Uhuru Peak (5895m)
Sunday September 9th, 2001
The camp looks like something out of a science fiction movie - nothing but rocks and tents on the ground, nothing but stars and moonlight overhead giving an eerie glow to the landscape. As I turn my gaze to the northwest I draw in a huge breath as Kibo looms over me and my heart sinks. It is still a long way to the top. The temperature around us has dropped below freezing, but as yet there is no wind so we don't notice. By 12:30am, quite a few groups have already left. We can see their flashlights moving up the hill. At this point, Charles (guide) informs us that the batteries for his torch are low so we will be ascending by moonlight. My mini-maglite torch is no use, it's too dang small! The climb starts out in a surprising direction - straight up! (Well not quite, but it might as well have been). We are walking on the most annoying surface in the world - scree. It would actually be better if there were ice here, since we'd at least have a solid surface to walk on. Instead we sink into the ground with every step, sliding down two steps for every three we take. This takes a huge mental toll on us. An occasional glance up confirms the huge bulk of the mountain is still looming high above us. The first half an hour of the climb is steep, but a short respite is gained as the trail then levels out for a while. This however is short lived as the path soon steepens considerably for the remainder of the climb. The path is indistinct but Charles (guide) seems to know the way, even without a flashlight. I look at the silver treasure trove of stars laid out on the black velvet of the mountain sky. If I only had the energy to stretch out my hand, I could almost touch it.
In the distance we can see the Rebman glacier. At first it gives us something to aim for, but after two hours of climbing it doesn't seem to be getting any closer so I need to find another way to assess our progress, since we can't really see the slope ahead beyond about 100 meters. To the east is Mawenzi, the other peak of Kilimanjaro standing at 5149m. I figure if we can get above this, we can make it. It will be my psychological barrier beyond which I could do anything. Sadly, we never seem to be gaining any ground on Mawenzi. We're walking and walking and walking, but for some reason I seem to be constantly looking upwards towards the top of it. I find out later that it's probably because at this altitude my balance is beginning to suffer. How can you assess which way is up and down when you have a lessened sense of equilibrium? I decide to abandon Mawenzi as a source of comfort and concentrate on the trail ahead. But this proves difficult - I can't seem to concentrate on anything. It's as if I am sleep walking, under the control of an outside force.
About an hour into the walk I notice a feeling of nausea - not strong but not unnoticeable. At around the same time I begin to feel uncomfortable around my neck. The hooded jumper I'm wearing is choking me a little so we stop for me to remove it. I have no room in my bag for it as I'm already carrying Charles' wind breaker and a spare fleece. I get frustrated and throw it on the ground "To hell with it, the mountain can keep it!" Once removed the relief is amazing and the sense of nausea passes also. Charles (guide) picks up the jumper and carries it instead. Onward and upward. Walking at this altitude is a strange experience. A guy I once spoke to about Kilimanjaro described it as being like your worst ever hangover, carrying a fridge for 6 hours. This wasn't a bad analogy. Thankfully as yet I have no headache thanks to the paracetamol I took at Barafu as a prophylactic. However moving around is quite difficult. I seem to be spending most of my time leaning on my pole gasping for air. It feels like I am asleep but yet my legs still seem to be shuffling forward. My climbing technique at this point basically involves leaning on my walking pole and dragging my feet forward towards it and then resting for a few seconds. I have never experienced anything like it before. With only half the normal amount of oxygen to breathe our body systems go into overdrive trying to cope. Our heart rate and respiratory rates almost double as our bodies struggle to get oxygen to our muscles. After two hours we're stopping every 2-3 minutes to sit down for a few seconds at a time. I'm getting worried that if we sit for too long we'll get cold as the wind has picked up somewhat, so after about 15 seconds sitting down each time I'm up again trying to get Charles to get going. At one point during one such episode Charlie loses the head with me "For f**k's sake Tom, just give us a couple of minutes. You can't rest for two seconds and then take off again" (At least that's the PG 'edited for TV' version).
The walk is absolutely soul-destroying and the scree is never-ending. We seem to be sliding down more than we are walking up. I find my mind wandering all too often, wondering what the hell I'm doing here, wondering at what point I will be forced to turn around. At one stage I start praying for altitude sickness to take me, just so I can leave this Godforsaken place. I can't quit, but if nature makes me quit there's no shame in it. Every minute there is a new demon taunting me, teaching me a new way to opt out. I even contemplate faking a fainting spell. We're stopping every 10 steps now to lean on our poles and gather what air we can. Every breath brings a grimace. Looking ahead we can see some of the other climbers. Their flashlights always seem to be motionless, as if the group ahead always have time to rest for long periods. Just as we seem to be getting near them they almost always take off again. All I want is to meet one of the other groups to find out how they are doing. Throughout the night, I wonder what my motivation is. Bragging rights, surely play some part, but not for the physical price I am paying. Maybe it is the commitment I had given an ex-girlfriend, that I would shout her name out from the summit?
