I was alone with Bacari, our guide who had stayed behind with me. It had been hours since we had left camp and I was so so tired. I wanted so just sit on a rock and go to sleep, I was struggling and every time I looked up all I could see was more boulders, the end seemed no where in sight. Behind me a faint glow started on the horizon, the sun was coming up.
We had all been either too excited to sleep properly or the lack of oxygen was affecting us in more ways than we thought. When we roused from our tents at 11pm everyone agreed that they had been turning in their sleeping bags all night. Sophie had lost her appetite by then, Jason and I had some false alarm \emergency toilet-runs. Kes had mild a headache and Su had a few nose bleeds, this was how the altitude was starting to affect us.
All of us had done a bit of research before the trip and decided that we would take Diamox (acetazolomide), an altitude sickness tablet. Diamox is a diuretic (it’s supposedly flushes the carbon dioxide from your body forcing you to drink more and take in more oxygen) and therefore means that you need to pee an awful lot. The success rates of climbers who had taken altitude sickness pills appeared relatively higher than those who had not, and we weren’t taken any chances to not succeed. We were here to climb a mountain and a mountain we shall climb.
The night was cold but we were fortunate that the wind was only mild. We had all gone to sleep in the majority of our summit clothes and had planned on using hot pockets even though, as Sophie pointed out, the lack of oxygen would mean they wouldn’t work as effectively (she was right). We all packed light bags with mainly our water and a few snacks in it and put on all of our layers and our warmest clothing, mine being a giant waterproof and windproof down jacket. We’d also all double gloved up, that is we had liners and then thick snow gloves over the top. Full beanies and buffs were up as well to keep our faces warm.
Moses was the lead guide up the summit and the coincidence of ‘Moses’ leading us up the mountain wasn’t lost on me that night.
The biggest problem we had to face, other than the fact that we were climbing in sub-zero temperatures up a mountain in the dark, was that our water would most likely freeze on the way. This is a dilemma we had all been discussing together the last few days. The only way around it was to try to ensure you blew back into your water bladder tube after you drank from it to push the water out so that it wouldn’t freeze. However as the night went on we got more and more tired and eventually all of our tubes froze. The water bottles would take longer to freeze (larger volume) although none of us drank as much that night relative to the other days on the mountain. Up until that point I had been drinking roughly 3.5 – 4 L of water a day, both for hydration and to prevent altitude sickness (the more water the less likely to be altitude sick). On summit night I only managed about half a litre and was slightly dehydration post summit.
The night before we agreed that, as the slowest, I should lead the pack. This way the group could keep pace with me and not freeze on the top if they had to wait. I agreed and this is how we started the night, myself in front followed by Sophie then Jason, then Su and Kes bringing up the behind.
I also made a ‘Kilimanjaro Summit Playlist’ in anticipation for this night, and although a little cumbersome to get organised (sleeping with my iPhone every night, charging it the night before and then setting it in my jacket with my ear phone sticking through my buff), I was glad that I did. The playlist was 4.5 hrs long exactly and helped me immensely with the first half of the climb. At one point I was evening singing and dancing along to the music.
A few hours in and already I had stopped about half a dozen times to either blow my nose, adjust my gloves or mainly just stop and breathe. I found that if I started dwelling on negative thoughts (e.g. my buff is too tight and I can’t breath) I’d start to panic and hyperventilate due to the lack of oxygen. The walk was also difficult as the gravel/scree was so soft that it would move beneath your feet, sometimes making you feel as if you’d actually gone backwards instead of forwards. All of this didn’t sit well with Moses who wanted to ensure that we were walking at ‘pace’ so almost half way up he recommended that I shuffle to the back of the group and have Bacari look after me.
I felt let down and angry that I was considered to be slowing down the group, but the reality was that my body wasn’t processing the oxygen as fast as the others and I needed to breathe a lot more to keep pace. Reluctantly I trudged behind everyone and took the time that I needed to take. Soon enough the group were well ahead of me and I could only just make out their headlights. Bacari and I were alone in the dark.
And so I walked on, one step in front of the other. I stopped to breath when I needed to, I sat down when I needed to and I tried not to think about how much longer it would take for me to reach the summit. Bacari was patient, encouraging and telling me we had all the time in the world. When it got really steep he took my arm and walked with me. In the darkness my torchlight dimmed and I felt metaphorically as if this was a reflection of my own energy, dimming as the night went on.
Sunrise gave me new strength, I couldn’t wait for the sun to come up to bake my cold and exhausted body. We had now been going for almost 6.5 hrs, this roughly calculated based on leaving camp just after midnight and knowing that the sun rose around 6:30am every day. I had gone into a zen mode by then and no longer thought about anything other than one foot in front of the other. All of a sudden, after a few extra hard boulders we were at the top, we’d made it up the side of the mountain! The sun peaked over the horizon and shone gloriously on Gilman’s sign, I couldn’t believe I had made it. I laughed and smiled at Bacari, ‘I made it!’ I exclaimed. He smiled back at me and gave me a thumbs up. I hugged Gilman’s sign and the realised despite all the hard work, this wasn’t the finish line.
