That Kilimanjaro feeling: what it’s like to stand on the roof of Africa
Climbing Mt Kilimanjaro is one of life’s great challenge. And even when you’re oxygen starved on the highest mountain in Africa, you can apply the fourth rule of success: have fun.
They say it’s all in the journey, not the destination, but when you talk to people about climbing Mt Kilimanjaro, they ask: how high is it? (5895 metres or 19,340 feet). Did you make it to the summit? (Yes). Did you get altitude sickness? (Moderately). What was the view like? (Great). But they don’t ask much about the journey and what it was like during the walking before and after the summit. So let me tell you… it was amazing.
Our group came together at our very friendly and comfortable base hotel in the town of Marangu – just 10 minutes drive from the start of the Marangu route. In a comprehensive briefing, we learnt what to expect in the days ahead, and most importantly the four simple lessons for success: go slowly (pole pole in Swahili, pronounced ‘poleh poley’), drink lots of water so you are peeing copiously, protect yourself from the sun and have fun! Our wonderful crew of head guide Fataeli, 3 assistant guides, Alpha the cook and 10 porters helped make sure our basic needs were met. So all we had to do was follow these four lessons and put one foot in front of the other, preferably in an upward direction!
Day one and the climb felt like quite a leisurely stroll from the gate at 1970 metres (6463 feet), to Mandara Huts at 2700 metres (8858 feet). Lush rainforest along the way and, despite our group’s less-than-quiet getting to know each other chatter, several monkeys were to be seen scurrying through the branches. At our simple mountain hut accommodation, the crew served us a three course dinner and then the playing cards came out. Amicable team-building along the trail was replaced with seriously hilarious competitive behaviour.
Day two and the rainforest gave way to lower trees dripping in moss, followed by open moorlands and heather. A bush fire had been through here a month prior, and now the regrowth was a brilliant emerald. On approach to Horombo Hut we could look down along enormous ravines hewn by the lava flow millions of years back. Our day’s climb brought us up to 3780 metres (12,402 feet). Distinctly chillier in the evening, but with a wonderful clear night sky filled with stars. The diminished oxygen in no way hindered some extra lively post-dinner card games, with Alpha and the guides joining in.
Day three and our pace was noticeably more ‘pole pole’. The plants around Horombo were impressive, especially the large Dendrosenecio kilimanjari, a giant prehistoric-looking groundsel. By midday, the moorland petered out and the landscape became more arid, lunar-like and dramatic. The jagged snow-tipped peak of Mawenzi was behind us as we veered west up the saddle towards Kibo peak. Kibo Hut, at 4740 metres (15,551 feet) was our home for the evening. Card playing was off the agenda as we headed to bed at 6pm, dozing somewhat fitfully until the wake-up call at 11pm.
No time was wasted, with our final ascent commencing at midnight. We were ‘lucky’ with it only minus-five degrees Celsius, as we’d been told to be prepared for minus-20! Plod, plod, plod, breathe, plod, plod, plod, breathe. It was hard to move with any speed to generate much body warmth, but still after thirty minutes of zig-zagging up scree, many of us stopped to take a layer of clothing off. We all had some symptoms of altitude – mild headaches, nausea and weariness with the exertion, while inhaling less than half the oxygen our bodies were used to. But by dawn we had all made it to Gilman’s Point and the crater rim. The summit was in sight, so with great team spirit, lots of support from our marvellous guides and a good dose of inner fortitude, we all mustered the strength to climb for another two hours.
At the top, a sign proclaimed: “Congratulations! You are now at Uhuru Peak, Tanzania, 5895m. Africa’s highest peak. World’s highest free standing mountain. One of world’s largest volcanoes. WELCOME.” Yayyyy – we’d done it – woo, hoo!
The enormous icefield and Kersten glacier to the south was a spectacular sight. I lamented the prospect claimed by glaciologists that due to climate change, it may be all gone by 2015. After hugs, photos and some disrobing as the warmth of the sun had brought the temperature above zero, it was time to head down.
Fataeli kept emphasising to us, as much as we might feel like resting now, we would not feel better until we’d gone a fair way down. So our ascent from the summit took us all the way back to our third night’s accommodation at Horombo. The more confident descenders amongst us practically ‘skied’ on their boots back down the scree. I clung to assistant guide Gibson with one hand and my walking pole with the other, to spare me the total inelegance of a bruised butt!
A wonderful 10 hours sleep at Horombo, before completing our descent back to Marangu on day five. Between gravity, a relative abundance of oxygen and the satisfaction of summitting, I could have run some of the way down. But having had such a marvellous time, I chose a leisurely pace, photographed the wildflowers, chatted to Fataeli and learnt more about the life of a guide, enjoying every last minute of the journey.
Back at our Marangu base we celebrated with our terrific crew, thanked and fair-welled them, before we proud magnificent seven, celebrated some more – just to make really sure that the fourth lesson for success, ‘have fun’, was fully executed!”
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