Saturday 5th January 2019 & Sunday 6th January 2019
Part #01 – The Summit Night – 10pm until 6am – 4,800m to 5,700m
At 10pm, we got a wake-up call at School Hut where we had ‘slept’ for a bit. I had already put for my nap some of the layers on that I was going to wear in the night, so I just had to add some more layers. After a chat with our guide Antipas in the arvo, I decided for 4 layers for the pants, simply because it felt impossible to move or breathe with 5! So I dropped the hiking pant and put on the thicker leggings, the thin merino leggings, the thick comfy and warm fleece pant and the rain pant. For the top, I had 6 layers. Merino bra, merino shirt, light fleece long sleeve (as I had forgotten a merino long sleeves and the rental in Moshi didn’t rent any merino), thick warm and comfy fleece, light and warm down jacket, rain jacket and on top of all this my snowboarding warm and oldish large loose jacket with lots of pockets (to put all the snacks in! :-)). Ok I couldn’t close it with anything in the pockets actually so had to remove all the snacks and put those snacks in the bag.
Then I packed the dry bag and sleeping bag so the porters could pick all up and undo the tents easily in the morning and got out of the tent and went to the dining tent. It was snowing outside!!! We all finished getting ready in the dining tent in a quite frantic manner.
Then we started the Summit night hike, all together at 11.30pm. Antipas in front, then he asked for the girls to be next, so Martha then Annie then me, then Matt then Scott then the assistant guides Juma and Nesto and Summit Night Assistant Guide Dixon.
I had bet 10 dollars to Antipas that I would still want to stop and take photos during the night. Of the sky, of the beautiful reflection of the torches on the snow, of the lights of the Tanzanian towns in the plains, of us walking, of the long line of hikers walking towards the top. I had in mind the Summit Night at Huayna Potosi during which I really enjoyed taking photos. Kilimanjaro Summit Night was none of that!
First of all, it was snowing! Which meant I did NOT want to take photos at all! Second, there was no Tanzanian lights in the plains to be seen. And there were only the nine of us walking, not hundreds of people like I had thought we would have seen. And finally, Antipas had set the walking rythm and it felt wrong to interrupt it.
At the beginning, I was boiling hot! I had put a special summit night buff with extra thick fleece around my neck and it was too hot. I had on the merino hat AND my peruvian fleece hat on and it was too hot too. I needed to stop to remove the buff and the peruvian hat and only kept the Merino hat on, removing the hood of the fleece also.
During these first three hours, I walked like a zombie but I could keep with the pace. Only thing I concentrated on where the feet of Annie, just following them.
Before to leave Australia, I had caught up with a workmate of mine, Stephanie, who had climbed Kilimanjaro a few months before and given me some awesome tips:
1 – Keep saying ‘ I am enjoying every step. I am enjoying every step…’
2 – Do not think at any moment that it is hard. Put it in your mind that it is easy. By forcing yourself to believe it is easy, you will already remove a weight from your mind.
3 – Think of beautiful moments you had in the past, and go back to them and live them again, take your mind off what you are doing, from the steps you are taking, get your mind to go wander elsewhere.
4 – Try to bring back memories of what makes you laugh and smile.
5 – Imagine your friends and family are walking with you, or standing on each side and cheering you and encouraging you. They know you can do it. They keep telling you to keep going, that they are proud of you and that you can do it.
6 – Think of some nice hikes you did in the past. Visualise the landscape around you the way it was and think that you are back over there again.
7 – One more tip, from Annie this time: Count until 5 steps. And repeat. Again and again.
We walked non-stop from 11.30pm until 2.23am, so for three hours. I had misunderstood Antipas and thought we were to do a short break every hour but that wasn’t the case. Gone my Snack Party Night with different snacks each hour. But we did stop for 10 minutes at 2.23am at what is called Hans Meyer cave where we did share all our snacks with each other so I guess my super Summit Night Snack Party ended up being..those 10 minutes. 🙂 The Hans Meyer Cave lies at 5,150 meters of altitude.
