Kilimanjaro Summit day

A long and detailed account of the

My alarm woke me up at 11pm, having slept better than on any previous night of the trip.

I sat up immediately for a change, and started busying myself with the usual routine of trying to find my things.

We had gone to bed at 7 pm, so I had thought it would be extremely difficult to sleep, but the sky was quite grey and dark outside, and with the help of an eye mask and ear plugs I seemed to have drifted away as soon as my head hit the miniature pillow.

As instructed, we had placed the clothes we were going to wear underneath our sleeping bags, to ensure they were not freezing cold when we put them on. I had slept in my long thermal top and trousers, with a scarf wrapped around my head in case I accidentally wriggled out of the hood of the sleeping bag.

We got dressed quickly, and in my case became preoccupied with getting the right gear together. We had packed our bags the night before, but I opened it back up and took everything out again, just to check I had not forgotten some vital piece of equipment.

I was quite convinced that forgetting any item, and discovering I did not have it when I was already halfway up, would be too much of a psychological blow – in reality, I could probably have gone with nothing but water. Apart from the all-important blue Sigg water bottle, my pack contained a 2 litre water pouch, 200g dark chocolate, 2 pairs of gloves (wool inner gloves and thick ski mittens), a woolly white hat, camera, headtorch, spare batteries, miniature Maglite, flapjacks, sunglasses, mobile phone, a bag of ibuprofen, antibiotics (for no particularly good reason), factor 50 sunscreen, and a pen knife.

I had put my water bottle inside a long cashmere sock, to avoid it freezing on the way up, and also got the porters to fill my water pouch, so I was carrying about 3 litres. When we emerged from the tent it didn’t seem that cold, so I decided to pack the big down jacket in my bag until we got further up. I was wearing the thermals I had slept in,  leggings, leg warmers, fleece-lined trousers and waterproof trousers on the bottom, and four layers on top, including my rain jacket.

After fiddling with lacing my boots and strapping the gaiters tightly over the top for longer than necessary,  I wandered over to the mess tent, where everyone was already halfway through “breakfast”. The atmosphere seemed very tense, and I felt as if I was not quite appreciating the seriousness of the situation. Even Jason was unusually silent, seemingly going over details in his mind.

I felt better than I had done all week. The agonising headache was gone, breathing was relatively easy, and I had slept an entire four hours in one piece, with no hideous dreams or very awkward toilet trips. I was slightly apprehensive, but no longer as afraid as I had been when we were further down, and could see the glacier towering above us all day long.

Unfortunately my reaction to a tense atmosphere is akin to some form of Tourette’s. I make trivial and continuous conversation, often peppered with flippant and exaggeratedly cynical remarks that for some reason assuage my own nerves. It does not usually go down well, especially not if any of those remarks are “jokes” about what might happen at an altitude of 5,895 metres (or 19, 341 feet, which always sounds more daunting).  I am still hoping I did not say anything along the lines of, “at least if you die of cerebral oedema you’ll never even know what’s happening” – I surely can’t have done.

I had spent months researching the various disasters that had occurred on Kilimanjaro over the years. They always seemed to be the result of client hubris about it being such an easy mountain to climb, and the local porters, who each carry 20 kgs of client luggage and equipment at high speed, have a strong financial incentive to continue even when ill. Still, of the 20,000 who attempt it each year, only about twenty die – so it is in fact less dangerous than flying.

The internet was full of stories of walking past dead climbers (which I found slightly unlikely now that I was there), the tragedy of the French team who died in a rockslide on the Western Breach in 2006, and many stories of the symptoms of severe altitude sickness.

But now it all seemed a paranoid exaggeration, caused by nothing more than a bit of dehydration and a pathetically low pain threshold. And anyway, everyone had felt a little rough for the last few days, so it was all normal.

Now, I was sitting on my camp chair in the same clothes I had been wearing for the past seven days, enjoying the lovely thin porridge, fiddling with my head torch and thinking about nothing at all. It was probably years since my head has been quite that empty of any thought, and it was quite relaxing.

