After a fitful night's rest, we got dressed and set out for our hike. The weather had gotten steadily colder as we progressed up the mountain and now, setting off at midnight, I was bundled up in four layers of clothing and walking through a light dusting of snow.
The first portion of our hike, to Gilman's Point, was expected to take about 5 hours. If we made it, we would be at the top of the trail head in time to see sunrise.
A few minutes in to our hike, I made an unfortunate realization. Camera flashes, apparently, don't work well in the cold. They don't work well at all. After a few lackluster, fizzly attempts at taking pictures in the dark, my flash lightbulb burned out. And so, unfortunately, I have no photos to accompany the bulk of the hike itself.
We trudged, slowly, up the mountain. We hiked under a gorgeous, vivid ceiling of constellations, the Southern Cross to our left and Orion straight ahead of us. We slowly, achingly zigzagged our way up a snow-covered hillside. As we hiked, we could see tiny points of light above and below us, lines of hikers slowly inching their way up the hillside, miles away from us.
No matter how far we had already gone, there were always points of light far up on the mountainside above us. In the pitch black, the mountain itself was almost impossible to see. The hikers ahead of us looked like they were marching off into the sky, an impossible distance above us. Every time I felt like we had made significant progress, I would look ahead of us and dots of light far ahead of us, warning us of the distance left to travel.
And finally, after hours of hiking, we were there. Hans Brinker Cave. The halfway point. We stopped, ate granola bars, guzzled down water, and tried to convince ourselves that we were going to make it the rest of the way. As we continued upwards, we encountered a small but steady trickle of people hiking down. People who, suffering from altitude sickness, realized that they weren't going to make it to the top and were heading back down to base camp. We were determined not to be among their number.
Sleep deprived, exhausted, aching, we hiked onwards.
We didn't make it to the top before sunrise. We were almost there, scrabbling over the steep, boulder-covered final ascent when we saw a steadily brightening red glow behind us. Behind us, Hans Meyer Point -- the shorter of Kilimanjaro's two peaks -- was bathed in the morning light.
That picture cannot capture the sense of scale. The base of the peak -- near the edge of the snowline -- was miles below us. The large, multi-story cabin we camped near is smaller than the boulders speckling the landscape.
After sitting for a while to appreciate the vista below us, we slowly rose to our feet, put our backpacks on, and trudged the remaining hundred or so meters to the top.
And then, suddenly, miraculously, we were there. Gilman's point. We sat down, took some pictures, drank some tea (thoughtfully brought up by one of our porters) and rested for an hour. I broke out my cell phone and called L ($5 for a call that went straight to voicemail).
We were exhausted, relieved, fulfilled, ecstatic. But, also, not done. Gilman's Point, the top of the trailhead, is not actually the highest point of Kilimanjaro. No, to get there -- Uhuru Peak -- there's another two-hour-long hike. An easier hike. But a hike.
And we almost didn't do it.
After seven hours of hiking, exhausted, unable to breathe, beginnings of sunburns spreading across our face, we sat there, looked at how much further we had to go, and said "Maybe it's not worth it. Maybe we should just go back." The hike back down would take several more hours. And then, once we reached the bottom, we had three more hours of hiking to go before we made it to our final campsite. So, as incredible as it seems to think about now, we very, very nearly turned back.
But thankfully, luckily, we didn't. Through pure force of effort, we slung our bags on our backs, buckled down, and did the remaining hike.
Past glaciers, miles above the clouds, we hiked.
And then, finally, we were there. We looked around, marveled at the vista, took some pictures, and took a slow, easy descent back down the mountain. (For a reminder of what it looked like, check out my panorama picture from a few posts back).
The rest of the hike down was a bit of a blur. We stumbled down the (amazingly steep, in the daylight) hillside back to basecamp. And then, two days of hiking later, we were at the camp entrance, and done.
It was an amazing trip. I'm ecstatic I did it. I'm thrilled that I made it all the way to the top. And I will never do something like it again.