Day 6. 1/5/20. 8:56pm. What does summiting Kilimanjaro feel like?
In this post, I bring you part one of two at the end of a 22-hour day, of which 14 were spent moving.
To summit, I scaled 4k ft from 15k ft to 19k ft over 3.6 miles (5 km) one-way. Amazingly, my heart rate averaged 86 bpm (Zone 1) during this entire workout. Either I did a spectacular job managing my effort or I moved very slowly. Let’s be honest? Both.
My phone camera was two layers too deep for access, and my hands were tied under clumsy ski gloves, so brace yourself and your imagination for the following story.
Summary: It was hard. I’d consider this final summit’s physical exertion level, e.g. drawdown on my legs and cardiovascular system, on par with a hilly 50k run. It certainly lasted longer. What made this hike exceptionally hard was the external environment: the weather was hostile and totally uncontrollable.
In my last post, I left off at me drifting into sleep at 8pm right after a big dinner at Barafu basecamp. No longer than three hours later, I was woken up to the shout of “Time to get out of your comfort zones!” by one of our guides. In the darkness, this call was as encouraging as it was ominous.
Adrenaline snapped my eye lids open. Let’s go!
Donning all my layers, I switched on my headlamp and wandered through pitch black into our mess tent for “breakfast” at 11:30pm. I was still full from dinner and didn’t feel like sloshing porridge into my stomach, so I ate only biscuits for quick energy.
Lift-off: twelve minutes past midnight, our group set off for a ten hour roundtrip to Uhuru Peak, the roof of Africa.
My Garmin Forerunner 935, tightly coddled under four layers of clothing, marked a starting temperature of 70F (21C), with a low of 55F (12C) at the peak. In reality, it was 40F (4C) at basecamp, and -10F (-23C) at the top. Extreme winds.
Ten summit porters from Everlasting Tanzania came up with us from basecamp, i.e. ratio of two porters to one hiker. They were constantly chatting around us in Swahili. Like a soothing background radio. Later, we learned from our head guide Saidi that he had doubled the number of summit porters for our group because weather conditions were worse than average.
Nutrition: Mine was abysmal (warning: do not emulate). In ten hours, I drank only 300 mL of water (versus 2 L recommended), and ate one blueberry Huma gel, half a delicious pink RX bar, and one espresso-flavored Gu. Not enough calories. I am convinced that my dopamine and emotional energy did the rest. I also ate a lot of protein for dinner four hours before summit start, so that slow burn helped.
Gear: I carried my trekking poles and my Deuter Trail 28L daypack. It’s my first Deuter gear which I painstakingly researched and picked in person from my local Sports Basement store in the US. This bag fit me well. In it, I packed 5+ energy gels, 3 L water, a juice box, and a Snickers bar. There was plenty of room, which I filled when I removed extra layers later. One of my porters, Essau, insisted on taking my daypack from me approximately halfway up the ascent.
Attire: I was decked out in a Nike high-neck thermal long sleeve, 2 Arc’teryx nano-fleeces, and one Roxy windbreaker shell (ski jacket) on top. For bottoms, I wore one pair of yoga leggings, thin North Face hiking pants, and Columbia ski pants. I wore both thin gloves and ski gloves on my hands, and a combination of balaclava, polar neck warmer, and woolly hat on my head.
Mindset: I remember breaking the roundtrip journey into 5 x 10 km chunks. Everything up to the peak belonged in the first 30 km. This helped me compartmentalize the challenge into something I was familiar with.
We were in total darkness, our march illuminated only by the steady trudge of headlamps. The first hour was about staying in single-file formation and focusing on the steps upward.
Within twenty minutes, I felt sweaty. I stripped off one fleece and the ski gloves. The first hour was more of yesterday’s kind of trek: slow, deliberate steps, all incline on a rocky trail.
Within two hours, I put my thick ski gloves back on as my fingers began to freeze without multiple layers of protection. Ice had appeared on the ground flanking our trail.
Within tbree hours, ice had piled up to a foot or so tall on both sides of the trail.
We still wondered what our porters were chattering about on the way up: taking bets on who might not make it? David proposed chitchat on stock markets. I briefly wondered where S&P 500 is trading now that I had been disconnected from markets for three full sessions this year.
Higher and higher we went. The stars became so clear and dense in the sky. We reached a height where I swore I could reach out and scoop a handful into my palm.
Then we got high enough that I felt enveloped by a cape of navy. This was my imagination, not hallucination. The Milky Way was truly all around us in its brilliant silence.
After five days of cooperation, my headlamp chose to stop working precisely at the start of the ascent. For safety, I was inserted between two people with functional lights for the entire journey and I navigated the night perfectly well like this.
My world was eventually reduced to the two by two square foot of space in front of me. The pair of feet marking my way. Nothing else mattered.
My view rotated from Emily’s feet, to Julia’s feet, to Kelleigh’s feet, then Saidi’s.
I kept waiting for altitude sickness to hit me, but it never came.
Nevertheless, my breathing was labored. I focused on keeping my heart rate as constant as possible. It ticked up every time I used my arms and poles to vault my body over large rocks for more than 3 consecutive vaults at a time. Noticing the pattern, I resumed my slower “pole pole” pace on flatter segments to bring my heart rate back down.
Back to my two by two square foot world.
The only other constant was my runny nose, which, let me tell you, was drizzling throughout the ENTIRE trek. This was the worst.
Whenever I blew enough out (pardon the visuals), I have to pull down my balaclava, accept the icy gusts that gnawed my face off, and wipe my nose in one fell swoop with my gloved hand before repositioning my balaclava armor. I won’t mention the crusts of ice that eventually formed over my gloves.
Eventually, I was covered in ice anyway.
Mantras: A few favorites in my most painful moments:
I scolded myself: “You don’t have mountain sickness. You’re not tired. It’s cold. Worst case you lose sense of your hands and feet.” This became a self fulfilling prophecy.
I invoked Haruki Murakami: “You are just a machine. You’re designed to do nothing else but this.” This line works. Every time.
I was later brought near the brink of tears (of amusement) upon hearing my teammates’ personal mantras. My favorite is from my dear friend Katherine: “I imagined the Magic School Bus. My cells were cheering for oxygen. My legs were cheering me too.” I totally butchered what you said, but rest assured I will treasure your quote forever.
Losing Senses: For me, the most physically demanding sensation was being forced to face the wind head-on. Every time I turned a switchback to face away from the wind, I breathed relief. But a switchback later, the villain returned to pummel me, straight through my layers and into my core. My right foot lost sensation first. It wasn’t long before my hands went, even though they were stuffed inside heavy duty ski gloves.
To be honest, the experience wasn’t really pain. It was more like a protracted awareness of discomfort (if you’ve had an ACL reconstruction, think days three to seven during post-op recovery). You are aware that you’re not exercising under normal circumstances, because you don’t normally lose feelings in both your hands and feet.
However, you muster the will to move through these sensations, a belly-full of patience for the hours of suffering that laid ahead of the prize.
I didn’t dare look at the time.
It was still too dark. Too soon to expect the finish line.
I kept my thoughts on autopilot, but how much longer will this night last?
Join me at the summit in my next post,
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