There has always been one thing that has been right at the top of my to-do list. Kilimanjaro. I think the first time I heard about climbing Kili was in around 1998. I was working as a temporary office assistant for Philips, based in West Croydon. I remember that one of the office managers commented on my watch – a soft-strap Animal watch – and said he’d owned a similar, chunky-type watch when he was younger and had climbed Kilimanjaro whilst traveling.
I forget what had grabbed me about it – maybe I saw a documentary or read something further on the subject, but every since, when pressed for my all-time top ten life experiences, Kili was always there at #1.
With that in mind, I’ve always mentioned it to people whenever I attain the requisite amount of alcohol in my system – floating the idea out there in the hope that the idea will be shared and I’d find a Kili buddy. As luck would have it, I mentioned it to a co-worker, Steve and that’s just about where the fun bit of this story starts 🙂
..cut to three very tired people after a long-ass flight to Nairobi and a short, light aircraft flight right past the snow-crowned beast itself, into Kilimanjaro International Airport.
Day 1 camp
Tents already setup and a whole lot more people than expected milling around. Only about 3 or so hours walk, do not too tired – tomorrow will be a biggie though.
There’s a few other groups camping here tonight and around 50 people milling around – maybe more.
Lots and lots of porters. We were passed many times by them belting up the hill with horrifically large and heavy looking objects on both backs and heads. We, on the other hand, maintained a reasonably slow paced trudge – the renowned ‘poley-poley’.
Dinner was served in a dedicated tent -the table laid an tea/coffee organised before while we’d trekked up a little way extra to help with acclimatisation. Three courses – soup, fish and chips and then fruit salad to finish – considering the circumstances, quite an accomplishment by the cooks. 🙂
No real cloud cover, so the temperature dropped with the sun and I’m wiggling my cold toes in my sleeping bag while my breath is visible outside the tent and almost inside. If this is the bottom, then the top is going to be a hell of a lot colder than we’d imagined.
After the briefing last night I hired an extra sleeping mat (loads more comfy than mine would’ve been) and some thermal under trousers. Was playing it safe but I think I’m gonna be very glad I got them!
Day 2 camp
Today was a long day – around 7-8 hrs walking. After a freezing cold night and broken sleep amounting to about 5 hours tops, we were woken up with a coffee, had breakfast and got going.
Slightly steep in the morning, poles came out and I didn’t feel too much of a twat as everyone had them
(except the guides and porters obviously). Looking up the line of hikers, we must seem like some awkward, newborn quadrapeds – not quite in control of their limbs.
The going wasn’t too bad at all and, stopping for lunch with a view stretching out above the clouds, it really felt as though we were finally here and climbing Kilimanjaro.
After lunch the going was less steep – a more undulating progress, picking our way up, down, over and between rocks and, finally making camp after about 8hrs climbing, a very welcome bowl of hot water nursed my feet and made a good end to the day.
Having sworn to decode the secrets of non-freezing sleeping bag slumber, I zipped up all the way, drew the hood to a peep hole in front of my mouth and cocooned myself into a toasty night with only minor interruptions.
Day 3 camp
Supposedly a shorter, easier day, we walked for around 4-5 hours up a steep slope, heading directly away from kilimanjaro itself and towards another behemoth, Mt Mawenzi. On reaching the camp, we did a short, acclimatisation hike up to Mawenzi ridge – the equivalent in height of the Kibo base camp – our next day’s destination and starting point for the summit climb. The climb itself wasn’t too terrible, gaining around 500m, but only half way up, my head started pounding and by the time I returned to camp, I felt almost fluey – flushed neck and face and banging headache.
Heading bedways after as much dinner as I could manage – which was sparse, I cracked open the super strength panadol and cocooned myself again in hopes of frying the awful feelings out of me.
Day 4 camp
We reached kibo base camp at around 1pm and crashed. Yet again a totally underestimated day’s walk, we hiked across from Mt Mawenzi to the base of Kilimanjaro itself. The mountain grew as we walked, first a picture postcard, but ending up a monolith, filling the horizon.
Steep climbs and long hours took their toll and by the time we reached camp, I was ready to flop down on my sleeping mat, but we needed to organise our gear for the climb that would start that night.
The full immensity of what we were about to attempt was focused in all our minds and there were many confessions of actual fear in the group – not excluding myself!
Another headache and I trusted in the panadol as sleep came, but it was broken, checking to see if the sun was still up everytime I woke.
