Mount Kilimanjaro for AICR: Uhuru and Mweka

By Sunday, June 15, 2014

After a long four days, we were at long last going to reach Uhuru Peak! I had known all along that summit night was going to be the hardest part of this trip but I hadn't really known what to expect. I knew the day would consist of four parts: trekking to Stella Point, walking along to Uhuru Peak, getting back to Barafu Camp and then walking to Millennium Camp... but other than that, I was in the dark when I awoke. Literally.

Day Five - Uhuru

Show time! In the utterly freezing night, we tore ourselves from our sleeping bags and dressed for the monumental challenge before us. I was wearing practically everything I had brought with me. Underwear and sports bra, thermal shirt and thermal leggings with wool socks over them, hiking top and hiking trousers, a thick fleece and waterproof trousers, and to top it off, my extremely warm waterproof coat with my thermal hat, a pair of thermal gloves and a pair of ski gloves. Even under all that clothing, the cold still managed to seep in.

Bleary-eyed, we crawled out of our tents for a mug of tea each and some snacks. Once I got moving, I began to warm up. Some people hadn't slept well and were feeling quite rough from the altitude. I felt okay but had taken a whole acetazolamide pill (as opposed to a half) and some paracetamol as a precaution. I didn't want to take any chances.

I'd like to write that I remember everything from that night but honestly, it all blurs into one frozen step after the other. I am not being hyperbolic when I say it was the longest, coldest, toughest night of my life. I recall going over more steep rock, like on the second day, and then walking on comparably flatter ground, until we began the final ascent to the summit by zig-zagging up to the top. We were given a maximum of five minutes per break this time around - any longer and we'd lose all the valuable body heat we had made - and then we pushed on. 

What really got me through the long night was my iPod. Our guides warned us the day before that around 3am we would probably start feeling very tired and possibly fall asleep, partly due to not enough sleep but also due to the lack of oxygen. The trick to getting around this was to keep on moving and, for me, concentrate on singing along to song lyrics in my head. Before I had left, I made a playlist full of tracks I hadn't heard in ages so each new song gave me a boost I wouldn't have had otherwise.

That, coupled with the quiet singing of our guides in Swahili and the occasional break for water and a snack, got me to 6am - sunrise. And honestly, it couldn't have come any sooner. Despite wearing a Thinsulate hat, my ears were frozen. My camelbak was also frozen. My freeze-resistant Nalgene bottle was beginning to freeze. The ground was also frozen. When the skies began to lighten, I felt like all my prayers had been answered.

Except we were nowhere near the summit yet. The aim was to reach Stella Point for sunrise but given the way everyone was feeling - one person had already been sent down to camp, and two others were throwing up - that was in no way a realistic aim. I was developing a bad headache that was steadily getting worse the higher I climbed. So bad in fact that I began second guessing whether I could make it to the summit. With my camelbak slowly melting, I was getting through my 2L of water at an alarming rate and on the scree slope, each step towards Stella felt like I was taking three back. Looking back, I don't remember much but I couldn't tell you if that was because I was bored and everything looked the same, because I was on autopilot, because I've tried to suppress it, or because the lack of oxygen was getting to my brain.

Our lead guide, Alfiyo, took my day pack from me to join the mass of other bags he was carrying. That made thing substantially easier, but didn't lessen the pain it my head. I was just concentrating on staying upright and continuing walking. Whenever things felt unbearable, I thought of why I was going up the mountain: for all my family members and friends who have battled cancer, successfully or unsuccessfully. Even if my lungs were burning from working overtime and I felt like there was a drill going through my skull, I was putting one foot in front of the other for all of them.

So I made it, and I couldn't have planned the timing of track that was playing when I got to Stella Point even if I tried. The last crashing crescendos of Bedřich Smetana's Má Vlast Moldau/Vltava (to remind me of the time I saw a classical quartet in Prague) welcomed me to the first piece of flat ground I had seen in over 10 hours. I would not have made it up if not for Alfiyo's firm but fair attitude and gave him a massive hug when I got my breath back.

Collapsed at Stella

The next hour was easy! ...Okay, it wasn't easy, but it was nothing in comparison to getting up to the crater. My head was still pounding and I was breathing hard but I could see the sign at Uhuru Peak from where we were sat. Maybe I could do this! 

Going as slow as I did meant I could take in the view from the top. To my right, I could see down into the crater. The barren rock was covered here and there by patches of ice left over from a time when Kilimanjaro was covered in glaciers. To my left, I could see one of the last remaining glaciers, slowly retreating. Here is an image that shows the the overall loss of ice and satellite images of the summit in 1993 and 2000. There is even less ice now thanks to a combination of global warming and deforestation lower down the mountain. It was hard to imagine the crater covered in ice, and even harder to imagine how much more challenging it would have been to get to the peak. 

Inside the crater

Step by step, I slowly made my way around to my goal and the reason why I had been enduring all the pain, breathlessness and dehydration since midnight: The Roof of Africa. 

Arriving at Uhuru Peak at 11am, I'm afraid to say, was wholly anticlimactic. There was no massive shout of triumph because none of us could bare to waste our breath. There was no jumping up and down with joy because we were too exhausted. Instead, we all sat down on the rocks around the sign and cheered quietly. Then Alfiyo said "three minutes for photos, then we're going."

What?! We'd only just got to the summit! We were finally 5,895m above sea level and he wanted us to just go straight back down?! 

