The Summit So Nice, They Climbed It Twice

Though the story reaches back before recorded history, many Tanzanians believe the first person to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro was a servant to one of the most powerful Chaga chiefs to have ruled the foothills of the mountain. As the tale goes, he had authority over land on both the north and south side of the giant triple stratovolcano, but the peak between remained inaccessible and uncontrolled. So one day he tasked 12 of his subjects with climbing to the top to figure out what the shiny, white material covering the high parts of the landmass was. They took on the challenge, but only one returned, with the other 11 left frozen somewhere on the 19,341-foot mountain.

While any number of hazards could have led to this group’s demise, most believe the climbers died from high altitude sickness. They likely wouldn’t have understood how decreased oxygen and barometric pressure would fatigue and sicken them. They might have sat down to recover from headaches and shortness of breath with a brief nap only to never wake up again. Though this expedition was carried out thousands of years ago, underestimating altitude continues to be the greatest safety risk on Kilimanjaro today. Thirty-thousand climbers attempt the mountain annually (60,000 during a very good year). Depending on the route they take, up to 60 percent of climbers turn back before the summit because of altitude, and—unbelievably, considering that the climb to Uhuru Peak is far from technical—ten climbers die on average every year for the same reason.

When you mention Kilimanjaro, most everyone knows it’s the tallest mountain in Africa and one of the world’s Seven Summits. But beyond that, details get iffy. Because people generally don’t realize how mountainous Africa is, and because Kili is known as an accessible mountain (see Jess’s story “Everyman’s Everest”), it’s often thought of as a minor peak. In reality, it’s a mountain you underestimate at your peril. And that was the big question for our Seven Summits Africa team: How should we estimate our own abilities?

Over the previous month-and-a-half we had moved back and forth from 2,500 to 16,000 feet numerous times. Physiologically speaking, our bodies have been high enough for long enough to prepare us for serious altitude, and our trip leaders wanted to take advantage of that during our final climb. Thankfully, we had Mt. Meru, Kilimanjaro’s “little” brother (not so little at 15,000 feet), as a warm up. The plan was to tackle Meru over three days, take one day to rest, then immediately get on Kilimanjaro, where we could start and sleep higher than the typical Kili climber.

As we rolled through the national park surrounding Meru, the dormant volcano rose high above us and we quickly remembered you should never think of any mountain as a “warm-up.” We piled out of the Toyota Land Cruiser at Momela Gate and wandered over to the picnic area to get a bite before starting. All of a sudden, Jessica was screaming, “NORBERT!!!” Now that we were in Tanzania, we would be climbing with the “A Team” from Summits Africa, our mountaineering guide Ake’s company. This was some of the crew that Jessica had climbed with in January 2017, and mostly the reason we had agreed to come on the trip. The “A Team” is, by any number of measurements, one of the best guiding teams in the region.

Norbert, the camp crew co-leader, had won Jessica’s heart on their previous trip, and now Patrick got to learn why: Our picnic area had a full spread of coffee, cookies, and pre-packed lunches for later in the day, all laid out over a beautiful Maasai blanket. Just as Patrick began to sprint for the coffee, Norbert grabbed his arm and whispered, “Please, Mr. Patrick, wash your hands.” Sure enough, there was a huge thermos of hot water just to wash hands, which Jessica cooed over for about five minutes. We were clearly in “A-Team” territory now.

Danny Kilango, one of Ake’s top guides and another Jessica favorite from her previous trek, briefed us on our climb ahead. Starting from 5,300 feet, we would hike for five hours and up 3,500 feet to Miriakamba Hut. On day two, we would trek 3,500 feet over four hours to Saddle Hut. That afternoon, if everyone felt good, we would continue 800 feet up to “Little Meru,” a 12,500-foot acclimatization peak that lives in the shadow of our eventual goal. Then, after a short rest, we would wake up at 2 a.m. to climb 3,300 feet over four hours, walking with the sunrise in hopes of eventually making it to a perch on Socialist Peak, the aspirational name for the Meru’s highest point. We would then descend the entirety of the mountain that day, some 10,000 feet in 12 miles—finishing around 5 p.m.

During the briefing, Jessica’s eyes doubled in size with the description of each day. Despite the week of recovery we’d had since the Rwenzoris, the effort of descending those mountains with no food in her stomach for three days was still taxing her body. We were determined to climb Meru, and especially Kilimanjaro, but the outcome of our efforts felt far from assured.

We should’ve never doubted the A Team. From the first step, guides Danny, Hola, Sam, and Bosi watched our group like hawks: Pressing snacks on anyone who was flagging, yelling “sippy sippy!” every quarter hour to shame anyone who wasn’t drinking at least three liters of water a day, and setting a slow, “pole pole,” pace that was perfect for the whole group—as opposed to letting any one individual push the rhythm and throw off the team. The climbs were hard, but with this team they were easy and enjoyable. By the time we reached Saddle Hut, we felt strong. And yet, when Norbert’s 2 a.m. summit wakeup call came with a quiet knock on our hut door, our nerves came flooding back.

There’s something intimidating but special about a nighttime summit bid: The quiet, cold, dark early morning is electrified by the stars overhead dusted like glitter in the black night sky. You quickly slip into your warm layers, double check that the water hydrator you filled up the evening before isn’t frozen, put on your headlamp, pound some porridge, throw snacks into your every available pocket, and start walking.

Outside is silent except for the sound of your feet crushing ancient volcanic soil, the swish of Gore-Tex on Gore-Tex, and the occasional cough from another climber. You know there’s a massive world around you, but your headlamp shrinks it to a small circle of light just one step in front of you. Rock scrambles that would be routine during the day become immensely more unnerving because you don’t know if the drop-off next to you is ten feet or hundreds of feet. At the same time, hours and miles pass effortlessly when you’re only able to consider one step at a time—the mountain ahead is mostly invisible and therefore it’s impossible to psyche yourself out about what’s to come. That is, until dawn breaks.

