Day 7: Midnight Trek to the Summit of Kilimanjaro

Without a doubt, summit night was the most challenging physical experience that either one of us has ever had.  



Starting our summit climb at midnight, there was a lot of adrenaline.  It was beautiful when we began - small flurries and almost no wind, so it turned out that Annie was slightly overdressed.  She took off her heavy down coat after about 45 minutes of climbing, but she had already sweat through her base layer.  Not good.

As we ascended, the wind got heavier.  First it hit 20mph, then faster and faster, with gusts hitting up to 40mph.  The wind was enough to throw a person off balance if you weren’t careful.  The snow had turned into icy sleet and was pounding our cheeks.  We began to see lightning every 1-2 minutes, followed by rolls of thunder about 6-8 seconds later.  Adam focused on placing one foot in front of the other.  Annie immediately regretted not packing ski goggles. 

We came to one section of the climb that was highly exposed to the wind.  In fact, we tried to get over a rock, but the wind and sleet were too powerful and we were forced to huddle behind an even larger rock nearby.  We waited for 10 minutes for the wind to die down.  Meanwhile, another 20-30 hikers began to line up behind the rock with us, seeking shelter from the wind.

1:30 AM

It may have been less windy where we were, but it was still less than 20 degrees at our elevation. Our head guide Calvin kept saying, “This is bad.  We have to keep moving.  We can’t stay here.  Up or down.  Must move so we don’t get cold.”  But we were stuck there.  Annie sat down - she was cold and wanted to hide from the wind.  Her gloves were soaking wet because they'd been dangling from her wrists while she was too warm and now they'd filled with snow and sleet.  Her body was wet with the sweat from earlier in the trek, and she started shivering uncontrollably.  She was freezing and she could barely verbalize how she was feeling.  It was truly the coldest she's ever been.  

Mayhem quickly ensued…  Adam ripped off Annie’s shell so we could put her down jacket back on.  Our assistant guide Ahi was trying to zip the jacket but his hands were cold too.  So Adam zippered Annie’s jacket, took off his winter gloves, and put them on Annie's hands.  She protested.  His were dry and hers were not, but she didn't want him to be gloveless.  He ripped open a new packet of hand warmers and stuffed them inside her gloves.  He said he'd be fine, then stuffed her wet hand liners in his thermal long underwear, and shoved his hands in his pockets.  The group huddling behind us had grown to 50.

The wind was picking up.  It was blowing sideways at this point and it was decision time.  Annie was shivering, even in the new gloves.  We weren’t going to make it.  We told Calvin and Ahi it was time to turn around - Annie was just too cold.  They paused, but quickly agreed as the wind whipped across their faces.

We walked down for 5 minutes, and began to warm up a bit, and thought to ourselves, “What are we doing?  We came here for a reason.  We can’t give up that easy.”   So we decided to turn around.  It took us 20 minutes to reach the same point where we had huddled behind the rock.  We passed it, but soon after, we began to regret our decision.  It was so cold and the sleet felt like it was cutting our face.  It seemed clear that if the wind stayed like this, we’d never make it.  

Adam stopped to talk with a British group that had also paused.  We wanted to know their plan.  One member said, “we are waiting for the rest of our group, then we’ll get together and make a decision. This is getting very dangerous.”

2:30 AM

Annie began shivering again.  It’s dark everywhere, except for the light that our headlamps are giving off, which is just showing how much sleet is falling.  If we decided to push forward, we were making a bet that the wind would die down. But it didn’t feel like it was letting up, it only felt like it was getting stronger and Annie was so cold.  So we started to head back down.  We walked for 20 minutes down the mountain. The headlights fade into the distance up the slope. Some are standing still, many are coming down, a few are still slowly moving up. We stop after 20 minutes and Annie is feeling warmer.  We put a poncho on her.  It is flapping in the wind like thunder.

Annie said, “Are we sure we’re making the right decision.” She said that she felt like we were quitting because of her… but we weren’t.  Adam was scared too. He feared the wind would intensify and that we’d be stranded at 18,000ft for the rest of the night.  Hypothermia and frostbite are very real risks.

Calvin interjects: “What is your decision?  If we go up, we don’t change our minds.  We don’t think about the wind.  And we don’t turn back until we reach the summit. Turning back hurts me very much.”  Annie and I look at each other.  We agreed.  We’re going up and we’re not looking back.

So we start going back up again.  We pass 30-40 people as they head down.  They were silent.  It takes 1.5 hours for us to reach where we’d been before.  It’s after 4 AM and we’re exhausted.  Adam asked Calvin: “How much longer will it take to reach the summit?” He responds, “About 4 hours.” Both Adam and Annie were shocked by the response.  But we couldn’t turn back now.

