Climbing Kilimanjaro: The Roof Of Africa

Mount Kilimanjaro is Africa’s highest mountain. It stands at 5895m. A halfling in comparison to the likes of Everest, to be sure, but a daunting challenge nonetheless. ‘Kili’ is one of Africa’s easiest climbs, they say. No specialist equipment is required, no experience is necessary. But still, over half of those who attempt the climb do not reach the summit, Uhuru Peak. The majority are forced to turn back because of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) which strikes those who ascend too quickly.

I had wanted to climb Kili from the very beginning of All About Africa. It was only in Kenya that I began to have misgivings. We spoke to a girl who detailed the seven day climb (the freezing cold, the sleepless nights, that final fifteen hour climb) and I began to seriously reconsider. “This is not my style,” I said. But what else could I do? We went into training.

In Kampala, we climbed stairs: a hundred flights, the majority running. I never knew I could be so short of breath and not be dead. In DRC, we spent two hard days hunting the elusive mountain gorillas. In Ruhengeri, we toiled our way up Bisoke Volcano to a summit of 3711m. “I’m only doing this so that I can prove to you that I can’t do it,” I said to Malachy about an hour in. I was proved wrong. We were ready.

We organised the climb with Zara Adventures in Moshi. We would take the Machame Route (best for acclimatization and scenery) for seven days. We would have a guide, a chef and seven porters. We can’t very well expect the mzungus to carry their own equipment, now can we? The first two days were spent walking slowly slowly, “pole pole” in Swahili. Then it all went horribly wrong. On Day Three, we were caught in a blizzard. We couldn’t turn back. We couldn’t stop. We couldn’t eat or drink. This was catastrophic – you must have water (5l per day is recommended). A crushing headache overwhelmed me. I was nauseous. I was certain that at any moment I would collapse but I had to go on. AMS. The mountain was beside us, breathtakingly beautiful amd tantalisingly close. But that night, I decided I had to turn back. Mahoud, our guide, agreed. Two days later we were back in Moshi, defeated.

Our plan was to go to Zanzibar, but with elections looming and a very real threat of violence we decided to wait a week. What better way to spend the time than up a mountain? And so it was that Niamh and Malachy climbed Kili for the second time. New guide. New route. New plan. With shorter distances to cover each day, we would do additional acclimatisation walks each day so that we could “climb high and sleep low”. I would take a drug called Diamox to aid in speedy acclimatisation. We would pray.

Our second assault on Kilimanjaro was a roaring success. The weather was perfect, the views were spectacular, our guide was excellent and we were lucky – not a trace of sickness. The first four days were delightful. We would look out over all of Africa, stretching for hundreds of kilometers and drenched in sunlight, or turn to look mighty Kili in the eye. We could hardly believe it when we found ourselves at Kibo and ready for summit day.

At 11.30pm we set off, wrapped in every scrap of warm clothing we possessed. Three pairs of socks, three pairs of trousers, two pairs of gloves, two hats and countless jumpers. We were still freezing cold – it was minus ten! As we trudged ever upward, we were continually distracted by the canopy of stars shining brightly overhead. I never knew there were so many. The climb was breathtaking. Literally. With so little oxygen, we repeatedly stopped for air and holding my breath for ten seconds each time I took my inhaler was agony. Not for a moment did we think that we could make it and when two South Africans began to vomit we wondered when it would be our turn. All I could say to myself was “I will keep going until I have to turn back”. Time stood still and it seemed as though we were trapped in an endless night and all there was in this whole wide world was one never-ending path. The silence was suddenly shattered by shouts ahead. “That’s Gilman’s Point,” said Godi, our guide. We’d reached the crater. In disbelief, we cheered.

As the sky brightened, we circled the crater, stopping at Stella Point for sunrise. I was exhausted but we were nearly there. Early birds were already on their way down giving words of encouragement that fell on deaf, cold ears. We envied their handwarmers. We could see Uhuru in the distance. I still don’t really believe that it ever happened but then we were there. Awestruck, we took our photos, looked out over the world and inspected the glaciers but our guides were anxious to move (for health reasons) and we still had a long road ahead of us. We took one last look around the “Roof of Africa” and were gone. The descent was so quick! We skated down the scree to Kibo in two hours and had lunch. We’d expected an hour to rest at least but there was no nap for us – “if you sleep here you will wake up sick,” said Godi. That evening we arrived at the Park gate. We collected our hard-won certificates and drove back to Moshi for a long overdue shower and a well earned sleep.

– Written by Niamh O Riordan and published in The Imokilly People

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