It is, and feels like, the middle of the night when I drag myself out of my warm sleeping bag for the final push to the summit of Kilimanjaro. Friendly faces peer out of balaclavas, neck gaiters and woolly hats as we force down ginger laden tea, coffees and hot chocolates.
It’s bitterly cold, but a full moon throws long shadows through the campsite and a line of head torches snakes ahead of us as we leave the embrace of the mess tent and head out into the gloom. 1295m of climbing to the roof of Africa lies ahead. We are aiming for the summit rim at Stella point in time for sunrise!
Accompanied by Msuri, our head guide, 3 assistant guides and 3 summit porters our summit group has expanded to 18. Pole, pole is the name of the game today and we are in a closely packed line headed by Caroline. The moon is so bright that I find a head torch is unnecessary and the views of the summit glaciers, Mawenzi Peak and the surrounding African plain are unforgettable.
But make no mistake, the summit climb is one of the most physically demanding things I have ever endured. I think Susie gives a much better description than I ever could:
Picture this if you will……..starting a 6 hour hike up sand and shale at 11.30pm after an hours sleep in the freezing cold by the light
of a head torch, (and a full moon) trudging up up up……..every 50 meters you climb your head bangs a bit more……a bit more dizzy……feeling a bit more sick……your legs are tiring
…………….only 4 hours to go. It feels like your worst hangover ever and you are walking up hill for hours and hours.
However, at the top of the ridge you are rewarded with an amazing sensation of being on top of the world, the clouds are below you, the sun is rising through them and there are
stunning glaciers and a beautiful crater. WOW. The only thing is you are freezing, your hands ache with cold and the wind is biting and nearly blowing you over, you also realize
the actual peak is about 150 meters away you shuffle along there head down, hands in pockets feeling incredibly emotional. Then you have to get all the way down again!
Mike also gives a pretty good picture of what to expect:
I have no recollection of most of the summit climb to Stella Point except the bit where I kept asking Msuri how much longer it was to Stella when I was resting, gasping for breath and at my lowest ebb. He kept saying “3 hours” but I didn’t believe him and kept asking again and again. The answer never altered and eventually I must have just put my head down and battled on for 3 or more hours, but it is just a blur.
When I got to SP, from my point of view it levelled out, and with no AMS at all I could just plod on. However, the pictures Benson took after I handed him my camera show me close to others in our group but I have no recollection of seeing anyone in that last hour until actually getting to Uhuru.
My personal experience was that the climb was extremely gruelling. The combined effects of cold, altitude, tiredness, the dark and physical excursion make this final day an exercise in mental toughness, but I do believe that with the right support, a conservative itinerary and a “can do” attitude climbing Kilimanjaro is within most people’s capabilities.
Having got to know all of the group really well over the past few days it was really moving seeing each one of us fighting our personal struggle and achieving the summit on such a glorious morning. All of our group successfully made the summit and chaos reined as we all tried to get that all important summit photos for the family album.
The freezing wind was playing havoc with cameras and it was quite a fight to secure your personal piece of the roof of Africa for at least a few minutes. After the celebrations we turned and with a spring in our step and smiles on our faces we headed back to Barafu Camp fro breakfast. Despite consuming copious amounts of ibuprofen and paracetamol my head was splitting and I couldn’t help myself from romping down the mountain in the hope of getting rid of my headache.
The loose, steep descent flew past and despite suffering from wobbly knees as I neared Barafu Camp I was soon enjoying a hot cup of coffee sat in the sun. It seemed a million miles away from the icy windswept summit I had left two short hours before and it was heard to believe that it was only nine and a half hours previously that we had set off on our summit bid.
After seeing the first few of our group in, I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer and collapsed in my tent for few hours kip before lunch.
Lunch was a sober and sleepy affair as we all swapped stories and tried to fend off sleep and aches and pains. The unspoken fact remained that we still had to descend another 1500m to Mweka Camp before our day was over and shortly after lunch we managed to cajole our tired bodies into moving off down the trail.The promise of cold beer waiting at Mweka Camp certainly spurred a few of our team along.
We descended quickly and the vegetation soon changed to heath and moorland, a lovely change after the high desert of the past few days. Mweka Camp is nestled amongst lush trees and the best part about it has too be the cold Kilimanjaro beer on sale.