Approach to Kilimajaro Summit at Day Break. This stunning photo courtesy of Mark M.
Kili Death March
The ascent to the summit started at midnight. We had our briefing earlier in the evening with Ake. Keep food and water accessible and near your body to keep from freezing. He also recommended 3 layers on the bottom, and 5 layers on the top. Plus, layers in your backpack. Sounded a little overboard, but as it turned out later, those layers would be appreciated.
We slowly made our way out of Kibo camp. The pace was unfathomably slow. This was intentional, since we had to climb 3500′, and we were trying to stay together as a group. Countless switchbacks line the mountainside, and the false summit looks impossibly far. It’s hard to make that kind of effort and not have some issues. The altitude was affecting our group early on. I was doing the climb without Diamox, which can help with altitude acclimatization. But I was feeling strong despite that, as I had the previous days. I made rounds up and down the line, making sure people were doing okay. Even though I encouraged them to let me know about even the slightest ailment, this group was tough, and people rarely spoke up about anything unless I asked them about it. At 17,000′, Natalie began vomiting and had a raging headache. I gave her some Zofran and Compazine, hoping that a part of this was a migraine headache. I went ahead to check on Brian, who was having a rough time himself. He was dehydrated, shivering and cramping badly. I asked the line leader to slow the pace down, but Brian wouldn’t have it. He wanted to keep pushing on. When I looked back down the line, I could only barely make out the lights from Natalie’s headlamp. She was way back, and not moving up the trail. I backtracked down, and found her surrounded by Ake, Joe (her father), and two other guides. She was still vomiting, and her headache was no better. Ake felt like it was time to pull the plug, her Acute Mountain Sickness was too severe. I agreed, and we decided to have her go down with Gabriel, one of the senior guides. Joe wanted to go back with her, but she was insistant that he continue on. They had an emotional goodbye before Joe and I headed back up toward the rest of the group, which was well ahead on the mountain. By the time we started back up, the group was about 40 minutes ahead. We walked in step with the remaining guide, Urubu, and tried to make up the distance. After about 20 minutes, I looked up and realized we were almost caught up, which was great except for the fact that that meant we had been going faster than I meant to. I asked Urubu to slow it down. Joe and I had burned a lot of matches in those 20 minutes. Hopefully, not too many.
As we got up to around 18,000′, I began to feel sleepy. We hadn’t slept that night, and it was 4am
, so it seemed reasonable that I should want to take a nap. But the sleepiness kept getting worse as we ascended. I remember Ryn having the same problem the time we tried to climb Mount Shasta years ago. Now I know how she was feeling that day. At Kibo Camp, which sits at 16,000′, my O2 Saturation was 82%. My hypoxic brain at 18,000′ was begging to take a break.
Near the Summit
The slow pace would often grind to a halt if a tricky section came up. I found myself closing my eyes, and actually sleeping briefly while standing. Soon, any burst of exertion was accompanied by a wave of nausea. On top of that, the temperatures dropped and the wind picked up. By the time we got into Gilman’s Point, many in the group were nearly hypothermic. It was hard to generate internal heat after the night’s long effort. Standing around was not an option, so many went ahead to, if nothing else, keep warm. I gathered myself to push on, but Jenn was worried about Larry, the other doc on the trip. She said he was having a tough time. So I went back to Gilman’s to check on him. Went I got there, I didn’t find Larry, but instead, Brian was there, sitting on a rock. Ake was with him, and they were both silent when I approached. Brian was dehydrated and very weak. He was pale and had a blank stare on his face. He had miraculously made it to 19,000′, but couldn’t go on. I stood with him for a while, trying to encourage him to at least come to Stella point to “ring that f*cking bell”, but he was done. He made it 90% of the way, through the hardest part of the climb, but had nothing left for the last push. I choked up a bit as we all stood there motionless. We had to arrange to send him down the mountain. I watched him slowly make his way back down the mountain with two of our guides, then turned, and again found myself well off the back. I hustled to catch up, but I couldn’t move very fast.
Later on, back at Kibo, Stuart and Steve mimicked my wide-based, stumbling gait at the top. Above Gilman’s, I was thankful no one had asked me to dress their blisters or do anything that required a brain. At the time, it was all I could do to put one foot in front of the other. Stuart was waiting for me at Stella point, the last meeting point before the Uhuru summit. He took my frozen water bottle from me, and stuck it in his jacket to try to thaw it. I was too cold to care about eating, but Stuart made me force down a couple of Clif blocks, which I was too tired to chew. So I tucked them into my cheek for a few minutes before finally spitting them out near the summit.
Joseph and I at Stella Point
The bike porters, who left camp after us, had passed us on the trail before Gilman’s and deposited our bikes just before the summit, so we could ride the last bit to Uhuru. Joseph, along with the other porters, were waiting for us in 20 degree weather, and that doesn’t account for wind chill, which was plenty. The fortitude of these guys is unbelievable. They wore suboptimal clothing, and carried our bikes on their backs to the summit, only to freeze their butts off as we struggled to catch up. Joseph was waiting for me just before the summit with a big, toothy smile on his face. He had my extra layers for me, which he helped me put on since my cold fingers couldn’t operate the zippers. The absurdity of someone carrying my bike to the top, so that I could ride it down, was eminent at lower altitude, but at 19,000+’, I was thankful to not have had to carry it myself. Some of the other porters were clearly in rough shape. They were not prepared for the extreme cold. One of them was using an old pair of cotton socks as mittens. Matt O. searched through his pack and offered his balaclava, extra gloves and jacket to them. Big ups to Matt for his generosity and being able to recognize that those guys were in need of help.
Glaciers at the top
The top of Kilimanjaro is breathtaking. What looks like a dusting of snow from the base, is actually a series of massive glaciers. I rode the last 300 yards to the summit on the Bonty, which was coated in a layer of frost. The last bit pitches upward. I didn’t care how I felt, I wanted to ride to the top. By the time I stepped off the bike at Uhuru, I was gasping for air and seeing stars. At the top, I took the requisite photos, and soaked in the views as much as my dizzy, hypoxic brain could consume. Some of our group, Steve, Esther, Austin, and I, mounted up, and began the historic descent down Mount Kilimanjaro. We passed a number of other climbers, who looked curiously at our bikes, no doubt wondering if they were really watching people descend Kili on bicycle, or they were just hallucinating. We left our bikes at Stella and glissaded half way down the mountain to a point where it was rideable again. Joseph hiked my bike down, and was waiting for me when I arrived. Did I mention what badasses these guys are?
We descended the loose scree to Kibo, drifting our bikes around the switchbacks. There was a welcoming party at camp, and we toasted the successful summit and the guides and porters who got us there.
Me and Bonty on top of Kilimanjaro
We napped in our tents at Kibo, then rode down to Horombo camp at 12,000′. Ema bought a couple of 6 packs of Kilimanjaro Beer, and we celebrated the historic ride on Kilimanjaro.
2013 Kilimanjaro Summit Team. This was the first ever sanctioned ride on Kili.