There was always a niggling doubt in my mind that perhaps I wouldn’t make it. That perhaps the altitude would get to me, and that I’d have to accept failure. The aim of each day was to climb high but camp low, so that we graduated our altitude gain, exposed our body to higher altitudes, but slept a little lower than the day’s highest point, to allow it to recover and limit the stress that the altitude brings. Shira Peak had been day three’s highest point, so after we’d gotten our fill of the view, we followed the trail back to Cathedral Junction and after another break here, we cut back down to the Shira Plateau to continue across to join the rest of our hiking group at the next campsite.
Back on the plateau, there was again a dearth of vegetation, and after a while we came out at a smooth area where a plethora of hikers before us had erected a multitude of miniature stone cairns. We still had a bit of a walk to the campsite but it was time to answer the call of nature, and so began the search for somewhere private. Between my fellow hikers, the guides that were with us, and the lack of vegetation, there wasn’t much in the way of privacy. Being a guy definitely has its advantages in this respect, but when at last a group of large bushes lay off the track, I was quick to separate myself from the group. Although G Adventures is a Canadian company, they always make use of local guides and porters, abide by fair employment rights, promote ethical travel, and partner with the charity Planeterra to give back to the community. Our guides, who were utterly incredible, amazing at their job, funny, and selfless, had instilled in us the importance of taking our rubbish with us and not dumping or polluting the environment. I wouldn’t do this anyway, but our guide had explained that they had targets to meet with their rubbish – if they didn’t take an expected amount of rubbish off the mountain relative to the weights of what they had carried up, they would get fined. In other words, there was an incentive to bring rubbish out, and some of the guides or porters would seek out rubbish to pick up and carry, to ensure they were well above the expected minimum, as well as tidying up the mountain.
We shortly came upon a roughly marked helicopter landing spot as our track met one of the evacuation routes off the mountain. From here, the track started to climb once more and shrubbery returned again before we finally reached Shira II camp at 3850m (12631ft). The sun had by now gone, and the sky was grey and cloudy, but the campsite was full of life. By this stage, the Lemosho Route had joined with the Shira Route, and so now there were hikers gathering from two different ascent routes. Although it was spread out, there were tents everywhere and surprisingly considering the altitude, there were quite a lot of birds hanging around also. Behind our campsite were large volcanic boulders that gave an elevated view point on the campsite itself but also to the increasingly large Kibo Massif which was tantalisingly close, but as always happened in the afternoon, veiled behind a swirl of cloud. Whilst taking a wander around the campsite, I got chatting with a hiker who was ascending with another company. We shared experiences of our hike so far, as well as general chit-chat before parting ways to rejoin our groups. As time went on, more and more people arrived at the campsite.
When I’d hiked the Inca Trail through the Andes Mountains to Machu Picchu, I’d been so grateful for the work of the porters who’d carried our stuff and the chefs who’d created delicious meals that had fueled us to our destination. Our entire team on Mt Kilimanjaro, the G Fighters as we called them, led by G Daddy as we called our head guide, were incredible human beings. They greeted us with smiles and enthusiasm, they seemed genuinely interested in our lives, they seemed genuinely happy when we spoke in what little Swahili we knew, and among each other they had an incredible camaraderie, functioning like a family unit of loving brothers, and they all spoke highly of each other as well as how they were treated as employees. We all loved them for it, and really couldn’t have done the hike with a better bunch of human beings. After we’d had some time to ourselves, G Daddy called us all together and we stood by our incredible team as they sang and danced for us in Swahili, welcoming us to Tanzania, blessing us for our hike ahead and singing the song of the mountain. It drew a crowd and as it continued, they enticed us in to dance with them, which we did with great embarrassment. With my terrible memory I have forgotten most of their names, but I can still picture several of their faces, and even recalling the interactions that I had with them as I write this blog, I can feel the emotions that I felt on that trip rush back to the surface.
I’m not sure whether it was the singing and dancing, or the incredible views as the clouds parted to expose Kibo, the tallest of the three cones that make up Mt Kilimanjaro, but this campsite holds a special place in my heart. I felt like I could just reach out and touch Kibo, but from this perspective it was now obvious that we had to skirt round a good chunk of the massif to reach the trail that would lead us to the summit. There was a lot more snow visible now that we were up close and I could see some steep, striated cliffs in various places. As the sun set behind us, the clouds turned red as the peak faded into the background. At our evening debrief, my oxygen saturation had reduced to 94%, still an acceptable level for the altitude, and I deliberated what to do with the diamox. As a diuretic, I was having to pee a lot, and the previous night’s shortness of breath had been really off-putting. As we listened to G Daddy tell us about the day ahead, it became clear that day 4 would likely be a bit of a challenge for at least some, if not all of the group.
Coming out of the tent the next morning, there was just a line of red on the horizon before the sun broke through and lit up the sky. We were provided with our large breakfast, as every meal had been, and I struggled a little to finish it. I was tired. As much as I have camped in my life, it doesn’t tend to allow a good night’s sleep, so there was a developing background level of tiredness after 3 nights of disturbed sleep. The altitude wouldn’t have helped either. By the time we were ready to head off, the sky was a brilliant blue and the sun was again ready to beat down on us, having risen above the Kibo Massif. There was a definite feeling of leaving the plant life behind as we climbed over the rocky wall that had been the background for our campsite. From then onward, rock and dust became the landscape of the day, with only the hardiest of low plants dotted around the place. As a group we were really spread out this day as we set our own pace. G Daddy and the other guides really instilled the slow and steady ideology into us, and whilst at the lower altitudes it had frustrated a little, it was really starting to make sense.
