Midnight, January 1, 2011
We set off on our final ascent to the Kilimanjaro summit just before midnight. A chorus of shouts and whistles from other climbers told us that the clock had struck midnight and ushered us into the New Year. The ad hoc celebration on the mountain in the dark of night and freezing cold was a far cry from the festive New Year’s parties taking place all over the world. Still, there’s no place at that moment where I would rather have been; it was surely one of the most memorable New Years of my life.
Our head lamps illuminated a pathway between the buildings and tents at Kibo Hut. We weaved our way through the camp to the base of the mountain and passed row after row of identical tents, falling in line behind a long line of climbers waiting to ascend. It seemed as if the entire camp had emptied and prepared to climb at the same time. Just after midnight, hundreds of climbers set off together up the mountain like lemmings. We passed some idle climbers and waited behind others. I hadn’t anticipated being caught in a mountain traffic jam! The constant starting and stopping to wait for others ahead of us made the climb to Gilman’s Point one of the most strenuous activities I’ve ever undertaken. Although slightly lower in elevation than Kili’s highest point, Uhuru Peak, Gilman’s Point was by far the most difficult part of our climb. Our guides made the climb easier by shouldering our daypacks, but we still needed to haul our bodies to the top.
The makeshift gravel path went straight uphill for about half an hour before it started to switchback across the mountain face. I tired after a couple hours. My heavy jacket insulated my body from the cold and muffled sound as if I were wearing a space suit. Despite the humanity teeming around me I felt strangely alone and isolated. Stealing glances up and down the mountain from time to time, I spied the twinkle of climbers’ head lamps forming a long, unbroken line from Kibo Hut below to Gilman’s Point above. I wondered what the mountainside looked like in the light of day but thanked God that I couldn’t see how steep it was. The gravity of how difficult this climb was had finally sunk in. Nothing I had done until now had prepared me mentally or physically for this. At full strength and at lower elevations I might have climbed the 1,100 or so meters to Gilman’s Point without much effort. After five consecutive day of intense hiking in the wee hours of the night, I was weary and ill prepared for this daunting challenge. It was coldly comforting to pass by other struggling climbers, not so much because I was in competition with them but because it reminded me that I still had strength to continue. At the same time it was a bit deflating when others passed me by seemingly without effort, especially a group of elderly Asian climbers who ascended as if they were on a leisurely afternoon stroll. I felt empathy for a handful of doubled-over climbers who were obviously not going to make it to the top. Young and old, men and women, age and gender – nothing mattered here as much as one’s tolerance for high altitudes, discomfort, and even pain.
Tom, Kay, the guides, and I hiked about an hour before we stopped for our first respite. Stopping turned out to be my undoing. We rested for about five minutes and consumed snacks and water. Fatigue suddenly hit me with a vengeance. Once we started hiking again, I couldn’t muster enough stamina to continue and asked to stop again after just 20 minutes. Then again after ten minutes, then five, and finally two. At long last, after 10,000 feet and five days of climbing, I ran out of steam just 200 meters below the mountain ridge! I could see Gilman’s Point not far above me, but I just couldn’t will my body to go on. I was spent. Altitude sickness had claimed another victim. My companions were worried about my health and wanted to help me feel better, but there was little they could do for me. Kay tried to feed me an energy boost, but I didn’t have the appetite to stomach it. Turning in an Oscar-worthy performance, I melodramatically urged the group to go on without me and let me rest on the mountain. After ten minutes I willed myself to move again but hiked no more than a few steps before stopping again. My legs were failing me, my breathing giving out, and finally my will conceded defeat. I was not going to make it to the summit on my own strength.
August was determined to get me to the top of Kilimanjaro. Slinging my arm around his shoulder, he helped me climb the final 200 meters to Gilman’s Point. I stumbled along the way and could barely keep my footing, but somehow we made it to the top. I remember the sensation of being carried at times by August. Half an hour later as the sunrise peered over the horizon, we hoisted ourselves over the top of Gilman’s Point. The mountain peaks and scattered clouds dotting the Serengeti below was one of the most breath taking views I’ve ever seen. Everything was a blurry haze, but I was exhilarated to have at made it to the top of the world.
I don’t know if I could have made it to the top of Gilman’s Point without August’s help but am certain that his assistance was crucial in my time of need. I don’t know if I can truly say that I climbed Kilimanjaro on my own, but then again, it’s good to know there was someone I could lean on to finish the job. We have all experienced challenges from time to time that are too difficult for us to face alone and have all needed another’s strength at some point in our lives. During times like this.