Updated on July 30th, 2020
Are you keen to know what to expect when climbing Mount Kilimanjaro? I spent 8 Days on the Lemosho Route in November 2019. So far I had struggled with the altitude & was full of trepidation for how I would cope when it finally came to Summit Night. This is my story…”
Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. Barafu Camp to Uhuru Peak & back down to Mweka Gate
Mount Kilimanjaro had been on my Life List for a while & turning 50 had been my motivation for tackling it sooner rather than later. It had so far taken me 6 days of hiking on the Lemosho Route to reach Base Camp at Barafu. I had struggled with the altitude & was full of trepidation for how I would cope when it finally came to Summit Night.
The summit of Mount Kilimanjaro is Stella Point & sits at 5756m. Technically once you get there you have successfully conquered the mountain. However, once you have made it, you can choose to carry on for another hour (on a much gentler incline) to Uhuru Peak. This is the official highest point in Africa, the worlds tallest freestanding mountain & 5895m above sea level.
What To Expect When Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. 8 Days on the Lemosho Route – Summit Night
In Part 1 I discussed the first 3 days of the trek, my reasons for choosing the Lemosho Route, the impact altitude can have & my awe at the amazing porters! Part 2 covered the next section of my journey tackling the Lava Tower, Barranco Wall, altitude sickness & finally making it to Base Camp. If you are planning to take on this epic trek yourself then please also see my Everything you need to know” post which includes the all-important packing list.
I had read a lot about other people’s experiences on Summit Night. My lovely climbing partner Brigit & I had also discussed what we could expect. Feeling rough, being physically sick & needing oxygen were all things we were mentally preparing ourselves for. Our guide Zaf had also informed us that if the altitude becomes too much we will be told to stop & if we need oxygen, we are not going any further. We were hopeful but ready for anything.
Day 7 – Barafu (Base) Camp to Uhuru Peak. 7 1/2 hours
Dressing For The Weather
We were woken by our alarm at 11pm before having “breakfast” of ginger tea & biscuits. Getting dressed was a challenge as we seemed to be wearing EVERYTHING! I had gone to bed in 2 layers which included double thermals. For summit night I pulled on another pair of fleece trousers & padded ski pants. On my top, I added a T-shirt, long-sleeved top, fleece & a ski jacket.
It was cold & I was wearing so much I could barely bend my knees! The final piece of the puzzle was to add 2 pairs each of socks & gloves before struggling into my hiking boots with limited mobility.”
At midnight we left as Isiah, our lovely waiter crawled into our tent to “keep it warm”. In theory, it would take 6 ½ hours & if we were lucky enough to get to the summit, we could be there to watch the sunrise.
A Full Moon
We had specifically booked our trip at this time to coincide with (hopefully) summitting on a full moon. It was a clear night & the moon was resplendent highlighting our ominous journey. As we turned on our head torches, we saw some of our fellow climbers had beaten us to it as the light from theirs marked our path. The start was steep as we headed from our camp to the next, known as Kosovo Camp. It seemed to take a long time to get there as we walked “Pole, pole”, Swahili for “Slowly, slowly” up the mountain. It was painfully slow going but I was grateful as I breathed heavily.
When we got to the camp, I suddenly felt overwhelmed with excitement. We had finally started the much-awaited climb to the summit. Brigit & I both felt good. I really thought that we were going to make it…just 6 more hours to go!
Very soon after Kosovo Camp, we hit the snowline & it started to get more slippery underfoot. An icy wind came & joined us on the mountain, occasionally blowing so hard that I felt it was going to knock me over. I was grateful for all the layers I had on, except for when we needed to climb up onto rocks. Then I could barely bend my legs & needed to start lifting my feet into place with my hands. Although my body was warm, my feet were starting to get cold, despite all the socks I had on.
Unfortunately, before long the initial belief & euphoria had disappeared & been replaced by doubts.
What the hell am I doing? I just want this to stop now…I’m never going to make it…I’m not enjoying this…What if I just went back down?”
Waves of nausea then started to pass through my body. I told myself to just focus on breathing. I breathed heavily, it helped & the nausea passed.
Stopping For A Rest
The walk was starting to feel relentless & I had no idea what time it was, how far we had gone or still had to go. We just walked on in silence. Above & below us was a line of lights as our fellow climbers made their way in a snake up the mountain.
