J.D. Baldwin's Kilimanjaro Diary - Day 7

Day 7 (Sunday, 6 March 2011), 1746 local time

Two others in the party have made the comment that today was the longest day of their lives. I've been to SERE school, so I won't say that ... but this is in the top five or ten for me, for sure. Maybe it was the longest enjoyable day of my life.
I was woken at 11:20 pm, along with everyone else. We all went to the dining tent for "breakfast" (some porridge and bread) and coffee. Also, there was a packed snack prepared for each of us, to put in our packs -- a box of orange juice, a few biscuits and a muffin.
We were all packed up and ready to go by shortly after midnight. I decided to strap my trekking poles to my pack and hike up without them. I knew I'd want them for the descent, though.

Headlamps in the dark
This is what getting ready to summit looks like.
Photo by Gloria.

Other teams had gotten started before us, and we could see their headlamps at intervals up the trial. Was it possible that it was really that steep? Or was it just an optical illusion? I hoped the latter, but believed the former.
I got a few minutes to admire the night sky. I couldn't detect any twinkling in the stars, which were even more amazing than the previous nights. I will probably never see anything like that again for the rest of my life. I wish I had the kind of camera equipment that could capture the look of that sky, but I'll just have to rely on what passes for my memory instead.
There is little to say about the steep trek up the mountain. You turn your brain off and concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other. Progress is painfully slow, but if you try to rush it, you will make yourself sick. "Pole pole" (Kiswahili for "slowly," pronounced "POH-lay POH-lay") is what the guides keep telling you, and with good reason. It's cold as hell, but at least it's not windy. Then it gets windy. I consider taking out my balaclava, but the hood of my parka over my thermal cap keeps my head warm enough, and stopping to dig equipment out of my pack is an activity I'd rather minimize.
Twice, the tube of my Camelbak froze up (despite having an insulating foam tube over the exposed bit). I took it out of my pack and carried it inside my parka to thaw it. Irritating, but not disastrous.
Once in a while, you glance up the mountain and glimpse the headlamps ahead of you. They can't possibly be that high up, can they? you ask yourself. They can, and they are. So you look back down, turn your brain back off, and resume shuffling.
At some point, Claire (who has been sick with a chest cold) calls it a day and heads back down with Ema (a porter hired specially to act as an extra guide for the summit climb only, so we'd have a spare to go back down if necessary). We get separated from Nigel and later learn that he packed it in with James to escort him down.
The trudging goes on, with a few short breaks, for over six hours. Then something happens -- the sky begins to light up. The trail ahead doesn't look that bad anymore. And, if you look over your right shoulder ... oh, my God ...

Dawn over Mawenzi
Dawn over Mawenzi.

We are approaching Stella Point. This is where we intersect with the climbers from other routes, like the "Coca-Cola" trekkers. You get a certificate if you reach Stella Point, even if you turn back from there. Of course, it doesn't say "Uhuru Peak" on it. By the time we are at Stella Point (I was hoping to be the one-millionth mzungu tourist to shout "Stelllll-aaa-aa-a!"), the sun has actually risen and the wind is gone. It's probably around 0 deg. F here, but the sun feels warm on our faces. And the sunrise over Mawenzi is something you feel deeply privileged to witness.

Sunrise over Mawenzi
Dawn turns into sunrise over Mawenzi.

From Stella Point, it's not far to Uhuru Peak. (300m, according to the guidebooks, and that sounds about right to me.  It's probably under 50m vertical, quite an easy walk if you're not already hurting.) I feel like running there, but I know that's a bad idea. I have a very slight headache, no serious fatigue and I even check my heart rate at 100.
After about a 20-30 minute walk, we're actually there. Here it is. This is the picture I came for:

JD at Uhuru Peak
Hells, yeah!
Photo by Simon.

And, of course, we have to get pics of all the hikers who made it:

The group at Uhuru Peak
From left to right:  Ruud, Anne, Gloria, Gareth and JD.
Photo by Simon.

We are supposed to spend no more than 10 minutes at the peak. The very good reason for this is that the available oxygen at that altitude is about half what it is at sea level. Most of us cannot survive indefinitely on that amount of oxygen, and every additional minute puts at least some hikers at additional risk of HACE or HAPE. We probably spent a total of 15 minutes looking around, admiring the glaciers and the clouds and taking additional pictures. It was beautiful.
As difficult as the ascent was, we all knew that the hardest part of the day was ahead of us: a long, rocky descent through scree back to Barafu Camp. Then another long, steep descent to Mweka Camp. Walking down a mountain is harder on the legs than walking up -- try it sometime if you don't believe this. Your knees and quadriceps take a real beating with this kind of hiking, and its even worse if, as on the side of Kibo, you often have to choose your footing carefully to get down a large step.

Simon leads Gloria down the side of Kibo
Gloria following Simon down the side of Kibo.

I was back in Barafu Camp by 10:30 am, about eleven hours after rising the night before. The total descent was a bit under three hours. We were supposed to pack our bags for the porters, have a quick lunch, then get right back to hiking in order to get to Mweka Camp far below us. The guides took pity on us, though, and gave us a couple of hours to rest before setting out.

Arrival back at Barafu Camp
Arrival back at Barafu Camp ... but there are still hours of hiking ahead!

The trail to Mweka was not nearly as difficult, terrain-wise, as the trail down the side of Kibo. However, much of it was in a dry river-bed, so there were still plenty of rocks, and it was still quite a steep downhill overall. Ruud and I wound up following James ahead of the rest of the group. We heaved a great sigh of relief when we saw a set of huts, but it turned out to be "Millenium Camp" (refer to the map on the start page), not our destination, which was still over an hour away. Still, we stopped at High Camp and got some Coca-Colas (4,000 shillings or around USD $2.40 apiece, and worth every shilling). They tasted weird to me and Ruud, as we were still coming off the Diamox, but still very refreshing. Then we resumed our trek and eventually made it to Mweka Camp at about 5 pm. I climbed into my tent, unrolled my sleeping pad, and just started massaging knots out of my sore quads and bending and unbending my poor, aged knees.


The rest of Team Haraka Nusu arrived at Mweka around 6:20 pm. Dinner will be ready soon. We're all beat. Even those of us who didn't quite get to Uhuru are pretty thrilled at the experience they have had. I'm still thinking fondly of Barranco Wall -- I wish we could go back that way.
Joffrey (one of the porters who doubles as a waiter) brought me and Ruud a plastic basin of warm water to wash up when we arrived. After rinsing off my face and hands, I put my hair in the water to wet it, soaped it up, then rinsed it off as well as possible. I have no way to dry or comb it, but it feels good to lose at least some of the grease build-up there.


At dinner, Gloria said I had a "Robert Smith thing going on" with my hair. I have no mirror, but I can imagine. Not a great concern just now.
Tomorrow is more down, down, down hiking, but it should be under three hours, then we will be bused back to the hotel. I am looking forward to a hot shower and a real bed, as are we all. Also, I had the foresight to book a massage appointment for the end of the day tomorrow. That's going to be nice.

Stats for Day 7:

Starting elevation (Barafu camp)
15,331' (4,675 m)
Uhuru peak!
19,341' (5,895 m)
Ending elevation (Mweka camp)
10,065' (3,070 m)
Resting heart rate (evening)

Day 8

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