Gilman, whoever Mr. Gilman was must have been a tough old f*ck, because the journey to his sign post was without a doubt the hardest part of our journey to the summit.
After resting for a few minutes I asked Bacari, ‘How far to Uhuru?’. Uhuru peak is the highest point on Kilimanjaro and the ultimate goal. Bacari pointed into the distance and said, ‘First we reach Stella Point, and then after that you can see Uhuru. We have done the hardest part now but it will be another 2 hours to reach.’ Two hours hey, for a moment I considered just going back down the mountain crawling into my tent and dying, but I had come this far. Five and a half days it had taken me to get here so what was another two hours?
‘Bacari,’ I said looking him straight in the eyes, ‘I want to make the summit.’ I have always had more determination than actual strength, and this was the perfect example. As my body started breaking down my mind wanted to push on. And so we went, up and down and up and down as we walked around the rim of Kibo Peak. On each uphill section my pace would slow and Bacari would then physically stand behind me and edge me up the inclines. I was grateful for this as it made the uphill sections mentally easier to tackle. I would target the next rock I needed to stop at and try to hold out until I reached there before taking another breathing break.
We had gone around the crater until we finally reached Stella Point, at Stella Point I saw other climbers who were resting and who had come up from the other routes. It was strange to see a crowd of people after feeling like we were almost the only ones climbing this mountain for so long. Strangely enough seeing everyone struggling as well made me feel a lot better about my situation and validated that this was genuinely a tough climb. From Stella Point the path got easier.
As I neared Uhuru point I saw in the distance a man in orange waving his hands at me, it was my team! They had made it to Uhuru Peak at 7:20am and as I passed them we all hugged and emotionally congratulated each other for having made it so far. Jason patted me and said ‘I knew you would make it’ making me choke back tears. I couldn’t believe we had done it! It was cold and the team was feeling just as worse for wear as I was so they shuffled on wards back down the mountain.
I had a new surge of energy, I could see the sign in the distance and the sun was shining high now. With clear blue skies above me and icy blue glaciers around me I pushed back tears as I approached the final destination, trying to keep it all together so I wasn’t a crumbling mess prematurely. And then, I was there: Uhuru Peak, Africa’s highest free-standing point at 5895m.
Bacari took my camera out of my bag and I grinned at him, my face completely swollen by this point (another symptom of altitude sickness). I hugged the summit sign, a sign that I had only dreamed of up until that point. We took the necessary photos as evidence that I had made it and I broke down into tears. Even as I write this, I feel as if I’m right back there with all the emotions I felt. I think about the surrealism of having done something incredible like this, about how amazing our world is, about how grateful I am to have been given the opportunity, about simply how easy and hard it is to take one step at a time until you reach your goal.
It was magical, and it was the first time I had seen glaciers! To see them above clouds, to see them above clouds above Africa! This was a moment that I would remember forever.
We stayed for roughly 20 minutes, my summit time was officially: 7:50am 25th August 2015. Then we started our decent back down. We passed late comers on the way to Uhuru, and we greeted each other with ‘Congratulations’. I paused at Stella Point on the way to take in the views, Kilimanjaro’s volcanic crater was sprinkled with cookie cut out shapes of small icy patches, and to my right gigantic walls of glaciers that were icy blue against the white backdrop of clouds.
We needed to walk back to Gilman’s and down the scree to get back to Kibo Camp, and boy did I hate Gilman by the end of the this trek. Up and down we went again, and just when I thought all the hardest bits were done you’re confronted again with uphill sections. It took an hour or so to reach back to the edge of the rim from where we had come up. Looking down the side for the first time during daylight I was astonished at how far and steep it was, had I really done this in the dark?
Past the boulders, going down, Bacari took my arm and wrapped it around his arm – we were to ski down the scree! I was so scared… but down we went, and at what a pace! I was literally skiing down Kili with the Mawenzi peak right in front of me! How completely unbelievable, how completely crazy, how completely fun. Ski and ski we went, it was so far. We skied for what felt like roughly twenty minutes before we reached Han Meyer Cave, a small cave located halfway up the side of the mountain at roughly 5,100m.
I saw a light aqua jacket and realised immediately that it was Sophie. ‘Sophie!’, I yelled. Uur crew was taking a break from their descent and I discovered that things were not well. On the way down Sophie had felt immensely ill and had vomited. When I reached her at the cave she was feeling quite sorry for herself and didn’t look very well. Jason had an upset stomach and had run off to find somewhere private in case an emergency toilet-moment was required. So I guess we didn’t manage to escape altitude sickness after all!
