January 18, 2006

Highest Point in Africa – Kilimanjaro

We celebrated New Years morning of 2006 watching the sun rise over the peak of Mt. Kilimanjaro, illuminating the crater at the top, the bluish white glacier, with the landscape spread out below. Simply breathtaking.

The 5 days of hiking and camping leading up to the summit hike were surprisingly easy for us – the acclimatization in Bolivia definitely helped us, as we suffered none of the pounding headaches and lethargy we had only 10 days ago. Climbing the Barranco wall on day 4, a scramble of 1000 ft almost straight up was one of the most fun hikes I’ve ever done.

However, the hike to the summit was something else entirely. We started at midnight on Dec 31st. We had all gathered a few minutes earlier in the mess tent, cupping our rapidly cooling tea and huddling together against the raging wind howling against the tent flaps. It was only 15 degrees, and abnormally windy, with constant winds of 40mph that would stay with us for the entire 7 hours up.

Just as we were starting to climb, all the porters celebrated the New Year with shouts and firecrackers. Jonathan turns to me, and says “Isn’t this the best New Year’s Eve ever?” I look around me, feeling the the darkness, the cold, the cutting wind, and imagine myself on a dance floor in Las Vegas surrounded by hundreds of dropping balloons and champagne…hmm.

It was definitely the hardest hike I’ve ever done, ascending more than 4000 ft, in the pitch dark, all the while only seeing the boots in front of me with my headlamp. If someone even got more than 5 ft in front, the trail became indistinguishable from the rocky mountain surface.

Besides the line of bobbing headlights leading up, and some city lights below, it was otherwise impossible to tell where I was on the mountain. It was too cold even for me to check my watch underneath my gloves, so it was just a blind trudging upwards. We stopped only 3 times for 5 minute breaks, and peeing at 17,000 ft in the dark freezing cold is not an experience I ever want to repeat. However, I was not to repeat it, as my insulated camelback tube froze, so I only drank about 600 ml the entire trip up (10 hours) and back to summit camp.

About 6 hours into it, I discovered I couldn’t feel my right toes. Since we lost our luggage, we both had to buy new boots in South Africa 3 days before hiking. I could only wear thin hiking socks with them, and my toes started to go numb and hurt. I was really afraid that I was getting frostbite. But by that time, we were an hour from the summit, and although we had 9 guides initially, we had only 2 guides left for 20 people, as people in trouble were escorted down. So, I couldn’t really go down even if I had to, as there were no guides left to do so.

The last hour up was really miserable, as I was throughly frozen, and I knew every step I took up meant another one that I had to take down. The terrain had changed from rocky shale to silt/volcanic ash, so for every step upward, we slid down half a step. The guide kept telling us we were close, and just a few more steps. I could see the first light of the sun. This filled me with incredible relief, as I knew we must be pretty close.

The last step up to Stella’s point, the false peak, filled me with hope, as we crested the relentless upward slope onto a ridge. Peering into the crater at the top, seeing the frost blowing from the glaciers and ice fields was surprisingly beautiful. In all the time planning and hiking up Kilimanjaro, I had never thought what it would actually look like from the top. The real peak, at Uhuru, was another 45 minutes and 500ft up, but it didn’t matter. With the view, and the growing sunlight, I slowly trudged on.

Actually seeing the wooden sign marking Uhuru peak was one of the most surreal things I’ve ever experienced. I knew what it looked like, having seen hundreds of pictures, but I couldn’t believe I was actually there. The sign was surrounded by a throng of other happy summiteers who had gotten there ahead of us, all jostling to take their photos. I was so tired and cold, I almost didn’t bother, knowing in my heart that I had made it, and that would be enough. Seeing the sign not only told me that I had hiked as far as I could go, but gave me permission to leave.

Jonathan, however, was ecstatic to have made it. He was one of the happiest climbers, and the most energetic at the peak. He was taking photos, running ahead to scope out the trail and give me encouragement, and got the shot of me in front of the sign. Jonathan was so energetic and happy he was giving everyone still struggling towards the peak pep talks and wishing them a Happy New Year as we started down, which was met mostly with indifference or grunts. :) .

Fabulous experience, hiking and camping, but I don’t think I would ever do this kind of hike again. It was really more of a mental game – can I make it, how far is good enough, can I beat the mountain, how tough am I? I wouldn’t say it was fun, but it’s something I’m proud I finished. 19340 ft. Wow.

We had another 5 hours to hike that day to camp, for a total of 15 hours of hiking that day. My right big toe still has no feeling…a physiologist in our group suspects I may have temporary nerve damage, which will hopefully recover in 3-6 months.

A patch of numbness, a badge of honor…

3 Comments

  1. Wow, such an interesting trip. One day I’ll visit all those places :) Hugs from Panama!

    Comment by melissa_cookingdiva — January 18, 2006 @ 11:27 am

  2. 1. If you had lost one of your toes it definitely would have been the best New Years Eve story ever! :) I am quite glad you did lost any digits.

    2. You should have asked Jonathan to share his stash of meth/uppers or whatever got him so ecastatic. Definitely would have made your climb up easier! :)

    Enjoyed your story.

    Comment by Ken Lin — January 18, 2006 @ 9:49 pm

  3. Hi Soyan,
    I hope that you are so happy to reach at the top of mount Kilimanjaro.soyan i hope tha one day you can come to climb again .it is nice to see you again.But i think that you will not lose your toes.
    The website is so nice and i like it.
    Great your housband Jonathan say hito me.
    Is me Emanueli M Moshi the Jonathan Guide

    Comment by Emanueli M moshi — January 22, 2006 @ 3:22 am

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