(That one ended up being my main motivation although, as I recall when Charlie reminded me halfway up about it I was at my lowest ebb and wanted to turn around. I believe my response went something like 'F**k Lulu! She's not my girlfriend anymore! We broke up 8 months ago!' Of course I didn't mean it, (sorry Lulu!) so when I finally got a little oxygen to my brain I decided this would be my reason and guiding force to get me to the summit. That and an overwhelming desire not to fail. Ahem!)
Silke and Gerhard from Germany catch up with us after we take a five minute breather. It's almost 4am. They are finding it tough too, but they spur us on. There's a great, almost perverse comfort in knowing that everyone else is suffering as much as you are. Yet they still seem to be smiling! We set off again in their wake. It is worth noting that at about this stage it is 20 degrees below freezing and the wind is getting consistently more noticeable. There is very little talking between us. Charles (guide) seems very focused on the walk ahead so he doesn't say much. Charlie and I just don't have the energy to speak. At this point I look behind me - we've passed out Mawenzi! Quite some time ago by the looks of things! Charles (guide) estimates that we are more than halfway up ('halfway down too mai brathaaaaa, don't tempt me like that again...' - once again my feeble brain is taunting me). It is two and a half hours until sunrise. The Rebman glacier has finally become closer. However we have trouble estimating it's size from here because of the darkness and the fact that we have nothing in the foreground to compare it to. To me, it looks enormous and distant whereas the reality is quite different. At around 5am we stop for a break. Our water bottles have now frozen. Pity really, because I've been so distracted for the whole walk that I only stopped about 3 times in the last 5 hours to take any water. This puts me at increased risk of getting a headache. At this stage, to get AMS would just be cruel.
I'm definitely feeling the cold now. My right hand is completely numb (Whoa! It really does feel like someone else - wearing my glove that is! Ahem!) It seems that when I took off my jumper earlier I didn't pull the glove up properly over my coat sleeve. This has left an opening to the outside air... I put on my fleece but as I can't feel my fingers on the right hand, I have to get Charlie to zip me up. For the rest of the walk I have to keep opening and close my fist repeatedly - it's painful but I know it's absolutely necessary to get blood flowing back into it, frostbite isn't a nice alternative. At 5:20 we can see flashlights on the ridge ahead - the Marangu route! Charles (guide) points out a gap on the horizon. It's Stella point on the crater rim, the lower section of the summit! Suddenly a renewed burst of energy surges through me - we're gonna make it. Charles doesn't seem to share my enthusiasm. Somehow I find the energy to shout "Hallo Marangu route! Hawa youuuuu my brathaaaaaaas!" A senseless waste of energy but I don't care - we're nearly at the summit! We clamber up the remaining scree for another hour but it seems like only 10 minutes. Ironically it's the steepest section of the climb and the sand and scree seem to be softer and looser than what we've walked on all night, but who gives a crap? We're nearly on the roof of Africa! After 5 hours 23 minutes, with a broad grin under our balaclavas, we reach Stella point at 5758m. As we look into the crater for the first time, we are astonished by the extent of it. Stella Point is an important point for many, because a decision is often reached here not to go on, depending on the conditions of weather, the route, and the clients.
At this point, the solitude we've enjoyed for most of the climb is broken as we meet a string of hikers from the Marangu route. I realize that my body has virtually given up but, in a dramatic u-turn, my mind has now become determined to overcome this. It's all about being mentally strong at this point. Charlie collapses in a heap and falls asleep with sheer exhaustion. It takes me a couple of minutes to wake him. There's no way I'm going to let him miss out on the summit. We set off with a contingent of Norwegians. At 6:30am the sun comes up over Mawenzi and Stella point. The view of the horizon is unhindered, since we are higher than everything else around, and the glow of the sun is almost blinding. The fact that we are standing on terra firma, yet looking DOWN at the clouds leaves me virtually speechless. We start to take pictures of everything. The rear edges of the summit glaciers make a good shot as they turn orange reflecting the first rays of sunlight. The view as the sun rises, both across the crater and along the surrounding glaciers, is superb. Mawenzi also looks fantastic silhouetted against the sea of clouds below. I stop to take a few pictures of the sunrise and the Kersten glacier while the two Charlies keep going. Onward I go, I can see the summit now, all the other climbers are revelling in their success. In my excitement I forget the one rule of this climb: pole-pole. About 300 yards from Uhuru peak I am overcome with a severe headache and dizziness. I am forced to sit down for about 5 minutes. How can I get this close and then get debilitated? The sensations pass, however and I finally drag myself the remaining few hundred yards. At 6:40am on Sunday 9th September 2001 the top of my head becomes the new highest point in Africa at 5896.91 metres! I am higher than all the other climbers around me! :-) Charles (guide) shakes our hands and congratulates us and then it's backslapping and high fives all around as it sinks in that we have made it. It's one of the most glorious moments of my life. We had fought inner demons and forged through our weaknesses in our own way and discovered gladiators within.