Well... yes. Yes, he did. One member of our group, Cole, couldn't join us in our walk to Uhuru Peak because he had begun to feel extremely dizzy, couldn't stand, and therefore had to be helped down by a guide. Carolyn (who you may remember me mentioning in my Singapore posts) had broken off from our group with a guide because she needed to go even slower than us after developing very bad altitude sickness too. We had left one guide with our bags at Stella Point to ensure we'd make it to the peak, and another member of our group, Hamish, was beginning to struggle to stand... It was just Alfiyo at the peak with us, and if we all took a turn for the worst, there was no one to help him get us down. Kilimanjaro claims on average eight lives a year. We didn't want to add to that statistic. 

So, yes, three minutes was right! Alfiyo took a massive group photo of us all along with this photo of me and I assure you, I look a lot better and healthier than I felt! 

We made our way back round to Stella Point at a good, comfortable speed - faster than we had been walking before - and who should we see but Carolyn slowly making her way to the summit! Big hugs were had, but that happiness was short-lived. By the time we arrived at Stella again, Hamish had taken a turn for the worst. He couldn't walk properly and was experiencing severe confusion, so he got rushed down just like Cole. We grabbed our bags and watched his speedy descent with guides holding him us as we began ours. 

We had a long way to go to get back to base camp and it started with getting down the scree slope. We essentially skiied our way down, as every time we took a step, the scree would move and our footing would change. It was very disconcerting but I quickly realised the trick was to slide down on your heels, rather than take normal steps. Our descent was not without peril though, as another member of our group, my tentmate Louise, twisted her knee and had to be stretchered right the way down to the exit gate! 

Another pressing issue was that of water! We had taken longer than our guides had anticipated and got through our suggested two litres fast and so we were feeling pretty dehydrated. Thankfully, someone had phoned (or perhaps smoke signaled?) ahead and some of our lovely porters met us near base camp with some fruity squash for us. That helped us push on to Barafu, although I could feel blisters forming on my feet. 

Tragically, we were only allowed a half hour nap before pushing on to the next camp. When I surfaced from that, replenished my water and had a little lunch, we spoke to Cole and Hamish, the guys who had been rushed down, and discovered they had both hallucinated being kidnapped! Hamish had come back to his senses but Cole was still shaky and was convinced he had gone through a village with some Americans as well. Gulp. 

The best thing for all of us was to get lower, and the sooner we got lower, the sooner we could all have a shower. Despite that, I got so sick of going downhill towards the end of the day. I could feel my blisters getting worse and I was hungry and utterly shattered. Finally reaching Millennium Camp (3820m) was beautiful, and so was our last dinner. If I had the energy and if I had been able to brave the cold, I would have tried to photograph the stars, but I was out before my head hit the proverbial pillow. 

Day Six - Mweka

On all other hikes I've done, I've much preferred going downhill, but Kili proved different. If the previous day was anything to go by, I should have known I wouldn't enjoy it. Prior to the trip, I erroneously thought that because altitude sickness was no longer an issue, getting down would be a cake walk. Ohhh, it was anything but that.

We left Millennium Camp after breakfast and passed through Mweka Camp. We entered the rainforest again and everyone took a last glimpse of the summit through the trees. It was hard to believe we had been up there just a day ago!

While I had done as much damage control as I could the night before, I could tell my blisters were going to be a problem. They were slowing me down more than I liked and by the time we were in thick jungle, I was in considerable pain. Each step hurt, and I was using my walking poles almost like crutches to try and keep the weight off my feet.

I took very few photographs on this day, but the times when I did were a blessing because I got to stop. I could walk perfectly fine on flat or inclined ground too, as I discovered as the path wended its way down. It was clear to me, however, that the faster I got down to Mweka Gate, the sooner I would be off my feet. I rushed as fast as I could bear.

The trees thinned and then... Mweka Gate. I had made it all the way down and I was still standing. I took a moment to collect myself as we queued to sign out of the national park while others commented on how strange it was to see cars again.

All I wanted to do at that point was shower and sleep, but we were given a feast at the gate. It was all delicious but we all admitted to having little to no appetite whatsoever, despite most of us shovelling rice into our mouths out of force of habit from the previous days.

Our stinking bags were loaded into the back of a minibus, where we waved to Alfiyo (looking glad to be rid of us!) and the rest of our guides. We drove back to Moshi via a coffee plantation and once we had checked back into our hotel, I checked the final damage: five massive blisters and a bruised big toe! Eeep!

I wish I could say the shower I had was good, but it certainly wasn't the one I had built it up to be in my head! Water dribbled from the shower head, then gave up and decided on the tap. I made it work somehow though and by the time I exited it, I felt like a completely new human.

When we were all clean, we sat down for a celebratory Kilimanjaro beer, which was one of the most refreshing things I've ever tasted. Later, we had an award ceremony where we handed out certificates and had champagne (or, as we discovered after sipping it, sparkling grape juice!)

While I still feel like someone else went up that mountain for me, the reality is that each step I took was my own. Making it to the summit was one of the hardest things I have ever done (and will likely ever do) but discovering the true strength of my will and body in overcoming hardship and pain is by far my greatest achievement from this trek. Kilimanjaro has shown me just how much I can endure and it is not something I will ever forget.

Mount Kilimanjaro for AICR
Day One: MachameDay Five: Uhuru
Day Two: ShiraDay Six: Mweka
Day Three: BarrancoSafari
Day Four: Barafu Zanzibar

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