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A final "this is it" moment arrived at 11:30 pm. After some tea and light refreshments, we dressed up exactly as planned several months ago. Five layers on top, 3 on the bottom. Rain proof outer shells. Balaclavas to cover our faces. Thick ski gloves over thin inner gloves. Chemical heat pads on our hands, toes and back. Woolen cap and headlamp on our heads. Camera wrapped deep inside a fleece jacket stowed away in our packs to keep the batteries warm on top. Extra batteries worn close to the chest. Spare disposable camera at hand, just in case. One of our continuing anxieties was that our cameras will not work at the top due to the cold.
Full moon with Kibo visible and looking impossibly far away. We were prepared for that.
Other groups resemble trains with guides as engines and hikers as coaches. Only difference was each hiker had a burning headlamp. We decided to conserve batteries by using Malini's headlamp only. Venkatesh kept his off and followed Malini. Maiko led the way and Simon brought up the rear. The moonlight was good enough for us to see our way.
Within the first half-hour we negotiated a steep vertical slippery wall of rock as Maiko carefully guided us by telling us where to plant our next foot. It was fine as long as we had the climbing momentum. If you stopped, you tended to lose balance. We could see a few people already sitting down for a premature rest.
We passed a long train of people after letting Maiko know that we wished to walk faster. Apart from the labored breathing of the hikers, the only other sound that could be heard all night was the bellowing of the porters as they communicated with each other from all directions.
The hours went by one by one. It got colder. The water in our camelback tubes froze. We were expecting that. We had water in wide bottles that we hoped will not freeze. By the time we reached the top, it was a slushy mixture of ice and water. We took about 4 breaks the entire night and stopped for about 10 minutes each time. Anything beyond that meant getting your fingers and toes and the rest of the body frozen. Walking up the steep slope in several layers of clothing kept us warm.
The route was a series of short switchbacks going back and forth endlessly, minute after minute, hour after hour. We realized that there was no way we could have found our own way without a guide. There were several locations where it seemed impossible to continue in any direction. But we never had to use our hands to scramble over rocks. We could manage the entire climb with our poles.
Our first goal was to reach Stella Point. That is the spot where the steep slope ends. All that remains after that is the relatively gentle slope that climbs 160m (600 ft.). Reaching this point would entitle the climber to a Green Certificate. Reaching Uhuru Peak meant a Gold Certificate. The walk on the edge of the crater rim to Uhuru peak had the reputation of leaving several hikers behind due to high altitude, exhaustion and the occasional blizzard.
Magically, the glaciers on Kibo got nearer (must have been all that climbing!) but still looked impossibly far. Maiko and Simon constantly encouraged us "Just one and a half hour to go. See that flashlight? That is Stella point. We are almost there".
Venkatesh adds: I tried to deal with the monotony by playing my favorite music in my head - a medley of Beethoven, Rafi and the Grateful Dead. Simon, amazingly, sang in Swahili throughout the night. One particular rhyming song was simplicity itself and I joined him and repeated every line as he sang it. It was all about climbing Kilimanjaro (Hakuna Matata - it is nothing! Take it slowly slowly and you will reach the top).
We still can't believe that we eventually got through those 6 hours. Actually, it was really not that difficult. We were gasping for air but managed to pace ourselves so that it never got out of hand. Our legs did protest sometimes, but the constant exhortations and singing from Simon and our own pledges ("We will not give up until we run out of all our chocolates and candy") kept us going. And there was no risk of us running through our sweets as it was impossible to pull them out of our pockets with the thick ski gloves. And nobody wanted to take those off.
Maiko and Simon constantly offered to carry our packs and offered their own jackets for additional protection from the cold. They never took their eyes off us, constantly enquiring if we were alright and if we had any signs of altitude sickness. Maiko was actually taken aback that we did not experience any sickness at all, throughout the trip.
The slope got steeper. "One more steep (section) to Stella point and this is the last one" encouraged Maiko. "Look there, we will be at Stella point soon". And that was that. We were there soon enough. As can be seen from the graphic below, the steepest part of the night's climb was the last stretch just before Stella point. The elevation lines are closer to each other there as they cross the 5700m line.
