Fighting for Air on the Top of Mt. Kilimanjaro
I’m convinced that anybody can make it to the base camp of Mt. Kilimanjaro. It sits at about 14,500 feet of elevation (higher than any mountain in the 48 states) but you get there slowly. We had been hiking for 5 days to aid acclimatization. The average day of hiking was anywhere from 4 to 7 hours per day, so nothing too intense. The real test was coming at dark. We went to bed early, as in 6pm, and then woke at midnight to hike all night to reach the summit.
Even though the summit hike itself only takes about 7 hours, the challenge is three fold. First, your body is exhausted from hiking for 5 days straight. Second, you are at such high altitude that your blood oxygen level is around 60-70% of normal levels- you just can get enough air. Third, you are climbing the crater of a volcano, so the very hardest part – the scramble to the tip of the crater, known as Gilman’s Point (named after a lawyer, the first person to Ski down the glacier in 1926) is not only the steepest, but also comes at a time when your body is physically tapped out.
All this being said, we weren’t worried. We made great time every single day that week, so I couldn’t help but wonder how fast we would make it to the summit. I wasn’t afraid of the high altitude. I should have been.
We assembled just before 1 am, after a quick breakfast of oatmeal and hot chocolate, we were all equipped with headlamps, three layers of clothes on our legs, 5 layers on our bodies, trekking poles, gloves, hats and plenty of water. We headed off with our guide in the lead, giving the instruction “Po-le Po-le” which in Swahili means “Slow, Slow.” For practical purposes, it means you put one foot in front of the other in a very slow and deliberate manner to conserve energy.
In the summit attempt there are three stages. Stage 1- reach the halfway mark to Gilman’s Point up the steep crater face. (2.5 hours estimated) Stage 2- reach Gilman’s Point (2.5 hour estimated) and then finally, Stage 3- finish the more gradual ascent around the crater to Uhuru Peak, the highest point in all of Africa (final 2 hours).
The guides break it up this way for psychological reasons, so that you can focus on one goal at a time. So we made our way in the dark towards Stage 1. In other hikes, we had chatted and eaten snacks as we hiked, but in the pitch black and thinning air, we were silent as we marched up the switchbacks. Our lead guide, a Tanzanian by the name of Joshua was in front keeping a slow but steady pace, it was his 161st attempt at the summit. Behind us was Felix, the assistant guide and a porter named Nasaret who had been the lucky porter chosen out of a group of 12 from Team Kilimanjaro to join us on the summit attempt. Stage 1 wasn’t much more difficult then any other section we had hiked, it was quite a bit steeper, but we were going at a much slower pace and there were switchbacks. We could see lines of headlamps above and below us of other groups slowly trudging towards the top.
Then, just as we were about to arrive at the marker for Stage 1, something turned in my stomach. With dread, I realized that a wave of nausea was rushing towards me and I likely wouldn’t be able to prevent it. We stopped to rest, and I casually walked over to Joshua, “I’m feeling a little bit nauseous, should I take some Diamox?”
“Yes, take 250 mg right away,” Joshua urged me.
Diamox is a medication that helps the body deal with the effects of high altitude. My wife Natalie been taking it for two days, my Father-in-law for 3 days. I of course was far too stubborn. I had felt great all week and so I had refused to take the drug, even though Joshua had advised all of us to take it. That decision would cost me.
After drinking some hot chocolate (that was barely warm because of a broken thermos) I took the Diamox and we headed off for the second stage. 5 minutes in, I threw up the tepid chocolate along with the drugs. The next 30 minutes was a mixture of slow hiking intermingled with pauses to vomit. My heart was racing, and I couldn’t get enough air to calm myself down. Every switchback, I would pause and hold up the group for 10 seconds- while I tried my hardest to catch my breath and allow my stomach to relax.
