Kilimanjaro Diary, Day Six: Lonely on the Roof of Africa

Barafu to Uhuru Peak, very early Friday Sep 7, 2012
Distance: 5-6 km, 7.5 hours
Elevation: 1300 m climb from 4600 m to 5895 m

Kilimanjaro Diaries : Roof of Africa, sunrise over Stella Point
Sunrise over Stella Point, Mount Kilimanjaro, early morning Sep 7, 2012

I think back to the days leading up to now. How we started at Machame gate five days ago, a time and place now seeming to belong in a different lifetime. How we snaked up the mountain day after day, pole pole and full of confidence and good spirits. How we’d met other people on the mountain and heard their stories of what led them here. How summit night always seemed something abstract and remote, to be dealt with at some later time.

Well, that time has now arrived and I’m glad. Kind of in a way you were glad, as a kid, that the hour of the dreaded dentist appointment where teeth would have to be pulled has finally come, so that you can get it over with. Except you have no way to gauge what summit night might actually feel like. People who’ve done it will tell you it’s hard, but you really have no idea.

All you know is that you’re not feeling terribly great. You feel drained, you feel nervous, and you certainly do not feel like eating anything, although your guides do nothing that last day but tell you to eat and drink, again and again and again. And you can’t help but wonder how much worse it will get another 1,300 m up the mountain. Because that’s how far there is still left to go.

Kilimanjaro Diaries : Roof of Africa, in the tent before Summit Night
Resting in our tent the afternoon before Summit Night

Finally I hear footsteps outside, and I spring into action, happy that the wait is over. I wake up Zax, who hasn’t been feeling too well this evening, and in silence we begin our preparations for the last time. Putting on layers and layers of clothing. Stripping the backpacks of all but the most necessary items. Having trouble focusing on which might be the most necessary items. Making sure the hoses from the water bladders are tucked inside the backpacks, because otherwise they will freeze. Packing the camera and the backup camera. And stuffing packets of “hotties” in every pants and jacket pocket and all crevices of the backpack. I’ve brought enough to supply an army and urge them on everyone, except the Fat Controller who flat-out refuses to use anything “that’s for sissies.” Also, he tells me, his idea of a “hottie” is something else entirely that unfortunately is way too big to stuff into your pocket.

At 11:30, just as planned, we set off, after a quick breakfast (if you can call it a breakfast at 11:30 pm) of biscuits and tea we’re trying to force down against our will. Zax refuses to eat, suffering from stomach cramps. I file this information away and give him an Immodium, but I do not connect the dots. He’s also complaining that I’m making him wear too much and that he’s hot. We’ve had this debate for, oh, the last five years, and I have learned long ago not to argue. Nothing out of the ordinary there, is what I’m thinking. We assemble outside, don our backpacks, and finally, finally, start walking, eyes and headlamps firmly trained on the feet of the person in front of us.

That’s all that will matter for the next seven hours. The two feet in front of you. Whatever they do, your feet will have to do. It’s as simple as that.

Want the whole story? Buy the book:


UK customers: click here.
German edition: click here.

But of course nothing is ever as simple as it looks. We’re off up the mountain, the ten of us, plus five guides. Goddy, as always, is leading the pack, at an even slower pace than usual, if that is possible. We are walking so slowly we are almost standing still. And yet we have to stop often to catch our breath. Just standing still is exhausting.

After only five minutes of walking, my toes are frozen solid. I can no longer feel them, and am struggling to keep my fingers from the same fate. So much for those hand and toe warmers. They do emit heat, but it’s no match for a cold clear night at almost 5000 m.

You know how people will say that hiking downhill is actually harder than hiking uphill?

Well, they are lying. Or they haven’t attempted to summit Kilimanjaro yet. This is hard. Sooooo hard. While I carefully set one foot in front of the other, I train my mind on two thoughts to keep me busy. The first is this: What was I thinking? What is wrong with the Southwestern most point of Africa, which I’ve already seen and which was perfectly easy to reach? Why in God’s name did I have to focus on the highest point? My second thought is this: Why the hell do we have to do this at night in what must be minus-20 degrees Celcius when it would be so much more pleasant in the sunshine?