At times it felt busy as we were passed or overtook a group. Other times it felt as if we were alone on the mountain. Around every 30 minutes, we would stop for a short rest. And I mean short. As soon as we stopped, it started to get cold so the rests were literally just long enough to have a drink & a sense check on how we were feeling. At one point we stopped to sit down on a rock & I was so inflexible I sat straight on top of Brigit before sliding slowly onto the ground!
The Challenge Of The Cold
The night air on the mountain made my nose run. My mittens meant I couldn’t get to a tissue, so I was wiping it with my gloved hand. My nose got sore through the wet & the cold. All this led my breathing to be through my mouth which in turn got dry & I was coughing a lot. Cough sweets helped immensely & when I managed to get one out, I was popping them all the way. It also left my lips very dry but again I couldn’t get to my lip balm. I had a pair of gloves on & ski mittens on top. When I took my mitten off, it was so tight that I really struggled to get it back on again.
And then there was the water. Our guides Zaf & Humphrey had kindly taken our backpacks for the duration of the climb that night. My Camelback water pouch was therefore on Zaf’s back so I could only drink when we stopped. As we climbed, the cold took its toll on our equipment.
The tubes had a habit of freezing. Brigit had especially prepared for this & bought an extra insulated version. It didn’t work. Ironically mine was the only one which stayed functioning.”
Each time I needed water I started by crunching on the tube to break up the ice crystals & then I was able to drink. Afterwards, I blew the water back up the pipe, we tied the tube up & tucked it into the bag for extra protection against the cold. The system worked for me. The others were less lucky.
With negative thoughts running around my head, I continued to climb but I was struggling with motivation. Both Brigit & I were looking inwards, focussing on ourselves & even when we stopped it was just long enough to get a drink, a cough sweet, wipe your nose or just catch your breath before we had to go again. Motivating each other was not on either of our agendas. Unfortunately, our guides were not strong on this either. We didn’t hear many positive cues from them.
I was listening in to other guides & their conversations with their clients. This helped a bit to understand where we were & get a bit of positivity. Others were singing chain gang songs to keep their groups going. We walked with one for a while & it was so powerful.
The singing made such a difference as it was a beat which we could step to. We stayed with them until the group stopped for a rest. Then we were back on our own again. But the song & the rhythm stayed with me & kept me going for at least another hour.”
The whole thing felt like a dream. It was the middle of the night; I was literally freezing cold & relentlessly walking step after step very slowly up a mountain. Why would you be doing that & be awake? As I couldn’t really turn my head & look around (when I moved it my jacket’s hood stayed put, giving me tunnel vision), my eyes were fixed to Brigit’s feet as she moved in front of me. I spent hours just staring at the back of Brigit’s heels. The good news was that despite all of this I was continually expecting to feel bad, to be suffering from the altitude, but it didn’t happen. I just kept moving one foot in front of the other & despite being fuelled by very heavy breathing, I felt OK.
We Can Do This!
On one stop Zaf seemed to be uncharacteristically perky. He gave us the best news as we sat for a slightly longer break & cracked open the flask of ginger tea. “We are 70% done, only 30% left to go!” I was amazed!
Finally, I felt like I could do it. I certainly couldn’t turn back now. We were almost there! A wave of excitement, belief & relief flooded through my body.”
We were so high & I was still feeling OK. Brigit said her stomach was sore, but she was alright too & certainly not about to quit. Maybe we could do this after all?
From then on it was just positive thoughts occupying my head. As we kept moving, slowly but ever upwards I would try & calculate what percentage we were on at any given time. 75%…85%? Then I noticed the moon. As I had been walking continually focussed on the back of Brigit’s feet, the moon had moved. It looked like it was on its way down. This meant only one thing to me, the sun was arriving soon. With the sun came sunrise & in theory by then we should be on or near the summit!
On another quick break, feeling like it seemed never to be ending, Humphrey pointed up the dark mountain ahead. “Do you see that light?” he said. I did, small but clear up ahead. “That’s Stella Point,” he said. “the summit is just 300m away”. That is all I needed to hear. We were (almost) there!
Finally, when it was still dark, we made it over the top, just in time to see an orange glow on the horizon. The sign at Stella Point was covered in snow & we could only see it by torchlight. Brigit & I had a big hug as with tears in our eyes we congratulated ourselves. We had actually made it!