I pulled Joshua to the side, “I know you have seen these symptoms before, am I going to make it?” I asked him. Once the symptoms of altitude sickness became too severe, there is no other choice but to descend immediately. I was faced with the real possibility that after 4 months of diet and training, flying half-way around the world and hiking for 5 days and half a night, that I wouldn’t make it to the summit. “I think you will be fine,” Joshua answered, but try taking some more Diamox,” he urged. I took a double dose, a small sip of Gatorade and we continued on. I couldn’t tell if Joshua was just staying positive, or if he suspected that my symptoms this early meant I would have to turn back.
I was faced with a gloomy realization. The nausea was one thing, but it would likely only get worse, since I was only at 17,000 feet of altitude and still needed to reach 19,300. I had five more hours of hiking straight up ahead of me, and at least two more back down until I would be at a lower altitude where I might feel better. It was impossible to think of getting there with the way I was feeling. So I blocked it out. Instead, I told myself a lie.
“You feel good, you feel great,” I said as I planted each trekking pole. “You’re going to make to make it to Gilmans.” Over and over I told myself this, maybe a thousand times. “You feel good, you feel great, you’re going to make it to Gilmans.” I felt awful. Every step I would close my eyes and imagine I was asleep for just a moment, to try and fight off the severe exhaustion and dehydration. Those two hours to Gilmans Point may have been the longest two hours of my life.
We finally reached Gilman’s point, I wanted to celebrate, I wanted enjoy the Red Bull that Joshua had saved for each of use to denote the hardest milestone, but I felt worse than ever. I was sucking in as much air as possible, but it just didn’t seem like body could get enough oxygen. We took a few pictures where I faked awkward smiles, including one picture with me laying down, appearing to be dead- demonstrating how I actually felt. Then I realized I was starting to freeze, so I urged our group to push on. Joshua had insisted I drink the entire can of Red Bull. I drank only a third, emptying the rest into my partly full Gatorade bottle. I would throw the Red Bull up just 10 minutes later.
At this point I was past worrying about pain, exhaustion or discomfort, I was mechanically making my way up the mountain. I knew that the only way I would ever feel better was to summit and descend. My training had prepared my legs for the summit attempt, and I had decided that would have to be enough.
Halfway between Gillmans and the top, is a place called Stella Point. When we reached Stella, I was so determined and so cold, that we didn’t even stop for pictures. We just kept chugging along. “Po-le, po-le” I began to say. The sun had begun to rise about 15 minutes before, warming us up and putting the horizon on fire. The blanket of clouds stretched for miles away from us. And something just clicked for me. I don’t know if the double dose of Diamox had made it into my bloodstream with some Red Bull or if the adrenaline of nearing the top was getting to me, but suddenly- I started cruising up the mountain. “You are the guide now,” Joshua said to me, “Go.” I went from feeling like a 2 on a ten scale to feeling like a 9 1/2.
There was less than a half mile left up to the summit, and I couldn’t believe it, I felt great. My legs chugged in front of me, and I was flying up the mountain. Stopping every 100 feet to laugh and catch my breath. A wave of relief and emotion hit me, and I would have started crying, if my tear ducts weren’t also so dehydrated. I was more than 150 feet in front of the rest of the group, and so I stopped triumphantly at the top of a rise to wait for my wife to catch me, so that we could enjoy the moment of reaching the top together. “I’ve never seen someone recover so quickly,” Joshua commented.
We reached the chilly summit of Kilimanjaro together at 7:20 am in the morning of March 24th. Total strangers were embracing, guides from the other companies were clapping us on the back and I savored an emotional high unlike anything I’ve experienced in a long time. We made it. We snapped a couple of quick pictures, said words of thanks to our guides and began the long descent. (The descent would take two days and over 20 miles, and in the week we logged over 50 miles on our hiking boots.)
The lesson for me from Kilimanjaro, is that we are capable of far more than we realize. Those moments where we find ourselves tested to our limits teach us that we have more power than we know.Â
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