When we resumed walking, I couldn’t keep the pace anymore. Antipas took my daypack and I was only left with my 1 kilo camera bag. Then for the next half-hour, I kept having to stop because my heart was pounding faster than ever, I felt like I was about to have a heart attack, and without willing to, I was hyperventilating, breathing very fast and very noisily with no breaks, 15-20 breaths in a row before it would stop again and I could walk a few more steps until it would start again. Ultimately, Antipas also took the camera away from me and when someone manages to take the camera away from me, then they know that something is wrong, as in other circumstances, I would NEVER let anyone carry my camera for me, no matter what!!!
I hit the wall, the moment where I simply had to slow down in order to keep going. The group got split in two and Nesto, Juma went ahead with the Scott, Matt, Marta and Annie, while I stayed at the back with Antipas and Dixon.
Between 3am and 6.10am, between 5,200m and 5,610m (Gilman’s Point) lies what I would call ‘the hardest physical thing I have done in my life so far’, as many have described the Summit Night of Kilimanjaro. My core body itself wasn’t cold luckily, but it was hard to breathe. I was glad though that we were now going more slowly as I was not hyperventilating anymore. Putting one foot in front of the other was hard, and I kept going very slowly. I kept being bent in two, resting my head on my hiking poles. But the worst for me was the cold in my hands. I thought I was going to get frost bite and I dreaded that a lot. I had put handwarmers in the gloves and had a second pair so I stopped and Antipas took off my external gloves and realised that my liner gloves…were totally wet! Hence why my hands were feeling so painful! Luckily, I had planned a second pair of liners, thinner but still great and so I swapped for these and Antipas activated the new pair of handwarmers. My external gloves were wet too inside though, so my hands were still painful, the most painful I have ever felt them. This is the one thing I would change if I had to do the Summit Night again, the gloves. Get proper snowboarding gloves, which can still be used with your trekking poles, even if they are thicker. And 2 pair of liners. Or two pairs of snowboarding gloves and three pairs of liners? After such a painful experience, I would want my bag to be filled with super warm gloves of any kind! 😀
How can one imagine what it is to hike the Summit Night? My best reference could be the Forbes Steps in the Blue Mountains maybe. Go there in June, July, or August, during the coldest night possible. During the day, hike for 3 hours up and down on the steps. Then have lunch and then a rest then dinner at 5.30pm then a rest until 10pm. Wake up at 10pm and go hike on the stairs again non-stop until 6am. Now, imagine that it is not 5 or 0 degrees like it would probably be, but rather -20 degrees. Do the hike with an altitude mask on, on level 4 for the entire hike. From 10pm to 6am. Non-stop. You might get close to the physical exhaustion you get on Summit Night, and I am talking here only about the walk to the top. Because after the top…you still have to bloody get down!
And so I kept going. And not because of mental strength, as my mind really had enough! By that stage, none of the tips worked anymore sadly!!! I was exhausted. At that time, I kept going only because my legs were strong. One step at a time. I thanked myself for the training I did for 9 weeks before to start the hike. The running once or twice a week and cycling and swimming twice a week, the week-ends hiking away, the stairs up and down and up and down, any stairs, every day for 1-2 hours, all the time, as many as possible. Those thousands and thousands of stairs I walked up and down during 9 weeks, in particular during the three week-ends I kept hiking up and down stairs in the Blue Mountains, near Katoomba, are what made my legs strong and what made me continue on that night. And of course, the proper acclimatisation we had done the past 7 days made it much easier, as having spent 7 days acclimatising really helps compared to 5 or 6 days only. It makes a huge difference!
Antipas was trying to encourage me by saying: ‘Look, look over there towards the summit..Soon the sun will be rising, the cold will be over. Keep going!’ So I kept going.
