The mountain – the summit! 28/02/2010 – 01/03/2010

How do you start to describe a day like this? I am really not sure, but here is my best (if long) attempt at it.

Well 6am came around rather too quickly this morning.  So did 4am and 5am, as I was wide awake at both times.  Following a breakfast that no-one seemed really ready to eat, least of all Caroline who said she had not slept at all, we set off at about 7.45 for Barafu, which would be our temporary camp for the evening. That would be also the last and highest port of call for the Porters. Our entourage of 27 would be whittled down to just four. Deo, Samuel, Raymond and Fredy would come up to help us to summit – the rest would return to this camp here at Horombo tomorrow morning and await our return.

Would we all make it? No-one wanted to speak of making it or not. In fact no-one spoke of much at all – the stakes were too high for that.

The views first thing were utterly mesmerising – both Mawenzi and Kibo tempting us in the sunlight in front of a crystal blue sky. It is still a bloody long way to go though. We are about to cover (including the descent) about 35km in one go, including the summit. No wonder those guys yesterday looked absolutely knackered.

View of Kibo from the tent at about 6.30am

The walk before lunch was fairly long and hard, about 9km and about 700m of ascent. Here we are coming out of camp (this picture is taken looking back), already above the clouds, but still with about 2,400m of ascent ahead of us in one day – incredible:

Coming up from Horombo en route to Barafu

After a while the views of Kibo start getting better and better with each step:

Mid morning, 28/02.10 - Kibo still looks like it is part of something else altogether.

We lunched in a huge glacial valley below Barafu, now at around 4,500m or so, the highest we had yet been to. The weather started to close in too, and cloud and mist predominated suddenly.

The path through the valley leads to lunch somewhere....

….Oh yes, here it is:

Silver service at 15,000 feet!

The valley was breathtaking.  We have seemingly seen every landscape possible along the way here, and this was special, as it all was – I would love to know how and when this was formed.

The walk up to Barufu after lunch was however brutal.  It was only about a further 1.5km but with about 400m of ascent to a campsite which seemingly defied gravity, being perched on the side of a hill.

Barafu - even the toilets were a long way away...

On the walk up Kamal inscribed a few messages on some flat stones for us stragglers as usual (that would be Caroline, me and Heather then), and as he did so he was dancing, bounding and singing up the slopes like the extremely fit 24 year old that he is.  Made me feel very old to be giving away 22 years to him.

At the campsite Kamal asked Heather and me a question, which I don’t think either of us answered at the time.  It was something like: “say you were at this campsite like we are now before the greatest adventure of your life, and your partner/boyfriend/girlfriend/lover/whatever showed up in your tent and wanted to make love all night long – what do you do or say?”  Now if I was a 24 year old then my answer would probably be to say ‘yes’, and then still go up the mountain.  My answer in my advancing years here and now would be something like “sorry dear but I have a mountain to climb“, probably:).

I think that probably reflects also on how important Kilimanjaro is.  If you just for example added up all of the time/money/effort expended to get the seven of us to this rocky ledge 15,000 feet up, at the cusp of the final assault on the worlds tallest free standing mountain, then it would add to a hefty sum in all areas. I don’t think any of us are going to jeopardise anything now, even Kamal!

So after registering at Barafu, some 4,700m (15,500ft) high, we settle down in the tent. It is cold, and just breathing at something like a normal rate tires you out – it is hard to describe. Here we are in the tent just after we got there:

Be afraid, be very afraid.....

We ate a pasta dinner at 5pm (our second pasta meal of the day), and at 6 were told to ‘get as much sleep as we could’  We would be woken at 11pm for the summit climb, and Deo went through all the things we would need.

We were told also that we would get porridge, tea and biscuits at 11.30, and then the climb would start at midnight sharp!!!.

We all trooped off to bed and I packed and unpacked my daypack several times.  We were advised to wear four layers on the legs, and five to seven on the body, and in addition we’d need at least 3.5 litres of water (not enough in my opinion as it turned out) and then waterproofs, camera, suntan lotion for the summit, sunglasses, a lunch pack that Deo had prepared for us etc etc.  He also told us we’d get a can of Red Bull and a Mars Bar if we made it to Stella Point.  This got everyone fairly excited after the (albeit very hearty) diet that we’d been on for the last five/six days.

