A lengthy description of my personal experience on summiting Kilimanjaro. It definitely varies by the individual as some group mates had it worse, while others had it better that night. For basic trip details and suggested packing list, see my introductory post on the ascent.
Summit night begins at midnight sharp as we roll into our 7th day of the hike on Lemosho route. However for us, the summit really began on day 6, as most of it was scheduled around preparing us for it.
This was our Day 6:
8 AM – 12 PM (or so) – Hiking to base camp at Barafu Camp
1 PM – 2 PM – Lunch
2 PM – 5 PM – Afternoon nap
5 PM – 6:30 PM – Dinner and prep talk on what to wear, what gear to bring, etc
7 PM – 10:30 PM – Evening nap
10:30 – 11 PM – Get fully dressed and ready to hike
11 PM – 12 AM – Late night snack and drinks, washroom break, last minute pep talk
Summit night is short distance wise, but long in duration.
- Barafu Camp (elevation 4,600m) to Stella Point (elevation (5,756m) – distance 5km, duration 4 hours
- Stella Point to Uhuru Peak (5,895m) – distance 1km, duration 1 hour
Can you believe that just 1km could take a full hour?!
I did not research on how summit night was supposed to be like in detail other than long and cold, but was told that some people need porters to help carry their daypacks partway, some people were so tired they were basically sleep walking, and how it could even take a few minutes just to take one single step. I decided to heed the advice of our tour guides to ignore what other people’s experiences were and just focus on doing my best.
I remember starting the hike in decent shape, but it became progressively cold and I was frustrated that I was unable to keep my hands warm. My hand warmers were unexpectedly not working (apparently there was not enough oxygen at that altitude for it to activate). My other pain point was my shoulders being weighed down by my daypack.
At a quick rest stop about 2 – 3 hours in, a guide asked me if I wanted help on carrying anything, and I eagerly suggested my thermos. As I opened my bag, he then suggested he would take my whole bag. During the trip, our porters often offered the same assistance at the end of each hiking day; initially I was very against it since I wanted to take pride in accomplishing the hike on my own. I mean they were already carrying everything except for my backpack. However as the hike progressed and I reached a day where I did not feel well at all, I began to accept their help – as I really did need to save all the strength I could.
And on this summit night, I was far too fatigued for pride. Without my bag, I was physically well again – but very tired and drained.
The remaining 3-4 hours of the hike to Stella Point and ultimately to Uhuru Peak was a blur; I was mentally not fully there either from exhaustion or the altitude. It took my full concentration to focus on walking. To myself I would repeat, “just keep walking, just keep walking, just place one foot in front of the other”.
The best way for me to explain how spaced out I was then was how I did not even know Alicia sat beside me or was even in our G Adventures group photo until later that night. While I was aware that some of my own groupmates were in the photo (I had seen them as I lined up behind them for photos) but I genuinely thought other G Adventures hikers just crashed our photograph. Turns out it was just ourselves and we all made it!
At the peak, there was a beautiful view of Kibo, the largest volcanic crater of Kilimanjaro (did not manage to photograph) and beautiful glaciers. I struggled to make some effort to capture the glaciers but was quickly rushed to descend from the summit as it is dangerous to stay at high altitude long.
The descent in contrast was actually most difficult for me as going downhill has always been my weakness. For most of the descent it was going down a steep sandy slope which the guides jokingly call “sand skiing”. I was okay with that, but afterwards was going down rocky steps which pained my knees and toes immensely. The journey down was struggle for us as a group too as we had many roadblocks such as various group mates feeling unwell and needed a personal helper to assist in walking, and the worst was when one of our summit helpers suffered from acute mountain sickness where the emergency oxygen mask was administered (and he was someone who had summited numerous times). It was quite shocking and none of us knew what to do as many of the other helpers had to carry HIM down instead of guiding us. On day 8 when we continued the final descent, he unfortunately had to get rushed down in a stretcher (metal wheelbarrow of sorts) as he was still unwell despite the drop in altitude.
Day 8’s 10km descent down to the bottom of the mountain was by far the most challenging of the entire hike for me. I had several bruised toenails from my shoe so the pressure of each step was excruciating – and there were a lot of steps. While I never once thought of giving up during summit night, it did cross my mind on this day. I was (shockingly to myself even) on the verge of tears from the pain, when thankfully our main guide saw me struggling and offered to carry my backpack to reduce the weight on my feet.
When I reunited with the group at the bottom of the mountain, they were in discussion on how their summit experience was and whether or not they cried (out of happiness) at the peak. When asked, I was quite confused since I usually do not cry in public and I also did not expect to be particularly emotional at summit since I tend to enjoy the journey more than the destination. In fact, I was disappointed because I felt like I cheated my way up by not carrying my own daypack. Thus to me, it was not a successful summit. I felt embarrassed to admit that outright after hearing others’ emotional retellings of how much the summit meant to them. For some it has been their lifelong dream. I realized after that I am very lucky to have been able to reach Uhuru Peak as it is a rare experience that not many can even dream of.
Looking back, I am very proud of myself for completing this journey, and I do not regret taking on this immense challenge for one second. It was an amazing adventure where I got to visit a new continent, experience a new culture, and make lovely new friends. Most importantly, I believe I experienced my most challenging test to date. This journey made me realize “If I could conquer this, what couldn’t I do?” Kilimanjaro will definitely be one to remember.