After seven days on the largest freestanding mountain in the world, our team of eleven incredible, yet exhausted, women has returned to Arusha safely. It is day 21, the final day of the 2011 3 Peaks 3 Weeks Challenge. We’ve made it.
The past week has flown by, although at times, I thought it would never end. Day one was full of anticipation and excitement. We rallied at the gate, and headed up the trail with a final wave goodbye to Laura. The hike through the forest was beautiful and majestic. Lunch was served to us on the trail, in a typical Summits Africa style: long table, table cloth, chairs, fitting for any restaurant. We were clearly the envy of other climbers, as many stopped to take our photo. We made it to Machame Hut (3,000m) just in time for the rain, which thankfully only lasted for that night. There was no going back now; we were on our way up peak number three.
Day two led us out of the forest. Again, we were blessed by a wonderful lunch on route, and arrived to camp at Shira Hut (3,840m) by late afternoon. As we entered camp, our wonderful porters and camp crew met us with songs and dancing. This was how they greeted us at each camp for the rest of the climb, again making us the envy of all other climbers. Our guides took us on a leisurely acclimatization hike in before dinner. We’ve heard of the amazing views from this little hike, but unfortunately, we were consumed by fog all afternoon. Still, it was another beautiful day that got us one step closer to the summit.
Day three was another long day, with lunch on the trail. Our trail games now include I Spy (or I don’t Spy), 20 questions, Celebrity name game…but really, with 11 women, do you think we’ll ever run out of things to talk about? It is amazing really, that we have all meshed together so well. Our diversity has allowed for endless conversations about our lives and experiences that are significant in passing the time on long hikes. Our third night is spent at Barranco Hut (3,950m). This camp was a favorite among many of the team members as it provided an impressive view of the summit, which seemed to tower above our tents.
Day four was short, but trying. We began in the morning with a daring climb up “the Kissing Wall”, as we called it because to scale this rock wall, you virtually had to kiss the rock, placing the front of your body as close to the rock as possible to safely make it up to the top. Once we made it to the top, you would have thought we had just made it to the summit. Joyous and awestruck by the view of Kili’s top was overwhelming. We spent a little while up here, taking photos and refueling. We arrived at Karanga Camp (4,100m) in time for lunch. We took another afternoon hike for acclimatization. To pass time at camp, many of us played games like Uno and Spoons, or simple relaxed in our tents, writing in journals, reading, or listening to music.
Day five was a relatively short hike to our final camp before the summit. It was fairly steep, and even in the daytime, it was cold and windy. We arrived to Barafu Hut (4,673m) by lunchtime. Our tents seem to be perched on a ledge, and wind began to pick up through the afternoon. We had an early dinner and retired to our tents with hopes of maybe a few hours of sleep. The plan was to wake up at 11pm and hit the trail by midnight for our 6-8 hour hike to the summit. Well, nothing ever goes according to the plan.
At 11pm, our head guide, Ema, came around to each tent. He discussed with everyone the issue of the wind. At this point, the wind was so strong and it was going to make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for us to last six hours in the dark and cold. He suggested that we wait three hours, in hopes that the wind would die down, and start at 3am. If it didn’t die down, at least the sun would rise in three hours and we would be given some relief from the cold. It was a difficult decision to make, as many of us had our hearts set on reaching the top at sunrise. However, it was by far the best decision we made for our team on the entire challenge.
From 11pm to 2am, I not only listened to, but felt the wind beat on my tent without mercy. My heart raced as I thought about the conditions we were soon to face. When the light from Ema’s headlamp shined on my tent at 2am, the wind had, if anything, only picked up speed. It was now or never. We layered up, grabbed our packs, and rallied. At 3am, we headed out of camp upwards, a silent line of illuminated ants, single filed and nervous.
Altitude sickness strikes without warning or explanation. Louise faced it bravely on the hike to our last camp before summit night. Her determination was honorable and inspired us all. She faced the cold and wind of summit night with courage I can only imagine. Unfortunately, an hour or so into our climb, her condition worsened, and Ema made the call that she needed to return to camp. With heavy hearts, our team had to continue on without her. Still, each of us supported the decision, as we couldn’t imagine any harm coming to any of our teammates.
For the rest of us, summit night on Kilimanjaro proved to be some of the hardest hours of our lives. The temperature was estimated to be -5C (~23F) with winds from 30-40mph and gusts close to 60mph. Personally, I’ve never been so cold in my entire life, and the wind was relentless. Finally, the sun came up, and the view was unbelievable. However, it only gave little relief from the cold as the wind pounded on.
We all struggled, at one time or another. But when one of us faltered, another one was there to support. Our guides were amazing, providing not only constant watch for any signs of illness, but also encouragement through simple pats on the back or beautiful African songs. How they can climb and sing is beyond me.
At approximately 9:45am, we reached the Roof of Africa (5,895m). Tears and hugs were abundant. Not only did the decision to leave later in the morning allow us to have some relief from the cold, but it also gave us a completely empty summit, with no other climbers to compete with for photos. It was a surreal moment. Many of us had this summit in mind for years, and it was finally in front of our faces. The glaciers were breathtaking, and looking down on the clouds is a feeling like no other. We had done it. We had climbed three of the highest peaks in Africa and done so in three weeks. Sitting here now, I can hardly explain the feeling of accomplishment and gratitude for making it to the top safely. It is a feeling that rocked our world.
Finally, downhill. When we returned to camp, we realized the reality of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Louise was of course disappointed and heartbroken. Still, news came that a fellow climber that night attempted to summit with symptoms of altitude sickness and pushed too hard. By the time he turned around, it was too late and while we marched towards the summit, the mountain claimed a life. We could not be more grateful for the decision made by Louise and Ema for her to turn around when she did. Mount Kilimanjaro claims the lives of many climbers every year. We also got word on our way down this morning that other rescues have already taken place for climbers at camps before Barafu. There was a chopper rescue that same morning. The mountain will always be there, and pushing too hard can be irreversible. Louise is our hero for giving it her all, and her courage carried the rest of us to the top. Besides, together as a team we have all completed this challenge – raising over $91,000, coming to Africa to visit the organizations we support and giving it our all on every mountain.
So now we are off the mountain, clean, fed, and ready to celebrate the conclusion of this amazing month. A year and half in the making, and we are down to the final hours. We have scraped the bottom of the barrel, shown our true strengths and weaknesses, and accomplished something that will change our lives forever. We are about to join a group of women who can say that they have stood on the top of three incredible mountains in Africa, for the greater good of its people and places. We have given so much, but received even greater in the end. On behalf of the ten other women of the 3 Peaks 3 Weeks 2011 Team, I would like to extend my sincerest gratitude to all of our family and friends who have supported us in countless ways throughout this entire journey. Also, to the Peaks Foundation, Save the Rhino, Adventure International, and Summits Africa, we are forever grateful. And finally, to the people of Laikipia Wildlife Forum, School of St. Jude, and Support for International Change: it is the work that you do that inspired us to reach higher, to achieve more in our lives, to believe that anyone, at any time, can make a difference in this world. Climb on.
Posted by Kelly Donithan