It was the day I was due to begin my trek when I caught my first glimpse of the mountain. Am I really going to climb that? What have I gotten myself into? These are the two main thoughts running through my mind as we drove toward Marangu town, where we were to meet our trekking team. I had just met my fellow trekker, Alicia, in the car. We were in this together now, neither of us had done any alpine training, it was going to be a challenge. I’m not even sure if my runs to and from the next village where I was living in Ghana even count in helping my efforts, this mountain looked much more intense than running a few kilometres alongside banana and corn plantations on flat road. But here I am, no backing out now, after all, I enjoy a challenge right?
We met our trekking team at the base of the mountain in Marangu township, There were two guides and eight porters just for us two, a little bit too luxurious for my liking, but the regulations to climb the mountain insist that each group has its own cook, porters, and a guide per trekker. So here we were, our lovely team, led by Guides William and Seleman (who I immediately nicknamed Rasta Man). We jumped into a van all together and drove the 40 minutes to the entry gate. We were climbing Via the Rongai route, beginning on the north side of the mountain and descending on the south. This is one of the less travelled routes, which we much appreciated; it was nice having less people around.
Kilimanjaro, being a freestanding volcano is quite unique with its own natural habitats, there are five different climatic zones that take you to the summit point. Beginning with lush soiled land, plenty of farmers have taken advantage and grow all sorts of crops surrounding the base of the mountain. As the altitude increases, the fertile land slowly disappears as you wander through Rainforest, Mooreland, Alpine Desert and then onto the Summit Zone. As the trees and plant life disappear, oxygen levels drop from 100% at the base to 50% at the summit. This diversity keeps the walk interesting and continually challenging.
Our first stop was Simba camp at 2671m, The walk was mainly through the rainforest and coming out into the Moorlands at the top. By the time we arrived our tent was already set up and our porters prepared us our bowl of water for washing. For dinner we had a feast of carbs and veggies for energy the next day. The next two days went by fairly similarly, we spent the nights at Second Cave (3450m) and Kikelewa (3600m). Because there were only two of us, we started spending more time with the team. It was fun hanging out in their tent and playing cards. As altitude was gained, the plant life grew smaller and smaller, breathing became more difficult and the nights became much colder. We climbed up the north side of the mountain, which gave stunning views of both the Kibo, and Mawenzi peaks, our trail took us first to the base of Mawenzi peak and then across the saddle between the two, and up to the true summit point at Kibo Peak.
The real challenges began on day four, a strong uphill climb to Mawenzi Tarn at 4300m, this being the most beautiful campsite of them all but definitely the coldest night. Situated directly below Mawenzi peak, the cold air from the snowy summit rained down on us. It was a rough night. The following day we had new challenge, altitude. It took us three hours to cross the saddle of the mountain between the two peaks, the wind was rough and breathing became an obstacle. We could see the base camp far in the distance, which was a major teaser, it looked much closer than it actually was. Once we arrived to Kibo base camp, 4700m, both Alicia and I passed out immediately, after such a rough nights sleep it was tough adjusting to the new altitude.
We had an early dinner at 5pm at Kibo camp as we sat in our tent listening to the hailstorm occurring outside. We tried to get some sleep before our summit attempt at midnight. It was impossible due to the cold. At 11pm Ellie, one of the porters woke us up. It was summit time. I was both excited and dreading it, we set off by torchlight at midnight, with the usual running order, William in the lead followed by myself, Alicia and Rasta Man at the back. We were off to a good start, passing the two groups who had left before us. We made our first stop at 5200m, I felt OK at this point, Although we had just spent the past hour walking switchback trails on loose rubble, it seemed easier in the dark, especially because we weren’t able to see how far up we still had to go. I kept my head down most of the time occasionally taking a look up at the near full moon and the stars, or taking a look down at the trail of torches I could see snaking their way up the mountain. It was when we made it to about 5400m that I cracked. A sudden nausea had overcome me and I found myself doubled over. I tried to drink some water from my camel pack but it had frozen. I couldn’t move for a short while until I realized how cold I was getting from standing still, my feet were numb. I had to keep going, Alicia gave me some anti nausea medicine, I was eagerly awaiting it to kick in as we continued the ascent.
