Kilimanjaro Day 7: Kili Cocaine Gets You To The Summit

Monday, January 21, 2019
Start: Barafu Hut Camp 4673m (15,331 ft.)
Stop: Millenium High Camp 3950m (12,960 ft.)
Distance: 13.2km (8.2 miles)
Gain: 1222m (4,010 ft.)
Loss: 1945m (6,381 ft.)

Mwita taps at the tent at 11pm and we have 30 minutes to get to the mess tent. Since I’m wearing about half of my layers it doesn’t take too long to get dressed. When I emerge from the tent there are already lines of headlamp-lit hikers moving up the mountain. Me and Jesper are the first in the mess tent where there’s hot tea and biscuits. I eat a couple as I put on my gaiters. One last pee and then it’s time. The guides help me don my large, cumbersome gloves and then Future has to lengthen my trekking pole straps just to fit my mitts through. I’m thinking to myself oh no, oh no, I’m not cold enough. Given my body’s struggle to regulate its temperature I’ve learned that if I don’t start hiking feeling chilled that I will overheat and have to soon stop to remove layers. As I fumble into my gloves and poles I hear Caspar calling, “Number 3.” Oh great, that’s me. Each hiker has their own number and we will always be in this numerical order during our ascent.

I’m behind Number 2 Mama Simba and my headlamp illuminates the back of her legs. Her gaiters have a splash of purple around each calf. We haven’t gone very far and I’m overheating. I really shouldn’t let myself sweat but I’m feeling like I can’t ask to stop since we’ve only just begun. Finally, I build up the courage to say something and everyone has to stop for me. I shed layer number 5 rain jacket, layer number 4 down jacket, outer gloves, and the buff around my neck. Ignas stuffs my layers into his pack and I wrap the buff around my wrist. We’re soon on the move again and I feel so much better. This steep rocky climb no longer seems like a challenge. The porters help hoist us up through the rocks and sometimes they pull me up before I’ve even had a chance to propel my own self upward. They pull with such force that it throws my breathing off every time and it takes minutes to settle back into a rhythmic pattern.

The full moon is not shining and there’s darkness all around. My entire world is only my headlamp light, Mama Simba’s purple gaiters and the dark soil below my feet. This sphere is mesmerizing. Whether its the darkness or the altitude, it gets hard to tell how much time has passed. There’s porters hiking in the dark next to our path and at some point someone takes my backpack from me. I keep pulling my hooded sun shirt across my neck. It slips away and I move it back. I’m doing it without thinking about the why until I realize that maybe what’s bothering me is the freezing cold against the thyroidectomy scar on my neck. I stop, pull the buff off my wrist and wrap it around my neck. It immediately feels better and the pain goes away.

Pole pole we put one foot in front of the other. I’m uncomfortable and I can’t tell if I’m cold or if I’m hot. I feel like I’m sweating but I’m actually rather cold. Something clicks in my brain and I remember that this happens to me all the time. As if I didn’t have enough temperature challenges, I sweat when I’m cold. I’m reluctant to stop but I know that I need to get my layers back on. I try not to look but there’s people along the side of the trail that don’t seem to be doing well. Later on, I stop to pee which is a whole ordeal of extracting myself from my poles and outer gloves. I hadn’t really realized that we had porters assigned us until Joseph is there waiting for me. He helps me get back into my big gloves and trekking poles. We catch up with the group and they’re just finishing a break.

I hike in a daze as my eyes keeping wanting to shut on me and I literally take steps with my eyes closed. I keep pushing out of my sleepy state, focusing on the flash of Mama Simba’s purple gaiters. I have moments of intense clarity before slipping back. Maybe sensing we needed a little motivation, a porter puts on music. Bob Marley and Willie Nelson ring out over the flanks of Kili. I have a big smile just listening to the music and hearing everyone singing. When the music stops the porters sing a beautiful lullaby but it puts me back in a trance.

This puts you in a trance, right? It’s this for 6+ hours.

At some point I see the full moon poking out. It’s only then that I’m reminded that we were supposed to be hiking under her brightness. We push on for who knows how long and then I’m told to sit on a rock. Joseph gives me water and then he massages my legs. Caspar is there in front of me and he’s saying ahhhhh, to which I open my mouth and he pours in some unknown powdery substance. Oh my god, what the hell is that? Joseph has more water for me as the mystery powder slowly dissolves in my mouth.

At the next break I hear that we’ve got another 1-1.5 hours until Stella Point. Basically, if you can make Stella Point the summit should be easy after that. And then we only have 40 minutes until Stella Point. While I repeat the mantra only 40 minutes in my head, Joseph comes up and pulls my headlamp off my head. Without me realizing, the world has started to turn pink. It’s the most incredible pink hue I’ve ever seen and I want to stop and look at it but I’m falling behind Mama Simba. It takes my eyes quite a while to adjust to the natural light as I slowly catch up.

I’m trying to use my peripheral vision to see the view but I know that I better stay focused and keep my head down. I’m not looking ahead but the incline feels like it has gotten steeper. I’m getting hot and starting to sweat. I’m falling off the pace no matter how hard I try to keep up with Mama Simba. Next thing I know Caspar is telling me to step off the trail. As the group continues past, Caspar pours some more powder into my mouth. It turns out to be glucose aka Kili cocaine. He pours some powder into water and I drink that too. Standing there just a few minutes helps cool me down and I feel a ton better. We get back on trail and I look up to see Stella Point just a few semi-switchbacks away.