By the time I was satisfied with my backpack it was about 7.15pm.  Kamal was ready too with his gear borrowed from Team Kilimanjaro as his, Tamara and Tayma’s luggage had still not arrived since they arrived in Tanzania.  I managed eventually to sleep a bit, but was awoken by rain/sleet on the tent at 8.45.  This elevation is the point where rain will not fall as the temperature will always dictate that it be snow.  This was really annoying for three reasons:-

1. We had all picked this trip for the full moon, and if it was going to be snow then we wouldn’t have either the benefit (for the scramble and the light it would provide beyond our head torches) or the attractiveness of it lighting up Kibo summit.

2. Every night so far, whatever clouds that had been around had lifted by the evening to leave crystal clear skies, so it was sod’s law that on summit night, of all bloody nights, we’d have clouds.

3. If the snow continued it would surely make the climb more dangerous.  This was a very steep ascent after all.

These thoughts continued as I carried on listening to the sleet, part concerned due to point 3 above, and partly just because I was ready to do this thing at long long last.  I was excited beyond compare.  It was finally here – I got no further sleep and concentrated on readying myself for the 11pm call.

So at 11pm we all assembled in the breakfast tent, some having slept and most like me rather fitfully.  Ronan regaled us with his adventure to the toilet earlier in the evening, which had been disgusting apparently.  Barafu is not a clean campsite at all, in fact it is pretty filthy.  There is rubbish strewn all over the place and this is a really sad thing to have to reflect upon the evening before your summit climb (the toilets are really appalling). Anyway, nothing (not even that) was going to distract us from what lay ahead.

Tea and porridge and biscuits duly consumed, I took another Diamox at Deo’s suggestion.  I think we all did (those of us who were on it, which was me, Caroline, Heather and Ronan).  We were all well kitted up and also waterproofs adorned, as it was snowing and very foggy (although this may have been that we were effectively inside a cloud as opposed to fog)  Tayma and Tamara’s mittens were bigger than the largest oven gloves I have ever seen – they came up to the elbows and were certainly a talking point – they did look toasty warm though. Here I am nearly ready for the off:

I think they call this 'a brave face'

We all set off promptly at midnight, headlamp torches beaming and scaled ‘Section A’ of the climb, a very steep rocky ridge leading directly out of the campsite itself. The snow started early – here are Cheetah, Twigga and Maasai as they started out with Deo:

Nice weather for a summit climb....

By the time we got to the top of the first ridge I was baking hot.  I wore, for the record:-

Thermal undertrousers (just cheapies from Primark); Craghoppers walking trousers; Tag 24 waterproof trousers; thermal vest, cotton fleecy sweatshirt; my Bowel Cancer tee-shirt; regular fleece; Northface waterproof jacket.  Oh and my Bridgedale ‘summit’ socks (absolutely fantastic by the way) and Goretex Amy Chaud skiing gloves; plus a balaclava, and a Thinsulate/Goretex beanie.

At the top of the first ridge I took off my fleece (actually at Deo’s suggestion – he checked everybody out and made recommendations) – he was fantastic throughout, and also my headgear.  I would put the balaclava and hat back on later but would never need the fleece itself, and nor did I ever put on the down jacket that I carried with me all the way.

We then commenced ‘Section B’ of the walk, a long but not too severe climb to take us onto the main rise of the Kibo Summit itself.  Half way through this section I began to really feel the effects of the altitude.  This was now by some distance the highest I had ever been (we were now approaching 5,000m).  I had a headache in the back of my head, and felt somewhat dizzy/light-headed.  I took an energy sachet and crossed my fingers that it would not get any worse, although sadly it later did.

We were then onto ‘Section C’ which Henry shows in his book (quite rightfully, as indeed this is exactly what it is) a series of zigzags.  The path has to be cut this way as the slope it goes up is unremittingly steep.  There were quite a few other parties of climbers on the path also, and the entourages (varying from perhaps four to twelve strong) would pass and let past each other all night where one group stopped for a breather, or just slowed to a crawl and got overtaken.  The zigzag path takes about 3 long hours.  As this is done between 2am and 5am in the morning it requires a lot of patience and determination, as well as strength and stamina, to get through it .

Half way up this section I felt worse, and the doubts about myself started kicking in.  I was able to walk only perhaps ten (very short) paces without stopping.  My heart pounding in my chest, my head aching, my senses numbed and dizzy, and my lungs seemingly incapable of getting enough air in this oxygen starved atmosphere.