4:30 AM

Adam’s mind starts to race.  “This was a stupid decision. I’m exhausted and we’re barely halfway up. We still have 4 hours to go. I don’t know if I can make it.” The lightning was becoming more frequent.  Adam turned around and asked Ahi, “Does the lightning ever reach this high on the mountain? ” There was a brief pause. “Ummmm… [5 second pause] Well, it is very rare.” The lightning continued to brighten the mountain every 8-10 seconds.  Note: after we descended, we learned that a climber had been struck by lightning last year in a spot not far from where we were standing.

So we kept going.  Step by step.  For a 45-min stretch, we even walked backwards to avoid the sleet and wind.   Adam tried to count his steps, but he kept forgetting what number he was on.  He started over multiple times – the highest he reached was 226 steps.  Annie tried to focus on following the footsteps in front of her.  She was really afraid that we were all going to get frostbite on our faces and kept reminding Adam to cover his chin and keep his hands in his pockets. 

Note the lack of pictures in this window. At less than 20 degrees outside, our electronics were buried beneath layers of clothes to preserve the battery. 

6:30 AM

Somehow hours pass.  It’s still pitch black outside.  This is the time that they’ve told us that the sun would rise.  We’ve woken up every morning at 6:30 AM to a sun-drenched tent.  Why now was it deciding to hide?  Adam yelled aloud, “Where the HELL is the sun?!”

We inched upwards. We’ve passed many groups, and we can only see maybe 10 headlamps in front of us, WAY OFF in the distance. The sun was starting to rise. Adam tests his brain on some basic facts. “My name is Adam Rousmaniere.  I was born on August 3rd, 1987. I grew up in Andover, Massachusetts. I’m 29 years old. I’ll be 30 in 5 months. My fiancée’s name is Annie McNerney. We are in Kilimanjaro and we’ve been hiking for 6.5 hours. OK, I’m ok.”

Annie was grateful for the sun because she knew that her coldest moments were behind her, but she was having a bit of trouble breathing.  Every step takes effort and she takes a big inhale between each one.  The sun has risen and she’s actually feeling a bit emotional.  Tears start to well up in her eyes.  But she holds them back and actively tries to calm herself because she knows that crying will only make it harder to breather.

Little pains start to set in.  Adam’s left side cramps.  He feels like he needs to go to the bathroom, but it passes. We are still 2 hours away.  The sun was starting to light up the mountainside, but the clouds were still overhead.  We settled in behind a large group and inched upward.  Seeing the top of the ridge, our brains started to turn more positive.   We began looking up every 10 minutes.  But every time we did, it didn't feel like we were making progress... Nevertheless, we kept trudging and finally, we reached the top of the ridge – a place called Stella Point.  The 4 of us take turns hugging.

Adam started to dig into his layers of clothing to pull out his camera.  Calvin says, “No, let’s keep going. We take pictures when we come back.” At that moment, we realize that we weren’t at the peak.  We see in the distance a volcano crater and a bit further off, Uhuru Peak.  Annie asks, “Hold on, how far is that?  10 minutes?”  Ahi responds, “45 minutes.” Annie replies: “oh fuck!”

But we do it anyway.  One foot in front of the other.  We don’t realize it at first, until Calvin tells us, but we walk by a massive glacier.  It was stunning.  A white, blue wall in the distance.  He tells us that the glacier may not be there in the not too distant future because of global warming.  The ground only has a slight incline now, but it doesn’t matter – we are still moving so slowly.  The last 10 steps though, we get a broken trot going to reach Uhuru Peak, Africa’s tallest peak and the highest free-standing mountain in the world.  It’s still very cold and windy so Adam says, “Let’s take a picture and get out of here.” We pose in front of the Uhuru peak sign, staying no more than 2 minutes.  We took one quick picture and a video.  We all hug again and then begin our descent. 

After 45 minutes, we stop at 18,500 feet for breakfast, which included hot tea and a chocolate bar.   We were alone at that moment.  We couldn’t see anyone, except our small group of 4.  It felt amazing overlooking the snow-covered landscape.  There hadn’t been snow here the night before. Now there was at least 8 inches.  It took us 3 hours to hike back down to Barafu Camp (base camp).  And with every step, we began to feel better and better.  Even at 15,000 feet, we could feel ourselves breathing easier.

On the way down, we find out that a man lost his life the night before, at the same spot where we huddled behind the rock and changed Annie’s clothes.  Later that day, we learned that another person died.  About 10 deaths a year happen on Kilimanjaro and our night saw 2.  Calvin says, “This was a very difficult night. I’ve never had any group turn around and then come back again to reach the summit.”   Calvin and Ahi agree that neither had seen a storm like that on the mountain in at least 10-15 years (one believes that it was 2005 and the other is certain it was 2001).

We triumphantly reach base camp to huge hugs from our team.  We had done it.  We take a nap and record a short GoPro video with our wind burnt faces. After about 30 minutes, it was time to walk 4 hours more, down to Mweka camp.  Going down was certainly easier than going up, but our hips and knees were pretty sore at this point.  We were putting almost all of our body weight on our hiking poles.  We kept getting called “Babu” and “Bibi,” which means Grandpa and Grandma, respectively in Swahili.