Climbing Kilimanjaro is challenging. And nothing causes more excitement than the final push to the summit.
While most other days are pretty tame by comparison, summit night is very strenuous. It begins with a wake up call in the middle of the night, followed by a 4,000 foot climb in cold, dark and windy conditions. Then after a celebration at the top, climbers must descent about 9,000 feet.
If you’ve acclimatized well, then the altitude may not inhibit you that much. But the sheer amount of energy required to tackle the peak may leave you exhausted.
Below our past clients describe what the experience was like for them on summit night.
“We did not stop to take breaks for fear that the cold and fatigue would prevent us from getting up and carrying on again.” – Karen Vielle
After the first four days of easy walking, I have to admit that I found summit night surprisingly difficult, even knowing what to expect.
I’m a mountaineer, I’m used to 12-hour summit climbs that start at midnight. I had been above 18,000 feet before and handled the altitude well (although on that trip I had about two weeks to acclimate, not five days).
On the Rongai Route, summit day was a 12- to 14-hour push from our high camp at 15,400 feet to 19,345 feet and back. It started very early, in the dark, with a long, slow plod on what felt like walking up a gravel mound for hours.
After each step up it felt like I slid a half step back down. This was during the cooler, drier season on the mountain and my hands were very cold. They should have been fine inside my super-insulated mittens and down parka pockets. I don’t know what the actual temperature was, but those mittens had served me well on much colder climbs. It was probably the lack of oxygen in my blood stream causing my extremities to feel so cold.
We did not eat after leaving camp, as the guides were concerned that food at this altitude would cause nausea. We did not stop to take breaks for fear that the cold and fatigue would prevent us from getting up and carrying on again. We just kept walking very slowly up the mountain. Then the youngest of our guides began to sing. When we could no longer even catch our breath to speak, he sang old hymns to carry us along.
Eventually, we crested the top of this loose scree trail, which was the east rim of the volcano. We stopped there to watch the sun rise, but we were already in the clouds. We continued around the rim toward the summit, and at the top of the ridge, the route leveled off.
I felt tired. I was sleepy, but not physically exhausted. I knew this was a normal symptom of altitude and that there was nothing seriously wrong. So I just focused on putting one foot in front of the other. When the sun finally began to shine through the clouds, I knew all was well. We were still in a cloud bank, but I could see the last of the old majestic glaciers. We were going to make it.
Nine out of our original group of 13 stood on the summit. I felt cold and nauseated from the altitude. We didn’t tarry. We shared congratulatory high-fives, took our pictures, and immediately started back down. I realized that my symptoms were indeed caused by the altitude when, as we descended, I felt much better and my energy levels soon returned to normal.
We quickly lost elevation, literally running all the way down the scree, which had taken so long to hike up that morning. It was fun, like plunge-step running through deep snow. Soon we could see our porters approaching us on the trail. They brought thermoses of hot tea and took our packs. The mood was festive, and they celebrated with us.
We had a short break and a hearty meal after returning to camp, then we continued walking halfway back down the mountain. As we walked into the afternoon, the fine moon-like dust gave way to trees and we cemented the connections made by sharing such a unique experience together.
“More mentally and physically exhausting than any other hike I have ever done.” – Lenore Parr
Everything we had worked for in the months of training for the hike and the initial days on the mountain all came down to summit night. Excitement, along with nervousness engulfed me as we started our final ascent to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.
Before embarking on the final ascent, we attempted to get a few hours of sleep at the Barafu campsite at 15,000+ feet above sea level. I was not well-rested as we started the final push as the high altitude prevented me from falling asleep. The initial ascent started right at midnight, which was intimidating in and of itself, but made being at the summit for sunrise possible. As I crawled out from the warmth of our tent, the cold winds made me a little anxious as I worried how much colder it would get as we climbed up another 4,000 feet.
While it got colder the higher we ascended and there was no barrier to protect us from the strong winds, I always felt warm enough. I followed Peak Planet’s recommendations on how to dress on summit night, and our guide doublechecked what we were wearing before we left the campsite to ensure we were dressed adequately.
The initial segment of the ascent was extremely rigorous as we followed our incredible guide in the dark. It felt as if we were climbing up a rock wall. Hiking with headlights, with the only remaining light from the moon and stars, was challenging. When we looked up, the little lights from other hikers’ headlights served as a constant reminder of how much higher we still needed to climb.
