Friday, December 25, 2015

Kilimanjaro - Summit Day - Christmas Morning

Today was one of the toughest days of my life.  We awoke at 11pm after about 3 hours of restless sleep and began to get ready for our summit bid.  It was incredibly cold out and much breezier than it had been when we went to bed.  The plus side was that there was definitely a full moon right above us and it was crystal clear without a cloud in the sky!

Before we went to bed we had a pre-summit meeting with Mike and Emanuel who assured us that despite our headaches we appeared to be in fine shape for the climb and they had full confidence that all 4 of us would make it to the summit.  Just as a precaution that wasn’t the case they asked the strongest porter in our expedition, “Jamba” to join us on the summit climb.  This porter was huge and very friendly!  

After we had some tea and did a last minute conference we were on the trail at midnight under a bright full moon without the need for headlamps.  I had popped 4 Aleve before we left camp knowing I would surely need their help with my headache on the climb and at the summit.  Thankfully, today I was carrying a bit less weight in my pack as I could leave a lot of our gear and clothes at Barafu Camp for our return.  Other groups had started the climb an hour before us but with our pace we quickly caught up to them and passed the majority of them so we could climb by ourselves with the flashes of other people’s headlamps all around us.  95% of the reason for summiting on Christmas morning was because it was a full moon and we wanted to ascend to the summit via moonlight only.

Usually, during highly aerobic summit climbs our bodies heat up with exertion but on this climb we were moving so slow due to the altitude and exhaustion that our bodies were not generating the typical heat they would have at 10,000 ft lower elevation.  This, combined with abnormally high winds with gusts up to 50mph, led to a very, very, very cold climbing.  I would guess it was hovering around 10-20 degrees on the climb but with the wind it felt much colder.  

We stopped a few times for warm tea provided by our guides and also to put on layers.  I needed help with my pit-zip zippers as I had two base layers, my light puffy and my thick puffy on top with the shell over them… and still a little cold.  Emily put her rain pants on over her puffy pants and needed help pulling the pants up as she was super puffy at that point.  I put my rain pants on but over my puffy pants they were way too tight!  From that point on Mike and Emanuel would occasionally have to pull up my pants because they were falling down my ass!  In his exhaustion Eric even put his pants on backwards on his first try!  This was also the location that Emy decided she needed to pee but there was nowhere to go except behind me.  This is when I heard “I can’t do it” behind me to which I replied in my exhausting “Just Concentrate Emy!” which became one of the funniest quotes of our whole trip.

I’m not gonna lie… the climb felt like it was taking forever and the “crater rim” where we would top out and have an easy traverse to Uhuru Peak just never seemed to be getting any closer in the distance above us.  When we were nearing 19,000 feet I was having a really tough time.  I was chilled and we weren’t moving fast enough to keep my hands warm in my gloves.  We had been told before hand our hands would get cold and to hike with them in our pockets without poles but honestly, I needed my poles more for stabilization.  I was desperate to get more oxygen into my system so I decided to try to breathe harder and faster - basically self-hyperventilating.  This seemed to help and to hold off the darkness and dizziness that was creeping in from my peripheral vision.  

Emily, Eric and Emy were also having a rough time, with Emy probably the best off of us after already having her “rough night” a couple nights before.  By the time we reached the crater rim Eric was stumbling on the path and Emily was on the side of the trail vomiting.  Her heaving may be due to the hot tea that Mike gave her that didn’t agree with her system in combination with a Cliff shot-bloc.  It was only a quick one and she was back on the trail with us.  

Because it was dark we couldn’t see much on the way up to the rim in terms of scenery in the distance except ghostly outlines but we were able to lights from small towns on the North side of the mountain in Kenya as we gained elevation.  Eventually, we hit a steep part near the rim where the moon was out of sight and I put on my headlamp for a little while to be able to see my stumbling feet better.  It was about this point that all of our camelbak tubes had frozen.

When we reached Stella Point at 18,885 ft we were greeted with one of the most beautiful mountain scene I’d ever seen in my life.  We could see clearly into the center of the crater which was lit up by the full moon which was setting over the opposite rim of the crater.  All the snow and glaciers hanging on the rim of the massive mountain were lit up by the moonlight.  Combine that with the horizon to the east behind us that was starting to glow orange and red at the same time and it became the most beautiful mountain scene I’d ever seen in my life.  I’m not going to lie, my shear exhaustion combined with the glowing pink glaciers of the Southern Icefield from the rising sun behind us beginning to finally warm us… I was brought to tears.  And I continued sobbing for the next 20 minutes or so it took us to reach the actual summit.

Upon reading that above you might be surprised, both by my reaction and the fact that it was so difficult when there are plenty of stories of people with no mountaineering experience reaching the summit of the non-technical peak.  Well, I can say this… altitude effects people differently and even though I’m an incredibly strong mountaineer, it took every ounce of everything I had to get to the top of the mountain the way I was feeling.  I never took Diomox or any other altitude fix while on the climb and even though I was asked repeatedly by Mike and Emanuel to give them my heavy pack I never once gave it up.  If I was going to get to the top it was going to be by my own power, without drugs and with the least amount of help possible.   

In a situation like this it becomes more your mindset and less the current state of your body.  We passed many people that turned around and were heading down, and even some people being carried by porters.  We noticed that the lone Japanese woman we had seen along the trail was walking down without making the top.  If you can will your way to the top your body will follow and that is precisely what I did.  Should I have taken Diomox… probably, but the risk of possibly being sick from it and not making it to the top was enough to dissuade all 4 of us from trying it.  

