There are some mental images from my time hiking Africa’s highest mountain that will stick in my mind forever. Coming out of my tent at 11pm to ready ourselves for our midnight departure, I looked across the campsite to see an incredible trail of lights bobbing uphill in the darkness. The peak itself and the path that led up it were invisible but the headlamps that adorned every hiker who was already on route resembled a trail of ants in procession. The numbers were astounding and the excitement and tension among our group as we prepared to join them was tangible. After all the planning, and the training, and the days of hiking to get there, summit day was about to begin.
We were warmed up with hot chocolate and cookies as we listened to the plan for the day ahead. We were given snack boxes to take with us and after bundling all our layers into our backpacks, and kitting up, we gathered together to set off. This was it: the biggest hike of my life. Our campsite had been below the majority of people at Barafu Camp, and so we had to hike a little just to reach the start of the summit trail at the far end of the camp. It was so busy that there was a queue of people to set off, but before long it was time to put my head down and put one foot in front of the other. The only stimulation was the light cast by the many headlamps and the sounds of foot steps on the rock. There was no awareness of the greater landscape we were walking through and more importantly there was absolutely no idea of altitude, either literal, or relative to the summit. On top of this, there was no perception of time. I had no ready access to any form of time device due to the layers I was wearing but with a predicted 7hr hike to reach the summit, it was a difficult concept to get my head around the progress, or lack thereof, that we were making as we trudged.
And trudge it was. The pace was slow, partly due to our own ability at that altitude, and partly due to the traffic on the trail. Periodically it would get bunched up or have to stop completely if people struggled up a steep bit or stopped to take a break. The steepness and altitude gain felt constant, and the higher we climbed, the more I felt it. The pace actually suited me as I could catch my breath whenever a stop was forced, but at times I had to focus hard on maintaining a regular breathing pattern to keep my momentum going. My arms and legs screamed for oxygen, fatiguing easily and tiring me further. As we climbed in absolute darkness, up and up and up, the temperature dropped and my hands and toes became cold, and then numb, and then painful. I was only aware of the people immediately in front of me and behind me. It was only when we stopped for a break that I realised how differently people were coping. We’d set off from camp three people short of our original group: one of them had sadly had to descend before Lava Tower on day 4, and two of the group had set off an hour ahead of everyone else as they had up to now been slower than the group’s average speed. Of those of us there on the slopes of Mt Kilimanjaro, I could see that the fittest of the group was feeling a little held back, whereas the rest of us needed every single break, and a few of the group were starting to look sorry for themselves.
We stopped often, and probably regularly, at least once an hour. I made guestimations of the time as we progressed, but I didn’t actually want to know the reality in case it deflated me or gave me false hope. The first couple of breaks had been enough to recover my limbs and even out my breathing, but by the time we were probably three or four hours into the hike, I was really struggling with the pain of my cold hands. I was hiking with poles, so I couldn’t retract my hands too far into my jacket, but it had become clear to me that my gloves weren’t enough, and I had been naive to think that my hands didn’t need layers like the rest of my body. Even with the exertion of the walk, my body was barely warm enough, and that was with the duffel jacket on that I had rented in Moshi on arriving in Tanzania. When we took another break, I was able to borrow a spare pair of gloves and some hot hands from people that had been more prepared than myself. I had another layer of trousers to put on but with my cold hands, I was slow. What prevailed was another of those vivid images that I will never forget: out of nowhere, all of the guides descended on me, took my trousers out of my bag and proceeded to dress me, standing me up and manipulating my limbs to get them into the extra clothes. They took my hands and as one hand was rubbed vigorously to stimulate some blood flow, the other hand was ungloved, and layered back up with the hot hands and the extra layers. That gloved hand was then rubbed vigorously while the other hand was covered back up. I just sat there and let them do it – grateful but a little stunned. We were given a hot drink to warm us up, and with concerned looks from the guides as I shivered, we set off again.
Even with the extra layers, I struggled to keep warm. My hands and toes remained cold and uncomfortable, and as the altitude continued to increase, my breathing became more laboured, my energy drained further and I shifted into a pattern of 2 steps forward, then a pause, then 2 steps forward, then a pause. I have no idea at what point I noticed it, but at some stage on the hike, a brief change in the density of the darkness around us made me realise that the peak of the night was over and sunrise was approaching. It wasn’t enough to make out the mountain yet, but as we continued our push up the never ending slope, the sky above us gradually changed from black to dark blue, and then through an increasingly lightening array of colours. As the landscape began to become discernible around us, we could make out the amazing stream of people that were below us, and frost became visible on the stony ground at our feet. Eventually we could make out the top of the ridge above us, and off to the side was Mt Kilimanjaro’s third cone, Mawenzi, the second tallest of the three. The horizon line turned red then yellow, and as the sun peaked above the horizon on the 7th of February 2019, we stopped to take it all in. Finally there was something to photograph but my hands were clumsy in the multiple gloves and it was still bitterly cold.
