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.
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:
After a while the views of Kibo start getting better and better with each step:
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.
….Oh yes, here it is:
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.
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:
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:
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:
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:
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 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………..