I couldn’t breathe, was feeling dizzy and my chest was compressed. Tears were also freely flowing down which I guess was a mixture of tears joys and because of the cold. I had reached the summit but could not even shout hooooray! because my body was just numb but deep down I was all smiles because I had made it.
I now have no doubt that I am strong I know how emotional it feels to be on top of Africa’s giant mountain.
The journey begins
It’s the morning of December 18, 2011 in Moshi, Tanzania. I am excited because in a few hours, I will begin hiking up Africa’s ultimate hiking trail, Mt Kilimanjaro all the way to Kibo Peak at 19 341 feet alongside my comrade Thalefang Charles. I had trained hard and have been keeping my body in shape. Part of the training included cycling 25km daily, jogging, gym, adventure walks and summiting the highest peak south of Mount Kilimanjaro, little known Thabana Ntlenyane in Lesotho standing at 3482 meters
The ultimate hiking trail, which was one hell of a financial exercise costs US$ 1070.00 (about P8000.00) per person and this does not include personal gear which cost a couple of thousands of Pulas nor the tips for the support team made up of a two guides, four porters and a cook We’re to hike using the Marangu Route over 5 days. Marangu Route is very popular with most hikers thus being nicknamed the Coca Cola Route.
It’s a slow ride from Keys hotel & tours to Kilimanjaro National Park. We go through registration and there’s a curio store where last minute supplies can be purchased. The first day of the hike is an easy walk through the wet and muddy rainforest. The vegetation in this forest is very green with tall trees creating a magnificent canopy along the trail. One can almost compare it to the Amazon rain forest as it also looks like home of the anaconda and dangerous snakes. Along the rain forest we get so see black and white colobus monkeys as well as blue monkeys and a couple of waterfalls. Three hours later we reach Mandara huts with ease.
It is at Mandara hurt where we get to hang around with potters and in no time Thalefang has joined them and learning the card game they were playing. We get along with them while our support team fixes us dinner. A lot of other climbers reach Mandara Huts. While we sit on our table enjoying the delicious food from our cook, we get into a conversation with fellow hikers from Kenya. They complain about safari price packages but we are quick to teach them about the high cost, low volume strategy and they get to understand it. “In Kenya when the hippo gets out of the water they eat it”, these words cracked our ribs and we just could stop laughing.
An early morning of the second day sees us trekking up to the next hut which is 3720 meters. The technique to any high mountain hiking is to go slow and in Kilimanjaro we say it in Swahili, Pole Pole. Probably the most popular words you’ll hear on this mountain. Drinking is also an important part as high altitude causes serious dehydration. We leave behind the rain forest ascending to higher altitude on gradual gradient into moorland made up of grass, shrubs and flowers. The protea flowers seem to dominate the majestic landscapes. It is at this point that we get to be very close to the clouds. I am constantly making jokes about putting some of the clouds into my pocket. When there is no cloud cover, you can get a glimpse of the gorgeous Mawenzi Peak as well as the south-eastern slopes of Kilimanjaro. The hike is relaxed with our guide Raymond teaching us about plants that grow at high altitude. Again we reach the huts without any problem and still feeling good. Our level of fitness impresses our guide.
On an acclimatization hike to Zebra Rocks, we come across the first Mt Kilimanjaro casualty being escorted downhill on a stretcher. There are no automobile ambulances on the mountain and without proper insurance for helicopter rescue; the stretcher is the only way down. Seeing another hiker on a stretcher is traumatizing as reality begins to sink in that hiking at high altitude is dangerous and acute mountain sickness can kill you.We decide to put reality aside and joke about which one of us, between myself and Thalefang would be on the stretcher. The effects of high altitude begin to take their toll on me. I overlooked the sleeping tablets check thinking I wouldn’t need them but I noticed throughout the night that they are very important as I had difficulty sleeping.
After battling to sleep throughout the night, its morning again and after breakfast third day hike begins. Vegetation continues to change as we now hike to Kibo Hut at 4703 meters, our last camp before summit attempt. A footpath from our previous Horombo huts takes us into the alpine semi desert landscape of the Saddle. At the point, we had ascended through a couple of clouds. As the hike continues, it slowly gets tough as the air begins to become thin. Upon arrival after a 5 hour hike to Kibo Huts, I get to see yet another casualty suffering from high altitude sickness. The well-dressed climber with state of the art mountain gear and goggles is escorted down being supported by two guides. He can barely stand on his own feet and they help him sit before taken to his bed to rest. A few hours later, his condition worsens and he’s taken down on a stretcher. Three more climbers arrive and are immediately put on stretchers and raced down to low altitude where there is more oxygen.
Our lead guide Raymond comes into the hut for a debriefing and a briefing for summit attempt. He begins by telling us how pleased he is with our fitness level. Then he moves on tell us that we will rest throughout the afternoon and that we should get as much sleep as possible. It hits me yet again that my first aid kit has no sleeping tablets. He explains how tough it is to reach Gilman’s point (at 5685meters). We are told to dress warmly and have the right attitude for altitude, as we will attempt the summit at midnight. Once again the jokes begin as soon as the Raymond leaves the room. Thalefang has been having sleepiness nights as well due to high altitude. He attempts to sleep while on seating position but it does not help. I walk out to photograph the environment at twilight. I’m struck to see another peak right in front of me. I can’t see the foot of it as clouds cover it. For some reason, I find it amazing yet scary. I shoot a few photographs and run back inside the hut. It is something I have never seen before.
Its midnight and this means it’s our night to attempt the summit. We are all geared up and highly motivated but we all don’t talk much. With head torches lit, Raymond as the lead guide is first, Thalefang behind him, with me following while behind is assistant guide Innocent. On a pole pole pace, we start hiking up to Gilman’s point. It’s a very steep gradient. On this cold night you can see other climbers ahead walking in a single file. The hike is full of torture, from the coldness to the backpacks and tackling the steep terrain. It keeps hitting me that it takes five hours to reach Gilman’s point. It’s a slow night and not fun at all. We have passed so many climbers who left the base before us though we were the last to leave. It’s at this point that I wondered if I should have taken the material support from Dialogue 5 Company, a local company of young entrepreneurs with hopes of making it in the IT industry which had sponsored me with some gear. I needed oxygen. I wondered if my adventures would end on this mountain but I quickly let go of that thought as I knew I was a survivor.
Along the way, Thalefang requests that we take a break, but Raymond insists we keep going. After a few steps Thalefang stops. Raymond takes Thalefang’s specialized Kilimanjaro daypack and camera. I am surprised to see him hand his camera as well. I don’t even say anything about it but under normal circumstances, no one touches our cameras. Reaching Gilman’s point after a grueling five hours, we rest a bit. As soon as its time to leave for our final destination before descent to Uhuru/ Kibo Peak, Raymond leans against one of the snow covered rocks and puts his arm around his chest. He doesn’t look good. We want to continue to the summit but he asks his assistant to lead us. It is another one hour and 30 minutes to the summit on the edge of the crater. The landscape is made of snow, glaciers and below us it’s the clouds. After battling thin air we finally reach Uhuru/ Kibo Peak. No smiles, no celebrations on the summit. We are tired and full of all sorts of emotions. I feel so humbled up here. I am standing on the roof of Africa.