Breathe in… breathe out… breathe in… breathe out…
Left foot… right foot… left foot…….. right … foot.
My mind racing with thoughts: “No pain no gain”, “you can f*****g do it”, “Body over mind”, “Don’t quit now” – amongst others. The difficulty rising with each step, each bend appearing as if its the last, freezing winds howling at us almost knocking some of us down.
My water frozen, energy bars hard as steel, fingers numb and feet blue, I will never forget the night I climbed the world’s tallest free-standing mountain.
Leaving Base Camp
We all woke up at 9:30 PM – those of us who could catch any sleep – ate a light meal/snack and by 10:30 PM began the hike of our lives. The night sky was clear and I could see almost every star in the sky – slightly larger – as I was 4800 meters above sea level.
We started our trek to the summit between the Rebman and Ratzel glaciers through heavy scree up to Stella Point on the crater rim. But I mostly looked down, weighed down by the 7 layers of thermals, fleece, jackets and windcheaters I had on to keep myself warm, 1 gal of water on my back and warm lowers. It felt like the load kept getting heavier with each step even though I occasionally drank water out of my camel-pack which was now ICE COLD.
The icy winds weren’t any better either almost freezing off my nose, fingers and feet – which were all covered mind you. In the first two hours of our 6.5 hour hike up, I felt like I was drained. I struggled to walk, mentally I felt like my mind was shutting down and I was losing my senses – but I still marched on (taking breaks along the way). Getting up from each break made it worse I felt, because I always wanted to close my eyes and sleep. I never felt like puking or sick/headaches but my mind genuinely was not at it’s full operational capacity,
However, my legs never felt tired or in pain. The past five days plus all the training I did before the hike built up stamina in my legs – i believe – enabling me to feel a high I’ve only ever experienced while running (runner’s high).
By 2:30 AM, the water in my camel-pack was frozen. The flexible tube now solid and I had to switch to my insulated Nalgene bottle which had ice floating inside it.
It was grueling to take a step forward, I wasn’t tired, but mentally was feeling drained. I pulled myself up using the hiking poles unable to feel any fingers. It felt like they weren’t there and all the wiggling did not make much of a difference.
The Last Push
At 5:30 AM and 5,732 meters above sea level, we finally reached Stella Point – second highest to the summit. We could see the golden colors of the sunrise over the horizon and felt the night soon conclude. We were a mere 40 minutes away from Uruhu Peak and hence took a quick break. I drank the last of the Energy Gel I had and made the final push to the Peak.
It felt like I had burnt a million calories and that drink gave me the boost I needed to walk the last mile. I stumbled and walked like a drunk to my goal – not caring for anything else in that moment. My legs carried my body to the peak and as the sun rose, I played the Circle of Life Lion King song.
As the song concluded, the sign was in sight. I drunk-walked to the sign and a plethora of emotions ran through me. I’d never felt that sense of accomplishment involving both mental and physical commitment. I was FINALLY at the peak – 5895 meters above sea level, the highest point on Mount Kilimanjaro and the continent of Africa
Time for pictures!
To paint a picture, it’s -10 deg C and the freezing winds make it seem like -20 deg C. So we had only 15 minutes before which we had to head back down. We all took our respective pics and subsequently decided to head back down. As we headed back, we saw other climbers headed to and from the peak.
Some of those were being aided by a guide or two. Admittedly, half way up, I could no longer carry my own bag even though it weighed only 2.5 Kgs (~5 lb) and handed it over to a guide.
Way back down
I gave it all getting to the top and now, I struggled to head back down. The scree made it not only difficult, but the mental drain left me unable to comprehend my steps/footing to avoid slipping. One of the guides, hence, held me from one side as we proceeded back down. Now whether that was AMS or just exhaustion, I took the help of the guide to make the descend back to base camp.
The group split up based on pace and most of us were being helped down after the long night. Just before reaching the base camp, we were greeted by some of the porters who had arranged much needed pineapple juice for all of us to replenish on our sugar. I felt a lot better after gulping down two glasses and upon reaching base camp, crashed on my sleeping bag.
No time to rest
We had a quick brunch once the whole team was back, quickly packed our bags and promptly left to head down to a lower camp. With energy restored and the oxygen levels in the atmosphere rising again, I no longer felt exhausted/tired or drained. In about 4.5 hours of leaving base camp, we were at Mweka Camp where we all had our dinner, a wonderful cake prepared by our cook and a full night’s sleep with no interruptions.
We had accomplished one of the biggest challenges of our lives and even though 80% of people who attempt it complete it, only they will fully appreciate that sense of achievement. In total, we were on our feet for 15 hours on our second-to-last day.
The Journey Ends
Since we descended to Mweka Camp, we were at 3100 meters and had to walk through the rain forest to reach the Mweka Gate located at 1800 meters above sea level.
The terrain was very slippery and rocky – it had rained the previous day so the rocks were dangerously slippery. Footing was key and stepping on wood meant you’d instantly slip and fall. The strain was immense on the knees and I can only imagine what it felt like for the oldest member of our group Ken (63).
When we saw the board congratulating us, we knew the journey had come to an end. The past 7 days had each been wonderful – we all experienced and learnt something new overcoming personal challenges.
Would I recommend anyone put themselves through this? HELL YES – you’re not living if you don’t. But only do it if you can afford the time, money, physical and mental ability.
I’d like to close this article with an after thought I had when I was back in the hotel. Even though I wanted to give up and seemed drained, there was so much more I had in store and it took me to the tallest peak in Africa. I believe we all have that something that will push us to more than what the mind thinks is possible.
It’s just that determination and will to push on that enables us to achieve more than we ever thought we could and maybe that’s how some of the greatest moments in life are created.
Check out the previous to articles on my Kilimanjaro hike here-