I suspect I know the answer to the latter question. No one in their right mind would keep going in the daytime, when they can see the steep mountain ahead of them and how far it stretches, and how insurmountable it is. People would take one good look, shake their head with incredulity, say “no thanks” and turn around, pronto. It’s bad enough at night. You see the dark outline of the mountain ahead of you, and a few twinkling stars at the very top. You walk and you walk and you walk, and yet the outline never changes, and the stars never move down one inch from the periphery of your vision.

Kilimanjaro Diaries : Roof of Africa, the starry sky
Our view for most of summit night: Headlamps of the groups in front of us. Photo: Martin B.

And yet it is so serene and beautiful. We start out with our headlamps on, but realize after a while that the moonlight is sufficient to light the way. When we turn off our lamps, the mountain is instantly transformed. It is bathed in soft  moonlight and we see the occasional twinkle of lights from groups ahead of us. The air is absolutely still and crisp, proving once again that it can always be worse – we could be in a storm, it could be snowing, we could be covered in sheets of ice. I tell myself these comforting words, only I am so utterly cold.

The reason I am even colder than usual, I discover at one of our rest stops, is that my back is dripping wet. Somehow my Camelback insert is leaking and I have water running out of my backpack. Which is ironic because the hose is frozen, so I cannot in fact drink any of the water that I am being so liberally doused with. And I can’t get the leak fixed because my fingers are too numb. Eventually I just yank out the whole thing and dump the water out, attracting disbelieving stares form our guides, who were diligently watching earlier to make sure we all took enough water. It does lighten my burden and gives me a chance to dry, but is probably not my smartest move to date.

On we go again, in silence, until Zax is complaining once more about being hot. Here I am shivering in my five layers, and he wants to take off his jacket. And still I hold my tongue, watching with concern as he is marching ahead of me wearing just his fleece. It is only when we come to another stop and lean against a rock in exhaustion that all hell breaks loose. One moment Zax is standing next to me, asking me rather weakly to undo the buckles on his backpack, and the next moment I am bending down, fiddling once again with that cursed bladder, when I hear a mighty clatter of poles banging against each other, and when I look again Zax is lying next to me in a crumpled heap, quite lifeless.

I don’t actually remember the details of what happened next very well, it was all so fast. I do remember not even finishing the thought “shit!” before several of our guides had already crowded around him, pushing out us others who were well-meaning but not well-trained, oxygen bottle in hand and slapping his face. He came to briefly, teeth clattering, then nodded off backwards again. The most urgent problem seemed to be getting him warm, so I concentrated on one and one thing only, which was trying to put all those layers back on that he had shed, and more. I was wrestling with one stray arm and uncooperative fingers while Hillary – was it Hillary? – was wrestling with the other, and I managed to get more hand warmers ripped open and cram them into his gloves. There was a bit more yelling and shuffling and rapid Swahili flying between Hillary and Goddy, who had come back from up ahead to see what was going on, and before I could gather a coherent thought I watched in disbelief as Zax was carried off into the dark and down the mountain at a fast run on Hillary’s and Peter’s backs.

And I was not with him.

I’d like to say that I made a conscious decision for this to happen. That I would  have only slowed them down had I tried to follow. That those two guides knew best what he needed and there was nothing I could contribute. That everyone knows that descending to a lower place is the perfect cure for altitude sickness – which this must have been, only with slightly different symptoms. That had I followed at a slower pace, I would have needed another guide, taking away precious manpower from the rest of our group. That Zax would have wanted me to continue. I’d like to say that I thought all those thoughts, but I can’t honestly say I did, at least not right then. One moment he was there and the next he wasn’t, and I was unable to make a quick enough decision, let alone gather all my stuff that had been scattered around me in the confusion. I do remember asking Goddy, whom I’d come to trust with everything so far on the mountain, what they were going to do and what I should do, and that he simply said “you stay.”

Once again, Goddy’s word settled it, and this is how I came to climb the rest of the long way to the summit without Zax, burdened with such a heavy heart I almost couldn’t bear it. I was convinced I’d done the wrong thing. How could I not stay with my child? Even if he’s sixteen and will cringe about being called a child when he reads this. The wildest what-if scenarios were racing through my head. At some point I was convinced he would need to be helicoptered off the mountain and the pilot would refuse because I wasn’t there with my credit card. It didn’t help that I later heard from others in our group that they had talked through this very scenario beforehand and made decisions on who would stay with whom or continue to climb should one of them have to turn around. I had had no such conversations, another black mark on the mothering score sheet, pointing an accusing finger at my incompetence as a parent.