What was a featureless ice mass from below is now revealed as the complex ice structure that is the Rebmann Glacier.
Looking east towards the sun that is about to rise behind Mawenzi peak and panning north towards the Ice Cathedral (see map above)
This video was taken immediately on reaching Stella point. Venkatesh's breathlessness is actually due to the effort of climbing and not due to the altitude. Given the enormity of the long night's climb, he is entitled to a little hyperbole. Despite pressure from the guides to push on to the summit, he insisted on taking this video and the above/below pictures (requiring an extended unpacking and peeling operation) as the scenery rapidly changed hue due to the visible diffusion of the light of an (initially) invisible luminous body, the first golden limb of the resurgent sun and the apparition of a new solar disk. OK, hyperbole, self-congratulation and some Joycean stuff.
Another look at the Rebmann Glacier and Ice Cathedral with the sun's first rays on it...
And looking towards the direction of the full moon and Uhuru peak and zooming in...
The route from Stella Point to Uhuru peak is only a brief climb (170m/600ft.) that will take no more than 30 minutes at lower altitude. But at around 19000 feet it is a totally different experience. We had read so many reports of other people's climbs and how they suffered the most during this stretch as the combined effect of the altitude, the exhaustion of an all night climb coming following several days of strenuous hiking and camping at inhospitable terrain. Our legs did feel numb but our lungs held up alright.
We had other hikers for company, some of whom seemed to be in a zombie like trance, as their heads drooped downwards, bobbing left and right with their staggering steps. We probably seemed that way to them as well. But we felt better than that as we moved on towards the summit, all our energy and faculties focused on our goal. Venkatesh temporarily forgot the pole-pole mantra and started to hurry on and even went around a corner ahead of the rest. Maiko gently scolded him for getting away from the group.
In a total contrast to the climbers, the returning hikers wore expressions of deep satisfaction and looked entirely untroubled. Maiko spotted a lone hiker lying on the path apparently dozing. He woke him up and suggested that he descend as you could die if you go to sleep at that altitude. While Maiko acted as our speed governor, he also tried to keep us moving and not stop too much. "Not safe to stay at this altitude for too long" he kept saying. Not that we wanted to rest anymore, but we would have liked to have stopped to take a few more photographs. Well, there are tour outfitters who even plan for a night's stay at these altitudes for those who wish to explore the ash pit and Reutsch crater.
Malini decided that she could do without the burden of her day pack and accept Simon's offer to carry it for her. She did not speak much all night and seemed to want to get to the summit first. Even getting to Stella point earlier did not seem to impress her much.
The cold no longer bothered us after sunrise and we had removed our balaclavas, but still retained our layers and gloves. There wasn't any ice on the path (we did not expect any as this was a dry month and our guides had not indicated anything) and all it required was to simply put one exhausted foot in front of the other and take it slowly, one at a time. And eventually we spotted the group of people around the much photographed Uhuru peak sign.
After making sure that we had the obligatory photos taken, we spent a few minutes near the sign admiring the massive glacier wall that lined the southern rim and the view of Mount Meru rising above the clouds towards the west...
This video was taken at the summit and pans over Mount Meru and the "beautiful" glaciers (believe it or not!). More breathless (this time due to the altitude) excess from Venkatesh.
The same video but on a better camera with zoom option and higher resolution.
For a hi-resolution mpg version click here.
Video of the Reutsch Crater rim with Maiko and Simon chuckling in Swahili.
The return was expectedly much easier and we were able to enjoy the scenery without any doubts in our minds...
Furtwangler glacier could be seen beyond the peak. Those arriving via the Western Breach would get a much closer look at it.
Back at Stella point, we could see the meeting point of the Rongai route (coming from the North) and the Marangu Route deep below...
Simon produced a flask of hot lemon tea and words cannot describe how good it felt to indulge in a pleasure we normally take for granted.
