It was midnight, and a cold wind picked up just as soon as we departed our camp. Would my six thermal layers keep me warm for the next twelve hours? At altitude, the chill sets in easily.
Thirteen headlamps lit our trail, a dusty path with innumerable switchbacks. Quadriceps burned as we trudged upwards in darkness, ascending a long dormant volcano – the highest point in Africa. My headlamp illuminated the climbing partner in front of me, casting his silhouette on the volcanic earth. His headlamp illuminated the climbing partner he trailed, while her shadow played and twisted with mine on the ground. With arms angled in funny ways against supportive hiking poles, our hardened trekker contours danced madly on the Tanzanian terrain.
It was our own little shadow puppet show; with people as puppets and the frigid Mount Kilimanjaro night as our stage.
We were eight folks from several countries: South Africa, Australia, Canada, the United States and England. One was a surf instructor, one was a metallurgist, two were accountants – very helpful when figuring out how to tip at the end of an expedition.
Some thirty Tanzanian guys formed our pit crew, a team that carried our things from one camp to the next. These “things” included mess tents, sleeping tents, cooking stoves, food, a latrine, and our belongings. We carried a small backpack during the day, and the powerful porters carried the rest.
A stalwart group, they covered the same ground as we did during the day. However, they moved twice as quickly, carrying everything on their heads.
I selected the longer Shira route, an eight-day journey that began at the western edge of Kilimanjaro National Park. There are benefits to shorter routes: trekking at altitude can be exhausting. The less time spent exhausting yourself, the more energy you have for summit day. A longer route gives you plenty of chance to acclimatize, and a better chance at summiting successfully.
Unfortunately, you’re guaranteed to smell like a goat.
Our early days were marked by friendly and culturally-sensitive exchanges over morning tea, which quickly gave way to relentless joking about British accents and the American overuse of the word “awesome.”
Over the Shira plateau we trekked; climbing high during the day and sleeping lower at night.
One of the more memorable evenings was spent watching the sun go down around Lava Tower, an imposing rock formation. Evenings were a magical time, when the horizon would turn unexpected shades of orange.
The night before our summit, we went to bed after dinner and awoke at 11:30pm, yes, pm, to start our summit attempt at midnight. At this point I was nauseous constantly, hadn’t slept well in several days, and felt drained.
But there was only one way to go.
And so we climbed. It’s somewhat of a blur now, but I remember wanting it to be over. I remember our energized guides singing in Swahili, and playfully inserting the names of each of our team into their song. I recall sitting on a rock several times, hoping to calm my burning stomach. I stood up again and again, willing myself to put one foot in front of the other.
Our of earshot of my teammates, I let a few tears fall. Exhaustion. Could I really continue? Did I even want to?
Were it not for Bariki, one of the assistant guides, I may have turned back. He walked by my side, urging me to continue, and that when the sun rose, everything would change. After about six hours, downing candy bars (two? three?) along the way, we reached Stella Point, the teaser before the real summit.
Here we sat, or crumpled rather, for a quick tea. Everyone was tired. We were all in it together, and the summit was now in view. Just an hour away. Though it was only a slight uphill, we shuffled slowly.
There is still glacier at the top of Kilimanjaro, though it receeds as the years go by.
Bariki was right, sunshine changes everything. My six thermal layers were barely enough along the dark pre-dawn hours, but were more than enough after 6am.
The summit sign edged closer and closer. And finally, we had arrived.
Exaltation takes on a different form when you’re exhausted. There is no shouting, there is no jumping up and down. It’s more like a quiet energy bubbling inside, that you may only articulate once you stand at sea level again.
Now I can. It was awesome.