I am really quite sick of porridge.
Possibly the most difficult part of this trip so far has been forcing myself to eat when I really don’t want to.
We are all a bit groggy this morning, although I think we generally slept well, the altitude is slowing us down. Our planned 6am departure ended up being nearly 7am. All the drinking water had frozen overnight – not solidly, but enough for there to be ice in our bottles until mid-morning. The hose of my Camelbak had frozen too, despite it being insulated especially for this reason.
The trail (such as it is!) is steep. It’s mostly a gravel slope, with occasional rock ridges that must be climbed over. Mostly it’s us doing an endless zig-zag up the side of the mountain, being super-careful about our footing on the uncertain scree. The most common approach is to summit overnight to meet the sunrise. I would not have wanted to climb this slope in the dark – no matter how bright the moon!
Frequent breaks are essential; the carefully-rationed trail snacks are limited no longer and we are snacking on raw jelly cubes, Haribo Jelly Snakes, M&S Dark Chocolate and Cadbury’s Chocolate Eclairs. Pretty much anything with a high sugar-content qualifies!
As we sit and look back the way we have come the view is just awe-inspiring. The air is crystal-clear; the curvature of the earth is really prominent; we can see an arc of about 150-degrees horizon divided roughly in two by the craggy peak of Mawenzi. The plain between us is visible through drifting clouds, but the world beyond that is lost under a blanket of fluffy white.
Continuing to plod slowly upwards, we start to meet people coming down from the summit. They mostly look quite spaced-out and in their own worlds. Very few of them say very much. One woman says that they didn’t make it to the summit; Gilman’s Point was enough. Another lady is throwing up – a symptom of Altitude Sickness. It seems a shame that they came so far, came so close, but didn’t quite make it to their goal in the end.
The climbing is tiring. It’s an effort of will just to keep going. The sugar from the snacks helps, but it’s still hard.
And then suddenly, we clamber up a ridge of rock and we are at Gilman’s Point on the crater rim! It’s almost an anticlimax it happens so suddenly. Regardless, it’s a chance to take off our packs, sit down and breathe. Elly, the chef, opens the thermos flask and hands around cups of ginger tea (supposed to be good for altitude sickness) and Thomas, one of the assistant guides, distributes a tube of Pringles between us all.
After a few minutes to recover I’m able to move around and take in the view revealed now that we are on the rim of the volcano. There is a huge glacier across from us and lying snow on the crater floor. To our left – towards Uhuru Peak – are some kind of ice falls, thick stalactites hanging down a rock wall that look like a frozen waterfall. Circling above the crater too are those damn ravens!
From here we can see Uhuru Peak – and it’s a long way away! I can see why so many people don’t make it there in time for sunrise. We have spent more time than most parties acclimatising ourselves to the altitude and still we are struggling.
We reached Gilman’s Point at 11:42am, after 4hrs 40mins climbing. If we’d aimed to leave at 11pm last night as most parties do – and then only left an hour later (as we did this morning!) we’d be reaching here around 4:40am, leaving us less than two hours to do the final, arduous trek to the summit. I can understand why so many people turn back from here; either they get here too late to make sunrise at the summit, or the stress of the night-time climb to this point, followed by the realisation of just how far you still have to go, combined with the affects of altitude, exhausts the last reserves of climbers and causes them to give up.
Either way, I am reassured that we made the right choice with our decision to attempt the summit in the daytime.
So, refreshed by rest, Pringles and tea, we shoulder our packs again and begin the last stage of our climb.
Initially we descend. We are now following the crater rim and the path is quite up-and-down. We can see Uhuru Peak in the distance, marked by what looks like a tiny sign, but which I know to be about 12-15 feet tall. While the peak is almost level, the approach to it looks quite punishingly steep. Po-le, Po-le; Slowly, Slowly!
For a while, it seems we are the only people on the mountain; the sunrise-greeters have now all descended, but we encounter another group at Stella Point – the place where several other routes achieve the crater rim. I don’t think any words were exchanged. They were a little way ahead of us and by that point none of us had the energy for conversation.
As you follow the crater around, an even more impressive glacier appears to your left (the west). Massive steps of ice, like the facade of the Snow Queen’s Palace or Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. For a while it takes your mind off the struggle you have climbing the last gradient up to the summit, but you can’t ignore your body forever.
I find it hard to describe quite what was going through my mind as I climbed that final slope. I suspect I wasn’t fully conscious anyway; I was mostly on automatic pilot by then. My body wanted to stop, but I wasn’t going to let it. The goal was in sight and every step took me closer to it; I just had to keep on taking steps and I knew I would get there.
When we did finally reach the top, discard the pack and sit down, it took a while for me to get the sense that it was over; my body needed to recover a little before my mind could acknowledge that we’d made it; we’d climbed to the highest point in all of Africa. We had done it!
Perhaps bizarrely, the first thing I did was change out of my windproof jacket into my light fleece. I wanted to make sure I looked good in the photographs we would take. The other group had made the summit just ahead of us and were doing their photographs at the sign. They were singing “Happy Birthday” to one of their team and someone brought out a cake and sliced it up! They even handed some to us, which was nice of them – but I also suspect they had more cake than mouths in their party!
