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.
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.
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.
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?