Summit day

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Africa » Tanzania
October 16th 2020
Published: October 20th 2020
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We were woken up by Frank at midnight after having a few hour long nap that was too short but thankfully pretty restful considering. The wind was howling and it was painfully cold making it hard to get started, but luckily it wasn’t raining, which really was all I had hoped for. As much as we didn’t want to get out of our warm sleeping bags the summit called. We quickly drank some coffee and ate some popcorn and cookies and were off.

We were instructed to wear 2 pairs of socks, 2 pairs of gloves, 4 layers on the bottom and 5 on top so we both slowly waddled up the mountain at the mountaineering pace we’d established. We had to put warm water in our camelbaks and had to blow the water from the line after every sip to prevent it from freezing.

We started off strong, looking up at the string of headlamps like a Christmas tree high above and below us. Time and distance ceased to exist and we just focused on the few feet ahead of us for several hours, completely silent except for the crunch of rock beneath our feet and the howl of wind in our ears.

My hands and face started going numb from the freezing temperatures and at some point around 18,000 ft. I began to feel nauseous. I ate a ginger candy and offered one to Dennis, which he took, which I assumed meant he was nauseous too, but I was much too tired to even muster the energy to ask, talking just used too much oxygen, which at this altitude is 50% that of at sea level. Altitude sickness symptoms start to occur at heights above 12,000 ft. and there are categories of altitude, the highest of which is “extreme altitude” above 18,000 ft, which we were now at. You can die unexpectedly from pulmonary or cerebral edemas anytime after 12,000 ft but the risks become significantly greater the higher you go.

I started vomiting shortly after the 18,000 ft. mark and started thinking about not summiting. I began setting small benchmarks in my mind I wanted to accomplish, such as making it to sunrise which we were kept being told was when everything “got better.” We were told the mountain was 50% mental and 50% physical but at this point I felt it was 100% phycial when I felt so cold and sick I wanted to crawl beside a rock and just nap. Our guide Omari was pretty strict and wouldn’t let us break often or for long knowing it would only make us colder and more tired, because you end up spending more time at altitude, which you don’t want to do. He insisted that I eat or drink, only to vomit it up minutes later, trying to just give me sugar for energy. Dennis told me several times he would do whatever I decided to do, his way of telling me he felt awful too and didn’t object to turning back. I only grunted an inarticulable response and kept trudging forward. In spite of us making a pact beforehand that if one of us turned around the other would keep going I knew he would stay by my side and not summit unless I did.

Sunrise finally came and we had an incredible view from above the clouds that looked as though we were looking out of a plane window. With the small amount of warmth the sun eventually brought I didn’t feel much better and in fact when I saw just how much further it was to hike and just how steep it was incredibly disheartening. I thought I would just make it to Stella point at 18,823 ft, which is considered the lesser summit and gets you a certificate from the park service as well, but once I reached it I gave a weak half hearted refusal to go on, and then continued with Omari’s urging, saying we only had 45 minutes to go.

The last stretch felt the hardest, and physically it was. We crossed several glacial ice fields that were difficult to walk on due to the frozen trenches in the snow and trying to find areas to place your feet without slipping. We were surrounded by glacial walls and ice as far as the eye could see. finally...finally, we made it, the snows of Kilimanjaro. I was so happy I had decided to push on as the entire area looked and felt completely different and felt truly like the summit.

We only stayed on the summit for a few minutes, long enough to take a few pictures and for me to spread some of my mother’s ashes. She was there with me every step of the way and gave me the love of the mountains and outdoors that gave me the dream to be here at all.

We quickly descended the mountain, feeling more oxygenated every step we took. I vomited a few more times on the way down, still unable to keep any water down. When we finally made it back to camp, I collapsed and fell asleep for a few hours before we were woken up by Frank to pack up and to keep moving and head to our next camp a few miles down the mountain. We would’ve love to have stayed at base camp but knew In the end we’d feel even better further down the mountain.

As we hiked down we passed our only non-Tanzanian friend we had made on the mountain, a Dr about our age from Brazil, who was hiking the same route as us. He was being placed into a litter to be carried down the mountain, suffering from hypothermia and Acute Mountain Sickness.

We arrived at Millemium camp at 11,850 ft and were given a huge feast. Thankfully all my sickness had subsided and I could get my strength back. Before we fell asleep we could see the glow of the wildfire on the mountain that had been burning for a few days. We had an early start the following morning at 0500 and were exhausted so we wasted no time falling asleep.

We were awoken at midnight by Omari, which was strange because we were used to Frank waking us up. He spoke quickly and frantically telling us the fire was close and we had to hurry and evacuate the camp immediately. As soon as we got out of the tent we could see just how close the fire had come, the next ridge away. The strong winds were feeding the flames and pushing it our way and the camp was in a frenzy.

We spent the next several hours almost jogging over 8 miles with our packs, the trail lit only by our headlamps, down the dark and steep rocky trail trying to outrun the fire. Occasionally we would catch glimpses of the fire through the dense jungle, sometimes seeming as though we had outrun it, other times terrifyingly close, causing the porters to gasp and speak nervously in Swahili. Dennis reassured us all that we were safe provided the wind didn’t shift and our path didn’t bring us closer. We had no trail maps so we weren’t sure the route ahead of us and just hoped it stayed straight or veered away from the fire.

Eventually we emerged out of the jungle into a clearing and saw a park ranger with a truck waiting to transport us all the rest of the journey on a forest road to safety. At the bottom gate we saw dozens of other hikers and porters that had evacuated from other camps. Finally we were out of harms way, with sore and aching knees and toes.

We were transported back to Jackson’s office where we said goodbye to our crew that we had grown to be friends with. We had a traditional tipping ceremony as the sun rose in the smoke filled sky. Each porter came forward while his name was called, and gave hugs and handshakes to us as they received their envelopes. This ceremony is usually accompanied by song and dance but due to the hour and exhaustion it was a subtle affair.

The average salary in Tanzania is $1/day so they rely heavily on the generosity of tourist tips to help them supplement their pay. In this time of COVID and the loss of tourism many locals are suffering tremendously and we were told some are lucky to eat one meal a day and are being forced back to their villages to farm with their families in order to survive. We tried to be as generous as we could, feeling so grateful for what we have and how lucky we have been to have been employed during all these months and to come from a country that provides government assistance to those unemployed. Yes of course things can always be improved upon but we realized just how lucky we were to be what in reality is minorly inconvenienced by comparison. As always our travels remind us of just how fortunate we are, and in spite of the tremendous suffering throughout the world people continue to be incredibly happy, kind and welcoming.

What an adventure we’ve had so far and look forward to some more relaxing days ahead on our safari that will bring us next to the African plains of the Serengeti.

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20th October 2020

Hip, Hip, Hooray!!
At my age, living vicariously thru you two crazy adventuresome kids is tonic for the mind, salve for the soul and ever so easy on the joints!! What an accomplishment, so happy for you both!!! s 😊
20th October 2020

What an adventure!
So glad you summited - it sounds like it was so hard, which I'm sure makes the accomplishment feel that much better. And then wildfires on top of all of that. Definitely a story you'll tell for ages.
23rd October 2020

Thanks so much for reading, glad you enjoyed it!

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