As we left Kibo hut I turned to our new guide and asked what time it was. He checked his cell phone, which still had service at 4700m, and informed me that it was midnight on the dot. We were off, George setting the pace, and that was that.
At first the pace was rather quick, leaving us out of breath, but soon we caught up to the group in front of us and George slowed us down, he just wanted to make sure we not begin our walk alone. Up we went, a combination of heaving breathing and slow walking. The pace was so slow it was nerve-wrecking but anytime we sped up in the slightest we were left struggling to catch our breath. We passed some people, others passed us, we were just part of a small string of headlamps you could see snaking up the slope of the crater.
As we climbed higher the affects of the altitude took a greater toll. From the start I felt nauseous but as we climbed that discomfort ultimately transferred to my head, mild mountain sickness. One step in front of the other, we just kept climbing and climbing. We’re halfway to the top, George would tell us…then repeating that same sentence 40 minutes later. He played games like this the entire way up, the top never seeming as far away as his time estimates…thanks merely to the darkness and the fact that we couldn’t see how steep the climb was.
As we neared the crater’s rim we found the first casualties of our friends, one girl sitting having just vomited, another hyperventilating. We felt the mountain sickness but were overall OK. We’d climbed the hard part, nearly 1000m to the craters rim. It was hard work. We were physically exhausted. It was 5am and we hadn’t slept. We were out of breath when just sitting. We couldn’t sit for fear of growing cold or cramping up. We had to continue. George urged us on, “you’ll make it, don’t worry, follow me.”
Then it got hard.
Climbing over Gilman’s Point we could see the caldera of the crater for the first time. We’d climbed the volcano but we weren’t finished yet. With 200 additional meters to climb to the Uhuru peak the wind picked up, the temperature dropped, our energy levels plummeted, and the air continued to thin. At first it was actually a bit easier, with ground that was relatively flat from what we’d done. Soon the elevation began again and even though it was much smoother than the steep climb we’d already managed, it seemed nearly impossible.
I suppose I was breathing but no where near as much as I would have liked. It was the desire to sleep though that most took control. As I walked I began to count paces before resting and breathing, then I was counting breaths. Ten breaths walking, 2 resting, then 7 and 4, then 2 and 10. There was no system to these numbers but the rest breaks were as much about me leaning forward, resting my head on my walking stick, and shutting my eyes. I felt myself wanting to sleep. Jill knew I was struggling. So did both guides. At one point Coleman, behind me, carefully choosing his words as he barely spoke English, said to me that I must move faster or I’ll freeze. I knew he was right, but I wanted to sleep.
Then Jill started to struggle. For me it was exhaustion and a desire to sleep, for her it was a mounting headache. Seeing her struggling helped to wake me up and we continued to push each other to the summit. It hurt, we were cold, our hands and feet were numb. Our steps were slow. The snow was slippery. We could see it though and we just kept walking. Jill mumbled something along the lines of, “lets just get there and take our stupid picture.”
That’s exactly what we did.
We made it to the summit. Our friend had puked again. Others were delirious. We took our picture. The guide cut off the top of the sign, his fingers were numb as well. We took another picture, then another, finally we got one that was “good enough” and we started back down. While up there we had some tea, it was hot, didn’t bother to eat anything. It didn’t matter.
At 6:30am, on Thursday, March 11, 2010, 364 days after starting this trip, we stood atop Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest point in Africa and the world’s tallest freestanding mountain.