There is also one more aspect to this specific hike of the Northern Circuit: Going back would not have been fun. Because first of all, it would have required going down this steep snowy frosty path but also it meant going through the Rongai road down and straight back to Moshi, contrarily to the Marangu and Mashame routes where it is fine to turn back as the road up is almost the same one as the road down. So for that reason too, I just simply had no choice but to continue going up, unless I had had a serious life-threatening altitude sickness which would have forced me to go down. So this was it, I just had to keep going! And I have to admit…at some point, turning back looks soooo enticing. You wonder: ‘What the hell am I doing here? What for??’ and the idea of turning back becomes sooooo nice. Who knows? If I had been on another route, I would probably have given up and turned back! After all, I had no idea yet how beautiful the top was.
But then…Then we finally got to Gilman’s Point!
Just before sunrise!
Part #02 – The Summit Sunrise – 6am until 9am – 5,700m to 5,900m (ok almost)
Whoohoo! So here we were. 6.10am. Gilman’s Point. At 5,685m high. It woke me up. I first had to go through a very painful 20-minute session during which the blood was coming back to my hands and I experienced a pain I had not experienced since I was a kid coming back from school and going from the outside cold to the warmth of the house.
It really doesn’t help to have Raynaud syndrome, for sure!
I had to give a crash photography course to Antipas as I couldn’t take any photos until my hands came back to life but it was during that time that the colours were beautiful and the sun was rising. What an ironic thing, to be standing in one of the most beautiful place in the world at sunrise and not being able to use one’s hands to take pictures!! Luckily, the hands came back, the sun kept rising and I now felt fully awake and good and very excited about what lied in front of me. I told Antipas: ‘Hey Antipas, I don’t think I wanna stop at Stella Point actually, I wanna go all the way to Uhuru Peak, is that ok?’ He shrugged his shoulders and said ‘Alright!’.
By that time, I had taken possession of my camera again and could carry it.
The battery was dead by the time we arrived at Gilman’s Point by the way. We had to change it immediately. I had planned that and had 3 spare ones fully charged and put aside just for that night.
Here as the pics taken at Gilman’s Point at sunrise. We stayed there for a good 30 minutes between 6am and 6.30am. I was actually very very happy to NOT make it for sunrise to Uhuru Peak. Why would you want to even do that? The beauty starts at Gilman’s Point. You wanna be able to see those landscapes in the early morning light rather than miss out on them. What an idea. So it turned out that getting to Gilman’s Point for sunrise was perfect! 😀
We walked from Gilman’s Point (5,685m) to Stella Point (5,756m) and I really enjoyed that part. It wasn’t steep at all! There was light! The scenery was stunning! What a beautiful morning sunrise walk to do. At that moment, I did feel like I was doing ‘just a gentle tourist stroll up the hill’ as one friend had described to me what he thought of the Kilimanjaro Summit Night. Hahaha. Yes, for me that part and then going to Uhuru Peak was literally a piece of cake. I had not burnt out all my energy yet, probably because I had gone very slowly and kept going very slowly. So for me, the hardest was between School Hut and Gilman’s Point, especially the second half of the night. But not after.
We saw these gorgeous stalactites on the way between Gilman’s Point and Stella Point.
Then we saw these white barriers / gates on the left hand-side, and I asked Antipas what they were for. He said that they had been built to prevent the ice blocks from falling down on people when they were melting but when I looked on the side from which ice blocks could fall, I couldn’t see any. Was it possibly that they were all gone? When had these barriers been erected? I can’t seem to find information on internet about them?!
Then we arrived at Stella Point, which was really not far from Gilman’s Point. We were there at 7.15 am. We bumped into the rest of the group which was just coming back from Uhuru Peak and were about to descend. Matt wanted to come with us to Uhuru Peak, for a second round, but Antipas did not allow it. He said it was dangerous and very tiring for anyone to spend too much time at this altitude, especially as there was still the descent to do afterwards.