As we made our way along the rim towards Uhuru Peak the red glow in the distance became stronger and stronger as the moon set below the opposite rim out of site.  We made it to the official summit and sign minutes before the sun popped up above the horizon far over the Indian Ocean as well as a sea of clouds below us, about 6:15am.   A line for photographs with the sign was quickly building but somehow Jamba found us a way into the front of it for some group shots on the Roof of Africa at 19,341 feet!  Emily was a little upset looking at the photos after because she was so bundled up you could only see the very center of her face like “kenny” from South Park.  Needless to say, it was super cold!

After the group shots at the summit I rushed back to my bag to pull out the “I love Ellie” shirt I had carried up the mountain.  Because I had 5 layers on I needed some help pulling it on over my bright shell.  It was snug and I certainly looked “fat” but I really wanted to do it for Ellie to get a picture for her of her on the top of Africa but also to show that even though I was half way around the world I was still thinking about her.  It was equally as difficult to get the shirt off as well!

I managed to chuckle to myself because one of my original thoughts was to actually pay some extra money to camp in the summit crater for a night… hahahaha.  I think I may have died if we had tried that.  I also thought we’d have the energy to really walk around the summit area for a while and get up close to the glaciers up there.  Nope… I just used the good zoom on our camera to get up close to them!  Although it felt like 20 minutes, looking back at the photos we actually stayed on the summit for a full hour enjoying the views and taking a lot of photos of each other in the glow from the sunrise as well as the massive glaciers that lined the rim in all directions.  Each of the glaciers had a scientific monitoring equipment peppering the surface, sadly, to track their recession.  

When we first got to the summit I tried to put on my GoPro for some footage but because it was in my shell pocket it was too cold and wouldn’t turn on.  Thankfully, after some time inside my puffy I was able to put it on and grab some footage of us walking along the rim down from the summit.  Emy’s SPOT was also too cold to work properly as we weren’t able to send a text out to our families from the summit.  We also grabbed a lot of photos around the summit area with Emily’s FZ1000 as I didn’t bring up the long lens for my DSLR (although I had carried it the entire climb up to this point).   I didn’t see it but apparently there was a proposal on the summit while we were there as well that Emy and Emily had seen.  

The walk back around the rim to Stella Point was beautiful and crowded with the people that we had passed on the way up making their way to the summit.  I tried to get as much footage as I could with my cold hands and rough gusts blowing against me.  We had amazing views of Mwenza Peak to the East with the rising sun behind it.  It was a shadowy outline on the dark climb but now it’s jagged summit was clearly visible.  

We stopped briefly at Stella Point for some hot tea and to rest before starting our descent which, at least for me, was the worst part of the entire climb.  My legs were exhausted and the descent trail was offset from the ascent and basically just extremely loose rocks on top of larger slab rock so when you stepped forward you would slip.  It was some of the most unsure footing I’d ever experienced and the entire way down I was expecting to violently slip and snap my knees in half as they both felt extremely week at that point.  Emy, Emily and Eric were all moving faster down the mountain than old man Ellinger.  Mike and Emanuel offered to take my heavy pack off me but as usual I refused.  I downed some shot blocs, set my mind to it and began to catch up to them all, doing as much “scree skiing” as I could safely muster.  

At about 500 feet above Barafu Camp we were surprised by Humphrey and several other of our porters who had climbed up to meet us with juices, tea and snacks.  They had also come to congratulate us and take our packs.  Emy, Eric and Emily gave up theirs but again I stubbornly refused and continued down after a nice long rest in the sun with everyone which rejuvenated me immensely.  Just as the crater rim on the way up, the camp seemed to never get any closer on the way down the peak!  

We finally stumbled back into camp around 9:30am where we were greeted by all the rest of the porters with big smiles and hands out to congratulate us on making it to the summit.  Such wonderful people!  We then dropped our stuff and headed into our tents for a few hours of sleep before continuing on later in the afternoon.  Despite the heat and sun I instantly passed out for a little over 2 hours.

We had a nice lunch around 12:30 and by just after 1pm were packed up and heading down the mountain from Barafu Camp for another 4,000+ foot descent before our long day ended!  I was honestly too tired to eat much at lunch but I still had a couple sleeves of shot blocs to get me all the way down to Mweka Camp for the night.  

The descent from Barafu Camp was really amazing as we descended through three zones of Kilimanjaro in just one afternoon starting from the alpine of the summit, then through the Heather zone to the Rainforest Zone.  The Cultivated Zone is the final zone which we would drive out through on our way out the following day.   On the descent we entered back into the clouds and passed several emergency carts with one big tire on them to carry down injured or exhausted climbers.  One of them was being wheeled up the trail for someone while we saw another girl again being carried down on the back of a porter from Barafu.  

Once again Mike Pointed to our destination camp in the far distance below us and it seemed to take forever to reach it.  Thankfully, the cloudy skies were were in kept us cooler and there was plenty of interesting terrain and vegetation to keep our minds engaged and focused.  We passed by upper Mweka Camp and made it to Lower Mweka Camp at 10,000 feet by about 4:15 pm finishing our 4,000 ft ascent and 9,000 ft descent, 16 hour long exhausting summit day.  We found ourselves under a 15 foot tall canopy in a lush rainforest environment that was much warmer and all our headaches had vanished!  We had made to the roof of Africa and we only had a short 3hr or so descent the next day.  An overwhelming feeling of happiness washed over all us that night I think.  

That night we had yet another wonderful dinner and we made the effort to really chat it up with our guides and Emanuel knowing that we would have to say goodbye to them the next day.  I didn’t care about night photography as we were deep in canopy and we couldn’t see the mountain from the camp anyway.  Emily and I, confident that we could then make it out just fine the next day started our Malarone doses to prevent Malaria for the rest of the trip.  It certainly didn’t take long for any of us to fall asleep.  And, although I had snored nearly every night of the climb I think I was too tired to snore and Emy took the lead on that task instead according to Eric :).  

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