And then there was this tiny but nagging thought: Had I really had no time to think it through, or had I thought it through and made a split second decision that I didn’t want to be stopped in my own quest to get to the summit?

I don’t think I’ll ever know for sure. I do know that I had no joy in me the rest of the way, even if I did make it, somehow, up the mountain that long night, with all these second thoughts and doubts weighing on me heavily. At some point in time, during another brief rest, Bo-Peep, ever looking out for her charges and sensing I was struggling, told me to get out of the middle of the pack and right behind Goddy. “You’ll be better off walking behind him,” were her words, and she was right.

It’s a funny thing. Some people are better to walk behind than others, one of the rather useless things you learn during a week of hiking on Kili. Unless you view it as a metaphor for going through life, and then it isn’t useless at all. In any case, sticking to Goddy like a tick was what worked for me. Not a wasted movement. His sure step. His calm confidence. And the singing. Oh, the singing.

I cannot quite adequately describe the feeling, but Goddy – sensing the exact moment when we needed it most, with another hour or so to go until Stella Point – began singing in his deep voice, eliciting echos from Monday and Naiman at the back of our line, letting the melody waft back and forth but mainly up the mountain in an eerily beautiful wave that carried us all along with it. It was like feeling extremely sad and happy at the same time. I’m not sure if we could have made it without the singing. I had tears streaming down my face, and yet I felt strengthened by it. There came a point where I knew I would make it, and from then on I couldn’t get there fast enough. I just wanted to get there, take the picture, and turn around. The quickest way down to see how Zax was doing, I realized, was leading right through the summit.

Weeks afterwards, as I’m sitting at my desk writing this story, I’m trying to recall the most beautiful moments on the mountain so that I can recreate these incredible emotions that climbing Kilimanjaro brought with it. Slowly, and sadly, they are fading from view, but the one moment I will never forget is when we finally reached Stella Point and crested the ridge overlooking the crater. I was so mindlessly following in Goddy’s footsteps that I failed to notice he had stopped and almost bumped into him. He turned around and simply spread his arms open wide, and I stumbled into them, holding on for dear life and feeling as happy as never before. And yet I think I was sobbing, big, heaving sobs, and unwilling to let go.

And then came the sunrise. I’ve seen many African sunrises and they’ve all been beautiful, but this has to  have been the most beautiful of all. Standing on top of the world like this, overflowing with emotion, and wishing with all your heart for that little bit of warmth that for now was nothing more than a promise creeping over the horizon. I don’t have enough words to describe it, but simply recalling that sunrise will always bring back the miracle of our week on Kilimanjaro for me.

Kilimanjaro Diary : Roof of Africa, sunrise
Another look at the sunrise at Stella Point
Kilimanjaro Diaries : Roof of Africa, warming up I the sun below the summit
Brief rest at Stella Point. I’m the one in the white jacket bending over my poles, because I was quite certain that if I sat down I’d never be able to get up again. Photo: Martin B.

What’s funny is how wildly our stories differ from this point on. Some in our group will tell you that that last bit from Stella Point to Uhuru Peak was pure agony and next to impossible to overcome. There are actually quite a few people who make it to Stella Point but not Uhuru, having spent their last ounce of energy to drag themselves over the crater rim and collapse. But all I can remember is that it felt more like a walk in the park. Not nearly as steep as before, and with the end point in plain sight, right over there and up a bit. It must have taken us another forty minutes or so, and then we were there. On the roof of Africa. The entire continent at our feet. Finally, we had made it!

There were more hugs to go around and more crying and sobbing fueled by all sorts of emotions everybody had carried along with them, but the thing I most vividly remember is how very lonely I felt. I was here, and yet the person I had most wanted to share this with, the person I had wanted next to me under that sign having our pictures snapped was Zax. Though I know he would have hated the picture taking part, and the fact that the picture had to be taken again and again and again, each time with a different camera. He would have scoffed at such a waste of time (“why don’t people trust each other to send the pictures?” had been his earlier words) and this thought almost made me smile.