Dixon stayed near Stella Point in a corner protected from the wind and Antipas and I went to Uhuru Peak with just my small day pack on his shoulders to have some water handy if needed. I immensely enjoyed this part of the hike. The landscape was incredibly beautiful, there were very few people, the sun was shining, I wasn’t cold, my hands were fine, I was awake and sucking it all in. I had no headache and no issue with altitude sickness, thanks to that long acclimatisation. It was heaven. It is funny because when reading books, blogs, listening to podcasts about that last bit, I had imagined a very steep hill for those last 200 meters of altitude, with tons of people on it, with everyone puking on the side or ‘going to the toilets’ in view of everyone because they could not handle it anymore. But no, there was none of that. The path was not that steep, it was a really gentle incline, there were not that many people, and the people who were there were just walking slowly but looked alright. Except one guy framed by two porters who was walking down, who seemed to be totally zombie-walking and about to faint, he didn’t look as he was feeling good.
Here was the beginning of the walk from Stella Point to Uhuru Peak. I am sure there are way less glaciers than there used to be in the past, but it was still great to see these ones standing there. Fingers crossed they don’t melt too fast.
When we saw Uhuru Peak getting closer, I remember telling Antipas: ‘Hey, can we slow down? I actually want to appreciate every single step going there, because before we know it, we will be at the top, and then what? Mission accomplished! We will be going down! I just want to go slow. 🙂 ‘ And so we did. Not that I was fast or anything anyway. But even slower. It was nice. Appreciating every single last step. (and no, I didn’t count them. 🙂 ) But then after 5 minutes I was: ‘Hey, but Antipas, is there a risk that if we go too slow we reach the ‘maximum time allowed at this altitude’ and get into the ‘red zone’ in which we could maybe die? But he said ‘No, because we are below 6,000 meters, so it is fine at this pace. You wouldn’t stay 12 hours here at this altitude but right now it is ok.’ Alright then…Phew.
And towards the summit we walked and walked, pole pole, one step at a time, not because it was hard but to appreciate every single step and the fact of getting closer, and closer we got, and before we knew it, we were at the summit, at 8.20am.
It felt good been there!! And now, I can say too ‘I MADE IT!!!’ Whoooohoooooo! 🙂
Alright, alright, I would still make a point that when you have a crew of porters and guides and assistant guides to help you and you go to the summit without even carrying your day pack…it helps. Just saying. Plus, tons of people make it every day. Still…it was a good feeling. And I was really thankful we had taken the time, and spent 7 bloody days acclimatising. I could not repeat enough how important it is for your body to acclimatise!
But then behind that sign, I spotted something a bit further away, which was very enticing. Antipas, isn’t that the real summit over there? Should we walk to there too? Nope he said, that’s just a meteorological station there. We can’t go there.
At that moment, I was feeling so good, that honestly, if they could add some lighthouse or some tower at the summit with some stairs (ohh, staaaaiiiirssss…) to climb to go let’s say 500 meters higher, like 6,500 meters high? Well, I would be totally ready for that!!! Hint, hint, how about…someone builds that tower there? Imagine the viewpoint! We could even look from that tower into the crater!! Even just 50-100 meters high tower? Yeah… Now, that’s an idea here. Was I going nuts with the altitude? Maybe. But it is sad that that tower isn’t there yet. Could be really great!!
Near the summit, was written this extract of Julius Nerere’s speech of 22nd October 1959: “We, the people of Tanganyika, would like to light a candle and put it on the top of Mount Kilimanjaro which would shine beyond our borders giving hope where there was despair, love where there was hate and dignity where there was before only humiliation.”
Julius Nerere can be considered the Mandela of Tanzania. Nyerere made that speech two years before Tanzania got its independence, at a time when only 9 African countries had gained their independence. He was to become an iconic figure and unite the sovereign states of Tanganyika and Zanzibar into the United Republic of Tanzania. Tanganyika became independent on 9th December 1961 and Nerere became its president a year later, elected with 96% of the votes.
You can learn more about Nyerere here:
The view of the surroundings from the summit was sooooo stunning! Somewhere over there is the crater. Of course, if we could climb the stairs of my imaginery new tower, we would be able to see it better, but alright, I get it, we can’t go higher.