I was kept going by several things. One was just to put my hand on the necklace I was wearing.  It is incredibly special to me, and it got me smiling and determined at times when there seemed almost little point in doing what I was doing.  Then I would think of Dan and Becca, and would not want to tell them that ‘I didn’t’ get there, and I desperately did not want to hear the words ‘never mind’ or similar from them or anyone else.  Then there were the people who had given money to the charity – I did not want to let them down – I wanted to succeed for every penny they had given, and hope still that more donations come.

Ultimately, and as much as anything, I just dug really really deep, far deeper and harder than I have ever had to go.  I have been inspired for so long by Rudyard Kiplings “If” poem, and the lines in particular as follows:

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!
‘”

There was nothing in me for most of the night, or so I felt. Except there was, obviously, and I would just force myself to say ‘ come on you can do this’ out loud to myself.

Towards the end of ‘Section C’ the group totally split for two reasons.  Firstly Tamara got quite badly sick through a combination of a stomach cramping plus AMS.  She did not want to, nor looked capable of, continuing.  Deo stayed with her and so did Kamal, and told the rest of us to go on.  We followed instructions, and hoped it was not the last we would see of her that morning.

Secondly the two people who felt the worst in terms of breathlessness, the altitude, everything, fell back behind the remainder of the group, and that was myself and Caroline.  We both struggled from thereon in, and were helped by one hugely significant factor.  He is called Raymond, and he is magnificent.  He was my mountain at that point.  He encouraged, cajoled, and had the patience of a saint.  He stood behind me in my wake even when wild flatulence took over, and I could not stop farting to the point that I thought I would lose control of my bowels altogether. “What a guy” as they say:).

Heather and Ronan made it from hereon in with Fredy, and so they were the first of us to make it to the top. I could not have lasted at their pace. They have reserves greater than me for sure.

Through the whole of the next section, the hardest, ‘Section D’ it was Raymond who willed Caroline and me on.  I was drawing on pure reserve energy.  This section is more or less a wall, or it feels like it.  It is frozen scree, leading to Stella Point, the point at which you reach the crater and qualify for a certificate.  It is 5,700m above sea level.  This is 3.5 miles high.  It is brutally steep.  I shall quote Henry from his book at this point:

Picking your way through a trail of knackered trekkers and exhausted assistant guides, ignore the sound of people retching and sobbing and remember to keep your pace constant and very slow……..You are now just thirty minutes from Stella Point, a painful, tear-inducing half-hour on sheer scree. The gradient up to now has been steep, but this last scree slope takes the biscuit; in fact it takes the entire tin.”

The snow was now blizzarding ridiculously, and  I don’t in fact remember a whole lot about that final hour.  I just remember Raymond calling  to me from time to time – ’45 minutes to go, you can do it’,   ‘40 minutes to go, come on Mr Chris’ – ‘Come on Baobab – you can see the top – that is Stella Point’  When I looked up at that time it looked as far away as the moon.  I could have cried.  If I had had the energy I would have shouted out in desperate frustration.  I had so little left.

Next I remember ’15 minutes – you are going to get to the top of Kilimanjaro’  I turned to Caroline, her face gritted and in apparent pain, I said something like ‘we are going to get to the top of this fucking mountain’ she turned to me and said ‘we’re not there yet’, and that served to remind me that I am stood on a 50º or so icy scree slope where a lost footing alone could have been not even worth thinking about.  Somehow, I made that last fifteen minutes walk, or however long it took.

And so, at precisely 6.24am, I clambered to the top of Stella Point, fell to my knees and blubbed like a new born baby.  I didn’t leave my knees as I hugged anyone in sight, but only remember Heather, Caroline, Raymond and Freddy.  I shouted through tears at Raymond as I hugged him ‘you got me here you bastard’  I am not sure he really understood this, but I know what it meant to me. The snow still came in droves – it did not matter at all – we were there, we had made it:

Stella Point, 6.24am - absolutely unbridled happiness

I seem to remember then hugging Heather standing up, and the two of us literally jumping up and down like demented baboons.  Quite where the energy for that came from I have absolutely no idea, but it shows you what the body can do when it needs to, and mine just did.

Fredy was then all of a sudden handing out cans of Red Bull, and I drained mine in one go.  I had finished a whole 3 litres of water on the ascent.  It wasn’t enough for me, and so if I ever did it again (ha ha!) I would take more.

