It was a slog. It was probably the hardest slog of my life. But it was what we had come to Kilimanjaro to do.
The day before the final ascent was a bit of a strange one. Following on from the previous day, which was probably the longest walking day we had had so far, this one was relatively easy. We set off at about 8.15 a.m. and had a slow start up a long, steepish slope. By this time we were amongst a number of other parties, all going in the same direction. With all of the porters, it was veritable ‘trail of humanity’ across the mountain side. The weather was glorious and we had great views of the Kibo summit and of Mount Meru in the distance. The land was barren, as we were above the altitude that most vegetation – and most sensible humans – were found. But the walk was only a little over three hours before we reached Barafu, the final camp on our way to the summit.
We lunched at about 1.15pm and then had our ‘summit briefing’. We were told the timetable for the climb and the climbing conditions we would meet. We were told what to wear (lots, as it was going to be cold). And we were told not to give up when it became tough, but at the same time to be aware what our bodies were telling us. If we got severe headaches or other medical conditions we were to tell the guides who would be with us. This was NOT to be a ‘success at all costs’ mission – everyone needed to stay safe. Acute Mountain Sickness can have fatal consequences if ignored.
In theory, the afternoon and the evening were for resting and ideally for sleeping, as our ascent would start around midnight and take place during the night. However, I did not get much sleep and I would be surprised if many people did. Sleeping in the tent – as you will recall, NOT my favourite part of the trip – was made even harder this time by a combination of high altitude, a noisy campsite and the fact that our tent was pitched on what seemed to be stones, rocks and boulders! Comfortable, not! Also, to be honest, sleeping was made difficult by the excitement of the challenge ahead.
We were up at 11 p.m. for a final meal before setting off. And come 12.05, we were on the move. This was it.
The start of the journey is the part I can remember. It was such a surreal experience. Our party of 15, together with our guides and a number of porters, were not the first to set off. There was already a trail of tiny lights from the head-torches of the walkers in front of us. The lights already stretched what seemed to be a long way up the mountain. But at the same time we were walking alongside another party, perhaps some 20m to our left. We were all walking Polepole (slowly-slowly), but gradually converging as our paths came together to a common point. It was like a bizarre slow-motion race. The two groups merged, with only a small amount of pushing and shoving!
The first part of the journey was actually the one that involved the most scrambling over the bare rock, rather than just walking. Probably a good job, as we were at our best at this point. I hate to think how I would have coped if I had to do this 5 or 6 hours in to the climb.
After that, we had a relatively easy walk for an hour or so. Well, I say easy. The weather was clear and cold, and the wind made it colder. Temperatures were certainly below 00C, which was confirmed when our drinking water started to freeze. Florence and the rest of the guides kept us moving, probably for longer and with fewer and shorter breaks than many of us would have desired. But the simple logic behind this was that when we were moving we were keeping warm; when we were resting, we were getting cold.
Apart from the cold, the other big factor was the effect of altitude. As I mentioned last time, this has a number of effects. The one that played the biggest part in my climb was the lack of oxygen and the difficulty that this caused in breathing. The higher I climbed, the more I became short of breath, and the harder it was to carry on walking.
After the first couple of hours, the climbing was zig-zagging across the mountain side. Whilst this would have been a stiff walk at sea level, it was an absolutely energy-sapping one at altitudes of over 5,000m. Most of the time I was simply looking down at the boots of the person in front of me and following their foot steps. When I did occasionally look up, I saw the trail of tiny lights above me on the mountainside, always stretching away into the distance.
And this is where it all gets a bit hazy. As well as the physical effort, it became a mental challenge. How to keep going? When your body says please ‘stop for a long rest, or even better, take me down!’
The things that got me to the top:
- Replaying in my mind the messages of support I had received before setting off
- The thought that I was raising money for charity
- The sense of achievement I knew I would get if I did get to the top
- The desire to tell people that I had made it to the top
- The camaraderie we had developed within out group over the last few days
- The help and support of the team of guides and porters.
So, this is where all of the hours and hours of work I had put in over the last six months paid off. The physical work of exercise and the mental work of telling so many people of my crazy plan to climb Kilimanjaro. I was very fortunate in that, apart from the breathing and the tiredness, I was physically okay to carry on. Not all of our party were. So for me, it was the mental challenge.
I had taken with me on the trip to Kilimanjaro various messages of support. Some of these were short messages, such as the ones people had left when donating money to the charity website (http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/TonyBarradell). Some were longer messages from Christine, my family and some of my friends. One was a picture drawn by my 6 year old nephew, James, showing me on top of the mountain. And all were inspirational in their own way.
After what seemed to be an eternity, the sun started to rise and the darkness turned to gloom, and then half-light and then full sunshine. And so I approached the rim of Kibo, the highest of the two mountain peaks that make up Kilimanjaro. Stella Point was the first target. There I met up with some of my party, and other exhausted but exhilarated climbers. But that was not the end point (at least not for all). After an all-too-brief rest our guides said that if we wanted to get to the top we must set off now. Jonathan and I were at the back of the party who had made it to the top. We then had a further walk for about another 45 minutes or so to the highest point on the mountain, Uhuru Peak. The walking was not too difficult and we only gained another 150m or so. But we were shattered by this point. The 45 minutes was a LONG 45 minutes, and a number of times we reached a high point, only to find that beyond it, and previously out of sight, the path continued yet further.
However, at approx. 7.30am on Friday 6th February 2015 Jonathan and I both reached the Uhuru Peak, the highest point on Mount Kilimanjaro. At 5,895m this is the highest point on the African continent, at an oxygen-deprived 5,895m above sea level. It is higher than any point in Europe, Australasia, South East Asia or Antarctica. But we had made it!
Getting to the top was hard. Very hard. And it was only through the support of others I made it. And I think I will make that my lesson for this post. Lesson 13 – getting to the top is always that much easier if you have the support of others. So nurture your relationships. And be prepared to help others to achieve their dreams, and they will help you to achieve yours.
Next time – my final reflections on Kilimanjaro – There and Back Again.