A Walk Above the Clouds: Kilimanjaro by the Machame Route

By Jerry Fine with comments in italics by Lee Waite

Day 5 -- Thursday, July 31 -- Summit Attempt
Maybe I slept about an hour. I was wide awake at 11:30 pm and so was Lee, so we started dressing for the event. We had to cooperate in using the space in the narrow tent. First, I put on my expedition weight capilene underwear. Next my polartec suit. Then my parka and wind pants. I had liner gloves under Dachstein mitts. I had my faithful red balaclava, which makes me look like Woody Woodpecker, on my head. I had a daypack with 100 fl. ounces of water in my camelbak, and an extra warm shirt, along with a few odds and ends.

It was a huge change in climate from the shorts and T-shirt weather at Machame gate. Now I was wearing polypropolene long-underwear, jeans, windpants, turtleneck, sweater, parka, gloves, gaiters, balaclava, and stocking cap. Everything I read about climbing Kilimanjaro indicates that people misjudge how cold it will be. We were well prepared, but I was still pretty cold at times.

Sarah was up and busy. She heroically stuffed her sleeping bag into its too small stuff sack. I had had to help her with this at Barranco, but at Barafu she did it by herself, and so I predict she's cut out to be a high altitude climber. Today would be her first test. She had just slept at higher elevation than she had climbed before. Prior to this trip her high was the summit of Mt. Elbert in Colorado at 14,433. Today we were headed for Uhuru Peak, at 19,340 feet the highest point on Kibo.

We were away from the tents at 12:15 a.m. moving steadily. Geoffrey went first, and then me, Lee and Sarah. Peter, the assistant guide brought up the rear. Geoffrey, Peter and Lee carried flashlights. Ahead of us we could see several lights indicating that other people had gotten the jump on us.

After all of the careful planning that we had done, we ended up short of lights. We had to share three flashlights among the five of us. Luckily when one of the flashlights went dead, I did have a set of spare batteries. Picture yourself high on a mountain, say 17,000 feet above sea level. The wind is blowing and the temperature is around 10 F. It is 3:00 a.m. and you are trying to open a package of batteries in bubble wrap without freezing your fingers. The alternative is five people climbing in the dark with only two flashlights - not a very attractive option. Advice - take a spare flashlight and unwrap the spare batteries in some nice warm and light location.

Actually, Chip and Jeffra had started sometime after 10 pm, accompanied by Chales. Sometime around 1 am we caught them, but Chip resisted the temptation to join us, and we soon left them far behind. We moved with a steady rhythm, climbing steeply to the top of a rock formation on our ridge and then crossing a low angle area, before heading up the southwestern valley.

It was a night of no moon, no light, except for the brilliant stars. Far off down the mountain we could see the lights of Himo Town and Moshi, two Tanzanian cities. It was hard to see much. The main peak loomed ahead, and we could see Mawenzi to our right, above a skyline ridge, barely discernible in the dark.

At first things were pretty easy. We had a very good pace; Geoffrey had us well evaluated and knew how to get maximum performance out of us without burning us out. He knew better than we how far we had to go that day. The plan was to go up and tag the summit, and then to descend to Gilman's Point, where the Marangu route reaches the crater rim. From there we would descend the tourist route, ending up at Horombo hut, at about 12,500 feet. I made an effort not to think ahead, but just to concentrate on what was happening at that moment.

I'm not sure what mountain this guy was on, but the one I was climbing was way hard. I remember looking at my watch thinking that it must be broken. I was thinking that we had climbed for an hour but only fifteen minutes had passed. I also remember thinking, "Why do I feel so bad?" I took a quick inventory. Do my feet hurt? No. Legs tired? Not bad. Are my feet cold? A little, but not bad. Hands? The same? Hypothermic? Not really. Nauseous? A little but not bad. So what is the problem? I finally realized that I was just plain tired and probably hypoxic. Every step was an effort and the oxygen was very thin. Time was moving slow.

I wondered if we were moving too slow or too fast. I tried to ask Geoffrey, but I wasn't sure he understood. He said something about slow, which I interpreted to mean that we were going too slow, so I tried to keep up the pace and not slow down the group.

Soon things became increasingly difficult. By 3 am we were through the 17,000 feet level and seemed to be getting above Mawenzi, barely visible in the distance. The ground got very steep with lots of loose scree. There was a lot of back slipping. We started crossing ice fields. These look so smooth from a distance, but up close they are very rough, with pits and hollows, and little pinnacles. It would not have been that hard, except the altitude was making itself felt.

