The Final Ascent of Mt. Kilimanjaro

Mt Kilimanjaro amongst the clouds

This is a piece that I’ve been meaning to put up here for quite some time. In the summer of 2001, I spent a month in Tanzania on a mission project, and, at the end of that time, I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. I was fifteen years old at the time, and it was probably one of the roughest periods of my life for innumerable personal reasons. There were many moments when I didn’t feel like I was ever going to possibly make it up the mountain, but I did.

Now is one of those times where I think it’s good to remind myself both of the difficulty of that final nighttime ascent of the mountain and of the fact that I made it in the end.

This essay is–provided I am remembering this correctly–a combination of materials that I wrote in Tanzania in 2001 and some that I wrote in later months after I was back in the U.S.

The Final Ascent

My account of the journey from Kibo Hut (4,703 m) to Uhuru Peak (5,895 m) and back begins with part of the (unfinished) journal entry that I wrote on the fifth day of the climb:

“12 July 2001, Mt. Kilimanjaro, Horombo Hut, below 4,000 m: Today has been a seriously long and tiring day. Last night at 10:40, I was awakened and told to prepare. This is what I wore: one pair of silk thermal underwear (top and bottom), three pairs of socks (one cotton, two wool), one pair of hiking boots, one pair of lightweight hiking pants, one pair of heavy hiking pants, one Project Tanzania T-shirt, one Project Tanzania sweatshirt, one ski jacket with Polartech lining, one ear band, one bandana, and one pair of gloves. Can you believe that I still got cold?

At 12:30 we finally set out up the trail from Kibo to Gilman’s Point (5,681 m) in the cold, windy night. We walked uphill in a single file line through volcanic dust and rocks for about twenty minutes (just a guess) before Amanda stopped from stomach cramps. She tried again but got stopped, and then we passed her. The road was cold, tough, and sometimes treacherous. Every step had the potential to make you slide backwards to a point further back than the one you began at.

Luckily, though, the moon was just past half full so it lit the way nicely. It was bright enough that I had a shadow. I was near the front of the line, especially further on. We climbed for what seemed like forever. It took well over an hour just to pass William’s Point (5,000 m).”

The guides did their best to keep us in high spirits. Back in Monduli, Freddy had entertained us with his impression of a minister preaching. When he paused, everyone would join in, yelling, “Hallelujah!” and “Salvation is coming!” We’d continued this during our earlier climbs, and now the guides would yell, “Hallelujah!” and we would yell it back. They knew that if someone didn’t answer, then that person was getting sick.

“Every once in a while, at the beginning, when I was feeling particularly optimistic, I’d look up and see this rock formation above us. Ahh, I thought, this must be Gilman’s Point. I knew that their seven hours was a lie. It took so long to reach it. I felt like the victim of a practical joke where someone had laid money on the street and every time I bent to pick it up he jerked it further away. When we finally reached the rocks and sat down, I was so cold that I couldn’t feel my fingers, toes, nose, or lips. ‘Congratulations,’ someone said as they shook my hand, ‘you’ve made it halfway.’

‘What?!’ I wanted to scream. I satisfied myself with nodding numbly because I was out of breath. After sitting for a few moments I asked about the time. I was too tired and cold to take my glove off and check myself. ‘3:30,’ was the reply. Oh God, this can’t be happening to me. My face felt like it was burning. ‘Is it a bad thing when your face is burning?’ I asked.

‘You’re probably just windburnt. Put on a scarf,’ Jon told me. What scarf? The wind was bitter cold and went straight through my gloves. I kept switching back and forth with my hiking stick while putting my other hand in my pocket. And my nose… It was running like a leaky faucet now, but it was also too numb to feel that. By this point, I was too tired to wipe my nose with my handkerchief (which made it cold anyway). ‘Mollel, how much longer?’

‘Two and a half hours. We should get there about the time the sun rises.’ I had to think back to Monduli and guess that that was around six. And off we go again. At this point I was so tired and cold that putting one foot in front of another was asking a hell of a lot. And I’m supposed to for another two-and-a-half hours up this Godforsaken mountain? In this dust that makes
the path crumple beneath your feet? I think not.

About this time an especially strong gust of wind caught me off balance and knocked me to the path. A nearby guide caught me and hauled me to my feet. I looked up at Maki’s back. We’d promised each other on the second day that we would get to the top. She was struggling, too, but she was still taking one step at a time. What was it that I’d told Yumi earlier? Yumi, who was at the front being led by a guide who held one end of her hiking stick while she held the other? Oh yes, ‘whenever I feel like I can’t go on, I tell myself that every step I take gets me closer to the top’.

Alright, plant the stick; breathe in through your nose; put right foot forward; exhale through mouth. Again, on left. Over. Over. Over. So I struggled up the crumbling path, out of breath, aching all over, and desiring sleep more than anything else. The Hallelujahs fell few and far between now. Most of us answered in whispers that were lost to the wind. It was still dark and I was too cold to check my watch. I couldn’t remember the words to any songs to distract myself, so I started to pray. The Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed rolled around in my head until I was coherent enough to compose my own prayer: Dear Lord, grant me the strength to get through this until the sun rises. I know that you are always with me, even here on this mountain. Give me strength, Lord, to make it to Gilman’s Point, where I can see the beauty that You have created.

