On Top of Africa

Day 7 on Mt. Kilimanjaro

We made it!

Our group and guides at the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Phil LaBelle, 2017

On August 14, 2017 at 11:45am Noah and I and our entire team reach Uhuru Peak at 19, 340 feet. We began with a 2am wake up call, breakfast and preparing to leave. Zippers on the tent had frozen overnight in the cold and previous day’s rain. But the skies were now clear and the temps were chilly. Just before we were set to depart, Noah began overheating. He’d put on a number of layers including my puffy coat to fight the cold, and as we got outside his body just started getting too warm.

He had to strip off all his extra layers down to his base and then take a good fifteen minutes to get back to normal. For a bit there I wasn’t sure if we’d be able to head out with the team, that it might not be our day, but he soon felt better and we headed out on the trail using our headlamps.

The moon—now about half full—and the Milky Way and Venus lit up the sky. I recognized some of the constellations including Orion, Cassiopeia, and the Seven Sisters of the Pleiades. We could also see the lights of Moshi behind us way, way down the mountain. At 6:30, the sun began to rise to our right over Mt. Mawenzi, one of the other peaks of Kilimanjaro. I was excited to put my headlamp into my daypack and look around to see everything in the light.

While the mileage wasn’t great—under 4 miles—both the elevation gain over 4300 feet and the altitude from 15,000 to 19,000 made the going tough. Add to that scree on the foot path. The small loose stones were generally pushed away or packed down as we took the many switchbacks on our way to the summit, but every so often we’d hit a section of the path covered with the rocks. We’d take steps and slid back, sort of like walking on sand.

We saw many people coming down—most groups begin their summit attempts at midnight and we left at 3:45—as we strained forward. We just kept going, one foot after the other. Not much talking throughout the morning, we all focused on the task before us and tried to conserve the little oxygen we were breathing in.

The final push to Stella Point—on the ridge of Kilimanjaro—was draining. Very steep, a lot of slipping, and just getting tired. But soon we made it and had only 45 minutes or so left to get to the summit of Uhuru Peak. We could see the sign off in the distance to our right on the same side as the crater. Off to our left were the glaciers of Kilimanjaro—much smaller than they had been according to our guides.

The hike to the actual summit had been harder than I expected. At 19,000 feet or so, the thin air makes everything tough. But after getting to the ridge and hearing that it’d be easier going, I expected a cake walk. But that was the hardest 45 minutes of hiking I’ve ever done. As soon as we left Stella Point, the final sign was no longer visible. I was tired, hungry, and had difficulty breathing. There were a couple of steeper inclines to trudge up as well.

But then the sign appeared ahead of us again. And while I wanted to run, we stayed at our “pole, pole” pace. Noah led our group to the sign. As I came to it, I threw down my hiking poles and wrapped Noah in a huge hug. “Never forget you can do anything you put your mind to,” I told him, “even when you face the ups and downs of life.” We took photos and congratulated our companions. Noah reached into his backpack and took out Ted, my childhood bear that he’s inherited, and we took a photo with him.

As we made plans months before, I told Noah I couldn’t imagine doing this climb with anyone else. I was right. For the rest of our lives the memory of standing on the sunny peak at the very top of Africa will remain with us. I watched my son became a fine young man on this trip, and I will cherish it forever.

Daily Totals: 3.8 miles, 4341 feet of gain.

Trek Totals: 31.5 miles and 12,791 feet of gain.

Elevation:19,341 feet at Uhuru Peak