There was still a steep section to negotiate although the ridgeline was in sight. I had just 3 things in my backpack: water, a first aid kit and the snack box I’d been given, but my backpack felt like it weighed a ton and I was clearly struggling now as one of the guides insisted on taking it off me and carrying it for me. It was a little gesture but it made all the difference to me. My breathing felt inefficient, the air felt so utterly thin as it entered my lungs. I was struggling even with the 2 steps forward and pause cycle that I’d been following, but all of a sudden, as the light continued to creep up the side of the mountain, I was surprised to see the fittest member of our group, my fellow Christchurch resident, goat-hopping down the mountain from the summit. When he reached us, it turned out that in the darkness he had headed off ahead of us with a guide, and had summited before the sun had even risen, and was on his way back to camp. I hadn’t even noticed his absence at the last couple of rest stops. He left us to it as we continued on our opposite paths, and although I was exhausted, I felt spurred on to finish.
I guess social media has had a lot of effects on a lot of people. I’d enjoyed the digital detox over the week of hiking, but as the energy drained from my muscles, and catching my breath became increasingly difficult, and as I felt a little zoned out, I focused on one thing only: getting a photo of me at the summit to post on Instagram. We’d spent a large part of the previous days singing songs from the Lion King in a joking ode to Tanzania, and in the first few hours of the summit trek in darkness, those same songs had entertained me until our voices had petered out with the increasing exertion. Now we all hiked in silence, and as I grappled with my inner dialogue, I told myself repeatedly that I had to get a photograph for Instagram. Failing to summit was not an option because I had to get a photo for Instagram. Two steps forward then pause, then two steps forward then pause. Now coated in brilliant sunshine, we rounded the last corner and crowned the last slope to be confronted with the crater floor. We’d reached the crater rim and Stella Point at 5756m (18885ft).
Although not the highest point of the mountain, reaching Stella Point was still classed as summiting, so no matter what happened next, we’d made it. There were a lot of people recovering here, and there were people clearly in a bit of distress. With the benefit of daylight, I’d seen some people who were really in a bad way. Some of them were being dragged up the mountain by guides (something we were told happened with some independent operators who were purportedly just interested in boosting their summit success numbers) and some of them were being physically run down the mountain by guides in an effort to get them out of danger. There are definitely some people that have summited Africa’s highest peak that will probably have little to no memory of it at all due to being so spaced out or sick. I was exhausted and breathless as were my companions, but we were all lucid. We had to queue to get our photo taken at the sign, but it allowed us to rest before the final summit push. After ten minutes I actually felt better and retrieved my backpack from my guide. The summit was visible and we’d be there in no time at all. We met one of the two who had left an hour ahead of us as he was heading back down to camp. He had summited but his mother had had to turn back, struggling greatly around the point of sunrise.
Within ten minutes of walking I was as bad as I’d been before and I realised that despite appearances, there was still a long trek to the true summit. My backpack again felt like a burden so again one of the guides relieved me of it. I felt weak and pathetic but these guys were adapted to the altitude, doing a couple of summits a month in the peak season, so I just had to accept their help. We passed by giant glaciers that hung on to the edge of the crater a little to the side, and after trudging at a snail’s pace for the final distance, we found ourselves on the roof of Africa, Uhuru Point, the highest peak of the African continent at an altitude of 5895m (19341ft). We effectively staggered there and jolted to a stop. Any urge to rush to the sign was blocked by the queue of people waiting to get their photo taken at it. It was a busy place but not oppressively so. We spread out a bit, and I found myself dropping into a sitting position on a group of rocks, and as I sat there oblivious to anything else in the World but the view in front of me, silent tears started rolling down my face. Against the negative inner dialogue that I had been battling for the last couple of days, and after two years of planning and training, I’d only blooming gone and summited Mt Kilimanjaro.