The next 200m were spent climbing over large rocks up until Gilimans Point, 5681m, this meant that the steepest and hardest part of the climb was over. At this point my altitude sickness had only worsened, but once again, it was too cold to stand still, I had to keep moving. We began walking along the crater rim, there was no shelter from the cold wind up here, and my hands became so cold under my two layers of gloves that pain was shooting down my arms. William took my hands between his and tried to warm them up, it didn’t work. Rasta Man then suggested that I stick my hands in my crotch and continue walking, after about ten minutes I regained feeling in the fingers and put my gloves back on. Further along the crater rim, close to Stella Point (5752m) the ground was covered in snow and became slippery, at one point I face planted in the snow, I was so incoherent at that point that I just stayed there for a second. Rasta Man picked me up and started pushing me from behind. My nausea was still causing me grief, I tried pushing on my stomach and sticking my fingers down my throat to make myself vomit, it failed.
At last I had sight on the true summit point Uhuru Peak, it was about another 100m ascent and we were there, the last of my determination kicked in and I prodded along until finally I had made it! It was 6am and the sun was just beginning to rise. We were well above the clouds at this point. The views were stunning. On the right was a massive Glacier, gleaming in the rising sunlight; to the left was a horizon of clouds. I wish I had been in a better state to appreciate the views but I was feeling so Ill, my only goal at that point was to get down. My camera had frozen so I took a quick snap on Alicia’s camera and we made an immediate descent. It was -15 Celsius at the top, I have never experienced that level of cold before, it was shocking to the system. Now here I was happy to be making the descent back to base camp, with the lowering altitude I began to feel better. It didn’t take long to reach Gilimans Point again, but this is where the difficult descent begins. Once we had clambered down the large rocks, we faced an extremely steep rubble slope. There was an option to jump back onto the switch back trail and zigzag our way down, but William and Rasta Man had other ideas, straight down the middle. They took off, running down the hill, I wasn’t so eager on that Idea. I tried going down on my butt, it worked but took too much energy, I tried using poles, and it was difficult. I tried without poles, also difficult. William could see that I was struggling, he came up beside me, took my arm, held my hand and began running down the hill, I was directly beside him without a choice but to go for it. It was 1000m back down to base camp and I ran down with William for about 600m until I convinced him that I could manage it myself. That was scary.
We made it back to base camp at 8.30am with hugs from all of the team, What an achievement. I took off my five layers and collapsed, exhausted in the tent. We had an hour to rest before making the 9km and further 1000m descent to Horombo Camp, (3720m). By the time we arrived, we had walked a solid 11 hours since midnight. Both Alicia and I went straight into the tent and got some much needed sleep. Its hard to comprehend how I managed to make it to the Summit, it was one of the hardest things I have ever done, I felt so Ill, yet the only option was to continue. It was much more of a mental than physical challenge, in the end it all came down to the mindset and determination. That is how I made it to the top.
That evening our team sang us a song and congratulated us for making it to the summit. It had been such a challenge and we were now filled with a great sense of achievement. The following morning, our final day, we woke up at 6am, ate breakfast and began the 19km, 2000m descent to the Marangu Gate. We managed to make it in four and a half hours. Every muscle in my body hurt at that point, It felt like my toenails were about to fall off from being wedged at the front of my boots for two days straight. We were given a certificate for making to the summit and headed off the mountain with our team. Alicia and I had arranged to have a BBQ with them all in their local village to show our appreciation. By the time we arrived the meat was almost ready, we shouted everyone a beer and celebrated our success on the mountain.
Kilimanjaro was a killer, but determination prevailed and I made it to the summit. Overall it was an incredible experience, a tough challenge and the most rewarding thing I have ever done. Would I do it again? Probably not!