You are strong, like a lion!” I couldn’t even squeak out a whimper, let alone the roar of a lioness, but hearing it felt good. Soon, we were there.
Myself and Anne, VICTORY at UHURU!!
The emotion. So hard to describe. Joy, victory, power, gratitude, strength, friendship, relief, love. I remember hugging Chris and telling him I was glad he came along on the trip and then we both cried. Tears of joy and friendship. I remember taking the above picture with Anne, feeling like we could do ANYTHING. I remember telling Donnie about John, and how I wasn’t sure I would have made it without him, so Donnie immediately gave John his Patagonia down jacket.
Overall it was a feeling of accomplishment, gratitude and love. Accomplishment because THAT WAS HARD, but I did it. Gratitude to everyone who donated to AFCA, to my body for being so strong (even though I had had doubts), gratitude just for being. Being there, being alive. Love of my friends. What an amazing group of friends to share this with.
Me, Anne, Donnie, Chris at 19,341!
Pictures were taken. So, so many pictures. I felt human again. And it was literally all downhill from here. I was at 19,341 feet. The top of Kilimanjaro. The top of Africa’s highest peak. The top of the world’s tallest freestanding mountain.
Time to head down. We got out our poles and started. Down, what a concept. This thing called gravity? We were friends again. Not too far down the trail, we met Sean and Tanya headed up. Yay!! They would make it all the way in the end, which was awesome. As we descended, it got warmer. Felix paused us at one point for a layer adjustment. As I was flailing in the volcanic ash, trying to get layers off as smoothly as possible, he magically pulled out snacks for the four of us. We each got a packet of cookies, a juice box, and a full-sized Cadbury Dairy Milk bar.
Snack break on descent
Again, not a great picture, but it’s good to show the terrain. That’s Chris in the blue jacket in awe of a Dairy Milk bar. The trail we’re “on” in this picture is actually quite steep, but it doesn’t appear that way. After devouring our snacks, we were off again. Felix and Donnie basically ran down the scree. I didn’t see them again until camp. Anne and I were in the back (with John of course), and Chris was between the two groups. It was all down, and would be hard to get lost, so it felt as if we all had some freedom. After 6 days of walking in a line pole pole, “skiing” down fine volcanic skree felt like heaven. Yeah, the dust was everywhere, including in my lungs. Yes, my legs were exhausted. Yes, all I really wanted was a shower. But overall, still, I was feeling on top of the world.
As we got back to the campground, I saw people “moving in”, as we had the day before. These were the people who would summit tonight. It felt nice to be on the other side, and they looked at us as if we knew something they didn’t. And we did. We knew the struggle and the payoff.
Melissa and Jessie were at camp, sleeping. I tried to clean up a bit, and I wrote in my journal while I had a few minutes. I didn’t write much, but I made a list.
1) I need to perfect my farmer’s blow.
2) I both love and hate today.
3) My friends are amazing.
We had time to rest a little. I think it was about lunch when Tanya and Sean rolled into camp. We had lunch, packed up, then headed down. This was the only time I got to see the porters pack up our camp. What an operation! Gabriel (my porter) had a hand-held scale. He weighed each of our bags, then depending on how much it weighed, added a bucket, a tent, a chair, a something to that “pile” for that specific porter. Very fair system. We headed down, and soon our crew literally ran past us down a very slick trail.
Going down felt nice because it’s “easier”, but it was scary. My legs were exhausted and the trail was slick mud. Luckily it was only a few miles to camp. We arrived and checked in, back in the land of vegetation and oxygen. Donnie and I turned from the registration desk and I immediately spotted Gabriel. We started to our camp, and the porters started singing! Impromptu dance party? Why not?
Our final camp on Kilimanjaro
Windswept trees at camp
Our welcoming party!
Dance party, Donnie, John, Jessie
We rested a bit, tried to eat dinner. Lamb stew, but nobody ate much. Our best guess was just exhaustion.
Anne’s sleeping bag had gotten a bit wet, and she felt sick, so I let her have my bag for the night. Along with everything else I experienced and learned that day, I learned that a Kelty sleeping bag rated to 0 is not as warm as a Mountain Hardware sleeping bag rated to 0.
Blog post by: The Heskin Family