Kilimanjaro – The only way is up! And then back down…
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 – Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania.
Towering at 5895 metres (19,341ft) many have tried and failed, so 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…thanks Google!
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’re pretty quick. Bearing in mind they’re carrying our bags for our six day stay, along with tables (often on their head), chairs, food, gas canisters, and anything else you can imagine, their stamina and overall energy is quite remarkable.
At the gate to Kilimanjaro National Park, spirits were flying high. Slightly embarrassingly, the majority of us secretly thought the climb wouldn’t be overly challenging – jokingly described as a ‘walk in the park’, we were in for a shock.
The bottom of the mountain is incredible. Resembling something of a jungle, trees hundreds of feet high tower over you – creating a much needed shelter from the scorching African sun. With a fairly gradual incline, we reached the first camp having escaped any injuries, generally keeping ourselves physically intact. Greeted by a heart-warming tea, coffee and popcorn from the locals (the daily mid-afternoon snack) 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 breath taking view of the African night sky, the stars so close that it seemed you could almost hand pick each and every one. Oh, Not to mention a very ominous looking ‘toilet’.
The days to follow would become increasingly harder. The higher we got, the colder it became. Already struggling with a pretty poor night’s sleep using the mountain as our mattress, it became physically challenging even for the fittest of individual’s to battle a 9 hour walk, from one camp to the next. We found ourselves trekking 1000 metres up, and then almost the same amount back down again to acclimatise (the main reason for the walk to the summit taking so long) – knowing you’re not making any actual ‘progress’, however, is hard to become motivated by.
From the second day 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 there is also that 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 times 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. It’s difficult to explain, but it’s crazy how the atmosphere around you 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, when 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 – A particularly sobering moment.
Without the camaraderie, the teamwork and support from everyone, 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.