How do you climb to the top of a really tall mountain? One small step at a time. And that is literally true. The Swahili phrase said over and over is Pole Pole (Po-lay) and it means slow or little by little. I learned this when I was in Kenya several years ago. East Africans approach many things in this way. But it has a whole new meaning to me now because it originated from the Mt. Kilimanjaro approach- small, slow steps. The Tanzanian Guides would observe our hiking technique and advise us to take smaller steps. Dave Hahn, our experienced American Guide, would tell us if we are taking a large step causing us to really reach with our legs then we probably missed a small step in between. Taking large steps uses lots of muscle and energy that you will need later, higher up the mountain. The more energy you can conserve on the easier parts the more gas you have in the tank for later. They were always looking at the end game and not just that day’s hike.
We spent 5 days hiking around this massive mountain in order to try and prepare for summit day. Part of that was to try and sleep as many nights at high altitude as we could fit in. 5 nights into it and we were as ready as we could be in such limited time. Interestingly enough we were told to bring Diamox, a medicine to help fight altitude sickness. Everyone I knew who climbed Kili had taken it. Dave said taking it prophylacticly was old school medicine and that modern climbing medicine protocol was wait and see how you feel and use breathing techniques first to get rid of a headache. Then use Advil. Then if symptoms persist start taking the Diamox. So I never took a single pill.
The other 5 hikes we did were nothing compared to summit day. We did an alpine start so we finished dinner by 6:30, crawled in bed around 7:00 PM. Some people actually slept but most of just rested until 11:30 PM. Then we got up, ate a light breakfast, and hit the trail about 12:45 AM. We started walking straight up with Naimen as our lead guide. We were all in a perfect row behind him stepping in time with each other, pressure breathing together. We walked about an hour and 20 minutes and then stopped for a break. About 2:15 AM we started again. The wind was picking up at this point and since it was still dark outside we were using headlamps but obviously did not have our sunglasses on. It was sometime during this walk that I began to notice some blurry vision. Once again my right eye looked like someone poured a glass of milk into it. Slowly my vision in my right eye got blurrier and blurrier until all I could see was the light of my head lamp but nothing specific on the ground. I hesitated telling Dave because I knew this was not going to go well but I finally called him over and shared what was going on. He told me to protect my eye from the wind. By this time it felt like the wind was blowing about 20-30 mph and it was really slow going for us. We should have made it to the summit by sunrise at 6:20AM but we were still hours away from the top.
Breaks are critical stops where we would quickly bundle up to keep from getting cold. We would eat some high calorie food and drink some water. We would use the bathroom on the side of the mountain if needed (at that high altitude most everything is slowing down so that was not an issue for me.) We took 4 breaks walking up the mountain and arrived at 9:00 AM to Stella Point which is the rim of the crater from where we approached the top. We then had an hour more hike to reach Uhuru Peak where we arrived at 10:00 AM.
My problem at this point was my stupid eye had thrown me off my rhythm. I essentially climbed 2500′ on summit day with only one pole. At one point Dave told me if I didn’t protect my eye he would send me back down. I was having none of that. I handed him my right pole and held my right hand over my eye and used only one pole the rest of the way (a total of 5 more hours).
I was so glad when the sun came up because I was trying to keep my right eye out of the wind and was having a hard time seeing. I was not able to keep my typically military rhythm of rest stepping because my balance was off because of my altered depth perception and I was constantly adjusting to avoid the wind on my eye. So by the time we got to the top, I was more tired then I should have been. I had wasted more energy summiting than I would have normally. I still was feeling ok physically but my muscles were quickly fading.
Add to that it felt like I was moving in slow motion. My body kept moving but I didn’t have much control over my legs. With that strong wind, it was tough tagging the top. At one point Dave had me follow his steps to get me to the summit sign quicker. After taking our pictures I snapped a few more pics and then it was time to go. Because the ice channels on the top of the mountain were so tricky with the unusually high wind, Dave grabbed my hand and led me through the channels. He was moving fast and I was just focusing on keeping up with him!
When we passed Stella Point and began our descent we were facing what is called volcanic scree. This is loose dirt and volcanic ash that you just slide through. Dave eventually grabbed my hand again and made me take giant steps to get me down faster. Apparently at this point most everyone was affected by the altitude in one way or another and Dave wanted us down as quickly as possible.
Dave eventually handed me off to one of my favorite native guides, Freddy. Freddy took my arm and just helped me walk faster down the mountain. So grateful for him!
To understand how fast we were going what took us 8 hours to go up earlier that day only took us 2 hours to go down! We were back in camp in no time packing up our stuff and having a quick brunch because believe it or not, we still had 4 more hours of downward hiking to go. Needless to say it was a quiet brunch and most of us barely felt like eating.
Off we went and 3.5 hours later at 4:30 we were cruising into our final campsite at 10,000 feet. Everyone felt much better regarding altitude side effects, just some sore muscles and lots of Advil! 12:45 AM start with a 4:30 PM finish involved 14.5 hours of the most difficult hiking I’ve ever done. Moving from snow and ice back down to tropical trees and high moisture was mind boggling! Needless to say I slept like a baby that night- 9 hours straight!
It was one of the physically hardest things I’ve ever done. Mentally I never thought once about stopping but there were moments when I just wasn’t sure I could will my body to do what it needed to do. But with some help, I accomplished the end goal.
Seeing the sunrise where the entire horizon turned a bright orange was beautiful. The joy of tagging the top was a lifetime memory our team will share. The sheer beauty in each of the eco-zones we traversed was magnificent all in one day! The feeling of accomplishment was satisfying in a profound way. The encouragement of others was life giving for all of us when we needed it most.
I give thanks for your prayer, your interest, and your curiosity about this experience. If you ever want to try high altitude adventures I strongly recommend using RMI to help you do it safely.
There is nothing that will ground your faith more than being on a serious mountain top and be reminded how magnificent our God is.
When I look up at your skies,
at what your fingers made— the moon and the stars
that you set firmly in place—
what are human beings
that you think about them;
what are human beings
that you pay attention to them?– Psalm 8:3-4. CEB
Grace and Peace,