Come on then, if you think you’re hard enough, goaded the mountain.
I hadn’t even landed on Tanzanian soil and already Kilimanjaro, towering above the clouds, was issuing its challenge. I peered out of the plane’s window and Kili peered back, as if to say: I’m not going anywhere.
This was our first encounter – and the first time I realised what I had let myself in for.
At 5,895m, Kilimanjaro rises above everything in Africa. It’s massive, but there’s no technical climbing involved in reaching the summit so, in theory, it’s an uncomplicated peak to conquer.
In practice, it’s reported that up to 50% of the people who take to Kili’s slopes every year fail to reach Uhuru (‘Freedom’) Peak, the mountain’s highest point. Horror stories of headaches, vomiting and even death abound. Professional mountaineers struggle. My boss (was that a sadistic glint in his eye?) wanted me – a desk-bound female who goes for the odd jog (on the flat) – to find out what Kilimanjaro was really like. “No problem,” I replied confidently. Inside, I quaked.
There were ten people in my group, and we were all being drenched by the insistent rain that was turning the start of the Machame Route into a channel of chocolate-coloured mulch. Assistant guide Emmanuel, one of the 34-strong crew looking after us for the next six days, was giving us a pep talk.
“You must eat like a warrior. Warriors need to be strong to fight their enemies – this mountain is now your enemy.”
I didn’t feel like a warrior. I felt wet, and unsure about making an enemy of a big mountain.
All talk was of the task ahead. “I’ve heard people are defeated from the start,” said fellow climber Robbie. “They see Kili and think, I can’t do that.”
This wouldn’t be a problem: we couldn’t see anything through the rain except the fairytale forest we were walking through. Giant ferns and tree trunks heavy with old man’s beard lined the way as we plodded polé polé (slowly, slowly) – the only way to get up Kilimanjaro.
All I could hear was the patter of rain and the shouts of “One line!” from Emmanuel at the back. This was our cue to move over for porters, who sped past carrying an embarrassment of awkward-looking burdens on their heads: tent poles, paraffin canisters, folding chairs – all so we wouldn’t get wet bottoms.
After six hours and 1,400 vertical metres, we reached the soggy environs of Machame Camp (3,200m). Easy peasy. Everything was damp except our spirits.
We woke to the same tedious tapping of rain. It took 20 minutes of psyching-up before I could bear to unzip the warmth of my sleeping bag. I had a ‘bath’ (a once over with a wet wipe), packed and repacked my things (all wet) and, an hour after waking, squeezed out of the tent for breakfast. I never got any quicker at this morning routine.
Caron, my roomie, had gone to the toilet twice in the night and, during the course of the day’s walking, was always nipping off behind one rock or another. “I’ve never peed so much in my life!” she declared proudly. A sign her body was adapting to altitude.
As we climbed higher, the trees became short and sparse. A few bright gladioli poked out between the boulders but the overall tone was grey as we remained firmly in the clouds.
Approaching 3,800m, the fog finally lifted. Trees disappeared, replaced by plucky everlastings and, as clouds scudded in the breeze, snatches of mountain faded in and out of view. Ahead was what appeared to be Glastonbury: a sea of technicolour tents and porters’ radios blaring out from the plain – home for the night.
It was wonderful to be dry! And to see the mountain. We were all faring well – no aches, no nausea – but traipsing under overcast skies had lowered the mood. Finally, the clouds were a carpet below us. Mount Meru poked up above them to the west, while Kibo – the highest crater of Kili, our goal – loomed to the east, turning tangerine in the setting sun. Later, when I brushed my teeth, I could still see the peak’s glaciers glistening under the stars. I almost choked on my toothpaste.
“Sleep well?” I asked Robbie as he emerged from his tent.
I can’t repeat his answer. Suffice to say, he slept badly. His two-to-three season sleeping bag was woefully inadequate for Kili’s now-frozen slopes.
But it was beautiful. We set off across the Shira Plateau with the sun warming our bones and our guides belting out Swahili songs. It was a long slog across a landscape of varying browns and boulders. Far from dull, it was dramatic, with Kibo cloudless in front of us all morning.
But the altitude started to take its toll. The high point of the day – the Lava Tower – was a huge thumb of rock that required all-fours scrambling to ascend. I was huffing like an octogenarian asthmatic between every footstep, struggling to hoist myself up at this altitude. At the top – 4,600m – I looked up at Kibo in despair. Statistically, two of our group wouldn’t make it; at that moment, my money was on me being one of them.
Later, at camp, surrounded by ebbing mist and phallic lobelia, I tried to work out how sunburnt I was without a mirror. “I have a feeling,” said Caron, as she tried to drag a brush through her hair – 57 hours since our last shower – “that I’m not looking my best.”
