At midnight we awoke. The altitude made it easier to wake up than
to sleep, and we knew the day to come is the one we've been preparing
for months. All our preparations for this trip led to this day.
After a quick breakfast and morning tea, we left, at 1 am, embarking
on the Western breach. The order for the climb was Urassa, then
Darrell, Catherine, Siina, Lovejoy, Dean, Freddy, and
Mohammed. This order made sense for the circumstances. Darrell
suffered from the nasty effects of altitude sickness, so he should
be near the leader and ahead of all of us. Mohammed had the
most experience of us all, so from the end he could watch all of
us for signs of trouble.
We kept a steady pace through the night. Our head lamps lit our way on
the trail, proceeding "pole pole" rock by rock. We passed the
point of no return, for there was no turning back. At times the slope was
steep, but our guides chose a switchback route. Land slides appeared easy
to trigger on the rocky slope, so I thought to myself that our guides could
be improvising the route, but I had nothing to complain about because the
route seemed sound enough. At times we scaled ice to stay on our course,
at times the only course. One time I briefly slid down the ice, scampering
for a grip like a cat before finally edging my boots and finding my handholds.
We rested a few times in the night.
Fortunately there was little wind, but the night was cold. We were well
warned to wear all our clothing. I wore a T-shirt, two long-sleeved sweaters,
water-resistant winter pants, hiking pants, sock liners, thick socks, a
neckwarmer, a ski cap, a thin jacket, and my thick fleece jacket besides
my boots, gloves, and backpack. My mistake of the night was to trust that
the water in my camelback water dispenser in my backpack would not freeze;
by 4 am, the coldest time of the night, I couldn't get any water through.
We can be sure the air outside was well below freezing.
By sunrise at 6 am, we were still over an hour from Kibo's crater rim.
Apparently we were a bit behind schedule, but not beyond our cushion. As
the sun rose on the opposite side of Kibo, the sky began to illuminate
our path and the slope below. The appearance of the slope told us why there
was no turning back. It was far too steep, too difficult to safely traverse
downwards. We took some glances downhill but we knew that we could not
let our minds wander under the circumstances and should keep focused on
climbing up. It was best that we started at night, so we could not see
At roughly 7 am we were nearing the top, crossing back and forth across
switchbacks and weaving between stacks of broken rock. We were tired and
dehydrated, and a little disappointed we hadn't yet reached the top. Were
we going to make it to the top and back down in time?
Finally, Urassa took us on one last switchback, telling us we're near
the top of the crater. He took a leap across the ice and made it on the
other side. After he got Darrell and the ladies across, he told me to jump. "Jump
across the ice?", I asked. "Yes." And, tapping my strength,
I jumped across the ice, and Urassa pulled me up. I yelped in the jump,
then scampered over the ground, emerging into the blinding, piercing sunlight
and reaching the crater rim of Kibo.
I took off my backpack, and sat on the ground with the others. I had a
headache, and I was fighting nausea, but there was something else. I felt
like I was hungry, my whole body was hungry. I ate food, and Mohammed gave
us pieces of chocolate. But I felt like it wasn't having any effect, as
if my digestive system shut down. I wonder if my whole body ran out of
energy, whether it was because of lack of food, or water, or oxygen at
an internal level.
But we knew we had
to keep going. So we got up and walked across the crater rim. It was cold,
very cold. The sun, while a bright, obvious source of energy, was powerless
to overcome and warm the thin, cold air around us; the wind takes all the heat
away. All the sun could do now was give us a sunburn.
The crater of Kibo is rounded by a collection of jagged peaks and covered
with a volcanic material that's more like gravel and powder than soil.
We could see glaciers in the distance on the other side of Kibo. On the
ground we walked over what at a distance looks like snow but is more like
short white reverse stalactites attached to the ground. It wasn't really
snow, but ice that could have been powdered then fused together. They were
hard enough to hold its shape in strong wind but crushable under our feet.
They were generally arranged in long, thin lines a few centimeters thick
spaced a few more centimeters apart, exposing the ground like overlaid
record grooves across the gravel terrain. Snow doesn't really fall here;
the ice generally forms directly from the water vapor in the air, so the
result is generally shaped by the winds that carry through here.
The peak of Mount Kilimajaro is one of those scraggly peaks of volcanic
rock jutting up from Kibo's crater rim. It is that peak, named Uhuru, that
is the last 300 meters (1000 ft) we have yet to climb. After traversing
the rim over the lines of crushable white ice, we scaled our way up Uhuru
When most developed nations pave a road these days, they usually amass
mounds black asphalt gravel before crushing it into a road. The gravel
that covers much of Uhuru peak is like that gravel, except it is volcanic
red with reddish dust and lighter in density. Hard on the lungs, the dust
we would kick up prompted us to we wear cloth or clothing over our mouths
to keep in the heat and keep out the dust. Climbing up this material was
slow and difficult enough. Now, combine that with the already thin air
and our exhaustion and headaches and you have an experience you'll never
forget. We rested just once while climbing Uhuru.
This was a place that was not meant for humans to go. It was the closest
thing on Earth to Mars: No water on the ground or in the air, the terrain
is red, jagged, and rocky, the slopes are slippery with loose, reddish
gravel, the air carried an oxygen density far below the normal level for
humans, the sun shines brightly but does not heat, and the air and ground
are cold and foreign. We were lucky enough that the winds were merely strong
without the jet stream dipping down here as they occasionally do.
We climbed over the bulk of the gravel to reach the edge of the rough
top of Uhuru, but we were not quite at its highest point yet. The solid
material penetrating the gravel surface was volcanic rock, gnarled and
rough, full of bubbles and holes and jagged structure. Apparently it was
formed by a lava flow long ago that solidified, then a later eruption must
have propped this part of the lava rock up and left it there. With no water
to erode the surface, the rock retains its broken, bubbled texture. I asked
Urassa where the peak was, and we went where he indicated.
We, all of us, made it to the top. I reached the wooden signpost first,
reached in between the planks to grab the wood and bonked my head on them,
just to say: I'm here. Whether it was for others to hear or to make it
palpable for me, I'll never know. The winds were strong, gusty and probably
20-30 knots from the northeast, enough to blow away loose clothing and
paper. The sign read a congratulation for us reaching Uhuru peak, 5895
There were perhaps two other parties there. All of us were tired and exhausted,
barely able to move around. It was cold, windy, and we could barely breathe.
And simply resting wasn't really recuperating us because just sitting there
in the thin air, 45% of that at sea level, would barely supply us enough
energy to survive. We sat there, exhausted, and still exhausted after just
sitting there. What a way to cross the finish line. It was just after 9:15
But what really
mattered was that we did what we set out to do, all
of us. We had a view few people in the world would ever see. We were
at a place few others would ever go. People who climb higher require
advanced climbing equipment in places far more dangerous. We've been
higher only in pressurized aircraft. We were standing on an edge
of the world. We reached the Roof of Africa. We did it.
pictures, giving each other hugs and comfort, and taking the moment
in, it was clear to us that we could not stay long. As Urassa said
earlier, the first order of business after getting to the top: go
down. So we took our descent down the Mweka route.
We were one of the few groups to use the Mweka route to descend. We were
glad not to climb it, because it was filled with miles of the volcanic
gravel we encountered on Uhuru. Climbing that is like running on sand:
you spend much of your energy just pushing the coarse material around.
For the descent, we often used our feet like skis, sliding down the mountain
one way then the other. We'd kick up the dust, but at least we'd get down
the mountain quickly.
After many exhausting hours of this, we stopped in Barafu camp. I could
feel the thicker air supplying me with more oxygen, which helped, but my
knees and muscles were still extremely sore, and I was parched and hungry
beyond what I thought I could endure. When we arrived at Barafu, we obtained
water and used some mats to lie down to rest. I took the opportunity to
lay down and rest. In thirty minutes, I felt so much better. I could eat,
I could drink. I was sore and tired, but I could move again.
But our day was not over yet. We sped our way down towards Mweka camp.
The air was distinctly thicker, the small shrubs returned. We even saw
fog below us, supplying moisture to our skin and suppressing dust from
the air. The foliage became thicker and taller, until it formed large and
sparse bushes. The fog became thick enough we couldn't see more than a
few hundred meters ahead of us.
On into the evening, it wasn't until 7 pm when we finally reached Mweka
camp. The cooks made us a late dinner. I felt hungry, but when it came
to the time, I could barely eat a morsel. The soup was wonderful, but I
could barely put any of the bread or rice in my mouth. We all encountered
the same problem arriving at camp: we couldn't eat.
Mweka camp was like a downtown mecca compared to our previous camps. We
were used to being the only campsite in view, or perhaps one other, but
here at Mweka dozens of groups were all crowded together, barely enough
room, crammed amongst the mud and the dirt. When I described our experience
at the top to one of the other campers, I found myself slurring my speech,
able to speak certain words only with conscious effort. I could only guess
that I was extremely tired.
< HOME | INTRODUCTION | DAY
1 | DAY 2 | DAY 3 | DAY
4 | DAY 5 | DAY