Editor's Note: The following is Part Two of the author's "Kilimanjaro Blog," which details Shelley Shepard's climb of Africa's tallest peak earlier this summer. The Times is pleased to present it. We pick up after the fourth day of hiking, along a clambering trail hidden along the infamous Barranco Wall.
The energy as we arrived into 15,100-foot Barafu Camp – aka base camp – was palpable. All the support crews were buzzing around, setting up cook tents quickly in order to get hikers fed and to bed as soon as possible in order to get the most rest before 11 p.m. wake up calls. We hikers were nervously grinning at each other, soaking up the bluebird skies, epic views of the summit (tomorrow, Lord willing, we’ll be there!) and taking deep, deep breaths to get all the oxygen we could force into our lungs.
Our chief guide, Freddy, had already proven himself a primo strategic planner and sat us down for a pre-summit-pep-talk. Fortune does favor the well-prepared. We’d go to sleep at 6 p.m., in the clothes we’d be wearing for our summit hike – for warmth in these sub-freezing temps as well as to save time – Lucas would wake us at 11 p.m., we’d have hot tea (no coffee, it’s counterproductive at these heights) and would fill our water bottles with hot water to slow it from freezing. We would carry the bare minimum in our packs; water, granola bar, and in my case, camera. All three guides would accompany so if one of us began showing symptoms of altitude sickness, two guides would help that person down, the other continuing on to summit. The distressed hiker would be taken straight down to Mweka Camp at 9,000 feet, in hopes the significant decrease in altitude would assuage the symptoms of altitude sickness. If we were both healthy and able to summit, we’d return to base camp, take measure of our health, rest for an hour before eating lunch and descending the 6,000 feet to Mweka Camp.
So when you do the math, we’d be leaving camp at midnight, hiking 4,000 feet in six-and-a-half hours to the summit, immediately turning around after photos ops to descend 4,000 feet back to base camp (only two-and-a-half hours to get down!) then hiking another four hours and 6,000 feet down to Mweka Camp. A 14-hour day with 4,000 foot elevation gain, then 10,000 foot descent. If there was ever a time for Aleve and arnica, this was It! But my primary thought was that I had just spent four spectacular days of hiking through three different ecosystems. At this point, any single one of those days were on my bucket list of best days ever and a successful summit would be great, but it was nothing I’d be willing to risk life and limb to achieve. From the rainforest, to the heathered moorlands, to the alpine desert, this mountain had shown us one-of-a-kind beauty every step of the way.
After a huge dinner we prepped our clothes and packs and settled down to sleep. Thankfully, I slept like a log; John however was way too excited and just managed to doze off and on. We were both awake when Lucas called us up at 11 p.m. and we hopped up into the cold and readied ourselves for the next six-plus hours. The full moon was stunningly bright over our left shoulders as we began the ascent on a rocky face in a broken-up line of our fellow hikers and guides.
Nearing the summit
This began the six hours of mind over matter, and the pinnacle of living-in-the-moment. The ascent was astoundingly steep, more so than any other stretch of this distance that we’d hiked thus far, and it was covered in hard, sometimes icy snow from 15,800 feet on. Temps were bitterly cold and I was thankful for my five layers of highly technical cold weather clothes. At about 18,000 feet I was sincerely questioning what good reason I’d had for subjecting myself to this special torture. It was tedious, it was beyond cold; my primary focus was taking as deep a breath as possible and taking the tiniest steps. But with a short pause to enjoy the stars and see two shoot across the sky, a clear view of the moonlit peak of Mawenzi to our right, the brilliant snowy outline of the ever-nearing ridge that held the summit and I knew this is a moment that will never be recreated. No photo would capture this. It was a testament to training, preparation, and appreciation of the amazing natural beauty. The sky was lightening with the beginning of dawn and there was no doubt we were both doing great, feeling strong and going to make it to the summit.
We reached Stella Point, a whopping 18,800 feet, as the sun was breaking through the clouds. Another 45 minutes along the highest ridge in Africa where I was giddy and trying to photograph the views of glaciers, the snow-covered ash pit, the patterns of clouds below us and the changing colors of the sunrise. We were fist bumping passing hikers who had made it to the famous sign and were cheering us on. Then we were there! The blessed sign of achievement marking 19,341 feet Uhuru Peak, the Roof of Africa. Quick as a minute I’d thrown off my gloves, swapped hats (fuzzy warm for OCBC ball cap!), handed my camera to another crew’s guide, and the five of us posed for a picture; Freddy, John, Shelley, Dustan and Lucas, We Did It! Then I pulled the hidden coup out of my pack, a 32-ounce crowler of Oyster City Brewing Company Kumquat Saison, my best and most favorite beer I’d ever made, and carried up a mountain. It was frozen rock solid in the zero-degree temps but a picture is worth a thousand words. And the looks on our guides’ faces when they realized I’d just pulled a beer out of my pack was pretty priceless too…
Heading back home
From here on out it was absolute fun, we were singing, laughing and reveling in success. The trip down to base camp was easy for us, though we saw several other hikers having issues with altitude (including a one guy in particular, who when I asked how he was, didn’t know his name, or that he was in Africa) a few people having some slips, slides and banging around down the snow. Our porters met us 15 minutes from camp and we ALL celebrated together, so proud of what ‘they’d’ done to get us here! It’s a status symbol for a crew to have their hikers summit, and probably a little extra when their hikers are happy, smiling and brought beer.
A quick hour nap, hot lunch, and we packed up and started the four hours down to 9,000 feet, and our final camp on the mountain. We followed a dry, rocky riverbed straight down the side of the mountain - a far different route than we’d taken up - and rode the wave of euphoria through sore knees and tired bodies. Chef Godfrey fed us a huge plate of rice, ratatouille, fruit and crepes and it didn’t take a minute to fall asleep in our bags that night!
Our last morning we packed and dragged time as slow as we could, enjoying our last day on Kili. Even stopping for every photo op I could find (or that Lucas could stage for me), we made quick time through the misty layer of rainforest. Past pencil wood trees, protea flowers, tree ferns, and national park workers doing trail repair to prepare for their upcoming busy tourist season. At Mweka Gate, we signed out of the park’s record book and loaded in the van for the trip to the hotel, after a quick stop for the obligatory Kilimanjaro Lager.
It was the trip of a lifetime and I’m grateful and proud to have succeeded, but more grateful to have spent six stellar days of awe-inspiring hiking, bonding with my adventurous little brother, getting to know people from a whole ‘nother walk of life, on a new-to-me-continent. Travel grows your mind, fills your heart and expands your horizons. So in case you were wondering; Inca Trail April 2019, here we come!