9 am. Time to go down. Venkatesh is always nervous about descending steep hills and only the challenge of reaching Uhuru had kept that thought away from his mind, thus far. Now Uhuru was behind us and we were back at Stella point. The dreaded descent loomed large and impossible as we contemplated the 4000 ft. drop to Barafu Camp (amazingly, we could see the camp from Stella Point). It is at the dead center of the picture below...the trail marked in yellow is part of the return path and it stops at a sheer cliff wall leading to a "What do I do now" moment. Will come to that later. But we just couldn't believe that we walked all night for 6 hours to reach the point where we were standing from the point which was in our line of vision.
Simon gave us a brief introduction into the art of downhill skiing in the loose scree using our hiking poles and boots. The downward path was different from the ascent path which was on more solid ground. Treating the loose scree like snow, you plunge your feet downwards using the pressure on your heels to counter the gravitational force and your poles for balance. You need to be careful when the occasional rock appears and when going too fast. In fact, Maiko did fall a couple of times himself as he slid rapidly down the scree slope.
We did not trust this method at first but soon graduated from a slow painful crawl to something approaching continuous movement. And even started enjoying it.
Malini practicing the descent on the loose scree that required a downhill skiing motion that uses heel pressure to control gravitational pull. This was not a problem during the ascent as the gravitational pull is balanced by the upward motion of our travel. Using this method we were able to descend to Barafu Camp in less than 3 hours. What took us 6 hours to climb.
Flash forward to 10 a.m. We're down quite a way and looked back up towards Stella point and managed to take this picture just moments before the fog rolled in and obscured everything.
But the descent was as monotonous as the ascent and Barafu camp still kept its distance for a while. We eventually ran out of scree and then had to negotiate a few rocky turns with some uphill sections as well as slippery downhill walls. The most difficult stretch was barely 5 minutes before reaching camp. This was the section that featured dazed hikers looking down hopelessly as we spied on them yesterday from the comfort of Barafu camp . It was now our turn to stare helplessly. Maiko was at hand orchestrating every step with his hand out to steady us in case we stumbled.
It was 11:15 am when we reached Barafu Camp. We had been up on our feet since 11:40 pm. The registration formality completed (Maiko had to enter the precise time of our reaching the Summit in the ledger), we rushed to our tent to eat lunch and snatch an hour of sleep before packing up and continuing down for another 1500m (5000 ft.). It was gratifying to see the happiness on the faces of Fraterno and the other porters as they cheered our appearance and congratulated us on our success.
Looking back in hindsight, the hour's rest at Barafu was of immense value. It did not seem like much then, but somehow it brought a little life back to our tired legs and cleared our heads and restarted our engines for a long, long descent to Mweka Camp.
It was a monotonous descent through the arid rocky landscape till about 3 pm. when the greenery started appearing again...
...and the flowers as well
...the successful summit achievement made the already pretty landscape even more beautiful
The uneven trail takes a break with what looks like a well laid dirt road and the appearance of the Millennium Camp (for private parties only).
We learnt from Maiko that the Mweka route was for descent only even though we did not see this policy on any official notice or publication. If you forget about the acclimatization angle, it seemed to present the most direct route from the lower elevations to the top.
After a short break at the Millennium Camp, we resumed the seemingly interminable descent to Mweka Camp. Down, down and more down but we eventually reached the camp shortly before 5pm. Amazingly, we had to wait in queue to sign the register behind a large contingent. We gave up and headed down to our tent to freshen up before returning to complete the formalities. Going by previous reports, we had fully expected to to so exhausted and simply fall into our beds and sleep endlessly. But we did have enough energy to eat dinner and complete the tipping transaction (involving extensive calculations).
The atmosphere at the campsite was quite different from that of the previous nights. The porters were singing and dancing and the lifting of the summit burden clearly showed on everyone. We had been carrying it for most of the year ourselves. It felt good to have it behind us, one way or another. And it felt even better that it was the one way we had hoped for.
The next morning we'd wake up in bright sunshine and clear skies and see Kibo looking impossibly far away with over 9000 feet of elevation separating us.
After dinner, we decided to complete the tipping of the staff right away as we weren't sure if we'd get a suitable opportunity on the next day. We followed the guidelines suggested by Good Earth and consulted with Maiko to arrive at something that would be commensurate with the efforts put in by the staff and also that would also be within our budget. If we'd had more people in our group, the tipping would have been higher.
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