It had been a tough day, with height and heat fighting against us all the way. Several people had headaches. We huddled from the cold in the dinner tent and Irish Robbie tried to teach our guides to sing ‘The Fields of Athenry’. But as entertaining as this was, there was a sense of apprehension in the air – Kibo was now closer than ever.
In the moments when I couldn’t sleep, all I could think about was the mountain. I started off scared; now I just wanted to make it to the top. My nose was bunged up, making breathing difficult (just what you need at altitude) but at least it made the long-drop toilets more bearable.
The landscape was lunar now, inhospitable. It was getting harder to find places to pee.
As we ascended a long, gradual slope, the polé polé approach came into its own. It was a case of mind over matter, of finding a rhythm. I chanted ‘The Fields of Athenry’ over and over in my head like a Celtic metronome.
After a long, hot day of steep climbs and barren plains, we finally got to Barafu Camp (4,600m). There was just time for a breather before our briefing.
“All you need is confidence,” assured head guide, Samuel. As he explained what would happen later that evening – we would be woken at 11.30pm to start the summit ascent – we hung on his every word.
I was in bed by 6.30pm, but I didn’t sleep. Would I make it? Would I get sick? Would 11.30pm just come so we could get this horror over with?
The time came. I got dressed: socks (two pairs), trousers (three pairs), thermal tops (two), fleeces (two), down jacket, scarf, hat, gloves. This was it, the final push. Samuel had prepped us for the worst: the cold, the pain, the mental battle. “Tonight,” he warned, “is not a good night.”
Stars and torches flickered in the dark as we formed a grim-faced procession. I concentrated on Caron’s heels, the only things I could see, which were labouring slowly in front of mine.
Nausea started scraping at my throat. To defeat it, and to distract myself from the fact that I was cold, bored and had only been walking for about one hour (six to go!), I played a mind game. The task was to think of a capital city beginning with each letter of the alphabet in turn: Athens, Buenos Aires, Canberra; I got as far as ‘F’.
F? What kind of travel journalist gets stuck at ‘F’?
F, F, F, F. The place that kept entering my head was Carshalton Beeches, which is not a capital and clearly doesn’t begin with F. I’ve never been to Carshalton Beeches. I don’t even know where Carshalton Beeches is!
I was losing it.
Behind me in the darkness, someone asked Dan, who had an altimeter, how high we were. His words were like cudgels: “4,900m.” More than 1,000 vertical metres to go.
We continued zigzagging up the sadistic scree, which delighted in tugging our feet back down. The nausea passed but the fatigue was immense. I was fed up with the sound of my own heavy breathing.
On we went. And on, and up. After heaven knows how long, Samuel gestured forwards. Stella Point, our access notch to the crater rim, was only 30 minutes distant – 30 steep, soul-sapping minutes. I dug in with my poles, heaving myself up the vertical scree slope, begging my body to hold on for just a... little... bit... longer.
But we made it! Not by fitness or muscle but by sheer bloody-mindedness. Samuel grinned at us: “It’s easy from here! 45 minutes and you’re there!”
It suddenly hit me: we were going to make it to the top of Kilimanjaro.
We headed off from Stella Point as the sun turned the horizon pink-purple before bursting above the clouds and announcing a new day to the roof of Africa. Icefields sparkled like diamanté tower blocks and an empty champagne bottle rested between the rocks, a strange reminder of humanity in this alien terrain of volcanic innards. Samuel tugged my arm and pointed upwards: Uhuru Peak, 5,895m.
It was smaller than I expected, but its effect was undeniable. Broken souls were mended; faces previously scored with agony displayed an elation normally reserved for big lottery wins. Elation is wrong – it was relief.
I kissed the sign, grinned, posed, shivered. Back home people were still sleeping; here I was standing on top of a continent, a mattress of cloud hiding everything in that other world from view.
The world was a wonderful place! Our sense of achievement inflated with every downward step. It was actually a long way down, which shouldn’t have been a surprise but somehow seemed a terrible nuisance for us triumphant conquerors. Why wasn’t there an escalator? Didn’t they know what we’d just done?
For seven sweaty hours we tumbled down scree, which now worked with us rather than against us, and finally arrivedat Mweka camp, 15 hours after the whole horrifyingly wonderful ordeal had begun. My head was pounding with an ache that could have been altitude, dehydration, tiredness or all three, but I only had one thing on my mind. Gloating.
Miraculously I had reception on my mobile phone so I texted back to the Wanderlust office: “I made it up that bastard mountain. Please don’t send me on a trip like that again.”
I got a reply: “Brilliant! Bet you feel on top of the world. PS Next month we’ve got you down to climb Aconcagua – 6,995m!”
I think my boss was joking. But as the Kili glow spread and the memory of the pain was beaten down by the euphoria of success, almost against my will I began to think: Aconcagua, eh? That’s only 1,000m more…
Watch a traditional farewell song prior to the group's descent below
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