Kilimanjaro

My experience on summit night. January 2012.


It was almost midnight and we woke from our stupor hesitantly. Summiting Kilimanjaro seemed romantic at sea level, but the whole thing seemed rather dubious when you’re waking up for a midnight start at 15,000 feet, facing temperatures that could dip below zero-degrees Fahrenheit. And though our sleeping bags hardly kept us alive at night, they were preferable to the arctic tundra that awaited us outside. But we had to summit, so we rose and put on our gear in silence.

After six days of climbing, we had grown accustomed to layers of clothes we had to put on and it was now an efficient, careful ritual. First, a thick base layer. Then a fleece jacket and pants. Third, a heavy down parka and ski pants. Finish off with two layers of thick wool socks, sturdy hiking boots, rain guards, a scarf, a trapper’s hat, two pairs of gloves, and finally walking sticks.

“You’re late as always,” our guide Wilbard said as he handed us some hot tea through our tent door. “What’s taking so long?”

“Probably all the clothes,” Paul said, laughing as we stumbled out. “Are we ready to go?”

“Yes, let’s get started — the other groups have already left.”

With that, we started for the summit. We walked eagerly into the darkness and at first it was easy, a casual midnight hike. The crisp air and steady ground supplied my confidence and our party sparked with casual chatter. We zoomed past a large, slower group and I smiled at them as we passed. For pole pole style, we were going fast.

But as the night continued on, the flat gravel turned into steep rocks and burly boulders. We were quieter now, our energy focussed on each step as we climbed higher and higher. I had shown symptoms of altitude sickness in the camp below, and I knew that the effects would be magnified on this seven-hour summit bid. Each step upwards meant less and less oxygen for our bodies. A self-inflicted poisoning of the blood stream, all in the name of adventure.

Nausea came over me and I found each step to be harder than the last. My confidence waned, and I struggled to keep pace. I asked the group to slow down. Then I told them to stop. “I feel sick,” I said, collapsing on a rock.

Paul came over. “You okay?”

“I don’t know if I’m going to make it,” I said.

“You will,” he said. “Let’s just go one step at a time. We’ll get there.”

Wilbard took out his thermos and handed it to me. “Hot tea,” he said. He then offered to carry my bag, which I accepted without a word.

We rested only for a few minutes before Wilbard started again. “We have to move,” he said.

Suddenly the assault came: icy, knife-sharp wind pierced through the mountainside, barbarous and without mercy. She lashed her wrath upon us, and the coldness was unbearable. We forced upwards and lusted after boulders that gave us a moment of refuge from the wind. Even then, the coldness began to overtake me. I’ve always hated the cold, but I’ve never experienced this kind of cold. I could not feel my toes, fingers or face and my body quivered. This kind of cold is vicious and relentless and it attacks deep into your bones. This kind of cold is murderous.

And the snot. Oh, the snot. It’s snot city. I wasted half of my toilet paper that night wiping the snot away. Even Wilbard’s nose, surely accustomed to such conditions by now, ran without end. I don’t get it. I don’t get why the body produces an abundance of snot when you’re freezing to death. But it does. So I clenched toilet paper squares in my left hand, wedged between walking sticks and two pairs of gloves, to wipe away the snot. The brochures encouraged you to leave no trace, but with the cold and the altitude sickness kicking in and the snot, I didn’t care. Being environmentally considerate did not seem appropriate when you’re being attacked by the environment. I was just trying to survive. So I dropped my snotty squares like a trail of crumbs over the edge of the tallest mountain in Africa.

Far below flickered the lights of man, illuminating the cities where tourists arrived in vans and buses and planes with their technical jackets and boots, ready to enter the war. Yes, this climb was war. I would not simply be the 158,112th person (according to the certificate) to officially summit the mountain — I was a soldier storming Kilimanjaro, the Olympus of Africa. The gods lived on the summit, and we were mortals who dared to meet them.

But even this murderous condition bequeathed to us some grace. Above us the witness of the stars pierced the darkness like an angelic host, numerous as the sands of Zanzibar. Below us the moon hovered, small and tight like the eye of a wolf. Clouds congregated around the moon and formed a snout, and the apparition of a glaring wolf watched us, daring us onward. For some reason, I took great comfort in the watchful eye of that wolf. His acknowledgement of our cascade up the mountain gave substance to the whole expedition. This climb meant something.

On the rocks we ran into a guide and his client, whom we nicknamed Zombie. Zombie’s resigned eyes stared listlessly, and his skin glowed a ghastly tinge in the moonlight. He was silent. Zombie’s guide pulled Wilbard over, and they conferred in hushed Swahili. The tone of their conversation went something like this:

“Zombie wants to turn back,” says the guide.

“He’s not looking too good,” Wilbard replies.

“Wilbard, I need that summit bonus,” says the guide. “Help me out. Get him moving.”

Wilbard walked over to Zombie. “You’re very close,” Wilbard said unconvincingly. Zombie stared at Wilbard with his small, hollow eyes. Wilbard tried again. “This is your dream. You are very close to accomplishing your magnificent dream.” But Zombie stayed silent. There was nothing we could do, so we left them.

I asked Paul for the time. 6 AM. We were close, but my head pounded and nausea came and went. The bitter cold dug deeper into my body like a parasite. I was envious of Paul because the altitude seemed so easy for him. He has great lungs and didn’t seem to be affected at all. I had stopped taking the altitude sickness pills due to side effects, and I was bitter that Paul was still on it. I need it more than him, I thought. But Paul encouraged me forward, and so forward we went.

Suddenly we were at Stella Point, the crater of the rim at 18,652 feet. “You are minutes away from the summit,” Wilbard said. Exhilaration filled my mind, body and soul. Replenished energy came for the final sprint and we quickened our pace. Of course guides have a tendency to fib a bit, and the minutes didn’t end as quickly as expected (in fact it took another hour). But never mind the fib — we were racing to the top.

By now the sun was rising, a sliver of power breaking across the horizon, bright-red and expansive. That glowing horizon, far below us, seemed so near that I could have reached out and, with a strong tug, snapped the warm brightness into place to replace the frigid night. But every step brought the sun up a little more, and we were slowly enveloped in warmth.

Then we were there. Uhuru Peak, 19,341 feet. To our sides stood the frozen glaciers, there since the birth of the mountain and surely to be there at its death. A clear sky blanketed us as the bitter darkness faded, replaced by morning warmth. We laughed and hugged and played. Radiant joy destroyed any sickness I had, suppressed by sheer happiness of the accomplished task.

We found our friend Bernd whom we had shared camp with and exchanged stories like old friends, discussing the climb, what time did you leave camp, when did you get to some marker, how difficult was it for you, what time did you summit, and so on. We laughed some more, congratulated some more, and wondered why no one had brought champagne. So we celebrated the best way we knew how, by taking photograph after photograph in front of that wonderful sign: Congratulations. You are now at Uhuru Peak. 5895 meters A.M.S.L. Tanzania. Africa’s highest point. And whatever misgivings I had, whatever begrudging held, whether on person or nature, disappeared. Standing there, higher than any height I’ve ever reached, with the world spinning below, I was reminded once again of the joy of adventure.


Paul in the snack tent.
Wilbard at ease.
Paul (our assistant guide), Paul, me and Wilbard.
At the top of the world.