After that, we continued to move at our slow pace in the snow, to the sound of my ever-present loud breathing. With each step, we seemed to be able to see more as the sun rose over the horizon. There was an icy wind whipping around which blew the clouds & brought the landscape in & out of view.
When it cleared & we could see with the light, the vista was like nothing I had ever seen before. Glaciers appeared below us, illuminated by the orange light. It was spectacular!”
All I wanted to do was stop & bask in my glory, but we pushed on to the peak.
A Queue At The Top
The walk seemed to last forever. I was getting fed up when finally, the sign came into view. It was surrounded by people & would you believe there was a queue to get a photo! The night before Zaf had warned us that you cannot hang around once you are there. We were only allowed 10 minutes, then had to head back down before the altitude really started to take its toll on our bodies. We weren’t expecting to join a queue! Duly we did but the big groups were taking their time. The one in front of us even had a ukulele & had created a song which was way too long for my liking. I was exhausted, lightheaded & freezing cold. My sense of humour & camaraderie had deserted me. I just wanted to take a photo & go. In the end, we were at Uhuru Peak for about 20 minutes.
We Made It!
Our dream had become a reality. I was standing on the roof of Africa. Mount Kilimanjaro is the continents highest point & the tallest freestanding mountain in the world. It was a moment worth savouring. But it was cold & we needed to head down again.
As we passed our fellow climbers heading in the opposite direction, we congratulated each other but also saw some who had clearly suffered to get to this point. One lady was literally being carried along by her comrades. I was in awe of my 50-year-old body & what it had allowed me to achieve that night. Without a complaint, it had made my life so much easier than it could have been. I felt grateful for everything it had given me.
What Goes Up…
Once back at Stella Point, we took some photos as the sun was now well & truly up & we could actually see it without torchlight. Then it was our task to head down. Two hours back down to Base Camp on scree, where it literally felt like we were skiing on stones. For the first time, my poles came into use. The euphoria began to subside as my knees & toenails started to take a battering.
The thing is that you train to climb the mountain. I stepped, ran, lunged & squatted my way to stronger legs in preparation.”
Everyone talks about what you need to do to get to that point. What I didn’t read was how hard it was coming down. Nobody seems to prepare you for that. It was hard, mentally & physically. Brigit was in tears by the time we finally made it back to camp. It was 10am & we had been walking for 10 hours. Our porters were there to greet us & gave us some high fives, genuinely being pleased that we had made it. It turned out Isiah had also had a lovely sleep in our tent which was perfect!
A Welcome Rest
With smiles back on our faces, we ate a hearty breakfast & then headed back to bed for 2 hours before the next stage of our journey began. Zaf had told us it was 3 – 3 ½ hours further down to our final camp, Mweka. It took us 4. We were physically exhausted by the time we finally arrived. The first section had been OK. Then it was rocky, slippery in wet mud, uneven steps & endless. At one point I was close to tears as I just wanted it to stop. I had run out of enthusiasm & positivity. I had triumphed climbing up the mountain but felt that coming down had beaten me!
Eventually, we walked into Mweka Camp. It was busy but I have never been more grateful to see a tent in my life. Needless to say, we had an early night & slept very well!
Day 8 – Mweka Camp to Mweka Gate. 3 hours
The Final Push
The night before we had agreed with Zaf that we would leave at 6.30am. By leaving early we could avoid the queues to sign out & get a head start on the big groups. I was happy. We felt refreshed & in high spirits as we left camp & headed into the forest. We even overtook a few people along the way! As we exited the forest, onto the road we were met with the sight of a truck which explained why all the porters had literally been running past us. The truck was swamped by these heroes trying to get on, or throwing their packs in an attempt to lighten their load. By the time it left there were people hanging off everywhere they could get a grip. Hilarious and a health & safety nightmare!
We were treated to a group of colobus monkeys in the tree which lifted our spirits as we battled with the sore knees & toes that our descent had left us. The early start had paid off but as we got slower & more desperate for it to end, spritely walkers passed us on their way to the gate. After 3 hours we were finally there! It was a place of beautiful things…an actual toilet, a bottle of coke & a lady who cleaned my boots for a small tip. Paradise!
Our adventure had come to an end. We had triumphed. We were desperate for a shower & the pool at our hotel, Lindrin Lodge was a thing of fantasy.
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