Kilimanjaro summit day! By today, the fifth day of our trek, our guides had gotten the hang of Emid and my trekking speed. Most treking groups seemed to leave the campsite around 11:00 pm for the push to the summit, but since we were moving so quickly we got to sleep till about 12:30 am. When awoke we were served tea and biscuits, and then headed up the mountain.
The view looking down was amazing. The moon was so close to being full that you really couldn’t tell the difference, and it illuminated the trail so well that after about 10 minutes we realized we didn’t need our headlamps and turned them off. The night was completely clear and cloudless and we could see for miles in every direction. South of us we could see the town of Moshi ablaze with illumination from it’s streetlights. Mt. Meru stood maintaining it’s silent vigil to the west, and across the saddle of the mountain to the east we could see the jagged and foreboding Mawenzi peak. Ahead and about 4000 feet up was Kibo, the snow capped peak that was our ultimate destination.
We began climbing up steep scree lined paths. For once our guides had no need to tell us pole-pole (Swahili for slowly) as I don’t think that we could have gone any faster if we’d wanted to. Despite this, we were still moving quicker than most other groups. We passed two large groups at about the 15,500 foot mark, and they looked at us like we were crazy. Around 16,000 feet we began to see the first patches of snow on the ground. The next couple of thousand feet passed in an almost dreamlike state. As we got higher, my thoughts turned more and more random. I kept thinking of friends and family back home, wondering how they were spending the Christmas holiday, and if they appreciated properly their ability to take a hot shower any time they wanted.
Physically, I was feeling fine. I was’t experiencing any physical symptoms of altitude sickness, but I did notice that Allen, our guide was weaving around the trail like a drunken sailor. We checked to see if he was ok, and he mumbled something about being fine so we just kept on going. We’d been warned that the trail would get dramatically steeper near the top, so we were trying to conserve enough energy for the final push to the top. The trail had gotten a little steeper, but I didn’t think that it was the killer slope that we’d been warned about. Suddenly, we arrived on a flat spot where the guides were all grinning at us. We’d reached Stella Point, the place where one is at the rim of the crater looking down into the volcano itself. It was about 5:45 am, and sunrise was about 45 minutes away. Allen the guide said that it would take about that long to get to the highest point, so we headed off for Uhuru peak.
Towards the east the sky was already beginning to show signs of color, encouraging us to move faster. Despite the altitude and the freezing wind we felt a new burst of energy pushing us on. As we walked to the peak we could see the colors of the sunrise reflected in the glaciers all around us. Finally, we saw a wooden sign decorated with Tibetan prayer flags announcing that we were now standing on the highest point on the African continent. We ran to the sign and popped open a bottle of Moet and Chandon champagne just as the sun peaked over the horizon. We couldn’t have timed it better! We shared the champagne with our guides wishing each other a Merry Christmas. Next we took turns taking photos of each other, and finished off the bottle. I think that we may have wasted as much as we drank; it was so cold at the top that the champagne was freezing to the glass as we drank it, and trying to pour anything carbonated at that altitude just made it fizz out of control.
Finally we’d had enough and began the long trek down. We quickly realized that coming up had been the easy part, and the descent was steep, slippery and extremely hard on the legs. The three hour descent was fun at first, but by the time we reached our camp our knees and joints were screaming for relief. We took an hour nap and had lunch before heading to our final campsite another long vertical mile beneath us. By the time we got to camp, Emid and I were walking like a couple of decrepit old men, much to the disgust of our guides who had kept encouraging us to move faster. After we had a quick supper we crashed hard around 7:30 and slept like dead men till early the next morning.