After 40 hours of travel . . . I am home.
On Tuesday morning, September 2nd, at 7:10 AM, I watched the sun rise from the rooftop of Africa.
After trekking for 22 miles up the slopes of Kilimanjaro the team I was climbing with reached Kibo Hut (the base camp for our final ascent) at just over 15,000 feet. Already we had crossed through four dramatically differing types of terrain from rain forrest to arrid dessert. And always it was up–forever up and up and up. Each day brought cooler temperatures and less vegetation until we arrived at Kibo where we stayed continually bundled in the terrible beauty of the shadow of the mountain.
On what was to become the most physically challenging day of my life (Monday, September 1st), we began our climb from 12,500 feet at 8:30 AM. We hiked for seven hours before finally reaching our final resting point before our attempt at summitting. Each slow step brought us closer to the base of the final peak. As the mountain loomed ever more monstrous, each of us was lost in our own thoughts . . . “What in the world were we thinking?”
Four of our team had already experienced varying levels of altitude sickness. Two had spent sleepless nights vomiting and squatting with diarrhea. Shattering headaches were common occurences. My climbing companion, Tom, and I were never sick.
At 4 on Monday afternoon, at 15,500 feet, we received our final briefing from our amazing guides, Fredde and Ellee. We would be served a high carb dinner in a short while. We were to then pack our gear and be ready to break camp. After dinner we were instructed to try and sleep–which none of us was able to do–and we would be awakened at 11 PM to begin our ascent.
The sleepless hours in our sub-zero sleeping bags seemed endless. Finally, our guides came to us. They encouraged us to wear every warm piece of clothing we could put on. Our water supply had to be carried inside our parkas to prevent it from freezing solid. Another of our team was vomiting and in danger of his adventure being finished.
At midnight we moved into a straight line and began our climb. In the dim light of our headlamps we followed one another up the mountain. It was simply one foot in front of the other, pole, pole (slowly, slowly). The only way I can describe the first several hours of the climb is to compare it to walking up a never ending flight of stairs covered in six inches of sand (volcanic scree). At 16,000 feet, with depleted oxygen, we were all sucking wind.
At 2:30 AM we stopped for a brief break at Hasselman’s Cave. The cave turns out to be a rocky overhang that provides little more than a small respite from the ever-increasing wind. Several of our team are stripping their boots from their feet to insert chemical warmers into the toe of their socks. (Our guides had instructed us not to use the warmers at base camp because our feet would sweat and then freeze on the mountain.) I said to Ellee, “Ellee, I can’t feel my feet. Should I put in the warmers?” Ellee asks, “You can’t feel your feet?” “No.” “Then why bother?” And up the mountain we continued.
We had been told that most climbers who do not reach the summit quit between 3 and 5 AM. During this time the winds are whipping, the cold is blistering, your legs are burning and, for many, altitude sickness is becoming a serious problem.
We continue up and up and up through rocks that range in size from basketballs to refrigerators. Every once in awhile I look off to the side and realize that one false step and I am going down and down and down. Two of our team are now puking their guts out every fifty steps. I don’t know how they keep going. I am thinking to myself, “I can do this. Please God, don’t let me get sick.” I ask, “Tom, are you okay?” “Yeah,” he responds, “I’m fine. You?” “It’s all good,” I reply.
At 5 AM I see the first star in the sky over the crest of the volcanic rim. “I can do this.”
I can no longer feel my thumbs. The terrain is much more rugged. We are no longer snaking our way up the mountain. It is now a vertical ascent up the rocks. One of our team collapses. We try to be encouraging but we wonder if it might be best for him to make a rapid descent?
I am listening to worship songs on my Ipod. I saved it for this final ascent because we had been warned that batteries die very quickly in extreme cold. I’m sucking water from my Camelback backpack and blowing it back out of the hose so that is doesn’t freeze. There is ice on my parka. I am on the mountain with God.
At 5:30 Ellee says to me, “Pastor, we are almost there. For the children. For the children.” Tom and I had decided to use the climb to raise financial resources for children in Tanzania who have been orphaned as a result of the AIDS pandemic. We each had partners who were sponsoring us as we climbed. Every single step we took resulted in three more dollars of care.
At 5:45 AM we reach Gilmans Point. At 18,000 feet, Gilmans is considered the first summit of Kilimanjaro and is most often the end of the climb for those who have made it this far. By all standards we had now reached the rooftop of Africa.
The sky began to lighten and I began to weep. Tears are streaming down my face and I’m trying to wipe them off before they freeze. Even though we have reached this first summit we are still not at the highest point of the mountain. All nine of us arrived together. Surely the two who are most severely ill must now descend?
Ellee explains, “You have done the hardest part. All of you congratulations! We must hurry to Uhuru Peak. We cannot stay long at this altitude.” Someone asks, “How much longer?” “An hour and a half. But it is a gradual climb. Not like what we have just done.” He lied.
We start to climb once again. All nine of us. I tell Tom to stop and turn around. We watch as the sun for the first time that day sears the sky of Africa. Words cannot describe . . . To my right is the massive volcanic crater. To my left is a glistening wall of ice. We continue up and up and up.
After thirty minutes I stop. I tell Tom that I have nothing left. At 18,500 feet it is difficult simply to breathe. I put my weight on my trekking poles and hang my head. Ellee shouts at me, “Pastor, keep moving! For the children.”
15 minutes later we can see Uhuru Peak. Only 15% of those who attempt to climb Kili reach Uhuru–the highest point on the mountain. One of our team is off to the side, doubled over, dry-heaving.
“Tom, are you okay?” “I’m fine. You?” “Yeah.” I smile. We’re going to do this.
One of our team members now has a sherpa under each arm carrying him towards Uhuru. Another is being pulled up the summit by a guide. Tom moves out in front to photograph our final ascent.
At 7:10 AM all nine of us attain the final summit of Kilimanjaro. Uhuru Peak at 19,400 feet.
There is little time for celebration. A few quick pictures. Encouraging words. Vistas that will forever be in my mind. I laugh with Tom. $45,000 dollars has been raised for the children . . .
We cannot stay long at this altitude. Quickly we begin our descent. In the daylight we can see where we climbed in the dark. I realize that it is more treacherous than I even want to think about. Three hours later we are at Kibo base camp. We are given two hours to rest and pack all of our gear. We must descend to at lease 12,500 feet. Four hours later we arrive at Horombo Camp where we will spend the night.