I looked around and realised I wasn’t the only one crying. It was so overwhelming, a release of a lot of emotion in the face of utter exhaustion. Our guides came round and hugged and congratulated us. They seemed so cool and unfazed by it all while the rest of us looked beaten up and drained. Between the resting and the photography and the meandering around absorbing the view, we spent a half hour at the summit. Even with the sun up, it was still really cold. I discovered later that we’d summited at 8.20am, taking over 8hrs from leaving camp behind. As we started the trek back to Stella Point, I saw the clouds had appeared and engulfed the side of the mountain, and there we were above it all. Aside from the crater, there was no other visible landmark above this grey sea of cloud. At Stella Point, we were quick to move onwards, heading back to near where we’d stopped at sunrise. To prevent congestion, the descent route separates off from the ascent route and effectively cuts down a giant scree field. Although a path was marked, there were times where we were effectively skiing down the loose rock. We continued to see people being run down this scree path being held upright by their guides and one of our group had started to feel unwell at the summit and was sped down the mountainside back to camp. We found ourselves back at Barafu camp a little after 11am, just a few hours after summiting. Over 8hrs up, and just over 2hrs down.
We remained at camp till 1pm, resting and having lunch, but the hike was not over yet. We had to get down the mountain now and we’d collectively decided to walk to the lower of the two descent camps in order to make a short hike out for the following day. It hadn’t been a unanimous vote and there were clearly some people who wished the vote had gone the other way. From Barafu camp we were soon at the track junction from the day before, and this time we headed straight ahead and immediately started losing altitude. We were amidst the cloud and the landscape that was visible was barren and volcanic. Everyone was quiet and tired, and it was as much by autopilot that my legs continued to move one after the other. As the low vegetation returned, it started to rain, becoming quite heavy by the time we reached the higher of the two descent camps. It would have been a bit miserable to get into the tents here, but at the same time, a few of the group were really flagging. This trail that we were descending was a supply route, and so we regularly passed porters that were laiden down with supplies to take to Barafu Camp. It was incredible to see the poor state of some of the shoes on their feet and incredibly some of them were hiking in just jandals (flip-flops). We’d learned a lot about the variable state of pay and care that was received by the porter teams, depending on which company or guide they worked for. All of our team spoke highly of G Adventures and they all seemed appropriately kitted out for the terrain so I felt satisfied that I’d picked a good company to hike with. It can be so hard to know at times how ethical your travel is, and whether people are being taken advantage of or not.
The rain turned the track into a river as we squelched our way down the mountainside. Eventually we found ourselves among tall trees again, a novelty after the days of exposed and arid volcanic landscapes. It felt like an age before we finally popped out at Mweka Camp at 3100m (10171ft), over 2500m (8202ft) below where we’d summited in the early morning. It was amazing how good I felt after a rest: breathing was suddenly so much easier and I even felt my energy return. My appetite was back also and we tucked into our dinner full of elation and chatter. My oxygen saturation on the final reading was back at 98%, just how it had started a week before. The next morning we had a group debrief with our guides and porters. Each and every one of them had played a role in getting us up the mountain, and I was particularly grateful to the guides who’d supported me in those final hours of the summit push, the chef who’d continued to fill us with the most amazing meals, and my personal porter who’d set up my tent and greeted me with the biggest grin and ‘Jambo!’ every time he saw me. It was emotional to think it was all over and we sang the song of the mountain to each other in thanks for the time of our lives.
The descent from camp was similar to the hike on day 1: walking through thick forest, listening out for monkeys and tropical birds. The pace was relatively quick, and we were quite spread out, chatting away with whoever was nearest, and passing the final hours on the mountain in no time at all. Bursting out of the forest at the end of it all, we just had to sign out at the office, and then wait for everyone else to come down. Bundling back onto the bus, we stopped some way down the road for lunch at a roadside rest stop. It already felt surreal that we’d just come off the mountain, and removed from the exertion of breathing, there was only my sore knees to remind me what I’d just done. Our porter team had been either from Moshi or Arusha, so we dropped them off either at the main road to catch a ride home, or in Moshi. We returned to the gear rental store so I could drop off my duffel jacket, and finally we returned to the same hotel just outside of Moshi where we were greeted with open arms by the bubbly team that worked there. It was fantastic to see the American who’d had to be taken down on day 4 looking rested and in good spirits. He’d gone on safari for a few days to wait our return and although a little sad, he vowed to come back and summit another time. He definitely deserves his chance to get there.
After resting and a much-needed shower, we had a small celebration to receive our certificates and say goodbye to our guides. We had a communal dinner together ahead of us going our separate ways the next day. A couple of people were heading on to Zanzibar for a bit of R&R, but most people were going home to return to their normal lives. It was strange to say goodbye the next morning to these people that I’d shared such an experience with but whilst the majority were set to head to the airport, I wasn’t done with Tanzania yet. Myself and one of my hiking companions had a new set of people to become acquainted with as my great African adventure continued.