The breaks were short – never longer than 3 minutes at a time. My backpack felt heavier the higher we ascended. My water bladder froze within two hours. Based on the recommendations from our guides, we had placed water bottles upside down in our pockets, since the water on the top of the bottle freezes first. We had plenty of water and our guides surprised us with hot tea and crackers when we made it to Stella Point, which refueled our bodies and our spirits.
The stars were like nothing I had ever seen. They were directly in front of us when we looked outward from the mountain, above us, and on either side of us. They felt within reach if I extended my hands in front of me to grab one. I felt myself constantly being in awe looking at the stars, which was a nice distraction from the challenge of the hike.
The steps kept getting harder and felt longer the higher we climbed. Our guide kept providing uplifting words and making us smile, even when it felt hard to do so. As the air got thinner the higher we climbed, my head started to ache. I focused on my breathing, taking slow and easy deep breaths in and out. I focused on maintaining positivity and reminding myself that the summit was within reach.
Once we passed a series of rocks, it felt as if I were walking up a beach at a 35 to 40-degree angle, except on dirt instead of sand. My heels and toes never seemed to pass the other. It was one step forward and two steps backward. The steepest and most difficult part of the entire trek was the final 45-minute push to Stella Point. Knowing how much closer we were to the summit helped muster up the energy and determination we needed to forge onwards and upwards.
The 5.5 hours of hiking up to Stella Point tested our physical and mental strength. Reaching that milestone was energizing. From there, it was a relatively easy stroll to the summit, which took us less than an hour. Spectacular glaciers and ice cliffs were visible. The sun slowly started to come up providing us with much-desired warmth. The breathtaking views were even more astounding with the changing colors from the sunrise.
The remainder of the hike was not very steep. It was still difficult since we were at high altitude and continuing to gain a little more. The summit sign in the distance was motivating. We made it to the summit at 6:25 am. Being up there felt rewarding, satisfying, and intensely relieving. The journey, while arduous, made making it to the top more rewarding. We soaked in the views and the feeling of making it.
The descent was simply fun. With every step downward, I gained energy. We passed on words of encouragement to those making it closer. The way down from Stella Point was like sand skiing. Making it down to the applause and cheers from our beloved porters and team was invigorating. We were back down to the comforts of our camp at 9 a.m. A delicious hot breakfast and a nap were waiting for us before continuing down to the next and final campsite.
Summit night was more mentally and physically exhausting than any other hike I have ever done. But I felt prepared and capable since I had followed the advice provided by Peak Planet on how to plan and train for the hike. Summit night made the earlier days on the mountain feel like a cakewalk in comparison. Taken separately, the earlier days of hiking were no more difficult than an average day of hiking elsewhere.
While it felt great to be heading back down the mountain to continued warmth, vegetation, and a comfy bed and hot shower coming soon, I was deeply saddened to be leaving our team. Their dedication, hard work, and expertise were paramount to our success. We had bonded with them immensely and I knew how much I was going to miss all of their smiling faces.
“I have never been so cold in my life.” – Kimberly Phillips
The last camp on the Northern Route was at School Hut (15,500 ft). After arriving in the early afternoon, we drank hot tea, ate a snack, and rested. I started organizing my clothing for what I would wear the next day for the summit climb.
At dinner there was nervous anticipation, yet confidence that we would be successful in reaching the summit.
Even with an early bedtime and excitement of the pending climb, I slept soundly.
We were awakened early, around midnight, to get ready for our summit climb. As I got out of my tent and to head out on the long final push, I stopped and took it all in.
“This is it! This is what I’ve been dreaming of for so long!” I said to myself.
It was a full moon. The sky was stunning – there weren’t many clouds. So many stars were visible.
The moonlight created an almost otherworldly aura. It provided a beautiful light by which to trek.
However, the clear skies also made for a very chilly experience. I have never been so cold in my life. I dressed in multiple layers – two layers of base layer tights, fleece-lined pants, two base layer shirts, fleece top, and windproof outercoat. I wore a fleece hat, the hood on my coat over the hat, glove liners and insulated gloves, and two pairs of socks. My hands were the coldest part. We had hot hand warmers activated to provide extra warmth, and packed extras in our daypacks in case we needed them during the trek.