Once everyone felt better enough to go again we all skied down the scree until what seemed like forever we finally arrived back at Kibo Camp completely and utterly exhausted. I was destroyed by this point, we had officially been walking non-stop for 10 hours straight, dehydrated, altitude sick, hungry and dirty. I was in such a state that I didn’t know which symptom to address first. We were a massive mess, it was the hardest day by far and we’d all earned our rest as we crawled back into our tents for an hour of rest before lunch and further descent that same day.
I fell asleep immediately, in all my summit gear, in all my dirtiness and I didn’t care. By lunch time, around 11:30am, I had to summoned all of my energy to crawl out of my tent. We sat in our dining tent looked completely awful ( in the nicest possible way!). Sophie still didn’t have her appetite and although Jason escaped doing a dirty dump on the side of the mountain, he still felt proper rough. Su was worn down and even Kes, Kes who doesn’t stop smiling ever, Kes looked beaten. But we had made it! Had that really happened?
After lunch I sat in my tent trying to pack but couldn’t manage to do anything productive until Bariki (our ‘waiter’) came by. ‘What is wrong Jade? You need to pack’, he said to me. I looked at him, completely useless, ‘But, I have no space.’ I tried to point out. ‘You have space’, he said and then proceeded to stuff all of my scattered belongings into my duffel bag. Sophie summed it up later that day perfectly, we had become hopeless adults that needed to be looked after like children.
Just before we departed on the second leg of the day, I sat with my day pack on a rock feeling quite off. All of a sudden I was nauseous and everything I had for lunch came straight back up. Talk about delayed mountain sickness!
None of us thought we could go on, but we did, and we walked down from Kibo towards Horombo Camp, located 3,700m on Marangu route. As we descended oxygen levels increased and so did our energy. The views were incredible and it felt as if we were walking through a postcard. Down and down we went, the ground turned from black volcanic dust back to a desert yellow. It took us another 4 hours that day to make camp.
Horombo was misty and cold, the change in temperatures that day had been dramatic, freezing cold, to blistering hot, back to freezing cold. After a long long day, that night we had our last meal on the mountain and shared our summit stories and then crawled into bed for the best night of sleep ever.
On our last day I woke feeling both broken but reinvigorated by all the oxygen and extra red blood cells I now had. For the first time this whole trip I was the first to get packed and ready to leave! It would be a 19km walk down to Marangu gate today, and we would be walking through some lush rainforest. Taking a packed lunch with us we left an extra half hour earlier than usual excited to be walking towards the only thing we all wanted by then – a hot shower.
It was stunning to see different flora on the way down on Marangu route, we passed an oasis, strange new trees and even saw a few ‘blue monkeys’ and squirrels on the way. It was a cheerful walk, especially in contrast to the day before and so much faster down than up. We’d hope to try and get back before 2pm so that we could enjoy as much time as possible standing in the shower, and possibly even taking a second shower.
We arrived at Marangu Gate at around 1:30pm after walking at an incredible pace (5.5 hrs of walking!). Siraji was there at the gate to greet us, making it all feel as if we had come full circle. He was happy and looked well despite being diagnosed with pneumonia and malaria! What a complete trooper! He congratulated each and every one of us for making it to the summit.
We had a group lunch where we were handed our gold certificates (gold for making it to Uhuru!) and laughed as our guides gave their first impressions of us. Su – they didn’t think would make it at all because she was so petite. They thought Sophie would definitely make it, until she started to ‘plonk’ her self down like a bag of flour each time we stopped for a break. They thought Jason was the brother of Jesus, because of the beard he sported which he had grown especially for the climb to keep his face warm, and looked borderline capable because he was so lean but then maybe not. Me? Once they heard me cough that first day they thought I was a goner for sure. So actually the only one that was supposed to have succeeded was Kes, but we had proudly all maintained Siraji’s record of 100% success rate.
Goodbyes were said, hugs all around and us being incredibly grateful for everything; the amazing food, the encouragement and guidance when we were down and for just feeling completely safe and looked after. It was a happy and sad day because these people had become like a family to us in such a short time.
As we all piled into Siraji’s car and drove towards our resort for the night, I looked up at the clouds, ‘We were above that, above those clouds’, I said to the group – each of them then looking up. It was an incredible feeling, to have come together and done this together. We climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.
At the time of publishing this post, we’ve raised more than £7,000 for the Bloodwise Charity. After a long shower, or two, and an amazing last dinner together at Rivertrees it was time to say goodbye the next day. Each going back to their respective countries (Scotland for Jason, England for Sophie, Kenya for Kes & Su and Australia for myself). We didn’t know when we would see each other again, but this adventure together was something we would never forget.