Kilimanjaro: Summit Day

View from the summit camp the evening before summit attempt.
In this post, I will tell about the summit attempt of Kilimanjaro, made by me and my group as a part of self-sufficient "apline-style" climb. The summit attempt was made on the 14th of February 2019. To read about the preparations and arrival see here, the first days are described here, hike to Lava Tower and Barranco here, up Barranco Wall and to Barafu here. To skip to lessons learned, read here.

It was just past 1 o'clock at night. The stars were shining bright, and the Milky Way spread beautifully across the sky. We could see the headlamps of people long above ourselves. Since this side of the mountain was not covered in snow this day, the lamps far away were just floating in the dark. It was impossible to see where the lamps finished and the stars started. Amazing view.

We continued up, slowly. One of the team members was having trouble with syncing the breathing with the steps, and struggled a lot with both steep and flat parts of the trail. He needed to take frequent pauses, going very slowly. The rest of the group were starting to freeze. I made several efforts to help the person physically but understood that the situation was anything but improving. After a while, the person started to lose cognitive abilities and showed signs of oxygen deficiency. It was no longer safe to continue. The person needed to turn around at about 5300 meters, the head local guide helping on the way down. The rest continued, together with two assistant guides now.
By this time, the wind was so strong that we were losing balance and blown to the ground at times. The rest of the group would speak of storm or hurricane, but according to my estimates it was a Beaufort 8-9 strength in the gusts, which would rather be a gale or a strong gale.

It was still dark, and the wind chill made itself known. We were going faster now, but many were freezing because of the slow pace in the start. One of the team members was complaining about very cold hands. I had brought extra gloves, but getting them out of the backpack was quite a project because of the strong wind. I gave him my shell gloves, and tried to continue just wearing merino liners and extra thick wool liners, but realized I would lose my fingers within an hour or two if I would continue. I took shelter behind a stone and got the gloves out. All the pausing caused us to get even colder, and hindered the progress. The member with the frozen hands said that he was too cold, and would not continue. It was a worrying trend, with two in the group giving up. At this time, I had put so much effort and energy into helping the first member up, that I decided to trust the second person’s decision and not to push on. After all, cold can be dangerous and if somebody states that they are so cold they want to abort the attempt then it’s surely serious enough to respect the person’s need to go back. Pushing on may result in frostbite or cognitive deterioration. We left another guide with him, and continued.

Now, we were three alpinists and one local guide. Everyone was quiet, but we all understood that the regulations crave that we all turn around if any of us want to abort. It’s not allowed to be on the mountain without a local guide.

The wind was even stronger now. In the dark, we could not see how steep it was, but all realized that it’s imperative not to be blown to side or lose balance. It was hard to breath in the icy wind without having a buff over the face. We took small pauses occasionally to drink and adjust gear. The Nalgene bottles holding the drinking water were freezing up despite the insulation covers. We poured hot water from thermal flasks into them, to make it drinkable. The wind was blasting our faces with sand and ice. I had a ski mask on the bottom of the daypack, but chose not to try and retrieve it so I would not risk losing the bag contents into the wind. The result was swollen and red eyes at the end of the day, both from the dust and from the cold.

The walk to Stella Point is supposed to be the hardest. It definitely was, but suddenly we were at the sign, and the sun was up. We took a short pause there too. Now, it was a less steep walk on the brim of the crater, enjoying the view of the glaciers, and suddenly we could also see Uhuru Peak – the summit of Kilimanjaro.

The clouds were passing over the crater brim, the wind was calmer here, there was so much to see, but most importantly we knew that we were almost there. We continued quietly. There was only one way: up.

On the way up. Several other climbers or porters/guides in the background.
I had brought a GoPro Hero 7 to film the summit. We had tried to film the summit of Mont Blanc with GoPro, but the battery was too low, so this time I had brought two (!) battery packs to make sure that the camera would work and be fully charged. However, just before the summit it turned itself off and displayed the “service” icon. Not again! I turned on my smartphone for filming and photos, it would just have to do.

A guide taking a rest on top of the world (almost)
We were at the peak at 08:45 am, to witness the sign marking the top of the highest free-standing mountain in the world, as well as Africa’s highest point, world’s heritage, wonder of Africa and one of the world’s largest volcanoes, at 5895 meters or 19341 ft amsl. Clouds were passing by, we took photos and shared a very special moment. Full of love and happiness, we stood at Uhuru Peak, closer to heaven than ever.

