5,896m is a long way, in any direction, especially when that direction is up. At just under 20,000 ft, Tanzania’s Mt Kilimanjaro is the highest point in Africa and the worlds tallest free standing mountain, a serious challenge for any climber. Temperatures in the rain forests at the bottom can be over 30 degrees while during the summit night you face snowy conditions though -10 degrees. If the temperature doesn’t get you then it’s more than likely the altitude will. At the top there is 50% less oxygen than at sea level, acute mountain sickness can cause headaches, vomiting, loss of appetite, loss of sleep just to name a few. To get an idea of just how high it is, if you were to sky dive from 14,000ft, you would be free falling for one minute, and that’s no where near the summit, Uhuru Peak, or Freedom as it translates to.
We had been planning this climb for many months, doing lots of training and lots of reading into what you can expect, to an extent, all the reading in the world might never prepare you! We arrived into the Tanzanian town, Arusha two days before we started the climb, two days to relax and prepare; and in my case sun burn, not the best start! Early Saturday morning we met up with the other two climbers in our group, Chris from San Francisco and another climber from China. We also met up with our guide for the trip and the 17 porters who would climb with us, 17 porters I would come to be amazed by! After we met the crew we began the drive to the Macheme Gate where would start the climb. The whole journey there we could begin to see a huge bump in the horizon, becoming bigger and bigger with each mile we drove, until the sight of Kilimanjaro was clear in all her glory. As we drove through many small towns and villages to the start there were many reminders of what we were heading towards; Kilimanjaro High School, Kilimanjaro Coffee Farm, every bar we passed had adverts for Kilimanjaro Beer with its slogan “It’s Kili Time” posted everywhere, it really got us in the mood for what was ahead.
The first day took us through stunning rain forests up to 3000m, quite a climb for the first day. The forest was incredible, full of life, a little rain was even welcome among the humid heat. By the time we arrived at camp after 5 hours of hiking our tents were already set up with our gear inside them, thanks to the work of the amazing porters. Each of them had a different job, they would leave camp after us each morning and arrive at the next camp before us and set everything up and I mean everything. Sleeping and mess tents, food, water everything we needed. The strength and endurance of these guys was inspiring to say the least. Without them, a climb like this would be impossible. After we arrived at camp we rested before having some great food courtesy of the porters, after that it was an early night!
Day two was much like the day before, after a few hours we exited the rain forest and hiked though heath land to Shira Camp at 3,800amsl. Setting off at 8am each day occasionally meant we would arrive at camp by lunch time. As we did this on day two, we relaxed for a little before taking a little walk an hour or so away to see another camp. The view of the mountain was incredible, each day that passed it got closer, bigger and even more daunting. After dinner it was again another early night.
Day 3 begun far from what we had planned. Kilimanjaro is said to have its very own weather system and that morning we saw why. We were woken at about 5am by some of the heaviest rain, snow and wind I have ever encountered. For a while we stayed in the tent hoping it would pass. By 6am it seemed to have got worse and we made the decision it was time to get out! I was literally holding up the tent while Sophie got her things together, after a little while we heard a couple of snaps and before we knew it the tent was in serious trouble! Soph quickly got sorted and left the tent running for the mess tent. Shortly after I did the same, the moment in which got out of the tent the whole thing collapsed and was flat on the floor. I ran to join Sophie in the mess tent which unfortunately wasn’t in any better shape. Before long we left that tent and ran 100m or so to a near by shelter to take cover. An incredible experience! We later learned that the mother of someone we met on the mountain was on a flight from Zanzibar to Nairobi and flew straight through the storm, the plane dropped 7000ft at one point, causing frightened passengers to make their final prayers, a seriously scary storm to be involved in. We did finally do some climbing that day, leaving a bit later at around 9am. We climbed through arctic like conditions straight towards the mountain, the wind and cold was painful but the sight of the mountain ahead was all that was needed to keep going. The brightness of the snow and sun meant that sunnies were vital, we met a few fellow climbers later on who didn’t have sun glasses who’s eyes had swollen. We climbed all the way to Lava Tower that day at 4,100amsl and then back down 3,400 to sleep. The climb high sleep low technique is used to help get used to the high altitude.
The next day we woke to the incredible sight of the Barranco Wall, a huge wall of lava rock which we would have to scale. Setting off early again, it took us around an hour an a half to reach the top. The vertical conditions of the wall meant ditching the waking poles and getting physical! At points it took all our strength to pull ourselves up over certain points. For someone who isn’t the biggest fan of heights, this was quite the experience! We eventually reached the top and continued hiking, up and down through various valleys before eventually reaching our camp for the night.
The following day was our last hike before our summit attempt, we were getting more towards the business end of the climb, excitement and anticipation was beginning to build. The hike that day took around 4 hours and passed trough terrains which I can only describe what I imagine the moon must look like. Desert sandy rock everywhere, a very sparse environment. We climbed to 4,800amsl where we would rest before our summit attempt. 4,800m is a pretty serious height to spend some time, just walking around and talking to each other proved to be quite the challenge. We had some lunch and then eventually went to bed at around 5pm, an early one indeed! The excitement of what was coming in the next few hours was amazing. Reaching the summit was something we had been planning and thinking about for so long and now the possibility of it was just hours away.
