As the hour got closer, Nora and I put on our basic layers and tried to sleep in them. We had to move at 10:45 pm sharp. They were going to wake us up at 10, enough time for us to put on the extra layers and head to the dining tent for a snack or coffee.
Getting dressed for that night was easy. It was simply about wearing everything you had which you knew would keep you warm. I put on both my wool liner pants, both my wool tops, hiking pants, shell pants to break the wind, fleece jacket, down jacket, liner gloves, mittens, and a balaclava for head, neck, and breath warmth.
Looking like astronauts headed for Mars, Nora, Lubna, Coucla, Nehal, Sarah, Corey, Ian, and myself said our prayers and set out to the summit behind Baraka’s careful, patient steps.
The silence overwhelmed the place and filled our hearts with humility. All I could hear was the crushing sound of the pebbles under our boots, Baraka’s walkie talkie, and our heavy breathing. We could not see anything beyond our flashlights, except for the glaciers at the top of our destination. The fear, the excitement, and the freezing temperature put us all in a state of extreme focus. Each one of us was living their own, private experience with the mountain. Each one was silently hoping and praying to make it to the top. It was a surreal experience.
This was the first time for all of us to make it to such a high altitude. None of us had ever been higher before. We also hadn’t acclimatized to this altitude yet. So I tried to cut all fearful thoughts out of my head by focusing on Baraka’s slow, small, and monotonous steps. They were to me an acknowledgment of man’s smallness. They were a sign of respect to the might of the mountain, a recognition of the tough journey ahead, and a symbol of the perseverance required to reach a goal. I knew they were the steps I needed to get me to the top.
Going slowly was also helpful in that our breaks were as short and as few as possible to avoid the cold. The minute we stopped, quite literally the minute we stopped, my toes began to freeze despite the thick socks and liners I was wearing under the boots. There was also a high probability that our muscles would almost instantly begin to cool down, which would make it very painful for us to get them going again.
Those breaks, as few and as short as they were, were still life-savers to me, because no matter how slowly I was going, I felt extreme exertion all over my body and mind. I kept drinking water as often as I could. We were advised by Adel, our trip organizer, to blow the water back each time we drank through the hose and into the reservoir to protect it from freezing. I did as he told us, but the higher up we went the more difficult it became to sip. It began to freeze slowly.
Soon the terrain gave in to a series of rocks on a cliff. At this point I had parted from Baraka because some in the group requested another stop that I could not afford. So I walked on with Lubna and Godfrey, her guide. Godfrey was a big man with long strides, no matter how slow he tried to go, he remained three or 4 meters away from me. That was enough to make me panic, because that took him out of my flashlight zone and I had to look up to find which way he was going. That automatically meant lack of focus on footsteps and more sighting of horrendous cliff and enormous distance that still laid ahead. I found myself calling out to him, “You’re too fast. Too fast!” And the poor man didn’t know what to do to get slower than he already was. So I decided to stop and wait for Baraka again.
By then I had started to feel dizzy again. My eyes were beginning to close and my entire system wanted to shut down. That’s when I remembered Nadia’s comment: “GO gels saved my life!” I quickly reached into my pocket for my power gel and began to suck on it for dear life. I continued to drink water as I waited for Baraka to catch up.
Climbers were passing me by, and I saw a guide holding on to poles and bending down. A blind man was holding on firmly to his back and he was leading him up to the summit. I immediately remembered the one-legged man. My friends later told me that they did see him on his way back from the summit. He made it there before us.
I was then too tired to contemplate on anything.
The minute I saw Baraka’s red and black gaiters I felt my life coming back to me. I was back into my comfort zone. I looked at him with tears in my eyes and said the most ridiculous thing I believe I ever said to anyone: “Baraka where are you?? I can’t do it without you!”
He pointed to his back and said, “Follow me.” What a pathetic creature, he probably thought.
There was a lot of scrambling involved. My weakness would sometimes give in to the weight of my backpack and I felt my backpack pulling me down and again sweeping me off balance. Some cliffs were less than a meter away from me, but I simply did not care anymore. This was such an extreme situation to me that all my fears seemed like an imaginary monster in the closet. This pulling force of my backpack was a wake up call. I did everything I could to rest my weight on the correct foot before I took each step up. This was the only way I could stop Baraka’s persistent offers to carry my backpack. I wanted to see how far I could go.
Ian was the only one who seemed to be at relative ease. I guess his desire to film everything for the documentary he was making on our charity climb helped him focus.
Corey was extremely cold he couldn’t bear to stop for long. To keep himself warm he kept talking and moving each time we stopped. In one of the breaks he looked at Baraka and said, “How are you doing Baraka? Just another day in the office, huh?”
Nehal, Sarah, and Nora were mostly silent, they were concentrating on their breathing.
Nora’s crazy heartbeat made her slow down further and separate with another guide. There were times when she said she felt her heart was going to burst out of her chest.