11pm came and we all got up and went to dinner. My headache was gone, but appetite got whisked away with it, so i had only tea, gripped for heat.
Day 5 – Summit
Standing around, waiting for the whistle, everyone wore a mask of determination over their aprehension. We set off at only a slight incline, the small circle of head torch light illuminating nothing but the person in front’s boots.
The slight incline quickly became a steep one and looking up to see the short strings of torchlights became a bad idea by either disheartening or unbalancing you. Initial glances showed an almost conveyor belt of hiking tourists, being chaperoned towards the summit, but as the night progressed, we passed more and more casualties – either too weary or suffering from altitude sickness – sitting or collapsed on the trail and like rocks in a stream, the flow of hikers simply passed round them.
Trudging upwards, there was nothing behind and nothing to either side. There was no real thought, nor was there a sense of passing time or distance – simply the base need to move your feet, to constantly mimic the ones in front.
The summit climb is split into 4 sections and at the end of the first, our lead guide split our group into two sections, myself and two others in the first with everyone following.
On this second section, the path snaked back and forth across the mountain due to the increase in incline and this was a godsend as it provided a break from the monotony and before long the summit was no longer the main objective, more just reaching the next turn.
With large problems, the best solution is to break it down to its constituent parts and tackle each one of those individually – simply attacking it in its entirety would be too much to take on at once.
Similarly, this climb begged to be broken into sections and my goal soon became simply to make it to the next section. Even if I made it no further, I refused to stop mid-way between two sections.
And so it continued, making it from turn to turn, stopping only for what seemed like the shortest time at pre-designated resting areas. The guide, Ricardo, pushed us to keep going, presumably knowing that we shouldn’t linger too long else our muscles would cool, making it difficult to get going again and we pushed on, the energy sapping steadily out of us.
Camelbaks froze and appetites evaporated, leaving fluids and energy levels to steadily empty without replacement. Guides’ regular reminders to eat bars and drink fell on cold, deaf ears and before long we were all running on empty.
At the end of day 3, at Mawenzi Tarn, our lead guide, Nayman, had pointed out the summit route on the side of the mountain. Since then we had been fearing the final section of that route. Even from a distance, it was plain to see the route, how it started shallow, began snaking as the incline grew steep and finally devolved in the final quarter into an messy scramble to the lip of the crater rim. We all knew that that was going to be the tough section, coming as a final, demoralizing hurdle right when you’re digging into your last reserves.
Last reserves were almost gone and I was still only on the second section and my ultimate goal gradually shifted from Uhuru to Gilmans Point and then to simply making it to the beginning of the last section. If I wasn’t going to make it, then I at least wanted to see what had got the best of me. The snaking had continued, but where there has been loose dust and scree, we were now taking large steps up onto boulders, some perilously easy to loose footing on. No real breaks here and I must’ve looked pretty similar to how I felt as our guide told me ‘not to give up now’.
A few more corners and I would’ve dropped where I was, but stepping up onto a ledge of some sort, I turned to my right to see a weatherbeaten and downright confusing sign; Gilmans Point.
Bewilderment and exhaustion. Sitting down, something kicked into gear and my stomach rejected onto the rocks next to me. I still don’t know if it was exhaustion or altitude sickness, but the guide looked me over, pronounced me good to go and then magically produced a thermos of water and some mugs for us. Hot is absorbed more quickly by the body, so camelbak frozen, this was a godsend and, complimented by the rest and now realisation that we’d made the first summit, I felt buoyed and ready for the last push.
Back in the UK, I remember that Steve had described what he’d heard your footsteps would be like at the summit. He inched forwards, dragging each leg forwards in turn as if it were weighed down… I thought he was over estimating the altitude and fatigue…
From Gilmans Point to Uhuru is a fraction of what we’d hiked so far. Still dark, we set off towards the true summit, stopping every hundred meters or so so catch our breath (mainly my breath to be honest ;)). Any incline whatsoever reduced our footsteps to exactly those of Steve’s demonstration – every last bit of energy simply gone.
Poles that I had once considered unnecessary and wimpy were a life-saver – taking some of the load of my legs and providing a perfect support upon which to slump and gasp for breath.
Standing under the sign is quite a thing. The sun had already risen by that point – a long, long 7 hours after we’d started.. Man tears brimmed and I mentally drew a large tick and a whole load of list items moved up one notch.