The climb itself was much tougher than any of the previous days. The cold, the steep ascent, and the altitude all combined to make it difficult. Mentally, I had to keep my head in the game and tell myself just to keep moving, that every little step I made was getting me closer to my goal.
Henry, our guide, would give words of encouragement and let us how we were doing. If we said we needed a quick break he let us do so, but for only for a few seconds, lest we got too comfortable. Then the altitude would likely cause us to lose the motivation to continue moving.
My awareness of time was hazy that morning, but it took us about 5 and a half hours to reach the first milestone, Gilman’s Point (18,600 ft). Just before we reached it one of my fellow trekkers rubbed my back and said, “We made it!” We stood at the view point, toasting the moment with hot tea out of a thermos that Henry had carried for us, and ate a cracker. We watched the sun rise over an incredible view.
But we weren’t finished – we still needed to reach Uhuru Peak (19,341 ft). So off we went! With the sun in the sky the temperature change was dramatic.
It wasn’t long before we reached Uhuru Peak, hugged each other, and Henry. I had so many emotions at reaching the summit – happiness, joy, exhaustion, and relief! We took photos and walked around exploring, just taking everything in and acknowledging that all our hard efforts were worth it. We did it!
Soon it was time to begin the descent down to Barafu Camp where we would take a break before continuing to Millenium Camp for the night. The first part of the descent was steep and difficult, but not bad when taken slowly. And it was amazing at how quickly the breathing became easier. We smiled the whole way down, laughing and talking about our wonderous experience. After the steep descent the trek was not difficult.
Summit day is a long day, but one of the most magical you will ever experience.
“The mountain was asking one final time for me to prove my mettle.” – Ed Patrick
The day before the summit was a pleasantly flat, albeit arduous slog across “the Saddle” toward Kibo Hut. There, we ate and drank as much as we could stomach, and really enjoyed that time with our team, knowing our greatest challenge was looming. We retired to our tents early, wearing our clothing layers inside our sleeping bags, expecting the knock on our tent at 11PM.
Spirits were high during “breakfast,” though nobody really ate much. After our pre-climb briefing, we set off in unison toward Uhuru Peak. Before we had even begun our ascent, we came upon a climber on a stretcher receiving emergency treatment, an image we tried hard to shake for the next hour or so.
Zig-zagging our way up the volcanic scree, I could only see the back of other climbers’ legs in front of me. During moments of rest, I turned and peered down the mountain at the line of headlamps winding up the trail like glow-in-the-dark ants.
After hours of climbing, I looked up and saw the stars – once broadly divided by the massive volcano on which we imposed our will – starting to converge in the middle. A few steps later, I heard people stirring with excitement. Gilman’s Point! I was overcome to the point of tears but forced myself to not waste the energy. Our guides surprised us with hot tea as we gathered and watched the sun beaming from beneath the horizon. It was the proudest I’d ever felt – of myself, my girlfriend, and my climbing team.
We soon set off toward Stella Point. It was a bit unnerving looking down into the massive crater as we exhaustedly negotiated the rough, snow- and ice-covered terrain, but it was incredibly beautiful nonetheless. The stretch between Gilman’s and Stella Points marked the final segment of the summit push where I felt like success was imminent.
At Stella Point, a massive headache flipped on like a light switch, and it felt like the mountain was asking one final time for me to prove my mettle. At Gilman’s Point, I thought the traverse around the crater rim to the summit would be little more than a victory lap, but it instead became a race against time and severe altitude sickness. Hiking most of this final stretch with my head down to avoid the pain-inducing sunlight, I eventually heard the sound of people celebrating and looked up to discover we were only 50 yards shy of the summit sign.
The tears swelled over that final stretch, as I thought about that very first hike back home that set this all into motion, how hard we worked to prepare for this moment, and how close I was to giving it all up only hours before. I beamed inwardly with my final few steps as I remembered I had other unfinished business to tend to. We erupted in tears in front of the summit sign and held each other as if we’d fall off the mountain if we let go. We were really standing on top of Mount Kilimanjaro.
I’d planned for months to propose to my girlfriend at the summit. But in the intoxication of my altitude sickness, I forgot to take a knee. Instead I pulled away from my girlfriend and clumsily murmured, “I was wondering if you would like to be my wife?”
“Of course,” she tearfully replied, and with that, the pain of what we’d endured was washed away.
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