Coucla began to lose coordination and doze off. That worried Baraka, so he kept her immediately behind him and spoke to her to keep her awake. He would interrupt the silence every now and then and call out to each of us by name to make sure that we were awake, drinking water, breathing, and able to carry out a conversation.
I have no clear idea of the temperature as we were climbing, but I know it was a kind of cold I had never witnessed in my life. I covered my mouth and nose with the balaclava to warm up the air that got into my lungs. The minute I would expose my mouth the coughing would begin like mad, so I tried to keep it covered as much as I could.
The incline to Stella Point, which sits at 5756 m, was the steepest incline possible for a climber using only his feet and trekking poles. The terrain was all pebbly and slippery. I placed most of my weight on the poles and it still did not seem to be enough. I had to go even slower with much smaller steps. I was almost crawling. At this point suffering was all I could think of, no matter how much I tried to focus on Baraka’s boots. It was an eternity. I started asking him “How far are we now?” repeatedly. This was the longest, steepest, and coldest phase on our summit climb.
We were very lucky that the night was not windy. Yet the higher up we went the thinner the air became. We were now going way above the levels we had acclimatized our bodies to. My muscles began to feel weaker with the decreasing oxygen level. I began to lose grip over my mind. I had never pushed my body or my mind to this limit before. Throughout my training I had always endured what I thought was the maximum for me, but all along I was always in control of how far I pushed. I had the buttons. But in the middle of the mountain at 3 am and at an altitude of more than 5500 m I had no control over anything.
Mind over body my ***. My body was now seriously offended.
I did not have the energy to go back either even if I wanted to. My choices were to either push myself to the target or sit to die on the mountain–a rather inconvenient alternative for everyone.
I continued to say my prayers up the mountain, and Nadia’s voice came back to me: “If all else fails, forget the destination. Look at your own boots. Can you take this step? Now can you take the next step?” That mental trick became my last and only fuel; the water had started to freeze and was no longer accessible, and it was more difficult to reach into my pocket and pick up a snack with my mittens on and I did not want to stop for that. Now my brain was too busy focusing on each foot and ordering it to move. Maybe that was still mind over body, but right then it was too much of a luxury for me to conceptualize on what I was doing. I was just pushing that engine up.
To soothe us, Baraka kept pointing to the sky to show us the break of dawn. Each time I looked to see the color of the sky getting lighter I felt warmer and more hopeful. In this trip, sunshine always made hope run through my veins. And sunshine now meant Uhuru Peak was getting closer.
By the time we reached Stella Point daylight had filled us all with joy. Only 139 m further up now, Uhuru Peak began to show in the distance. The slope was now at a lesser incline, but soon those wooden blocks that marked the summit disappeared again, and the hike up to it was physically more challenging than I expected. Up to Stella Point I was struggling with small steps each at a time. Now each step was an enormous effort to me. I had to stop after each single step, rest my weight on my poles, and breathe heavily.
Baraka kept stopping me for pictures to allow me to acclimatize more and to give a chance to some of the others behind to catch up. I began to feel frustrated with these stops. I just wanted to get there and then worry about the pictures later.
People keep asking me how I felt when I arrived at the summit. No words can properly describe how I felt, because I had never felt that way before. I simply have no words for it.
And I have no words for the beauty I saw up there. I was standing at the top of Africa, I could see the curvature of the earth, a beautiful line of pink colored the meeting point between the sky and the clouds below me, it was reflected in the white glaciers that surrounded me, and it was -18 ºC.
But my lips were caught in a continuous grin that possibly stayed until I was halfway back down.
I don’t recall how many people I hugged when I arrived at Uhuru Peak. I threw myself in every open arm that came my way. Hug first, find out who later.
I took every picture I could near those wooden blocks. After all the months I had their picture on my phone screen, I could not believe that I was finally holding on to them. Like Nora said, “We held on to them because we still couldn’t believe ourselves, and of course to prove that we’re actually there and that it’s not Photoshop!”
So many of us kept asking on our way up why the summit hike was particularly at night? Why couldn’t we start in the morning and be there at noon? Going back down in the light of day I could see why. The guides spared us despair if we were to see just how steep that slope was. Night limited our vision. We could not see the steepness, and we could not see how far up we still had to go. We just had to worry about our boots.
The journey to the summit took 5 days and it climaxed in the early hours of the 6th. I was learning something new about the mountain, about God, and about myself every hour. No person can truly believe what they are capable of until they are on the edge of survival.
By the time I reached the top I did not feel triumphant. I did not feel that I conquered the mountain. I wasn’t battling with it. I wasn’t challenging it. I was battling with and challenging myself, and the mountain was telling me how to win. I felt blessed to have come this close to Kilimanjaro, to have been allowed to climb it, and to have it teach me a new lesson about myself.
“This climb taught us about our weakness, fragility, and about our strength all at the same time.” I could not have put it better than Nora.