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Coming to Terms with Kili

The following is adapted from a detailed account of the author’s climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro with Lucas Buckingham ’04 in May 2003; as this excerpt begins, they are sleeping in Kibo Hut at 15,520 feet, almost 4,000 feet below the summit. Readers who wish to read the entire story can obtain it from

By Renee Ciulla ’03

Bang, bang, bang…. Nelson, our guide, was at the door with our wake-up call. It was 11 p.m. and the summit push was about to begin. We were lucky to have slept since 7; many people have trouble sleeping at this elevation. With walking sticks in hand and granola in our bellies, we set off for the unimaginable at 12:40 a.m. The sky was clear and the plethora of stars took my breath away. They seemed close enough to scoop into my Nalgene bottle.

Nelson moved in his steady, peaceful way, head bent down, knowing the mountain’s strength too well. Before long, I had gone from feeling strong to only half-alive. My first dilemma was a steady nosebleed that required continually shoving tissues up my nostrils. Changing these tissues in freezing winds with icy mittens proved to be about as fun as it sounds.

Around 3 a.m. the cold became much worse. I could not feel anything in my feet and with every blast of cold air my footwear was acting more like slippers and less like boots. I tried comforting myself with the ridiculous thought that I would feel my feet again when the sun rose at 6:30, since I was climbing closer to the sun.

After climbing on rocky scree we hit hard, slippery snow. We took each step gingerly, hoping that we wouldn’t “slide back to Kibo Hut,” as Nelson put it. Conveniently, my headlamp suddenly stopped working, leaving me to depend on the cloud-covered moon and Lucas’ beam behind me.

The switchbacks in the snow never seemed to end. The cold grew more fierce and soon there was an icy, snowy mist from the clouds that were climbing with us. Before long our jackets and bags were covered in a crackling ice. Our glasses were becoming impossible to see through, making each step that much more enjoyable.

My next horror was lip-curling, teeth-clenching cramping in my stomach that spread to all my organs every time I moved. This pain would have been unbearable even in a normal situation; why did it have to start here? Although tears had been sporadically rolling off my cheeks, now I had to suppress sobs of pain. This didn’t help my breathing; I was now at the point where I could take only 20 steps before I had to take a break. I was tempted to stop hiking, but turning around into the howling wind was equally uninviting. Kilimanjaro had trapped me. It was a humbling experience to be under the power of the mountain. Although my body and mind were screaming to be off the mountain, the spell cast from the summit overrode my own needs. However bleak the near future looked, pushing on until I collapsed was the only choice.

When Nelson announced that we were nearing Gilman’s Point, I was too tired to rejoice. Many hikers call it quits at this point, although the true peak (Uhuru) is 1,000 feet away in swirling, snowy winds. This spot was supposed to mark a climactic event in our hike, but my stomach pain and tears took the place of a celebration. Lucas casually began chomping through a Snickers bar, asking if I was joining him to the top. I clearly remember hating him for his strength at that point. Nevertheless, despite my miserable state I shouldered my icy pack onto my stiff, muscle-pinched back and shot a look of contempt his way.

It was disappointing that we couldn’t see into the crater better, but when the clouds cleared briefly the sight was worth a million summit pushes. The vast moon-like environment surrounded by snow was truly stunning and dream-like. We were in a fairy land of snow fields, huge icicles and distant glaciers. The best part was that we were the only people around. Although the icy snow kept falling, the sun tried hard to shine through. The sun and snow were battling for power as I trudged ahead, deluded.

The altitude really took hold of my mind as we began the one-kilometer walk to Uhuru. Snowy hill after hill passed with no sign of the peak. We were lost in a frozen desert. I couldn’t see through my glasses to follow Nelson, and sometimes saw only a field of white with a small, dark figure ahead. As we neared Uhuru, the unforgiving wind burned my face and pushed me off our trail into deeper snow. Occasionally I would feel Lucas’ steady hand take hold of my backpack and stand me up like a rag doll.

At one point I became eerily complacent about dying. I had reached a new emotional state of numbness. Closing my eyes, I could not see anything but sickness and pain and complete fatigue. I opened my eyes with a shudder, feeling as though I had just seen death. As I stumbled from side to side, I remember welcoming death in order to bring me some peace. I saw the snowy sides of the path as fluffy eternal beds where I could finally rest. Looking back, I’m lucky I never tested the satisfaction of those enticing beds.

I was still devoid of human emotions while posing for a picture at the Top O’ Africa, but as soon as we turned our backs to the summit sign I felt reborn. With each bounding step I gathered more and more energy and oxygen. Within thirty minutes I was filling my lungs with huge breaths and my wet eyes were finally drying. It’s truly amazing how quickly our bodies rebound while descending from high elevations. Our hike down from the summit turned into a joyous ski. We shot straight down the mountain on our butts and boots, hooting and hollering. When we arrived at Horombo Hut, I released all defenses and let myself really feel my exhaustion. I slept for 12 hours straight and when I awoke I had not moved an inch in my sleeping bag.

The warm shower water that night ran against my back, penetrating into the shivers remaining from the freezing summit. Looking at my reflection with scattered thoughts, I saw tinted blue lips and realized I had glimpsed the other side of life on that mountain.

A year after the hike, people still confront me with the question, “What was the point?” A quote by Rene Daumel comes to mind that holds true for all my past and future mountaineering dreams:

“You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down why bother in the first place? Just this: what is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can still at least know.”

Renee Ciulla lives in Portsmouth , N.H. , where she has worked as a gardener, at a Montessori school, and in the organic food/farming field. At press time she was planning a move to Montana to look for environmental/conservation work and continue mountaineering.



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