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Welcome to Gilman's Point

Zdeno Chara and Co. meet the apex of their trek up Kilamanjaro

Friday, 07.18.2008 / 7:29 AM ET / Features
By Rob Simpson  - Special Correspondent |
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Welcome to Gilman\'s Point
Almost there.
Trekking with Zdeno – Day 5
I reckon midnight is the start of a new day officially, and that’s exactly when day-5 on Kilimanjaro began for us.

When I finally popped out of my tent with all my gear in place, all of my layers heaped on, and my headlamp functioning, the rest of the group was already standing by.

It was pitch black.  We had a dramatic panorama of stars overhead, but no one really noticed.  With our headlamps on, and our focus entirely upon the man’s feet in front of us, we didn’t care a whole lot for the stars.

For the next six hours, we climbed in the dark.  Vertically, we had about 3,200 feet to gain. Slowly:  Pole’ pole’.

Aloyce the head guide led the way, I was next for no particular reason, then Zee, then Darryl, then Bergy, then Mark Brender, then the three porters carrying the TV equipment, and then the assistant guide.

There's no way that Zee & Co. make the journey without these guys. Click the pic for the video.
The remaining porters would sleep overnight, and take the camp and the rest of our belongings down to the next campsite, six hours below the crater rim. (Although the majority didn’t come to the summit with us, we’ve included the porters as our video today, as a testament to the hard work they did, and the essential services they provided.)
After two or three rests, we changed up the order.  For a while, Chara followed the guide first.  The big man had some trouble with his footing, and found the going tough.  He explained later that the slipping and sliding on the scree (loose rock debris) added to his fatigue later.

It wasn’t exactly mind numbing, because the landscape within the range of our headlamps was fascinating and ever changing.  Plus you could only see so far in the dark, leaving a little sense of mystery and anticipation.
On one hand, the pace tested everyone’s patience.  Stopping to rest or halting briefly due to the man ahead of you slipping, became frustrating.  Meanwhile, during other stretches, when a rhythm was established, left-right, left-right, crunch-crunch, crunch-crunch, the climb was almost soothing.

About three hours in, we came across another line of headlamps to our left:  Another group was making its way up to the summit via the main path.  A few minutes later, we’d merge on to that path just behind them.

Soon after the merge, we took another rest.

“It’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever done,” said Chara.  “I’ve done a lot of hard training, many kinds, but nothing compares.  You’re baby stepping behind one another, climbing, zigzagging, losing balance.  It’s dark, you’re tired, and your feet are slipping on loose gravel.  We must have stopped to rest 15 times.”

A few minutes after we gained the main switchback trail to the top, we came across a little plateau where a group of trekkers were resting.

“We’re halfway to Gilman’s Point,” Aloyce informed us.

“Halfway!!” came the reaction.  We had almost three hours of climbing to go, with a mental cocktail of fatigue and altitude becoming a factor.

The next three hours consisted of climbing almost exclusively on scree.  We dug in, sucked it up, and after a handful of rests, some team building words of encouragement, and some timely “pole’-pole’s” thrown in, we finally arrived at Gilman’s Point.  The last two hundred yards were excruciating on mind and body.  A few minutes after sunrise, we stood at 18,650 feet.
Rob Simpson and friends at Uhuru Peak. (l to r : Rob, porter Godfrey, head guide Aloyce, Mark Berg, porter Michael)
A snow filled crater sat below us within the huge volcanic bowl of Kilimanjaro.  Huge glaciers stood in the distance to the East, and also closer to us on the west side of the summit.  Also off to the left, a narrow ridge path, a combination of ice and lava rock, stretched out before us.  It led up to Uhuru Point, another kilometer off, and another 800 feet above us, to the highest point in Africa.

We took a few minutes to celebrate and photograph our accomplishment.  Out came the video camera(s), and then out came a question.

“Who’s going on to Uhuru?” Mark Brender asked. 

Darryl said no, he was feeling some altitude symptoms, as would Brender a few minutes later.  Chara also declined, but his decision was based on fatigue and hockey, not desire.

“Too tired guys, I can’t chance a step, can’t mess with the hockey,” he basically said.

Head Guide Aloyce Manyanga
Berg and I decided to push it, while big Zee and Darryl headed down the mountain.  Brender first decided to come with us. Then he changed his mind, but after losing sight of our other two trekkers, he decided to wait for Mark and I to return to Gilman’s Point.  The two-and-a-half hours of waiting would add to his altitude sickness.

Berg and I made it to Uhuru at 19,350 feet with great relief, hung around for about ten minutes for video and such, and then headed back with haste.  We had nothing left, and couldn’t wait to get back to Gilman’s to begin our descent in earnest.

The first thousand feet were slow in comparison to the next two thousand down to Kibo Hut.  We picked our way through rocks and strewn scree, until we reached an area of pure scree, where most everyone went “skiing” down.  You could literally take huge hopping steps and slide great distances on the same piles of rock we had switch-backed up and over about five hours before.
At one point some a teenager kicked lose a large rock that came rolling down the hill towards me.  Someone yelled, “slider!”

It missed my head by about an arms length and then missed a girl who was descending twenty yards below me by about a foot.  It would have killed either one of us:  a rock twice the size of a bowling ball tumbling down a mountain at about 25-miles per hour.  Oddly, I forgot about it soon after and haven’t really thought about it again until now.  Just part of the trek I guess, and I was too darn tired to worry about it.

The descent was relatively quick but seemed to last forever.  We could see the hut the whole time, although it barely appeared to get closer.  I likened it to reaching Oz. 

“Follow the dirty gray road, follow the dirty gray road,” I sang to myself.

Finally, the ground leveled out and the last of us stumbled into a gathering of tents and outbuildings.  After some rest at Kibo Hut, some water and a quick, light snack, we discovered an unbelievable reality.  We had a three hour hike in front of us:  Fortunately all down hill and flat to our next campsite, but still, a three hour hike. 

We peeled off layers as we went.  It was hot.  It was mid-afternoon and we were back down around 14,000 feet. 

The descent, as is most often the case, relieved both Darryl and Mark Brender of any altitude symptoms. 

Soon after arriving at the Horombo Camp at 5:30 pm, I skipped dinner and crashed in the tent, my first full night sleep in a week.

Tomorrow on Day 6 – Monkeys in the rain forest and a farewell to Kilimanjaro.

Rob Simpson hosts “Hockey Odyssey” on NHL Network and is the author of two hockey books.  “Black and Gold” is due out in September.




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