As I’d outlined in part I of this post, I was struck down with a potent and virulent bug mere days before I was due to climb Mt Kilimanjaro. A rapid malaria test at an out-of-town Moshi clinic confirmed that I didn’t have that particular disease (phew!), but I still felt weak and exhausted: barely able to climb the stairs let alone a near 6000-metre high mountain.
Fortunately, after 48 hours of near-constant rest, I managed to recover and in the nick of time was able to begin the climb of Mt Kilimanjaro on 22nd July 2014. I was a lone climber, but joined a group led by a pair of experienced guides. My guide was Abdul, Moshi born and bred, whose principal interests appeared to be FC Barcelona and Will Smith (yes I did teach him the Fresh Prince of Bel Air theme tune). My fellow climbers were a friendly Austrian couple and a Chinese family whose climbing experience seemed to be somewhat limited…
The first day of the ascent on the Machame route, a popular route among trekkers and guides alike, is almost exclusively through rainforest. Although it can get a bit repetitive after a while, the woodland is actually quite romantic, in a Grimm Fairy Tale sort of way. Densely packed tree branches twist above the path, as exotic birds glide between thick clumps of moss, all sound tracked by the occasional trickle of stream in the middle distance.
Day two of the Machame route is probably the least difficult of the climb, but far from easy: with undulating, steep, craggy paths very much the norm the principles of pole pole (‘”slowly slowly” – the phrase you will hear guides bark at overzealous climbers) definitely apply. You’re still flanked by greenery, but it’s increasingly sparse, with only occasional heather bushes to dot the rocky landscape. Pushing through this was a bit gruelling, but once the clouds lifted at lunchtime, giving us our first sight of Kibo peak (i.e. where the top is), things perked up considerably.
It was the third day that saw the problems begin. A couple of people in our group started to show signs of altitude sickness, and subsequently had to take a shortcut and not get the full acclimatisation benefits of ascending to the 4627m high Lava Tower before descending to the 3896m Barranco Huts campsite. A few of us did make it to Lava Tower, where the snow-capped summit of Kibo is a visually arresting sight. This close, you can appreciate the sheer sides of its actual cliff face: a dramatic, blood-red canvas, shot through with lightning forks of snow.
It’s not an easy descent by any means, and day four welcomes you with a tricky ascent in the form of the Barranco Wall (or ‘Breakfast Wall’ as it is known by some, because you tackle it straight after breakfast). It’s not as daunting as it might sound – it’s actually quite fun, not at all dangerous, and you don’t have to use your hands much. It’s also the best place to marvel at the incredible porters. If you weren’t impressed at how they balanced three or four heavy things on their backs and heads, all while haring past you, before then you will now! From there you push on to Barafu Huts: the base camp for the assault on the summit.
There’s all sorts of stories from many a climber about how the summit day is the toughest thing they have ever done in their life. You’ll invariably hear that this is where many people give up and turn back, either physically or psychologically unable to go on. I wish I could say that this is an exaggeration: the simple fact is that it is very tough indeed, and it would be irresponsible of me to suggest otherwise.
The climb starts at around midnight. Wearing as many layers as you comfortably can is a must, as it is below zero, and all you will be able to see is the radius of your head torch. The lung-sapping altitude and bone-freezing chill conspire to make every step you take on the path feel that little bit steeper than it actually is. Hearing people retch and sob around you (I’m not making this up) and seeing others being helped back down to base camp – including one of my fellow trekkers – makes it a test of your mental as well as your physical resilience. I doggedly stuck to Abdul’s pole pole principles, and this helped me steer clear of altitude sickness. But then…
The double whammy of a relentless, seemingly never-ending series of zig-zags followed by a half hour climb over sheer scree (which basically ensures every step you take forward equates to a half step back) conspired to make me want out. Stella Point, which marks the crater rim, seemed so close now, yet forever out of reach, and for the first time I seriously thought of quitting. But so does everyone else at this point, and sheer bloody mindedness – plus a couple of well-timed cups of tea from Abdul – ensured I pulled through and made it to the crater rim.
Once you do get to Stella Point you have sort of reached the top. But it’s all about getting to the very top, and that means pushing on to Uhuru Peak. Mercifully, it’s a relatively straightforward 40 minute walk, mostly on a gentle uphill gradient, to get there. And then I’d made it! Standing at the summit of ‘Kili’ was a truly special moment that I’ll never forget. Yes I was battered, my bones were frozen and it was massively cold, but I was at the top of Africa’s highest mountain – a long-harboured dream had been fulfilled!
Sadly, I’d only managed to get a picture of my summit photo on my phone, which broke shortly afterwards. Hence the obligatory cheesy ‘at the summit of Kili’ photo is missing, and you’ll have to make do with the photo of my certificate below as proof that I made it. But whilst I may not have the photo, I do have the memories, and standing on the snowy roof of Africa is the sort of sublime experience that doesn’t come along very often in life.