On the June solstice, one year ago, I summited Mt. Kilimanjaro. In the week leading up to my summit anniversary, I found myself flipping through pictures and re-reading my trip report. With mixed emotions, I have been quietly celebrating.
Why the mixed emotions? Reflecting on the past year, I’m not sure I’ve done anything significant. While I have been on a number of amazing hikes, they have been a means to an end; I’m training to move faster and learning to move more confidently on steeper and more technical terrain. I have certainly acquired new skills and improved my abilities, but I feel I haven’t completed any ‘big’ or noteworthy objectives. Reading my posts over the last year, nothing screams “EPIC” quite like our trek up Mt. Kilimanjaro.
For my one year Kili anniversary, I wanted to relive our summit night in our local mountains. In the process of brainstorming, I sought out hikes that included a hut or cabin for a base camp (making it the equivalent of Kibo Hut), with an overnight trek leading to a solstice sunrise on a summit. We narrowed our plan down to hiking to the Elfin Lakes Hut and ascending the Little Diamond Head summit for sunrise.
Quick Kili summit night recap: we arrived at Kibo Hut, went for an acclimatization hike, returned to the hut for dinner and a nap, woke up at 10pm for an 11pm ascent start, and summited Uhuru Peak around sunrise on the Winter Solstice.
Google Earth View & Elevation Profile
On Saturday morning, with a late start, we headed over to the Diamond Head parking lot. When we arrived, the lot was already over-flowing. We packed our bags and picked up the trail at its head. We made a snack-stop at the Red Heather Hut and continued on. We ran into several people on their way out and about twice as many on their way in.
Along the way, we received a mix of rain and wet-snow near the start of Paul Ridge. It was a gloomy jaunt.
Given our ‘half-equipped’ overnight packs (sans sleeping bag and tent), we hiked fairly efficiently up to Elfin Lakes.
When we arrived at the lake, we noticed more tenters than cabiners. Almost all of the tent-pads were taken, but there was plenty of room to spare inside the hut.
We set up our napping-quarters on the second floor and whipped up a few freeze-dried dinners for a carb load/energy boost for the night to come. Over dinner, we witnessed a short hail storm and nervously exchanged looks. This was not forecasted!
With a little more time to spare before our nap, Ryan and I went for a short walk outside the hut to take in the evening rays; the clouds were starting to clear up.
From our vantage, I realized Diamond Head was just close enough to be an enjoyable destination. We retreated back to the hut for a nap. Worried about the snow conditions, pace, and potential blood sugar problems (from hiking overnight with minimal rest), we set out at 10pm for the summit. This eventually proved to be way too early for a sunrise summit.
There was no snow along the trail to the Saddle; this made for a quick ascent. When we crested the Saddle, I realized I completely overshot our time. At this pace, we would make it to Little Diamond Head hours before sunrise. We had a few options: hang out at the Saddle for some night shots, drop down and hang out in the col between the Saddle and Little Diamond Head, or attempt the Gargoyles and hope to move slowly enough to kill several hours. We decided to take some night shots on the Saddle and drop into the col to get out of the cold night wind.
We watched the moon disappear and the night sky fade to black, and continued on.
Our next stop was the col. After carefully stepping down the snowy headwall on the other side of the Saddle, we found cairns and a faint trail. We were still moving quicker than I anticipated and there were hours left until sunrise. We had to figure out whether we wanted to kill even more time or head back to Elfin and try this another night with better timing. Ryan had packed his Thermarest, suspecting we would have to wait around for sunrise. We decided to layer up with an emergency blanket and sit down/nap for a few hours.
Throughout the evening, we had been able to see a vivid silhouette of Atwell Peak, the Gargoyles, Columnar, and the surrounding mountains. As Ryan and I nestled in for a 2 hour nap, I watched Atwell dwindle into the night. From our spot in the col, we managed to get out of the wind, and still endured a very cold nap. I don’t think either Ryan or I really fell asleep; I remember dozing off and abruptly waking up to the sound of rock fall a handful of times.
After 3am, I woke up and found Ryan pointing towards Atwell; its silhouette was slowly returning and we saw traces of twilight on the horizon. Feeling more motivated than ever, we packed up the Thermarest and emergency blanket and continued on towards Little Diamond Head.
We hiked out of the col, on a distinct trail, and soon came across a consistent snowfield towards Little Diamond Head. The snow was solid with many sun cups and runnels following the terrain. Our microspikes helped with grip and ice axes were not needed. Though the sky was gradually lighting up, the silhouettes were not enough to reveal an obvious route. We relied on the topo lines on our GPS to find the best way to gain the ridge to the summit. By headlamp, we were able to spot the occasional rock cairn poking up from the snow, which confirmed we were on the right track.
The conditions made for relatively fast travel; we soon reached the base of the final climb to the summit. The snow ended here and we dropped our packs. Part way up the final kick, the sky was starting to light up with soft pastel colours of dawn; summits of nearby mountains received the first light of the day.
We followed an obvious track in the dirt and scree to the summit.
At the top, we stood in silence as the sun rose above the mountains across from us. Just as we summited, the sun emerged, lighting up peak upon peak stretching out to the horizon.
In the foreground was Atwell Peak connected to the Little Diamond Head by a hair-raising ridge. Next was Diamond Glacier, often used as a mountaineering route over the neve. A little further away was the Garibaldi Glacier, Opal Cone, and Lava Glacier, followed by Pyramid Mountain, Mamquam Mountain, and the Sky Pilot Group. Across the Howe Sound was the magical Tantalus Range.
I can’t put into words how awe inspiring it was to be on the summit to greet the start of summer. The sun pierced the darkness and carried with it the torch of the day. At dawn, the sun spilled golden light onto the landscape, penetrating the deepest of forests, scaling the tallest of peaks. I closed my eyes as the light washed over me.
Starting our hike in the evening, route-finding by headlamp throughout the night, and seeing the world awaken from its slumber was a breathtaking experience that will stay with me forever. One year after standing on the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, I was standing on an insignificant peak, but the feelings of accomplishment were no less significant.
We spent a long time on the summit and enjoyed the views around us. I could have spent all morning here, watching the colours transition. We finally tore ourselves away and retraced our steps. As tired and weary as we were from our overnight hike, the sun renewed our energy.
It was interesting to see the terrain we had passed through by headlamp. This may be the only time I’ll admit ignorance is bliss; not being able to see the steep slopes and distance ahead made for an easier hike.
After cresting the saddle on our way back, we were exhausted to see the un-enticing Paul Ridge.
We returned to the hut, packed up our nap gear, and headed back to the parking lot. Along the way we made a few stops to enjoy the views and look back at our objective.
I can’t think of a better way to have spent my Mt. Kilimanjaro anniversary and the first day of summer.
Video footage of our adventure:
✓ The 10(+6) essentials
✓ Sleeping bag
✓ Freeze-dried meals & snacks
✓ 3L of water
✓ Camera + GoPro + Gorilla tripod
✓ Ice axe (we left this at the hut)
✓ Extra wary layers (down sweater and jacket, toque, wool shirt, mitts)
Happy Trails! 🙂
What a great idea! I love the peace and quiet of the early morning – catching sunrise from a summit is awesome.