Sarah was having trouble with her hands being cold. She had a headache. Lee was nauseated and was not feeling strong. I still felt pretty good, so Geoffrey moved me to the back of the line. He sometimes had to search around in the gloom, but confidently led us up the hill. From time to time Geoffrey sang Lutheran hymns in Chagga, the language of the guides and porters. I'm sure that I recognized Onward, Christian Soldiers!

Despite feeling pretty rough, there were some pretty bright spots during the six and a half hour climb to the summit. Once we stopped for a brief rest and I just looked up at the stars and saw a shooting star. I watched a little longer and saw another and then another. The star show was spectacular. The Chagga hymns were nice but we sure didn't have the energy to sing along!

We marched on. It was definitely hard going, and we were hurting, but all the hard training we had all done for a year was paying off. We had the leg power and the lung power.

As we pushed past 18,000 feet there were more and more moments of discouragement. The slope just seemed to go on and on, and physiologically, the matter was getting harder. I was really breathing fast. I just tried to concentrate on slow steady stepping, synchronized with two breaths. Finally, we were on ice, steep and unrelenting. It wasn't too slippery since the temperature was so cold there could be no surface melting. There were all kinds of sun cups, and pinnacles so the footing was difficult. It was not easy like kicking steps in a snow slope.

Finally when it seemed that the suffering was really bad, I noticed two things. First, a beautiful seep of light appeared on the eastern horizon. Second, the slope seemed to lessen, and in the indistinct light, it seemed like we were getting somewhere. A few more steps, then off the ice onto level scree, and, we just stared.

Directly in front of us, becoming more and more visible in the growing light, was the crater of Kilimanjaro. It was vast, well over a mile in diameter, festooned with ice, and having a secondary crater from the last eruption in the center. We were at Stella Point, the high point reached by Shipton and Tilman, described in Tilman's Snow on the Equator. (My favorite mountain book.) The elevation was about 18,900 feet. The time was 5:45 am.

We didn't even stop. Looking to our left we could see the crater rim rising gently. All we had to do now was to follow the rim to Uhuru Peak. It was a pleasant ridge walk. Sarah got her second wind and really took off. Lee plodded stoically onward, keeping up with her. I was really breathing hard, and the altitude now seemed to be getting to me. But, the lure of the summit was strong. We did a short steep climb up to a high point, but it was a false summit named after Hans Meyer, one of the first men to climb Kibo in 1889. We began to feel excited. I remember saying to Sarah and Lee, "We got it now. Hang on and hike."

It was so wonderful getting off of that steep snow and scree that it didn't even matter how long it would take to get to Uhuru Peak. I was simply happy to be hiking on relatively level ground. The sun was coming up and that was a huge psychological boost.

We could now see the summit in the distance and not much higher. There were a few people there already. Crossing patches of snow, we got closer and closer. And then we were there. It was 6:45 a.m. on July 31, 1997. There was a simultaneous 3-person hug and then we were hugging the guides and shaking their hands. We had climbed it. We were at Uhuru Peak, 19,340 feet or 5895 meters above sea level.

Figure 9: Left to right; Sarah, Jerry and Lee standing on the highest point on the African continent

There were a few people there, including our Swiss friend from the day before and a team of New Zealanders who had come up the Western Breach. We had to wait our turn to hold up the famous board saying "YOU ARE NOW AT THE UHURU PEAK THE HIGHEST POINT IN AFRICA, ALTITUDE 5895 METRES A.S.L." This used to be a sign, and I had seen it in many pictures, but was now a loose board. Nevertheless, it is an object I never expected to touch. The whole thing was a bit like a dream coming true. The sun had now risen into the sky.

Far below was a layer of clouds. Like most days, we felt like we were on an island. But the feeling of height was really pronounced up there. It was like being in a jet and looking down on the clouds. We looked north to the crater, stupendous in the low angle light. Farther off we could see the plains of Kenya, also cloud covered. Mawenzi stood out starkly.

Figure 10: Lee and Jerry take a moment to remember colleagues and students at America's finest institute of technology

We shot our pictures, urged on by the guides, who wanted to get down. They were not as warmly dressed as we were. The temperature was 14 F and a thin wind made it seem colder.

We left the summit after maybe 15 minutes. We stopped briefly to put on sun screen, and also to don our dark glasses. Going back the way we came along the crater rim we started meeting climbers we hadn't seen before. These were people who had ascended to Gilman's on the tourist route and had enough left to go on to the true summit.

We got back to Stella Point and stopped for a few minutes. Geoffrey stood on top of a promontory and started calling down the mountain. It seemed that guides further down were answering and relaying his call. After a bit he told us that he had found out that Chip, Jeffra and Chales had turned back.