Initially the climb was gradual but I was feeling the gain in altitude, the character of my breath noticeably different and a hint of a headache threatening to form. We stopped often to regroup before once more we would spread out. In any other scenario, the bleak landscape could have become monotonous, but there was a constant activity of clouds swirling above us, the rock patterns changed often, and towering above us was the increasingly close Kibo Massif. In fact as we approached the steeper part of the day’s hike, we were practically underneath it, finally reaching the base of the Massif as we reached a brief steep push to reach our lunch stop at the Lava Tower camp at 4600m (15091ft). This was several hundred metres higher than the highest point of the Inca Trail, my only previous experience of hiking at altitude, and boy was I feeling it. Every breath I took felt dissatisfying. It felt like my lungs weren’t inflating properly, and I could just never inhale enough oxygen. I could actually feel the thinness of the air every time I inhaled. Although we were only stopping for lunch, this campsite is used by hikers on other trails, and by this stage we had actually joined up with those on the Machame Route. Having previously joined those on the Shira Route, there were now three route’s worth of people conjoined on the trail. This campsite is also the launching off point for the Western Breach trail, the most dangerous ascent route of Kibo, scaling the steeper, rougher and less stable western side.
We were briefly entertained by a couple of mice running around our tent. Despite the lack of air, the regularity of humans had obviously allowed life to continue here. I wasn’t hungry but managed to eat some lunch. Our guides insisted we continue to force food in, even if we didn’t want it, to maintain energy for the hike ahead. Aside from the breathing, the headache that had been threatening was getting a little more pronounced. It was still tolerable, but it was there, and at this point, still with over 1000m of gain to achieve the summit, the doubts started to creep in. News came to us that one of our group was being led down the mountain. One of the Americans, in an act of brave defiance, had decided to hike Mt Kilimanjaro less than 6 weeks after having major surgery, to honour his daughter who he’d recently lost. Whilst we’d all thought he was crazy for attempting it, we all had immense respect for him, and he had been good company on the hike. It was sad to hear he wasn’t going to make it, but as the evacuation route was easier from before the Lava Tower than anywhere afterwards, and as our incredible guides had the knowledge to know what was to come on the hike, as well as to recognise who wasn’t fit enough to do it, they had made the right decision for him, and taken him down before it was too risky. It again brought it home the immensity of this hike.
I was happy to leave Lava Tower camp behind, eager to lose a bit of altitude and give my body a break. The initial descent was steep and quick, crossing loose scree on the slope of Kibo as we skirted the western flank heading south. There was a constant procession of people and from here onward, the trail was packed with porters pushing ahead and hikers spread out across the trail. As with the previous afternoons, the familiar sight of the cloud enveloping and retreating over the Kibo Massif repeatedly played out as we made the long and gradual descent to our next campsite. This section was one of the worst for litter on the mountain. With no toilets away from camp, every person that relieved themselves on the mountain left their mark, and unbelievably, the amount of abandoned toilet paper, wet wipes and even sanitary pads and tampons was astounding. I always, and have always, carried out everything from a hike that I carry in, and I had a special bag to seal up anything I used for sanitation purposes. I just couldn’t believe that all these people had not cared about the environment they were walking through and had just left behind all these things, which not only was a contaminant for the soil and the local water supplies, but at this elevated altitude where the oxygen is reduced and the temperature is colder, they just won’t decompose at any great speed, if at all.
The trail eventually met and followed a stream, besides which life was teeming with some trees and shrubbery appearing once more. Kibo sparkled in the sun next to us until a thick bank of cloud enveloped it and us and we descended into the Baranco campsite with little visibility. At 3900m (12795ft) we weren’t much higher than the previous night’s camp, but this was important for our bodies after the jump to Lava Tower. The cloud meant I had no idea where the next day’s hike would take us and even when it lifted to reveal the surroundings of where we were, I still was naive to the next day’s task. Between the drama of the cloud and the sheer scale of the mountain around us, this was probably my favourite campsite in terms of aesthetics, but although I felt better here than I had at Lava Tower, I wasn’t really feeling great. My appetite was noticeably reduced and to top it off, I felt bloated and sore in my guts, a problem I can get even at home in normal altitude, but an issue that was accentuated by the symptoms of altitude sickness that I was experiencing. For the first time, I’d had to take pain killers to help the headache, and I had to lie down for spells to help my stomach settle. G Daddy noticed I wasn’t myself, and took me aside to check on me. I assured him I just needed rest, but I felt his attention on me from then onwards.
Baranco Camp is the only place on the mountain where there is cellphone service, and even then, it is only in one little spot on a bit of rock. It was amusing to watch people congregate there to rejoin the outside world. Several of those I was hiking with had children or close family in need of updating, but I had loved being off the Internet and in the moment. In fact I hadn’t had this degree of digital detox since the days of smart phones arrived, and I was so happy without it. Living in the moment had been too easy – I was after all in Africa, in Tanzania, living a dream, and focusing on surviving and putting one foot ahead of the other. My only thoughts of communication were whether I was going to be able to get a summit photo to show the World, or whether I’d have to send a sheepish and deflated message home to say I’d failed. Those thoughts remained with me from this point onwards, but I did my best to just to take in my surroundings and push those feelings aside.
That night at debrief, my oxygen saturation was down to 92% and I was actually surprised to still be in the 90s given how I’d felt at Lava Tower. A few of the group had dropped into the 80s but no-one was deemed as a danger to continue, and so we listened to our debrief for the following day. Day 5 was all about the Baranco Wall, the great ascent that was to take us out of our current campsite and onto the southern flank of Kibo. I’d read about it in my guidebook, I’d heard about it from other people, and now the guides were regaling the immensity of the challenge that was to face us the next day. I’d failed to work out where the trail was going in the daylight hours, so I would just have to wait till morning to see what all the fuss was about. I retired to my tent, less worried about the infamous Baranco Wall, and more worried about how my health would hold up.