It’s time to leave now-familiar Horombo Hut for higher grounds. We depart after breakfast, passing Zebra Rock, Mawenzi Peak, getting higher above the clouds, a view we keep turning around to enjoy. It’s hot but I keep my hoodie on to protect my already scorched and flaking ears.
Moorland subsides into the monotony of desert for the next 10 km. Large rocks and boulders shrink into small stones that climbers have arranged to spell names, countries and turn into smiley faces.
The minute we stop moving and sit down to eat lunch on a rock outcrop, the cold wraps around us hungrily. All-knowing ravens join us, expertly finding all the bread and biscuit crumbs we throw in their direction. Little mice crawl about the rocks, thrilled at bits of hardboiled egg and sandwich stuffing that miss our mouths and fall to the ground instead. They are cute—karibu, Hosea greets them—and I remember their cousin, our restless friend from last night, who insisted on trying granola, chocolate, glucose and whatever else he could open while rummaging through our stuff and interrupting our sleep.
Katana engages in lively debate with whoever he meets, standing out as the only local climber, and blending in with the guides and porters as just another Swahili-speaking Tanzanian. He’s the perfect climbing buddy—a doctor, a native, an experienced climber, a friend. He has our back in too many ways to count and I am eternally grateful to him for spending this week with us.
The flat ground makes the peaks swooping above us that much taller and more angular. We walk through this valley of triangles, Mawenzi behind us, Kibo ahead, and start preparing ourselves for the climb that night. We will not spend a full night at Kibo Hut like we have at the 2 previous camps. Tonight we leave for the summit, starting at midnight, and 24 hours from now, will be on this same path but headed back to Horombo and leaving the summit behind us. Will we make it, will the weather cooperate, will altitude sickness suddenly hit us? Only time will tell!
We pass Onja, who is feeling a little uneasy and walking slowly with her guide who encourages her with a calm voice and small steps. It’s amazing that someone can show up here, alone, partner up with a guide, trust him entirely, and climb a mountain—or do her best to, anyway. The mountain brings out the courage in you, offering you company along the way to make you feel comfortable. Really incredible. Good for Onja, and all the other single climbers we encounter—mostly women, I notice.
At Kibo Hut we have a snack and head out for a short walk. The air feels significantly thinner here, 4,700 m above sea level, and our impromptu dance party outside the dining hall, DJ’ed by Katana’s iPhone, is a result of oxygen-deprived delirium, view-induced excitement and the physical and mental thrill of being hours—not miles, not days—away from the highest point in Africa. Our rave lasts about 5 minutes as we’re quickly out of breath, breath that we need to conserve for climbing, silly! The guides, porters and fellow climbers around us seem unhappy that we’ve stopped entertaining them with our brazen dance moves. I’m glad I can’t see myself!
From a rock outcrop that we climb up, the trail snaking away from us back to Horombo Hut looks too narrow for people; Mawenzi Peak looks disarmingly small. We feel disarmingly small.
Every bite of our early dinner is the magic potion of physical energy, mental strength and altitude sickness antibody that we need to make it to the top, and we chew deliberately and mull silently. Katana plays 'I've Gotta Feeling' by Black Eyed Peas on his iPhone and we remember to smile. We’re so close, so close!
We aren’t sleeping in huts tonight, but a dormitory-like room with several bunk beds. We reunite with the Coloradans, Onja, the Swiss man in his neon orange jacket and his quiet wife, and the half-Tanzanian half-German brother-sister pair, and freely share sleeping pills, Vaseline, tissues, chocolate and stories. It’s a slumber party at the almost-top of the world! Once lights are out, I toss clothes from my hiking pack onto my bunk bed to change into: a writhing and wriggling affair in darkness. Taking layers of tight-fitting clothes off and putting layers of tight-fitting clothes on is hard with just a headlamp on to see what’s what!
We have a few hours to rest before we start climbing at midnight. Obviously, I can’t sleep.