Despite being the highest mountain in Africa, and also the world’s highest free-standing mountain, Mt Kilimanjaro is reputedly an easy climb for any reasonably healthy person. Having made it to Uhuru peak sometime back, I too can attest to this fact, especially when I consider the fact that it was my first mountain climbing expedition. It was not very easy but it was extremely enjoyable.
Before the climb: Acclimatization
We were in a large group, all of us of above-average fitness. Before this, none of us had ever climbed a mountain higher than Kenya’s Mt Longonot. In preparation therefore, we had to undergo an acclimatization and mountain-climbing training regime at the Outward Bound Mountain School in Loitokitok, Kenya.
Every morning for about four days, we would wake up at 5AM for a 45-minutes run up the lower slopes of “Kili”. After the run and some warm-down exercises, our instructors would make us jump into ice-cold water in the swimming pool. I was told us that this would help us adjust to the temperatures during the actual climb, but I viewed this as sheer malice. We’d then spend the rest of the morning in team-building activities, and the afternoons in “lectures” for psychological preparation for the task ahead.
The actual climb
On the fifth day, we were ready to start the journey to the top of Africa. The lectures had informed us of the possibility of experiencing severe headaches and other high altitude illnesses whose names I forget, but we were ready to conquer Africa.
Day 1: Base camp to first caves
We set off from Loitokitok in Kenya, through Nalemoru in Tanzania, ascending gently through forested terrain, which later gave way to moor land. It was beautiful to observe the plains of Amboseli national park from this side of the mountain. By the time all of us made it to the “first caves”, we had already concluded that all this talk about acute mountain sickness was just scare-stuff. We could have easily proceeded further up if our instructors allowed us. We were all full of energy as we pitched our tents and prepared dinner in the caves.
Day 2: First caves to third caves
The second day wasn’t very different from the first. Immediately after breakfast, we packed our tents, foodstuff, and all other belongings ready to proceed to the next stage. The moor land slowly gave way to desert conditions as we ascended from the first caves, through the second caves to the third caves. Perhaps my self-preservation instincts are unnecessarily too high. I was still energetic enough to walk as fast as in day one, but I decided to take it slow, as the Swahili saying goes “Pole pole ndio mwendo”. I was among the last people to get to to third caves. By the time I got there, my other colleagues had already set up their tents in the best locations, and had replenished their stocks of water from nearby streams. Fortunately, the two other colleagues with whom I was sharing a tent had done the same for us. My only duty was now to prepare dinner.
Still so far, no one had complained of a severe headache, or any of the extreme symptoms we feared like drowsiness, swelling of the face, etc, so much for all the fear-lectures.
Day 3: Third caves to Kibo hut
The trek from Third caves to Kibo hut was a bit more challenging than the previous two days, and this time many of us took it slow. I heard one or two people complain of mild headaches, but nothing severe. At the advice of our instructors, most of us had carried some sweats to eat as we climb. The sugar, we were told, would help us replace the lost energy. Also, after every few meters, we would stop to sip some water to prevent dehydration.
So by the time we were at Kibo hut, most of us were still fine, except for the few minor headaches and the obviously thin air. The energy and zeal of the first two days had however subsided. We met several other groups at Kibo hut, some having come through the popular Marangu trail from Tanzania, others on their way down after their mountain conquest. The temperatures were unbearably low, and the best we could do was to pitch tent, put on all the clothing we had on us, and immediately jump into our sleeping bags. For dinner, we had to make do with some unpalatable soup and a few slices of bread.
Since we were to wake up early, 12AM (0000hrs), the following morning for the trek to the summit, those of us who could sleep in those temperatures did so by 6PM (1800hrs). I stayed in my sleeping bag the whole night but could not catch any sleep. At around 10PM (2200hrs), one of my tent-mates started complaining of difficulty in breathing, but I think he was just scared of pushing himself any further. He miraculously made it to the morning, and when the rest of us started the final ascent, he was escorted downhill by two of the porters who had accompanied us. Kibo hut was his “summit”.
Day 4: Kibo hut to Uhuru peak down to the second caves
Morale was high on the fourth day, perhaps because of the prospects of standing on top of Africa. A few minutes past midnight, and the journey began. I must admit that this was also the toughest bit and also the steepest. Surprisingly, two of the “instructors” opted not to proceed beyond Kibo hut.
Between Kibo hut and William’s point, at least three other climbers called it quits. I remember someone telling us that William’s point was so named after one climber who died at that point, the scare-stuff again. Like the previous days, I was taking it slowly and very deliberately. I was in the tail-end of the group, but I made sure to sip water after every few steps, and take a rest. I was determined to get to Uhuru peak, come what may.
In my entire life time, I had never imagined that 200 meters can be such a long distance. I took more than two hours to get to Gilman’s point from William’s point, a distance of about 200 meters in my estimation. In between the two points, many more colleagues fell out, some trying to convince me to join them since I was in the tail-end. I almost gave up just before Gilman’s point. It was a very steep climb, and several times I was tempted to just sit down and take a nap, but I remember having been warned against that. The air was very thin, and I felt sick in a way that I cannot explain.
Despite having put on several layers of clothing, gloves and balaclavas, the cold was biting me. To date, I still marvel at how one of the instructors, his name was Waswa I think, got to this point with no gloves, and a relatively thin layer of clothing. After the struggle of my lifetime, I made it to Gilman’s point, from where I could now see the walls and floor of the crater. I was with four other friends by the time I got to Gilman’s, but two said they could not proceed any further. I could see Uhuru peak from this point, and I still had enough energy to push ahead.
Astonishingly, it was a relatively easy trek from Gilmans to Uhuru peak. As three of us walked along the walls of the crater, perhaps the biggest challenge was the ice-glare (it was already morning, the sun had risen), but we had protective dark sunglasses. We still had to tread cautiously because it looked like one can easily slip to the crater floor. On this final trek to the peak, we met several of our colleagues already on their way down. After about one and a half hours, we got to the summit, Uhuru peak, and were it not for the temperatures, we’d have stayed there for an hour or so. We briefly enjoyed the breathtaking sight of the huge glaciers near the summit, signed our names (with pencil) on a tattered book at the peak, took a few photos, and started the descent via the same route.
If the ascent was tough, I found the descent cunningly dangerous, especially between Gilman’s point and William’s point. Despite the adrenaline rush of having been to the top of Africa, we were quite fatigued. So when we discovered that we could slide on the sands downhill from Gilman’s point, some of us just let go. I uttered a silent prayer as I watched a friend of mine slide like a zombie, without any special equipment to help him brake if the need arose. We had been warned against sliding, but the temptation was just too great to resist. Luckily, we all got to Kibo hut without breaking any limbs or ribs. At Kibo hut, we took a quick meal, packed our belongings, and trekked down to the third caves.
Day 5: Third caves to base camp
Mission accomplished, in a sort of an anti-climax, we went back to the outward bound centre Loitokitok with mixed feelings about the whole expedition. There were those who said they’ll never again attempt to climb another mountain, and others who felt this was just the beginning of several more conquests.
As for me, I’m not so sure. I will probably attempt the more technical Mt Kenya one day, or perhaps Mt Meru in Tanzania.