At Stella Point they want me to sit on a jagged chunk of rock but the thought of that cold basalt on my ass does not seem appealing. So me and Joseph push on. At first, the trail is virtually flat and it’s easy to chat with Joseph. As Future catches up with us, Joseph gets out my sunglasses and puts them on my head for me. Then he tucks some wisps of my hair behind my ear so they won’t tickle my face. We’re in the middle of a cloud but for just a moment I catch a glimpse of the Rebmann Glacier. The crater is to my right but I can’t really see that either. There’s just enough wind pulling past my face that my exposed skin stings. Before I know it we’re there. Uhuru Peak at 5895 meters (19,341 feet). Highest point in Africa and the highest freestanding mountain in the world. Joseph gives me a big hug and then Caspar too. First a few pictures by myself and then Joseph joins me. As the last of us trickle in, we get a group picture with all hikers, guides and porters just before 8am. BTW, it’s not just the Kili cocaine that gets you to the summit. It’s ALL the guides and porters. Every single one! Pretty sure I wouldn’t have made it without Joseph carrying my pack, which was heavy with water, and without some extra Kili cocaine and care from Caspar.

8 guides and porters for us 7 hikers

And then just like that it’s time to get the hell out. Thinking we’re suppose to stick together I follow who I think is Jun Kyu. He’s stumbling around a bit and clearly having a hard time. I pull up to his right and it turns out to be Fred. I ask if he’s ok and he responds yes. So I pull back into line and carry on. Fred shuffles to his right and the next thing I know he’s flirting with a fall into the abyss off the side of the trail. I call out and Joseph spins around and grabs him. They walk arm in arm back to Stella Point. Joseph snaps my picture at Stella and then we start trotting down the mountain. Looking down, I can’t believe that this is what we just hiked up. We stop and Joseph puts chapstick on my cracked lips. Not much longer after, I have to stop and remove upper layers 5, 4, outer gloves and I wrap my buff around my wrist. Joseph opens up his backpack and inside is my pack. He stuffs my gear in as Future says that I should get going and that Joseph will catch up with me. Porter Ivan is there as we start down together. We start to push the speed but I can sense that he’s hesitating. He’s kinda checking to see what I’m capable of and then he says ok, now I know you can do this. So we jet down, surfing our way through churned volcanic soil. At a point I catch a glimpse of Barafu and OMG it’s so small and so so far away. I’m getting thirsty but Joseph hasn’t caught up with my pack so I have no water. Ivan gives me some of his and then we’re maneuvering down the mountain trying to tactfully pass group after group. We pass many people who are laboring and having a hard time. There’s people being carried and people looking virtually lifeless on the side of the trail. Ivan’s English is really good and we have a great conversion as we jet down the mountain. What’s in his pack? Oxygen.

Out of nowhere come three of our porters up the mountain, one of them Reison. I sit on a rock and they give me two glasses of juice. I can’t even tell you what kind of juice it was but I do know that it was the best juice I’ve ever had!! I’m getting cold so it’s time to move. The porters continue up the mountain as we launch ourselves downward. Uh oh, a group of porters head up past us carrying a stretcher. Ivan asks if we can pick up the pace as it’s starting to hail on us. There’s still no sign of Joseph so I have no layers to add. We arrive at the top of the rock face above Barafu and move quickly but carefully. The rock is wet and it would be so easy to slip. I arrive back at camp about 10:15am, damp and thirsty. I go and sit in the mess tent for a bit and drink some water. I probably look totally out of it as one of the porters takes what I’m sure is a terrible selfie with me. I finally make my way to my tent and Ivan is still with me. He even insists on helping me take off my muddy boots.

We have to be back at the mess tent for lunch by noon. Begrudgingly I change out of my wet clothes even though we’ve got to be dressed for hiking when we arrive for lunch. Our duffels have to be all packed too. My head swirls with awe as I lay there listening to the hail. At some point, Joseph arrives and gives me my pack. I fall asleep briefly before we get the wake-up call at 11:30am. Deflating and packing my XTherm sleeping pad makes me 5 minutes late for lunch. Because I got wet during the scramble down from the summit I’m still quite chilled. Even laying in my sleeping bag for an hour hasn’t warmed me up. I throw my damp layers on underneath my bulky green rain jacket, add my thick fleece buff and I’m ready for more.

Leaving Barafu

I remember being so fucking hungry during the climb to the summit. Now that there’s lunch before me, it seems that I should be devouring it. But the hunger has passed and I eat a minimal lunch. Caspar tells us what he would not tell us the day before. Someone died the night before we arrived at Barafu. They have to hide the body during the day and then haul them out during the night so that people won’t see. Mama and Toto Simba, Jesper, Katelyn and me hike out with Future after lunch. It’s snowing/hailing and the ground is covered in white. Jesper’s knee is bothering him so I hang back with him. We descend another 2,300 ft. out of the snow and into the rain. Scattered along the trail are these one-wheeled gurneys. I guess they stretcher people down from Barafu and then get them onto these for the rest of the way to the Mweka Gate. We arrive at Millenium Camp, sign in and wait for our tent city to be erected. There’s a short period of time before 4pm tea and I’m excited to have some hot chocolate. We also have to crunch the numbers and figure out how we will tip all of our guides and porters. It’s a hard task at the end of a long day but we eventually arrive at a conclusion just before we have our tipping ceremony. In an effort of transparency, every porter is told what tip they get . The porters sing and get us to dance with them.

I eat a minimal dinner and Caspar tells us Kili stories. Us ladies tell Caspar that the no underwear idea didn’t work out so well. Everyone is tired and we go to bed when there’s still a wisp of daylight out.