Kilimanjaro: To the Death Zone and Back Again

The only downside of my milestone mountain climb is that I can’t wait for my next adventure trip.

by Susan Dickinson • More.com Member { View Profile }

Crater Camp, 18,500 feet. We sit at the breakfast table in the dining tent, mute with headaches, and shivering helplessly in the cold, despite 16 layers of high-tech clothing designed to keep us from dying of hypothermia in these conditions. I guess it’s working. We’re still alive, warm enough, I guess. But our oxygen readings are ridiculously low. We pass the portable oximeter around the table, each in turn sticking a frozen finger tip into the sensor clip. When we get a very low reading, we blame the machine, but deep down, we know it speaks the truth. Our bodies are starved for oxygen. With these oxygen levels, we should be in the ICU, for heaven’s sake! Edmund, sitting next to me, takes a sip of hot tea, and then jerks around in his chair to vomit on the tent floor behind us. I am not in the least solicitous, just glad he missed me.  
It’s 5 a.m. and 20 below zero. We’ve spent the last five days hiking ever upward, through climate zones, with ever colder temperatures, and ever less oxygen. We’ve been to Shira Plateau, Moir Hut, Lava Tower, Arrow Glacier, and yesterday’s tour de force, the dreaded Western Breach. While the previous days’ treks were manageable, yesterday’s was exponentially harder. We started at 5 a.m., and it took us nine hours to go a mere 1.6 miles — straight up, mind you. In the pre-dawn gloom, we gingerly crossed a very steep boulder strewn slope, made especially tense by the knowledge that we were racing against the rising sun. Once the sun hits this slope, s*’t happens: 1. The ice that holds the rocks in place melts. 2. Rocks slide with every footstep. 3. People below you get whacked with falling rocks — and sometimes die. This happened most recently a few years ago when a 34 ton boulder crashed down and took out a whole group of climbers. After that, the Park Service closed the Western Breach route. Only in the past year has it re-opened, with a slightly different approach, and a requirement that we wear hard hats. Does this make us feel safer, or grateful? Hardly! Instead we grumble about these cumbersome helmets — they’ll be useless against a 34 ton boulder!   

After we successfully traverse the still-frozen slope, our path seems to turn straight up. It is not a 'technical climb' — meaning no ropes are used — but an elevator would have been nice. Instead, we hand-over-foot claw and gasp our way up over giant rock "stairs" (actually "cliffs," where I come from!) to the eerie glacier-strewn flats of Summit Crater Camp. Crater Camp is in the so-called “Death Zone” because at this altitude people can die of pulmonary edema or cerebral edema.  Affliction appears to be random, unrelated to physical fitness, and if it happens, the main treatment is to get back down the mountain — fast. But in Crater Camp, the only way down is up. There’s no going back down the Western Breach. We have to go up and over the top to get out of here, so we all just hope and pray to Mother Kili to spare us that fate.

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