As told by Kilimanjaro Warriors’ founder Steve Connolly
As we departed Barafu Camp at 11 p.m. on February 15th, snow began to fall from the shadowy sky. With only our headlamps to light the way, the guides and our team of 11 formed a line and began the arduous trek from 16,000 feet to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.
It was an excruciatingly slow process in freezing temperatures and inclement weather.
As we increased in altitude, the weather conditions only worsened. Our guide who has summitted over 100 times claimed we were facing among the worst conditions he had ever experienced.
While we hiked in silence, we could not catch our breaths as we navigated around boulder after boulder in the vicious snow. Inevitably, many of us had several slips and falls but we continued to press onward.
Once we finally reached 17,500 feet, we were faced with a grim situation we had all hoped to avoid. Orlando, who had been leading the group, was fighting a brutal battle for every breath. As an above the knee amputee, he had to swing his prosthetic leg around the boulders, then push himself up with his good leg. This continuous motion and the extreme altitude and weather really intensified his body’s exertion of energy, making it unbearably difficult for him to continue. He had clearly pushed his body to its limits.
We tested his pulse and oxygen levels and asked him several questions to test his comprehension. Unfortunately, despite his tremendous willpower, we all agreed it was not an option for him to continue to the summit.
We said a heartbreaking goodbye to our fellow warrior and resumed our journey.
Through the night, it seemed as though we were climbing with no end in sight. It was difficult to breathe, icicles were forming on our faces and we each had a mild case of altitude sickness. We kept our heads down in chilling silence. Deep in our own thoughts, we were each trying to think of distractions to push through the pain. Trying to invent new ways to put one foot in front of the other.
We would take ten steps, pause to catch our breaths, and then take ten more. Over and over and over again. It felt as though we were going no where.
Around 5 a.m., we finally found ourselves at Stella Point, very close to the peak. We took a short break there and then pressed onward to the summit, just a mere 600 feet in the distance.
It was a painful 20 degrees with a 35 mph wind and the snow quickly escalated into a ruthless blizzard, leaving us with zero visibility. Although we couldn’t discern anything, we were maneuvering around a glacier and a volcanic crater on a very narrow path.
Crutching through the snow, Sarah led us higher and higher, setting the perfect pace for the team.
Again, we took ten steps and paused for about 30 seconds this time. Ten more steps and paused again. It was a fatiguing and endless cycle.
The mountain challenged Kisha; she was exhausted, but she pressed on with a guide’s assistance. She was on the verge of fainting, but prayers and her faith kept her going.
At one point, Nick turned to me and murmured, “This really sucks.” Nick had been through so much, yet I had never heard him complain. Even as the fittest person in our group, he was at war with the mountain and the weather. In this moment, I began to worry. I wondered if we were actually going to see the summit. I wondered if we would achieve our goal.
Alas, at 6:30 a.m. we were standing amid the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. We had made it and we were feeling an impossible array of emotions. We had just accomplished what once seemed utterly impossible.
Finally, the blizzard subsided, allowing us to take a few photos and absorb what we had just conquered.
Although we were standing at 19,300 feet on Africa’s rooftop, one of the world’s highest mountains, we were in a hurry to get back down. It was still bitterly cold, we were hurting and even the smallest amount of movement left us short of breath.
After about ten minutes, we decided to begin the voyage back down the mountain.
We had to navigate through the slippery snow and boulders and descend 7,000 feet. We were exhausted from hiking all night, but we had to reach a lower camp before we were all hit with severe altitude sickness.
This is when the real struggle began and the merciless falls started to occur.
Steve Martin dislocated his shoulder three different times during the descent. Each time, he had to lie on the rocky ground and maneuver it back in place. He was also experiencing excruciating pain where his prosthetic legs connect with his real legs.
As he moved down the mountain, Erich experienced the same pain with every step, his prosthetic leg repeatedly pounding into his body. His good leg also suffered and his knee began to give out multiple times.
We were all experiencing a new level of misery, discomfort and fatigue.
At 3 p.m., we finally reached the camp at 16,000 feet and we were reunited with Orlando. We rested and ate lunch, but we still had 4,000 feet to descend for that day.
The energy had been sucked from our bodies, we were far past the point of exhaustion and we were aching in every place possible, but once again, we all found the strength to move forward.
After a grand total of 18 hours, it was 6 p.m. and we had arrived at the next camp at 12,000 feet. We ate dinner and quickly fell asleep.
The next morning we awoke to another 5,000 feet staring us straight in the eyes. Another eight hours of pounding and agony down the steep, rocky and wet terrain. We were thankful to escape the snow, only for it to be replaced by a torrential downpour. Eventually, we arrived back at our glorious hotel.
Last night, we showered, rearranged our bags, attempted to dry our gear and prepared for the three-day safari we began this morning.
It is nearly impossible to describe the effort and willpower it took for Sarah, Kisha, Steve M., Orlando, Nick, and Erich to conquer this mountain in just eight days. As wingmen climbers, Joe, Maria, Mark, Bevan, and I assisted where we could, but the energy and determination the six amputees upheld was heroic and inspiring.
I am so full of gratitude and appreciation for all of the support, prayers, encouragement, good vibes and energy sent our way. We desperately needed them. We felt our minds and bodies recharge when we thought about our loved ones at home.
Stay tuned for further updates as we move along in the safari. And please check back for a full recap after our return to the United States. Our cameraman, Bevan Bell, is in the process of creating a documentary for the expedition, which we hope will be available for viewing by the end of the year.