Strange Question: Which has a better sunrise- Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in all of Africa, or Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the lower 48 of the United States?
On the fifth day of our climb, Barbara and I set out to find the answer.
As promised, one of our porters, Samwell, woke us up with a gentle rustle of the tent.
“ Hello… hello… it is time to climb”
We wiped the sleep from our eyes and quickly flicked on our headlamps. We had fifteen minutes to put on a stack of clothing that would keep us warm for the downright cold temperatures at 19,300 feet. Barbara and I had carefully laid out all of our gear the night before so that getting dressed took as few brain cells as possible. It is hard to think at 15,000 feet, with only a couple of hours of sleep under your belt. A full on wrestling match ensued as we each pulled on 2 pairs of tights, a pair of hiking pants, and then a pair of summit pants (aka insulated ski pants). On top we wore 2 long sleeve baselayers, 2 puffy down jackets, and then a rain jacket. Barbara had an extra short sleeve tee shirt and fleece jacket in there as well, just for good measure as she gets cold so quickly. By the time we were done piling on the clothes, we both looked like the Michellin man. We grabbed our packs and headed over to the dining tent for a bit of hot chocolate, cookies, candy bars and cashews to get our engines primed for the climb.
Prosper and Brayton came into the tent and gave us a little pep talk to get us going. After a quick snapshot, we left Barafu (basecamp) at 130. The sky was intensely dark, filled with the most amazing stars. They seem brighter out here, I don’t know if it is the higher altitude, or just the lack of light pollution, but the stars just seemed so close that you could grab them. There was no moon to light up the mountain, but we could see it looming over us, as it blocked the stars with its outline. We could see the lights of other hikers as they climbed In a zig zag line, all the way to the ridge. We began the steep climb at the bottom by ourselves- most of the other climbers had started hours ago (one group apparently started at 1030 pm). According to Prosper, with our quick pace, we should still make it to the summit for sunrise.
What Prosper hadn’t accounted for was the fact that we were both entirely overdressed. Soon after we started up the zig-zaggy trail, we had to stop to loose a layer. Another five minutes up the trail, and we had to make another stop for the same thing. This went on for about 30 minutes until finally we both found our happy medium. I ended up with just two long sleeve base layers and a thin down jacket on top. I used my hat and gloves to help fine tune my temperature depending on the amount of wind that was blowing. Overall, it was a still morning, with just a slight breeze every once in a while.
The lights that had just been specs in the dark soon got closer as we approached the hikers ahead of us. There is a saying on Kili- “Pole, Pole”- “Slowly, Slowly”. Some of these groups were taking it a bit too literally. At times there was a line of 25 people, all at a standstill. We weren’t in a rush, but when you stand still at say 17,000 feet, in the dark, it can get a bit chilly. The last thing we wanted to do was reapply all the clothing we had already stashed. So as soon as Prosper saw an opening, he would drive us right through. Then we would hike alone, as a group of four, slowly plodding along until we came up to the next group, catching our breath between groups. The process repeated itself for the rest of the dark four hours that it took for us to gain the ridge at Stella Point. Never did it feel like we were keeping a particularly fast pace, but I suppose it is all relative. By the time we gained the ridge, we had passed all but about 10 hikers.
We took a pause at Stella Point for water, and then continued our march along the ridge, with just 45 minutes standing between us and the top. By now, dawn was warming the distant horizon with beautiful orange light and we could begin to really see where we were. Switching off our headlamps, and pulling out the camera, we began to bask in the glory of reaching the summit of such an iconic peak. Glaciers appeared on our left, bathed in gorgeous morning light. We stopped about 100 feet short of the peak to fully absorb the sunrise as it peaked over the cloud layer that was hanging some 14000 feet below us. As the sun slowly rose, we watched to the West as the great shadow of Kilimanjaro slowly shrank.
After five hours, Barbara and I found ourselves in front of the sign that we had seen so many pictures of before. We had made the summit! It was surreal and the whole time we spent up there was a bit of a blur of emotions- there were smiles, hugs, tears, kisses, high fives and of course jump kicks! I’m finding it very difficult to describe the feeling we had in words, but hopefully the photos will show the pure state of bliss that we were in for those moments on the top.
Kilimanjaro has been on my life list since well, I started a life list. To check that one off, to have such a big dream become a reality, makes me so happy. And to have Barbara by my side as we soaked in that sunrise on the very tippy top of Africa- that makes me the luckiest guy on earth.