Building Snowmen at the Summit of Kilimanjaro

The 6-day Machame route takes you through every terrain possible. And nearly every climactic zone as well. We started our trek up Mt. Kilimanjaro through rainforest, and our entire first day can be summed up in one word: wet. Boots proclaiming to be waterproof were proven to be posers - our entire group, sporting Merrells and Asolos, had rain sloshing through our socks and shoes by the early afternoon. By the time we arrived at our first base camp, it was pretty much an expected disappointment to find our sleeping bags and sleeping mats had been soaked through.

For the next several days, any trails below 4500 meters were predictably unpredictable. Our late December start coincided with the mvuli, or short rainy season in Tanzania - which translates to bouts of drizzling rain, peeks of radiant sun, blankets of thick fog, and torrential downpours all within the span of an afternoon. An early acceptance that our tents, sleeping bags, and trekking clothes would never be completely dry turned miserable dampness into tolerable humidity.

I adopted a classic trick that was passed down to me by a 56-year-old French backpacker I'd met in the Andes: sleep with any damp clothes or socks in your sleeping bag, and by the time morning rolls around, they'll be remarkably drier because of your natural body heat. Even though I probably slept an average of 3-4 hours each night on Kilimanjaro, it was somehow so satisfying to wake up and pull semi-dry socks out of my sleeping bag.

The 4 1/2 days preceding summit day were, to be blunt, anticlimactic. I'd been spoiled by treks through the Himalayas and the Andes, and for the entire Kili trek, I craved vistas of mountain ranges extending horizontally in each cardinal direction. Mt. Kilimanjaro, as the highest free-standing mountain, afforded none of that. There were no other peaks, save for a single Mt. Meru in the distance. It's a bit depressing to hike for 4 days through intermittent bouts of rain, only catching temporary glimpses of the summit when the fog lifts and the rain clears.

The night of the summit, under a near-full moon, our group (minus 2 who succumbed to AMS - acute mountain sickness) set off at midnight, head lamps directing our dragging feet. Our single-file line of m'gunzus (Swahili for white foreigners), interlaced with Tanzanian porters, trudged up the scree on switchback trails, occasionally running into human traffic jams of slower groups holding up quicker-paced groups. Porters repeatedly nudged us with the now-all-too-familiar phrases of "Pole, pole" (Swahili for 'slowly, slowly') and "Haraka Haraka haina baraka" (Swahili for 'Hurry hurry has no blessing').

Our consistent and steady pace was a perfect match with the sunrise. I arrived at the summit of Mt. Kili and stood at 5895 meters 5 minutes before the sun glared over the horizon. Every prior grumbling about the lack of sun and panoramic views, every morning waking up sleep-deprived, stinky, damp, and bruised, every raindrop that kept me fighting off an interminable cold, was suddenly worth it. Towards the East, Mt. Meru peeked over a blanket of morning fog, and to its left, an iridescent wall of glaciers were the highlight of the summit. The rising sun instantly made the summit tolerable, as my near-frost-bitten fingers slowly dethawed to a degree that I could actually operate my camera.

I spent nearly 20 minutes at the summit, dancing and singing with Lobulu, our head guide who had stayed behind with me as the rest of the group impatiently headed down to base camp, where hot tea and breakfast awaited. Running back down the switchbacks and literally skiing down the scree of the no-longer-active-volcano with Megan, I slapped high-5's with trekkers trudging up to the summit as I gaily skipped down. The glaciers of Mt. Kili had given me the natural high and endorphin rush only afforded by nature.

It took only 90 minutes to make it down to base camp, where a Tanzanian greeted me with a glass of sugary juice and a plate of sugared popcorn balls. As Elle filtered into camp, then Amrit and Nick, followed by Phebe, Megan and I giddily congratulated them on a successful summit and bombarded them with "Wasn't it awesome? Did you see the glaciers? We're so happy - we've already planned our next trip to Aconcagua in Argentina!"

A lazy late-morning nap and a proper meal later, we were only missing one from our group. We all began to worry about our 11th man. It was 13 hours after we had set off at midnight, and Vijay's red jacket wasn't visible from base camp. Several porters were sent with juice and a thermos of tea to rehydrate him. At about 2 pm, Vijay and a crew of about 5 porters strolled into camp. His lips were parched and he was clearly dehydrated, but he was lucid and relieved to have made it back to camp. Summit day was inarguably the most difficult day of the Machame route up Kili...and the most rewarding.

There are certain moments in life that can't be captured through the lens of a video recorder or camera, and that's exactly how I felt at the summit of Kilimanjaro. Even though my hands and toes were frozen, and I hadn't slept more than 3 hours the night before, the sheer bliss when surrounded by glaciers, viewing a 360* panorama of clouds and curved horizons, and shouting "Harry Ya Mwaka Impia!" (Swahili for 'Happy New Year!') with Phebe and 2 Tanzanian guides, was an adrenaline rush of happiness, mile-wide smiles, and contagious laughter.

To view my Tanzania album, click here.

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