The hike up Kilimanjaro itself begins in the lowlands. Much like the Everest Base Camp trek I had done several years earlier, the walk begins in relatively lush surroundings and works its way up through rainforests, dusty scrub, and finally a high altitude desert.
Unlike Nepal however, Kilimanjaro does not share the same type of atmosphere and ecology as the Himalaya. While the Himalaya loom over you, Kilimanjaro, which sits as a solitary extinct volcano without a range, lacks the density of other peaks- thus you find yourself basking in the openness of your surroundings. I frequently found myself looking out and down rather then up.
The clouds also become a major player in the daily activities on Kilimanjaro- almost taking on a persona of their own. Because Kilimanjaro and Mt. Meru, which sits to the south, are geological anomalies on the otherwise flat plains of Tanzania, they create their own weather patterns- trapping and dictating the movement of clouds. On the third day of the hike I sat one afternoon perched on a rock, eyelevel with a huge billowing cloud formation. Sitting there, I had the realization I was witnessing views usually only seen from the window of an airplane. Indeed that night, we slept at the same elevation many airplanes fly.
The next day we traversed the saddle between the two peaks of the mountain over dry lunar deserts of sparse lava rock and scree. We had amazing views of Mwenzi peak, jagged behind us, and the picturesque flat top of Kibo’s extinct cone in front. On both sides, the clouds sat almost motionless at eye level or below: We were literally walking above the clouds with the Tanzania/Kenya plains stretching out 10,000 ft. below.
That afternoon we arrived at the busy base camp. There was a cautious celebratory feel in the air as nerves and altitude took their toll. Several hours later, after a light meal and an even lighter sleep, we found ourselves lined up, anxiously vying for a decent pull-position for heading out of base camp. Ahead and above, lines of headlamps snaked up the mountain and disappeared into the inky night. It was cold and snowing sideways. I thought it wasn’t supposed to be cold in Africa? Checking my watch, I saw it was just after midnight as we began our painfully slow march up the mountain. Several of my teammates were sick from the altitude and a couple had been vomiting, and I was surprised they had even made it out of their tents to attempt the final push.
We began our summit bid at 15,000 ft. and over the next 6 hours would switchback up loose, steep scree and gain 4,000 ft. in elevation to top-out at Gilman’s Point, the first of two summits. I vividly remember the first two hours of the hike as being intensely joyful- I was ecstatic and high with the thrill of doing something so perfectly bizarre and beautiful. Marching one foot after the next, I smugly thought to myself ‘if this is all I have to do for the next six hours, it’s in the bag’.
But then gentle snow turned to icy sleet, occasional wind gusts turned to a shrill blast, 15,000ft. turned to 17,000 ft. and something inside of my began to shift. By the time we got to the midway point, we sat huddled in a cave trying to block ourselves from the onslaught of the elements. My water bottle had frozen, my clothes had turned stiff with a thick layer of ice, and my hands were too cold to maneuver my frozen backpack open to get anything out to eat. To look at my hiking companions was to stare into the eyes of a group that had gone to battle. It seems dramatic to write such sentences now, but all I know is that somewhere in the span of a half kilometer the scope and breadth of my understanding had been reduced to the most immediate of my surroundings, and in this new capacity I began to process things in the basic biological categories of life and death.
My cheery optimism had gone, and in its wake was only the filed down skeleton, skin, bones and beating heart of me. I’m not sure what to blame this shift on- the altitude, the weather, fatigue, the rapid gain in elevation or the fact that it was the middle of the night. Maybe it was a combination of it all- but somewhere along the way I gave into the mental struggle and became enveloped in my own misery. Survival mode had taken over- I identified it and in my moments of relative lucidity was fascinated by the depth of my mind’s innate instinct to now selfishly look after only me. I had intense mood swings and became mute and cranky- occupying my time hiking with evil thoughts about the perceived weakness of my companions.
My Everest Base Camp trek in Nepal two years ago, although only about a thousand feet lower at its highest point, could not even begin to be compared to this journey- the hikes were like comparing apples and oranges. This was a mental battle. Although we were tired from the act of walking for six consecutive hours, the real exhaustion was more due to lack of oxygen (less then 50% the amount available at sea level) and the mental and emotional turmoil. I never once remember my heart beating rapidly from exertion or my muscles burning from fatigue. Deep in the recesses of my mind I knew I was okay, that things would be okay, that this was only a bizarre experiment of human adaptability. But the immediacy of my misery and self pity at times became all consuming. Although I only experienced moments of craziness peppered in between longer spells of clarity, those negative mental spaces had a power that I have rarely encountered.
Nearly six and a half hours after leaving camp, just as the day began to break, we cut our final few switchbacks and finally reached Gilman’s Point. The summit moment, as cliché as it felt, was exactly like the movies. Although we hadn’t done anything monumental like scale the slopes of Everest, the few seconds of pure joy felt upon reaching our destination was as raw and intense an emotion as I can recall ever feeling. I immediately began tearing up, with exhaustion and joy- a sense of relief compounded by the advance of daylight.
At the top, we weren’t rewarded with any views, save a thirty second window when the peachy, billowing clouds parted and Mwenzie peak across the saddle jutted into view. The usually dry rocky crater at the top was blanketed in a thick cover of snow. The wind was still whipping a million miles an hour. I could have been disappointed, but it seemed a bit futile at this stage- this time nature had asserted herself as the dominant force, and perhaps somewhere deep down I knew that the view from the top wasn’t to be the most valuable part of this particular journey.
My feelings of joy were short-lived, as from Gilman’s point we had to travel another hour and a half around the rim of the crater to reach the highest point- Uhuru Peak. Although not rewarded with the stunning views we had envisioned, the snow, paired with the lack of oxygen and exhaustion, did add a dreamy, twilight effect to our experience. As we plodded along the unprotected windy rim, glaciers appeared like icebergs out of thick cloaks of fog before disappearing back into the white void, and icy crystals slithered like sand across the frozen surface of the snow. When we finally reached Uhuru, we spent a total of 4 minutes in the gale force winds snapping a few obligatory pictures before turning around to descend.
By 10:30a.m., nearly ten hours since first setting out, I found myself again maneuvering the piles of scree at the base of the summit. The sun had come out, and as I descended, I felt my brain and limbs begin to thaw and cast off the icy, numbing layer that had blanketing me for the previous 7 hours. I began to smile. I can’t remember a time when I’ve been more drained of physical or mental energy- but somehow happy and content at the same time. I finally shuffled back into base camp 11 hours after our journey began. I began to assess the damage of my teammates- many who appeared to still be shell-shocked. A silent nod was all that some were capable of mustering. Some appeared truly rattled, some wanted to hug me and cry, muttering that it had been the most amazing experience of their life. I’m not sure any of us were prepared for the intensity of it all. It was truly the hardest thing I have ever done.
That afternoon, despite our 12 hour battle on the mountain, we had to break camp and move 7 kilometers lower to spend the night at a safer elevation. Even in the duration of my short rest, I had begun to reflect at my recent experience in a new light. The ability to repress memories of intense anguish must be an innate survival tool that humans (and particularly women) possess- why else would mothers continue to give birth after the pain of their first child? Had you asked me on the way up if I would ever do it again, my answer would have been a resolute ‘no’. However- a little time does wonders for the soul. Despite the fact that I’ve never had any major aspirations to climb tall mountains, I would guess there are probably a few more snowy peaks in my future.
Written and contributed by Libby Wann via Global Volunteer Network