School Hut base camp (4,750m/15,600ft) to Uhuru Peak (5,895m/19,341ft)
Distance: 7km/4mi, 6-8 hours
Altitude: 1,100m/3,700ft up in elevation
Finally, it’s time for the big night: summit night! Your guides will come wake you up late evening – if you managed to get any sleep at all, that is. Now it’s the time to put on all your layers of clothing and check your gear one last time, to make sure you won’t get cold later on, and that you’ll have everything you need with you for the coming 12+ hours.
If you’re lucky, a peaceful wind-still night underneath a star-filled sky will provide a surprisingly pleasant welcome to your final summit push. With unexpectedly benign temperatures and plenty of air to breathe after a week of acclimatization, nothing can go wrong – so it may seem.
Indeed, the first 1-2 hours of your summit hike from School Hut base camp will feel relatively easy compared to what you might have expected, walking southwards almost in parallel to the slope without gaining much altitude. With a clear sky, you will have an almost dreamlike view down to Kenya, as if you were hovering on a detached far away slab of rock, like on moon while looking back down on earth.
Before long, you will see a line of lights crossing your path. That’s the hikers on the Marangu and Rongai routes, coming up from their Kibo Hut base camp. Once your paths have merged, everything changes.
All of a sudden, the slope becomes so steep that the path needs to wind itself up like a snake. Your’re no longer looking down into Kenya but facing a black wall that seems to endlessly rise up into the sky. The air becomes so thin that you will have no choice but to breathe for every single step. And, worst of all, the wind kicks in and will make the temperature drop from pleasant to freezing without warning, all from one minute to the next.
This is it, your litmus test: to summit or not to summit. For some, everything so far over the past week might have seemed relatively easy and fun. However, Kilimanjaro is no joke, and it couldn’t have been that easy all the way up. Now is the time when the mountain will make you earn your trophy. No matter how fit or experienced you are, hardly anyone will make it through these early morning hours without at least some discomfort, to say the least. Headache, nausea, serious shortness of breath, ill temper, extreme exhaustion, frozen toes and fingers – whatever your complaints, or all of those – they will work against you and dare you to call it quits.
The good news is that every suffering has it’s ending. If you handle the altitude rather well, this end may come as soon as you’ve reached Gilman’s Point at the crater rim, the magical threshold to earn your climbing certificate. Euphoria may spread and make you forget the past hours as if they never were.
If you are very sensitive to the altitude, on the contrary, your nightmare is far from over. Gilman’s Point is only the first sub-summit, and Uhuru Peak still is a mile away. This may not seem a lot as the path continues along the rim of the crater and slopes so gently that it appears almost flat at times. However, it’s not what you see but the invisible thin air that may turn these last meters into a seemingly impossible struggle. Don’t despair and take your time. Step by step, pole pole. With over a week to acclimatize, chances are high that you will be able to eventually reach the peak of your journey.
More importantly than focusing purely only on the summit, however, don’t feel disappointed if you can’t go all the way; or if you can, yet reaching your goal doesn’t feel as good as you thought it might. It’s the journey that was always meant to be your reward.
To feel for yourself what it means to push through a freezing cold night, to persist against all odds, and to finally reach the peak of your journey, I highly recommend you to read my book Kilimanjaro Uncovered: “Alex’s description of the final push to the summit is some of the best writing I have seen in ages. Her real-time view of experiences is gripping, with clear, honest descriptions of her own thoughts and feelings, and her interpretation of others’ reactions to this challenge.”