From there, Fredy and Ronan went onto Uhuru Peak alone, and Raymond came with me, Heather and Caroline.  There was never a single part of me that thought of not going all the way round to Uhuru, as opposed to stopping at Stella like some people do.  Uhuru is a slog once you have done what you have just done, but it is only another 40 minutes or so, and only another 150 metres of ascent.  The air is so desperately thin though, and walking through the blizzard made concentration of any kind difficult. That 40 minutes is hard though, really hard, but you just do it for this:

The glacier, one of the many reasons for just being here in the first place.

And this:

What can I add to this?

The official summit time is 7.10am on 1 March 2010.

So there we were, Raymond, Caroline, Heather, me, on the roof of Africa.  I cannot even put into words the elation, the joy, the emotion, the happiness.  It is beyond priceless and will be with me for the rest of my life.  There are no words which can describe it all, and no-one can take it away from us, or anyone else who has achieved this.We stood at a higher point than anyone else on the whole continent at that moment. This was Kilimanjaro at its ultimate, at its finest – we were at one with it. At that moment, we were part of the mountain too. That is how it feels………..

Kilimanjaro – day three (26/02/10)

So today started with a big big relief.  The headaches and nausea from last night have abated.  I went for a pee at about 2am this morning, and the benefits of the impending full moon were readily apparent as both Mawenzi and Kibo were lit up incredibly by the moon.  When I got back to my tent however, I actually found it quite difficult to breathe.  It was pretty scary – I had a moment when I thought that the mountain was not for me.  I just started deep breathing however, and eventually all was normal.

Breakfast was the normal feast, porridge, toast, honey, omelette, sausages, mango, papaya, tea, coffee etc.  There is too much.  Again I feel sorry for the people who carried the stuff all this way.

Everyone else seems to feel good this morning too, other than Kamal who has really bad sunburn on his neck which actually stopped him sleeping, and Heather who was sick during the night, oh and Caroline fell over on the way back from the toilet and cut her knee, and is limping somewhat, so she will use her poles today. The weather is again great though, and here is a view just as we leave camp:

Leaving Kikelewa on day three

We set off at about 8.30, and we have a short distance to go today, just 5km.  It is steep however, and it takes us to over 4300m or 14,100 feet.  We will be there by noon, all being well.

The ‘olds’ stick to the back, and the tweens head off at their usual breakneck pace.  This time Kamal hangs back with us, and I pronounce him ‘President’.  Before long however Kamal goes to join the tweens, and we hand back at our usual slow ‘pole pole pole’ pace, accompanied by Deo and Raymond.

The climb up towards Mawenzi

The walk is fantastic we are above the line of the trees and bushes now, and all that grows are lichens and alpine heathers.  We reach camp at Mawenzi Tarn at about 12.15.  The camp is in the shade of Mawenzi Peak, which is stunning.

First view of Mawenzi Tarn and campsite, at 4,300m

Along the way today, Deo teaches us the following phrase: ‘Poa kichizi kama ndizi’, which means literally “as cool as a banana”, but means properly “as good as it gets” or the like, I think.

We also ask Deo today to give us Swahili names. He is teaching us various words, and so it is fitting that we learn some more. We already know “Asante” (thanks) and “Karibu” (welcome) and a few others, but our own names just cap it off. They are as follows:

Kamal – “Kifaru” , which means Rhino

Tamara – “Twiga”, which is Giraffe

Tayma – “Cheetah’, which is cheetah, funnily enough

Ronan – “Mzungu Maasai”, or white (Maasai) warrior

Caroline – “Mchumba”, which is Sweetheart, or lover, apparently

Heather – “Mrembo”, which means beautiful

Me – “Bao Bab” – a type of ‘old tree’, pretty fitting really:)

So we are now on an extinct crater at close to 5,100m.  It is totally spectacular.  I have a look around me in wonderment, and have a ‘this is what it is all about moment!!’

After lunch of cucumber soup, meat pies with chilli sauce, and fresh pineapple, we all crash for an hour or so.  At 3.30 we are awoken for hot peanuts and tea, and then we set off on an acclimatisation walk. We go up about about 700 feet higher than the camp, along a ridge of what was once the crater of the volcano.  The views are outstanding.

Close to Mawenzi Peak, acclimatisation walk, at about 4,600m

Back at camp at 6.30 or so we retire to dinner of beef and banana stew, a local Chagga dish – it was outstanding. Before this we had fried chicken wings and battered egg plant followed by leek soup.

