Climbing Kilimanjaro: Day 7–High Achievement

Thur. 11th July 2013

Start altitude: 4,600m
Max. altitude: 5,895m
Camp altitude: 3,800m

The best (and hardest) thing we've ever doneActually, it isn’t tomorrow – we’re woken at 11pm so it is still yesterday. Forget about washy-washy, get dressed (pull on yet more layers), get your pack together and head to the mess tent for some breakfast. We’re ready to start walking by midnight and with the mix of altitude, nerves and sleepiness there isn’t much chat going on. This is what we all came to do – be careful what you wish for.

Dawn near the summit - what a welcome sight!Looking back, what do I remember about the walk?

  • It’s the slowest walking I’ve ever done. You feel ridiculous taking little baby steps at a funereal walking pace but that is all I could manage. Anything faster and you soon start gasping for breath. How the guides can sing (endless repetitions of ‘Zaina’) I don’t know but it does help to keep our spirits up;
  • It’s dark. Well duh! There are two sets of things that you can see – the heels of the person in front of you and the path for your feet ahead of you illuminated by a circle of light from your head torch. Then if you look up or down, you can see a string of lights snaking their way up. Steve describes the experience akin to being in a strange cult performing a rite where each person is carrying their dot of light to the summit, I think that is the hypoxia talking though. There is nothing else in between. No scenery to look at. No stunning vistas. Just your feet constantly following a puddle of light up the mountain;
  • It’s cold. Well double duh! My worries centre around my hands and my water. Even with a double layer of gloves my fingers quickly get cold. Fortunately, Cheryl had some spare activated charcoal hand warmer packs and they helped a lot. Our water bottles were filled with warm water before setting out which helps but I (like most of us) have been using water pouches in my day pack with a tube that runs out of the pack, over my shoulder and with a mouthpiece that clips onto one of the straps. Very handy but we are told several times that after having a drink to blow the surplus water out of the tube and back into the pouch – otherwise the tube will freeze and block and then there’ll be no more water to drink. I manage to keep my tube clear for a few hours;
  • It goes on forever. It just seems never ending. I used my MP3 player as I had been saving up Kermode & Mayo ‘wittertainment’ podcasts just for this climb. They each last about an hour and three quarters and I got through three podcasts (and remember almost nothing of any of them). Every hour or so, we’d stop for a short break – a brief rest and a bite to eat (anything for more energy);
  • It is mind over matter. You just keep going. Keep putting one foot in front of another. There were times when I could have stopped but everyone else was still walking – so I kept on walking. Later I found out that each of us felt exactly the same way. I just tried to switch my brain off, listen to my podcasts and keep my feet moving.

At last we can see where we are walkingAll of the above mean that it is hard, really hard. It is the only thing that reduced me to the same mental state as running the London marathon – forget about everything else, just keep moving your feet. “We’re all going to make it” says Steve and I try to hang on to that motivating thought. (It’s only after that I find that he said that to convince himself rather than anyone else).

Eventually, I lose the battle to keep my water tube clear of ice and so opportunities to take a drink are more limited. (Fortunately, I had a small bottle of warm water well wrapped up in my day pack).

It was scree like this all the way to the summitAnd then, just when we are at our lowest, dawn breaks and the first slivers of light creep across the sky and we can start to see the mountain and the clouds way below us. The fire of the sun warms our spirits and suddenly we all feel better. We are still all together as a group and at last we really believe that we are all going to make it. Even better, one of the guides points up to the ridge up above us and says “that’s the [first] summit”. I’ve been bitten too often by false summits to put too much faith in statements of ‘you can see the top’. Still, I can do this, I will do this, I’m going to do this.

Steve with tea (and guide) at Stella Point. Uhuru Peak in the background.We practically collapse by the sign once we arrive – gasping for breath, feeling the altitude and just glad to get the weight of our feet. Amazingly, astonishingly, the guides have brought flasks of hot tea up with them – never, ever has a cup of tea been so welcome. As we revive we start to consider the situation. We are at a peak (Stella Point @ 5,739m) but we are not at THE peak (Uhuru @ 5,895m). We can see Uhuru (Freedom) Peak about an hour’s walk away and 150m higher. I haven’t come all this way not to get there – I’m bloody well going to make it now!