We were awoken by our guide at 10pm and had an hour to get ready and have a cup of Kilimanjaro tea before setting off at 11pm. The conditions at the top were going to be freezing so I had all the clothes I could manage on! We set off in the pitch black, the only light coming from our head lamps, the moon and an incredible star lit sky. Setting off with my summit playlist going, the adrenaline was really pumping. I remember looking around and seeing one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen. The moon was incredibly bright just behind Uhuru, the beauty of the stars was matched by the ever so slight fall of snow. Looking behind us we could see the faint shine of other climbers head lamps, it was sublime. The climb to reach Stella Point at 5,786m would take almost 7 hours, it turned to be the hardest 7 hours I’ve ever experienced! A few hours into the climb I felt fine, I had the music going, plenty of water and a few snacks to get me going. By about 2 or 3am the altitude really started to hit me, a very strange feeling in which all my words cannot describe. I stated to feel really dizzy, nauseous, sick, headaches, at times I felt as if I just wanted to close my eyes and pass out, at many points my walking poles where the only thing holding me up. To make matters worse my water had frozen. Both myself and Sophie started to feel the same symptoms at the same time which caused us to have many breaks to rest and drink water. It was such a strange feeling, each step we took we knew it would get worse and get colder. I can honestly say I have never wanted to see the sun rise so much in my life. The higher we went, the colder it got, to the point where I was generally worried about my thumbs, I took my mittens off at one point and under the nail of one of my thumbs looked worryingly dark; still you must push on.
At about 5:30am we eventually made it to Stella Point, an incredible achievement. Just before we got there I had stopped on a slope waiting for Soph to catch up, I was there for a few seconds and felt really dizzy, I span round on my poles and a passer by literally caught me as I fell and pushed me into his group for the final few metres. Thank got he did or I would have found myself a long way down! After that I was glad to reach Stella! I’m not even ashamed to admit, I got pretty emotional while resting at the top! We both caught our breath for a little while before evaluating our options. Many people turn back and head back down from Stella. It’s a great achievement to get there, Uhuru Point was still over an hour away. We decided that Stella was just not enough and we must continue, best decision I’ve made. Don’t think I would have ever gotten over coming so close and turning back. The hike to Uhuru apparently took about an hour, however I’ve my dazed and confused state I was convinced it only took about 20 minutes. I didn’t believe our guide after that it took an hour!
We continued walking with our guide always shouting Polie Polie which meant slow slow! At about 6:35am and 5,896amsl since we started we reached Uhuru Point. It was such an amazing feeling, we couldn’t believe we had made it. The sunrise on the horizon warmed the heart and was a stunning site to see. As it rose it lit up the massive glaciers around us in a warm red glow. At that altitude it was dangerous for us to stay there for too long so we had our photos taken next to the sign and began to make our decent shortly after.
Our decent was rapid, and almost felt like a race against time. The lower we got the better we would begin to feel. In my oxygen starved state, being at the top seemed almost like a blur. It took us about two and a half hours to reach the camp we had previously been at. After a lunch, many conversations of how it was and a short nap we started walking again down to the lowest camp on the mountain for our final camp which took another 4 hours. A 10,000ft descent in one day played tricks on the mind! After getting to camp we ate and had an early night, shattered by all the events of the day!
The next morning we began our final hike down to the gate which took around 4 hours. Again a beautiful walk through the lush rain forests. I even saw a number of monkeys in the trees which was amazing. My first time seeing monkeys in the wild, it was great.
After a few hours walking we arrived at the gate and were met with an incredible reception. All the guides and porters who had come up with us were there waiting for us. As soon as we walked near a guitar appeared our of no where and they all burst into song and dance. Songs of Kilimanjaro, Kibo, Polie Polie, it was amazing. Couldn’t have though of a better way to finish. They all continued singing and dancing and lead us behind a small building for an amazing feast and drinks they had put on. It felt amazing to sit and look back in what we had just achieved, and the perfect ending made it all the better.
It was an incredible experience, we had raised over £1,300 for Macmillan met some amazing people and scaled one of the most amazing and beautiful mountains on earth. It was something I will never forget. It was worth all the pain and struggle and shows that we are truly capable of anything.
I’d like to thank everyone who donated money to the cause it means a great deal at goes to a great cause. I also want to thanks Climb Kili and the absolutely incredible team of guides and porters. They amazed me more each day, a climb like this is impossible without them, I am forever great full.
As I sat back and drank a cool bottle of Kilimanjaro Lager put on by the team, I though I’ll never forget this place. It certainly was ‘Kili Time’.
There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society where none intrudes,
By the deep Sea, and music in its roar:
I love not Man the less, by Nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal.