“Jam-boooooh”, Jammmmm-booooo”, Kambona, the camp cook called softly…the sound of that gentle, Swahili greeting penetrated the cold, the dark, and the tent all at once. I realized I was awake, and shivering in the sleeping bag. “Karibu”, I replied-“you are welcome, please come in”- and in an instant Kambona is kneeling at the entrance of the tent holding a small tray, upon which sits a cup of steaming, hot water and a small bowl of ugali. It's no mean feat to boil water and prepare hot food, on a mountainside at 15,000 feet. As he hands me the tray I smile, say, “asante' sana”-thank you very much- and nod my head vigorously, in a manner which I hope conveys the full extent of my gratitude.
This had become our customary routine each morning for the last 5 days as we ascended higher and higher up the challenging terrain. Each morning seemed harder than the next to rise from, but always, Kambona was there to lure me out of the tent with some moto maji-hot water- and ugali, that east African staple, sort of a cornmeal porridge, I'd grown rather fond of. Since his English was better than my Swahili, we mostly conversed in English, but I would try to use whatever Swahili I could. “Tonight, you will summit” he said, and instinctively, both of us gazed upward, in the direction of Kibo, though it was invisible in the darkness. “It will be hard-you are small, but you are tough, I know you will make it”. I had my doubts, but I nodded in agreement as I contemplated what lay ahead. “Ndio”-yes, I mumbled, “ndio”. It was nearly impossible to guess how old Kambona was, since he, like the majority of Tanzanians, seemed infinitely youthful. The only evidence of age that belied his muscular frame was the touch of gray beginning to show in his hair. He read my doubt, so to encourage me, he said, with a laugh and a huge smile of perfect teeth, you are “kitcha mzungu”-“crazy white person”, so of course you will make it! I will greet you in camp when you come down from the top”. I laughed along with him and just kept repeating “kitcha…ndio… kitcha”.
There was still over 4000 feet of elevation between where we are standing and Kibo, the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. We would hike at midnight, in order to reach Kibo in time to be there to greet the sun; welcome it, as it rises up from beneath the clouds that will then be below us. It's only 18 degrees Fahrenheit, and the temperature will continue to drop as we climb through the night. I am determined to make it to the top and I focus my thoughts on the notion of sunrise. I resign myself to the fact that the next 6 or 7 hours will probably be miserable, exhausting, or even dangerous. I tell myself that the only way out is up. I'm so afraid of heights; it occurs to me that I'm actually grateful for the darkness because I can't see past the edges of the cliffs we'll be ascending. As I add on the layers I'll need to stay warm, I prepare mentally by centering my entire self on one thing.
“No matter what happens”, I tell myself, “keep moving until sunrise”. By the time the sun comes up, the hardest part will be over” I repeated it over and over to myself until it seemed that the sunrise, rather than the summit, had become my destination.
Shortly after midnight, it began to snow while some of the other climbers departed Barafu camp. We left a few minutes later. There were several groups of climbers attempting to summit this night so we staggered our departures to allow for safe spacing. When I found out a few days later that Barafu meant “ice” in Swahili, I just shook my head and laughed. Didn’t need a dictionary for that one!
The terrain did not require ropes, ice picks, crampons or other more technical gear that you'd find on a climb of something like Everest. It was however, quite challenging just to stay upright on the steep, rocky slope that was rapidly becoming snow covered. Our headlamps created a little snow swirling, bubble of light, about 10 feet in diameter all around us. That's as far as we could see side to side or to the front. I didn't look back or down. I kept reminding myself that the only way out was up. There were many steps, rocky outcroppings really, that created obstacles for me. Because I am short, I found myself having to use my hands to clamber or scramble up some of these outcroppings, while the taller folks just took what looked like giant steps from rock to rock. I think all the extra effort helped to keep me warm. In fact, I have no memory of actually feeling cold the entire night.
I can't recall how long we'd been walking when we paused to rest for a few moments; I looked up, tilted my head way back, and saw what I thought were stars. But these stars were moving, ever so slowly, steadily. And then my altitude addled brain remembered it was snowing, and that there's no way I could be seeing stars so I thought I might be hallucinating until I realized it was the headlamps of the climbers ahead of us. “Holy crap”, I thought, they are practically overhead; the pitch was THAT steep. “Holy crap”, I gasped, again. I thought it was because I was shocked, then I realized that it had suddenly gotten a lot harder to breathe. For days, I had worked very deliberately to stave off the effects of altitude sickness. “Pole' pole'”-which rhymes with and means, “slowly slowly”, the guides and porters admonished us, even at the lower altitudes. Climb slowly, drink lots and lots of water, was the refrain constantly heard on the mountain. I realized that I hadn't been drinking enough and that I was beginning to feel the altitude more acutely. I crunched the ice that was forming on the mouthpiece of the drinking tube and immediately sucked down, huge gulps of water from my camelback. I made a mental note to drink every few minutes whether I was thirsty or not. Pretty soon, or so it seemed, I had to pee, thanks to my renewed efforts at staying hydrated. I really couldn't say how long I'd been moving because I had no idea what time it was. No watch, no sun, moon or stars in the sky…no frame of reference at all. I called out to the guide, to let him know I was going to stop for a moment to take care of business. He pointed to the wall of rock to my left and said “There! Do it right there”! Then, he looked away. I realized he was telling me in just so many words, not to step off the trail. As I removed my bulky mittens momentarily so I could free up my hands, it occurred to me how modesty and altitude were inversely proportional. I glanced at my hands and even in the direct beam of my head lamp they seemed dark. I was confused for a moment, “dark” I thought? But I'm kitcha mzungu, the crazy white person, how can my hands be dark? The guide turned back around, took one look, and said “your hands are blue-that's from the altitude”. He eyed me closely, his headlamp nearly blinding me and asked if I felt ok. Suddenly the confusion cleared and I realized that blue meant I was getting hypoxic.