Huw and I were taking photographs of the view from the top and then we got group photos of the four of us and some with the guides too. Hugs all round!
One evening along the route, Lee had mentioned he intended to do handstand-press-ups at the summit and, for reasons I forget, had gotten me to agree to do three Burpees at the summit as well. I’d been hoping he’d forgotten, but he hadn’t and was taking off his jacket and checking his pockets in front of the sign. I filmed him doing his press-ups and then he filmed me doing the Burpees nearby. They were surprisingly easy to do – not leaving me particularly out of breath afterwards, which was a major surprise! I still can’t believe I did that.
Shortly Samuel signalled it was time to go and we walked on past the summit sign. We followed the crater rim for a few hundred yards and then he abruptly turned right and we started scree-skiing down the inside of the rim. It was quite fun after the rigour of the climb and a great way to descend two-hundred metres in a very short space of time.
Before we knew it, we were on a flat, sand/gravel plain, littered with rocks around its perimeter, heading towards a pair of familiar tents. There was no mess tent; popcorn and hot drinks had been laid out in the vestibule of one of the sleeping tents, which I bagged as Lee’s and mine. It meant we had mattresses to sit on as we ate, while Chris and Huw were consigned to the floor (or the four random rocks the porters had laid out around the food) but it also meant we had less room to manoeuvre around once we’d eaten as all the jam and sauce pots stayed in our space. Leaning forward from the sleeping space to eat wasn’t that comfortable either, so it was a mixed blessing being the food tent.
We had reached the summit at 1:38pm, so it was only mid-afternoon by the time we were at camp. I wish there had been lunch at that point; all we’d had since breakfast was Pringles and trail snacks, but we made do with the popcorn.
The sun was still out so it was warm, but the wind was bitingly cold and it was clear it would be very cold once the sun went down. Huw and I went for a stroll across the crater with our cameras towards the glaciers. The ones on the crater floor looked like left-over chunks of larger, receded ones. I later read that the crater was completely ice-covered until recently, so these (still massive) blocks of ice really were just the orphans of a greater ice sheet.
We amused ourselves photographing the stalactites and the glaciers themselves which must have been over twenty feet high and then walked on towards a line of rocks which appeared to mark a falling-away of the crater floor. Sure enough they were close to the edge of a steep cliff which dropped away from us. In the distance we could just make out a peak which had to be Mount Meru. Between it and us I think we could see down to ‘ground’ level. It was only intermittent because of many layers of cloud and mist, but it was spectacular nevertheless. I determined I would come out with my camera after dark tonight to try and capture some of this beauty by moonlight.
Back at the camp, both Chris and Lee were asleep; they both seemed to be feeling the altitude. Huw went for a further wander while I crawled in beside Lee to rest my eyes.
In no time at all, Samuel was at the tent flap rousing us for an excursion to the Ash Pit.
I was beginning to suffer from the altitude as well at that point and was pretty groggy. I wasn’t thinking straight enough to ask questions about what the excursion involved, or I would have taken my backpack with its water and snacks.
We set out and shortly began climbing through rubble and lying snow. The Ash Pit, it turns out, is almost at the level of the summit again, so we had over a hundred metres altitude to gain to reach it. This was about the most miserable I had felt throughout the entire trip. I was tired, had a headache and felt that I’d been led into this climb unprepared. Some way up, I called a halt for water and to ask if anyone had any snacks; Huw generously offered up a Nutrigrain bar which I scoffed down with a lot of water. I think Lee was feeling at least as bad as me, if not worse, but he couldn’t face eating anything and pushed on without.
The Ash Pit itself, when we finally reached it, was interesting to see – but I wouldn’t regret not having seen it. A double-drop crater pit which smelled faintly of sulphur. Apparently it releases smoke from time to time, reminding you that Kilimanjaro, the volcano, is just long-dormant, not entirely extinct!
I was somewhat revived by this point though, so dutifully took photographs – but was glad when we turned around to head back to camp! On the way we went around by the orphan glaciers again and photographed ourselves and the guides with the stalactites and ice caves.
No-one ate much at dinner that night. Lee was suffering quite badly and ate almost nothing at all, only drinking a little water. Huw didn’t seem to be in bad shape, but Chris wasn’t much into the food either. After the meal we went straight to bed; it was cold and there wasn’t really much else to do – nor much enthusiasm to find something!
I barely slept – actually, I’m not sure whether I slept and dreamed or had waking hallucinations – I certainly experienced a very strange night; I kept seeing a me-sized rectangle, like my sleeping mat, next to Lee’s and feeling the urge to fill it with doing something, but I couldn’t seem to work out what I could do that would be worthwhile. It was a very strange few hours. I did eventually drift off to sleep, but woke up again in the small hours. When Lee got up for the toilet, I decided I’d get up too and go see what the view of Mount Meru was like by moonlight. It was actually still shrouded in mist, but I think I’ve got a good shot of it.
Lee was still awake when I got back, suffering severe headache and nausea. I encouraged him to take a little water and felt bad that I couldn’t help improve how he felt. Eventually we slept again.