Looking inside the crater at Stella PointIt really isn’t that far from Stella Point to Uhuru Peak – you can see it maybe half a mile away. I ought to be embarrassed that it took so long to do that little walking – but I don’t care. It is right up there with my lifetime achievements. I’m so proud of Steve too. That we did it together just makes it even more special – something we’ll always have as a shared experience. Even better, everyone from our group makes it to Uhuru peak and at around about the same time (8:30am – eight and a half hours after setting out).

Oh my! What a view!Kilimanjaro ConquerorsWe later learn from the guides that the entire group getting to the summit only happens once per year and that everyone being there at the same time is very rare indeed. It just goes to show what a great group we were. At the summit though the elation is quite muted – we are too tired and feeling the effects of the altitude too much. I’m finding it hard to think straight; a couple of others have been sick; Tony, after throwing up the whole way, now can’t remember getting to the summit; we’re all feeling pretty rough. I just know I want the photo of Steve and I by The Sign – its only going to happen once and I want the proof and the aide memoire.

View from the topIt is beautiful though. An amazing, being on top of the world, view. Kibo crater is on one side and the big wall of the glacier on the other. You don’t get long at the top, the guides help us get our photos and then shoo us on down. By 9:15 we are back at Stella Point and ready to head back to base camp. Here the group splits up and heads down at their own pace. I stick with Steve and we set off together.

Now we can really see what we climbed up. Would we really have done it if we could have seen the terrain – the gradient, the slope going on forever and just covered in scree with a narrow path snaking through it. Whilst on the way up it was by far the easiest to stick to the path, on the way down, it is time for some scree skiing – a controlled skid straight down the mountain. It takes a little practice to be confident about it.

Heading downWhere the scree is a couple of inches deep it is an odd walking / sliding motion – thank goodness for my walking poles which help with balance. Where the rock is bare then it is back to walking or stepping down – again without the poles to take a bit of the strain off my knees it would be so much harder. The tricky bit is where there is just a thin layer of scree over rock. This is treacherous as the grip is unpredictable. Carefully and slowly is the only way to do this.

Again, it just seems to be never ending. We can see our camp as little dots away (and down) in the distance – but the dots don’t seem to come any closer. Eventually, we are met by a couple of our porters who have been dispatched from camp to help us down. This is the first sign that we must be getting close (or at least close-ish). I have carried my own daypack all of the way from the entrance gate right up to the top of the mountain – but I wasn’t too proud to hand it over and let one of the porters carry it back to camp.

View out of the tent at base campExhausted, we arrive back at Barafu at 11:30 – so, that is 8.5 hours to go up and 3 hours to come back down. Its time for a rest and then lunch / brunch / whatever. I’m still too tired to be elated. We are also all a little worried about Liz who is really suffering and needs the emergency oxygen supply. She gets sent on down, ahead of us, to the next camp. At least she made it to the summit.

We’re not finished walking for the day yet though. Tonight we are at the Millennium Camp at 3,800m. Whilst my legs were not looking forward to yet more walking, it turns out to be a good thing. The walking is fairly easy and only takes a couple of hours. We are now 2 vertical kilometres lower than the summit and feeling quite a lot better for it. I feel more invigorated at the end of the walk than I did at the start.

Looking down on the world - heading to Millenium CampAs we get lower we start to see some vegetation again – hello, old friends – and the camp itself is perhaps our most scenic, set amongst the trees. Our final night of camping, our final night on the mountain. We’re all looking forward to a proper bed tomorrow night, but actually the camping has been fine and I feel I had enough sleep.

Sleep! What a prospect. Before, that though, I have one final task for my slow and befuddled brain to do. Right back on the very first night, before we headed off, I was ‘volunteered’ to collect and manage the tips for the guides and porters. It is the ‘farewell ceremony’ first thing tomorrow morning and so it needs to be sorted tonight. Makeke did provide a sheet of paper providing guidance as to the recommended tipping rates for each of the porters, ‘helping porters, cook, assistant guides, and head guide. With each of us putting $200 into the pot, it’s a lot of money and it needs to be divided up equitably. This is what Douglas Adams had in mind when he coined the term Bistromathics. Fortunately, with help from the others sat around the table in the mess tent we get it done together.

Now I only need to work out what I’m going to say – but that is a job for tomorrow. My brain, like my legs have had enough for one day and it is off for (another) early night.

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