Walking over one of Meru’s many “false summits” (what we called the peaks that looked like they were our destination—until you got to the top, only to see miles more of terrain in front of you), we came to a small saddle that faded into a 3,000-foot drop on one side and an impossibly steep scree slope on the other. For the first time, we had an unimpeded view to the East and the group uttered a collective gasp: There on the horizon, silhouetted by the red, gold, and blue highlights of the day’s first light, was an inky triangle cut in the sky: Kilimanjaro.

Since arriving in Tanzania, the famous mountain had illusively shrouded its summit in clouds, but now there it was, out in the open, looking like an impossibly large object from another world hovering above the atmosphere. As we continued to climb and as the light continued to grow, we couldn’t take our eyes off of Meru’s rival. The craziest thing was, even though every step took us higher, Kili seemed to grow as we progressed. By the time we finished our final scramble to Socialist Peak at 14,968 feet, our final mountain loomed on the horizon, seeming to dare us to come join it.

Every summit is its own challenge, but something about Meru and Kilimanjaro’s proximity makes their peaks hard to separate. Tackling Meru prior to Kilimanjaro now feels essential. Not only is the former a beautiful forested climb with a healthy dose of adventure and acclimatization, but it also humbles you appropriately, giving you the right sense of awe and reverence for a much bigger mountain seen as a foregone conclusion by too many climbers. Descending Meru, Kilimanjaro, less than 40 miles away, waits for you as your steps carry you down.

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“We’re sleeping in Crater Camp!?!?!?” Jessica said in disbelief when Ake finally announced the route he had chosen for Kili. “Are you crazy!?!?!?”

When Jessica climbed with Ake earlier this year, he told her that he very rarely takes people to sleep in the mountain’s crater because of its dangerous altitude. And now here he was telling us that we’d be setting up camp there. That’s because Ake had decided he would be guiding us on a bespoke route up his "home office" (as he and Sam described Kili to us).  

We would begin in a common enough way: Starting on the Shira Plateau, the Western approach taken by climbers following the popular eight day Lemosho route, the trail Jessica had already conquered. But after a night at Shira 1 camp, we would diverge onto the Northern Circuit, which offers some of the best views of Kibo, the mountain’s highest volcanic cone. However, this route is far less traveled due to its length (it generally takes nine days, making it the longest trip on the mountain) and its remoteness (making an evacuation all the more difficult).  

After sleeping at School Hut camp (15,500 feet), we would cut our own trail to the crater rim at Gillman’s Point (18,638 feet) and continue to Uhuru Peak, the highest point in Africa (19,341 feet), at some point in the afternoon of day five. At which point the plan gets crazy: We would then descend to the crater (18,800 feet—some thousand feet higher than Everest base camp), sleep there, and then summit—again—the next morning to catch the sunrise.

To sleep some 500 feet below the summit and summit twice simply seemed crazy. But it also seemed incredible: We would get to do two things that 99.9 percent of Kili climbers never do. Who doesn’t love a challenge? And so, we began.

Dear reader, there is so much we want to tell you about climbing Kilimanjaro: Traversing massive valleys that felt like they were on the moon; the amazing mountain cappuccino crafted by Norbert; the spicy chili sauce made fresh every night by the brilliant camp cooks Jackson and Joseph; the COTS we got to sleep on!; the porter from another trip whose life was saved by the team from Summits Africa; and the innumerable amazing views and conversations . . .  But there’s simply no way we can adequately describe it all to you here. Which is probably good because we plan to tell the full story of Kilimanjaro and the porters and guides that make it great in a bigger way later.

So we’ll say this for now: On December 17, we climbed some 4,000 feet to successfully summit Uhuru Peak and complete our Seven Summits Africa challenge. We felt incredible, strong, and full of gratitude for all of the support our community has given us along the way. When no one was looking, we snuck away from the our group to spend some time together quietly, as alone as we could get on the highest peak in Africa. If you all felt good feelings that day, it was because we sent all the positivity we could into the stratosphere in the hopes it would reach you. Then we descended and icy slope to Crater Camp, where, after an afternoon of adventuring around glaciers, sulfurous seeps, and the volcano’s ash pit, we settled into our tents for the night.

Over the next eight hours, we “slept” in our tent for about five minutes at a stretch between long periods of listening to each other breathe to make sure neither of us died in our sleep. We learned after the fact that this isn’t exactly how someone dies at altitude, but it gave us something to do since it’s practically impossible to sleep at 18,800 because of the lack of oxygen (the air at this altitude contains less than half the oxygen we are used to breathing at sea level). Then, at 4 a.m., the two of us got back into our warm gear, met up with Ake and Danny—the rest of the team was too ill and tired to make the second summit—and we climbed the 500 feet back to the roof of Africa.

There at the summit the sun was rising far in the east, silhouetting the scores of people taking their final steps to the top. They were in tears, wheezing, being dragged by guides, and trying to hold their arms up to take countless selfies. The two of us just stood back and watched. We felt good—great even—like we could keep climbing all day.

Sometimes you set a goal for yourself that seems so impossible you think you’ll never get there. Reaching it consumes you. It takes months and months of hard work and determination, and then you arrive and realize: This is just the beginning.

We started our descent with huge smiles on our faces, skips in our steps, and a million stories in our heads. Now we’re home in Minnesota, safe and sound among family with plenty of quiet time to get all those stories down on paper. We’ll keep you posted as they find their way into the world and will surely send a few more updates as we go. But for now, happy holidays, and thanks for travelling with us. We couldn’t have done it without you guys.