This is going to be a long post. I apologise for that in advance. It’s also going to spread over two posts. I feel like a movie franchise that splits the most important part into separate pieces in order to keep your attention. But there is a reason for it so please bear with me.
Points vs Peaks
For a paragraph it’s good to explain the “points” and “peaks” of Mt Kilimanjaro.
Uhuru Peak. The highest point of the mountain is Uhuru Peak, which is 5895 meters above sea level. That’s the end goal for everyone. Reaching that peak entitles you to a Gold Certificate from the national parks authority in honour of your achievement. Given our climbing route (Machame), the average success rate to reaching the summit is about 65%. Adding an extra day of acclimatisation brings that to around 80-85% depending on which sources you consult.
Stella Point. This is the second highest point on the mountain, which is 5756 meters above sea level. For a lot of people, they stop here and attempt the additional 150m to Uhuru peak. In most cases I am sure it is because of lack of desire, but because of sheer exhaustion or signs of altitude sickness. Making it to Stella point entitles you to a Green Certificate from the national parks authority in honour of your achievement.
Gillman’s Point. This is the third highest point on the mountain, which is 5685 meters above sea level. From this point you can probably start to feel altitude sickness. I know you get a certificate, but we never asked about it.
As I said before, our goal is the Peak and the Gold Certificate. We aren’t really thinking about anything else.
It’s almost time
It’s 23.00 (or thereabouts) and Frankie calls out to let us know that the tea and biscuits are ready. There’s only one problem. The winds are so strong that our mess tent blew over. So tea and biscuits will be served at Casa Tent de Rodney. No problem. I have barely slept because of the wind, which has picked up and gotten stronger in the evening.
You can feel that it is colder. I suit up in many layers of clothing. For the summit I am wearing 2 pairs of thermal underwear in addition to my snow pants. I am wearing 2 thermal shirts in addition to another t-shirt, my fleece jacket and my snow jacket. I have on 2 pairs of gloves in addition to glove warmers. And I have feet warmers in my hiking boots. And I can still feel the cold getting in layer-by-layer. Body heat and tea will be my friend on the moment.
Before we begin our trek up, Ashard gives some final reminders:
- “There is always the mountain”. In case we don’t summit, that we can also try again
- Be honest with how we feel. Reaching the summit should be a life-affirming experience, not a life-ending one
- Thing about something other than climb. For example, I should think about Zanzibar and Christina should think about her safari.
- Vomiting 3-4 times is okay, but more than that and it’s usually a sign of a problem.
We promise to be honest and to positive and work for our success! I am clearly the one to be more concerned about and for good reason. Climbing up the mountain as I felt (like Day 2 all over again) meant that I had to be smart and careful.
So with our kit ready, our night gear on, and much determination, we leave Barafu camp and head up the summit path.
Ascent towards the Stell Point
There are many groups of us going. All going slowly which is good. It looks surreal to see lots of lights from headlamps all heading in the same direction – up! The trek is in complete darkness except for the headlamps.
About 40 minutes into the ascent, you can see and hear people vomiting. I feel bad for them. I understand that wanting to vomit feeling, but I am suppressing everything. Besides, I have bigger problems.
I’m not getting enough air. It’s noticeable even to Ashard who asks if I am okay. So now I make my first decision on the night. I can remove the covering from my mouth to protect against the insanely strong wind and dirt in order to get in more oxygen. Or I can just wear it and see how I do. I decide to remove the buff protecting my mouth. Inhaling dirty and dealing with a cough seems to me to be an acceptable price to pay. Within 15 minutes I am breathing easier again, even if it is from air with dust.
The ascent is the steep yet gradual type of ascent. The one that I find extremely tiring and exhausting. My rate of ascent starts to slow down. At this point we have fallen behind most (but not all) of the other groups also ascending towards the summit. After a few hours, it becomes apparent that we won’t hit Stella Point by sunrise and will instead have to enjoy sunrise on the way up. I had tried my best to push myself and make that happen, but for all of the extra energy that I had used to try to keep up, it wasn’t enough.
The good news though is that I had no symptoms of altitude sickness. I was just tired. All of the tips and tricks over the past 5 days were helping, but we hit a point (around 05.30 in the morning), where I understand that my sheer physical size was going to have to power me up to Stella Point. To get from Stella Point to Uhuru Peak was another problem I could deal with when I got there. But for now:
Inertia! Ain’t no mountain high enough!
Well around 07.00 I am happy to say that we made it to Stella Point, the second highest point on the mountain!
For me personally, making it to Stella Point had come at a large cost. I had used just about all of my energy to make it to Stella Point. The lack of oxygen wasn’t helping. Everything hurt. I had now made it to Stella Point, but how was I going to make it to Uhuru Peak. It’s “only” 139 meters higher, but an a good day with normal energy it takes about 45 minutes to complete.
Ashard asked me a pretty direct question: if I get to Uhuru Peak, would I be able to get back down the mountain under my own power. The honest answer would have been to respond “it’s 50/50 at this point”, but I answered “yes” on the assumption that sheer force of will had got me to Stella Point. I didn’t have any altitude sickness. I didn’t vomit. I had no headaches. It was just a matter of wanting it badly enough. So after a 5 minutes pause, we began the journey towards Uhuru Point…