We had ascended the western base of the volcano this past half week, had hiked through jungle and moorland, as I’ve described in a prior blog post here, and were now entering Kilimanjaro’s alpine desert zone, characterized by wide open spaces with sparse, small plants. We began feeling the altitude as our pulse and breathing grew more rapid in the thin air. The views were unobstructed and wonderful — it seemed like you could see all of Africa from here. But in reality we enjoyed the African plains, the Shira plateau to the west and the iced peak of Kilimanjaro to the northeast. Often the clouds would roll by thousands of feet below our camp (Like Judy Collins, we’d looked at clouds from both sides now….).
The altitude was taking it’s toll on our appetites and none of us were very hungry. But it wasn’t because the chef wasn’t trying — we were served hearty meals of soup (usually tomato or oxtail), pasta, breads and cereals. Given where we were and the lack of refrigeration, the food was really quite good; still, most of us couldn’t eat much.
We spend two nights at Sheffield Camp (14,800′), including a day to acclimatize (with a day hike to around 16,000′). This is the highest I’d ever climbed, my previous record being the top of Mt. Whitney in California (about 14,500′). It’s on our day-hike that Alex, our guide, introduces us to the “rest step” — his key to making the summit (that and staying copiously hydrated). Basically it’s slow exaggerated walking, moving your foot forward and then taking a breath before you follow with the other foot. It was at Sheffield that we encountered our first snow of the trip, first on peaks immediately above us, then beneath our feet during our day hike. And on the second morning we woke to find our tents covered by several inches of fresh loose powder. It was a little chilly but provided us with a magical experience!
The day we left Sheffield we lost one member of our group. A young woman in her 20s had started complaining of shortness of breath and the guides were concerned that she was developing high altitude pulmonary edema (H.A.P.E.). The best treatment for H.A.P.E is to descend so one of the guides and three other staff members accompanied her down the mountain as the rest of us continued towards the summit, beginning a three hour hike through the desert habitat to Arrow Glacier Camp (16,000′). This camp lies beneath the Western Breach and was strewn with boulders that had rolled from the mountain (much like bowling balls towards the pins that were our tents). Fortunately we made it through the night safely. We enjoyed the snow around us and rested up for the next day when we would climb the face of the Western Breach to the Upper Glacier Camp (18,700′).
The ascent of the Western Breach was by far the most difficult part of our journey up the mountain. It ‘s a very steep climb over fairly loose rock and boulders, then up a series of ridges. But our guides knew a safe and stable route so we followed them up the diagonally winding path of this slope. In a few areas we had to scramble across boulders and here some fixed ropes would have been helpful. But we all made it safely. The morning was misty with broken cloud and there were moments of clearing which offered us wonderful views. Lava Tower below us provided us with a good ruler on how we were proceeding as it gradually shrank away with our ascent. In a tiring half day we had reached Kilimanjaro’s Summit Plateau (the floor of the crater).
[Note: I recently discovered that several years after I did this climb up the Western Breach, there was a rock slide on the mountain that killed several climbers and caused officials to close this route for awhile. (It has since reopened but this is a reminder that being on any mountain has risks. People die on Kilimanjaro every year).] The Summit Plateau provided us with the most memorable camp setting I’ve ever had. Situated over three miles above sea level, at the foot of the Furtwangler Glacier (probably around 60′ high), lay our camp. The entire setting was blanketed in snow and framed by glaciers. It was fascinating to walk to the bluish face of the glacier and stare up the sheer wall of compacted ice.
One of our fellow travelers became quite ill during the late afternoon and developed early symptoms of high altitude cerebral edema (H.A.C.E). This is a serious and potentially fatal condition that is best treated with descent down the mountain. This individual was a cancer survivor and it was emotionally extremely important for her to summit, so she didn’t want to descend without reaching the peak. By the time she became symptomatic it was late in the day and not an opportune time to begin a long hike down the mountain. Fortunately both of the physician clients in our group had good first aid kits and she responded well to injected and oral steroids; her condition stabilized, so that we didn’t have to rush her off the mountain in the dark (she did summit the next morning and improved dramatically as we began our descent). The thin air was stressful on everyone. For example, my resting pulse rate while lying in the tent was 110 (normally around 60) and my respiratory rate was 20 (normally around 12), and our movements sluggish.
Despite some serious stuff happening, I enjoyed my time on the Summit Plateau. It was capped by was a beautiful sunset — with clouds below us filtering the sun’s setting. But once the sun was behind the horizon the temperature in the camp dropped precipitously. I have a small thermostat on my backpack and it registered around -20 F that evening — the coldest night’s camping I’ve ever experienced. I was grateful for new down sleeping bag I’d bought for the trip; between that and my Thermarest pad I was comfortable in my tent and got about 4 hours rest. We got up at 4:30 am to complete our summit at sunrise.
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