Feb 16, 2021

When Lightning Struck On Kilimanjaro


Tim Loew

We heard thunder off in the distance.

Then we saw the flash of lightning. There was about 15 seconds between the lightning and the thunder, so it was about three miles out. Then it was down to nine seconds, and then eight seconds, and then, it was right on us. We got to camp around 2:00 p.m. or 3:00 p.m. (at 16,000 feet), anticipating that that night around 11:30, we were going to be heading out to the summit. There was only about six hours to complete the turnaround. To eat, replenish, rest, get our gear all ready and then be ready to go in the dark. But sometime around 9:00 p.m., when we were in our tents preparing, this thunderstorm rolled through.

I knew from my climb on Mt. Rainier that that was not a good sign. It was a lightning risk, standing out there with your poles out, and there’s also rain. Snow you could deal with, but the rain wets out your gear. Even if you have waterproof, water resistant gear, there’s the potential of getting soaked. The wind is freezing, and it becomes dangerous with the specter of hypothermia. So it was raining, we’re about to go out, and it occurred to me we may not be able to go at all. We could drown in our tents. I tried to come to terms with not having any summit day in spite of five days of pain and agony getting up the mountain. Having to just descend instead. And I did because that’s the nature of the mountain. Anytime that you go for the summit, you just can’t control the elements.

I thought we weren’t going for sure.

We needed to get back down the mountain at a certain time. Our trek was seven days: the guides and the porters had to go home, and we had our return flights. But at 5:15 a.m. Moses, our guide, appeared. The porters were helping shake the tents because of all the snow that was on them.

“We’re going,” he said, simply.

In my experience, 5:00 a.m. is too late to start out. Usually, you want to get to the summit by 11:00 a.m. or 12:00 p.m., because the sun starts to melt the snow and that’s when the mountain can start falling apart. Crevasses open up. You want to be up and working your way back down the mountain before the sun has a significant chance to thaw everything. But we left at 5 a.m., six hours later then we intended,  uncertain — absolutely uncertain — of what we were going to find.

We set out in the dark, head lamps on, up the mountain.

“You might see people coming down in not too great a condition,” Moses warned us. “You’ve just got to be prepared for that.”

They descended in pairs; climbers with either a porter or guide. They were really tired and stumbling. Dazed. They hadn’t made the summit, having turned around for some reason. We continued slowly. Our guides communicated with the others in Swahili, and, they would ask, “Oh, what happened to that person?” And he would say, “Didn’t make the summit. Didn’t make the summit. Didn’t make the summit.”  Over and over and over again.

I was set on going even though I didn’t have a lot of energy. Very tired, fatigued. Just mentally taking deep breaths, pressure breathing. So I was doing that and taking it slowly at a pace that mentally I could get to a summit and back down at that level of energy expended. There were sections of gradual decline and then, steeper ones and then, some switchbacks, some scrambling of the rocks. Dark volcanic soil. Scree—it’s like a broken down, volcanic rock. Kind of like gravel that’s been powdered over. A woman on her way down said, “Summit is closed. Summit is closed. The weather is just so bad.” We just keep going and heading up.

There is this mantra on the mountain, which is, “Do everything slowly.” Pole, pole. Everyone who has done Kilimanjaro knows “pole, pole,” which is translated as “slowly, slowly.” Even for the guides who are well conditioned, every step is slow and metered, and intentional, and that’s how you get up the mountain. You can see a landmark in the distance, and it looks like it’s just right there, and it is right there. It seems like, “Well, we should just be there in a matter of minutes.” But, it takes hours to get there. Physiologically, you have to deal with altitude. Even if you’re in shape and physically fit, you might experience fatigue, headache, loss of appetite. When you are at 19,341 feet, you’ve had those six days or seven for your body to climatize. But it’s not perfect. For a whole week, I was out of breath.

“Do we keep going?”

When we reached Gillman’s Point, one of the three summits, it was our first real decision point. The visibility started to deteriorate and we were very tired, but it was a major milestone, getting there.

I remember looking at my watch—it was about 1:34 a.m., which is well beyond normally when you want to arrive. Beyond Gillman’s Point, there’s Stella Point and Uhuru Peak, each one another 45 minutes and another couple hundred feet of meters in elevation. We were prepared for the guide to say, “Okay, we are going down,” but he said, “We’re going to go on. We’re just going to the next point.” From point to point. And that’s it. So, we all kind of dug deep. I was right on the end of my energy, going into reserves. And no matter how many times they said, “Getting to the summit is only halfway,” it really is only halfway. I was still going to have to make it down.

We could still hear thunder in the distance.

