On October 19th, 2013, a group of 14 people embarked on the challenge of their lives, attempting to summit the world’s highest free-standing mountain; the iconic Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania.
Towering at 5895 metres (19,341ft) many have tried and, of course, many have failed. By no means was the task in hand an easy one. Admittedly, hearing the stories about the celebrities that have conquered the mountain made us think, “Surely this can’t be that hard?!”. However, with growing suspicions that their stay was not only longer, but slightly more ‘glamorous’ than ours, we began to think twice. In addition, research beforehand kindly informed me that around ten people per year die trying to summit the mountain—a confidence booster if ever I’ve heard one.
We had around 35 porters between a group of 14, and it has to be said, they’re the most amazing people I’ve ever met. A trek for us novices that took four hours took them just under an hour — yes, they really are that quick. Bearing in mind that they are carrying our bags for a six-day stay, along with tables which are quite often balanced on their head, chairs, food, gas canisters, and anything else you can imagine, their stamina and overall energy is quite remarkable. It goes without saying that the assistance of the experts, this challenge would be too great for most.
At the gate to Kilimanjaro National Park, spirits were flying high. Somewhat embarrassingly, the majority of us secretly thought the climb wouldn’t be overly challenging and, jokingly, many described the task ahead of us as a ‘walk in the park’. Of course, we were in for a shock within a matter of moments.
The bottom of the mountain is incredible. Resembling a jungle state, trees hundreds of feet high tower over those who are even contemplating the idea of scaling the beast ahead. While the sheer size of our surroundings threatened to create an overwhelming sense of dread about the task ahead, the immediate foliage did, in the short term, offer much-needed shelter from the scorching African sun. With a fairly gradual incline, we reached the first camp having escaped without any injuries, generally keeping ourselves physically intact and mentally enthused. Greeted by a heart-warming tea, coffee and popcorn from the locals, we settled at camp for the first time. Our accommodation for the next six days was to be a two-man tent accompanied by a rather breathtaking view of the African night sky, the stars so close that it seemed as though you could almost hand pick each and every one.
The days to follow would become increasingly harder. The higher we climbed, the colder the climate became. Already struggling with a poor night’s sleep, using the mountain as our mattress, it became physically challenging even for the fittest of individual’s to battle a nine-hour walk from one camp to the next. Finding ourselves trekking 1000 metres up, and then almost the same amount back down again to acclimatise, it became brutally clear as to why this challenge was going to take so long. Knowing that you’re not making any actual ‘progress’, however, is hard to maintain motivatition.
Despite elements of frustration, soon enough we had the snow-covered summit in our sights – its intimidating peak towered over us but, no matter how far we walked, it seemed we never got closer. Prior to the event, rumours about the elusive ‘altitude sickness’ were floating around. To be honest, there is only so much the internet can tell you and, with it, there is also a naive thought that ‘it will never happen to me’ — for the majority of us, however, that was not the case.
Now, we all know how it feels to have a hangover, right? That stinking headache, the pounding in the back of your head, your eyes aching every time you look around. Picture this hangover but multiple it by 100. Yes, altitude sickness was something we were told “may” happen and, for those out there who manage to escape the illness when battling with the earth’s pressure, I envy you. Luckily, a headache was my only symptom as others suffered fainting, shortness of breath, vomiting, and constant nausea. While it is difficult to explain, it remains a baffling feeling of how the atmosphere in which you’re surrounded physically affects your body, particularly whilst the lack of oxygen is forcing your lungs to squeeze out every last breath, just to take you that one step further.
The relief came on the final day, a moment of calm as we returned to relatively normal altitude — the pressure in our heads, chest and overall body relieving — finally, we could breathe again.
It may seem obvious, but the night of the summit was by far the most challenging. After eating what we could physically manage after the altitude had zapped our appetites, we were told to sleep (or attempt to) for around two hours. Woken up later that night at 11pm, horrendously shaking in the bitterly cold sub-zero temperatures, we were to begin our trek to the top of the world’s highest mountain.
My clearest memory of the final push was staring up to the icy summit before we began, peering below it, and seeing the trail of fellow climbers attempting the challenge — their only visibility being the twinkling head torches hooked to their frozen brows. As I went to take a sip of my water, I noticed the whole contents of my bottle had frozen. It was a particularly sobering moment.
Without the camaraderie, the teamwork and support from everyone with one immensely determined group, the challenge would have been near impossible. A blurred vision of mine vaguely remembers people holding onto each other, sometimes preventing them from collapsing, other times just to keep them going.
After around seven hours, we hit the targeted summit; Uhuru Peak. Standing on the ‘Roof of Africa’ we felt on top of the world, literally. Surrounded by glaciers, an incredible group of people, and the rising sun on the horizon, we felt we had achieved the impossible. It was amazing. Only one thing, we now had to get back down, a task almost as difficult as heading upwards.
Sadly four of the 14 didn’t make it to the summit, however, I think it is fair to say that their experience was as equally rewarding and memorable as those who did. To anyone who gets this once in a lifetime opportunity — do not think twice about taking it. An irreplaceable experience will be etched into your mind, and despite the gruelling hard work, the pain, and the intense effort, it’s well worth it.