The 11 p.m. call comes both sooner and later than I anticipate. I actually fell asleep, but worried I wouldn't get woken up as my husband decided not to make the summit attempt. No one stops at my tent to wake me, but the other tents are so close, I hear others stirring.
We are to meet at the dining tent, and I hurry to put on my clothes. I am the first there, the table is still being set, and I'm told to return in five minutes.
We have a light snack of hot porridge and tea. Our head guide tells us to "empty our minds" to walk "pole pole (po-lay)" slowly slowly and before we know it we will be at the summit.
At 12:30 a.m., we take our assigned places in line - I am fourth behind the lead guide - and head up the mountain. The night is still and pitch black, but if I tilt my head, I can see a line of lights bobbing up the trail - other hikers ahead of us.
We fall into a rhythm of briefly stopping every hour to drink water, snack or go to the bathroom. I'm reminded of a mule train or those horseback rides you take on vacation - each horse plodding nearly on the hooves of the one in front, head down, one slow footstep after another. My world has shrunk to the circle of light cast by my headlamp.
The only sound is our boots crunching on the frozen gravel. I'm feeling good considering the altitude, and I concentrate on taking deep breaths through my nose every so often, filling my lungs and blowing out through my lips.
The temperature drops as we climb, the two smallest fingers on my right hand are beyond numb - probably because I have to take off my outer glove every time we stop in order to eat my snack. I tell myself I can make it one more hour to another brief stop. At 5:30 a.m., I tell myself I can make it another hour to sunrise. It's 14 degrees F when a fellow hiker's temperature gauge quits registering. Stops become painfully cold, and we just want to keep pressing on.
I gave my pack to a porter long ago. It's amazing how much easier it is without that additional seven pounds or so.
My nose drips constantly, and I just let it. It's too hard to find a tissue in my pocket. Continuing on is purely an effort of will.
Suddenly, our guides start singing in Swahili. The switchbacks are tight, many are near us and other guides and porters from other groups join in the harmony. I recognize the tune: they are singing "On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand." I lift my head. I can see the lights ahead steadily moving up the dark mountainside, the beautiful song gaining momentum as well with the addition of more and more voices, and it's a moment I can hardly describe.
The sky lightens, and a thin red line separates the eastern horizon. Mt. Mawenzi is a jagged silhouette, and Kenya is just beyond. I can see someone in a bright red coat at the crater rim. We continue our slow ascent, and finally we are there - Stella Point and the Crater Rim! (7:15 a.m.) The guide book said we would revel at this point, and I am definitely reveling! It feels warm in the shelter of a chunk of lava, and we sit.
But we are not yet at the summit. Our guide tells us the rest of the trail is "gentle steep." It's a tough pull at that altitude, some packed snow. I can see hikers taking pictures at the summit sign, and it appears tantalizingly close.
Hikers descending congratulate us. Others stumble past, being led by their guides.
The summit sign is in front of me, and I can't help myself. I begin to cry. I can only describe my feelings as similar to those after I gave birth - all those many hours of labor and now the baby is here and the hard work is forgotten. It's a mixture of joy, elation, relief and thinking "I can't believe I just did that."
I'm here, at the roof of Africa - Uhuru Peak - 19,340 ft./5800 m. It's about 8:30 a.m.
After pictures at the sign, our guides and porters sing "How Great Thou Art" in Swahili. I can't think of a more fitting conclusion to the morning's accomplishment.
Another hiker and I join in on the chorus. I can't remember the other words, but hey...I'm at 19,000 plus feet. =)