• Alma Lopez-Tilghman

Kilimanjaro Day 6 - Heading to the Summit

It's 11pm and I hear Winnie's delicate voice outside my tent saying "Warm water for washing." It's time to get up, the day we've been waiting for is finally here, summit day! It's completely dark and with only my headlamp and iPhone to provide light, I washy washy, gear up, and drink some ginger tea before heading outside.

The moon is the only thing you see as you ascend to the summit.

It's freezing and pitch dark outside, my guide, Joseph starts walking as I walk behind him. Although, I cannot see a thing, I trust him and make my slow ascend up the mountain, never looking back, just moving forward. About 3 hours into the hike, we start to get snow flurries and it starts to feel even colder. I start to question the gear I bought but tell myself it's pointless to think about this now. I'm here and have to do my best with what I have. Travel teaches you to be resourceful. After about 4 hours my back begins to ache, I stop to take a very short break and then keep going. The snow is now getting worse, I constantly have to wipe the moisture from my glasses but luckily no altitude sickness.

It's at the 6th hour of hiking that we really start to see the dramatic change in weather. The light flurries have turned into a blizzard of snow. It's very hard to see what lies just a few feet in front of us and my hair and drinking water are literally frozen. I even forget my guide's name and Joseph says this is a mild sign of AMS, as the lack of oxygen can contribute to memory loss. Minutes later I remember his name. I now see someone from our group coming down and Lawrence, the lead guide, is instructing us to start descending, as due to the snow storm there are no longer any possibilities for emergency evacuation if we go higher and we must go down immediately.

Break time. Everything is soaking wet.

I'm speechless and very disappointed that we are not allowed to keep ascending to the summit, but as our guide kept saying, the mountain will be there, you're life is more important, I knew this was the smart decision but still I was disappointed. I cried as I thought of how hard I had worked for the last 9 months and how in my mind I never had any doubts that I would not make it. I was so self-assured. I visualized myself at Uhuru Peak and never in my mind did I think that the weather would be a reason for not reaching the summit. I did give myself credit for climbing to the height of 17,820 feet, higher than I had ever gone, and only 1,500 feet shy of reaching the summit. To the surprise of the guides, I made it further than others in my group.

Low visibility ascending Kilimanjaro.

As I sat at the part of the mountain called Jamaica Rocks, I saw grown European men who looked like triathletes coming down and vomiting off the sides of the mountain. Apparently the altitude sickness had caught up to them. I shared my Trader Joe's ginger candies with them as we all rested for a few minutes. Their faces were red, blistered and bloated but they kept saying they did not have frostbite. Whatever it was, it was not cute.

As I make my descend, it is now very slippery and I find that I have to hold onto Joseph's arm in order to make it down safely. Many parts of our descend were much harder than the way up, especially after already having walked 6 hours in a snow storm. Another 2 hours of this and I'm back at basecamp.

Once at basecamp, we rest for 90 minutes and hit the road again for another 6-7 hour walk to our final camp, as we prepare to make our way to the exit of Kilimanjaro National Park. Be prepared to walk 13-16 hours on summit day, as it takes 6-8 hours to ascend and another 6-7 hours to come down to the final camp.

I still could not believe we had not made it to Uhuru Peak. At first, I told myself, screw this, I have nothing to prove, I've gone far enough, further than most will ever go and I don't ever have to do this again but when I got to basecamp, I knew I'd be back. I needed to finish those last 1,500 feet and I'd come back as many times as I had to until I reached my goal.

My plan is to be back August 2021.

Frozen hair don't care.

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