I wondered if we could suffer whiteout conditions. There was some trail, but it was snowing so much that the footprints were getting snowed in. So, I wasn’t sure: “Do we go or not?” That’s where having a guide really makes a difference. I might have turned back, but I believed in their knowledge of the mountain and the weather. I trusted the guide. We said, “We’re going.” It wasn’t even a question. But it was tough. At that altitude, every breath takes effort. Every footstep takes effort.

The snow was deep enough there that not only could we not see but the trail is a single track, where it’s kind of packed down. Outside of that one-foot line, maybe two inches, any step, your foot would sink down into the snow on either side, and then, maybe less than a meter over was the point where it drops down. It required focus and was not something to take lightly.  We continued on that path to Stella Point. We kept going, point to point. Just mentally being in the zone and being focused. Being aware of the risks, but no fear, no concern. Just keep going, one foot in front of the other. And, eventually, after another 45 minutes, Emmanuel pointed up and said, “That’s the peak.” I could see it and it was probably 25 meters off. I could see the outline of the sign. And we made it up to there, and it was like—“Yes. We got here. We got to the summit.”

It was an overcoming.

We found a way to keep moving forward in spite of the conditions and risks. On my back, I was carrying tokens to the top for others. But when I got up there, it was so tiring. The thought just went through my mind, “Forget all the tokens. Forget all the symbols. You’re here… catch your breath and just head down.” But then, I thought, “Okay, no. I made it up here. I have to find a way to make it happen.”

I had my Lucky Piece with me. I had the True flag folded it in my backpack, and it was windy and it was blowing horizontally across. I was carrying tokens to the top for others, too. It felt like, “Mission Accomplished.” I wanted to have chai at the summit. And it was close.  We got to Gillman’s point, and we had ginger tea. It’s like, “Why are we doing the chai? Why chai?”  To have it be an embodiment of that future that we’re creating. It’s a Hindi word for time.  It has a connotation of also, moments. A moment in time. It’s about the shared moments that happen around it. So this was an example and opportunity really to live that out.  To be on the other side of the world, and having these shared moments with porters, with my fellow trekkers. It was like family.

When we first arrived, our taxi driver was waving to people as they were crossing the road and they waved back. I asked him, “Oh, are these your friends?” He said, “In Tanzania, everyone is friend.” Rafiki is a word for friend, but, on the mountain, we weren’t friends.  We weren’t rafiki.  We were brothers. There is a real camaraderie and at the summit, there was a real excitement for everyone in the group that we made it. Usually, when you get to the summit, from what I’m told, it’s crowded. There is a ton of people up there. But because of the semi-blizzard conditions, and the thunderstorm, when I made it up there, there was nobody to be seen. A significant number of the people that set out didn’t make it. So, it was quite a moral boost for porters and guides as well. Knowing that they supported us, and we got there. They led us in a tribal dance at the top to celebrate.

One of the amazing things about Kilimanjaro is the climate zones that you go through.

There are five distinct zones, starting with farmland, rainforest, and then varying levels of vegetation, all the way to alpine desert. All on the same mountain. The way that our guides likened it was like walking from the Equator to the North Pole in six days.

It was most striking on the way down. On day seven, we woke up in our Kibo huts at base camp, and, about six hours later, I was all the way down the mountain at the gate exiting. I went through all of those zones. We started off walking in the snow with full layered gear and mountain gloves. At the bottom, I had just one layer, no gloves, no hat, and sunglasses.  It was really striking to see the change from snow to where it was just desert terrain with some boulders.  Seeing some little brush lichen and taller bushes, and then the swales go from rock to wood. Trees get taller and then, actually more like real trees. And then, it turns into forest. We entered the forest — a rainforest — then at some point, it was so dense that I couldn’t see with my sunglasses on. There were monkeys, wildlife. All sorts of waterfalls. The snow that was up there started melting, and so, there were actually swimming holes.

After the trek, I was in a very peaceful state and just intent on getting to the bottom, taking it all in.

As I was following my guide down, it turns out that he’s got the course record for the trail that we were on.  We were just zooming through, and it was satisfying to finish the journey that way. To finish strong, and get down through all of these zones like a single track. We got all the way down to the gate — the very end —  and, I kid you not, within five seconds of passing through that gate, it started pouring.

It made me think of moments again. The clouds can creep up the mountain slowly and we had this happen when we were at camp, to where the visibility is quite good. You can see a couple kilometers away. Three minutes later, the clouds are there. You just come upon the location, and now you can see maybe 10 meters. Time moved so quickly. Getting up to the summit was like, “Okay, I got here.” Just this realization that you were really there. I didn’t want it to be a blur. So, before we left, and everything was packed up, ready to go, I just stood there and looked back at the sign. I was just present with it.  In that moment, maybe five to ten seconds, it was just like, “I was here and present. Got it.” Locked it in. And, I was able to go.