I repeated something along those lines a few times before I had to return my concentration to the breathe-step mantra, which was a sort of prayer in its self. Thankfully, God heard my prayer and gave me the strength I needed to last until sunrise. At this point, after hours of switch backing on the dreadful path, the route began an even steeper climb among boulders. And, to make matters worse, several other groups ahead of us were standing on the path, unmoving. So I was stuck on a steep, crumbling, dusty path with no chance of moving while the Arctic-like winds were busy freezing me one body part at a time. Our guides were yelling in Swahili, and, finally, the line began to move. Numbly, I moved forward, forcing myself up the hill. Don’t look up, Nicole, or you’ll see how far away you are. Just look at the path in front of you. One step at a time.

As much as I wanted to look at the rising sun, which announced its arrival with a rainbow fanfare above a sea of clouds, I couldn’t without losing my balance on the trail. And I certainly couldn’t reach my camera, which hung around my neck, beneath my jacket, so that it wouldn’t freeze.”

Sunrise on Mt. KilimanjaroWe climbed to an area protected somewhat by the boulders, where we were sheltered from the wind. The line disintegrated as we all sought a rock to sit on. Mollel came up from behind. “Who wants to climb with me to Gilman’s Point?” he asked. Despite my tiredness, I jumped up. “I will,” I answered. It was as though the entire struggle of the past few hours was gone. I wanted to reach Gilman’s Point, and I wanted to be there first. Mollel started up and I was right behind him. I passed him at the last bend and stepped up to the first peak.

It was crowded with groups of people trying to take pictures of the crater and photos of the sign telling how high they were. I was so happy that tears came to my eyes. When they started running down my face and freezing, I decided that it was better not to cry. We took the required photos before resting for a while. Then I hopped up. “So who wants to go to the top?” I got a few mumbles about getting to Kibo Hut in thirty minutes. Thirty minutes? It took us nearly six-and-a-half hours to get here, and they’re going to be down in thirty minutes?

At Gilman In the end, I was the only student who wanted to keep going. Tim, a chaperone, and Mollel were the only non-guides that went. We started our trudge down one side of the crater and around to the ridges on the other side. Snow and ice often crossed our path, which slowed us down a bit. The head guide’s son was training two others on our climb, but I hardly noticed his orders in Swahili. I was at the front, head down, shoulders bent, just putting one foot in front of the other. I would get to Uhuru peak. The adrenaline rush from Gilman’s Point soon wore off, though I was still determined that I would be the first to Uhuru, too.

We came up on a series of ridges, and I thought: Ah ha! This must be Uhuru! You would think that I’d gotten over that sort of thinking. But no. I got to the top, and there was nothing, only a path leading to the next ridge. Well, that must be it, surely. Didn’t those people say that it wasn’t far? So I kept climbing, but that wasn’t it, either. Glancing around, I
realized that it was hard to see. I took off my glasses and tried to wipe the dirt off of them as I continued. But it did nothing. I put the glasses back on, and I still couldn’t see clearly. I tried to clean them again, and, squinting without them on, I found that it was my eyes that weren’t focusing right. It must be because you’re so tired.

We were coming up on the third ridge. Third time’s a charm, right? Nope. But the ridge didn’t drop like the other had. It went down only a bit before following the curving path at a level pace. And then? Then it bent upward for the final few meters, where I saw a sign and people with cameras. I picked up my pace. It was as fast as my trembling legs would take me.

Uhuru PeakGrinning, the guides congratulated me. We sat down to rest for a while. I couldn’t drink any of the water in my water bottle because it was frozen, and one of the guides had to open my backpack to get more. I dug a chocolate bar out of my pocket and passed pieces around. Tim was sick, suffering from altitude sickness as well as hypothermia. Before, he’d joked that he and Mollel would do the Maasai warrior dance at Uhuru. As we picked him up after the picture, he grunted, “Uh huh, uh huh.” Mollel and I looked at each other, and then Tim muttered, “Maasai warrior.” We laughed, and I turned toward Tanzania to wave. The second headmaster at Moringe had said he would climb on top of the dining hall and wave toward Kili so that he would see us at the top. When I saw him again, I told him that I waved…

It was past noon when I stumbled, hot and alone, into Kibo Hut’s campground. Amanda, who caught my not so triumphant return to camp on video, greeted me. I’d walked for more than eleven hours straight; I couldn’t see properly; and I was more tired than I could ever remember. But I’d made it to the top of Kilimanjaro and stood at the highest point in all of Africa. I’d pushed my endurance, both physical and mental, to the limits and been found worthy. Maybe the limping wasn’t so bad after all…

2 Responses to “The Final Ascent of Mt. Kilimanjaro”

  • Thankyou for this – I’m going in 2 weeks and this has given me great insight into what is to come!!

  • Rachel: I’m glad I could be of some help. If you don’t mind me adding a little more advice, here are a couple thoughts: take a scarf or something to give your face a break from the wind; be sure to keep at least one water bottle under your jacket and next to your body at all times on the final ascent (it’ll freeze otherwise; keep your camera there, too); and have confidence that you can make it!

Leave a Reply