Zax wasn’t in this for the glory. He wasn’t in it to prove any point, or to tell anybody about it afterwards. He hates to be recognized for achievements. He really only was in it, from what I can tell, because I asked him to. Which makes it all the more special to me that he came.

Kilimanjaro Diaries : Roof of Africa, Northern Icefields
I found the view of the glaciers they most beautiful of all, and the most fascinating.
Kilimanjaro Diaries : Roof of Africa, Northern Icefields
People who’ve come before us say that what you see here as scree used to be covered in snow.  And that the glacier came right up to the summit, whereas here it is receding into the distance.
Kilimanjaro Diaries : Roof of Africa, Northern Icefields
With climate change and changing weather patterns, and seeing how much water flows down Kili in  those muddy rivers we saw, it is amazing that this much of the glacier is still there!
Kilimanjaro Diaries : Roof of Africa, mount meru through the clouds
A vast space around us, with Mount Meru in the distance. Photo: Martin B.
Kilimanjaro Diaries : Roof of Africa, posing on the summit
I battled a long time whether I even wanted to post this picture. It still doesn’t feel right.
Kilimanjaro Diaries : Roof of Africa, posing on the summit
Here we are, all of us, and not quite all of us. Our guides are Naiman on the left, Monday back right, and Goddy front right. Missing are Hillary and Peter, who  had taken Zax back down to Barafu.  Photo credit: The guy we strong-armed into taking a shot of us using each of our cameras.

I’ve told you before how crowded the trek up Kili is. I’ve told you how it gets more crowded as you get closer to the top, as the different routes converge. So of course the very most crowded place is the top itself, and you practically have to stand in line to get a slot under the sign. And people won’t wait for you forever to adjust your camera, because even with the sun now up, it is still bitterly cold. Every second spent up there chills you out even more, and the thing you really wish most for at this point is to be on your way again. To move your frozen limbs, and to get down to milder regions.

I was the first to be off. Naiman, and I will always be grateful for this, recognized that I wanted to get down fast, and stayed with me the whole way. We were flying down that mountain. The closest I can come to describing how it felt is the way you ski down a black diamond slope around moguls. I cannot tell you how happy my poles made me that morning, because without them it wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun or fast. I’d plant the poles far in front of me, hop down, and slide about another meter in the deep scree, then plant the poles again, and so on, all the way down, always careful to navigate around large rocks. I might have been even faster, had Naiman not sat me down every once in a while and forced me to drink what was left of my water. After just five minutes of this, my toes and hands were thoroughly thawed and pulsing with circulation, and it didn’t take long before the first layers had to come off. Occasionally we’d encounter a climber and his guide who were still making their slow ascent, huddled under their balaclavas and hoods and looking miserable. The contrast was almost laughable. Just an hour earlier I had looked and felt exactly like that, and now here I was free as a bird and having a grand old time, fueled by my anticipation to see Zax again soon.

Kilimanjaro Diaries : Roof of Africa, descent from uhuru peak
Descent from Uhuru Peak. What a change from just a few hours earlier.
Kilimanjaro Diaries : Roof of Africa, descent from uhuru peak
View of Barafu Camp from above. I love how you can see the curvature of the horizon here.

Lance might have set a record for climbing Kili in 9 hours 45 minutes, but how about his descent back down? I’m quite sure that in the world of Kili records, I created my very own that morning. The fastest forty-something housewife from Joburg between Uhuru and Barafu in 2012, I’m certain of it. It took me one and a half hours to traverse what had taken over seven just a short while earlier in the other direction. I was back down in camp sunning myself on a rock together with Zax for a good long while before the others appeared.Zax, of course, was fine. He had gotten a good night’s sleep after a good long drink once back in his tent, where Hillary had temporarily moved in with him to watch him closely and make sure he was alright. He bears no physical scars, though I can’t even begin to imagine the emotions he must have coped with that scary night, and beyond, grappling with the fact that he didn’t make it when everyone else did. He is quite certain that he will be back to try it again.

Who knows, I might even come with him.


Want the whole story? Buy the book:

UK customers: click here.
German edition: click here.

Share this: