It felt somewhat surreal to be waking up on Mt. Kilimanjaro on New Year’s Eve (December 31st, 2015). A part of me wished I was back home, and another part of me wished that my friends and family were here with me. It was pretty cold this morning as I stepped out of my tent and greeted my fellow trekkers who were up as early as I was. I had wanted to make the most of the morning daylight and charge up my solar powered battery pack — and I was just not feeling sleepy.
After so many days on Kilimanjaro, it was odd to become to familiar with stepping out of my tent every day to see the summit — getting closer and closer. Today we would be hiking a short distance of about 4km to Barafu camp — also known as summit base camp for the mountain. Apparently, there is no water up at Barafu camp so the porters help carry water for us all. I’m feeling extremely grateful for all their help at this point — let alone what they had already done for us over the past 5 days.
This would also be a very long day for us because we’d be going to sleep after a much earlier dinner and then waking up near 11pm to begin our summit hike.
Waking up to the cold fact that we were getting much closer to the summit.
A porter sets off towards the summit base camp (Barafu) early in the morning.
While eating breakfast and pre-arranging my backpack for tonight — many porters had set off earlier towards Barafu camp. It was pretty amazing to see the long stream of hikers against the backdrop of the summit of Kilimanjaro. Being out here truly reshapes your perspective of the world.
Despite the fact that it was only a 4km hike to Barafu, it would end up feeling like a very long haul uphill.
I couldn’t really visualize how many people would be on Kilimanjaro for New Years Day until this part of the trail. All the different routes and the people hiking on them would not only converge at Barranco camp — but also be hiking on this very route towards Barafu camp. I had thoughtBarranco camp was bad in terms of traffic and temporary population — well, Barafu camp would be quite the surprise but I’ll touch on that later.
Packing up and getting ready for a very long day and night. The long train of hikers and porters ahead of us.
The long trail ahead of us.
Despite the traffic on the trail, everyone was moving pretty smoothly. It was a long slog up from Karanga camp where we had stayed last night but the trail with the exception of a couple of points were pretty straight forward and had no tricky footwork requirements. To see the arid and stark alpine desert was quite the experience — we were so far up in altitude that there was practically nothing on this part of the mountain. There is pretty much no flora here, just some lichen on some rocks and even that is pretty rare to see. It was nonetheless a beautiful sight to trek through.
By the time we crossed this alpine desert valley and hauled ourselves up to Barafu camp — we were all really feeling the altitude. I hadn’t been feeling the altitude much other than some lightheadedness now and then but even at this point — I was now feeling weakened and breathing heavily. I had hoped we’d be better acclimatized.
From a distance, it looks like a pilgrimage of tiny people slowly making their way down and up the valley towards Barafu camp, which is just over the visible area at the top of the valley. Silent and tired. Waiting in line for registration in a very busy area. A porter reading a book on his own amidst the clouds. A beautiful sight but also a very inconvenient location for answering nature’s call.
The arrival at Barafu camp was both crazy and amazing. Never have I encountered so many people on a mountain before — and camping too. As we lined up for registration at the ranger’s office, I spotted people looking dispirited, tired, and worn out. I hoped that they were just returning feeling tired rather than folks just like us who had just arrived into camp. Most of us seemed okay but were pretty tired from the climb up to Barafu and so many of us spoke very little. Our guides were amazing as usual and acquired us a bench for all of us to sit down on. We were relieved to have a place to rest — even for a moment and everyone smiled … even those who were really feeling the altitude.
Now as much as being in Barafu summit base camp is exciting — it is actually more of a pain. It is practically like trekking through a metropolis with different districts of tent sites. We groaned as we had to continue hiking from the ranger’s office back the path we came from and back down to a less central area where our porters set up camp for us. The important thing to understand about Barafu camp is that there are very few flat areas available for camping and rocks are everywhere. It becomes a matter of fitting tents wherever possible — the porters are practically geniuses in my eyes because they have to work this out while keeping everyone together in the vicinity.
We initially eat lunch and then spend the remainder of our time in camp resting, preparing our layers for the overnight hike and drinking water before enjoying a very early dinner. I notice some porters reading in the distance and wonder what they are reading. I’ve seen some reading the bible while others are reading English primers. While watching them, I take the opportunity to rest my legs and feet while charging my headlamp with the solar powered battery pack.
I’m confident that most people — if asked their favourite moment on Kilimanjaro — will indicate the time of summiting the mountain. I would say mine is the moment we finished our early dinner and stepped out of the tent to see one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve encountered. One that I’m sure I will rarely ever have the opportunity to see; and that is to see it above the clouds from my tent. At this point, we’re told to prepare all our layers and wear them before set off for the summit tonight. I have about 5 top layers and 3 bottom layers.
This is it. One of my favourite moments. Sunset on Kilimanjaro while camping above the clouds.
One doesn’t really begin to appreciate the logistics of a metropolis of a mountain until you need to answer nature’s call (use the bathroom) or need to navigate your way around to the mess tent. This is on the top of the fact that the toilet latrines are on the other side of this rock face. Here is where I’d recommend (for convenience sake) to have chemical toilets at your camp site. I’ll explain why:
There is no straight vector line towards your destination. You must find the right path that leads you safely to where you need to go. Now, imagine eliminating daylight — you are now left with a headlamp and unfamiliar rugged and steep terrain that you need to step up or down (from or to). This is where it got tricky. Fortunately the areas were so packed with tents that I navigated my way by knowing which tents to pass by. There were times when I wasn’t sure if my headlamp was beaming into pitch black darkness because it was a cliff side so I just carefully followed the ground and tried to identify foot paths that had been created ahead of me.
Because I am feeling lazy at this point, I don’t even bother opening up my sleeping bag. I just put on all the layers in preparation for tonight’s hike and lay down on my sleeping mat. I think I got a little bit of sleep but it was hard to get to sleep so early (an I was already on a early schedule!).
By 10:30pm, we were back in the mess tent gearing up, and having a snack with tea.
By 11:00pm we were out heading up the trail to the summit. It was funny hiking in the dark — besides seeing the feet of the person in front of me — I just saw a long stream of glowing headlamps moving slowly all the way up to the summit. The porters joke that this makes Kilimanjaro look like a Christmas tree. I had never thought about it that way but I loved the thought!
January 1st, 2016 – Happy New Year!
As we are moving slowly up the switchbacks that take us gradually up the rim, midnight arrives and the entire mountain erupts in cheer and song. Above and below us on the trail as well as at the various camp sites, the guides, porters, and probably hikers who weren’t summitting were singing and shouting. Though I was extremely tired and under the effects of altitude — it was amazing to experience this in person and something I can never forget. I felt rejuvenated and energized despite the fact that I had hours of trekking ahead of me for the night.
It is hard to recall all the details of the night (not that there are many). I found myself questioning whether it was safe for me to continue the summit hike. For every step I took, I forced myself to inhale and exhale faster — I could feel that my body wanted more oxygen. I also felt really lightheaded at times and I was concerned about my sense of balance. When I brought this up with the mountain guides, they nodded and simply said, “don’t worry, that’s normal.” So I kept going.
We’d stop for breaks and I felt like taking a nap at every one of them. I felt so tired that I couldn’t even open my water bottle but fortunately the guides helped me out. I looked at everyone else and saw that I wasn’t alone — we were all struggling with the altitude — some more than others. I didn’t know if I could make it and I wondered if I would make it but eventually I got so tired that I was purely dedicating my energy to following the person in front of me and not slipping anywhere.
Every so often our guides would start singing a local song and I loved those moments. It drew my attention away from everything. I knew at that point that the comment our guides made earlier was true. Physically — we could do it, but at this altitude it isn’t about the physical aspect anymore but the psychological driver inside us. I set aside my thoughts around failure and focused purely on moving one step at a time. I don’t know how long it took us but eventually we made it to Stella Point. We had overcome the rim and the crazy number of switchbacks that took us all night to climb.
After a very long struggle, we make it to Stella Point. End of the tiresome switchbacks. We cheered and hugged for it was a momentous occasion from each of us individually. The sun is just beginning to light up the horizon. It is an amazing moment, until we realize we need to keep hiking further.
I was so happy to have arrived at Stella Point, I just wanted to take some photographs with the sign but my camera didn’t seem to be cooperating — the wasn’t enough light, even with the flash on. My guide tried to take some photographs of me with the sign but it just didn’t work. I was too tired to curse but I did get some early photos of the light in the horizon.
Just as I thought we had made it, our guide tells us we have to keep moving forward. I prayed that there wouldn’t be more switchbacks and was thankful that there weren’t. At that point, I felt a surge of energy (probably from adrenaline) and found myself trekking faster towards Uhuru Peak, the summit point of Kilimanjaro. We wouldn’t reach the peak in time to watch the sunrise but we enjoyed the sunrise nonetheless hiking on the summit itself. I think at this point, it was approximately 6:30am.
This is it. We’ve reached the top of Kilimanjaro. Our adrenaline is pumping and we’re wide awake despite an all-night hike. The view is spectacular.
The summit was absolutely stunning but also annoying. I actually wasn’t going to take a photograph with the sign — particularly when I saw so many people crowding around the signage trying to get the perfect snapshot — so I was content standing around photographing our surroundings on the summit. Our mountain guides knew what they were doing because they told us immediately to drop our packs and head to the signage — and they figured out a way to take our photos for us. I’m really grateful to them for doing so. I guess they knew we were all too tired to make a fuss over anything but that this would be something important to us in hindsight.
Taking in the view of the glaciers from the summit. I believe this is the Rebmann Glacier but I could be wrong. Another view of the glacier. I was too tired to do so but if I could, I’d have walked over to touch it.
After I had my photos taken with the signage, I had to just stand there and take in everything around me. It was all so majestic. The morning light, the glaciers, the rim of the crater and the shadows that were cast across the summit. I wish I had the energy to touch one of those glaciers but I was much too tired for that.
Instead, one of the porters who also served as a guide on summit night helped take some photographs of me with the glaciers. What a way to spend the morning of New Years 2016.
Returning back the way we came. None of this would have been possible without our amazing guides and porters who supported us all the way. Thank you Fred!
After spending about 20 to 30 minutes on the summit, our guides led us down from the summit and back towards our camp in Barafu. I guess they knew that staying up here too long would have implications — which it did. As we made our way back, I was feeling really nauseous and unwell — the only solution to this was to descend faster and so I did.
I didn’t take any photographs (nor did I feel like it by that point) but the descent was quite an experience in itself. Descents normally concern me because of my sense of balance and knees but this was actually okay. I initially thought that we’d be going back the same way we came via the switchbacks but the route was actually very different. The entire way down is like stepping on rock scree (loose gravel and sand). It takes a little getting used to — but once familiar, it is like skiing down all the way down with trekking poles. I thought it was a lot of fun — despite wiping out a couple of times.
The rock scree doesn’t last forever and eventually we make our way on to a sandy path that takes us through another part of Kilimanjaro. We get to see other parts of Barafu camp and it is seriously like a metropolis with some wild terrain to hike through. Along the way, we are met by our porters who greet us with cheer and smiles — congratulating us and treating us to some refreshing juice. A few of them offer to even take our packs for us to relieve us of our loads. As we trek through Barafu camp (it is a long way), I chat with some of the guides and porters, I had the opportunity to learn about their favourite routes and other areas that are interesting to hike. We soon find that our camp has moved further down the mountain and my tent is funnily enough, lodged between a number of rocks. I guess that is some good security from the wind! We all retire into our tents, clean up and take a nap while waiting for others in the group to return.
As much as our guides wanted everyone to stay together — some people were more affected by the altitude than others so it took them longer. I am pleased that everyone managed to summit despite all the obstacles and hurdles we were confronted with. A couple in my group even got engaged on the mountain — how exciting!
Once everyone returned and we had brunch — we recuperated for a bit before setting off for Millennium Camp. Everyone was in good spirits (albeit, tired) and prepared to descend the mountain from Barafu. Normally, many groups descend to Mweka camp but given time, distance, and the tired state of the group — the guides agreed that it wasn’t a good idea and that it’d be a better option to stay at a closer camp despite the fact that we’d have a longer hike on our last day. True to the weather on Kilimanjaro, the clouds set in and it rained on us as we made our way to our next campsite. What was really surprising was that it poured!
At that point, I didn’t care anymore. Hey, at least we had accomplished what we set out to do.
Check out the final day 8!