Before I knew it, it was 1030pm which meant it was time to get up and get ready for my final ascent hike. My attempt to reach the summit of Kilimanjaro had quickly arrived. I was layered up to the nines, or rather eights - at least on my upper body with the penultimate 7th layer being my bright orange Multiple Sclerosis t-shirt. My lower limbs had two pairs of thermals, my hiking trousers and then Gortex rain pants keeping them toasty. I had heat packs in my gloves & boots with spares in my pack. The batteries for my Petzl light had been changed with spares on standby. Further protection would come from my snood, scarf & touque (Thanks Kristyn & her knitting needles). I was as ready as I could be!
By 1130pm, after some tea and biscuits, it was time to shuffle off into the night. We were apparently heading in a north-westerly direction, although we could have been headed towards Timbuktu for all I knew as it was pitch black bar our headlamps. I was excited but nervous. I was under no illusions: this was going to kick my arse. As we began to ascend you could sense a change begin to wash over people like a wave as each hour passed. It was a mix of physical, mental & even emotional exhaustion. I can't begin to tell you how important the guides became and not just with their obvious role. As the excited chatter died down within the first hour and a sombre silence fell over the group, they sang songs to boost our spirits and lighten the mood. I never thought I would be trekking up Kilimanjaro singing Abba and "Who Let The Dogs Out?"
Why does the mood change so drastically? Well having had an extended period of time to think about it, for me personally I attributed it to the sheer darkness with the only bit lit by your headlamp never seeming to change, that being the heavy scree and the feet of the person in front of you. It felt, at times, like you were not moving forward simply just moving your feet in the same spot... For hours. You saw no scenery bar the stars in the sky which did not move. You would pass people so very obviously struggling and try not to let that affect you. It isn't about who gets to the top the fastest or first, it is all about personal challenges and it was kind of heartbreaking to see people on the brink of giving up. I passed one girl who I'd seen struggling a few days earlier at lower altitudes. "Breathe from your diaphragm," I urged her. Other people were vomitting. Part of me wondered at what point do you stop allowing yourself to continue at risk of doing yourself harm.
I was fine for the first couple of hours and whilst I had no problem with the physical aspect I certainly began to feel the mental challenges. It started as my hands began to get cold with the higher altitude & wind as we made our way slowly towards Stella Point on the crater rim. Despite the heat packs & adding more, my hands just would not warm up. In fact I began to think that the heat packs were not even warming up and that very well may have been the case (due to altitude), rather than mind tricks. It was as though parts of me began to shut down. "If I close my eyes for just 5 minutes my legs will keep moving and I can get some rest," I remember trying to convince myself. What sane person comes up with this!?! After the trek the person behind me told me there had been a few occasions where I seemed to stumble and I'm certain that was when I had told myself it was ok to go to sleep for a bit. I also started hallucinating, as did several others. For me it started with "dangly things" hanging off the backpack in front of me that would then squiggle & squirm like Catherine Wheels. Then it progressed to people running beside me dressed in running gear not clothing suitable for Kilimanjaro as though I was running a race. The last time that happened to me was during a 36km training run in the snow with temperatures around -8 degrees.
For many climbers, this approximately 6-hour walk to Stella point is mentally and physically the most challenging on the route. I would not argue with that fact at all. People in the group were having their own challenges and I thanked the stars above that the worst of it for me seemed to be cold hands and a few weird hallucinations. All I could think of was how much I was longing for the sun to rise. As we finally reached Stella Point (18652ft) we stopped for a short rest and photos. Emphasis is on short.
The longer I stood around the colder I got. My hands were so swollen when I removed them from my gloves and I could barely pull my camera out. I'd stopped drinking water hours ago because there was no way I was dropping my pants in those temperatures. Still, I had to have a chuckle to hear someone exclaim in surprise that their urine was steaming, earlier on the trail. We had encountered snow well by this point and with the wind it was bitterly cold. Let's get a move on! The final ascent to Uhuru Peak was moving too slow for my liking, it was time to dig deep into those reserves and up the ante. Myself & another group member switched it to turbo drive and hoofed it as the sun began to rise on the horizon. I can just remember telling myself to move my legs and not stop until I saw another sign.
At 6am on Christmas Eve I successfully reached Uhuru Peak, the summit of Kilimanjaro at 19341ft, which might I add is higher than Everest base camp. There were just a handful of us there up to press and it was pretty emotional. James & I hugged then I had a few quiet moments to myself to say a few words to a very special lady whom I know had been with me every step of the way. Everything then seemed to be even more of a blur then some of the other blurry moments during the last 6.5 hrs. We cheered along the rest of the group as they headed towards us then someone seemed to remember a). that we should be taking photos and b). we were about to be rewarded with the most magnificent sunrise we were ever likely to see. I whipped off my ski jacket and stood by the "official sign" posing in my Multiple Sclerosis t-shirt. I did well to manage to pose for 2 photos.
You simply cannot stop here for too long, as it would likely be extremely difficult to start again due to cold and fatigue. The views though were amazing. Snow, ice and rock every way you looked. So basically I quickly enjoyed my accomplishment, slapped on some sunblock & my sunglasses and then the walk back to Barafu from the summit awaited me. We met Brooke at Stella Point and she was going to stop there and come down with us. I reminded her that she had asked me to kick her up to Uhuru if necessary and so instead I gave her a few words of encouragement & a hug. She set off and we continued on our way in the opposite direction. It took about 3 hours and you could finally see what you had spent the night hauling your arse up. Oh my God, did I really hike my way up this?!? It was incredibly steep and going downwards seemed harder than the hike up. My legs weren't the only thing on fire, my face was too. The heat from the sun was insane. I crawled into my tent for a quick 1 hour nap wondering if they'd use my face to cook the eggs on for brunch.
I'm not sure where it was decided or agreed upon but at some point one crazy person came up with the notion that instead of hiking to the last camp, we just hike all the way down the the bottom. And the rest of the crazy people agreed. Even Brooke who basically got a 15 minute nap. I suspect the thought of a shower, a bed and other creature comforts were very enticing. We were told that the route was not difficult and would take us down the rock and scree path into the moorland and eventually into the forest. It should only take us 6 hours from Barafu. Hmmmm. It took us all between 7-8 hours after lots of repeated "are we there yet?" and "whose crazy idea was this again?". My quads have never been worked out so much or so hard. I felt like I had ran 3 marathons back-to-back! I have to admit whilst walking through the forest during the last stages my mind once again started playing tricks as the sun disappeared and the shadows began to look sinister. This probably wasn't helped when the rather drunk Tanzanian "official" at Mweka Gate met us with his effeminate high pitched Michael Jackson voice. I half wondered if I would suddenly be surrounded by zombies and the Thriller song. I'm pretty sure he followed every sentence with a "hee hee hee" too. After an incredibly long day it was a much needed light hearted moment or two. Finally I could sit on a bus and head back to civilization.
As I took my first shower in days, albeit cold, I worked out that in the last 36 hours I had been trekking for 24 of them taking me from 14927ft at Barafu to the 19431ft summit at Uhuru Peak and the a descent of 12935ft to Mweka Gate (6496ft). Today I successfully completed the hardest thing I have ever done in my life: physically, emotionally & mentally. It is a day I will never ever forget.