Evening, December 31, 2010
We rested at Kibo Hut for a few hours before midnight. The camp is an amalgamation of permanent low-slung wooden buildings with sheet metal roofs housing workers who remain at the camp and open spaces for pitching the tents of groups climbing the mountain. Latrines sit at the far edge of camp, isolated from the camp site to keep the smell at bay. When we arrived, dozens of identical brightly colored, parachutesque single-person tents were already pitched in the prime camping areas; our group set up camp in the lowland below camp underneath a large boulder outcropping that reminded me of a wizened man. Just below us lay an area unmotivated climbers had turned into an open-pit toilet. Feces and toilet paper littered the ground, leaving one with the unenviable choice of climbing up to the smelly latrines for some privacy or relieving yourself on the open plain beneath a barely concealing rock shelter.
Kay, Tom and I bought cans of Coca-Cola from the camp management to celebrate our success thus far. Considering that the main route, Marangu, is nicknamed the “Coca-Cola” Route, we thought it fitting that Coke was available to buy and ingest. After a week of water mixed with Crystal Light Fruit Punch and other flavors that quickly grew stale, drinking a cold Coca-Cola in the frigid weather was a pleasant respite. We sat and took photos of each other drinking cans of Coke. Kay had traded her burdensome hiking boots for light flip-flops and looked very humorous drinking a cold drink with her freezing feet peeking out from her heavy wardrobe.
Waiting for our final ascent up Kilimanjaro was like anticipating the start of a major life event a la running a marathon or having your first child. Fraught with trepidation as a first-time climber, I waited anxiously for what I expected would be the most difficult challenge of my life. I picked at my dinner – spaghetti with gruel again — and retired to my tent and sleeping bag to rest until 11:00 p.m. I willed my body to relax and told my restless mind to be still. Thoughts of whether I could climb the final 1,200 meters to the top of Uhuru Peak preoccupied me. Would it be easier or harder than I expected? After all I’d been through over the past five days, would I succumb to altitude sickness and end up aborting the climb or find the strength to reach the top?
On New Year’s Eve at 11:00 p.m. a guide awoke me. I realized that I had slept a couple of hours. I wrapped myriad layers of clothing around my body to insulate it from the bitter cold of midnight. Two layers of woolen socks inside hiking boots. Two layers of long johns under hiking pants. Stocking cap. Heavy gloves. Balaclava to cover the face. Head lamp attached to the forehead to light my way. Trusty hiking poles. I was finally ready to climb. I played with the crackers and tea the cook had set at the foot of our tent for our last meal. I said a silent, hopeful prayer and crawled out of my tent into the freezing night air.
Wisps of a light snowfall and frozen breath threw shadows across my head lamp beam. It was a surreal moment in the cold darkness waiting in haunting silence for the climb to begin. The guides were busy preparing Kay, Tom, and me for the climb and arranging for Betty to be evacuated from the mountain by park rangers. We waited for half an hour in the cold to leave camp. I anxiously paced around a clearing near our tent next to a sharp drop-off overlooking the makeshift toilet. I peered into the blackness and saw only clouds emanating from my lungs and twinkling lights from a few of the nearby tents. Half an hour seemed like an eternity.
Lesson learned: Don’t be too anxious to leave camp. Rest as much as you can. When your guide says you’re leaving at midnight, you won’t leave early. There’s no need to leave your tent and mill about aimlessly no matter how anxious you are. If another climber has to be medically evacuated from the group, make sure your guide has a definite plan to get them off the mountain long before midnight so they can devote their attention to you. The night before the summit is one time when you can and should selfishly demand your guide’s attention.