Below Stella the route skirts several major rock pinnacles on the way to Gilman's Point. The crater drops off sharply to your left. It was about this point that I began to feel bad. I knew the cause, and it was embarrassing: dehydration. About halfway up my drinking tube was plugged with ice, because I hadn't cleared it properly.

I was very glad to get to Gilman's (18,600 feet) where we could sit on the rocks and take the first good rest of the day. The guides produced two huge bottles of orange soda, We just guzzled one of them and poured the other into Sarah's and Lee's drinking bottles. Looking down, we got a bird's eye view of the saddle, and we could see the Marangu route trail leading up to Kibo Hut which was at the base of the tremendous scree slope we now had to descend. I now felt good again.

The first several hundred feet below Gilman's Pointare very steep and rocky. There was even a bit of hand and foot climbing. At one very steep place Geoffrey was urgently warning us to be careful. It was called Jamaica rock, after a climber from Jamaica who had slipped and was fatally injured at that point.

We were still meeting a few stragglers coming up the Marangu Route. Many of them looked bad. A couple of ladies were staggering, and probably should not have been up there. I guess their guides thought they could make it, but I would have turned them around.

Soon we reached a place where the slope relented some, and the steep rocks were replaced by a long field of scree. Geoffrey said, "Now we go home." He showed us that we could run it . Sarah and Peter linked arms and took off at an incredible pace, literally running down the hill. Lee and I followed somewhat more slowly. We probably descended 1000 feet in less than 10 minutes. Soon we all got back together for a brief rest stop at Hans Meyer Cave, 17,000 feet. It was so neat to see where Shipton and Tilman had spent the night on their climb back in 1930. It was here that I took off my outer layer, and went from being the man in green to the man in black (Polartec).

We continued our romp down the trail below the cave, and at 9:20 am we reached Kibo Hut. Geoffrey parked us in one of the common rooms, and soon came back with refreshments. Hot tea, orange slices and various kinds of cookies and cakes. After a while we went back outdoors and sat around with Geoffrey, Peter, and a lot of other guides and porters.

After about an hours rest we started. Now we were crossing the broad flat saddle, a really magical place. The trail was really like a super highway, with multiple lanes. No wonder it was so visible from above. Lee and I hiked together, talking about various things, and I noticed we really weren't even breathing hard. Maybe it was the slight downhill. After a couple of miles the trail bent around the foot of a couple of lava hills and started down the slopes of Mawenzi to Horombo Hut.

The huge flat saddle between Mawenzi and Kibo is a strange and wonderful place. It is a huge, flat, high desert plateau that stretches for miles. This entire flat plain is higher than any peak in Colorado. As we were walking across this desert, devoid of vegetation, we chatted with Geoffrey. I asked him about the slowest group that he had ever taken to Uhuru Peak. He told us about a group that took 12 hours (11:00 p.m. to 11:00 a.m.) to reach the summit from Barafu. We had taken six and a half hours. Then we asked about the fastest group that he had ever taken up. In the 10 years that he had been guiding, Geoffrey had one solo climber who had climbed from Barafu Hut to Uhuru Peak in 6 hours! I could have killed him at this point. I though we had been climbing too slow and it turns out that we were only 30 minutes slower than Geoffrey's fastest group ever!

The last couple of miles seemed to drag on. Once I thought I saw a group of huts on a ridge in the distance. But, alas, they were rocks. We kept on hiking. I asked Peter if he was tired. He said, "No." I was. Finally at 2 p.m. we trooped down a final slope and into the Horombo encampment, the largest human settlement on the mountain. (It serves hikers on the tourist route both ascending and descending.)

Chip and Jeffra had made it into Horombo not long ahead of us, after having retreated down the slopes to the Barafu Huts, and then joining the porters as they carried our loads over the circuit path to Horombo. They were glad to see us, and, good people that they were, seemed to take genuine pleasure in the fact that we had made it to the top.

Chip and Jeffra really showed a lot of class. They surely must have been disappointed, and it could have really dampened our high spirits. Instead, they seemed happy to see us and genuinely happy that we made it to the summit. These two good people truly played a part in our success and then helped us to celebrate.

The rest of the afternoon was spent reading in the tents and socializing in the afternoon sun. The weather was perfect, with all the clouds remaining below us. Supper was soup, fried chicken, rice, and a veggie. The food was not imaginative, but neither was the food in the hotel. In fact, it looked like Geoffrey and the hotel chef had trained in the same cooking school.

I slept much better that night, and even had many dreams which I can't now remember.


Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Day 4

Day 6

If you have comments or suggestions, email me at lee.waite@rose-hulman.edu

Copyright 1997 by Lee Waite and Jerry Fine
Rebroadcast or any other use of this document, without the express written consent of Major League Baseball or the authors, is prohibited