Played a few games of ‘Oh hell’ at cards, which Ronan won, although none of us quite know how to this day, including Ronan, as the rules of the game seemed to elude him slightly!!  ….  And then sleep comes so easily despite being at over 14,000 feet.

I felt much better this evening, despite being so much higher than the previous night. It may be due to the acclimatisation walk. It may be due to the fact that I know that tomorrow we will be sleeping at almost 1,000 metres lower than we are right now. My body looks forward to that extra oxygen.

I love Kilimanjaro. I cannot get enough, and it just ‘has’ me, although as you know, that happened a long long time ago……….

Kilimanjaro – day two (the shocker!), 25/02/10

Day two on the mountain was in some ways my favourite day of all, and in other ways it was the worst. It was a heck of a day, that is for sure. It had so much. We met and took a photograph with all of the the crew for the first time; we got absolutely stunning views of Kibo for the first time; it was our first full day walking on the mountain; and then later on I got to understand what AMS, albeit mild, felt like. So here we go:

So we were woken at about 6am, with tea in our tents – how civilised! We had to be ready to start trekking at 7.30, as we had 12k to walk today, and over 1000m of ascent, so it would be our first proper exertion really.

The views early on were stunning – here was my first proper view of the summit from our camp:

Kibo - so near and yet so far.......

And very shortly after breakfast at about 7am, we get a view of the other peak on Kilimanjaro, which is Mawenzi, at 5,100m. This time we have all of the crew to meet, porters, cooks, assistant guides you name it, they are here all twenty five or so of them:

Mawenzi Peak, and all of our crew.

We are soon walking, and the weather is totally cloudless, and before long we are greeted with outstanding views of the summit (Kibo), and here is a picture of all of us together:

Nice spot to stop for a picture, don't you think?

The summit at times looks tantalisingly close, and at others looks like it is perched in the sky about a million miles away. Either way, it is fixating, magnetic. It is all I can do to to stop myself taking a thousand photographs, but am conscious of the need to preserve batteries – I have three all together, but have no idea how many will last on summit night when the cold hits.

We stop for lunch at a place called Second Cave at about 3,500m. It is so hot and the sun is burning. Without sunblock (I had Factor 50) you would really fry here, as each of Kamal, Tamara and Tayma found out. We were also already above most of the clouds. Lunch was great, although I cannot remember what it was:)

We head off in the afternoon for Kikelewa Camp, at 3,700m, a further 6km or so away. Although not particularly strenuous, the walk is hard. I realise already that I am not drinking enough water. My Camelback has 3 litres in and I have a separate 1 litre bottle – but I drink probably less than half of this. It is not enough, with the sunshine, the walking and especially the altitude, which is already enough to affect you if you are not used to it.

On the way to camp, we are definitely two distinct groups at all times. Kamal, Tamara, Tayma and Ronan are at the front by some margin, but they are all in their twenties. We nickname them “the tweens’. Caroline and Heather take it easy, and I am glad of it. The motto for walking slowly in Swahili is “Pole, Pole” – as far as I am concerned you cannot go  slowly enough, so I ask Deo if we can go “Pole, pole, pole, pole, pole” – I am not sure he sees the joke, but we go even slower anyway, so that works for me.

On the way to camp, Caroline introduces Heather and I to the Shocker (not literally I hasten to add). I think I should just leave it right there, and so I will:). By the time we get to camp it has been a long day already. I am starting to feel a headache coming on. Kikelewa is not pretty, but we do have great views of Mawenzi and also Kibo (seen below) in the distance:

Kikelewa camp, approaching sunset

After getting to camp I feel pretty bad. My head pounds like I have been hit with a cricket bat, and I feel nauseous. The popcorn that I have been looking forward to sounds revolting, and I go and see Deo and tell him what is wrong. He says “take 500mg of Paracetamol”. Although I hate taking tablets of any kind, if he had said “take two kilogrammes of Paracetamol”, I would have done it. I just needed some relief. I went straight to my tent and slept instantly, like I hadn’t slept for a week. I was woken by someone for dinner, and ate it, feeling mildly less nauseous, but stilll headachy. It was all a bit of a blur really – I think we may have played cards (Yuker, which I learn afterwards is spelled “euchre” – thanks Caroline:)), and I think this may have been a picture of Heather after she had done some sort of barn door thing after winning or something:

Hmmmmm, not a card trick that I have seen before....

But I am ready to hit the hay and do so relatively early. I am grateful for a great and long day on the mountain, and hope that the night passes without incident…………..