The three Welsh boys were sitting opposite me. They worked in the pathology lab at a Cardiff hospital, and had been the endlessly amusing mainstay of the trek so far. Jason, the ever-resourceful biochemist, was holding his inhaler in his hand, and digging through the large stash of the various pills he always carried around with him. He had spent most of the trek waxing lyrical about all the high altitude medication he had packed, “just in case”: dexamethasone, acetazolamide, nifedipine, and various painkillers. There was also the rather mysterious yellow waterproof bag he always took to the toilet tent with him. We never did find out what was in it, but people tended to be very keen to get to the toilet before he made his nightly visit.

His two friends Chris and Rob had told us they often introduced him as Justin Case, and had bets on how many times a day he said it. Chris was a small, wiry guy in his mid-30s, who seemed to have fared the best on the trek so far, breezing up without apparently noticing the thin air. Rob, who was in his fifties, had been struggling to get any sleep, mainly because Jason snored so loudly it was audible across the entire campsite. He had looked exhausted most of the time. Now he looked quite alert; Jason looked uncharacteristically nervous, while Chris was his usual phlegmatic self.

James, who was a commercial landlord from Devon,  was as usual showing off about the walking poles he insisted on extending to chest height, or some other piece of equipment he didn’t really know how use. Barbara was somewhere in the background. She was a very petite blonde 40-something divorcee, whose unusually long, thick eyelashes turned out to be extensions. She and James had both started on the diamox a few days previously, and Jason had of course been taking no chances right from the start.

Ben and Luke had got food poisoning before we started walking, but had fortunately recovered within the first day. I had sneaked in some antibiotics to stave off any potential trouble heralded by the painful cramps on our first morning in the hotel, and had got through an estimated 6,000 mg of ibuprofen over the last four days, so I was not exactly unassisted by medication. Our group of five had however decided against the diamox – not that James offered us any of his, in spite of rattling on about how he had 30 days’ supply. I had got six tablets of it, but was a bit reluctant to use it; for some reason it felt like cheating, as if all the trials of acclimatisation were part of the fun. The whole process of waking up every morning with some other bizarre and usually unpleasant sensation did have a certain curiosity value – the elephant sized ankles were particularly attractive.

As every morning, I ate the bar of chocolate they brought us as supplies for the day straight away. I had a theory that a lot of chocolate in the morning might avert the possibility of any undignified toilet stops along the way. So far this had worked very well, almost too well in fact.

Naiman, the head guide, came into the mess tent, looking imposing and silent as ever. “Lessgo, lessgo”, he said in his usual communicative style, and stomped back out again.

He gestured to us to form a line, with an instructive “you, here”, and it eventually became apparent that he had a specific order in mind. Barbara, Jason, Chris and James (the Diamox crew, with the exception of Chris) went behind Ricardo and Eli at the front, then Hannah and Luke, Julius, then me, Chomba and Ben, and Naiman probably right at the back. I’m not sure where Ricardo and Eli were placed at this point.

Our group of ten clients and four guides slowly set off into the darkness.

I was walking immediately behind Julius, and as usual admiring the La Sportiva boots that he had been given by a previous client. My research had included a pretty extensive comparison of the different types of mountain boots and different manufacturers. La Sportiva and Millet were the two main contenders in the market for really serious mountaineering boots, of the plastic type used for Himalayan ascents above 6,000 metres. Scarpa and Asolo also featured, but didn’t seem to be the preferred choice on the Everest blogs that I read – just for fun, obviously. The boots Julius was wearing were part of La Sportiva’s less heavy duty leather range, but at over £300 they would have been rather unnecessary if the original owner had bought them specifically for this trip. It was certainly a piece of equipment that Julius was putting to good use, going up and down this mountain every two weeks for 6 months of the year. He had been a porter and guide for the last 20 years.

