The sign at the entrance of Kilimanjaro National Park warns us: We have 34 hours of walking ahead of us before we reach the mountain’s summit. At the speed we’re walking, I start to worry we might need double that amount of time. Our journey of 42 miles has begun with a single slow step—it feels as if we’re pantomiming walking in slow motion.
To put our pace into perspective, Swiss athlete Karl Egloff once summited Mount Kilimanjaro in under seven hours (round-trip). If all goes according to plan, my group will take eight days to make the same journey.
We are vacationers with desk jobs rather than endurance athletes, and our leisurely pace is deliberate. We’re on World Expeditions’ Lemosho trek, chosen by most of us due to the company’s 95% success rate in getting hikers to the summit—and the slow speed is part of what makes it work. “Pole, pole” is the very first Swahili phrase we learn on Kilimanjaro. Translated to “slowly, slowly,” it will be the theme of our trip.
Kilimanjaro is a famously walkable mountain. No climbing equipment or special skills are required—all you have to do to make it to the top is keep putting one foot in front of the other. What makes the mountain so challenging is the altitude.
On shorter routes, nearly half of the hikers who attempt the climb will not make it to the summit due to the onset of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), a condition that can strike anyone (no matter how healthy or fit) at heights above 10,000 feet. The lengthy hiking time of our trek is specifically designed to help us sea-level dwellers acclimatize to the altitude, bolstering our chances of success.
In the dining tent, our group passes around Diamox, a prescription medication that can help you acclimatize to high altitude, like after-dinner candy. But according to David, our World Expeditions’ group leader (who has summited the mountain countless times) the real key to a successful Kilimanjaro trip is something more important than a pill.
“Positive mental attitude,” he reminds our group daily, is what will get you to the top. Our group, a diverse range of ages and nationalities, will make it if we believe in ourselves. “Thousands of people make it to the top every year,” he says. “Why not you?”
Mental states aside, our team is certainly well-positioned to reach the summit. Us 11 hikers are accompanied by 44 hard-working porters, guides, and chefs whose sole focus for the next eight days is to get us all to the summit and back down safely—while somehow still managing to make us feel as if we’re on vacation.
The first six days of our trek wind through Kilimanjaro’s five distinct ecological climate zones. Each day reveals an entirely new world as we make our way through lush forest and up into barren alpine desert. As much as we try to live in the moment and appreciate the journey rather than focusing on the destination, summit night looms large in all of our minds. Famously long and hard, summit night is when we will all get our one shot at what we came here for. There’s no margin for second chances here—if you don’t reach the top on summit night, you have no choice but to accept defeat and return to the base of the mountain.
Summit night is more than a single night or single day. It begins with a short five hour hike in the morning. After reaching basecamp, there’s an early dinner and pre-sunset bedtime in an effort to give us a few hours of sleep before our bid to the top officially begins at midnight.
Why start hiking in the middle of the night? Depending on which of our guides I asked, it’s either due to weather (storms tend to roll in during the early afternoon), or to prevent people from getting demoralized and giving up by seeing just how far they have to go to reach the summit. (When we started walking and I realized that what I thought were stars high above me were actually lights from the headlamps of fellow hikers further up the trail, I questioned the second theory. )
We started slowly trudging up the path, crossing from switchback to switchback in total silence as the temperatures dropped to a bone-chilling -4 degrees Fahrenheit. The next few hours were what we had all traveled over 7,000 miles for. Our guides knew how important the summit was for each one of us, and ran our expedition like a military mission. “Pole pole”, they shouted every few steps, reminding everyone to go slowly lest we overexert ourselves and succumb to altitude sickness.
Every hour we were given a carefully timed five-minute break to adjust layers, chip away at our frozen water for a drink, or to shovel in a snack. We were up and moving again before hypothermia could set in—or, before we had a chance to think about giving up, warned David. (Apparently the longer the break, the more time it gives people to reconsider continuing on—which is why many people say that Kilimanjaro is more of a mental challenge than a physical one.)
On summit night, my trust was placed entirely in the hands of the guides, who I literally followed through the darkness. High altitude can impair your mental state, making the smallest tasks seem like an insurmountable challenge. Guides would jump in to tie hikers’ shoelaces, help them put on a backpack, or open a water bottle.
Everything dialed down into a meditative focus that required nothing more than putting one foot in front of the other. It felt like the world had narrowed down to the small circle illuminated by my headlamp. I kept scanning the horizon for signs of light, knowing that if we were on pace, we would reach Stella Point at sunrise. David had told us that Stella Point was the place to focus on rather than the summit. From Stella Point, it’s a relatively easy 45-minute fairly flat walk to Uhuru Point (the official top of Kilimanjaro). If you can just make it to Stella Point, you’ll likely make it to the summit.
So if I could just make it until the sun rose, I thought, I would make it to the top. After what simultaneously seemed like forever and no time at all, the first pink rays of sunrise broke through the night sky. Just then, David exclaimed, “five minutes to Stella Point,” causing our group to erupt in cheers. As we reached this final waypoint, our group of guides passed out hot tea and burst out into song and dance to celebrate with us.
With spirits lifted and bodies warmed from the tea, we set off on the trail along the crater rim to Uhuru Point.
It might be the decreased oxygen talking, but the summit of Kilimanjaro is breathtaking. Glaciers tower along the side of the path, and a light layer of sparkling frost adds to the winter wonderland scene. Pure relief, happiness, and excitement set in as I realize I’ve reached the goal I’ve spent so long working towards.
I could have spent hours up on the serene summit, but our time at the top was limited. For safety, it’s best to only spend around 15 to 30 minutes at 19,341 before making your way down to lower altitudes.
The air got warmer and easier to breathe with every step on the steep descent, until finally, we returned to our camp. There, we were given one hour to sleep, a hot meal, and then continued down for two more hours until we reached a safer elevation and our final night’s camp.
This is where the elation truly set in. Like most things in life, our fears around summit night were based on the unknown. Before my trip, multiple people had told me that Kilimanjaro changed their lives, making them more confident and mentally stronger. I didn’t understand how a simple hike could have such a big impact until I went through it. Now I’ve been through the dark night and made it to the mountaintop and knew just how strong I can be.
Editor’s Note: The author of this story was hosted by World Expeditions.
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