Day 7 (Summit Day): Kosovo Base Camp (16,010’) to Stella Point (18,885′) to Uhuru Peak (19,341′), 2.0 mi.
All the planning, training, and anticipation has led to this moment… the moment we step out of our tents at the Kosovo Base Camp into the frosty air at 16,010 ft, just 2 miles of trail, but still a very steep 3,331 ft below Uhuru Peak, the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. We begin our summit attempt promptly at 1:00 a.m. layered in every piece of clothing we have to protect us from the cold we expect to encounter further up the mountain. Just days ago we were in the rain forest, enjoying balmy temperatures and lush vistas. So much has changed… the terrain is rocky and bare, with no discernable vegetation. It’s probably best that it is nearly pitch black as we slowly exit camp and begin the final push to the summit. There is a hint of moonlight through the wispy clouds, just enough that we can make out the contours of the challenge ahead.
Due to the elevation, we are being very deliberate about our pace, maintaining the strict “pole-pole” pace (pronounced “poh lay poh lay”), which means “slowly, slowly” in the Swahili language of our guides. The pace is great for making this very difficult climb achievable, and surprisingly we warm up fairly quickly and begin to strategize about which layers to remove at the first break. Athumani has set a strict schedule that allows for a three minute break every hour, with the plan to reach Stella Point (the point that marks the crater rim and where the trail significantly flattens) at 5 a.m. From there. it is one more hour to Uhuru Peak, the summit of Kilimanjaro at 19,341’.
This is a tough climb given the elevation, steepness, and lack of sufficient sleep. But, this is what we signed up for when we chose this adventure… we knew it would be hard, and at times uncomfortable, knowing that all the pain and suffering are worth it in the end to stand on the breathtaking summit of Kilimanjaro. Our mantra for the summit push is: “Embrace the Suck” a term I learned from my friend Jesse… simply stated, it means: To consciously accept or appreciate something that is extremely unpleasant but unavoidable.
The route is steep and the trail seems to ascend endlessly into the dark ahead. All we can see is the few feet in front of us, illuminated by our headlamps and the reflection of ice crystals in the frost covered lava rocks. We are definitely reliant on our trekking poles to stabilize us and support us from falling during the occasional foot slip in the loose scree. The pole-pole pace helps us to move steadily, albeit slowly toward our goal, but the thin air and the cold are the predominate factors.
For this nighttime push to the summit, we have packed light. No sense in carrying any extra weight than absolutely necessary. The heaviest thing in our packs is the one liter of water that is packed inside the pack to prevent it from freezing. We hydrate and snack during our scheduled breaks.
There are three additional guides assigned for the summit climb, ensuring one guide for each of us if assistance is needed either going up or down.
After four hours of steady climbing in the dark, we finally crest the crater wall and see the frost covered sign that marks Stella Point. This in itself is a significant achievement, both emotional and uplifting. From here it is a relatively easy climb along the crater wall with steep drop offs on both the left and right. Behind us to to the east the sun is brightening the morning sky. Finally after nearly five hours of tremendous effort, we arrive at Uhuru Peak, the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro and the highest point on the African continent. We are exhausted but thrilled to be sharing this moment.