For my birthday I want to summit a mountain! It sounded so arbitrary and capricious at the time. I’ve always wanted to test my mental and physical strength and climb a mountain and now my wife has given me such an opportunity. Everest was too technical and required significant financial as well as time investment. “Snowdon’s a mountain!” my colleague quipped. For me it’s has to be exotic as well as challenging. In the time given, Mount Kilimanjaro situated in Tanzania was the perfect combination of exoticism and convenience.
The first time I set my eyes on Mount Kilimanjaro was sat on a window seat of a small plane from Nairobi to Kilimanjaro airport. I couldn’t miss it because its peak was the only thing you could see, the only thing that poked through the miles and miles of dense cloud cover. Even from the plane it looked tall and towered majestically above the clouds. Anything that is higher than the clouds must be damn high! Having completed several treks around the world at high altitudes the highest being the Santa Cruz trek in Peru at 4,760m, I was brimming with confidence on arrival in Moshi, my starting point for my ascent.
The ascent to Kili was never boring. The scenery changes with every section of escalation from rainforest to moorlands to desert plains. Each day prior to the summit day we climbed and trekked for about 7 hours meaning you tend to have a lot of time to yourself. I used this time wisely by compiling a selection of songs for my summit playlist as well as taking countless selfies! Just before summit day the gossip around the camp was that a man in his twenties had died but not before getting carried down to a low altitude and finishing 3 whole canisters of oxygen. The exact cause of death is still unknown. To say that this added to our nerves on the eve of summit day was an understatement.
On arrival into base camp my plan was to have a hearty dinner, lay out my summit gear neatly and get to sleep as quickly as possible in preparation for the midnight start. But things didn’t go according to plan! Firstly, come dinner time, I had lost my appetite but I was told to force down a bowl of noodles which I did – the food just did not sit well. Secondly, my tent happened to be pitched about 2 metres from a 100 metre drop and the wind battered my tent all night. The tall mess tent next to mine didn’t stand a chance. It was torn down violently. I was huddled in my sleeping bag wide awake the entire night fearing that my tent would be blown off of the edge with me still in it! I couldn’t help but imagine the tabloid headlines…. “He was blown away by Kili”…!
We were probably one of the last groups to leave base camp. When I looked up at Kili all I could see was a zigzag line of lights coming from the climbers’ head torches edging their way up the side of a black canvas. At this stage I knew that something was not right with my stomach and it wasn’t butterflies! Everything that happened after this point felt like a dream/nightmare. I was later told that a combination of sleep deprivation and climbing at high altitude will cause a climber to start trying to fall asleep whilst walking. I was that unfortunate climber but in addition I felt as if I was walking on mountain of jelly, if I looked up I would lose balance. I lost count the number of times I tried to vomit. The trekking poles now had a dual purpose – propping me up as I heaved! One thing I recall was staring at the guide’s feet in front of me and hoping that my legs wouldn’t give way. Nonsensical thoughts started to enter my consciousness. Questions such as what would happen if I fall asleep out here? Would my Canada Goose down coat keep me warm if I slept outside? Why are there shops on the side of the dirt trails….?! I was capable of switching on my summit playlist. The first song that came on was “Happy” by Pharrell Williams. It reminded me of my wife dancing with my daughter on the bed. I began to question myself “What the fuck am I doing on the side of this mountain in the dark feeling like shit?!” I proceeded to sob like a baby…. I’m not quite sure how the time passed but I noticed that the darkness was slowly lifting. I looked up and saw the most ethereal of sunrises. It was made up of a layer of cloud, then a layer of pink topped by a layer of gradient blues. I was told by our guides that at this point I had a detached glazed-over look and I didn’t even notice him switching off my head lamp and removing it from my head.
As the golden orb of the sun rose steadily through the clouds I felt like I was witnessing a miracle. I felt its rays gently kiss my forehead. It sent tingles down my spine and a tear down my face. It spurred me on. I was too weak to reach for my camera which was just in front of me. My one and only regret. We continued drifting, turning at switchback after switchback. My morale was slowly ebbing away and energy was well and truly running on fumes from the last of my energy gels. I had lost all concept of time as well as feeling in my legs. I learnt later that it took us 8 hours to reach our first goal which was Stella Point at 5,739m elevation. From here we could see the finishing line, Uhuru Peak in the distance….another 45 minutes away. At the speed we were going it was probably double that time. I was running purely on adrenaline at this point. I had summit fever. Nothing was going to stop me getting to Uhuru.
On the last stretch to Uhuru we passed some other members of the group ahead of us returning to base camp, who later told me that I looked as if I didn’t know what was going on or what I was saying! It took us another hour to reach Uhuru. I spotted a plane overhead and couldn’t help but think I was on that plane looking down 5 long days ago. I dropped everything, kissed the sign, shed some more tears and took a shameless selfie. I had found my perch on the “Roof of Africa”.