DAY 5 – Tuesday, Jan 22, 2013
DISTANCE: 4.5 miles
TOTAL HIKING TIME: 3.5 hours
ALTITUDE CHANGE: 1000 ft (up the Barranco Wall)
900 ft (back down to Karanga camp)
By the time we woke up in the morning, the clouds had lifted, and allowed us to survey what may be the most beautiful of any of the camps we stayed in. Barranco is in a canyon which stretches down to the plains in one direction, and seemingly up to the summit in another. As I looked at the canyon wall, it dawned on me that the trail went right up the wall, and not back out the way we came in.
The Barranco wall was not as scary as it looked from the bottom. The trail was wide and even in the places where we had to use the rocks as handholds, we never got the sense that we could tumble down the wall. Of course, when you’re using all your energy to look ahead, you don’t get much chance to look down, so maybe that helped.
We left late so as not to get caught in the traffic jam that occurred in the middle of the wall where the technical bit is. As a result, we never had to slow our pace, and we fairly bounced to the top of the 300 meter (1000 ft) wall, passing several other groups along the way. The expression “Nguvu kama simba,”meaning, “strong like a lion,” was tossed around a lot and Bob Marley’s “Iron Lion Zion” became my theme song for the day.
At the top of the wall, we paused to rest, and take some fun photos (see below). We also bumped into our friends Emma, Mandy and Anthony from the UK. It’s a good thing we had so much energy because we did not expect the next part of our trek: another huge drop down to a valley, and then back up the other side. Going down into the valley was enough to tire Stephanie from all the bracing she had to do wth her knees; when we got to the top on the other side we were completely winded.
If Barranco was our favorite camp, then Karanga was our least favorite spot to stay so far on the journey. The camp is on a sharply sloping plain littered with loose rocks and sand that shift with every step. The altitude was starting to affect us now, and even walking across the slippery rocky slope to the bathroom was taking our breath away. Stephanie was looking the most wiped out she had to date and didn’t even want to go to dinner. I knew she needed a good night’s rest. The one redeeming part about the camp was that the summit looked even closer now.
DAY 6 – Wednesday, Jan 23, 2013
DISTANCE: 2 miles
TOTAL HIKING TIME: 4 hours
ALTITUDE CHANGE: 2,200 ft
Day 6 brought a lot of anticipation for us, especially for Stephanie. While I was getting excited about reaching my summit, she was busy worrying about things like how we were going to hike three hours, sleep in the middle of the day, and then wake up in the middle of the night to start the summit push. Luckily our morning hike was not too difficult in terms of steepness; just a good climb at the end that seemed to go on forever until we found our tent. Overall, though, we both still felt strong when we got into camp.
This was it – our final camp! It was not an easy camp – Barafu camp is even rockier than Karanga, and the air is super thin at 15,330 ft. Getting to the bathroom now entailed climbing a steep, steep path that was completely exhausting. Stephanie declared she would not be bothering with the “bathroom” here in the dark, given that climb. My excitement overshadowed everything. We were so close to the summit that we couldn’t even see it – only the steep path.
Dinner was very early at 5:30pm, and then we were packed off to bed. On summit day we were to depart at midnight in order to be at the summit when the sun rises. After sleeping for a few hours, we were roused at 11:00 pm for a light breakfast of porridge, tea and cookies. We looked at the mountain and could already see a path of trailing headlamps as some slowly made their way up.
DAY 7 – Thursday, Jan 24, 2013
DISTANCE: 10 miles
TOTAL HIKING TIME: 14.5 hours
ALTITUDE CHANGE: 4000 ft (to the summit!)
4000 ft (back down to Barafu)
5000 ft (down to Mweka camp)
At midnight, we joined the lines of other hikers slowly making their way to the top. Everyone was raring to go, but at this altitude you just can’t rush things. We started off warm enough, and it wasn’t long before both of us stripped off our winter coats. We passed Anthony, Mandy and Emma, and were sad to learn that Mandy was already having a tough time of things. She had been bravely battling the effects of the altitude for several days, and wasn’t going to give up.
The surreal thing about the trek to the summit is that every time you look ahead, there is a trail of headlamps way, way above you. In the dark it practically felt like we were making a vertical ascent. I put my coat back on after on after only a half hour without it, but Stephanie waited until she was good and cold. Unfortunately, the result was that she never got good and warm, and even additional gloves did not seem to help. Then at one point she had both a physical crisis and a crisis of confidence. She was hyperventilating, brought on by the altitude, nighttime and cold, caused by the very thin air. She was crying on my shoulder and our guides stood aside as I reminded her to take slow, deep breaths. Then our guides proved exactly why they were here. Tom suggested that we eat the chocolate bars that were in our packed lunches. Goodluck, meanwhile, went to work warming Stephanie’s hands with his own.
The healing power of chocolate cannot be overstated. Sure it’s a good snack, but when you’re at high altitude, it has this uncanny ability to fill your stomach, calm your nerves, warm your bones, and ease your tensions. (Not to mention being a good following for a Dementor attack.) Fighting hard against her emotions and her struggle for air, Stephanie nobly agreed to continue to the top. I’m sure she did this for me and I did and do appreciate it.
The going at this point got very slow due to the monumental effort needed to pull oneself up a mountain with limited oxygen. In the past few days, I had been working on keeping my breathing slow and deep. I found that a good rhythm for me was a full breath every three or four steps. Up here, however, every step required a full deep, slow breath. My brain wanted to go, go, go, but my body just would not speed up. I busied myself matching Tom pace-for-pace.
We continued at our snail pace, drank tea a few times when the cold was completely unbearable, and watched the less fortunate be escorted back down the path by guides. Goodluck continued to warm Stephanie’s hands at regular intervals so she would not get frostbite. Hours passed by.
All of a sudden, I realized I no longer needed my flashlight (my headlamp had used up its batteries about an hour prior). A cold gray light was slowly illuminating the cold, gray rocks around us. As we looked back out over the sea of clouds, the tiniest edge of pink was starting to show over the top. Our guides said we had only about 200 meters to go to Stella Point – the place where the trail ends at the rim of Kibo crater. With renewed excitement we raced the sunrise to the top. Well, raced is a bit of an exaggeration since we were still going one step at a time. But the lightening dawn showed us snow and then glaciers along our route.
At last, we made it to Stella Point just in time to snap some great shots of dawn breaking over Africa. After some obligatory photos, I made the mistake of congratulating Stephanie on her climb. We did high-fives and hugs, and then I asked her if she was ready to climb to the highest point on the mountain. It took me a minute to realize she thought I was completely kidding, and her a minute to realize I was completely serious. We now had to trek around the rim to Uhuru Peak – 45 minutes and 660 vertical feet away. She was less than pleased, but there was no turning back now.
The walk was beautiful if not seemingly endless in the morning light, and we found ourselves traversing next to beautiful glaciers in layers of white and blue. Finally we were at Uhuru Peak, and we knew we had done it!! I’d had the desire to reach the summit ever since I learned you could do it without technical climbing skills, and now I had followed through. It was definitely a life-defining moment for me.
I don’t know how I found the energy to lift Stephanie up for a photo (with Carlos too), but I did. We took some time to survey the land from “the Roof of Africa,” and marvel about how amazing it was to stand where we were standing before it was time to start heading down down down…