It seemed to take forever just to get to the end of the campsite; after what seemed about half an hour, I was still seeing some of the yellow Tusker tents just about visible in the dark. The Tusker tour group had been irritating me all the way up, with their oversupply of equipment, and an attitude that seemed to imply that they alone were serious mountaineers, approaching this trek in the “right” way. They looked like cosseted American pansies to me, with their oversized dome tents and big stereos they’d presumably paid some poor porter to lug up, in addition to the pointless advertising banners they stuck around their encampment.

We carried on walking slowly upwards. All I could see ahead of me was an endless line of lights from what looked like hundreds of other people’s head torches, snaking away up the side of the mountain as far as the eye could see. We were at the back of the line, since our camp had been furthest from the path. I was still not particularly cold, in fact I was slightly worried I might have to stop and shed a few layers, which I wanted to avoid, since it would involve undoing a lot of zips and fastenings. I was not terribly good at organising my stuff even at sea level, and had a vision of stopping to fiddle with equipment only to find I had been left behind. By now I was back in full worst case scenario mode, imagining myself wandering off the side of the mountain, the group continuing up and only noticing I was gone a few hours later. It had become hard to breathe again, and the path was much steeper than I had imagined. I couldn’t see which figures from our group were ahead of me, or by how much.

I was not thirsty, but kept trying to remind myself to take sips from my mouthpiece before it froze. Hannah and Luke had slowed down, and were now behind us. I had not noticed that Julius and Naiman had swapped places, so that Chomba, me and Rob were now walking behind Naiman, while Julius helped Hannah. Naiman took very deliberate steps, but his rather attractive height and apparent strength meant that he had a huge stride, which I was struggling to keep up with. The path had some large boulders we had to scramble over. He would take the whole boulder in one step, and then turn to give me a hand up. I felt small, and he briefly indulged my apparent vulnerability as I staggered inelegantly over the top, gasping for breath as if I had just finished a sprint at the end of a 5 mile run. “You ok?”, he turned his head to ask as he continued striding upwards. “Yes, all good”.

The sip of water had made me feel very queasy, so I decided perhaps water was not so necessary after all. I didn’t want to be sick on the middle of the path – even given all the other indignities a trek like this entails, it seemed too humiliating.

Soon we stopped by the side of the path, perched on some conveniently flat rock. No one spoke, and no one wanted to. We just looked around at each other’s faces, maybe hoping that someone would assure us we weren’t really half way up a 6,000 metre mountain in Africa in the middle of the night, and freezing cold. The presence of a lot of woolly hats, gloves, poles, rucksacks and ashen faces unfortunately did little to banish this strange waking nightmare.

It had to be a figment of my imagination, this completely irrational feeling that I was walking towards certain death. It seems hard to understand now, that overwhelming and completely disproportionate fear, but at the time it was a heavy and intangible dread of the unknown. It felt as if what we were doing something we were not designed for; an unnatural state of being in an inhospitable environment of volcanic rock, scree and snow. I did not want to talk to anyone else, for fear that I was the only one in the grip of such paranoid delusions. If everyone else was having a whale of a time, what would I do?

Maybe if I was the only one with such fear, I should turn back; maybe the fear itself would cause me to make some as yet unknown mistake – I would somehow wander into the volcano crater, instead of around the outside. The recurring dream I had had as a child, where I was falling from the top of a mountain into the inside of it, seemed about to come true. It had never really been a nightmare, as I always fell slowly, rolling over and over these tufts of dry grass until I landed, implausibly in one piece at the bottom. It was like a succession of endless somersaults which never gathered any speed. As a child, I always found this a pleasant idea.

I took the water bottle out of its sock, and nibbled tentatively on the edge of an apricot flapjack. I diverted my thoughts to random trivia, looking at the wrapping on the bar, thinking how far it had come from the big shopping spree I had done at Holland and Barrett on Kensington High Street.