“Ndio, nzuri-good I'm ok, a little tired, not even cold”. My brain was a little fuzzy but that was to be expected. I'd read and reread all the literature about altitude sickness and the rare, but deadly things that could happen; pulmonary or cerebral edema were the biggies. Those killed you pretty quickly if you didn't descend far and fast enough. I wasn't anywhere near that stage of course, but I had to make a concerted effort to keep myself from panicking. “Keep drinking, and no matter what, keep walking”, I told myself, “the sun has to come up at some point”. I was afraid to ask the guide what time it was because I didn't want to hear that all this had transpired during the course of 15 minutes. That would have broken me right there, so I left it as an unknown and was satisfied with that. I knew that each step brought me closer to the next moment, so that was my indication that time was somehow progressing
I perked up for a while as we fell into a rhythm of walking a few steps, sliding back a little, then walking some more. The snow stopped falling at some point and I stopped to pee at least 2 more times along the way. I know bodily functions take some time to process so I was encouraged that a sizeable, though undetermined, chunk of time had passed. Off to the side of the trail I thought I caught a glimpse of something glowing in the snow. I figured it was just a reflection of the headlamp beam, but then there it was again, up ahead. As I got closer I studied it. It looked like a very small television laying there in the snow. “Now where the hell would someone plug one of those in, all the way up here?” I thought. It was on, and there was a picture. It was someone's face; I don't know whose, but they seemed friendly enough, in fact I think they were trying to encourage me to continue on but I couldn't quite hear them. Up ahead there was another little TV. Same face. And then another, and another, lining the trail. It was like some bizarre, finishing chute at a marathon where the crowd gathers to cheer the runners for their final steps. Just then someone reached out from a little television and punched me in the nose. I stood there, shook my head, woke up dazed and I realized I had walked smack into the guide from behind. I hadn't even seen him. My eyes were open but I'd either been asleep on my feet and dreaming or awake and hallucinating. Either way, it was an indication I was close to exhaustion. Again, he looked at me and asked if I was ok.
"Nzuri". I'm good
I was nervous about what had just happened and tried to think of something that would calm me down. I began humming a Norah Jones song that had always had a soothing effect on me. Sunrise, sunrise…looks like morning in your eyes… hmmm hmmm, hmmm hmmm… I didn’t even remember most of the words, but I just kept humming that portion of the verse over and over.
I could hear all the words and music in my head, but all I could do was hum. And walk. And hum. I eventually understood that if I had enough breath to expend humming, I must be doing better and in fact, I was feeling better. The humming was working and… it was getting lighter! A faint seam of light was now visible on the horizon. I kept humming…Sunrise, sunrise… And walking. Sunrise, sunrise… I looked up again and I could now see the outline of the mountain and Stella's Point immediately overhead.
Stella's point indicates that you have ascended to 19,000 ft. in altitude, but more importantly, marks the end of the insanely difficult portion of the climb. If you make it to Stella's point, it's just another 30 minute walk over much easier ground to Uhuru Peak, the official summit of Kilimanjaro, at 19,341 feet. We were almost there and it's getting even lighter and I'm still humming. I know my humming didn't actually cause the sun to rise, but I want to say it seemed as if it helped. I almost felt like running. Now I know I'm going to make it to the top and I feel fantastic.
I did it.
"Nzuri sana"!-Very good!
I wondered how many people have stood atop Stella's Point and shouted, “Stellaaaaaaaa” like Marlon Brando in “A Streetcar Named Desire”. I contemplated doing it, for a while, but decided to keep it as my own private joke.
I'd made it to the top and it was just not that kind of moment.
The view from the top encompassed the vast expanse of the Serengeti. To my left and right were the ice fields, glaciers really. Hemingway's “Snows of Kilimanjaro” were, in actuality, massive glaciers.
Sunrise from Stella's Point was other worldly. The rising sun first appeared below the clouds, causing them to glow an eerie orange, and then punched through them in a blaze of color.