Kili Summit Day – A Life Challenge (part 1)

seemsImpossibleIt’s worth noting that Kilimanjaro is the tallest free-standing mountain in the world. Yet I did not see the giant mountain upon landing late that night at the Kilimanjaro International Airport, nor did I see it the next day either. It was only after our briefing at Bristol Cottages at the outset of our climbing expedition and during our long drive to the National Park that I gained a clear view of the mountain. Its size is impressive and is likely even more striking as it stands alone, not being part of any mountain range. I think everyone in the Land Cruiser that morning was taken aback upon seeing Mount Kilimanjaro looming large against the Tanzanian sky.

Our Kili “Family”

All our planning, preparation and training had led to Summit Day. The joys and trials that each of us faced to get there paled in comparison to what we needed to do to make it all come together that one day. I was impressed by the people on my Tusker team. A long-time mountaineer, an Ironman competitor, an extensive world traveler and an assortment of professionals ranging from accountant, lawyer, doctor to bright aspiring students. As it turned out, it was also a “family” team of sorts with two father-son teams and a niece accompanied by two uncles. I was the oddball in so many ways – the lone Canadian among an all-American crew and a solo traveler. It was interesting seeing the family dynamics play out and yet I truly believe all of them valued the time together. There was no sense that s/he was here simply as a favour or due to family obligation. The team had gelled well and I was pleased to be part of the “family”. In fact, while the Tanzanian guides called the other female team member “da da” meaning “sister”, I became “ma ma” which requires no translation.

Summit Day began uneventfully, apart from the fact that our usual wake-up time advanced from 6:30 a.m. to 3:30 a.m. My alarm was set for 3:00 a.m. but, like everyone else, I was awake long before. I had changed into my summit clothes the night before and slept in them as suggested. I had two layers of long thermal underwear and two layers of SmartWool tops over a thermal undershirt. This was topped with a light down jacket under rain gear (top and bottom) and a wool toque. Other items in my daypack included a heavier down jacket, thick down gloves, gaiters, sunglasses, three litres of water and energy bars. I would also be wearing a headlamp and thermal gloves and using my trusty walking poles.

Stats and pacing

As usual, we went through our medical checks after a quick hot breakfast. My O2 stats seemed a bit lower than they had been but still within normal range. The mountaineer on our team also noted that he’d known climbers with lower stats and what counted is how I felt. Like the rest, I was anxious to get on with the climb. That’s what we were all here for and the previous days had been both a challenge and a nice interlude to the main event but, finally, it was time to get on with it. We started off slow, moving through camp as quietly as our walking poles would allow with their familiar tap-tap on the rocky ground as other teams were still slumbering. Some teams had set out for a midnight climb so as to summit at daybreak. We would be climbing mainly through daylight and gaining the best opportunity to appreciate the sights along the way.

I settled into the line that we had established through our previous days’ climbs with the 20-somethings, immediately behind the guide (who set the pace), then the mountaineer, the Ironman competitor and the rest of us in the back half. We were pretty much aligned according to age. This has worked well with the guide holding back the younger climbers from bursting out of the gate and created a pace that the rest of us could maintain.


There is a very steep rocky segment upon leaving camp which requires hoisting yourself over boulders and reverting to a hand and foot scramble up a rock face – or for those of us with short legs, first getting a knee up, then a foot. It sets the heart racing just moments into the climb. None of us said anything but I’m sure we were all wondering whether this was indicative of the entire day’s activity as we definitely had to gain some major elevation. We then got into a long set of switchbacks canted at a significant grade and, while it makes the calves scream, it was possible to get into a rhythm as you followed the set of boots ahead in the glow cast by your headlamp. We continued in a silent procession like this for some time as the sun started to rise.

Kibo, the summit crater of Kilimanjaro, viewed from Shira Plateau  (Photo credit:  Mark Horrell

Kibo, the summit crater of Kilimanjaro, viewed from Shira Plateau
(Photo credit: Mark Horrell

One thing I had noticed during the previous days is that I could not really stand and appreciate the view without becoming a bit disoriented. A porter had fallen earlier in the week, sending his pack (that he balanced on his head) tumbling down an embankment. While concerned, I found any attempt to look back caused me to become unsteady on the steep trail. So while others were marvelling at the sunrise, I just kept my head down, but I tried to sneak a sideways glance, before I soldiered on.

Just breathe

An hour or so into the climb, I noticed I was breathing hard. Not the rhythmic breathing you’d expect given the exertion to acquire more altitude but laboured. Fortunately, the guide stopped at various points to remind us to drink some water from our camelbacks, and that allowed me some opportunity to stand and catch my breath. Eventually, though, I could not keep up with the boots just ahead of me. We had been a close group and, for the most part, continued to stay in one pack throughout our previous climbing days. I wanted to keep up with my team, and I used each water break as an opportunity to scramble and catch up but that only caused me to be more winded. Sipping water while gasping for air is not very effective either. Noticing my struggle, one of the guides came up to me and told me to take a moment to catch my breath first and then drink. I was trying but sputtered water everywhere. Finally, I said I think I needed to hang back from the team and go at my own pace. No one else appeared to be having problems and there was no point in holding back the team. It was also getting colder as we ascended and they needed to keep moving. It was hard watching them move ahead, though. I felt like I had been cut from the herd as the weak member, left to my own devices.

I was falling further behind. A couple times I caught up with the team when they had stopped to eat energy bars – another critical item we’d all packed in advance in our daypacks. However, they’d just be packing up again to leave as I arrived. I had a guide and a porter with me at all times so I was not alone on the mountain but the climb had become a solitary effort nonetheless. It had become silent and serious without the usual chit-chat of the team. Their voices faded as they charged off again after their short break, refueled, hydrated and raring to go. I realized that in the short period of time that we had all been together, I enjoyed being part of the larger “family” environment but now was back to being the solo traveler. In the end, Kili is a personal challenge and that’s what I had set out to accomplish. It was surprising to me, though, how much I’d bonded with these people during this shared experience with a common goal.

I lost track of time, but had been climbing since 5:30 a.m. The sun was high in the sky now. One moment I felt overheated and the next, chilled to the bone. The wind had picked up and the cold tore right through but during the lapses in wind, the sun’s rays were searing. Despite 45 SPF sunscreen, the exposed skin on my wrists had burnt, swollen and turned into blisters due to the harsh sun, so close to the Equator. It’s astounding how you can be so hot and cold at the same time.

One step at a time

Although I had told myself not to look up, occasionally I could see my team far above on a bluff which served to highlight the route and show how much further I had to go. It’s not always possible to see the trail clearly when you look ahead at the rocky terrain so you can delude yourself into thinking it is just a gradual incline or the next turn will reveal better footing. However, seeing the team dispels all that and all you can do is just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Climbing en masse also reveals where the slippery spots are located and the loose rocks are hiding as others before you shout out to watch for this or that but there are no such clues when walking on your own.

Eventually all Kili climbers reach a lengthy section of “scree” (described as gravel and loose rocks). Walking on a steep angle on this shifting surface, your foot can slip back a few inches with each step. Progress is slow and laboured. Each time you think you’ve come to the end of it, you crest a steep section to see another reveal itself. This rock pile seemed endless. I suspect this is where many attempts to summit Kili fail. I started asking the guide for clues as to how much longer, how much further. I had found this to be an ineffective strategy before as the answers were either vague or hopeful but not particularly accurate. However, I was growing desperate for some good news that I was almost there. I cannot remember what was said but I do know that whatever answer I received, it did not reassure me that I would soon be celebrating with my team (that was now nowhere in sight). My energy was waning but I soldiered on…

<To be continued>

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