This view towards the valley is one of my favourite shots:
Then the walk down back to Stella Point again gave us some different perspectives on the surroundings:
We arrived back at Stella Point around 9am and then started the descent.
Part #03 – The Summit Descent – 9am until 2.30pm
The Summit Descent was steep and the landscape was really arid. I was really happy to have my trekking poles with me. Please do bring your trekking poles, really. And learn to use them also, before you come. Do not underestimate the value they will bring you. They will save your knees, no matter how old you are. When ascending, trekking poles are used to push on them to help your entire body lift up, you kind of plant them with your arms half bent and press on them with your entire hand held with the thumb up and go on. When you descend though, you use them in an entirely different way. You throw them in the air forward and let them land and then push with your palm, then the top of your hand is facing up with your thumb on the side and you heavily rely on them by putting all your weight on your hands, to take off the weight from your knees in the next step you take. The entire concept of the trekking poles is really to do whatever you can to take weight of your knees. And in a descent like this one, which is brutally straight down, rather than gently winding with a small decline, considered you go down 2,000 meters (from 5,895m down to 3,800m), well, you really really want to preserve your knees.
The beauty was definitely not in the landscape but in the clouds. I saw that morning the most insane clouds movements I have ever seen! It offered a great distraction from the dry boring land surroundings.
Here is a video with Mawenzi on the left and the immensity of clouds:
We arrived at Barafu Camp around 12.30pm, went through it and kept going down.
We finally arrived at the High Camp campground around 2.30pm, at a time where it was totally surrounded by fog. I crawled to the tent indicated to me, and lied down there without moving at all…for the next 20 minutes. I had reached the moment where my energy had totally collapsed. That’s the thing with that Kilimanjaro Summit special night, it is not just about the night and about ascending, it is also about DESCENDING!!! Arrrghh! Twenty minutes later, Peter, our waiter porter came to bring me an unexpected and very welcomed lunch and some tea. After that, I managed to remove the gaiters and shoes and some layers and crawl into the sleeping bag and nap..until dinner time! Woke up and the mattress was a third up the tent, hahahaha, definitely a camp where your tent is on a slope!
Part #04 – Conclusion
What a crazy night and day!!!!! But what an amazing landscape we saw over there…Oh those glaciers! Those snowy frosty valleys! That sunrise above the clouds! Those stalactites! I had not seen photos of what was out there and if I had, it would definitely have been my motivation to make it there. So please, yes, keep looking at those photos. Print them, go for it, I don’t mind! Look at them every day while you are training and keep going up and down stairs and hiking to make your legs as strong as possible! BECAUSE those glaciers and that stunning landscape is the reason and motivation of why you should keep going that night, one step at a time, one step at a time and just one more and again. Why didn’t anyone tell me that, uh??
After dinner, we had a Farewell Moment with the porters where we gave them the envelop of tips, a rate which is standard among all agencies, 5 dollars per day per porter, 12 dollars per day per cook / assistant porter / camp manager, and 20 dollars per day for our guide Antipas. One of the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project’s requirement for agencies certified by KPAP is that the tips are distributed by the tourists transparently directly to the porters themselves, rather than given to the guide for them to give to them. This is because guides in situations like this have been known in some occasions to keep the tips for themselves! While I do not believe that Antipas would do that, the best for sure is for the distribution to be transparent like this. We had brought many envelops, although not enough, and had 5 envelops containing each 180 dollars in 20 dollar-notes for 4 porters as we didn’t always have fivers, then one envelop for Antipas, one for each assistant guide and one for the cook and one for the camp manager. Bring lots of envelops and lots of small notes such as twenties and fivers, that will help reduce the headache when preparing the tips before to go on the hike!
Next day, wake up call at 4.30am (that late???…piece of cake! 🙂 ) to walk down to the entrance!
Last day on the Kilimanjaro!!