As we turned around and walked back along the crater rim, we suddenly saw a familiar jacket. That was the team member that decided to abort because of cold hands! He managed to continue despite his former decision, and was safely guided by the local guide that was assigned to him. Happy but too tired to even look around, he got to the summit, took a photo and went back.

A quick selfie on the highest point of a continent is a must.
On the way down, I was definitely feeling the altitude. There are two paths between the camp and the summit – you’ve got the steeper path on the stones for climbing up, keeping to the left on the way up – and the lower path on the scree, that’s on the left on the way down. The locals have a running technique when they go down, but with tired legs and brain the risk to fall was seeming too large. We proceeded slowly. The way down took only 2,5 hours or so in total, however it felt like many hours.
The way down left a lot of possibility to think. Was the red flare fired before the dawn because of the first group member to go down? The faint sounds of the helicopter at dawn, did they make it? And the introspective. The lack of sleep lowered my cognitive abilities to close to zero, and the altitude-induced nausea caused a crippling lack of appetite, which meant I only managed to consume a couple of hundred kcal during 10 hours involving 1220 height meters up, and the same down, some of it spent physically helping others. All I wanted to do was to get 30 minutes of sleep on my mat inside the tent, and everything would be alright.

As we were approaching the camp, we were able to see the damage that the wind had made. The parties that had toilet tents (yes, it’s a thing – with a pot-a-potty and everything) had then thrashed. Many tents were deformed or missing. And as I made out our camp… I only saw 1,5 tents of the three that we left standing.

One was missing clean, another was missing the outer layer. And mine seemed to be missing half of it. There is nothing I could do about it before I got to the camp and could assess the damage. Walking on, and watching the damage, and realizing I am not getting that nap on my mat anymore – and that most of my gear was possibly gone without a trace. That was a bit tough.

As we got to the camp, we saw a familiar blue jacket. The member that aborted the attempt was there, safe, well-rested and feeling fine! He briefed us about the situation. The local staff secured the tents by putting large stones on them. So all the gear was fine, secured and safe. That was a relief. He had packed the tent, so it was safe in the backpack, not blown away. That was good news! Bad news, however, was that the sharp stones had chafed holes in my tent. Of course, it’s now impossible to know, but I would guess that the aerodynamic tent with heavy backpacks inside had a better chance of withstanding the hard winds just by being left alone, than being slaughtered by rocks. I will now have to get myself a new tent – despite the fact that I love watching stars at night, I do not want to see so many at the same time through the holes. Not even mentioning rain and snow.

We got to repacking (which went a bit slow due to weariness after the summit), had a fast warm meal (the guides were kind enough to offer hot water, it could take very much time to arrange otherwise, in that kind of wind), and headed down. At that time of the day, there is a large influx of tourists to Barafu Camp. Many of them were worried, some asked us if it was safe to be there, or was that why we were heading down? We answered that we were straight from the peak and leaving home now, hoping that it would comfort them and give them a bit of motivation.

The descent was expected to be tiring and hard on the knees, but one thing is to expect and another is to experience. Aching knees, hips and feet made progress very slow. Some backpacks had to be redistributed so the persons could continue. Frequent pauses to adjust gear and clothes were made and slowed us down even more. We were now rapidly changing climate zones, so the ice wind gave place to scorching sun and then a more comfortable warm embrace of clouds and rain forest, and extra layers had to be removed continuously. We were extremely lucky not to get an afternoon rain, which would cause the rocks to be slippery and the ascent to be even more painful and potentially dangerous.

Kilimanjaro and Uhuru Peak from below, along the Mweka Route.
Oh, how we walked… I think everyone collectively agreed that it must have been one of the most strenuous day in their lives. Passing High Camp on the way, with no possibility to stay there, was definitely not a motivating factor. About 5,5 hours later, limping and groaning, the last of the party entered Mweka Hut Camp. From there, about three hours were left to Mweka Gate, where the summit trail ends. We were picked up with a car, gifted summit certificates, and transported back to the hotel (through a souvenir shop with overpriced but much appreciated cold drinks), all to the happy songs by our local crew. They had nicknames for us all, and chanted to every one of us and themselves, a very appreciated gesture.

Since we had two days left and unplanned, we headed to a two-day safari. Maybe I will describe it in another post some day. I have summed up the lessons learned in the next post here

Kilimanjaro beer. If you climbed it - drink it! Reload those calories, and enjoy being back to civilization.