The trip isn't without its casualties however. As we celebrate and take the obligatory photos, news filters through that Tim, a sales manager from England had gotten acute mountain sickness shortly after setting out from Barafu hut. He had been forced to return to camp and sleep it out. Also, one of the Australian climbers had developed some pulmonary oedema. However he is still on his way as it isn't considered too severe. Charles (guide) is in bad shape too, having climbed up the Arrow glacier route with Graham yesterday. He is absolutely exhausted and unknown to us, he had been suffering quite a lot on the way up. When he starts to get sick in front of us we decide that we should make our descent to Barafu camp as soon as possible.
The trip down is almost as difficult as the trip up! At Stella point we pass the last few stragglers still heading for the summit. The descent seems particularly exhausting. It is hard to descend slowly, as the scree is very steep and moves a lot underfoot. I decide to run down the scree - amazing the way I could barely move about three hours ago but now I am able to bound down the mountain. The descent to Barafu takes about an hour and a half. It is a little warmer down here so, having removed some extra layers I get straight into bed for a couple of hours. I awaken at eleven o'clock as Charlie arrives back at the campsite. I decide to measure my pulse and respiratory rate (at rest) just to see how bad the altitude is affecting my heart and lungs. I clock my pulse at 116 beats per minute and my repiratory rate is around 36. I've seen patients with chronic lung disease in better shape! Even after three hours of rest my body is going nuts trying to keep up. At midday Charles (guide) informs us that it is time to leave for a new campsite, Rau Hut. It's a 3-4 hour walk (Jeez! It's all work and no play with these guys!) but we grudgingly accept. Once again it's up, down, up, down as we cross a number of valleys with no idea really where we're going to end up. The trip seems to take forever, but we eventually arrive at Rau. I think Tim puts it best when he says that he has never before just started walking with absolutely no idea how long he would be walking for, or where the endpoint would be.
At the campsite we have a couple of Kilimanjaro beers to celebrate our achievement. It costs a fortune here (seeing as someone has to carry it halfway up the mountain for us) but it's worth every shilling. We exchange stories with our fellow travellers and are actually quite relieved to hear that even the experienced climbers found the going extremely difficult. Kilimanjaro beckons climbers of all skill levels and, with its 19,341 feet elevation, it's challenging to even the most experienced mountaineer because of the severe altitude gain that must be endured in a short period of time to reach the summit. During the summit climb today, we ascended and descended 1300m in 8 hours 10 minutes to a high point, at Uhuru peak of 5895m. The later descent to Rau Hut involved 1610m of descent. To summarize therefore the totals for the day are 1300m of ascent and 2910m of descent with 12 hours 10 minutes of walking.
The following day we leave early for the 4 hour trek to Moshi, where we sign out and collect our certificates. An entourage of land rovers is waiting for the various teams. Suddenly a familiar sound breaks the silence as our Peugeot 504 estate drags itself up the slopes towards us! Ours is the true adventure holiday folks, the bumpy drive back to Arusha just wouldn't be as much fun in a land rover! One last photograph of our entourage and that's it. The trip is over. We've conquered Mt. Kilimanjaro - and now we can relax! It feels good to be finished. As the old saying goes, mountain climbing at this altitude is like hitting your head with a hammer, it starts feeling good when you stop.
Click A Photo To Enlarge It
Sunrise over Stella Point
Kersten Glacier At Sunrise
Approaching The Summit
Uhuru Peak (4 pics)
The View Of Mount Meru From The Summit
High Above The Clouds
Time To Go Home
Back Down To Stella Point
Beginning The Descent
The Steep Slope Past Rebman Glacier
Mount Meru, Viewed From Barafu Hut
Breakfast Back At Barafu
Heading For Rau Camp
One Last Look
Hawa youuuuu mai braathaaaaaas? Celebrations at Moshi