Dozens of other groups were walking past us, some of them looking in much worse shape than I felt. One guy was wearing a ridiculously over the top orange down jumpsuit, of the type you see on pictures of Everest expeditions. We picked up our packs and started walking again, but soon ran into the orange jumpsuit, as he had stopped dead in his tracks. He leant over his poles, and was very loudly sick in the middle of the path. Everyone kept on walking past him, and he soon straightened up and walked on as if nothing had happened.  For the rest of the ascent, he and the others in his group would repeat this unpleasant ritual at fairly regular intervals.

I focussed wholly on Naiman’s boots, willing myself to put one foot in front of the other. It was eerily silent all around, and the loose scree on the ground was still frozen hard. I tried to take another sip from my mouthpiece, but I had clearly once again let the tube trail on the ground, as I got only a mouthful of dirt. Once I wiped it clean, I found that the water had frozen inside, as the guides had warned us it would. We were supposed to blow the water back up the tube into the reservoir every time we took a sip, but it had seemed like far too much effort – I had tried it once, but used up so much breath that it made Naiman laugh. “You can’t breathe?” Yeah, full marks for observation there. He had at least stopped briefly, taken a sip of water himself, looked at me with idle curiosity and stomped the snow off his boots before carrying on.

It was 5 am, and the snow all around us was starting to reflect the light, refracted through thick white clouds, giving a dull and even colour to the barren landscape of lava rocks. It was obvious at this point that there would be no sunrise at the top; no vista of the Kenyan plains, no revelation contained in dawn’s first light, no answer to everything.

I suppose I was vaguely expecting some sort of epiphany: a clarity and perspective about my aimless life, a pointer on what to do next; or maybe just a humble sense of happiness and peace. What I felt instead, as I just kept trudging forwards over the course of many hours, following Naiman’s feet and concentrating on not slipping in the snow or leaving Chomba behind, was a huge rush of physical strength.

I was not at the top, probably not even halfway there, but I was making the kind of slow and steady progress towards a goal that had evaded me all my life.  I had been preparing for this trip for many months (on and off, admittedly). I had walked to work wearing ankle weights, gone on an unexpectedly terrifying trip to the Lake District, hammered a stairclimber, a bike and a treadmill for many, many hours. Now my body was finally (and quite suddenly) paying me back for all that effort, in a way that felt very different to all the athletic endeavours I’ve taken part in before.

I took in deep, satisfying breaths of the air that felt suddenly saturated with oxygen, marched onwards and enjoyed the powerful sense of control. It was an almost disconcerting feeling of having emerged from a blur of suffocation into the heightened senses people often talk about in moments of crisis. The crisis itself had passed; I had got through the feeling of death and weakness, of impending doom, and was now the master of two big lungs, a pair of strong legs and a spine that had survived a week sleeping on 2 cm of foam. This was life, pared down to physical endurance, and it made me happy. Now I just wanted to get to the top as quickly as possible, have a look at this crater that provided employment to swathes of the local population, take a picture in the white blur, and get back down to some hot tea and more porridge.  It was becoming an easier walk than that trip to the Lake District, when I was unprepared for knee-deep snow and gale-force winds.

At this point, Chomba started slowing down significantly.  I stopped and waited, but Naiman kept walking ahead, and as I was still not that confident about placing my feet correctly without slipping back on the scree,  I tried to walk in between the two of them.

“Are you ok?”, I asked her.

“No, I’m boiling hot”, she replied.

I was startled out of my little reverie. Chomba is never, ever too hot, and my paranoia returned with a vengeance. She was surely dying of hypothermia – nothing to do with putting on six layers of clothes as well as the down jacket.

By this time the path was going vertically up ahead of us, meaning we could see a straight line of climbers ahead, but because we were walking through a cloud, they seemed to disappear into a void within about 15 metres – so we never knew how far we had left. Ben and Rob were behind Chomba, and looking unhappy. Ben in particular had acquired a rather green, waxy complexion, changing to bright pink every five minutes.

