Barafu Camp and Kilimanjaro Summit
8 miles, 5,895 meters, 493 mb pressure
The Prouty Mountaineering Program
(the first Prouty Challenge Event benefitting Dartmouth-Hitchcock Norris Cotton Cancer Center)
December 19, 2012
The team launches for the summit – 2:00 AM
Properly executed, the summit push on Kili begins with a cold hike in the dark, and ends at the summit in delight. Our team got an intentionally late start, hoping to spend the day in the crater, and return to Barafu camp, rather than continue down to Mweka Camp at 10,000 feet. We had built the luxury of a spare day into the schedule, and it also afforded the chance for a second summit day if we got shut down by inclement weather or illness.
The worry on Kilimanjaro is always the potential for acute mountain sickness, (AMS); a very bad actor that can result in high altitude cerebral edema (HACE), or high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE). These two conditions combine to make Kili a fairly dangerous climb – only because of the altitude. It is impossible to predict who will be susceptible to AMS, and 4 of our 5 team members had never climbed above 14,500 feet – we were in new territory. Our team was either taking acetazolamide or dexamethasone for the amelioration of the typical symptoms of headache, nausea, sleeplessness, loss of appetite and related AMS maladies.
The key determinant in AMS is the absolute reduction in air pressure – not any relative change in % oxygen in the atmosphere, which remains constant at 21% up to 69,000 ft. Two of the major physiological changes caused by altitude are the acidification of the blood due to changes in CO2 concentration, and an increase in edema, due to poorly understood changes in capillary function. These conditions always become much more dangerous above “extreme altitude” of 5,500 meters – just below the summit of Uhuru Peak at 5,895 meters on Kilimanjaro. We measured the air pressure at the summit at 493 mbars, just about half of the normal pressure of 1013.25 mbars at sea level.
The hike up Kilimanjaro in the dark is cold and a bit dull, but is a real test of the cardiovascular system. The climb up from Barafu is pretty consistently steep, gaining over 4,000 feet in 2 miles. Sunrise broke over a cloudy and breezy morning, and found us just below the 19,000 foot level at the crater rim at Stella Point. Fortunately, everybody in our party was in really good health, and we pressed on to the summit before the storm hit.
For those who push to physical failure on the mountain, the only alternative is a one way trip on a one wheeled cart. This is a long trip over bad trail, and ensures that if you weren’t seriously hurt when you started, you will be when you finish. Our last day saw three unfortunate climbers exit the mountain via the cart – and directly to Arusha hospital.
Jeff illustrates the hard way down – the one wheeled cart
Mt. Mawenzi in the clouds at sunrise
Rick enjoying the happy prospect of the summit just below Stella Point
Stella Point – a flat walk to the summit
Uhuru summit on the crater rim
Glaciers near the summit
The weather on the summit was very windy, and a bit foreboding of snow and ice to come in the afternoon. We hustled to get the team banners, recently augmented by the yellow ribbons, hung in the breeze. As always, any climb above 17,500 feet is a treat for me, and this was particularly sweet.
A great moment for the team on the summit
The trip down came sooner than expected – our arrival was shortly followed by the arrival of a bit of blowing ice and snow – and our plans for a day in the crater were terminated. While we missed a bit of adventure, we attained the real goal – the summit – and the happy prospect of an afternoon nap overwhelmed any disappointed. We headed down at a trot.
That evening, the storm blew in with a vengeance – and found us in the mess tent enjoying a warm candle light dinner while the storm hammered away outside. Suddenly, through the tent flap stepped a young European woman, and she said, “help – please”. It sounds like the plot to an Agatha Christie novel, but it actually happened.
We determined that she was about frozen solid – her hands no longer worked – and she was drenched to the skin; we’re talking a pretty solid case of hypothermia. We got her out of her soaked clothes, and some warm soup into her – she had been on the trail for 9 hours and was a mess. Her name was Levina – a Dutch woman – and she was completing a 4 month trip to Africa with a budget rate trip up Kili, and was paying the price. After about 45 minutes we released her back to her guide, with the promise that she come by in the morning to confirm that she was OK.
Alpine glow on the Hill as we depart
Levina gets new boots – from Kelly
Levina with Kelly – a new adopted teammate
The descent day dawned clear, cold and beautiful. Levina came by, and was suffering from what appeared to be edema of the entire body – even her boots didn’t fit. Kelly/Jeff arranged a complicated trade – putting reasonably fitting boots on everybody. A little dexamethasone and she was headed down and on the way to a speedy and complete recovery. With much help from the team at East Africa Voyage, we adopted Levina for the rest of the trip, for the benefit and entertainment of all involved – she was really quite a fearless character.
The 2012 Kili Team comes off the Hill
Mt. Mawenzi as we depart
Somehow, pulling Levina into the team made the symmetry of the trip perfect; as we scattered to the four winds for the Holiday. One last night, and one last team photo, and we were gone.
The entire Team on the last day
Adios, from Kileman-Jaro