At this point I don’t really remember the logic behind my decision to just keep walking up as fast as I could. Chomba was falling further and further behind, with Ben slightly in front. I was still right behind Naiman. After what seemed a long period of the group becoming increasingly spread out, he decided to stop and wait. I sat on a snow ledge next to Ben, who flopped down on his back, wrapping himself in the hood of his jacket. “This is so awful, what the hell am I doing here”, he said.

“I know, it’s surreal, huh”, I said – I was a little embarrassed at the slightly weird contentment that had taken hold, and it seemed best not to mention it.

Ricardo offered to take Chomba’s pack off her, but she was having none of it. We carried on walking, and that last section to Stella Point was easily the hardest. I can’t in hindsight explain why I did not help anyone else at this point – they seemed to be walking much more slowly, and I could surely have done more to help, but every time I voiced encouragement I thought about how incredibly irritating I usually find people’s attempts to motivate me. Motivating phrases always imply that one is in dire need of motivation, which to me only reinforces a sense of personal failure. If I want something badly enough, I push myself to the edge; so if it appears to others that I am not giving it my all, I feel as if I have already lost.

Still, I do find it inexplicable that it never even occurred to me to walk back down to Chomba, take her arm and help her count out the steps, as Rob did for her. It seemed incredibly difficult to walk downhill, having struggled so much to put my feet forward in the first place.

At about 8 am we all got to Stella Point, where a porter was waiting with a thermos of hot tea. Although we had been walking uphill at altitude for eight hours, I felt perfectly fine, and stood around chatting a bit to Naiman, eating more chocolate and taking pictures. Chomba, Ben and Rob looked shattered. Chomba sat on the ground, staring blankly. “Where’s the sign? We have to find the sign”, she kept asking of no one in particular. I didn’t understand what she was talking about, since it was another hours’ walk to the highest point on the crater rim.

“It’s Stella Point, there must be a sign. Let’s take a picture and go home”.

Naiman eventually informed her that the sign had been stolen a few months before, and she looked completely crestfallen, sitting in the snow, too listless to even drink the tea. She looked close to tears, and not exactly chomping at the bit to carry on to the peak. We had talked so often of standing on the top, of what it would feel like, of our dread as we saw it from below. We knew we could both do this, but at that moment Chomba wasn’t really feeling it. Without the sunrise as a reward, it did seem oddly pointless, but we had travelled too far to just go trudging back down again.

Eventually she got up, and to make amends for my earlier thoughtless march onwards, I linked arms with her. As we started walking, she righted the weight of her pack, and staggered slightly in the process. Naiman jumped up from where he had been sitting and chatting in his usual slightly passive way, looking suddenly panicked. He seemed concerned the slight stagger was ataxia, a sign of severe altitude sickness. Since she was talking normally, he soon calmed down and went back into his usual silent mode.  Ben and Rob joined us, with Rob dropping behind. Most of the guides walked in front, and we wandered around the rim, through the white cloud and the biting cold wind all around us. It was hard work, and a little frightening to know that the volcano was unseen all around.

After an amusingly meaningless argument (“Freya I can’t do this”, “Yes, you can, it’s just up there”, “Yeah right”, “Look, I don’t to be on this damn mountain either,ok”), we did finally arrive at the yellow sign that signalled the highest point in Africa. After waiting for some model types to have their photos taken, we took our shots to prove we made it. It did not take long to feel pretty dizzy, and it seemed as if the light faded and went fuzzy the longer we stood there, so we cleared out fairly quickly. It took about two very tiring hours to get back down again, and then after half an hour’s rest we packed up and walked another two hours to the next campsite, and eventually to the absolutely wonderful luxury of a hot shower and a dip in the pool back at Moivaro Lodge.

The short and long of it is that it was the trip of a lifetime, only now I’ll never be able to just go sit on a sun-lounger again.

Next up, Aconcagua.

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